5.8.21

Smoky-House

 

Smoky-House is definitely a minor Elizabeth Goudge, but for a long time it was the only book of hers that I actually owned -- I think I received it as a Christmas present when I was about nine. Unlike Linnets and Valerians or The Little White Horse, my real favourites, I haven't reread Smoky-House for decades, but I was surprised when I pulled it from the shelf to see how well-thumbed it was -- lots of page corners have been nibbled, which is a sure sign that I read it many times.

I'd forgotten most of the plot, which involves smuggling and the assistance of the Good People, but there were a couple of unexpected details which had stayed vivid in my mind. One was the plain second daughter Genefer (I'd never seen it spelled like that before) and her dresses of soft pale butterfly orange and blue; the other was the angels who stand round the bedposts of the children and watch over them as they sleep.

Four posts to my bed,
Four angels round my head.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
Bless the bed I lie upon.

For several years I used to pray this at bedtime, and imagine my own watchful angels. This little prayer caught my fancy, but there is a LOT of poetry in this book, which I could do without. There are the usual wise, resourceful animals, courageous children (including the compulsory naughty youngest), a vigorous Squire to marry the sweet eldest daughter Jessamine (that's her on the cover) and various magical beings. There is also the figure of the bitter Fiddler, who is very similar to the character of Sebastian Weber in The Heart of the Family, though the Fiddler finds his redemption far more easily than poor Sebastian. 

Not one of Goudge's best, but I'm still fond of it -- and just look at that pretty 1970s cover!

2.8.21

The Labyrinth & One Whole and Perfect Day

 

At first glance, these two novels, which I read simultaneously, may seem very different. One Whole and Perfect Day is a young adult book published fifteen years ago; The Labyrinth is an adult literary novel which has just won this year's Miles Franklin Award. But as I read them together, I found more and more common elements.

Both are written by Australian women authors, born only a few years apart (I have just discovered that Judith Clarke sadly died last year). Both books are set in New South Wales -- Perfect Day in Sydney and Katoomba, The Labyrinth partly in Sydney and partly in the fictional coastal town of Garra Nalla. Both books centre on women, one a teenager, one at the other end of life, who are both struggling with family history and stumbling toward making sense of their lives. Though they are written in very different styles, I found the books chimed together in their compassionate approach to human frailty, forgiveness, and the drive to create (in Lily's case, a party to bring her fractured family together; in the case of Erica, to build a labyrinth).

One Whole and Perfect Day is naturally lighter in tone, and skips between a large cast of characters before wrapping up with a neat and satisfying ending. The Labyrinth is more sombre, a reflective and character-driven novel rather a story-centred one. Lohrey has said she was interested in the efforts that humans make to fulfil their spiritual needs, even after religion has lost its force -- for Erica, the creation of the labyrinth becomes a spiritual quest which draws in her neighbours and begins to resolve her difficult past.

I enjoyed immersing myself in these very different but overlapping worlds, created by two wonderful Australian women authors who both deserve your attention. (And thanks to Chris and Pam for lending me The Labyrinth.)

29.7.21

A Time of Gifts


 I had never read Patrick Leigh Fermor's classics of travel writing, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Written when Fermor was in his sixties, the memoirs describe a journey he took in 1933/4 when he was just 18, when he decided to walk from the Hook of Holland all the way to Constantinople. This first volume ends when he reaches Budapest.

It took me a little while to settle into Fermor's flowery style:

Massed shadows, tilting down from the sierras, filled the bottom of the canyon. Here the Danube followed a winding corridor which expanded without warning to giant circular ballrooms and closed again just as abruptly; and for leagues on end this widening and shrinking ravine was empty of all but a cottage and a barn or two and a scattering of lonely towers and hermitages, all crumbling to fragments. They broke through the forest mass, disintegrating on vertiginous spikes of rock high overhead...

His evocative narrative takes us into a vanished world of clogs and swastikas (the Nazis had just taken power in Germany). I especially enjoyed Fermor's encounters with strangers and new friends, all vividly described, and the landscape and nature writing is beautiful -- surely Fermor created the template for literary travellers everywhere? I was less enthralled by long passages on obscure middle European history (something I know zero about, and alas was not inspired to explore further) and some of the raptures on architecture made my eyes glaze over.

It was astonishing to reflect that Fermor was only eighteen when he undertook this massive trek across Europe, and his confident, unconscious privilege glows from every page. He's prepared to rough it along the way, sleeping in barns and woods when the weather permits; but he's equally welcome as a guest in shabby schlosses, where threadbare nobles pour him brandy and expound on medieval history. He never seems to feel himself in danger, and while he is certainly grateful for the hospitality he finds almost everywhere, he also takes it for granted that he should be sheltered and fed. He only starts to wonder where he might sleep once darkness falls; as a slightly older female backpacker in Europe fifty years later, I was fretting about the next night's bed as soon as I opened my eyes in the morning. And while his pockets are also often close to empty, he is secure in the knowledge that there will be money waiting for him down the road. He sees and sympathises with the poverty around him, but he is just a visitor in the world of hunger and cold.

I wonder how the same journey might have been experienced by a woman, or indeed anyone but a young, healthy, middle class white man? Still, I'm glad Fermor could share his long, colourful walk with the rest of us.

26.7.21

The Mitford Murders

 

Of course I couldn't resist buying Jessica Fellowes' The Mitford Murders. I love me a between-the-wars murder mystery, and the addition of the Mitford family was an extra layer of jam on top. Fellowes is the niece of Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, and she has also written the book companions to the series, so I felt she would be familiar with the period and probably benefit from her uncle's researches. Also, I found the midnight-and-gold cover of this edition very appealing. So I plunged in with high hopes.

I don't feel too bad saying this as The Mitford Murders is set to include six volumes (one for each sister, five down, one to go) and there are murmurs of a TV series, but I finished the novel feeling rather more ambivalent than when I began. It took me a long time to finish (the chapters are very short and I was interspersing with other books), and on the whole I enjoyed the experience. There was one of those serendipitous cross-over moments when I was also reading So You've Been Publicly Shamed and Max Mosley popped up (son of Diana Mitford), and there was another reference to the artists' colony at St Ives (how did I survive so long without knowing about it?)

The central protagonist of The Mitford Murders is the fictional Louisa Cannon, who comes to work as a nurserymaid for the Mitfords and becomes chummy with eldest daughter Nancy. Louisa and her admirer Guy begin investigating the death of a former nurse on a train -- based on a real unsolved murder case. But the Mitford family are of course real people, and so was Florence Shore, the murder victim. In the end I felt quite queasy about this uncomfortable blend of history and fiction, especially when the murder case is 'solved.' I spotted the central twist a long way ahead, and there were a couple of niggles with the writing that bothered me ('face like a punctured beach ball' leapt out at me, in a novel set in 1920, when beach balls weren't invented till 1938 -- yes, I did look it up, but it just felt wrong when I read it and it pulled me out of the story.)

So while I wish Jessica Fellowes well, and good on her for obviously striking a chord with lots of readers (and publishers!), I don't think I will be checking out any more Mitford Murders. Maisie Dobbs covers much of the same ground and perhaps with more integrity.


22.7.21

The Family at Misrule

 I didn't realise until recently that there were sequels to Seven Little Australians. My grandparents sent me a TV tie-in copy to PNG in the 1970s which I still have (very tattered now, see below) and the death of Judy made a huge impression on me -- it's one of the most moving scenes in Australian literature. I never saw the TV series but I wonder how they handled it.

So The Family at Misrule was completely new to me. At first I was a little confused, as the action picks up five years after the end of the first book, and all the youngest members of the household are now known by different names! The General has become Peter, Baby is now called Poppet and there is a new baby called Essie (bringing the total rather heartlessly back to seven). Again each member of the tribe gets into some scrape or other, some of them pretty serious -- someone runs away and is effectively missing for months, someone else narrowly avoids an unsuitable marriage. It's usually loving, sensible Meg to the rescue.

I was a little taken aback by one quite snobbish episode where impressionable Nell is steered away from a nouveau-riche, vulgar set of new neighbours -- it was quite jarring to read (on top of the almost-unsuitable marriage with a different neighbour!) how improper the association was considered to be, on not massively persuasive grounds... Honestly I couldn't see why Nell couldn't play tennis with them occasionally and it might have averted the later disaster. 

Because of course there is a later disaster, involving a contagious disease. It was quite harrowing to read this part of the book -- the anxious checking each member of the family for symptoms, Pip scrubbing himself in the river in an attempt to cleanse himself of germs, the hit and miss ordeal of waiting to see who will 'pull through' or when the fever will 'break.' Vaccination, people! Remember how bloody lucky we are that we don't have to routinely go through this torment and the loss of children.

And I did miss Judy, who was always the most appealing member of the bunch.



18.7.21

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Let me start with a gripe -- the official title of this book is Jane Austen, the Secret Radical. But the comma is nowhere to be seen, either on the front cover or the spine, nor even on the frontispiece, which replicates the front cover. I DON'T LIKE IT.

I did, however, very much enjoy the book itself. Academic Helen Kelly launches into a brisk, confident set of arguments which I didn't always agree with, but certainly provided much food for thought. She contends that far from being an author of genteel, well-mannered romantic comedies, Austen was a sharp, astute and sometimes controversial writer about important social and political issues. According to Kelly, the delay between the novels' composition and their eventual publication means that much of their pointed contemporary references were lost -- and two hundred years later, we modern readers definitely don't understand the context and clues that her first readers might have picked up.

Kelly convincingly argues that Mansfield Park is indeed all about slavery (despite some readers claiming that Austen totally ignored the issue) and particularly the hypocrisy of the church in owning slaves overseas; that Pride and Prejudice is quietly radical in its rejection of automatic class superiority; that Sense and Sensibility takes a hard look at money; while Emma carries a barely concealed subtext about the land enclosures of the time and the very real consequences for the poor (Kelly argues that this makes Mr Knightley a disturbing villain rather than a hero).

I don't know enough about Austen scholarship to judge all of Kelly's claims, and sometimes she does seem to draw very big conclusions from rather flimsy evidence, but it has certainly made me consider Austen's novels with a fresh eye.

PS I had just started reading this book when I realised that the TV that happened to be on in the background was showing a documentary about Winchester Cathedral -- Jane's burial place. Serendipity!

30.6.21

Elsewhere Girls

 

An Australian middle grade, body-swap, time slip novel -- could there be a book more solidly up my alley? Penned by two of our most accomplished authors in Nova Weetman and Emily Gale, and written in alternate voices, Elsewhere Girls centres on 21st century Cat and early 1900s Fan, who have mysteriously swapped times and bodies while swimming in Sydney's Wylie's Baths. 'Fan' happens to be Fanny Durack, destined to become Australia's first female Olympic gold medallist in swimming, and a fierce fighter for the rights of women to compete on a par with men. Cat is also a swimmer, but a little less committed than Fan.

There is a lot of fun to be had with the girls' bafflement with the times where they've landed, adjusting to their new families, new expectations, strange technology (or lack thereof), weird clothes and all the rest. But there is a deeper level to Elsewhere Girls as both girls gain a fresh perspective on their own circumstances and each decides what she really wants.

This book must have been so much fun to write. It's probably the first time I've encountered a book set (partly) during the pandemic, though there is only one fleeting reference to 'the virus'. It must have been difficult to decide how much to acknowledge recent history and it's hard to believe that Fan could have escaped hearing about Covid altogether. Luckily Fan never masters the internet enough, or is too modest, to think of googling herself! Likewise, Cat decides not to tell her new family about the approaching war, so both girls remain in a domestic bubble largely untouched by world history (I can absolutely understand the authors' decision to take this approach -- letting in global concerns would have made this a very different kind of book).

Elsewhere Girls is a super, always engaging, thoughtful, funny and sweet novel, and I loved it.

28.6.21

So You've Been Publicly Shamed


Six years after its first publication, Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed remains an important book. Ronson was moved to write about the phenomenon of Twitter pile-ons, like that faced by Justine Sacco, who made a joke in very poor taste about AIDS and Africa before boarding a plane, only to turn on her phone on arrival and discover that she was the world's most hated woman and that she'd lost her job. Years later she was still suffering the fallout from a thoughtless, stupid (and yes, offensive) tweet. Is shame something that we feel, or something that others can impose on us? What about when that shame is disproportionate to the offence? 

Generally I'm not one for joining in pile-ons, though I'm pretty sure I may have added my pebble to the heap a couple of times (though probably only for Donald Trump, who seems to be essentially unshameable). As Ronson points out, the reason why 'public shaming' was abandoned as a legal punishment (think being put in stocks) not because it was ineffective, but because it was too cruel.

Ronson interviews many people on both sides of the shaming divide, including a psychologist who believes that all violence stems from an experience of shame or humiliation. That gave me pause for thought. Ronson didn't link this idea specifically with domestic violence, but it certainly chimed with what Jess Hill said in Look What You Made Me Do

Weird link alert: I'm also reading The Mitford Murders, a novel by Jessica Fellowes featuring the Mitford family, and one of Ronson's interviewees happened to be Max Mosley, son of Diana Mitford, who was subject to an attempted shaming over a 'Nazi sex dungeon' -- oddly enough, the shaming didn't work and he continued his life with almost no consequences.* Ronson initially wonders whether this was because Mosley himself refused to feel ashamed, but later decides it was because of the nature of the scandal -- no one cares about consensual adult sexual activities these days, however kinky. Racism, sexism, trans- and homophobia, will however, bring down the full weight of public judgment.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed is full of interesting and pertinent ideas in a world where social media has claimed the power of the mob. It's also highly readable, funny and sometimes sad.

*Edited to add: I didn't realise when I wrote this post that Max Mosley had recently died. Another coincidence.

24.6.21

From Spare Oom to War Drobe

 

 My Kindle is building up quite a collection of books about Narnia that I was too impatient to order in physical form -- Planet Narnia, The Magician's Book, and now From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish.

Langrish, herself a children's author, revisits the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time since childhood, bringing her own fond memories, but alert for newly adult awareness of Lewis's prejudices, and armed with an impressive scholarly background that can trace Lewis's literary and philosophical influences with convincing accuracy, from Edmund Spenser to E. Nesbit. She discusses each book in turn, remembering the emotional impact of each, but doesn't let Lewis off the hook. 

Interestingly, she acquits Lewis of charges of sexism, citing the strong, capable and intelligent female characters who lead most of the adventures (I agree), but she comes down hard on the 'Susan problem.' However, there is abundant evidence of lazy and inexcusable racism, and some muddled thinking around religion, along with the uplifting and magical passages that made Langrish (and me) fall in love with Narnia in the first place, especially the luminous imagery of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful and affectionate journey through Narnia.

19.6.21

World's End in Winter


 I like Monica Dickens' work but I didn't read her children's books when I was young, I was more of a Monica Edwards fan. However, in 1976 I did receive a Follyfoot annual, replete with colour photos lifted from the TV show, so I knew that existed (no TV in PNG and I'm not even sure if Follyfoot was screened in Australia).

World's End in Winter is book three in the World's End series and I struggled a little in the beginning; Dickens can be an elliptical writer and she didn't drop many clues. For example, it took me a few pages to work out that John, Peter and Oliver are all horses, not children, and that Lester belonged to a different family. Gradually it became clear that World's End is a ramshackle household of four children, well-meaning but rather ineffectual parents, a kind of foster teen and a host of animals -- dogs, horses, cats. I can see that this would appeal strongly to a certain kind of child but I was not that child. When I was ten, I preferred animals neatly sequestered in stables and outside, not roaming around everywhere.

The plot focus of World's End in Winter lies with a child outside the family altogether -- nine year old Priscilla, confined to a wheelchair since a horse-riding accident two years before, and whose family seems to have given up on her rehabilitation. With encouragement from the World's End children, Priscilla learns to ride again and almost unwittingly regains her mobility. (Dickens dedicates the book to Riding for the Disabled.)

I thoroughly enjoyed Priscilla's horrible competitive parents who refuse to believe she can be helped; the high comedy episode when Priscilla nearly drowns when her wheelchair goes into the swimming pool (that sounds awful but it is very funny); and the underlying anxiety about scraping together enough money to keep this chaotic household functioning. Neighbours are kind, children are resourceful, the animals are all characters in their own right, and issues of life and death and responsibility are faced squarely. But I'm still not sure that World's End is a place I would like to live in.

16.6.21

Madame de Pompadour


 I was very excited to discover a first edition of Nancy Mitford's life of Madame de Pompadour (minus this lovely cover, unfortunately) on the shelves of Footscray Savers recently -- published in 1954, purchased by one Dorothy Cassells, according to the flyleaf, at the Austral Book Shop in Collins St, Melbourne. A little morsel of history.

My knowledge of Madame de Pompadour was confined entirely to the Doctor Who episode, The Girl in the Fireplace, so you can imagine I learned a great deal from this sparkling biography. Despite being a big fan of her novels, I haven't read any of Nancy Mitford's biographies of famous figures from history (the Sun King, Frederick the Great etc). I'm not sure how rigorous Mitford's research might have been by modern standards, though I know she did work hard on these books and she certainly seems very familiar with the people and places she discusses. She has a lovely gossipy tone which makes the book extremely readable, almost as if she were personally acquainted with all the characters involved, and she has no scruples about passing judgement on them, labelling this statesman an incompetent fool, and that lady of the court a silly little miss who should have known better.

From my background of utter ignorance, I can't judge how accurate her analysis might be, but it has certainly given me a sense of the period and the people (though the chapters about wars struggled to hold my interest), and I loved all the little details about hidden staircases, the inside jokes and quarrels and extravagant gifts and building projects, and the insanely complex etiquette of the royal court. And The Girl in the Fireplace does seem to have got some details right -- there were no clockwork assassins, but it really did pour with rain on the day Reinette's body left Versailles for the last time.

14.6.21

The Heart of the Family

 

I had to cave and buy the final installment of Elizabeth Goudge's Eliot Family chronicles on the Kindle, though I hope to pick up The Heart of the Family in material form somewhere, somehow, one day. Perhaps even more than the previous two volumes, The Heart of the Family lacks what you might call a plot -- it consists almost entirely of conversations, some in rooms, many in the woods between the two households of the Herb of Grace and Damerosehay. It's almost like reading a book of sermons as various pairs of characters ruminate on pain and sin, death and love, divine grace, guilt and prayer and penance.

The war is over, and Lucilla, the queen of the family, has abdicated her royal seat at Damerosehay to the family of her beloved grandson David. However David is wracked with self-torture at his recent narrowly-avoided infidelity; his newly acquired secretary Sebastian Weber is carrying wounds of his own, having lost his own family in the war, and hating David for his blessings. The eventual reconciliation between these two men forms the core of the story, but there are ancillary family dramas as Lucilla, at 91, meditates on death, other grandchildren fall in love or decide careers, and another baby is on the way. 

As Susan Green recently remarked, Elizabeth Goudge is not a sentimental writer. Despite the apparent extreme smallness of her canvas, she doesn't spare her characters torment, cruelty or harrowing self-reproach; but she always offers them some redemption. There are huge themes here, but there is also humour, delight and beauty, and as always a keen and appreciative eye for small children and dogs, which helps to leaven the weight of the deeper reflections. This is probably not my favourite Eliot story, maybe I read it too fast for the philosophy to sink in properly, and I should probably return to it when I need to.

7.6.21

The Winds of Heaven

Judith Clarke's The Winds of Heaven was lent to me by my friend Suzanne (thank you, Suzanne!) We have very similar taste in books and I really loved this novel. 

Mostly set in the Australia of the 1950s and early 1960s, The Winds of Heaven traces the story of two cousins, Clementine and Fan (Francesca) who are separated by distance but linked by an unbreakable bond. Clementine, bolstered by loving, supportive parents, is a clever girl who powers through school and ends up at university, but Fan is hobbled by poverty and rural isolation, a cruel mother, and difficulty reading and writing, though she is just as clever as Clementine. The two girls' paths diverge, they lose touch, but they never forget each other.

This is a moving, poignant story. For me, it also contained one of those serendipitous moments that really make you wonder if there is a higher power, a reading god if you will, guiding you from one book to the next... Fan is haunted by a poem by Henry Vaughan which begins, They are all gone into the world of light, which is a line of poetry that I've used for years in writing workshops without ever knowing the rest of the poem. And then the very same day I came across the phrase the world of light again in Elizabeth Goudge's The Heart of the Family.

Fan and Clementine's lives are filled with criss-crossing memories, dreams, and images of each other just like this, often in each other's thoughts though seldom physically together. I think I'll be remembering this book for a long time.
 

3.6.21

The Essex Serpent

I think The Essex Serpent is the only example of me seeking out and reading a book purely as a result of reading a Twitter rant from the author (Sarah Perry). I stumbled across an impassioned thread by Perry about women and science and the nineteenth century and how critics had scoffed that her novel was implausible... that was enough for me to track down The Essex Serpent (and just check out that gorgeous cover).

Apparently this novel is to be made into a TV adaptation, starring Claire Danes (who, I'm sorry, is too delicate to be forthright, tramping Cora Seaborne, but hey) and that's something to look forward to. Cora is newly widowed, with an eccentric young son, when she relocates to a village in Essex and befriends the family of the local vicar, Will Ransome. The lives of the two households and Cora's London friends (including gifted surgeon Luke Garrett) intertwine and become uneasily influenced by the legend/rumour of the 'Essex serpent,' a Loch Ness monster-style beast which may or may not be lurking off the coast, a long-lost dinosaur or a manifestation of half-formed fears and desires.

The Essex Serpent was certainly an atmospheric, haunting read, and a perfect candidate for TV, with its rich cast of characters and multitude of ideas. I was particularly touched by the portrait of tubercular Stella Ransome, with her collection of blue objects and her otherworldly euphoria. And if the casting of the series doesn't match my own personal imaginings, that just makes it more interesting.

 

1.6.21

Watching the English

 

Published in 2004, anthropologist Kate Fox's tongue in cheek book, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour was an entertaining and enlightening read. My father is English, so I'm not sure if some of these 'rules' were passed to me genetically or through upbringing, but a lot of this book rang very true. I think some of these social rules have been transmitted to Australian society, but other aspects seem to apply specifically to the English (as distinct from the Scots, Welsh etc). 

Fox theorises that much of what she terms the English 'social dis-ease' (her central defining characteristic of the English) derives from living on a crowded island. An obsession with privacy, rigid rules of fairness and courtesy (an overuse of please, thank you and sorry; a notorious obsession with queueing), a preference for understatement and modesty, all might plausibly spring from a need to protect oneself from the proximity of others. (Indeed, Fox sees interesting parallels with Japanese society, also a crowded island.)

This is something that probably hasn't travelled to Australia -- with plenty of room to spread out, Australians can afford to be more friendly (not a universal rule, I am well aware, and one mostly applied to 'people like us.') But an emphasis on humour, which Fox sees as a distinctively English way of being in the world, I think has travelled down under -- self mockery, taking the piss, irony, wordplay, all seem just as characteristically Australian as characteristically English.

Some aspects seem more uniquely English, such as a preoccupation with class markers (not defined by money or occupation, but by language, taste and attitudes), and a tendency to 'Eeyorishness' (as indicated by the phrases 'Typical!' and 'Should have known...'). But the typically English social awkwardness and discomfort with expressing emotions publicly, certainly seems to have been passed down through my family. Typical. Should have known.