Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Duke died before his daughter was a year old.

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

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

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

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

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

I loved that it made history a very human story.

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

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

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

The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Duke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In The Vine Country with Somerville and Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey

This might be the most astonishing, the most beautifully written memoir that I have ever read.

Anna Lyndsey was a civil servant when light began to affect her. What began as irritation when she worked in front of a computer screen grew into a condition where she had to live in darkness, in a room completely and utterly blacked out, wrapped in dense, heavy clothing, because even the faintest hint of light – natural or artificial – would cause her agonising pain.

As her sensitivity increased she tried different things – an indoor job as a piano teacher, any number of therapies – but the progress of her condition was inexorable.

And so you should take the title of this book very, very literally.

It really is the story of a girl who lived in the dark.


She skitters backwards and forwards thorough time because, writing about different aspects of her life in the dark, catching different moods and emotions. It’s very effective, and, though sometimes it’s dislocating, maybe that’s the point.

That means that this is a veritable treasure chest of a book:

There is gorgeous literary writing about what it is like to live without light, and about how that changed her perception of so many things.

“I sit in the dark and listen to the storm. I hear the bitter clatter of rain against my walls, and the low book of the wind, a strange unsettling frequency that makes the bones in my skull vibrate.

My ears exult in the glorious accumulating noise, my blood foams with the energy of the storm. The world outside is trying to reach me, roused from its usual indifference. It drags its claws along the bars of my cage. It puts its mouth to my wall, and roars.

My body has learned to sit quietly in my room. It has learned not to scream or sob or writhe. But my spirit swirls lie the wind, surges lie the rain. The wildness outside calls to the wildness within.

‘I hear you,’ I cry out in my mind. ‘I’m here, keep going, don’t stop’

There is advice for how to manage life in the dark. Audiobooks would prove to be a lifeline, but music had to be approached with care because it could stir too many emotions. Word games – for one, or for two when her husband, friends or family were with her – provided both entertainment and mental exercise. And of course there are more basic and more fundamental points: how to find things in the dark; how to keep fit, how to, somehow, keep going.

There are firm words for medics and local governments, caught up in bureaucracy, and lacking the flexibility that is so very necessary for dealing with extraordinary circumstances. The relationships, the support that they might have given came instead from the few others who were loving with similar conditions.

And there are quietly appreciative words for her family and for friends who put themselves out to do whatever they can for her.

“People make me tidy up my psyche, as one might order the magazines on the coffee table before a visitor arrives, and afterwards, for a while, they will stay that way, before entropy reasserts its hold.

People remind me of my true shape, the particular bent of my mind, the curve of my wit; that I have substance, though I move wraithlike among shadows, that the years before the darkness laid down rich sediment which has not been washed away.”

The way that her husband rose to deal with the challenges of her condition, to deal with living a life very different to the one they had planned was wonderful

Above all this is one woman’s testament; it catches her memories, her hopes, her dreams, her fears; it catches the full range of her emotions, from the humour that she finds in many things to the suicidal impulses that she struggles to keep at bay.

Her words feel honest, and her life – extraordinary though it is – feels real. She is wonderfully eloquent, and  her story speaks profoundly about the human condition.

Though there would be periods of remission – periods where she could, after her husband had prepared the house, venture downstairs; periods when she could even step outside the house at dusk – the dark would always pull her back. She would find no answers to questions about what caused her condition or to questions about what the future might hold.

That was frightening, but it also allowed a little glimmer of hope into a blacked-out world.

This is a wonderfully readable book; I found it hard to put down, and I know that it will stay in my head and in my heart.

A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan by Laura Thompson

On 7 November 1974 Sandra Rivett, 29, was bludgeoned to death in the basement of a house at 46 Lower Belgrave Street, London. A second woman, Veronica, Countess of Lucan, was also attacked and she survived to name her estranged husband, Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, as the man who assaulted her.

He would, in his absence, be named in court as perpetrator of both of these crimes, but he would never be tried. Because the last confirmed sighting of Lord Lucan was in the early hours of the following morning.

The case was – and continues to be – a cause celebre, because there have been sightings, and suggestions that wealthy friends had helped him to escape and start a new life abroad.


Much attention has been given to Lord Lucan’s possible fate , but little attention has been given to the questions of what really happened that night and of whether or no it was fully and properly investigated. Laura Thompson addresses those questions in this book.

It’s lucky that I’d read her work before – I loved her biography of Agatha Christie. Had I not I might not have made it through a rather lengthy introduction that could have made its key points – that there had been domestic murders, that there had been aristocratic murderers, but never before had an aristocrat been accused of a domestic murder – far more effectively in just a few pages.

In the body of the book she displays a much surer touch, and it is clear that she has done a fine researching all of the background and the facts of the case. She evaluates the origins of a tragedy, she reconstructs events on that terrible night and she considers the consequences, for the Lucans, for their families and for their friends.

I was fascinated by characters of Lord and Lady Lucan. Both had insecurities rooted in childhood experiences; she had become an insecure, and maybe emotionally unbalanced adult, and she had suffered badly from post-natal depression after the births of her three children; he had a destructive addiction to gambling. It was easy to see that despair at his failed marriage, his loss of the custody of the children he adored, and his spiralling gambling debts might have left him in a position which he considered only desperate action could resolve.

But there are conflicting facts, there are gaps in the evidence, there were prejudices, and some things are not quite as straightforward as they appear to be in the story presented to the world.

There was a lot to consider and a great deal to talk about. I looked up from my book to ask, ‘did you know …’ quite a few times.

I was astonished that a magistrates courts could pronounce someone a murderer without any defence being presented – and that practice wasn’t outlawed until 1977.

I was struck that Lady Lucan was the only witness and that, after being attacked in the dark, it was possible that she drew the wrong conclusions. She has had to live with the consequences of that night for more than forty years now.

I was pleased that proper consideration was given to the story and character of Sandra Rivett, and to question of whether she might have been the intended victim of the murderer rather than a victim of mistaken identity.

I was disappointed – though not entirely surprised – that there was no thorough investigation, that the police accepted Lady Lucan’s account of events and that evidence was lost while they pursued her missing husband.

Laura Thompson is very strong on social history and on building – and deconstructing timelines and scenarios. It is clear that she is intrigued by her subject. But I have to say that as whole the book might have been edited a little to make things a little clearer and to allow consideration of each chapter considering a different aspect of the story to be more complete in itself.

I’m still a little confused about who was who in Lord Lucan’s social circle, but I understood enough to follow the sequence of events and to understand and evaluate the arguments put forward.

She considers a number of alternatives scenarios, settling finally on one where Lucan hired a hitman to kill his wife and then intervened, either because he changed his mind or because he realised that something had – or might – go wrong. I’m inclined to agree.

She dismisses the possibility that he was helped to escape, and the so called conspiracy of silence of his gambling friends. And her argument that he died by his own hand, not wanting his beloved children to see him tried, not wanting to live with the consequences of events he had set in motions, not believing that he could turn his life around is compelling.

The analysis is fascinating, the questions that will never be answered are intriguing, what has stayed with me is the human story of those who were caught up in events that November night, and this who have – and who still are – living with the consequences.

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.

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison and Pursuit by Carol Baxter

On New Year’s Day 1845 a message was sent along the telegraph wires laid beside the railway tracks between Slough and Paddington stations:

“A murder has just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first-class ticket for London by the train which left Slough at 7:42 p.m. He is in the garb of a kwaker.”

(The early two-needle telegraph had no letter ‘q’.)

A man was apprehended; a man with an extraordinary story.

John Tawell had been found guilty of fraud, he was transported to a penal colony in Australia; when his fourteen year sentence was done he made his fortune, sent hope for his family, and, some years later, they returned to England.


Carol Baxter tells his story, the story of the crime and the investigation, and the story of the trial and conviction.  It reads like a drama-documentary. The level of detail is extraordinary, and the long, long list of sources confirm that this book was built the most detailed, most thorough research.

I learned much about the development of the electric telegraph, early Australian history,  Quakerism, chemistry and forensic medicine. It was fascinating, but once the ‘thrill of the chase’ was over the story settled, it became engaging when it should have compelling.

There was no major fault but there were small things: dialogue that was credible but that no amount of research could have uncovered, a lack of wider and historical context, and maybe a little unevenness in the pacing.

But Carol Baxter writes well, she clearly knows and loves her subject, and she handles the small revelations and the big revelations particularly well

There really was a great deal to hold the interest.

The case against John Tawell was compelling,  but the evidence was circumstantial, and there are many questions that could be asked about the handling of the investigation and the subsequent court case.

There was a confession, at the eleventh hour, but the written document has not survived and so there has to be another question. Did it exist or was it merely reported?

The title of the book and description of the book is a little misleading, and I can understand why some readers have been disappointed.

This is actually a very human story, and its strength is the remarkable history and psychology of John Tawell.

That’s what came through at the end, that’s what had stayed with me, and it made this book well worth reading.

Nine Pounds of Luggage by Maud Parrish

I spotted Maud Parrish’s name when I was looking in ‘The Virago Book of Woman Travellers’ for someone else entirely and I paused to see who she was, this woman with an unfamiliar name among many notable women travellers and writers.

I was intrigued by what I read:

“In her memoir, Maud Parrish relates her life of madcap adventure with the breathless, excitable energy of one who cannot stand still. Parrish worked as a dance-hall girl in Dawson City, Yukon, and Nome, Alaska, and operated a gambling house in Peking at the turn of the century. With her ‘Nine Pounds of Luggage’ and a banjo, she claimed to have gone around the world sixteen times, up and down continents, and around and about exotic islands. Parrish died at the age of 98. ‘Nine Pounds of Luggage’ was her only book.”

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 ….

9 pounds Maud Parrish was born in San Francisco in 1878, the only child of good people who brought her up well, to be a lady. Their bold and spirited daughter wanted more than that. There was something inside her that made her want to go out and see the world.

She didn’t know why – though she thought it might be something to do with all of the travellers and pioneers in her family tree – she just knew that it was there.

That was why she grabbed the chance of marriage to a young man whose family had business interests in South America, thinking that he would take her there. He wouldn’t; the marriage was a catastrophic failure; and when, amid chaotic scenes, a judge refused a dissolution, Maud decided that she’d had enough.

“So I ran away. I hurried more than if lions had chased me. Without telling him. Without telling my mother or father. There wasn’t any liberty in San Francisco for ordinary women. But I found some. No jobs for girls in offices like there are now. You got married, were an old maid, or went to hell. Take your pick.”

Maud took her suitcase and her banjo and she bought a ticket to the Yukon, to gold rush country. She loved it there: she saw sights, she made friends, she supported herself by playing the banjo, and when she had earned enough money she bought another ticket to somewhere else. And that would be the pattern of her life until 1939, when she was persuaded to pause to write her story.

That meant that there was an awful lot of travelling to fit into one book, and so Maud Parrish isn’t the woman to travel with of you want lovely descriptions and insight into different cultures, but, if you want a good chat and a non-stop journey with a lively companion, then she’s definitely your girl.

There were times when she had to rough it, but she didn’t complain she just got on with it, pushing back the boundaries of where a woman might go. She didn’t always win, but she usually did. There must have been times when she had to do things no lady would, but she is always discreet. She said nothing that would embarass her family; and though Maude never wanted to stop travelling she travelled home to see her parents often. They never quite understood their wayward daughter but they always supported her, and the bond between them remained strong.

Maud had hardly a bad word to say about anyone; she accepted the world and the people in it exactly as they were.

I can well believe that she went around the world sixteen times; it was hard to keep track but the only places I can say with any certainty that she didn’t visit were in central and southern Africa. And Afghanistan – though she had a good try at getting into the country it was one of her few failures.

It wasn’t that the pace was dizzying, it was that Maude’s spirit, the way she lived for the present and always had a head full of lovely possibilities for the future infected me.

A great deal of history passed Maud by: she simply side-stepped into neutral countries during World War I, a lack of funds during the depression held her up for some time, and then …. well it was a little more difficult to keep going and, though she was loath to admit it, she was finding some things more difficult as she got older.

That might be what made her finally stop and tell her story. Or it might have been the things she saw that troubled her in 1930s Germany, at the Berlin Olympics ….

It was a pause though, not an end. She loved the journey home, paid for by the publisher who had – in his own words – chased her around the globe with letters for two years, and by the last page of the book she was planning new trips – to Labrador and then – maybe – to Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

Whatever it was – and I suspect that her reasons were, at least in part, financial – I am very glad that she did, because I loved reading it.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Do you remember your first step into the world of proper, grown-up work?

Joanna Rakoff does. She landed one of those jobs that are so very desirable that they can be appallingly paid; she became an assistant at a long-established, highly prestigious New York literary agency. This book is a memoir of the time she spend there.

It’s simply, elegantly and coolly written, and it catches that very particular stage of life beautifully.

Joanna had parted company with the college sweetheart who everyone – herself included – had expected her to marry, and  set up home with Don – who she had to support because he couldn’t work and write his novel. The signs weren’t good, and neither was the kind of flat that their joint budget could afford.

20896238Joanna’s adjustment to post-student life  – dealing with of debt, having to pay the bills, learning to live with one other person in a very small space, watching friends moving in different direction –  is set against her first steps into the world of publishing.

Her new employer – ‘The Agency’ – seemed untouched by the passage of time. Joanna found that she was to spend her days typing – on an old-fashioned type-writer – from a Dictaphone that she had to learn to work with a foot-pedal. There was not one single computer, no fax machine.Theagency was out of step with the world.

Joanna worked for an agent who was a formidable lady of very few words. She had lost many assistants  but Joanna hung on, even though her dreams of reading manuscripts and meeting authors had been dashed, because she needed her small salary to keep her head above water.

I felt for her, but it was lovely to have a glimpse of the workings of The Agency.

The Agency – and Joanna’s boss – were allowed to be arrogant because they had a very, very famous client.

When she was given very particular instructions about how to deal with Jerry – never to call him, never to forward mail, never give out any information, never to approach him, never engage him in conversation – it took a while to realise who Jerry was.

He was J D Salinger.

Joanna had no problem with that because, though she knew his name, she had never read his books.

And that might be why, in time, she was given the job of sending out the standard replies to the letters to the author that arrived every day. At first she did just that, but she was curious about who these people were and why they wrote. She began to read the letters, and she began to respond to what they wrote. It was understandable, it was fascinating to see who wrote and why they wrote, but I worried that there could be consequences ….

One consequence was that Joanna stated to read Salinger’s books, and started to understand. There was a lovely bookishness about this book from the start and that made this aspect of her story even richer.

And so this became an account of lessons in life, in work, and in literature.

The man himself made a few appearances – on the phone, and once he even set foot in the office.

There’s a little less Salinger than the title suggests. That didn’t bother me, because I’m not a devotee, and because Joanna’s experience helped me to understand why so many are. I’m sure those who are will appreciate the glimpses they get, and knowing the nature of the man wouldn’t expect – or maybe even want – too much more.

Eventually Joanna is given more responsibility, and she discovers that there is far more to The  Agency and the people who work there  than she realised. But she walks away when a new path opens up for her ….

It was lovely to read of the time – a little over a year – that Joanna spent at the agency; and  I could see that she appreciated the experiences she had and the things that those experiences taught her, because she wrote about it so very thoughtfully and engagingly.