The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

In ‘The Tenth Gift’ Jane Johnson spins a story around an extraordinary piece of history:

In 1625 corsairs from North Africa sailed into Mount’s Bay, they entered a church and they took sixty men, women and children, to be sold as slaves.

That church might have been St Mary’s in Penzance, standing at the centre of Mounts Bay, just behind the harbour, clearly visible from the sea. My church, my mother’s church, my grandmother’s church ….

That drew me to the book, but it made me wary too. Because I knew that I’d know if she got it wrong. But I’m pleased to say that she didn’t get the things I knew wrong at all, she taught me some local history that I didn’t know, and that gave me so much confidence when she wrote about things that I didn’t, couldn’t know.

cornwall10Catherine Anne Tregenna, nicknamed Cat, was in service at Kenegie Manor, she was betrothed to her cousin Rob, but she wanted more than that. She was young, she was bright, she was spirited, and she hoped that her talent for embroidery would give her a chance to see more of life, more of the world. She had been given the chance to make an altar cloth for the Countess of Salisbury, and she hoped that might help her to win more commissions, and maybe even gain entry to Broderers Guild.

But her life changed when she and her mother went to church ….

Cat’s story was uncovered by Julia, in a second storyline set in the present day. When her lover left her he gave her antique leather-bound book.  ‘ Needle-Woman’s Glorie’  had been Cat’s book, and when she was torn from her home she began to keep a record of what she experienced, writing in between the embroidery patterns.

Julia followed Cat to Morocco – telling herself that she was researching the story she had uncovered, but also running away from the mess she had made of her life.

The two storylines worked well together, and the links and the mirroring of Cat’s and Julia’s lives didn’t feel contrived at all. But I liked Cat  far more than I liked Julia – it’s hard to care about a heroine who has been having an affair with her best friend’s husband – and her story was not nearly as strong as Cat’s. I would have liked the book more, I think, if the present day story had been pulled back to become a framing story, or even if it had not been there at all.

There was for than enough in Cat’s story – her life in Cornwall, her experiences when she was kidnapped, what happened in Cornwall after the raid – to make a fabulous book all by itself. There was a little dramatic licence taken, a little stretching of credibility, but not too much. Certainly no more than I could forgive when I found so much that was good.

The writing was wonderfully readable, the plotting was very well done, and I loved the links to real history and to the authors own story. I appreciated that she was even-handed, that she understood that the corsairs had reasons for doing what they were doing, that there was right and wrong on both sides, that there could be much common ground between people from different backgrounds and different cultures.

The evocation of time and place – of Cornwall and of Morocco – was so very vivid that it pulled me right into the story. And I couldn’t doubt for one moment that the author was writing of what she knew and what she loved.

A Cottage in Cornwall, named ‘None-Go-By’ ….

…. it was to be home to a couple, both writers, looking for the peace and quiet that was missing on their busy London lives. They didn’t find it, but they found new interests, they made new friends, and it made a lovely story. And this story is very close to a real story: the story of Mr and Mrs Alfred Sedgwick themselves.

I was aware of Mrs Sidgwick but I didn’t know that she had any links with Cornwall until a number of her books, smartly re-bound, appeared among the Cornish fiction in the Morrab library. They all looked promising, and but I had to pick this one up first. I liked the title, and I knew when I read the opening that I had to carry on.

“Two elderly people with moderate means and no incumbrances ought to be able to lead a quiet life. For a long time, Thomas and I had said this to each other, but we had not done it. We have no children of our own, but we have relatives and friends, and somehow or other we get mixed up in their affairs. We do not wish to be because by nature we are curmudgeons, but it happens.”

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.

I had to smile at gentle marital bickering between Thomas and Mary; for all that each tried to have the last word it was clear that they were two very different people who loved each other and accepted each others little foibles. He was an impractical, absent minded philosopher who from time to time set out on a grand scheme; she was a practical woman who wanted to work steadily to get her house and her garden exactly the way she wanted them. It’s a real marriage, captured absolutely perfectly.

It was lovely watching their ups and downs as they settled into their new home and a new lifestyle.

Place names were changed, but I soon worked out that ‘None-Go-By’ must be in the Lamorna valley.

 “We went for a walk across the wild land at the back of the house and came in time to a stream and a windmill. The catkins were out on the hazels, the gorse was blazing on the moors and in the hedges, the light airs sent you its essence hot and sweet in the sun; there were primroses on the banks and the blackthorn. Yellow hammers flew here and there about the hedges, asking for their little bit of bread and no cheese. The rooks were busy in the taller trees near the stream, and the larks, risen high into the heavens, were singing all the cares of the world away.”

Cecily Sedgwick's home - 'Vellensagia' - in the Lamorna valley

Cecily Sedgwick’s home – ‘Vellensagia’ – in the Lamorna valley

 

Of  course the locals came to see their new neighbours. There was Mrs Lomax, who fancied herself as the leader of village society; and then there was Mrs Almond, the vicar’s wife who was lovely and had the sunniest of natures.

It was inevitable that young  family members, who had been frequent visitors in London, would invite themselves to stay. There were high jinks with a young nephew who came to convalesce after illness. There was diplomacy when a niece sought sanctuary after her first marital spat. And there was romance in the air when another niece came to stay.

And there was a community of artists in the Lamorna valley; Mary made friends there too.

All of this is handled with a light but sure touch, and there is much to raise a smile.

    • Bob, the fox terrier, eating the kidneys intended for the first supper at None-Go-By, when a lack of table space caused a dish to be placed on the floor.
    • Young nephew Sam discovered by guests stark naked in the kitchen – because he didn’t want to get his clothes wet as he washed the dishes.
    • A basket of ducklings inadvertently let loose in the vicarage; rounding them all up again caused havoc.
    • The drawing of battle lines over the controversial issue of – rhododendrons!

And somehow, along the way, ‘None-Go-By’ became the centre of local society, and the Clarendons were busier than they had ever been.

‘No, we are never dull. There are shipwrecks and floods and stranded whales and suicides, murders, embezzlements, births, deaths, divorces, love affairs, quarrels, weddings, shops, concerts, cinema, bridge parties, gardens, clothes, housekeeping, servant troubles, dances ….’

They loved it, and I loved meeting them.

I’m so glad that the Sidgwicks stayed in Cornwall, that they celebrated their Golden Wedding here, and that there are more books inspired by the years they spent here for me to read.

A Painting, a Passage and a Story …..

This morning we went to see a wonderful, wonderful exhibition at Penlee House. ‘Penzance 400’ celebrates the 400th anniversary of my home town’s royal charter with a fabulous array of paintings, photographs and documents. If you are anywhere in the area between now and 7th June I recommend it warmly and unreservedly.

There was something very special, that I hoped I’d see but didn’t dare hope I that I would. I’ll come back to that ….

First I must tell you about a painting, a painting from the permanent collection that I know and love, that I realised was almost a perfect match for a passage that I copied out from a book I returned to the library later in the day.

The painting is ‘Market Place’ by Stanhope Forbes

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The passage is from ‘None-Go-By’ by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick (1923). She renamed the town but it was easy to recognise.

“We had come to Porthlew on market day when farmers and their families from all parts of the compass crown into the town. The whole day long they stand in groups at every corner and on the pavements of the main street, talking to each other. Every hotel yard is crammed with carts and jings; and below that part of the main street know as the terrace the old country buses range themselves until it is time to put the horses in again, and loaded with passengers and packages drive home to the distant villages. There are not as many buses as there used to be. They are gradually being replaced by motors, but there are still a few, in which for sixpence you may travel for two hours traversing five miles in the time and learning surprising details about the internal infirmities of your fellow passengers and the scandalous conduct of their absent friends.

Thomas never goes to Porthlew on market day because he likes to finish his shopping in minutes and then ask me what the devil he is to do with himself for the rest of the afternoon; but I, having lived in London all my life, never get tired of our country town. I like coming and going in full view of the bay, and then getting glimpses of the sea in the side streets as I shop in the main one. I like the crowds and the fruit stalls and the personal relationship with the trades-people. There is no such thing in Porthlew as a hostile minx who calls you Moddam ….”

I’ll come back to the book – which was lovely – in a day or two.

Today I want to back-track to something else that I saw.

We knew that in the 1930s, when he was the head of Penzance Art School, my grandfather prepared a number of illuminated manuscripts for the town council, for presentations and to record significant events. We had tried to find about more, but the council had no records; if the manuscripts still existed they would either be deep in the archive or with the recipients. It felt like a dead end.

It was possible that one would be on display, but I didn’t dare hope.

There was!

At least I think it was – it was unattributed, but the date was right and the style was right.

I told my mother about it this afternoon, and she was delighted. And she remembered the mayor whose term of office it commemorated.

Finding that connection to our own family history was very, very special.

Today has been a very good day.

And just a little while ago, when I was searching for the right painting by Stanhope Forbes, I found another of his works that I didn’t know.

Market Jew Street - Nocturne
‘Market Jew, Nocturne’ shows the scene that Mrs Sidgwick would have seen towards the end of her visit to town; the old country buses ready to depart, below that part of Market Jew Street that we still know as ‘The Terrace’ ….

The House by the Sea by Jon Godden

I spotted Jon Godden’s name on a book that she co-wrote with her sister, and I was curious to know more. I learned that her real name was Ruth, that she was much less prolific that he sister, and much less driven by her nature or by her circumstances, but the she had published a handful of novels. Any book called ‘The House by the Sea’ would have caught my eye – I love books centred around houses, I love the sea – but this one was set in Cornwall as well, and that made it irresistible.

I also learned that the Godden sisters were very different writers.

“The house was a firm white shape on the changing colours of the field. Under the canopy of cloud the light was very clean and pure; every detail of cliff and field and house stood out sharply; the pales of the fence, and oblong of red earth where the front garden was going to be, even the aerial on the roof. She put her parcels on the step and say down on the stile to rest. ‘How real it looks,’ she thought. ‘There it sits as large as life, complete to the last detail, as real as money can make it. But it’s not surprising that it seems to me, for all its solidness, to be a dream. What is it after all except a dream come true.'”

When her father died, leaving her a small legacy, Edwina was free for the first time. She wasn’t tied to him, she could shake off the rather domineering friend she had shared a flat with during the war, and live as she wanted. And what she wanted was a new life in a new place where she could be entirely herself, and a home where she could live as she wanted, and have her own things around her.

house by the seaIt was lovely to watch Edwina quietly taking pleasure in things others take for granted. Using her favourite china, choosing exactly what she wanted in the village shop, walking her dog along the cliffs … It was lovely, but I could also see that Edwina was brittle, that her world could so easily be rocked, because she was still the woman who had been dominated by others for so many years.

It was clear that something was going to happen. And something did.

An injured man, a fugitive, stumbled into Edwina’s porch. He saw what she was, that she lived alone in an isolated house, some way from a community that barely knew her, and so he decided that he would stay as long as he needed to, that she would not give him away.

Edwina becomes his hostage, but, as they coexist in her home, their situation draws something out of her and something out of him. A relationship grows between them, but that relationship is as brittle as Edwina, and as time passes, as Edwina learns more about Ross, it is inevitable that it will break.

When it does break, when one of them forces the situation, the consequences are shattering, and Edwina’s dream seems broken too ….

This is not a comfortable book. The feeling of uncertainty that was present and the start of the book quickly grows into something rather more menacing, and it is difficult to feel entirely sympathetic towards either of the protagonists. Yes, they are fallible, complex, believable human beings, but they are largely responsible for their own failings, for failing to take responsibility for themselves and their lives soon enough. I could feel a degree of compassion, of course I could, but I couldn’t warm to either of them.

The story works though, because Jon Godden understood the psychology of her characters and of their relationship, and she drew out the full complexity of their situation. Edwina was brave, she pushed the situation, she drew Ross’s story out of him. But she lacked the confidence, the judgement, the social skills, all of the things that people whose lives have been dominated by others lack. And, though she couldn’t admit it, she found something that her life lacked in her relationship with Ross. It also revealed truths that she had never found the courage to acknowledge.

It’s difficult to explain but I understood completely when I was safe in the hands of an author who clearly understood the importance of nuances, significant moments, and telling details. That made the situation, and the complex relationship, for all it was a little contrived, utterly compelling.  The story played out beautifully, and the setting really made the story sing. The house itself was wonderful; it lived and breathed, I could see it, I could feel its oppressive atmosphere; such a contrast to the  Cornish coast outside.

‘The House by the Sea’ held me from start to finish.

Treveryan by Angela Du Maurier

An elegant manor house, set on the wild Cornish coast; a house that captures the hearts and souls of those who live their. A story of love, secrets, and their consequences, with wonderful gothic overtones.

It might be Manderlay but it isn’t, this is Treveryan. The creation not of Daphne Du Maurier, but of her elder sister, Angela. Two sisters, and two very different writers; but, of course writers with the same background, and with many of the same influences.

Angela’s writing lacks the subtlety, the nuances, that made her little sister’s books so special, but her storytelling has such passion, such conviction, and she had a wonderful way of catching changing gear and really grabbing the attention with the final sentence of a chapter.

Treveryan is by no means great writing, but I loved it, and I found it very, very difficult to put the book down.

TreveryanIt tells the story of Bethel.  Her idyllic childhood at Treveryan, her growing up, her falling deeply in love, are painted in such vivid colours. But Bethel’s dreams were shattered when her father died, suddenly, unexpected, in mysterious circumstances. It was then that the terrible secret of Treveryan is revealed to Bethel and her brother, Veryan.

Bethel and Veryan know what they must do, that they must live rest of their lives together, in the Cornish home that they love. Their sister, Lerryn, was too young to understand, but it time they would have to draw her into their plan.

And though Bethel’s heart was broken, she knew that she was doing the right thing, and she gave her heart to her siblings, and to her beloved Treveryan.

But one sibling broke ranks, and their relationships, their lives, their world, fell apart.

I can’t say more that that.

But I can say that Treveryan is a wonderful story of a heroine and a house, with everything you could want in a gothic novel. A little slow to start, but the story soon hit its stride; it was over the top, but in a very good way.I didn’t always find Bethel sympathetic, but she was captivating, and I understood that she was what her life and her situation had made her.

I’m afraid that not all of the characters were so strong. And I could pick out other flaws. The dialogue is a little flat, writing is a little uneven, and there are times when the story lurches into melodrama. But I found more to love. Angela Du Maurier brought Cornwall to life, and I never for one moment doubted that she knew, loved and understood. The story was dramatic, it was emotional, and, for all that it was over the top, it rang true.

I’ve seen it suggested that the success of Rebecca inspired Treveryan, and maybe it did, but they are very different stories. And Treveryan has less in common with Rebecca than Rebecca has with Jane Eyre . Rebecca is the better book, but, for all that Treveryan has a similar setting, there is much more to set it apart. It harks back to a much older gothic tradition, and it really should be allowed to stand or fall on its own merits.

The final chapters are wonderfully unexpected and dramatic. There was an easy way out, and it is to Angela Du Maurier’s great credit that she didn’t take it.  Because the path that she took was quietly heart-breaking, but it was the right ending.

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved books ….

…. she discovered them when she was very, very small, and as he grew up she found more and more to love.

Mother and Child Reading by Frederick Warren Freer

Mother and Child Reading by Frederick Warren Freer

There were so many worlds in explore, in the past, in the present, and in the future. There were so many fascinating people to meet; real peple and fictional people. There were stories, there were adventures, there was so much to learn.

And it was lovely to step out of the real world sometimes.

She knew that lots of other people liked books, but, maybe because she came from a very small town, she didn’t know anyone who loved a lot of the books she loved. It was lovely to be able to talk to them, to recommend books, and to dicover so many new books, new publishers, new possibilities …

One of those possibilities was a book blog. She started writing about books and bookish things on a blog of her very own. And in time she found more places to write her book thoughts. Just to celebrate the books and tell more people about them. Because some people don’t use LibraryThing, or read book blogs.

There were some ups and downs, but for a very long time everything went swimmingly.

But one day – a day when life had left her at a rather low ebb – a nasty comment hit her very hard. A comment that said that she had mislead the writer over many books and authors. It wasn’t on Librarything, it wasn’t on her blog, it was somewhere else. And when she replied that maybe she and the writer had different tastes, that maybe the writer should look elsewhere for recommendations, things escalated.

She retreated into her shell for a little while. She realised that maybe she was being rather sensitive, but she had been shy and sensitive all her life. There are worse failings. And that uncomfortable dialogue hit particular nerves.

One of the things that disappoints her most in life is when they people won’t accept that others can have different tastes, different values, different views of the world, and it doesn’t have to mean that somebody is right and somebody is wrong. Sometimes there is no right and wrong.Some things are subjective. That’s just not about books, it’s about all kinds of things in life.

The other thing that upset her was the allegation that she had a particular agenda when she wrote about books. Because she didn’t. And when she picked herself up again she realised that she had to do something she had always resisted. She had to write a statement of principle, a policy if you like. And here is what she wrote.

I am a reader, and I don’t consider myself a critic or a reviewer. I respond to books emotionally and I try to explain that reaction as honestly and fairly as I can.

Most books come from my own shelves or from the library, and some come from publishers, authors or publicists. But it doesn’t matter where a book comes from, they are all treated the same.

I know that a book that I can’t warm to isn’t necessarily a bad book. It might be the perfect book for somebody with different experiences, for someone at a different point in life, for someone who is looking for something different in a book. And I know that because I can see how much my own tastes have changed over time.

I try to be sensitive to the feelings of authors, and others with an emotional investment in a particular book. That doesn’t mean I won’t be critical, but I will always try to be fair and constructive.

If I’m not getting on with a book I’ll usually put it to one side or give up on it completely. So you won’t find many negative reports, just the occasional one, where I’ve enjoyed an author’s books in the past, or when a book has been particularly recommended. Because there are too many great books out there to be read and re-read to spend too much time with books that disappoint.

I do this to celebrate the joy of reading, and to share that with other readers. No more and no less.

She almost decided to give up writing about books. That might sound feeble, but her life was busy and complicated, and books and writing about books were meant to be an escape from difficult, troublesome things. She decided in the end though that she couldn’t give up, that she would miss it far too much. Not just the writing, the reading what other people had to say about books too. And then the voice that told her what to write about books, the voice that had disappeared for a while, came back into her head.

She realised that the answer was to focus on her blog and her own corner of the bookish world, and to let some of the other things go.

It’s quite possible that she will do things a little differently in the future, but she will definitely be back …

Looking inside a book and finding my own world ….

Cornwall has always been my home – even when I lived elsewhere – and I have read so many books set in places I know, some of them very close to home. I should be used to it. But today I’ve been reading a book set at the beginning of the last century, watching the narrator walk in countryside I know and see sights I know well, and it knocked me sideways ….

* * * * * * *

“I rode into Penzance and explored the town thoroughly … I found it a curious mixture of a place, the new gentility of the seaside town mellowing the ancient coarseness of the fishing port. The Metropole Hotel was part of the new gentility, a modern building that faced the sea and catered to visitors anxious to breathe the sea air in refined surroundings, but the town’s high street was far older than the esplanade and stood further inland to remind the visitor that a sea view had not always been considered desirable by the inhabitants. The mixture of old and new was emphasised, however by the new market house at the top of historical market Jew Street and by the new public garden with their semi-tropical vegetation a stone’s throw from the narrow streets and cobbled alleys around the harbour. And beyond the harbour, reducing both the old and the new to insignificance, rose the fairy-tale castle of St Michael’s Mount …”

From ‘Penmarric’ by Susan Howatch

* * * * * * *

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As it is today – clockwise from top left:

The Queens Hotel (fictionalised as The Metropole)
St Michael’s Mount
The sub-tropical Morrab Gardens
The Market House at the top of Market Jew Street

* * * * * * *

How close to home- or to places you know – has reading taken you? How did your world look from inside a book?