A Gift for New Years Day: a little gothic romance ….


I’VE crossed the fields from Lattenden
And haunted Honey Mill,
My feet and all my clothes are torn.
Yet on I stumble still
I must not stay to speak to you
Or falter with my pain,
But hasten on to Willow’s Forge,
At the bottom of the lane.

Folk call me mad perhaps ‘tis true
My life is full of fears,
At whiles I bite my arms, and then
I wash the blood with tears.
I scream, I talk to owls and crows,
Hear voices from the sky,
I see the spooks that ride o’ nights
Men shudder when I’m nigh.

My love was hanged for stealing sheep,
‘Twas that which sent me mad
He was a liar and a thief,
But O I loved my lad !
I’ve wandered wildly ever since,
And last night, ‘neath the Wain,
I saw my love at Willow’s Forge,
At the bottom of the lane.

His face was wan, his burning eye
Was like a coal from hell
(He’s with the damned souls, all folk say,
But O I love him well !)
His hands were misty as the moon
That bathed his awful brow,
His lips and breast were smeared with blood,
His cheeks were white as snow.

O tell me, love, where have you been
This weary sleepless while ?
I’ve screamed and wept to kiss your lips,
I’ve hungered for your smile.
Have you been down among the damned,
Where, like the sheep in fold,
The dead men lie, and bleat and cry
And shiver in the cold ?

Have you been up to where the clouds
Are sailing in the blue,
And have they thrown you down, and said
‘Twas no fit place for you ?
Or have you roamed all Sussex through
In weariness and pain,
To meet me here at Willow’s Forge,
At the bottom of the lane ? ’

He nothing said at all, but stared
With glazed and dreadful eye,
His red lips shook, as if he strove
To part them with a cry.
He could not speak, and O I thought
He’d shiver from my sight,
And leave me lone at Willow’s Forge,
In the terror of the night.

‘ O kiss me lad, before you go ! ‘
I cried, and raised my head.
He stooped his scarlet lips to me,
The living kissed the dead.
But O his mouth was all on fire,
And burned my cheek and hair,
I screamed aloud, and he had gone,
And left me waiting there.

I told my mother what had passed,
She shuddered at my tale
‘You’ve seen the moonlight through the trees
That shiver in the gale ;
And as for your burnt cheek, my girl,
Which makes you sob with pain,
You’ve kissed the fire at Willow’s Forge,
At the bottom of the lane.’

But though she speak, and though I hear,
I will not aught believe
But that at last I’ve met and kissed
The lad for whom I grieve.
And if I haunt the meeting spot,
I’ll see him there again
That’s why I haste to Willow’s Forge,
At the bottom of the lane.

Willow’s Forge by Sheila Kaye-Smith

The End of The House of Alard by Sheila Kaye-Smith

I’ve been wanting to read more of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s work for ages, but because I had a huge choice, after finding what must have once been somebody’s prized collection in a book sale, I wasted far too much time picking books up and down, not quite able to decide which one to read first.

In the end, a beloved author made my mind up for me.

“Have been reading in the half hour before I go to sleep ‘The End of the House of Alard’. Sheila Kaye-Smith is a favorite of mine. She reminds me of George Eliot. But her work is tinged – I had almost said tainted – with the pessimism of most present day writers of power. They reflect their age. It is hard to be hopeful today when one looks at the weltering world.”

From the journal of Lucy Maud Montgomery, November 22, 1923

I tend to agree. The comparison is a little flattering, of course it is, but it goes some way to balancing out the unfairness of Sheila Kaye-Smith being bracketed with many lesser rural novelists of the same period. She was a countrywoman, and that shows in her books, but she does much, much more than tell tales of country folk.

The Alard family could trace their ancestors back to medieval times, but their fortunes were fading. Lord and Lady Alard lived in their grand house, refusing to recognise that the world had changes, and believing that if only their children would make good marriage fortune would favour them and things would – things must – continue as they always had.

51Qq5ShtPfLThere were three sons and three daughters.

Peter became heir when his brother was killed in the was, and found himself caught between marrying for love and marrying for the money he knew the estate desperately needed; George had followed one of the classic paths for a second son, joining the priesthood and settling into the family living; Gervase, the youngest brother believed that the world was changing, decided that he must break with tradition and follow his own calling, even though he knew his family would disapprove …

Doris, the eldest daughter, had never married, telling herself that her parents needed her at home, and becoming set in her – and their – ways; Mary had married but she was unhappy, wanting to leave her husband but aware of the consequences and the social disgrace would follow; and Jenny was young and headstrong, she wasn’t going to make the same mistakes her sisters made, she was going to follow her heart …

The story moves back and forth between them all, touching on so many themes: family, love, duty, tradition, society, change, faith. There is much about faith – as there is in most if not all of Sheila Kaye-Smiths’s books – thoughtfully woven onto the story, a natural part of many of her characters lives. Details of lives lived on a country estate are woven in as naturally. I never for one moment doubted that the author knew – and believed – everything that she wrote about.

The story touches on Judaism as well as Christianity. Peter’s bride, Vera, is Jewish and it is mentioned often – Sheila Kaye-Smith writes beautifully, and she can be wonderfully subtle, but occasionally she labours a point. It is to her great credit though that Vera takes a great pride in her Jewishness, seeing it as something that makes her special, and that is never questioned. There were a few small details that made me suspect that her character was inspired by the author’s friend and sometime co-writer, G B Stern.

Above all this is a story of characters and relationships. Each and every character is beautifully drawn, complex and fully realised; the multitude of different relationships between them are caught perfectly too. They all lived and breathed, but it was in the dialogues that they were most alive. I remember Jenny, stridently making her case for doing just what she wanted to do; Gervase and George talking about faith; Mary quietly explaining why she couldn’t bear to go on with her husband ….

I was captivated. but I have to acknowledge there was something missing. A little more variation, maybe some outside influence – the story seemed to be set in a very closed world – might have made this a great book instead of a very good one. And it maybe needed to be a bigger book set over a rather longer period to allow the characters their stories to shine as brightly as they might.

The characters in the foreground needed to come forward a little. I loved Stella and how she coped when Peter made her decision, and her father who did his best to support her, even though he didn’t quite undestand. Their was as lovely, and believable, a father-daughter realtionship as I can ever remember reading. And the characters who were a little further back deserved more space. At first George seemed uninteresting, but when he spoke about faith, when he was called on as a priest, he came to life and I wished that I could have known him a little better.

This is one of those maddening books that I loved, but at the same time I wished I could have loved it even more. It was a very good book that might have been a great book. And the great book it might have been would made that comparison with Middlemarch entirely right.

And there’s just one more thing I must take issue with: the title. The fact the this was ‘The End of the House of Alard’ made the outcome of certain events rather predictable, and sorrow rather inevitable. The ending veered dangerously close to melodrama, but it was saved by the reactions of those left to cope and carry on.

A Poem for Overground

One day, when ‘Poems From The Underground  caught my eye, a question came into my head.
Poems Underground
Surely it wasn’t just the underground. There must have been other, lest famous, instances of poems in the wild. Have you, ever seen anything, I wonder?

And today I found a poem that made me ask another question. What about buses? I rarely used buses in central London, but I did around and about Harrow, where I lived for quite a few years. I don’t remember seeing anything so interesting on a bus, but maybe that was me not paying attention, or too busy reading.

That poem was  by Sheila Kaye-Smith. I knew she wrote novels set in the Suffolk countryside she loved, I knew she wrote about Jane Austen, I knew she wrote about books, but I hadn’t noticed she has published poetry and I didn’t know she’d spent much time in London.

This poem dates from the days when buses looked like this.


It’s a little bit dated, and I don’t think her verse is of the same quality as her prose, but it took me back to London and I do rather like it. See what you think.

The Ballad of a Motor ‘Bus by Sheila Kaye-Smith

You get in at Ludgate Circus,
Where in regiments they stand,
All throbbing underneath the bridge,
And pointing to the Strand
All pageantry with colours,
All poetry with words,
Wait those blazoned motor-‘buses
In their fiercely panting herds.

There are ‘buses for the East,
There are ‘buses for the West,
For North and South and Central
And where heaven pleases best
For the Elephant and Castle,
Gospel Oak and Parson’s Green,
Some for Chelsea, some for Putney,

Some for Barnes, and some for Sheen,
There are some that cross the river,
And they see the steamers crawl
With dirty belching smoke-stacks
To the Pool or London Wall
They rumble down the dingy streets
Where dingy houses grow
Like quickly sprouting toadstools
In an evil yellow row.

And some go plunging northward
Up the hills to Kensal Rise,
And some are bound for Hampstead
And the smokeless windy skies,
And some go east to Hackney,
And the long Commercial Road,
Past the buying and the selling,
To poverty’s abode.

But the ‘bus I take goes westward
It leaves Charing Cross behind,
Then it bounds up Piccadilly,
Through the smokey dusty wind
The first lamps have been lighted,
And across St James’s Park
The early lights of Westminster
Are splashing on the dark.

The dusk is falling gently,
And from the streets below
The London glare climbs upward
To make the sad skies glow
Through the mingled dusk and dazzle
We hum swiftly on our way,
While the wind brings to our faces
The first damps of the day.

It is Summer, it is evening,
Early stars are in the sky,
Shining dim above the smoke-wreaths,
While the western bonfires die

And the wind sings of the river
That beyond the city flows,
Of the pleasant westward reaches
That no cargo-tramper knows.

So we spin through holy Brompton,
We leave Kensington behind,
We thunder down to Fulham,
Past churches tall and blind
Till we come at last to Putney,
And the starlit river gleams
Through darkness up to Richmond,
A thoroughfare of dreams.

And it’s there that you are waiting,
O my faithful love, for me !
Through the dark your eyes are straining
My chariot to see
For the working-day is over,
All its dust and hurry past,
And we go to the river,
With my hand in yours at last.

While the motor-‘bus rolls onward
And we stop to watch it tear
All burning through the twilight,
Mysterious and fair.
It was our love’s bright chariot,
The torch of our desires,
Kindling the London darkness
With youth’s eternal fires.

O youth ! O youth in London !
Shall they ever be forgot.
Those young and eager footsteps
On pavements hard and hot ?
The dust is in the breezes,
Stinks of petrol stain the air,
But youth has come to London,
And has found a garden there.

All Virago All August

I visited this thread in the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group, and I was inspired.

I can’t quite do All Virago All August, because I have other reading commitments, because I can’t stay out of the library for a whole month, and because I just don’t like feeling that I can’t pick up and read whatever book appeals.

But there will be a good number of Viragos in the mix, and they will be books that aren’t read or written about as much as others.

I’ve pulled out six possibles, most of which are out of print but all of which are “gettable” at a reasonable price:

The Wild Geese by Bridget Boland

“In eighteenth-century Ireland, Catholics are forced to practice their religion in secret, they cannot buy or improve their land, nor enter any profession or trade.  In this climate a lively underground traffic develops between Ireland and Europe–young boys are smuggled to Catholic schools abroad and many eventually join the armies of foreign princes.  If they return to their native land, these “Wild Geese” are in danger of their lives.

Through the story of the Kinross family and their letters to one another, we learn of these desperate times: of Brendan’s struggle to maintain the Kinross estate; of the dangers Maurice faces as an outlaw in his own country, and of their sister Catherine and her love for Roderick O’Byrne, a soldier recruiting for Irish regiments in France.”

This one has been waiting on my bedside table for a while now. I know little about 18th century Ireland, and learning a little by way of a family saga told through letters is very appealing.

Bid Me to Live by Hilda Doolittle

“It is 1917 and Julia Ashton lives in a shuttered room in Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury. A young wife, no longer happy, she mourns the loss of her baby, and lives that war-time lie of love and death as her poet husband, Rafe, comes and goes from the trenches of the first world war. In this “Other Bloomsbury,” a world of part make-believe, where the actors play at life and sex, Julia refuses to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity, her failing marriage, and her private world of pain. Then into her trance-like state breaks Frederick, the writer with the flaming beard and the driving volcanic genius. Only when she flees the fog and fever of London to seek a new calm in the wild countryside of Cornwall, can Julia face the truth about herself, her marriage, and her future with the forceful Frederick …”

I pulled this one out a couple of weeks ago, when Hilda Doolittle was the answer to a clue in my fiance’s crossword that he just couldn’t get it. He thought I had made up a name to fit the letters he had, and so I pulled this book off the shelf to prove my point. When I noticed that it was autobiographical, that part of the story was set in Cornwall, and that the real life writer with the flaming beard lived for a time just a few miles from my home, I realised that I should read it sooner rather than later.

Susan Spray by Sheila Kaye-Smith

“Born in 1834, Susan is the eldest daughter of a poor Sussex field labourer, Adam Spray, and his wife Ruth.  Her large family belongs to the Colgate Brethren, an obscure religious sect which takes Susan to its bosom the day she declares, at the age of six, that she’s seen the Lord.  But the Spray children are soon orphaned; thrown helpless upon the world Susan and her younger sister, Tamara, find themselves working on a Sussex farm.  Tamara spends her time in dalliance with young men, while for Susan, destined to become a preacher, the Ten Commandments, the Burning Bush and Ezekiel’s temple are her daily–and nightly–fare.  Yet Susan can sin and fall in love like any mortal; and when she does it is as glorious as a vision of God and his cherubim, and as consuming as the fires of hell.”

I loved Joanna Godden last year, and I have been meaning to read more of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s work ever since. I do like a little rural melodrama!

I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam

“Madge Brigson is a teacher in a Nottinghamshire elementary school in England in the 1930s.  Here, with her colleagues – the beautiful, “promiscuous” Jenny, the ardent communist Freda, and the kind, spinsterish Miss Jones – she battles with the trials and tribulations of their special world: abusive parents, eternal malnutrition, inspectors’ visits, staff quarrels and love affairs.  To all this Madge presents an uncompromisingly intelligent and commonsensical face: laughter is never far away as she copes with her pupils, the harsh circumstances of life in the Depression, and her own love affair.  For Madge is a true heroine: determined, perceptive, warm-hearted; she deals with life, and love, unflinchingly, and gets the most out of the best – and worst – of it.”

It occured to me that Madge Brigson and Sarah Burton, who I love, must have been teaching at the time. That made me very curious …

Painted Clay by Capel Boake

“Helen Somerset feels stifled by her loveless home with a repressive father who fears that, like her absent mother, she may be only “painted clay.”  She wants to know life beyond the confines of Packington, a Melbourne suburb overlooking Port Phillip Bay.  And when she is sixteen her father dies, releasing Helen to seek the affection and independence she has been denied.  With a clerical job and a room in a lodging house Helen launches herself into the excitement of Bohemian life and free love–only to discover that this liberation has a double edge.”

I’m planning on reading Conditions of Faith by Alex Miller for Paris in July, and this might be a good companion piece. And even if it isn’t the period, the place, and the story are all calling.

Never No More by Maura Laverty

“On the edge of the Bog of Allen with its hedges of foaming May blossom and twisted mountain ash lies the little lost village of Ballyderrig. It is 4th October 1920 and thirteen-year-old Delia looks forward to a new life. Her father dead, her mother, brothers and sisters prepare to move to the town of Kilkenny. But Delia stays behind, going to live with her beloved Grandmother in an old farmhouse outside the village. And thus begin the happiest years of this young girl’s life: years filled with the beauty of the Irish countryside, the taste of Gran’s baked hare, the texture of young mushrooms picked at dawn, the rituals of the turf-cutting season, and much much more. As the seasons come and go we watch Delia grow up until, one cold November day, now seventeen, she stands poised for independence – and Spain. “

I picked it up, I read the opening pages and I was captivated. it’s as simple as that!


It would be lovely to know if you’ve read any of these, and what you thought.

Or if you are particulary curious about any of them – or indeed about any of the titles on this very useful master list of Virago Modern Classics …

The Books of 2010

I hadn’t intended to write a favourite books post for the year end, because I’ve written so many posts with lists of books over the last few weeks that I thought it might be too much.

But I’ve read some wonderful books of the year posts over the last few days, and when I did put my own list together I realised that a few of my favourites hadn’t appeared in any of my other lists.

And so here, in no particular order, are my top ten books of the year.

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran

“I find myself reminded of books I’d quite forgotten. Happily recalling others. noting a few that I don’t think I’ve read yet. I want to read and re-read every single one. And then I want to look again at what this book had to say – I’m definitely going to need a copy of my own!”

Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins

” And I love my native Cornwall. So imagine my delight when I found a book by Wilkie Collins in the library’s Cornish room. Joy!

Rambles beyond Railways: Notes in Cornwall taken a-foot. A travelogue visiting so many places I know so well. Bliss!

And it gets better. The book I picked up was the original 1851 edition. And a bookplate at the front advises me that it was found, in tatters, in 1933, restored and then presented to the library. What a wonderful thing to do! And so I was holding the same edition that the author himself must have held. Wow!”

Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George by Margery Sharp

“Her story is strangely charming. And strangely charming is something that Margery Sharp does particularly well. This book, and indeed the whole of Martha’s story, is populated with wonderful human characters, who maybe didn’t behave and talk quite how I might have expected, and yet what they did and what they said was exactly right. I couldn’t help warming to them, understanding them, those ordinary, but somehow very special people.”

Love in the Sun and Paradise Creek by Leo Walmsley

“It is impossible not to care: the man and the woman are utterly real, and every detail rings true.

We make life complicated, when it could be so simple.

Love in the Sun is simply lovely.”

Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico

“The storytelling is lovely. I read about Mrs Harris’s adventure in the same way that I read the books I loved as a child. I was completely captivated, living every moment, reacting to everything, wishing and hoping…”

Marjory Fleming by Oriel Malet

“Oriel Malet creates a child –  a bright child, but a child nonetheless – so beautifully, with such empathy, with such understanding that you really can see what she is seeing, feel what she is feeling.

The quality of the bigger picture is  just as high. Every detail that makes up a child’s life – people, places, events – in such lovely descriptive prose.”

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye Smith

“I have met many remarkable women between the covers of green Virago Modern Classics. And now that I have met Joanna Godden I have to say that she is one of the most remarkable of them all.”

Beside the Sea by Veronica Olmi

“It is a quite extrordinary piece of writing. I reacted to it physically and emotionally, and it made me look at the world differently.

Several days after I finished reading it is still in my head, and I am utterly lost for words.”

I wish you books that you love as much in the new year.

Bookish Thoughts on Boxing Day

In our house, Boxing Day is a day for fun, relaxing, and a little contemplation.

And I’ve had a little fun contemplating this year’s reading, with the help of a set of questions that I borrowed from Verity, who borrowed from Stacy, who found it at The Perpetual Page Turner …

Best Book of 2010

I read many wonderful books this year, but if I have to pick out just one it must be Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley. Daphne du Maurier wrote an introduction to her friend’s book, and she can convey its charms much better than I ever could:

“”‘Love in the Sun’ will make other writers feel ashamed. And, curiously enough, old-fashioned too. It is a revelation in the art of writing and may be one of the pioneers in a new renaissance which shall and must take place in our time if the novel is to survive at all. While we struggle to produce our complicated plots, all sex and psychology, fondly imagining we are drawing modern life while really we are as démodé as jazz and mah jong, Leo Walmsley gives the reader a true story, classic in its simplicity, of a man and a girl who possessed nothing in life but love for each other and faith in the future, and because of these things, were courageous and happy…”

Worst Book of 2010

Luckily I didn’t read anything this year that was bad enough for me to give it the label “worst book.”

Most Disappointing Book of 2010

There were a few that I didn’t finish, but their names escape me now. The most disappointing book that I did finish was Trespass by Rose Tremain. Not a bad book by any means, but it didn’t live up to its potential or to the high expectations that Rose Tremain’s earlier work created.

Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2010

The cover of Diamond Star Halo was eye-catching, but it really didn’t look like my sort of book. That title rang a bell though, a tune lodged in my head, and the next line just wouldn’t come. I only picked it up to look for an answer, but the synopsis grabbed me, I remembered that I had really liked Tiffany Murray’s previous novel, and so the book came home. It proved to be a gem.

Book Recommended Most in 2010

I was a little disappointed when I saw The Winds of Heaven listed as one of the new Persephone Books for autumn. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Monica Dickens, but I already had The Winds of Heaven and many of her other books on my shelves , and I had hoped to discover a new author or two. I read The Winds of Heaven on holiday, loved it, and saw that it fitted into the Persephone list perfectly. And I’ve been saying that ever since!

Best Series You Discovered in 2010

I met Gussie just a few weeks ago when I read The Burying Beetle, and I fell in love with the gravely ill but wonderfully alive twelve-year-old, who so loved books, films, the whole world around her. I am so pleased that Ann Kelley continues her story in three more books, and the next one has already found its way home from the library.

Favourite New Authors in 2010

It has to be a writer from the first half of the century who is only new in that she if new to me: Sheila Kaye-Smith. I read Joanna Godden in the summer, and it pushed her creator on to the “I must find all of her books” list.

Most Hilarious Read in 2010

I am not a great lover of comic writing, but there are one or two authors who combine wit with intelligence and warmth who I love dearly. L C Tyler is one of them and his most recent book, The Herring in the Library, was a delight.

Most Thrilling, Unputdownable Book of 2010

Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati, an Italian graphic novel that retold the classical story of Orpheus and Euridyce, was unsettling and utterly compelling. I read it in a single sitting.

Book Most Anticipated in 2010

Aran Knitting by Alice Starmore was the Holy Grail for knitters for a long time. Copies were so scarce and changed hands for ridiculous sums. I could only dream of finding a copy and being able to knot some wonderful designs that had been in my Ravelry queue since day one. But then a reissue was announced and I am pleased to be able to report that I now own the new, updated edition, with wonderful patterns and so much information about Aran knitting, and that it every bit as wonderful as I had expected.

Favourite Cover of a Book in 2010

I was completely captivated by the cover of The Still Point by Amy Sackville as soon as it caught my eye. Now I just have to get past that cover and read the book!

Most Memorable Character in 2010

There are a few contenders, but I think it has to be Martha. I met her in The Eye of Love a couple of years ago and I read more of her story in Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George this year. Martha is both ordinary and extraordinary, and completely her own woman. And the incomparable Margery Sharp tells her story with such warmth and wit that it is quite impossible to not be charmed.

Most Beautifully Written Book in 2010

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson was just perfect.

Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2010

Beside the Sea by Veronica Olmi still makes me catch my breath whenever I think about it.

Book You Can’t Believe You Waited until 2010 to Read

I fell in love with Colette’s writing years ago and read everything of hers I could lay my hands on. How did Gigi slip through the net? Why did I wait until this year to meet her? I really have no idea!

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith

I have met many remarkable women between the covers of green Virago Modern Classics. And now that I have met Joanna Godden I have to say that she is one of the most remarkable of them all.

Her story is set in farming country near the Sussex coast. The opening paragraphs set the scene, and the sense of place holds fast as the years pass and the story unfolds.

That story opens in 1897. Thomas Godden has just been buried and the funeral party is returning to his farm, Little Ansdore.

The eldest daughter of the house, Joanna, clearly a formidable woman, is at the head of the party and ensures that everything is done as it should be, and as it has been for generations.

And after tea comes the reading of the will. There are, of course, small legacies and tokens of remembrance to good friends and faithful servants. But then comes a shock …

“… I give, devise and bequeath the residue of my property, comprising the freehold farm of Little Ansdore in the parish of Pedlinge, Sussex, with all lands and live and dead stock pertaining thereto to my daughter Joanna Mary Godden. ..”

Yes, a farm left free and clear to an unmarried young woman!

Joanna’s neighbours expect her to hire a bailiff to run the farm. At least until she married, and then her husband would take charge. But Joanna is set on running the farm herself. No bailiff. And no husband – at least not yet.

It isn’t a matter of feminism or principle; it’s just the natural and right thing to do. You see, Joanna lived in a time when mass communication and travel were in their infancy, when people lived all their lives in the same community, when traditions centuries old ruled the day.

And so it was that Joanna took on two roles: her father’s role running the farm, and her mother’s role running the household. In time she filled their role in the community as well: the community wanted the space filled as much as she wanted to fill it.

It wasn’t easy.

 “She forgot her distrust of the night air in all her misery of throbbing head and heart, and flung back the casement, so that the soft marsh wind came in, with rain upon it, and her tears were mingled with the tears of night. ‘Oh God!’ she moaned to herself – ‘why didn’t you make me a man?””

But Joanna wouldn’t really have wanted to be a man. She loved caring for her home and entertaining. And she definitely loved her clothes and jewellery. Maybe a little too much – subtlety was not her strong point.

Most of all she wanted a husband and children. But finding the right man would prove difficult.

Joanna was an unsophisticated woman, who knew little of life outside the Suffolk Marshes and was not much interested to find out. Some of her views and pronouncements are horribly outdated and she rarely acknowledged a view other than her own, but it was easy to accept that she was the product of her upbringing, her circumstances, and the age she lived in.

Joanna was an utterly believable, fallible human being, and I couldn’t help but love her heart and spirit as she struggled with the demands of being a woman, a sister and a farmer.

She forged ahead.

Until the very end when she did something quite extraordinary but completely in character.

I hated to leave her, and I am so curious about what might happen next.

Now I’ve said a lot about Joanna but little about her story and how it is written.

The story you really must read for yourself.

(I had thought that Joanna Godden was out of print, but it isn’t – it’s available still as a print-on-demand title from the Virago Press. That rather upset my plans for a week of posts about out of print VMCs when I found out, but I couldn’t be happier that this book is still around.)

And the writing is wonderful, painting a full and rich picture of country and community, into which Joanna fits perfectly.

This is a picture of one woman’s life and times, no more and no less.

A remarkable woman, and a heroine to cherish.

Themed Reading Challenge

I am so pleased that Wendy is hosting the Themed Reading Challenge again this year.

It’s a lovely challenge – beautiful in its simplicity.

Between 14th February and 14th August read five books from your own shelves linked by one two or more themes.

It’s a lovely excuse to look through your own shelves and ponder book combinations. But I have to admit that I had a new theme worked out even before I’d completed last year’s challenge.

So here it is:

Novels by 20th century woman writers……that fell out of print, but were later reissued as Virago Modern Classics …… and that have a woman’s name as the title – not just one name, but forename and surname.

And here are the books:

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith

“Joanna Godden is a “damn fine woman.” On the death of her father in 1897 all her neighbors expect her to marry, for someone–some man–must run Little Ansdore, the Sussex farm she inherits. But Joanna is a person of independent mind, and decides to run it herself.”

Aleta Day by Francis Marion Benyon

In the years before the First World War, Aleta Dey grows up on a remote Canadian farm. After early rebellion against her parents’ attempts to “break her spirit”, she graduates to “subversion” in the history lessons at school, inspired and supported by her socialist friend Ned. Her mistrust of convention and passionate defence of justice directs Aleta towards radical journalism and an active role in the suffrage movement. With the outbreak of War, her ideology is immediately challenged – for not only is Aleta a pacifist but she has fallen in love with McNair, an out-and-out Tory.”

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

“Lolly Willowes is a twenty-eight-year-old spinster when her adored father dies, leaving her dependent upon her brothers and their wives. After twenty years of self-effacement as a maiden aunt, she decides to break free and moves to a small Bedfordshire village. Here, happy and unfettered, she enjoys her new existence nagged only by the sense of a secret she has yet to discover. That secret–and her vocation–is witchcraft, and with her cat and a pact with the Devil, Lolly Willowes is finally free.”

Hester Lilly by Elizabeth Taylor

 “Muriel, the conscientious headmaster’s wife,  fears the arrival of his orphaned cousin, Hester Lilly, though when she meets her, Muriel experiences a sensation of relief. How can someone who is so ill put-together pose such a threat to her carefully nurtured marriage? But Muriel is quite misled; almost before she knows it she is locked into a desperate struggle with the waif-like Hester.”

Harriet Hume by Rebecca West

“Harriet Hume, musical, mystical and whimsical, is the very essence of femininity—both princess and trollop. Her beautiful room in a dilapidated Kensington House is the setting for this love story, she herself an extension of the beauty which surrounds her. Here, amidst trees and lilacs, Arnold Condorex comes to be loved. And love him Harriet does, beyond reason. But Condorex is a man bent on power and Harriet is a women with powers of quite another kind.”

I’m almost breaking my “no fixed book lists” rule – but not quite. These are all books that I am eager to read, but I’ve been saving them, hoping for this particular challenge. And I do have a couple of alternatives lined up just in case.

And now I’m looking forward to another of the delights of this challenge – perusing the themes and books of others!