The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

While storms have raged, while at high tide waves have hit the sea wall with such force that the house shook, I have been spending the dark evenings re-reading ‘The Moonstone’, secure in the knowledge that out house was built not long after the publication of Wilkie Collins’ wonderful book and so it has survived many storms and was so solidly built that it should survive many more.

I think that ‘The Moonstone’ is pitched at the perfect point between crime fiction and sensation fiction, and it makes me wish that I could have been a Victorian reader, so that I could have read it when it was new, original and innovative, and so that I could read it with my mind uncluttered by more than a century of books that have come since then, and a few that I can think of that clearly have been influenced by this wonderful tale.

I am sure that Conan-Doyle read this book; I suspect that Victoria Holt had it in mind when she named her novel ‘The Shivering Sands’; and I am quite certain that Hercule Poirot’s retirement to the country to grow vegetable marrows was a tribute to Seargeant Cuff and his wish to see out his days growing roses ….. but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m not sure that ‘The Moonstone’ has stood the test of time as well as some of Wilkie Collins’ other work, but it is still a fine entertainment, and among the most readable of classics.

9780199536726_450The moonstone – a fabulous Hindu diamond – is seized – some would say stolen – during the storming of Seringapatam. The taker of the diamond believes it to be cursed, and takes serious steps to ensure his own safety and the safety of his jewel. In his will he leaves it to his niece, the daughter of his estranged sister. And so the moonstone is given to Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday. That night the moonstone disappears. The case is investigated by Seargeant Cuff, of the new detective force, and an extraordinary sequence of events will unfold before the truth of what happened that night, and the fate of the jewel, is made clear.

The tale is told by a series of narrators, because this is an account of the moonstone compiled some time after the events it describes by an interested party. He brought together family papers and accounts of events that he asked those who were best placed to report, to create a continuous narrative.

That device works wonderfully well, controlling what the reader knew without the reader having to feel manipulated, and adding depth to the characters by viewing them through different eyes. Fortunately the narrators are nicely differentiated. I loved Gabriel Betteredge, the indispensable steward to the Verinder family, a man of firm opinions who was nonetheless a model servant, who believed that all of the answers to life’s problems lay in the pages Robinson Crusoe. But I heartily disliked Miss Clack, a pious, sanctimonious cousin, blind to the feelings and concerns of others, but insistent that they must read her tracts. And I was fascinated by Ezra Jennings, a doctor who had been dragged down by his addiction to opium, but who was grateful for the chances he had been given and ready to play his part in uncovering the truth. And there were others; every voice, every character, was utterly believable.

Even more interesting than the narrators though were two women, at opposite ends of the social spectrum, who both chose not to speak out. Rosanna Spearman was a servant, and though I had reasons to doubt her, I could see that she was troubled and I feared for her. I nearly dismissed Rachel Verinder, as a spoilt madam, but in time I came to see that I had misjudged and underestimated with her.

The atmosphere was everything I could have hoped for, and the settings were wonderfully created. I especially loved the scenes set out on the treacherous ‘Shivering Sands’. And the story twisted and turned, and sprang surprises, very effectively. I remembered that broad sweep of the story from the first time I read ‘The Moonstone’, many years ago, but I had forgotten just how events played out, but even when I remembered it didn’t matter. Wilkie Collins was such a wonderful, clever storyteller that I was captivated, from the first page to an afterword that was absolutely perfect.

I loved almost everything, but I do have to say that the story is a little uneven, and that no character is as memorable as Marion Halcombe and Count Fosco in ‘The Women and White.’ But then, few characters are.

This is a very different pleasure. maybe a more subtle pleasure. And definitely a rattling good yarn!

Travelling by Book to Paris, Meeting Fascinating People, Finding a Terribly Strange Bed, and then Moving On …

I have been visiting the twenties:

I am delighting in reading Flappers by Judith Mackrell. I have met Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Tamara de Lempicka, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Josephine Baker. Six fascinating women who between them spent many year in, and made a huge impact on, the City of Paris.

The only sad thing is that one book isn’t nearly enough space to tell me all I want to know about their lives, and so I’ll be searching out more books. I have the first volume of Diana Cooper’s autobiography, I have Laura Claridge’s biography of Tamara de Lempicka, and I have a library catalogue to search.

But before any of that I will be meeting Zelda and Scott again, because Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell.

And I’ve been reminded of others I must read more about who crossed their paths. Natalie and Romaine: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks by Diana Souhami is already on my bedside table.

Paris

And I have been back to the previous century:

When I noticed that Wilkie Collins had set a story in Paris I set my heart on tracking down a copy of A Terribly Strange Bed. It wasn’t at all difficult to find, you can find the full text here, and my only disappointment was that it was a short story rather than the novella I had been led to expect.

I met a young man with a tale to tell. He was in Paris with a friend, and they set out to one evening in search of excitement.

“For Heaven’s sake,” said I to my friend, “let us go somewhere where we can see a little genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken gaming with no false gingerbread glitter thrown over it all. Let us get away from fashionable Frascati’s, to a house where they don’t mind letting in a man with a ragged coat, or a man with no coat, ragged or otherwise.” “Very well,” said my friend, “we needn’t go out of the Palais Royal to find the sort of company you want. Here’s the place just before us; as blackguard a place, by all report, as you could possibly wish to see.”

Our young man won. And then he won again. And again. His friend suggested that he had won enough, that they should move on, but he wouldn’t listen. He was, in his own words ‘ gambling drunk.’

He broke the bank, and then he celebrated until he really was drunk.

It was fortunate that there was a good man, and old soldier, present to offer wise counsel.

“Listen, my dear sir,” said he, in mysteriously confidential tones–“listen to an old soldier’s advice. I have been to the mistress of the house (a very charming woman, with a genius for cookery!) to impress on her the necessity of making us some particularly strong and good coffee. You must drink this coffee in order to get rid of your little amiable exaltation of spirits before you think of going home–you must, my good and gracious friend! With all that money to take home to-night, it is a sacred duty to yourself to have your wits about you. You are known to be a winner to an enormous extent by several gentlemen present to-night, who, in a certain point of view, are very worthy and excellent fellows; but they are mortal men, my dear sir, and they have their amiable weaknesses. Need I say more? Ah, no, no! you understand me! Now, this is what you must do–send for a cabriolet when you feel quite well again–draw up all the windows when you get into it–and tell the driver to take you home only through the large and well-lighted thoroughfares. Do this; and you and your money will be safe. Do this; and to-morrow you will thank an old soldier for giving you a word of honest advice.”

He took his advice, but he found himself in a terribly strange bed and terribly strange things began to happen ….

I shall say no more.

It’s a simple story, the way it unfolds is not entirely surprising, but it’s told very effectively by a masterful storyteller.

And it left me wanted to read something else from the nineteenth century. And so I’ve just begun to read Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac, and after just a few pages I was hooked.

So my Paris in July is going rather well …

Ten Books for Cornish Holidays

I’ve spotted a lot of Top Ten Holiday Reads  lists lately. Fascinating reading, and they set my mind spinning in a direction that was similar but different.

Ten books to transport you to Cornwall. Or to read on holiday in Cornwall.

I’ve picked books that are in print – and I think they are all available electronically – and I’ve picked wonderfully readable books, old and new, that I can happily recommend.

And her they are …

cORNWALL

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

“The road to Manderlay lay ahead.  There was no moon.  The sky above our heads was inky black.  But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all.  It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood.  And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”  

Daphne Du Maurier fell in love with a house named Menabilly on the north coast of Cornwall. In Rebecca she calls that house Manderlay, and she spins a wonderful tale of suspense intrigue and romance, with lovely echoes of Jane Eyre around it.

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Lucy Wood comes from Cornwall, she understands, really understands what makes it so special, and she mixes myth and real life to fine effect in this wonderful collection of short stories.

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley

“Crossing the Tamar for some reason made me feel different inside. It was only a river, yet every time I crossed it I felt I had stepped through some mystical veil that divided the world that I only existed in from the one that I was meant to be living in.”

Susanna Kearsley captures the magic of crossing the Tamar Bridge, leaving Devon and coming into Cornwall, and she captures the magic that draws so many people here in this lovely story of a house, a garden, history, time travel, and above all romance.

Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins crossed the Tamar by boat, a few years before the bridge was built, and he and his friend, the artist Henry Brandling, set out on a 214 mile walking tour.  This account of their travels holds a wealth of  material, wonderful vivid writing and extraordinary insight.

Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley

“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…”

So said Daphne Du Maurier, in her introduction to a story that is vividly and beautifully written. The man and the girl are utterly real, every detail rings true, and it is so easy to be pulled in, so easy to care.

Tales of Terror from the Black Ship by Chris Priestley

A visitor tells two children stories of the sea as they wait in their home, and Inn on a Cornish cliff, for the storm to abate and for their father to come home. Tales are deliciously twisted, and the final revelation – who the visitor is and why he has come – is perfect.

The Burying Beetle by Ann Kelley

This is the story of twelve year-old Gussie, who has a head full of films and books, who is fascinated by nature and the world around her home in St Ives. She is ill, waiting and hoping for a heart transplant, and that makes life all the more precious, and her story all the more life-affirming. I loved Gussie, and I loved seeing Cornwall through her eyes.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

On holiday at a Cornish hotel Poirot encounters an accident-prone heiress, and  he soon realises that her accidents are not accidents at all. A solid mystery, a very nice setting; all in all, a lovely period piece from the 1930s.

Penmarric by Susan Howatch

A wonderful family saga, spanning half a century, telling their story and the story of Penmarric, their grand Cornish home, in five voices. The house, its inhabitants, the world around them come to life in a dramatic, compelling story. I had no idea when I first read it that it was inspired by real mediaeval history ….

The First Wife by Emily Barr

The story of a girl from a Cornish village who loses her home when her grandparents die, moves to town, and finds herself caught up in a story elements of chick lit, strands of a psychological thriller, and echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. It’s wonderful fun!

I’m waiting now for Emily Barr’s new book, the story of a woman whop disappears from the train between Penzance and Paddington. A train I have travelled on so many times …

There are more books of course, by these authors and by others.

Have any of these books, or have any other books, transported you to Cornwall, I wonder … ?

In Which The Classics Club Poses a Question and I Put My Books in Order …

classicsclubAt the beginning of the month The Classics Club posed a question:

“What is the best book you’ve read so far for The Classics Club — and why? Be sure to link to the post where you discussed the book! (Or, if you prefer, what is your least favorite read so far for the club, and why?)”

I usually struggle with this sort of question, because I love many different books for many different reasons, but as I thought about it I realised that I could put the 5 books from my Classics Club list that I’ve read into order.

I loved and appreciated them all, but I know in my heart that some had greater claims than others …

*****

In first place:

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters“All life is there, from quiet domesticity to grand events, and through everything in between. And lives are lived. A broad cast of characters – no not characters, people, because everyone is so perfectly drawn – live, love, make mistakes, learn, enjoy good or bad fortune, feel every emotion under the sun ….and so completely realised, real lives are reflected in the pages of these book.”

This was heaven: a fully realised world that pulled me right in, a story that captivated me, and a book that I know I will pick up again. I could quite happily go and live in Wives and Daughters.

*****

Very, very close behind, in second place:

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

the-home-maker“The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary. The Home-Maker is one of those novels. It was published in the 1920s, it is set in small town American, and yet it feels extraordinarily relevant.It is the story of the Knapp family – Evangeline, Lester and their children, Helen, Henry and Stephen. A family that was unhappy, because both parents were trapped in the roles that society dictated a mother and a father should play.”

A significant statement, an extraordinary book, I can only say that it wasn’t quite as profound or well written as the book that preceded it.

*****

And the book that comes third:

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White“I was held from the first page to the last and, though this is a big book, the last page came very quickly. Because there were so many twists, so many questions, that I had to turn the pages quickly. It’s lucky that Collins writes maybe the most readable prose of all the Victorian greats!”

I can’t quite believe that Wilkie Collins is down in third place, but although he’s a wonderful storyteller and this is a wonderful story, but I do think that the books that came before are greater works.

*****

Some way behind that in fourth place:

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

Constant Nymph“The Constant Nymph was wildly successful in the 1920s. A bestselling novel! A popular play! A Hollywood film! And yet it disappeared. Fell out of print, until Virago picked it up and made it a Modern Classic – number 121!”

I loved Margaret Kennedy’s writing, and I shall be seeking out more of her work. I loved much of the story, but I was just a little disapponted in the way it played out in the end.

*****

It’s a cliche I know, but it really is a case of last but not least:

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Bel-Ami“I have been to 19th century Paris, but I barely knew it. Because I have read a book with a style, with themes, with a story, that felt so very, very contemporary. This is a story of journalists with dubious ethics, of politicians who use their position for personal gain, of men and women caught up in the quest for power, money and social status.”

It was a wonderful story, and I’m glad I read it, but I did’t miss it or wish for a copy of my own when I had to give it back to the library.

*****

So that’s five books read, 10% of my list behind me, but still lots of wonderful classics to come.

 

A Box of Books for 2012

I love reading bookish reviews of the year, but this year I have struggled to write one of my own.

A list – be it a top ten, a top twenty, a list by categories – felt too stark, too cut and dried. And I couldn’t find a questionnaire that worked for me.

But then, yesterday, inspiration struck.

I would assemble a virtual box of books that would speak for my year in books. They would be books that had offered something to my heart, my mind, or my soul, in what has been a difficult year.

And I would stick a virtual post-it note to each book, either my thoughts when I read it or a quotation that had picked up to remind me why that book was in my box.

I found that I had twenty-five books. I think that’s just about viable for a single box, as a few of them were little Penguin books and one of them was even littler than that. Though I wouldn’t want to have to carry it any great distance …

Before I show you what is in my box, there are people I really must thank – authors past and present, publishers, sellers of books both new and used, fellow readers – who have all done their bit to make the contents of my box so very lovely.

And now all I have left to say is – Here are the books!

Year end4

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Often the books you love are the most difficult to write about. How do you capture just what makes them so very, very magical? Diving Belles is one of those books.It hold twelve short stories. Contemporary stories that are somehow timeless. Because they are suffused with the spirit of Cornwall, the thing that I can’t capture in words that makes the place where I was born so very, very magical.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

In 70 C.E., nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. History records that only two women and five children survived the siege … An extraordinary story. And the foundation upon which Alice Hoffman has built an epic novel. An extraordinary novel.

The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn

“I was almost seventeen when the spell of my childhood was broken. There was no sudden jolt, no immediate awakening and no alteration, as far as I’m aware, in the earth’s axis that day. But the vibration of change was upon us, and I sensed a shift; a realignment of my trajectory. It was the beginning of summer and, unbeknown to any of us then, the end of a belle époque.”

Monogram by Gladys Bronwyn Stern

“Mental collections can be as dearly prized as those we keep behind glass, like snuff-boxes, fans or china cats; or the collection of a man who assembled everything that happened to be the size of a fist. I have a mental collection of moments on the stage, moments of horror, irony, beauty or tension …”

Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

I read such wonderful prose:  compelling storytelling mixed with vivid descriptions. The sights, the sounds, the smells assaulted my senses.  And I learned terrible things that I might rather have not known, but that I never for one moment doubted were true. Nothing is more frightening than the evil that men do. I heard wonderful echoes of more than one great Victorian novelist; and I saw knowledge, understanding, and great love for their works.

Year end3

The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston

“You’ve got to see Venice. You’ve got to see a city of slender towers and white domes, sleeping in the water like a mass of water lilies. You’ve got to see dart water-ways, mysterious threads of shadow holding all those flowers of stome together. You’ve got to hear the silence in which the whispers of lovers of a thousand years ago, and in the cries of men, betrayed, all breathe and echo in every bush. these are the only noises in Venice – these and the plash of the gondolier’s oar or his call ‘Ohé!’ as he rounds a sudden corner. “

Alys Always by Harriet Lane

This is a story that brings a clever mixture of influences together beautifully. It could be Patricia Highsmith writing with Barbara Pym. Or Anita Brookner writing with Barbara Vine perhaps. But no, it’s Harriet Lane, and she has created something that is entirely her own. She writes with both elegance and clarity, she balances suspense with acute observation, and she understands her characters, their relationships, the worlds they move in absolutely perfectly.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

I read ‘The View from Downshire Hill,’ Elizabeth Jenkins’ sadly out-of-print autobiography a few year ago and so I was familiar with the story of ‘Harriet’ before I was able to read the book. I knew exactly what would happen, but still I was captivated. Because Elizabeth Jenkins wrote so beautifully, and with such understanding of the characters she recreated, and of their psychology.

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

The prose is sparse, the story is short, and yet it holds so much. Every character is simply but perfectly drawn, and each and every one is important. Just a few words of description, a few words of dialogue painted wonderful pictures of lives and relationships. And of a place and time.

The One I Knew the Best of All by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

“The Small Person used to look at them sometimes with hopeless, hungry eyes. It seemed so horribly wicked that there should be shelves of books – shelves full of them – which offered nothing to a starving creature. She was a starving creature in those days, with a positively wolfish appetite for books, though no one knew about it or understood the anguish of its gnawings. It must be plainly stated that her longings were not for “improving” books. The cultivation she gained in those days was gained quite unconsciously, through the workings of a sort of rabies with which she had been infected from birth. At three years old she had begun a life-long chase after the Story.”

Year end2

The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

A carriage pulled up outside. Mrs Anna Palmer, the young wife of an elderly clergyman arrived. She thought she had come to meet friends of her husband, but she was wrong. She had been very cleverly tricked, and she found herself incarcerated in Lake House, a private asylum for gentlewomen. First she was astonished and then she was outraged. But she was utterly trapped. By the power of a cruel husband, by the strictures of Victorian society, and by her own nature.

White Ladies by Francis Brett Young

“And then, of a sudden, the trees seem to fall back on either side, disclosing with the effect of a fanfare of trumpets breaking through a murmur of muted strings, above, an enormous expanse of blue sky, and below, a wide sward of turf, most piercingly green within the woods’ dense circlet. And in the midst of the green sward stood a house.”

Snake Ropes by Jess Richards

“I am reading reading reading, locked in the stories. I am a wicked daughter, a drunken witch, a terrible scientist, a king with a severed hand, a resentful angel, a statue of a golden prince, the roaring wind, an uninspired alchemist, a fantastic lover who has only one leg, a stage magician with glittery nails, a shivery queen with a box of Turkish sweets, a prostitute wearing poisoned lipstick, a piano player whose hands are too big, a raggedy grey rabbit, a murderer with metal teeth, a spy with an hourglass figure … I am eighteen years old and my real life is here locked inside these books.

Catherine Carter by Pamela Hansford Johnson

It is a love story, set in London’s theatre world in the latter days of Queen Victoria’s reign. And it is a tour de force, balancing the recreation of a world, a cast of utterly real characters, and a perfectly constructed plot quite beautifully.

Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt

“There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other is to find a post in keeping with her gentility.” As the train carried me through the wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taken this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.”

Year end5

Shelter by Frances Greenslade

Forty years ago, two sisters were growing up, in a small town, set in the wild countryside of British Columbia. Maggie and Jenny Dillon lived in an unfinished cabin home with their quiet reliable father, Patrick, and their imaginative, free-spirited mother, Irene. A happy family. Maggie tells their story. And she tells it beautifully. Her voice rang true and she made me see her world, her sister, her father, her mother. I understood how the family relationships worked, I understood what was important to them. And I saw enough to understand one or two things that Maggie didn’t.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

“All Hollingford felt as if there was a great deal to be done before Easter this year. There was Easter proper, which always required new clothing of some kind, for fear of certain consequences from little birds, who were supposed to resent the impiety of those who do not wear some new article of dress on Easter-day.’ And most ladies considered it wiser that the little birds should see the new article for themselves, and not have to take it upon trust, as they would have to do if it were merely a pocket-handkerchief, or a petticoat, or any article of under- clothing. So piety demanded a new bonnet, or a new gown; and was barely satisfied with an Easter pair of gloves. “

The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff

They settled into their holiday routine. Mr Stevens secured a beach hut, and they would bathe, play ball on the sand, watch the world go by. They would visit familiar attractions too. And journey out into the surrounding countryside. There was time and space to think too. Mr Stevens worried about his position in the world. Dick wondered where he was going in life, what possibilities were open to him. Mary fell in love. And Mrs Stevens broke with convention to sit down with he landlady, to offer a sympathetic ear when she spoke of her concerns about the future. Lives were changing, and the world was changing.

Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah

Amber Hewerdine was losing sleep, and it really wasn’t surprising. Her best friend died in an arson attack, the arsonist had never been identified, and now Amber and her husband, Luke, were bringing up her friend’s two young daughters. An incident that happened at a family Christmas spent in a holiday cottage was still troubling her. Luke’s sister, her husband and their two young sons disappeared on Christmas day, not returning until the next morning when the refused to give any explanation of what had happened. And things got worse …

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I’ve been terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. You see, I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered. I’m thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The Woman in White was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding.

Year end1

Thérèse Racquin by Émile Zola

Thérèse was the daughter of a French sailor and a native woman. Her father her to took his sister, a haberdasher, to raise with her son. Camille, a bright but sickly child. It was expected that Thérèse and Camille would marry, and marry they did. Not because either one had feelings for the another, but because it didn’t occur to either of them to do anything else, or that life could offer anything more than they already knew. Zola painted a picture of dark and dull lives, and yet he held me. Somehow, I don’t know how, he planted the idea that something would happen, that it was imperative that I continued to turn the pages.

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary. The Home-Maker is one of those novels. It was published in the 1920s, it is set in small town American, and yet it feels extraordinarily relevant. It is the story of the Knapp family – Evangeline, Lester and their children, Helen, Henry and Stephen. A family that was unhappy, because both parents were trapped in the roles that society dictated a mother and a father should play.

The Other Half of Me by Morgan McCarthy

As I read The Other Half of Me, Morgan McCarthy’s first novel, I heard echoes of many other stories. Stories of lives lived in grand country houses. Stories of troubled families harbouring dark secrets. Stories of privileged, but troubled, lives … and yet, through all of that, I heard a new and distinctive story.

The Heir by Vita Sackville-West

Blackboys was home, and its faded grandeur gave him beauty, comfort, and a place in the world, a point in history. He came to realise that slowly, as he walked through galleries full of family portraits, as he looked across beautiful gardens towards rolling hills, as he sat, peacefully in his  wood-pannelled library.

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

“Mass hysterical outbreaks rarely have identifiable inceptions, but the date I recall most vividly is Sunday 16th September, when a young child in butterfly pyjamas slaughtered her grand-mother with a nail-gun to the neck. The attack took place in a family living room in a leafy Harrogate cul-de-sac, the kind where no-one drops litter, and where you can hear bird-song…”

And now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2012?

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I’ve been terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. You see, I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered.

I’m thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The Woman in White was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding.

The story begins with Walter Hartwright, a young drawing master, unable to settle the night before he is to leave London to take up a new post in the north of England. The hour is late, but he decides to take a walk. The streets are quiet, the city asleep, and yet a woman appears before him. She is dressed entirely in white and she is distressed, afraid of someone or something. He offers her assistance, helps her on her way to what she believes will be a place of safety.

Walter takes up his new post, tutoring two half-sisters at Limmeridge House in Cumbria. Laura Fairlie is beautiful, and she is an heiress. Marion Halcombe is neither of those things, but she is bright and resourceful. She needs to be. Walter recognises names and places spoken of by the woman in white. Her plight is linked to the family at Limmeridge House and the secret she holds will have dire consequences, for Laura, for Marion, and for Walter.

That is just the beginning, but it’s all I’m going to say about the plot. Wilkie Collins asked reviewers not to tell too much, and I think he was right to do so. If you’ve read the book you will understand why, and if you haven’t you really, really should!

I was held from the first page to the last and, though this is a big book, the last page came very quickly. Because there were so many twists, so many questions, that I had to turn the pages quickly. It’s lucky that Collins writes maybe the most readable prose of all the Victorian greats!

The structure was intriguing. This is an account put together after the events, with testimonies from a number of narrators who were witnesses to different events. It worked beautifully, and with none of the fuss or distraction that sometimes seems inevitable with this device. All of the voices were engaging and distinctive. And their appearances varied in length, so I was always curious to know who would be coming next, when they would appear, and what forms their testimonies would take.

And it was the characters who made the story sing. Each one beautifully drawn, enough to keep the story moving but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track.

There are two standouts. Marion Halcombe is the finest heroine you could wish for, accepting of her position, doing whatever she can to help the situation, and wise enough to know when it is time to step back and allow others to take the lead. And she is capable, but not invulnerable. And, on the other hand there is the most charming villain you could wish to meet. Count Fosco knows that, used together, charm and intelligence can take you a long way in life, that little foibles add to the charm, and can be a wonderful distraction.

And then, in the background, there is Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s uncle and master of Limmeridge House. An invalid, whose obsessive, selfish concern for his own well-being provides welcome light relief, but also has terrible consequences. And Mrs Vesey, Laura’s former nurse, who seems to be a dependent, but could maybe, maybe be a rock when she is needed. And many others, each with something important to offer, bringing light and shade to the story. But I am saying too much.

This is a very human story, and that gives it such strength.

There is another thing that I must say, that the relationship between Laura and Marion is wonderful, one of the best portrayals of sisterly love that I have read.

And that their stories, and the story of the woman in white, say so much about social inequality, the treatment of those who could be labelled as mentally unstable, and the subservient role that wives were expected to play in 19th century Britain. All of which is done, to great effect, without ever compromising the storytelling.

I could quite easily go back to the beginning and read this all over again. But I have all of Wilkie Collins’ major works to hand, so I think maybe I should put this one back on the shelf and consider which of his books I should re-read next …

The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens

“In the autumn month of September, eighteen hundred and fifty-seven, wherein these presents bear date, two idle apprentices, exhausted by the long, hot summer and the long, hot work it had brought with it, ran away from their employer..”

Now doesn’t that sound wonderful?

And doesn’t it become even more wonderful when you know that the employer was literature, and that the two escaping apprentices were a certain Mr Collins and a certain Mr Dickens?

Friends and collaborators who set out on a walking tour, and together wrote a picaresque account of their travels that was published, in five installments, in  Dickens’s weekly periodical, Household Words.

And, some time later, those five installments were put together in this lovely little book.

There is much to enjoy.

The two apprentices both wanted to be idle, but there ideas of just what that meant were rather different.

Mr Francis Goodchild saw idleness as doing nothing useful, wheras Mr Thomas Idle saw idleness as doing nothing whatsover.

And so the natures of the two idle apprentices were wonderful reflections of their creators.

I loved following the ups and down of their relationship as they travelled through northern England. I never doubted that both authors were having a wonderful time, gently caricaturing themselves and their relationship.

And for all that the apprentices may have been idle, they were wonderfully observant, reporting all of the pertinent facts about the journey, the places they visited, the conditions that they saw and the people that they met.

There was beauty, there was drama, and there was concern at the poverty in which many lived in the industrial towns.

And there were ghost stories. The kind of stories that I am quite sure had been told aloud time after time, that I am sure sent a shiver down the spine of anyone who listened.

The two authors brought everything together beautifully.

All too soon the trip was over.

But it was a lovely interlude between bigger books.