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.


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.


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.


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!