The Wild Geese by Bridget Boland

‘The Wild Geese’ was my third book for Reading Ireland Month, a historical novel set early in the eighteen century.

Britain and Ireland were ruled by the House of Hanover, but the throne was contested by Jacobite rebels, supporters of the descendants of the deposed King James II. Catholics were repressed by their Protestant rulers: they could not own land, enter many trades and professions, educate their children in their faith, or worship as they chose.

Many could not live with those laws, and this story tells of the implications of those laws for one family

It’s a story told entirely in letters.

The Wild Geese


Gerald Kinross and Garrett Ahearne were cousins; one Catholic and one Protestant. There was an understanding between them, with the Ahearnes legally owning the estate where the Kinrosses lived and worked, but treating it in every was as the Kinross estate. There was friendship too; the first exchange of letters has one man telling of his decision to send his two sons to France so that they could be given a Catholic education and the other expressing his concerns but acknowledging and accepting his reasons.

Those two sons lose their father while they are in exile. Brandan – the elder – comes home to run the family estate, and his brother, Maurice, joins an Irish regiment abroad ; becoming one of the Wild Geese who, for conscience’s sake, will fight for the Jacobite cause. While his uncle lives Brandan is secure, but when his uncle dies things change.

Thomas Ahearne, his father’s only son, inherits everything that had been his father’s, but he doesn’t see the world as his father did. He is the owner of the Kinross estate and he sees his cousin as his tenant; he questions his failure to pay rent, he questions his management of the property, and he ultimately decides that he must bring Brandan’s tenancy to an end.

Letters between the brothers illuminate Maurice’s experiences abroad and Brandan’s life on the estate. Letters between the cousins track Brandan’s journey from frustration into black despair as Thomas is unmoved and immovable. And threaded through this correspondence is the story of the coming of age of Catharine, the youngest of the Kinrosses, and her falling in love with a friend of her brothers’, another of the Wild Geese.

That this story is told in letters is both its strength and its weakness.

The letters tell the story very effectively and bring the characters to life while remaining utterly believable as correspondence. They caught the emotions of the writers, and I felt for them and reacted to them. But they also limited the story, and stopped it opening out as it might have.

I would have liked to spend more time with Catharine and her friend Mary, who Maurice loved and who Thomas courted. That the cover shows a woman is a little misleading, because they have secondary roles in a story of men. This is a story of history and its consequences rather that  a story of a family and emotional lives.

I would have loved to have Catharine tells her family’s story; and I would have loved Bridget Boland, who became a very successful screenwriter, to have turned The Wild Geese into a film with her at its centre.

I did like the book, as a story of a time in history and as the story of a family.

But I have to say that it’s a ‘pick it up if you see a copy’ book, rather that a ‘go out and find a copy’ book.

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

At the end of my first year at university, the day after the final exam, I paid my first visit to the literature shelves in the basement of the university library. There were only a few shelves, because I was at university that – at the time – had no arts faculty. Those shelves didn’t look entirely promising, but there was a small run of green Virago Modern Classics. Half a dozen books by the same author; an author I hadn’t heard of before.

That was my introduction to Willa Cather.

I picked up the smallest book first – ‘My Mortal Enemy’ – just to see if I liked her. I loved her, I read all of those green books, I tracked down all of the others …..

That was a long time ago, and I’ve been thinking that maybe I should re-read Willa Cather’s novels is chronological order for quite some time. Willa Cather Reading Week was just the push I needed.

Ibdae4741bb7960b593972695a41444341587343 must confess that I didn’t really remember ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, Willa Cather’s first novel, from 1912; but I did remember that she hadn’t written a book that she didn’t like.

Now that I’ve read it again I have to sat that it isn’t her finest work. The story is a little underdeveloped, a little contrived; the writing, though lovely, is sometimes a little less than subtle. But it is a very accomplished and very readable first novel. Her understanding of character, her skill in evoking places was there; I could see so many signs of the fine novelist she would quickly become.

I’m so pleased that I have begun to re-read Willa Cather’s novels in order, but I do have to say that if you haven’t read her before I don’t thinks it’s the best place to start.

The story is set not in the American west that she is most associated with, but in Boston, in New York, and in London. She catches those places very well, and she sets up her story beautifully.

Professor Lucius Wilson arrives in Boston to visit a former pupil. His hostess, Mrs Winifred Alexander, arrives home just before him and he pauses to observe her:

“Always an interested observer of women, Wilson would have slackened his pace anywhere to follow this one with his impersonal, appreciative glance. She was a person of distinction he saw at once, and, moreover, very handsome. She was tall, carried her beautiful head proudly, and moved with ease and certainty. One immediately took for granted the costly privileges and fine spaces that must lie in the background from which such a figure could emerge with this rapid gait.”

Mrs. Alexander explains that her husband is working late, and she is so hospitable, so warm, so charming, that Wilson is almost disappointed when her husband arrives and she leaves the two men alone to talk.

Bartley Alexander has been  working on a major bridge in Canada. The bridge has the greatest span of its type, it will be an extraordinary achievement, it will place him at the pinnacle of his profession. But he is unsettled:

“After all, life doesn’t offer a man much. You work like the devil and think you’re getting on, and suddenly you discover that you’ve only been getting yourself tied up. A million details drink you dry. Your life keeps going for things you don’t want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don’t care a rap about. I sometimes wonder what sort of chap I’d have been if I hadn’t been this sort; I want to go and live out his potentialities, too.”

It’s understandable: Bartley feels that pressure of responsibilities, he misses the energy and vitality of his youth, and he is aware that he is ageing and that his life is finite.

When he visits London he catches a glimpse of Hilda Burgoyne, an Irish actress who he had loved years earlier, and he starts to walk the streets near her home:

“He started out upon these walks half guiltily, with a curious longing and expectancy which were wholly gratified by solitude. Solitude, but not solitariness; for he walked shoulder to shoulder with a shadowy companion – not little Hilda Burgoyne, by any means, but someone vastly dearer to him that she had ever been – his own young self …..” 

Inevitably, the two meet. They rekindle their relationship is resumed and Bartley finds himself emotionally torn between his perfect wife and his great lost love.

Willa Cather draws the love triangle so well, and with such subtlety. I understood Bartley’s emotions and I appreciated that both women – one aware of the other and one not – loved him and wanted the best for him.

They understand and accept the realities of life and their situation, in a way he can’t quite.

That side of the story was brilliantly executed; the way that the older side of the story played out though, the story of the bridge-builder- was a little contrived and a little predictable.

But the telling of the tale was lovely; the depth and detail of the characterisation, and the way that it was woven , made it a joy to read; and I am so, so pleased that I have started my second journey through Willa Cather’s novels.

Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby

‘Anderby World’ was Winifred Holtby’s first novel, written when she was in her early twenties.

She would go on to write finer novels, but this was an excellent start; she wrote of the Yorkshire she knew, understanding the people, the history, the changes wrought by the Great War that she had lived through, and the way that the world was changing still.

The writing has such conviction, and I think it would be fair to say that this is a first novel sowing the seeds of greatness….

Anderby Wold

When her parents died Mary Robson married John, her steady, sensible, older cousin, so that she could keep the farm at Anderby Wold. It took them ten years to pay off the mortgage, and by then Mary was in full charge of her life and her world. She managed her farm, her home, and the village of Anderby. She was a strong and capable woman, and she was firm in her opinions.

She held her own in her social circle, but she was disliked by many. Sarah Bannister, John’s elder sister, who had raised him after their parents died, felt that Mary didn’t appreciate what John had done, leaving his own farm to help her save hers. Mr Coast, the village schoolmaster, was bitter that Mary wouldn’t accept his ideas for the school.

That made Mary vulnerable. The dullness of her marriage, her failure to produce a child, made her vulnerable. And, with debt gone and the farm secure, there was a space in her life, room for something more

It was then that she met David Rossitur, a red-haired, fiery, young idealist who preached socialism. She was captivated by his energy and his passion, she was intrigued by what he had to say. She loved their debates, but she was less happy when he began his work in the village. A colleague was summoned from Manchester, a union was formed a union, and soon Mary faced a choice between meeting demands that she felt were wholly unreasonable or having her farm-workers strike at the worst-possible time.

The story explores the conflict between traditional and progressive views wonderfully well; understanding both, and understanding that there is no black and white, that there are only shades of grey.

Above all it is a human story; a story of real, fallible, believable human beings, who all had good, solid reasons for being the people they were and doing the things they did.

Sarah was critical of Mary, but that came from her love for her brother, and when she was needed she would always be on their side. Mr Coast was critical, but he wanted the best for his school and his community. John was cautious and conservative, but he was content with his place in the world and he understood his wife much more than she realised.

Mary had so much potential, she could have done so much. But she only had her position at Anderby, and she so feared losing it …..

Winifred Holtby made this story so engaging, so readable, and I was captivated.

There are contrivances needed to make the story work, and there were moments when I might have wished for a little more subtlety, but the story did work, and I loved seeing the themes and ideas that she would explore in all of her novels threaded through this story so effectively.

‘Anderby Wold’ captures a particular place and time, a particular point in history very well.

It was clear that Winifred Holtby cared, and that she understood.

A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau

This is lovely: a quite beautifully written book that speaks so profoundly. I find myself wanting to say so much, and at the same time being almost lost for words.

‘A Wreath for the Enemy’ is a coming of age story, the story of a girl and a boy, whose paths cross one summer on the French Riviera.

Penelope lived there, in the hotel that her father and her step-mother. It was the most bohemian of establishments, catering for artists, performers and eccentrics. Penelope’s life had no rules, she was free to do as she pleased, and she hated it. She longed for a conventional family, and she longed to be free of the chaos that surrounded her.

21155902She watched the family staying at the villa set below the hotel – father, mother, son, daughter, baby – and she so wished that she could be one of them. She couldn’t, but she met the children, Don and Eva, and they became friends. Don and Eva were as taken with her world as she was with theirs.

Pamela Frankau captures that relationship, and the emotions of the young people, wonderfully well. Their fascination with a different world, and the tempering of that interest when faced with some of its realities. The resentment of their own reality that turns to defensiveness when it is criticised. All of those complex things.

Naturally both sets of parents are concerned and in the end a death – a quite natural death ends that friendship.

And that is the first of the three acts, told in Penelope’s voice.

Her voice rang true, and I understood exactly how she had become the girl she was: careful, naïve, and not nearly as sophisticated as the books he read and the stream of guests she met made her think she was.

The second act is Don’s. The events of the summer change him, and they make him question things that he had never thought to question before. He judges his parents, he finds them wanting, and his own interests draw him into the circle of an extraordinary man. He is an unconventional man, but he proves to be a wise counsellor.

Again Pamela Frankau captures his emotions, his growing pains quite perfectly.

He was lucky, he was gifted; but another death, another quite natural death shook him.

The third act is told in Penelope’s and in other voices. She and Don had friends in common, and the events that shook his life also touched hers. Penelope would learn lessons, would learn to see the world as an adult, before she and Don meet again.

They had both changed, but they recognised each other, and they both understood the events of the summer that changed their lives so much better.

The third act is not so easy to warm to as the first and second, because it moves between very different characters, but it is so profound. And it speaks so clearly about life, about death, about learning and growing, about penitence and forgiveness ….

Every voice rings trues, every character is beautifully realised, and every word is utterly right and utterly believable. ‘A Wreath for the Enemy’ is not a comfortable story, few of the characters are likeable, but it is – they are – fascinating.

The dialogue is pitch perfect, there’s just enough wit, and the themes and ideas that are threaded through the story work so well.

I really couldn’t have predicted the way the it played out, but it was so thought-provoking and so right.

The only thing that stops me from saying that this book is perfect is the structure. The shifting voices, the overlapping stories, worked wonderfully well, and I liked the more linear story of ‘The Willow Cabin’ a little more.

So ‘A Wreath for the Enemy’ is one small step away from perfection. One very small step. The quality of the writing, the depth of the story, the insight of the author, make this book something very special.

I’m so sorry that none of Pamela Frankau’s work is in print now, but I plan to track down and read as many of her books as I can.

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.

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

I was lucky to discover Angela Carter’s writing at a very young age, not long after I had started to read grown-up books.

I spotted a book named ‘The Magic Toyshop’ on a paperback carousel in the library. What was such a thing doing on the shelves for grown-ups? And why did it have a dark green cover, that looked like a classic, but not the sort of classic I had ever seen before?

I picked the book up, I began to read, and what I read was extraordinary. It was like nothing I had read before and it did things that I didn’t know books could do. After that I read every book by Angela Carter that I could lay my hands on, and I picked up more of those books with dark green covers – Virago Modern Classics – hoping to find more intriguing books and more oh so special authors.

And so it was Angela Carter who set me on a path of picking up books bearing unknown titles and unfamiliar author names, hoping to find more magic ….

Collage 1I had nothing new to read for Angela Carter Week, but I had lots of books that I might revisit, to see what I might find in them with more experience of books and of life behind me. It seemed natural to start again with that first book, to revisit ‘The Magic Toyshop’.

At its heart is a simple story. Melanie is fifteen years-old and she has a lovely life; her parents are happy and successful, she and her siblings are much loved, and they have a beautiful home in the country. But Melanie’s parents are killed in an accident and the three children are sent to live with unknown relations …

But it is clear from the start that this will be a coming of age story like no other.

Melanie’s sexuality is awakening. She is drawn to her mother’s wedding dress, to put it on, to go outside. But she finds herself locked out and she has to shed the dress, bundle it up, climb the apple tree to get back inside.

“She parcelled up the dress and stuck it in the fork of the tree. she could carry it up with her and put it away again in the trunk and no one would know it had been worn if they did not see the blood on the hem, and there was only a little blood. The cat put its head on one side and turned it sequin regard on the parcel; it stretched out its paddy paw and stroked the dress. Its paw was tipped with curved, cunning meat hooks. It had a cruel stroke. There was a ripping sound.”

And when she wakes the next morning she learns that her parents are dead.

Angela Carter painted that scene gloriously, in such rich colours, and there was so much that you could read into it. The whole story was like that; a coming of age story twisted into the most profound, dark, gothic drama.

Melanie found herself in a dilapidated house where her tyrannical uncle ruled over his mute, cowed wife, and her two young brothers. It was a magic toyshop, but it was also a house ruled by fear. Melanie had to  learn to live with that, with dirt and poverty, with her feelings for her aunt’s brother, Finn.

Sometimes she was drawn to him – as he was to her – and sometimes she was repulsed by him.

Conflicts and contradictions like that were threaded through the story.

Angela Carter painted vivid pictures in rich colours, picking out the strangest details. Those pictures are utterly compelling, but they are also disturbing, and sometimes repellent.

The most dramatic pictures of all were of her uncle, his life-sized puppets, and the puppet shows he drew first his family and then Melanie into:

“Red plush curtains swung to the floor from a large, box-like construction at the far end of the room. Finn, masked, advanced and tugged a cord. The curtains swished open, gathering in swags at each side of a small stage, arranged as a grotto in a hushed, expectant woodland, with cardboard rocks. Lying face-downwards in a tangle of strings was a puppet five feet high, a sulphide in a fountain of white tulle, fallen flat down as if someone had got tired of her in the middle of playing with her, dropped her and wandered off. She had long, black hair down to the waist of her tight satin bodice.”

In the end something broke. It had to.

Melanie had tried to change things. But there were some things that she didn’t know, that she didn’t understand.

‘The Magic Toyshop’ touches on some difficult subjects, but the images, the ideas, the symbolism, the eccentricity are just so wonderful. It’s untidy though, not a book for those with delicate sensibilities, who like things neat and tidy.

acw-badge-2-2But I can’t pick this book apart. I loved it the first time I read it and I still love it now.

The best way I have to explain its appeal is to confess that I typed ‘Alice’ instead of ‘Melanie’ more than once, because Melanie’s situation seemed so much like Alice’s when she tumbled down the rabbit hole.

It sounds mad, and yet it works ….

The Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton

‘The Mother’s Recompense’ is one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, published in 1925.

It tells the story of Kate Clephane, an American who lived in exile on the French Riviera. She had been unhappy in her marriage, trapped by a controlling husband, and so she fled with another man. He left her, but that wasn’t what broke her heart; losing her infant daughter did that. And so for more than twenty years Kate her life among the quietly alongside so many others who had broken society’s rules.

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.

She had accepted her situation; she had just one regret, and memories that haunted her ….

It was in France, at the start of the First World War, that Kate Clephane met the love of her life. Chris Fenno was a much younger man, and they were happy together until family ties, and practical matters, called him home to America. Kate was left to live alone again, in genteel poverty.

b3c17be1f13ca4e59314e715877444341587343Two telegrams changed her life.  The first told her that her mother-in-law, the formidable woman in whose lifetime Kate would never dare go home, was dead.  And the second asked her to come home. Anne, the daughter who had grown up without her mother, wanted her to come. Kate was ecstatic, and she went without a moment’s hesitation.

Anne is as eager as Kate to build a mother/daughter relationship and soon they are devoted to each other. But they don’t really no each other, and they don’t talk about the most important things of all. Kate simply loves her daughter above anything else.

She sees that society has changed, but she quickly finds that she cannot talk about her past; the rules may be different for her daughter’s generation, but not for hers.

It was fascinating to watch, but the key point of the story was still to come:

Kate sees Chris Fenno again; and then she discovers that he is the man her daughter plans to marry.

She is shattered. She wants to prevent the wedding, but she knew she could not anyone even guess her reasons, because that could damage her relationship with her daughter irreparably. But without explaining her reason she has no grounds for insisting that Anne – who is as passionate as her mother and as stubborn as her grandmother – give up the man her heart is set on.

There was a hint of contrivance about the situation a and a dash of melodrama – but Kate’s dilemma was horribly real, and her emotions were complex. She was aware that she was growing older, that she feelings about her lost love were still strong, that the rules instilled in her could not be easily shaken off, that she wanted to do the right thing but she did not know if she could live with that.

So many themes that have been threaded through other books, and I found echoes of other characters and other stories in this one.

I don’t think it is Edith Wharton’s best work though; the story needed a little more space to breathe, the supporting characters needed a little more time to come to life, and because of that the story seemed just a little hazy in places.

It feels unfinished, unpolished, but it is still a very readable novel, and a much more interesting piece of work than I’d been lead to believe.

And the ending is perfect: uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time, and it highlights Kate Clephane’s character beautifully.

And that is what will stay with me ….


Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Oh, this is lovely!

‘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.


Lady Emily is the matriarch, of the Leslie family of Rushwater House. who happily manages everything for her family, even when it doesn’t need managing. She is sweetly oblivious, and wonderfully good natured, so the servants and the family have learned to listen, nod, and carry on managing things themselves.

Sir Henry and Lady Emily lost their eldest son in the Great War, and they still feel his loss, but they are happy with their home, their lives and their family around them.

The story wanders through the summer with just enough narrative threads running through the picture to make it feel like a story.

Agnes, the Leslies’ only daughter had come home for the summer, with her children, because her husband was abroad. She is had a week and tranquil nature, but she could be rather vague, and I suspected she might turn into her mother when she was a little older. It was lovely though to watch her with her children; she found such joy in being a mother, and her offspring gave the story such natural charm and comedy.

Mary was Agnes’s husband’s niece, and Agnes had invited her to Rushwater House for the summer, while her mother was abroad for the sake of her health. She was lovely, and she clearly enjoyed having a place in a large, extended family, and spending her summer in a big house set in glorious countryside. Agnes hoped that Mary would be a companion for her mother, and she also planned a little match-making so that Mary might become an in-law.

The most likely match seemed to be between Mary and David, the younger of her two surviving brother. David was handsome and charming and Mary was soon smitten, but I was not happy with the proposed match. Because David was so caught up with his own interest in concerns and he was terribly thoughtless. There was no malice in him and nothing that couldn’t be fixed by a little more life and experience: he was so blithely confident and it never occurred to him that others weren’t and could be hurt by his thoughtlessness.

Mary was hurt, when David brought another woman to lunch on her day out in London, when he completely forgot the basket of wild strawberries he had promised to bring home for her ….

David’s elder brother, John, saw the situation. He was a wonderfully sensitive and practical man; a widower whose wife died after just one year of marriage; the very model of a quiet hero. John made sure that Mary got her wild strawberries, he saw that David did not understand their significance to Mary, and yet but he let David assume the credit.

Meanwhile, the Leslies’ beloved grandson and heir was home from school for the holidays. There had been a plan for him to go to France for the summer, to learn the language, but he had wiggled out of it when he discovered that a French family would be staying at the vicarage for the summer. The elder son of the family became his tutor, and the younger son became his partner in crime.

The mix of characters – family, staff, visitors – and incidents keep things moving along nicely; the comedy rises and falls beautifully too, from laugh out loud to gentle smile; there are so many wonderful dialogues; and the quiet sorrow, from the loss of a son and a wife, bring just enough balance to stop the story feeling too frivolous.

It’s a world perfectly realised, and it was lovely to watch it for a little while.

There are high jinks at the estate party at the start of the summer, but it is at the end of the summer, at the birthday dance held on Martin’s seventeenth birthday that future paths are set ….

The ending was right; of course it was.

And the next book in the series is lined up.

The Classics Club Spin Spun Me ‘Black Narcissus’ ….

…. and I couldn’t be more pleased.

I fell in love with the cinema adaptation of ‘Black Narcissus’ – by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – many years ago, but it was only a few years ago that I noticed Rumer Godden’s name among the credits, and realised that the book that had been adapted was written by an author whose works for children I had loved.

‘Black Narcissus’ was Rumer Godden’s third novel and her first best-seller.

Black Narcissus - book cover

It tells the story of a small group of nuns from the Order of the Servants of Mary, who had has been invited to form a new community in an old, disused palace, the former home of the harem of an Indian general, high in the Darjeeling hills. It was a place that had a certain reputation with the local population, but the sisters were to run a dispensary, and a school to offer education to native

Sister Clodagh was to lead the community; Sister Philippa was to manage the gardens; Sister Briony was to run the dispensary; Sister Honey was to teach the local young women to make lace; and Sister Ruth was to give lessons to the younger children.

It was a wonderful plan, but nobody was interested; nobody came.

Mr Dean, the general’s agent, an Englishman gone native, offered practical help that the sisters accepted, and sensible advice that they did not.

The altitude, the isolation, the unemployment, began to affect the sisters. One dreamed of motherhood; one longed for romantic love; one dwelt her life as a young woman, before she took her vows; and one realised that an interest was turning into an obsession.

But as the nuns fell in love with the strange beauty of their surroundings, with the village children whose families were paid by Mr Dean to send them to school, with Mr Dean himself, they began to fall out with each other. Long buried emotions had come to the surface.

Sister Clodagh lacked the experience, and maybe the understanding to manage the situation. And, of course, there were consequences ….

Rumer Godden sets out every detail. She is subtle, gentle, but she makes it clear that everything that happens is inevitable. It comes from the characters, their situations, their emotions.

There is a wonderful depth to the women, their relationships, their stories, and yet the narrative feels simple, natural and it is utterly compelling.

There is little plot: a young man is allowed too close to a young woman; a sick child is brought to the nuns; one sister leaves and another snaps …. But it is enough to move the story forward while keeping the focus on the members of the community, and their lives.

The prose is lovely, the atmosphere and the descriptions are gorgeous.

But there was enough space for me to realise that this wasn’t just the story of a group of nuns; it was the story of the British in India.

The book and the film are very different pleasures – the book is gentle and absorbing; the film is striking and melodramatic – I wish I could have read the book without knowing what would happen, but it didn’t really matter, because the book held me in the moment from start to finish, and I didn’t pull away remembering that I knew what would happen once.

I would have liked to now a little more about each woman, but this is a very short – maybe too short – novel. But sometimes it’s best to be left wondering.

And I’m so curious now to see how Rumer Godden grew as writer with the many books she wrote after this very early novel.

Which book should I read next …. ?

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes was a much loved daughter, she grew up happily in the country, and she became the kind of countrywoman whose life moved with the rhythms of nature in the way that lives had for generations. But when her beloved father died she became a ‘spare woman’ and her life was taken over by her brothers and their wives.


Such was the way of the world in the 1920s, when Sylvia Townsend Warner told her story.

“Caroline spoke affectionately, but her thoughts were elsewhere. They had already journeyed back to London to buy an eiderdown for the bed in the small spare-room. If the washstand were moved towards the door, would it be possible to fit in a writing-table between it and the fire-place? Perhaps a bureau would be better, because of the extra drawers? Yes, that was it. Lolly could bring the little walnut bureau with the false handles on one side and the top that jumped up when you touched the spring by the ink-well. It had belonged to Lolly’s mother, and Lolly had always used it, so Sibyl could not raise any objections. Sibyl had no claim to it whatever, really. She had only been married to James for two years, and if the bureau had marked the morning-room wall-paper, she could easily put something else in its place. A stand with ferns and potted plants would look very nice.”

The world was changing though, I knew it and there was something in the tone, in the rhythm of the words that told me too. There was a wonderful mixture of delicate observation, wry knowingness and love for the story being told; all of that made it feel very special.

Laura accepted her family’s decision, accepted it as the natural way of things, and settled into a new life. She was absorbed by her family, and even her name was changed to Lolly, because one of one of her young nieces cannot pronounce “Laura” and that was the name she came out with instead. Nobody thought to as Laura if she minded. She was a wonderful aunt, she was loved, but she wasn’t valued.

“Caroline resigned herself to spending the rest of her evenings with Laura beside her. The perpetual company of a sister-in-law was rather more than she had bargained for. Still, there she was, and Henry was right—they had been the proper people to make a home for Laura when her father died, and she was too old now to begin living by herself. It was not as if she had had any experience of life; she had passed from one guardianship to another: it was impossible to imagine Laura fending for herself. A kind of pity for the unused virgin beside her spread through Caroline’s thoughts. She did not attach an inordinate value to her wifehood and maternity; they were her duties, rather than her glories. But for all that she felt emotionally plumper than Laura. It was well to be loved, to be necessary to other people. But Laura too was loved, and Laura was necessary. Caroline did not know what the children would do without their Aunt Lolly.”

As her nieces and nephews grew up Laura began to feel the gap in her life, and the country and its traditions began to call her back. All she could do though was fill the house with flowers. Until one magical day when the stars aligned, and Laura realised that she could have the life she wanted, a life of her own.

Sylvia Townsend Warner had painted her gradual awakening to the call of the countryside beautifully, and she makes Laura’s final realisation quite glorious:

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

 “As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a ripe plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows. The back of her neck ached a little with the strain of holding up her arms. Her fingers searched among the leaves.”

Laura knows then that she must answer the call of the country, and fate guides her to the village of Great Mop, in the heart of Buckinghamshire. He family are astonished, they protest, but she goes anyway.  And she finds happiness, she finds her place in the world, in the country.

It was lovely to watch her quiet, simple transformation.

But then the story changes.

When Laura’s family intrude on her new life, when the balance is upset, the mystical thing that had been calling her towards her destiny became rather more tangible. And, for me, it didn’t quite work. The spirit of the story, the direction of the story was right, but it felt heavy-handed. The best books that dabble with things that may be real or may be fantastical are so captivating that I don’t stop to think about what is going on, and which it is. This part of the story didn’t quite catch me, it wasn’t quite subtle enough and I couldn’t love it as I’d loved what came before.

I came unstuck near the end the first time I read ‘Lolly Willowes’ but not this time

I realised that I might be judging the book a little unfairly, because I’m comparing it with books that were written so much later, and with many of the books that I love the best of all.

I have to cherish a book that, three years before Virginia Woolf published ‘A Room of One’s Own’, said:

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broom stick. It’s to escape all that, to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread a day ….”

And I found so much to love that it was easy to let go of small disappointments.

I loved the arc of the story, I loved the telling of the story, and I loved the spirit of the story.