Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince

I loved Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a King, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dora Jordan. It is both well researched and well written making it easy to read despite being packed with information, brilliantly bringing the late 18th and early 19th centuries to life as she tells the story of Dora and her relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV .  It’s based on material in the Royal Archives at Windsor; letters from Dora held at the Huntingdon Library, San Merino, California; various private family papers, letters and memorabilia, as well as numerous secondary sources from national and local libraries.  The resulting biography took her several years to complete.

Much of the information about Dora is taken from her own letters, written over 25 years, to her children and friends and many hundreds of those to the Duke of Clarence, the father of ten of her children (the FitzClarences) have survived. She was a remarkably strong character and an incomparable actress.

William, the Duke of Clarence and Dora Jordan were born into very different families – born in 1765 he was the third son of George III and Queen Charlotte,  and she was born in 1761, the daughter of Francis and Grace who although not legally married lived together as Mr and Mrs Bland.  He was not expected to succeed to the throne and as a boy served in the navy, later he was given a dukedom, an income and an estate. She became an actress, known as ‘Mrs Jordan’, although there was never a Mr Jordan. She made her stage debut in 1777 at the age of 15 and her first Drury Lane appearance in 1785. The two met and she became his mistress in 1790, eventually living together at Bushy House in Middlesex. Their relationship was a happy one until, as the years went by, William was put under pressure to find a suitable wife and, of course, marriage to Dora was out of the question. They separated in 1811 and she was heart broken.

There is so much in this book that fascinated me. The attacks in the press on their relationship were vicious and there were storms of abuse – as an actress and a prince they could not have private lives and the journalists and cartoonists were savage in their portrayal of the couple. The cartoons in particular amazed me. ‘Jordan’ was a common term for a chamber-pot, so her name came in very handily, and became an instantly recognisable visual symbol:

Sometimes it was put over the Duke’s head; sometimes he was shown standing in it, with her prettily draped round the edge, naked and mermaid-like. In other drawings the pot reverted to its domestic function under the bed; the words ‘Public jordan open to all parties’ were written round one of these. The most effective and cruellest was Gillray’s simple picture showing Dora as a giant chamber-pot, cracked and with a vagina-shaped hole into which the figure of William is disappearing, giving a nautical shout of pleasure as he does so. His braided coat is hanging on a peg to one side and her ankles and feet in dainty slippers appear below the pot. The caption reads ‘The Lubber’s Hole, alias the Cracked Jordan’, (page 123)

Dora comes across as a very likeable person, hard working, and devoted to her family. She was a talented and probably  the most popular actress of the time in Britain, based at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and also appearing in theatres throughout the country, acting throughout her pregnancies and often taking a baby with her on tour. Claire Tomalin writes

She was the best-loved and most admired comic actress of her time, hailed by fellow actors, critics and public alike as a uniquely gifted performer, fully the equal in comedy to Mrs Siddons in tragedy: for several decades they were generally referred to as the Muses of Comedy and tragedy. (page 3)

After she and the Duke separated the debts incurred by a son-in-law drawn on her account forced her to live abroad until they could be cleared, but she sank into illness and despair and died near Paris in 1816.

William succeeded to the throne in 1830, after the death of his older brother, George IV. One of the first acts of his reign was to commission a sculpture – he wanted a life-size representation of Dora, She had been dead for  fifteen years, so Francis Chantrey, the sculptor worked from portraits, finishing it in 1834. William’s intention was to place the statue in Westminster Abbey, but the Dean of Westminster refused to allow it and it remained in Chantrey’s studio. Eventually, after passing through several hands, the fifth Earl of Munster bequeathed it to the Queen and it is now in Buckingham Palace among the portraits of kings and queens in the Picture Gallery.

Like all good biographies Mrs Jordan’s Profession has an extensive bibliography, additional notes and an index. There are several photographs, family trees of and an appendix of Mrs Jordan’s Roles.

  • Paperback: 422 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin 1995
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140159233
  • Source: I bought the book

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015, Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015, TBR Pile Challenge 2015.

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville

One Life: My Mother’s Story

Australian author, Kate Grenville has written a beautiful biography of her mother Nance Russell. A book that casts light not only on Nance’s life but also on life in Australia for most of the 20th century. Nance was born in 1912 and died in 2002, so she lived through two World Wars, an economic depression and a period of great social change. Nance wasn’t famous, the daughter of a rural working-class couple who became pub-keepers, but she was a remarkable woman.

Kate’s mother had wanted to write her own story and had left fragments of stories about her ancestors, stories her mother had told her, about her childhood, but most about her adult life up to her mid-forties. (Kate Grenville has used some of the stories of her ancestors in her own novels – such as The Secret River, a wonderful historical novel).

So this biography reads like a novel, but is based on Nance Russell’s memories, making it much more than a factual account of a person’s life. It’s is a vivid portrait of a real woman, a woman of great strength and determination, who had had a difficult childhood, who persevered, went to University, became a pharmacist, opened her own pharmacy, brought up her children, and helped build the family home. She faced sex discrimination and had to sell her pharmacy in order to look after her children at home.

Nance had wanted to be a teacher, but when she said this to her mother she ‘exploded. Over her dead body Nance was going to be a teacher!‘  But her parents thought that pharmacy was ‘good for a girl‘. It was 40  years later, after her own children were grown up, that Nance took an arts degree, then a teaching diploma and a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language. ‘She taught French in schools, taught English to newly arrived migrant children, and ran her own business teaching English to the wives of Japanese business men.

My bare account of Nance’s life doesn’t do justice to this book, in which Kate Grenville brings to life both the good times and the bad times, writing about her mother’s heartache, worries, joys and sorrows, of the hard times during the economic depression, all of it as a whole making a rich and fulfilled life. Very near to the end of the book Kate Grenville writes:

One of her last trips [to Europe] was to Florence, where she stood in front of the frescoes that Dante had seen. A line came into her mind from somewhere in all her reading: Suffering pierces the shield of habit. It was a thought that made sense of the unhappiness she’d known, and also the happiness. She knew that ultimately it didn’t matter what happened to you. In the light of eternity, in the light of all those dead writers in whose work she’d recognised the great truths, only one thing mattered. What other people did was up to them. Your job was to live – as richly and honestly as you could – your one life. (page 246)

Reading Challenges: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015 and What’s in a Name? 2015 in the category of a book with a familial relation in the title.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Although I read a lot of crime fiction my knowledge of the authors and their books written during the ‘Golden Age’ so far has been limited to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Michael Innes so when I saw that Martin Edwards had written The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story I thought it would be the ideal book to find out more. And I was absolutely right and the works of a whole host of authors has been opened up to me.

This is the story of the writers who formed the Detection Club between the two World Wars. Edwards sets the authors and their works in context – that period when Britain was recovering from the horrors of the First World War, living through an age of austerity as unemployment grew, the cost of living soared leading to the General Strike whilst the rich partied and saw the beginnings of the end of the British Empire. But the writers and the works although well grounded in their own time and culture have a lasting appeal and influence on current story telling and film and television.

The Club grew out of the dinners Anthony Berkeley and his wife Peggy hosted at their home in the late 1920s, attended by people including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Douglas and Margaret Cole, Ronald Knox, Henry Wade, H C Bailey and John Rhode. Eventually the Club was formed, with Rules and a Constitution and a Committee. The members benefited in various ways, meeting fellow detective novelists, discussing ideas, supporting each other and even working together on collaborative writing projects – such as The Floating Admiral, in which a dozen writers each wrote one chapter. The main aim of the Club was to encourage and maintain a high standard of work in writing detective novels.

I was fascinated by the number of real crimes that influenced the writers, both current at the time and crimes from the past. Their interest as they discussed these cases, such as Dr Crippen’s poisoning of his wife, in turn inspired them not only to write but also to play the detective themselves. Indeed, Edwards shows that the image of the Golden Age as ‘cosy’ murder mysteries is false:

Their novels are often sneered at as ‘cosy’, and the claim that their characters were made from cardboard has become a lazy critical cliché. The very idea that detective fiction between the wars represented a ‘Golden Age’ seems like a misty-eyed nostalgia of an aged romantic hankering after a past that never existed.

The best detective novels of the Thirties

were exhilarating, innovative and unforgettable. They explored miscarriages of justice, forensic pathology and serial killings long before these topics became fashionable (and before the term’serial killer’ was invented). …

The climax of one of Berkeley’s novels was so shocking that when Alfred Hitchcock came to film it, even the legendary master of suspense, the man who would direct Psycho, lost his nerve. He substituted a final scene that was a feeble cop-out in comparison to Berkeley’s dark and horrific vision. (page 9)

There is no way I can do justice to this book in a short post; it is simply a tour de force, comprehensive, crammed full of fascinating information about the period and the authors.

Martin Edwards’ love of Golden Age fiction shines throughout the book, (skilfully writing about books without giving away any spoilers) and has spurred me on to read more books from this period.

Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work by Kitty Ferguson

Blurb:

Stephen Hawking is one of the most remarkable figures of our time, a Cambridge genius who has earned international celebrity as a brilliant theoretical physicist and become an inspiration and revelation to those who have witnessed his courageous triumph over disability. This is Hawking’s life story by Kitty Ferguson, who has had special help from Hawking himself and his close associates and who has a gift for translating the language of theoretical physics for non-scientists.

Twenty years ago, Kitty Ferguson’s Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything became a Sunday Times bestseller and took the world by storm. She now returns to the subject to transform that short book into a hugely expanded, carefully researched, up-to-the-minute biography.

Recently I watched The Theory of Everything, with Eddie Redmayne playing the part of Stephen Hawking. I think it’s a brilliant film and it made me want to know more about Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work by Kitty Ferguson, subtitled The Story and Science of One of the Most Extraordinary, Celebrated and Courageous Figures of Our Time, has certainly expanded my knowledge, even if some of the science is beyond me.

At first I read the scientific explanations carefully and felt I understood them until about half way into the book, when I struggled and ended up skim reading passages. I could cope on an elementary level with quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle is not new to me, nor the theory of black holes, and singularity. I learnt about the ‘event horizon’, which is the ‘radius-of-no-return where velocity becomes greater than the speed of light’, and about Hawking Radiation, the radiation produced by a black hole. But when I got up to ‘brane’ theory and p-branes, I was lost – it’s too mathematical for my pea-brain! But I still think I learned a lot. It helps that there is not only an index, but also a glossary that explains many of the scientific terms (not p-branes, unfortunately).

The book moves between biography and Hawking’s work, painting a picture of a warm, likeable, humorous, and courageous man with an exuberance for life. There’s a lot about his health, his career, his trips abroad and his relationships with colleagues. But not much about his marriages or divorces; I expect that was Hawking’s preference. I hadn’t known that he liked Marilyn Monroe, having a life-size picture of her on the door of his office, or that he has co-written children’s books with his daughter Lucy. They look very good!

Details from Fantastic Fiction:
1. George’s Secret Key to the Universe (2007)
2. George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009)
3. George and the Big Bang (2011)
4. George and the Unbreakable Code (2014)
5. George and the Blue Planets (2016)

 

I was fascinated, as I was when watching the film, with how he lives with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) a form of motor neurone disease and the remarkable fact that he has lived so long with this condition and yet can say, ‘ Although I cannot move, and I have to speak through a computer, in my mind I am free.‘ (page 434)

Kitty Ferguson writes:

Hawking’s life and his science continue to be full of paradoxes. Things are often not what they seem. Pieces that fit together refuse to do so. Beginnings may be endings; cruel circumstances can lead to happiness, although fame and success may not; two brilliant and highly successful scientific theories taken together yield nonsense; empty space isn’t empty; black holes aren’t black; the effort to unite everything in a simple explanation reveals, instead a fragmented picture; and a man whose appearance inspires shock and pity takes us joyfully to where the boundaries of time and space ought to be – and are not. (page 17)

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam (5 July 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0857500740
  • ISBN-13: 978-0857500748
  • Source: library book

I have an e-book of Jane Hawking’s book, Travelling to Infinity; My Life with Stephen, which I’ll be reading sometime soon.

Stacking the Shelves

STSmall

Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

This is my first entry in Stacking the Shelves. These are last week’s new arrivals:

In the heart of the sea

First ‘real’ books. It was Mother’s Day last Sunday and my son bought me this book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Epic True Story that Inspired Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick – wonderful!

From the back cover:

The sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex by an enraged spermwhale far out in the Pacific in November 1820 set in train one of the most dramatic sea stories of all time. Accounts of the unprecedented whale attack inspired Herman Melville’s mighty novel Moby Dick, but In the Heart of the Sea goes beyond these events to describe what happened when the twenty mixed-race crewmen took to three small boats and what, three months later, the whaleship Dauphin, cruising off the coast of South America, discovered when it spotted a tiny boat sailing erratically across an open ocean.

The other books in the photo above are library books:

  • Collins Artist’s Little Book of Inspiration by Hazel Soan – a lovely little book looking at the basics elements of a painting using watercolours, oils and acrylics, with demonstrations and projects to try. I like just looking at the paintings!
  • The Reckoning by Jane Casey, the second in her Maeve Kerrigan series. I reserved this because I’d enjoyed the first one, The Burning and wanted to read more. This one begins with the murders of two paedophiles.
  • Conan Doyle: the Man who Created Sherlock Holmes by Andrew Lycett. This book was on a display stand and even though it’s a huge, heavy book I fancied reading it. It was probably on display following the  recent TV drama Arthur and George, which I enjoyed. I read Julian Barnes’ book of the same name some years ago, which pre-dates this biography.

When Lovereading offered a review copy of Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring I didn’t hesitate because I’d loved Rosemary Goring’s earlier novel, After Flodden.

Dacres War

Dacre’s War is set 10 years after the battle of Flodden in the Scottish and English borders, a story of ‘personal and political vengeance’ as Adam Crozier sets out to take revenge on Lord Thomas Dacre, who had ordered the death of his father. It’s due to be published on 14 May 2015.

Lastly, the latest ebook I’ve downloaded is today’s Kindle Daily Deal, Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga. A. N. Wilson ‘was absolutely mesmerized by this novel’ and thinks ‘that Aravind Adiga is already, with this, his second book, the most exciting novelist writing in English today.’ 

Last Man in Tower

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

I wanted to read a novel by a local author so I checked the library website for North East writers, where I found Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton.

Summary from the book cover:

Easter Monday, 1809: Kirkley Hall manor house is mysteriously burgled. When suspicion falls on Jamie Charlton, he and his family face a desperate battle to save him from the gallows.

When 1,157 rent money is stolen from Kirkley Hall, it is the biggest robbery Northumberland has ever known. The owner sends for Stephen Lavender, a principal officer with the Bow Street magistrate’s court in London, to investigate the crime. Suspicion soon falls on impoverished farm labourer, Jamie Charlton, and the unpopular steward, Michael Aynsley.

Jamie Charlton is a loving family man but he is hot-tempered and careless. As the case grows against him, it seems that only his young brother, William, can save him from an impending miscarriage of justice.

But William is struggling with demons of his own–he is falling in love with Jamie’s wife.’Catching the Eagle’, the first novel in the Regency Reivers series, is a fictionalized account of a trial that devastated a family and divided a community.

This is not just by a local author, and set in Northumberland, it is also based on a true story –  that of Karen Charlton’s husband’s ancestors.

I liked the opening of Catching the Eagle beginning with a Prologue, setting the scene as an eagle soared over the Northumberland landscape:

… its huge shadow caressed the ruined walls of crumbling castles and the creaking rotting stumps of ancient gibbets.The eagle plucked unsuspecting prey from the bleak, snow-covered fells and drank from remote rocky waterfalls dripping with golden daggers.

It landed in a tree above a labourer’s cottage where Jamie Charlton lived with his wife Priscilla and their children. I like Karen Charlton’s leisurely descriptive style of writing and found the whole book to be fascinating.  She has written an even-handed account of the robbery and the subsequent trials, so much so that I began to wonder whether Jamie Charlton was innocent or guilty, although you know from the outset that he was transported as a convicted felon to New South Wales. Did he or did he not steal the money? And what will happen to the eagle?

This is the type of historical fiction that I like. The characters come across as real people, with real problems in a real time and place (Northumberland 1809 – 1811). It highlights the social and cultural setting. Jamie was without influence or money behind him up against a judicial system run by people with power who needed to find a culprit. His family suffered along with him as he languished in goal in squalor, where he was caged as he awaited trial – not once, but twice.

I wondered whether Stephen Lavender, the detective employed by  Nathaniel Ogle, the owner of Kirkley Hall was also a real historical figure. Karen Charlton has also written Seeking Our Eagle, another fascinating book, an account of how she came to write Catching the Eagle whilst researching her husband’s family history.  And yes, Stephen Lavender did exist and he was a detective. He later became the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester after the formation of the police force by Sir Robert Peel.

Indeed reading Catching the Eagle reminded me of The Suspicions of Samuel Whicher by Kate Summerscale, featuring Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard, the book that won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008.

Karen Charlton has done her research very well and has written a novel full of intrigue, tension and realism that kept me captivated from start to finish. See her website, Karen Charlton, to read more about Karen and her books.

She has also written The Heiress of Linn Hagh, a spin-off novel from Catching the Eagle, which features Detective Stephen Lavender and his sidekick, Constable Woods. And there are more Detective Lavender Series books on the way!

Catching the Eagle:

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1 edition (19 July 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0992803640
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992803643
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Source: Library book

Seeking the Eagle:

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1969 KB
  • Print Length: 166 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1st edition (7 Aug. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008UZYOR2
  • Source: I bought it

As always I didn’t read either book just for any Reading Challenges, but Catching the Eagle does fit very well into a couple – the 2015  Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge, in the book with an animal in the title category and Seeking Our Eagle into the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd

Wilkie CollinsOn Thursday I finished reading Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd and it was also the anniversary of his birth – he was born in Marylebone at a house in New Cavendish Street on 8 January 1824.

I’ve read just two of Wilkie Collins’ books – The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and this year I hope to read more. I knew that he was a friend of Charles Dickens, but that was about all I knew of him. Peter Ackroyd’s biography looked as though it could be a good book to start with. And it is – it’s short, just over 200 pages, very readable and a clear and concise account of Collins’ life and work.

Wilkie’s father was William Collins, an English painter, a member of the Royal Academy, who specialised in landscapes and seascapes. He was christened William Wilkie – Wilkie after his godfather, the painter Sir David Wilkie.

Ackroyd’s account may be brief but he gives details of Wilkie’s childhood, his schooldays – the books he liked as a child – The Arabian Nights, Robin Hood and Don Quixote, books by Sir Walter Scott and he admired Byron. He moves on through Wilkie’s struggle to become a writer, his friendship with Charles Dickens, his travels abroad, his unconventional life style, never marrying but living with Caroline Graves for thirty years whilst having a liaison with Martha Rudd, his ill health and reliance on laudanum, his tour of America, his relationships with and views about women and their place in society, as well as discussing his short stories, articles, novels and plays.

Wilkie Collins died on 23 September 1889 after a year in which he had suffered from neuralgic attacks, a stroke that paralysed his life side and affected his brain, and a bout of bronchitis, but he  had still carried on writing.

I marked several passages as I was reading. Here are just a few of them:

He was essentially liberal in his social and political views, averse to coercion and conflict; he showed some sympathy with the principles of socialism as it was then understood, and was instinctively on the side of the oppressed. (page 46)

He might best be described as a Christian humanist who accepted Christ as his Saviour but detested all formal and outward shows of religion. He preserved his particular wrath for evangelicals. … he was not an atheist. He rarely entered a church, and his actual beliefs are hard, if not impossible, to unravel. (page 47)

He may have believed with Charles II that God would not punish him for a few sins of pleasure. (page 47)

He lived through a period in which the audience for fiction was rapidly widening, and the novels themselves were increasing in importance. … Novels had become the repository of dreams and ideals, the fantasies and the speculations, of the nation. (page 81)

One of the characters in ‘The Diary of Anne Rodway’ said -‘what I want is something that seizes hold of my interest, and makes me forget when it is time to dress for dinner – something that keeps me reading, reading, reading, in a breathless state to find out the end.’ That is precisely the excitement Collins conveys to his readers. (page 88)

Collins was writing about mysteries ‘deep under the surface’ three decades before Freud began his own enquiries. He was concerned with doubles and double identity, with monomania and delusion. He traced the paths of unconscious associations and occluded memories. (page 93)

It was believed that the ‘detective element’ disqualified the novel as a work of art, when in fact it opened up the way for an entirely new direction in English literature. There had been earlier exercises in the genre, but all of them are inconsiderable besides the over-whelming power and authority of ‘The Moonstone’. Collins’s novel, since its publication in 1868, has never been out of print. (page 132)

There is an awful lot packed into this short biography! And it’s an excellent stepping stone into Wilkie Collins’s novels.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Chatto & Windus (23 Feb. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0701169907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0701169909
  • Source: a Christmas present

Shakespeare and The Classics Club’s July question

The question this month is:

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

This question came at just the right time for me because I’ve just finished reading Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. It’s taken me a long time to read because I began it in March and have been reading it almost daily a few short chapters each day.

Ackroyd Shakespeare I bought the book in Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago after going to the theatre there. I first came across Shakespeare’s plays at school – doesn’t everyone? Years later I took an Open University course and studied more plays and managed to see productions of each one, either at the Barbican in London or at the Stratford.

So, I’m familiar with several plays, which helps enormously with reading Ackoyd’s biography as he has structured it mainly around the plays.  But above all, he has placed Shakespeare within his own time and place, whether it is Stratford or London or travelling around the countryside with the touring companies of players. Shakespeare spans the reigns of two monarchs, which saw great changes and Ackroyd conjures up vividly the social, religious and cultural scene. It’s a very readable book, full of detail. My only reservation about it is one I often have when reading biographies – there are inevitably assumptions, those phrases such as ‘must have’  ‘would have’, ‘most likely’, ‘could have’, ‘there is also a possibility that’ and so on that biographers use.

I learnt a lot that I hadn’t known before as my study of Shakespeare hadn’t gone much beyond the plays, and studying them as entities in themselves is not the same as seeing them in their contemporary settings, or as a part of his whole work. I knew very little (or if I did learn anything years ago, I’ve forgotten) for example of the theatrical world, of how the actors worked, their patrons and managers, nor about how Shakespeare interacted with other writers, or of how his work was received by the public and the monarchy. I particularly liked the sections on religion and the religious conflicts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and his discussion about Shakespeare’s own beliefs and practices:

This raises the vexed question of his religion, endlessly debated through the centuries. It is true that he used the language and the structure of the old faith in his drama, but that does not imply that he espoused Catholicism. His parents are likely to have been of the old faith, but he did not necessarily take it with him into his adulthood. The old religion was part of the landscape of his imagination, not of his belief.

His own adult beliefs are much more difficult to estimate. It is possible that he was, in the language of the period, a ‘church papist’; he outwardly conformed, as in the ceremony of christening, but secretly remained a Catholic. This was a perfectly conventional stance at the time. (pages 446 – 7)

Ackroyd’s account of the language of the plays is also fascinating. Understanding the plays can be demanding. I’ve found that when I’ve seen a play acted it makes much more sense to me than when I’ve only read it and I’ve often wondered how the plays were understood by their 16th century audiences. Ackroyd considers that

Some of Shakespeare’s more recondite phrases would have passed over them, as they baffle even the most highly educated contemporary audience, but the Elizabethans understood the plots and were able to appreciate the contemporary allusions. Of course scholars of a later age have detected in Shakespeare’s plays a subtlety of theme and intention that may well have escaped Elizabethan audiences. But it may be asked whether these are the inventions of scholars rather than the dramatist. (page 349)

In a book of over 500 pages there is much more to be said about it than I’ve attempted in this post – I’ve only just touched the surface!

My overall view of this biography is that it is well researched, with an extensive bibliography, notes and index. Ackroyd acknowledges that he ‘came to this study as a Shakespearian enthusiast‘ rather than as an expert and lists other biographies that he found ‘most illuminating’.

In answer to the Classics Club question on whether reading a biography has changed my perspective on an author’s writing I think the answer has to be that it hasn’t really changed it but it has enhanced my understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote and emphasised the fact that the plays are/were made for an audience:

Shakespeare relied upon the audience and, with such devices as the soliloquy, extended the play towards it; the drama did not comprehend a completely independent world, but needed to be authenticated by the various responses of the crowd. (page 349)

Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice

Sisters of SinaiThe full title of this book is Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels. This is biography so well written that it almost reads like a novel. In fact, if this was a novel I would think it was a most unlikely story of twin sisters in the latter half of the nineteenth century, travelling to St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai where they discover one of the earliest copies of the Gospels written in ancient Syriac.

Janet Soskice has written a compelling account of two Scottish sisters – Agnes and Margaret Smith born in 1843 in Irvine, a town south-west of Glasgow. Their mother died two weeks after they were born and they were brought up by their father, John Smith. He was unusual in that he gave his daughters an unconventional education for that period. He approved of independence of mind and foreign travel. The girls had an aptitude for languages and mastered French, German, Spanish and Italian whilst they were still quite young – helped by visits to each country. Their taste for learning, travels and adventure was set for life with long hours of study and plenty of exercise. Add to this intensely-held Presbyterian beliefs and Bible study.

John Smith inherited a huge sum of money (today’s equivalent would be around £7 million) from a relative. He died when the twins were 23 leaving his fortune to them (which had built up considerably by then); they were very rich indeed. They decided to have a trip down the Nile. And that was just the beginning; their lives were transformed.

They learnt Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac and they returned to Egypt and Sinai many times, befriending the monks of St Catherine, despite their religious differences, and getting embroiled in disputes with Cambridge academics who were initially very reluctant to accept that these two middle-aged (by then) women with no university qualifications (women were not permitted to receive degrees from the university at that time), could possibly have found anything of value or interest to them.

What they discovered in a ‘dimly lit little room  below the prior’s quarters’ in the monastery was a dirty volume, its leaves nearly all stuck together, written in Syriac. It was a collection of lives of women saints, but written underneath that was something else that was clearly an earlier text – of the Gospels. This was a palimpsest – the earliest writing having been scraped off and overwritten at a later date, the old ink becoming visible at a later date through the effects of the atmosphere. This eventually proved that the Gospels had been written much earlier than had previously been thought, moving the date back to the late second century.

Not only is that remarkable in itself, but it is astonishing to me that these two middle-aged women travelled to Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem and beyond at the latter half of the nineteenth century across the desert on camel or walking miles on foot. Their courage and resolve overcame all the difficulties they encountered, coping with physical discomfort and  dishonest dragomen abroad and the hostility and scepticism at home.

I would never have known of this enthralling book if it hadn’t been for Cath’s review of it on Read-Warbler. I was intrigued and looked for it in my library straight away and was delighted to find that there was a copy in another branch.  Biographies and historical books are probably my most favourite of non-fiction books and accounts of  the Bible and how it came to be compiled have long been of interest to me, but I hadn’t come across these two sisters before. Janet Soskine has throughly researched her subject and the book is complemented by a ‘select’ bibliography that runs to nearly 5 pages and an extensive index.

This is an excellent non-fiction book, just right for Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

First Chapter: Shakespeare the Biography by Peter Ackroyd

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

In my last post I mentioned Peter Ackroyd’s biography of William Shakespeare when deciding which book to read next. As soon as I began the first chapter I knew that this is the next non fiction book I’ll be reading.

The first paragraph is:

William Shakespeare is popularly supposed to have been born on 23 April 1564, or St George’s Day. The date may in fact have been 21 April or 22 April, but the coincidence of the national festival is at least appropriate.

But it is the second paragraph that caught my attention, after all Shakespeare’s birthday or supposed birthday was not a surprise to me. The second paragraph, however, gives me information I hadn’t known before:

When he emerged from the womb into the world of time, with the assistance of a midwife, an infant of the sixteenth century was washed and then ‘swaddled’ by being wrapped tightly in soft cloth. Then he was carried downstairs in order to be presented to the father. After this ritual greeting, he was taken back to the birth-chamber, still warm and dark where he was lain beside the mother. She was meant to ‘draw to her all the diseases from the child’, before her infant was put in a cradle. A small portion of butter and honey was usually placed in the baby’s mouth. It was the custom in Warwickshire to give the suckling child hare’s brains reduced to jelly. ( page 3)

Ackroyd is not of course saying that this is what happened when Shakespeare was born, merely that this was the ritual at the time and he refers to David Cressy’s book, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England as the source of his information. But it is fascinating, nonetheless to think of the infant William wrapped in swaddling clothes and sucking hare’s brain jelly! Butter and honey sounds far more delectable. And how different from birth today.

Sunday Selection: Choosing the next book to read

Yesterday I finished reading both Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell and Julius by Daphne Du Maurier, leaving me with no books on the go. This morning I started to read The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, but I like to read more than one book at a time of different genres so that I don’t get them mixed up in my mind, preferably with one non-fiction book.

I think I’ll read a biography or an autobiography.

There was a programme on TV last night about D H Lawrence, a Culture Show Special, which reminded me that I haven’t read his biography yet which I bought a few years ago when we visited the house in Eastwood where he was born. It’s D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen who was one of the contributors to the programme. I got the book off the shelf and immediately saw why I haven’t read it yet – it’s in such a small font, with quotations in an even smaller font – not good for my eyes. It’s a pity I don’t have it on Kindle but maybe I’ll give it a go, definitely a book to read in daylight. And as I have just one of D H Lawrence’s books that I haven’t read yet – St Mawr – I may read that. It’s a novella, so it won’t take me long.

Anther book I’ve been meaning to read before now is Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare:the Biography. The Classics Club is running a new project next year Twelve Months of Classic Literature with different topics for each month and January’s topic is William Shakespeare.  I think Ackroyd’s book would be a good choice for this project. It’s described on the book jacket as

 … neither an academic description, nor a didactic analysis. Written with intuition and imagination unique to Peter Ackroyd, a book by a writer about a writer, brilliant and straightforward, it vividly presents the reader with the circumstances of Shakespeare’s life and art.

It sounds just right. I think I’ll begin with this book.

That leaves me with choosing a crime fiction book and I have quite a lot of those to choose from. I haven’t read an Agatha Christie this month so I’m going to choose one of hers or some of her short stories (I have several collections still unread). I think I’ll read the oldest I have, which is N or M? a Tommy and Tuppence war time mystery, first published in 1941. I have a feeling this will be better than the last Tommy and Tuppence book I read, Postern of Fate, which was Agatha Christie’s last novel and not one of her best.

Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill

One of the things that struck me when I was reading Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography was her love of houses. It stemmed from her childhood dolls’ house. She enjoyed buying all the things to put in it – not just furniture, but all the household implements such as brushes and dustpans, and food, cutlery and glasses. She also liked playing at moving house, using a cardboard box as a furniture van.

Writing about her life with her husband, Max Mallowan she wrote:

We were always choosing sites for houses. This was mainly owing to me, houses having always been my passion – there was indeed a moment in my life, not long before the outbreak of the second war, when I was the proud owner of eight houses. (page 440 of An Autobiography)

Agatha Christie at HomeSo when I saw that Hilary Macaskill had written this book – Agatha Christie at Home – I knew immediately that I wanted to read it. It’s a beautiful book, with many photographs – more than 100 colour photos – illustrating Agatha’s life and homes. I took my time reading it, first of all looking at the photos, before reading the text.

There is a Foreword by Mathew Prichard, her grandson, explaining the love his grandmother had for Devon, in particular for Torquay, where she was born and Greenway, the house that had a special place in her heart.  He expressed his hope that this book will ‘transmit some of the magic that my whole family felt when they were there.’  And this book does indeed do that!

There is an overview of Agatha Christie’s life followed by descriptions of the houses and countryside she loved – from Ashfield in Torquay her first home, where she was born and brought up to Greenway, a Georgian mansion above the River Dart, now owned by the National Trust.

There are no spoilers in this book but Hilary Macaskill has identified the settings Agatha Christie used in her books and how some of the place names have been altered, but are still recognizable from her descriptions. I hadn’t realised that the names of some of her characters are taken from the names of streets or villages, such as Luscombe Road in Paignton which she adopted for Colonel Luscombe in At Bertram’s Hotel.

It’s a useful book too if you want to find out more about visiting Devon with tourist information and website addresses. The final chapter is about Agatha Christie’s legacy and her continuing popularity both nationally and internationally. As well as being able to visit Greenway, which has been restored to the way it was when Agatha lived there, there are events to celebrate her life and works, such as the annual Agatha Christie week that takes place in Torquay each September around her birthday.

I haven’t been to Greenway, although I have stayed in Torquay, but that was before Greenway was open to the public. It is enormously popular – on the first day it was opened over 400 visitors came to see the house. But Agatha Christie was a very private person and I can’t imagine what she would have thought about that. After all she had refused permission for an ‘authorized life’ to be written, stating:

‘I write books to be sold and I hope people will enjoy them but I think people should be interested in books and not their authors.’ (page 129)

Knowing that I think I’d feel I was invading her privacy if I did go to Greenway!

Sunday Selection: Sisters

One of my aims this year is to reduce my massive backlog of unread books, hence the reason for joining the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.  I’m not doing too badly as so far I’ve read 19, but it’s still only a drop in the ocean. In June I wrote about some of the books I’ve owned for more than a year and today I’m looking at some more the books on the list – in some cases I’ve had these books for several years! It’s about time I read at least one of these sometime soon. I don’t like to plan too far ahead what I’m going to read but I like to have some titles in mind.

When I looked through my books I realised that I was picking out books about SISTERS:

First up for consideration are two non fiction books (the blurbs are extracts from Amazon/Goodreads):

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle – this is the story of the tumultuous lives of Lady Jane Grey, known as the “Nine-Day Queen” and her sisters. I’ve had this book for 3 years. I was full of enthusiasm when I first bought it because I’d been reading novels about the Tudor period and thought I’d balance them with non fiction.

Lady Jane Grey is an iconic figure in English history. Misremembered as the ‘Nine Days Queen’, she has been mythologized as a child-woman destroyed on the altar of political expediency. Exploding the many myths of Lady Jane’s life and casting fresh light onto Elizabeth’s reign, acclaimed historian Leanda de Lisle brings the tumultuous world of the Grey sisters to life, at a time when a royal marriage could gain you a kingdom or cost you everything.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosley – a selection of unpublished letters between the Mitford sisters – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. I’ve had this book for 5 years! I think two of the reasons I’ve not read it before now is that it is so long – over 800 pages and it’s in a very small font.

Carefree, revelatory and intimate, this selection of unpublished letters between the six legendary Mitford sisters, compiled by Diana Mitford’s daughter-in-law, is alive with wit, passion and heartbreak. The letters chronicle the social quirks and political upheavals of the twentieth century but also chart the stormy, enduring relationships between the uniquely gifted – and collectively notorious – Mitford sisters. 

And then some novels featuring sisters:

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton. I’ve not had this one for that long – just since last November. I down loaded it on my Kindle because it’s a free book and I thought maybe I should try another book by Edith Wharton, having failed to finish The House of Mirth. At the time I was not in the mood for it.

In the days when New York’s traffic moved at the pace of the drooping horse-car, when society applauded Christine Nilsson at the Academy of Music and basked in the sunsets of the Hudson River School on the walls of the National Academy of Design, an inconspicuous shop with a single show-window was intimately and favourably known to the feminine population of the quarter bordering on Stuyvesant Square. It was a very small shop, in a shabby basement, in a side-street already doomed to decline; its fame was so purely local that the customers on whom its existence depended were almost congenitally aware of the exact range of “goods” to be found at Bunner Sisters’.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffeneger – I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book, but it’s about three years. I’m not sure I’ll like it as I wasn’t keen on The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it was the time travelling aspect that irritated me with that book – the constant switching backwards and forwards in time. This one looks a bit different.

Set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers with an abnormally intense attachment to one another. The girls move to their aunt’s flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London and as the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including–perhaps–their aunt, who can’t seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen, a book I’ve had for six years! I bought it because I’d enjoyed Blessings a satisfying but sad novel about an abandoned baby. 

A novel about two sisters, the true meaning of success, and the qualities in life that matter most. It’s an otherwise ordinary Monday when Meghan Fitzmaurice’s perfect life hits a wall. A household name as the host of Rise and Shine, the country’s highest-rated morning talk show, Meghan cuts to a commercial break–but not before she mutters two forbidden words into her open mike. 

In an instant, it’s the end of an era, not only for Meghan, who is unaccustomed to dealing with adversity, but also for her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx who has always lived in Meghan’s long shadow.

I’ve nearly finished reading Third Girl by Agatha Christie, also one of my to-be-read books, so now all I have to do is decide which book to read next. At the moment I’m leaning towards Her Fearful Symmetry, despite my misgivings about The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Agatha Christie: An English Mystery by Laura Thompson

It took me weeks to read Laura Thompson’s book Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. It has taken me several days to write and re-write this post because I’ve found it difficult to put down my thoughts about it without going into too much detail (and this is still a long post). My overall impression of the book is that I felt as though I was intruding into Agatha Christie’s private life that she had not wanted to be made known. I also think that Laura Thompson had found it difficult to separate the woman from her writing, because throughout the book facts are interspersed with suppositions drawn from Agatha Christie’s novels and in particular from Unfinished Portrait, a novel Agatha wrote under the pseudonym, Mary Westmacott.

Agatha Christie: An English Mystery is described as a ‘perceptive and stylish biography‘ on the jacket sleeve, but it is not just a biography; it is also a study of Agatha Christie’s novels, drawing conclusions from her writing about her thoughts, feelings and emotions and a fictionalised version of Agatha’s disappearance in 1926. Laura Thompson’s sources are unpublished letters, papers and notebooks.

First of all, concerning the study of the novels I was dismayed as I was reading this book at the amount of information she reveals about the crime fiction novels, including giving away who the murderers are in a number of cases. Charles Osborne’s book The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie is much better, outlining the books, not just her crime novels but also her non-fiction, stories for children, poetry and plays in chronological order and nowhere does he reveal the identity of any of the murderers.

Then the fictionalised version of Agatha’s disappearance is in a chapter called ‘The Quarry‘, which begins ‘Time for a new story‘, words which did not immediately alert me that Laura Thompson was no longer writing strictly from the sources at her disposal but also from her imagination, putting words into Agatha Christie’s mouth that she could not have known, and describing her reactions to the people she met and the newspaper reports of her disappearance. Later in this chapter she wrote:

All biography is story-telling. No life is a code to be deciphered: there will always be gaps and inconsistencies, and it is stories that make the missing connections. Omniscience is for Hercule Poirot. Real life knows less; it has the beauty of mystery; and this, despite the books she wrote, was something that Agatha understood very well. She must have known she had created a puzzle of a different order, with all the geometric complexity of ‘Roger Ackroyd’ – and how to work it out? Turn it this way? That way? – and yet the twist in the tale: it was true, and therefore it could never be solved. It was perfect in fact. The perfect metaphor for human mystery. What could be more impenetrable than the woman who moved through Harrogate like a smiling ghost, reading newspaper reports about her own vanished self? (page 219)

I just wish she had not gone so far down the story-telling line in this book and had left this episode of Agatha Christie’s life as an impenetrable mystery, or at least had made it clear straight away when she was writing imaginatively. I have absolutely no objections to fictionalised versions of a life (for example I really liked Justine Picardie’s book Daphne: a novel, which merges fact and fiction) but I do think it should be obvious that it is fictionalised. Nor do I object to different interpretations of

Laura Thompson quotes from Unfinished Portrait, using this as evidence of Agatha’s thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. In Osborne’s book he also states that Unfinished Portrait, which was published in 1934, is based on events in Agatha’s life:

The story of Celia is remarkably similar to the story of Agatha as readers were eventually to be offered it in ‘An Autobiography’ more than forty years later. Several incidents are common to ‘An Autobiography’  and ‘Unfinished Portrait’, and the novel is quite clearly a fictionalised, more detailed, and emotionally more forthcoming version of the first third of the biography. The portraits of Celia’s mother and her grandmother are really of young Agatha Miller’s mother and the grandmother with who she stayed in Ealing. The men in Celia’s life are the men in Agatha’s life, and Dermot, whom Celia marries, is Archie Christie. (page 105)

but he also quotes from Max Mallowan’s writings about the book, pointing out it is a blend of fact and fiction:

The book is not one of her best because, exceptionally, it is a blend of real people and events with imagination. Only the initiated can know how much actual history is contained therein, but in Celia we have more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha. (page 106 of ‘The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie’)

It is evident that Agatha Christie wrote about things she knew – the use of poisons from her work in a pharmacy during the First World War and her journey on the Orient Express are just two examples. Laura Thompson later in the book acknowledges that it is impossible to know what Agatha really thought – this is in the chapter called ‘The Second Husband‘, (page 298) writing about Agatha’s reaction to the Woolleys’ interference with her honeymoon with Max Mallowan. And she acknowledges that it would not have occurred to Agatha Christie that conclusions about her character would be drawn from her remarks in the novels about Jews, ‘blacks’ and servants, so I think it is difficult to decide what inferences can be drawn about Agatha from her fiction!

The last sections of Thompson’s book deal in detail with Agatha Christie’s tax problems and there is a rather ‘gossipy’ section about whether or not Max was having affairs. Overall, I think that the book as a biography is unbalanced, concentrating on the events surrounding Agatha’s disappearance and there is much speculation and supposition. I prefer Agatha’s own version of her life: An Autobiography, in which she merely referred to the events of 1926 thus:

The next year of my life is one I hate recalling. As so often in life, when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong. (page 356)

Finally, if biography is ‘story-telling’, about making connections to fill in the missing gaps with stories, then I’m not sure I want to read it and there have been several times when reading this book that I’ve thought about abandoning it. I’m uncomfortable with the feelings it can provoke – disliking gossip, distrusting witnesses who may have a private agenda, and squeamishness about reading private correspondence. I felt all of this whilst reading this book.

I went back to a book I read a few years ago – Hermione Lee’s book Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing.This is about writing biography and the relationship of biography to fiction and history. Lee writes that biographies must give a ‘quasi-fictional, story-like shape to their material (or no none will read them)’, but against this there is the ‘responsibility for likeness and the need for accuracy’.Gaps and silences give rise to interpretations ‘through a process of conjecture, invention, intuition and manipulation of the evidence.’  Biography may seem as if it is factual because it is constructed from sources such as letters, diaries and other people’s accounts, etc but it is inevitably an interpretation and quasi-fictional. I have to remember that – it’s a reading between the lines! And as Lee says:

Whether we think of biography as more like history or more like fiction, what we want is a vivid sense of the person.

What makes biography so curious and endlessly absorbing is that through all the documents and letters, the context and the witnesses, the conflicting opinions and the evidence of work, we keep catching sight of a real body, a physical life: the young Dickens coming quickly out of a room, sprightly, long-haired, bright-eyed, dandyish, in crimson velvet waistcoat or tartan trousers …

As I read Laura Thompson’s book I did catch glimpses of Agatha Christie, but they were rather swamped by inferences drawn from her books, by the fictionalised version of her disappearance and by the descriptions of her tax problems towards the end of her life. I felt closer to the real Agatha Christie whilst reading her Autobiography. As well as being a record of her life as she remembered it and wanted to relate it, it’s also full of her thoughts on life and writing and in particular about her love of life and the joy of being alive.

But I will carry on reading biographies!

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

It’s taken me a couple of months to read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (first published in 1991), Jung Chang’s book about her grandmother, her mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.

Needless to say that this is a harrowing book to read, but it’s also an eye-opener (for me at any rate) about what happened in China under Mao.

Jung Chang was born in Yibin, Sichuan Province, China, in 1952. She was briefly a Red Guard at the age of fourteen, and then a peasant, a ‘barefoot doctor’, a steelworker and an electrician. She came to Britain in 1978, and in 1982 became the first person from the People’s Republic of China to receive a doctorate from a British university. ‘Wild Swans’  won the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year. She lives in London.

In Wild Swans she casts light on why and how Mao was able to exercise such paralysing control over the Chinese people. His magnetism and power was so strong and coupled with his immense skill at manipulation and his ability to inspire fear, it proved enough to subdue the spirit of most of the population; not to mention the absolute cruelty, torture and hardships they had to endure.

I wondered how she knew so much about what happened to her mother and grandmother (I don’t know nearly as much about mine) but in the Introduction she explains that when her mother came to visit her in London they talked every day for months. She talked about their eventful lives – her grandmother had been a concubine of a warlord general and her mother had joined the Communist underground at the age of 15. She also recorded sixty hours of her memories.

I wrote a bit about the book in a Book Beginnings post at the end of last November, when I’d just started to read it. It’s a personal story, reflecting the twentieth century history of China. A remarkable book, full of courage and spirit.

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: HarperPress; New edition edition (1 Mar 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007463405
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007463404
  • Source: borrowed from a friend

Book Beginnings: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

I’m currently reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang.

It begins:

At the age of fifteen my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general, the police chief of a tenuous national government of China. The year was 1924 and China was in chaos. Much of it, including Manchuria, where my grandmother lived, was ruled by warlords. the liaison was arranged by her father, a police official in the provincial town of Xixian in southwest Manchuria, about a hundred miles north of the Great Wall and 250 miles northeast of Peking.

Wild Swans is a family memoir – the story of three generations of woman in Jung Chang’s family – her grandmother, mother and herself. This is the 2003 edition with an introduction by Jung Chang explaining how she came to write the book. She had always dreamed of being a writer, but growing up in Mao’s China it seemed out of the question, with most writers suffering in endless police persecutions. It was only after she had been allowed to come to Britain in 1978 to study that she had the freedom to write and to write what she wanted.

So far, I’m finding it fascinating, reading about her grandmother, who was one of the last generation of Chinese woman to suffer the practice of binding feet. I knew of this practice, but hadn’t realised just how much the little girls suffered and continued to suffer throughout their lives.

As this book is so long (over 600 pages in a small font) it’s going to take me quite a while to read it. I’l probably write a few posts on my progress.

First Chapter, First Paragraph is hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea.

From the Archives: Biographies

This is a second post in which I’m following Simon’s example at Stuck in a Book of posts in which he revisits his old reviews. I’ve been looking back into my archives at biographies – triggered by Katrina’s post on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca Notebook, which I’ve also read and written about in 2010.

So here’s a list of some of my posts on biographies of authors – with links to the posts, a short summary and a quotation from my review.

First of all two from 2007:

  • Daphne by Margaret Forster – a biography of Daphne Du Maurier, the author of Rebecca etc

From my post: There is too much I could say about ‘Daphne’, not least that it is a candid account of her relationships, eg her troubled married life; wartime love affair; and friendships with Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday, as well as an excellent source of information on Du Maurier’s method of writing and views on life.

  • Lewis Carroll by Morton N Cohen – a biography of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) a long post  which has a somewhat controversial interpretation of some aspects of Dodgson’s life.

From my post: his account of Charles Dodgson’s life is basically chronological, but because he also looks at different aspects of Charles’s life it is a bit repetitive. As biographies go this is not one of the most straightforward or readable. It’s extremely detailed and at nearly 600 pages it is not a quick read.

One from 2008:

  • Dear Dodie by Valerie Grove – biography of Dodie Smith, the author of I Capture the Castle etc.

From my post: It is very readable and gives a very full picture of Dodie’s life, and it has an excellent index (always a plus for me). 

And two from 2009:

  • Wild Mary by Patrick Marnham – biography of Mary Wesley, the author of Camomile Lawn and other books.

From my post:  … I certainly wouldn’t like to have met Mary. She seems to have been a difficult and determined woman who aroused strong passions in those who knew and loved her.

From my post: My outstanding impression of the book is how amazingly detailed it is given the fact that few records of her life have survived.

A Card From Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp: Book Notes

I liked the look of A Card from Angela Carter when I saw it in the library. It’s a small book that slots easily into a pocket or handbag and is very short – just 103 pages. I thought it would be a nice change after some of the very long books I’ve been reading recently.

I also liked the concept – a study of Angela Carter using the postcards she had sent to Susannah Clapp, who is the literary executor of Angela Carter as well as being a publisher’s reader, editor and critic. She and Angela had been friends for a number of years.

Now, Angela Carter is one of those writers whose books I’ve been meaning to read and have never got round to them, so I thought this book, which forms a sort of biography would give me at least an elementary picture  of her life and work. And that’s just what it did. Now I really do want to read some of her books – Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales and Nights at the Circus, for example. I really find it hard to realise that it is twenty years ago now since she died at the age of 51 from lung cancer.  The fact that she had never made the shortlists of the Booker Prize led to the foundation of the Orange Prize, but this book, slight as it is, is the only biographical work to have been published.

Susannah Clapp uses the postcards Angela had sent to her ‘form a paper trail through her life.’ Sent from various places around the world some have a full message, some only a few words, which Susannah uses to paint a picture of what Angela was like, a ‘great curser’, capable of the sharpest of remarks, clever, unpredictable, quirky, and funny. She laughed and talked a lot. Using the postcards as a trigger, the book is mainly Susannah’s recollections of Angela, full of stories of her family life, her political views and what the critics made of her work. There’s also a considerable amount, considering the length of the book, about her physical appearance.

As for the postcards, I was disappointed at the black and white reproductions. I was also disappointed that as she is not a cat lover, Angela had not sent her any cards featuring felines, although she did send them to her friend and publisher Carmen Callil. Angela herself loved cats and her first book written at the age of six was called ‘Tom Cat Goes to Market’, which her mother eventually threw away!

Susannah Clapp, whilst allowing that Angela’s fiction and prose did not go unacknowledged while she was alive, considers that her work did not receive the acclamation it deserved because:

She was ten years too old and entirely too female to be mentioned routinely alongside Martin Amis,  Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan as being a young pillar of British fiction. She was twenty years too young to belong to what she considered the ‘alternate pantheon’ of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark in the forties, when ‘in a curious way, women formed the ascendancy.’ (page 3)

This is an entertaining and vivid account in miniature which left me wanting to know more and to read Angela Carter’s books for myself.

Daphne du Maurier: Fact and Fiction

Recently I’ve had a bit of a run on books by and about Daphne du Maurier. First of all I read The Parasites, which reminded me that I’d had Justine Picardie’s novel, Daphne sitting on my bookshelves unread, so I immediately got it down. Then I just had to read My Cousin Rachel, a book I’ve had for years and never got round to reading before now. After that I read Daphne du Maurier: a Daughter’s Memoir by Flavia Leng, just because it was one of the books Justine Picardie consulted in writing her novel. I’ve previously read Margaret Forster’s biography Daphne du Maurier and Daphne du Maurier’s The ‘Rebecca’ Notebook and Other Memories, which is mainly autobiographical.

Daphne by Justine Picardie (2008) – synopsis (from the back cover):

It is 1957. As Daphne du Maurier wanders alone through her remote mansion on the Cornish coast, she is haunted by thoughts of her failing marriage and the legendary heroine of her most famous novel, Rebecca, who now seems close at hand. Seeking distraction, she becomes fascinated by Branwell, the reprobate brother of the Bronte sisters, and begins a correspondence with the enigmatic scholar Alex Symington in which truth and fiction combine. Meanwhile, in present day London, a lonely young woman struggles with her thesis on du Maurier and the Brontes and finds herself retreating from her distant husband into a fifty-year-old literary mystery.

My view: 4/5

This book merges fact and fiction so well that it’s hard to differentiate between the two. I much preferred the story of Daphne herself and her search for information about Branwell. I had to go back to Forster’s biography of Daphne to compare the accounts of her life, which matched up pretty well. I was less keen on the modern day story of a young woman, the second wife of an older man. It had too many obvious parallels with Rebecca for my liking. And if you haven’t read Rebecca, this book gives away the plot. There are also references to My Cousin Rachel, which I glossed over in case there were any spoilers there too (I don’t think there were). All in all, a very satisfying mystery about Daphne and the missing Bronte documents.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951) – synopsis (Amazon):

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly. In almost no time at all, the new widow – Philip’s cousin Rachel – turns up in England. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious woman like a moth to the flame. And yet …might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death?

My view: 4/5

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, completely taken in by the characters and loving the setting in an old mansion in Cornwall. The story is narrated by Philip, so the other characters are seen through his eyes. The tension mounts as Philip becomes obsessed with Rachel and I was never quite sure what was real and what to believe. He is not a stable character and as Rachel’s own thoughts are not revealed it’s not clear if she can be believed either, whether she is sincere or evil and manipulative.

Daphne du Maurier: a Daughter’s Memoir (1994) – synopsis (from the back cover):

In this moving and revealing memoir, Flavia Leng paints a powerful portrait of her mother, Daphne du Maurier. She presents an account of an unusual and often lonely childhood spent in London and especially Cornwall, at her mother’s beloved home, Menabilly. Family friends included Nelson and Ellen Doubleday, Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward. However, at the centre of this story is Daphne du Maurier herself. The book reveals a writer with a deep attachment to Cornwall, where she put down her roots and found inspiration for her novels, and who spent much of her life as a recluse, withdrawn not only from the outside world but also from members of her own family. A picture emerges of a woman who lived in a world of her own creation that was beyond the comprehension of those around her.

My view: 3.5/5

In the epilogue Flavia Leng, Daphne du Maurier younger daughter, explained that she began to write this memoir of her childhood two years before her mother died in 1989 and it was never meant for publication – it was just for the family. And that to me epitomises this memoir – it’s an account of her childhood and of her family as seen through a child’s eyes. It seems a lonely childhood, despite being the middle child. As children Flavia and her older sister Tessa didn’t get on and both she and Tessa saw that their mother lavished more affection on her beloved son, Christopher who they called Kits. But a picture emerges of Daphne, who they called Bing, as a solitary person, closeted away with her typewriter or lost in her world of ‘never, never land’, peopled by the characters she invented, with little time for her children, who were looked after by Nanny and then ‘Tod’, their governess.

Like her mother Flavia has a great love of Cornwall which shines through the book – she was never happier than when alone in Menabilly and the surrounding woodlands. It’s a sad memoir ending with Flavia feeling she had no roots left after her parents died:

I have heard it said that a person only really grows up when both parents have gone; what I do know is that life will never be quite the same again. Cornwall no longer holds the enchantment it once did. Gone is the excitement of driving down those leafy, winding roads to the lovely old houses, my beloved Menabilly, and then later Kilmarth where Bing lived out her years.

Mini Reviews

I’ve been reading books recently and not writing anything about them. So, before they drop out of my mind completely here are a few notes:

Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee – this is a book about writing biography, which I’ve been reading on and off since I started it in 2007! I first wrote about my impressions in this post. It’s very good with an interesting selection, although some essays are a lot shorter than others. As with all books about writing it includes books and authors I haven’t read – and makes me want to read them – Eudora Welty for one. There are essays on T S Eliot, J M Coetzee, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few.

My rating 4/5

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – I bought this book several years ago, so it’s one off my to-be-read list. A fantasy/science fiction magical classic and 1963 Newbery Medal winning book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the story of Meg and Charles, searching for their father, a scientist, lost through a ‘wrinkle in time’, with wonderful characters such as Mrs  Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which to help them.

My rating 4.5/5

Maigret in Court by Georges Simenon. Maigret is two years from retirement and is wondering about this with foreboding. He does seem rather tired as he investigates the murder of a woman and small child. The book begins in court as Maigret gives evidence against Gaston Meurat, but he is beginning to have doubts that Meurat is the murderer and carries on investigating to save Meurat from execution. A complicated story, packed into 126 pages, that at times had me completely puzzled.

My rating 3/5

I read two books on Kindle:

Breakfast at the Hotel Deja Vu by Paul Torday. I rather liked this little e-book about a politician, a former MP exposed in the expenses scandal and staying in a hotel abroad, whilst he recovers from an illness and writes his memoirs. All is not as it seems, however, as each day he discovers he hasn’t actually written anything.And just who are the woman and young boy he sees each morning?

My rating 4/5

Crime in the Community by Cecilia Peartree – a free e-book from Amazon. I was disappointed with this one – too wordy, and convoluted. It’s about a small group of people who are supposed to be organising events to improve their community, but who actually don’t do anything except go to meetings. I found this part quite true to life for some committees I’ve known. But then it got tedious and eventually too far-fetched with a retired spy, a missing person and a mental breakdown.

My rating 2/5

H is for Hardy

Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite authors. He was born in 1840 at Upper Bockhampton near Dorchester. What I love most about Hardy’s books are his lyrical descriptions of nature and the countryside and all his books show his great love and knowledge of the countryside in all its aspects. They also show his almost pagan sense of fate and the struggle between man and an omnipotent and indifferent fate. Hardy was a pessimist – man’s fate is inevitable, affected by chance and coincidence. It cannot be changed, only accepted with dignity. This is illustrated in his poem – Hap, written in 1866:

If but some vengeful god would call to me

From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,

Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,

That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

 

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,      

Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;

Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I

Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

 

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,

And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?

—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,

And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan….

These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown

Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain

The first book by Thomas Hardy that I read was The Trumpet Major – I think it was in the second year at secondary school. I remember very little about it, except that it was set during the Napoleonic Wars and I wasn’t too impressed. Then I read The Mayor of Casterbridge for A level GCE and thought it was wonderful. I still have my copy, with passages underlined and notes at the tops of pages – all in pencil. It’s full title is The Life and Death of the Mayor of Casterbridge: A Story of a Man of Character. It tells the tragic tale of Michael Henchard, a man of violent passions, proud, impulsive with a great need for love. It opens dramatically as he sells his wife and child to a sailor at a fair. By his own hard work over the years he eventually became the rich and respected Mayor of Casterbridge. But then the re-appearance of his wife and her daughter sets off a train of events finally bringing Henchard to ruin and degradation.

Because I enjoyed The Mayor over the years I’ve read more of Hardy’s books, including Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, both dramatic tragedies. In Jude Hardy attacked the Church and the marriage state, which received a mixed reception at the time – the Bishop of Wakefield burned his copy of the book and W H Smith withdrew it from their circulating library, but the public bought 20,000 copies, whether or not due to the scandal it aroused.  These books were considered masterpieces by some and scandalous by others.

Of the two I prefer Jude to Tess and having re-read them both more recently I still feel the same, but now I’m less impatient with the way Hardy presents Tess as a helpless victim than I had been before.  She is an innocent, raped by Angel Clare, the man she loves and Hardy highlights the hypocrisy of the times in condemning the ‘fallen woman’.

In Thomas Hardy, the Time-Torn Man Claire Tomalin writes not only about his life but also how he became a writer, poet and novelist. I began reading this book a few years ago and every now and then think I really must finish it. I stopped, as usual, overtaken by the desire to read other books- including more by Hardy himself.

The Thomas Hardy Society is an excellent source of information on the man and his works.

This is an ABC Wednesday post for the letter H.

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four… and Five…

Today I’m copying Simon and doing his little this-book-that-book-this-book-that-book sort of post.
  1. The book I’m currently reading:


    Cop Hater by Ed McBain – there are 13  87th Precint books – this is the first in his series. There’s a heat-wave and someone is killing cops. McBain was a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and was one of three American writers to be awarded the CWA Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement.

  2. The last book I finished:


    Gently Does It by Alan Hunter – The first of the Inspector Gently books. I read it on my Kindle and enjoyed it very much – post to follow later.
  3. The next book I want to read:


    The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann – this is the next book for my face-to-face book group and I was talking to some of the other members yesterday who’ve already started it and they told me how good it is. It’s the story of Olivia and her love affair with a married man. I don’t often read romantic novels, so this will a change for me. I’m looking forward to reading it.
  4. The last book I bought:

    The last one I bought was The Weather in the Streets. The one before that was:

    Adam and Eve and Pinch Me by Ruth Rendell
    I bought this from the secondhand book box at Eyemouth Hospital. It’s hardback and looks practically brand new. I like buying books from the local hospitals as the money goes to a good cause. And I especially like buying them when they’re by authors I enjoy, such as Ruth Rendell.
  5. The last book I was given:


    Agatha Christie At Home by Hilary Macaskill. My husband gave me this for Christmas and I’m amazed at myself because I haven’t read it yet, although I’ve had a look at the photos. This is not just about Greenway, Agatha Christie’s Devon home but about her other houses and identifies the settings she used in her books.

Book Notes

I’ve recently finished reading two books:

It’s taken me several weeks to read Eden’s Outcasts and at one point I nearly abandoned it because I thought it was too much about Louisa May Alcott’s father. I’m glad I persevered because the second half of the book  concentrates much more on Louisa and I realised that the title does convey the subject matter very well as it reveals the relationship between them. Bronson Alcott was a complicated person who appeared to have mellowed as he grew older. Louisa, well known and loved for her children’s books never achieved her ambition to write serious books for mature readers, enduring debilitating illness in her later years.

I learnt a lot from this book about their lives and their relationships with other writers such as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. It’s a very detailed book and there is no way I can summarise their lives in a few words and a double biography is even more difficult to deal with. In the final  paragraph Matteson sums this up very well:

To the extent that a written page permits knowledge of a different time and departed souls, this book has tried to reveal them. However, as Bronson Alcott learned to his amusement, the life written is never the same as the life lived. Journals and letters tell much. Biographers can sift the sands as they think wisest. But the bonds that two persons share consist also of encouraging words, a reassuring hand on a tired shoulder, fleeting smiles, and soon-forgotten quarrels. These contracts, so indispensable to existence, leave no durable trace. As writers, as reformers, and as inspirations, Bronson and Louisa still exist for us. Yet this existence, on whatever terms we may experience it, is no more than a shadow when measured against the way they existed for each other. (page 428)

Turning to Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams,  I thought an autobiography would maybe include more personal recollections and descriptions of events. It starts off very well with her descriptions of her early childhood – her earliest memory from 1933 when she was three and fell on her head from a swing at the Chelsea Babies’ playground. I was very impressed by her memories of the time she spent in America as a young girl during the Second World War and her self-reliance and independence.

However, much of the book consists of her accounts of her political life, making it very much a political history of Britain, rather than a personal account of her life. There are some personal memories and I particularly liked her descriptions of her fellow politicians – Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and so one – very little about Margaret Thatcher and a few pertinent comments about Tony Blair. Having said that she comes over as a very honest, genuine person who cares deeply about being a good politician. And maybe it is more personal than I originally thought because in the last chapter she writes these words:

Being an MP is like being a member of an extended family. You learn to love your family with all its knobbliness, perversity, courage and complexity. You learn respect and build up trust. …

To be a good politician in a democracy you have to care for people and be fascinated by what makes them tick. … The politician whose eyes shift constantly to his watch, or to the apparently most important person in the room, feeds the distrust felt by the electorate. It is a distrust born of being manipulated, conned, even decieved and it is fed by a relentlessly cynical national press. (page 389)

A side effect of reading this book is that I’m going to read her mother’s book, a best seller published in 1933 – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Shirley describes it as

… an autobiography of her wartime experience as a nurse and her personal agony in losing all the young men she most loved … (page 13)

In the preface to Testimony of Youth she wrote:

Testimony of Youth is, I think, the only book about the First World War written by a woman, and indeed a woman whose childhood had been a very sheltered one. It is an autobiography and also an elegy for a generation. For many men and women, it described movingly how they themselves felt.

This looks like a much more personal autobiography.

The Sunday Salon

Today I’ve been reading more from Eden’s Outcasts: the story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. At long last, as I have been reading this book for ages, I have arrived at the time of Louisa’s life where she has written and published Little Women. Up to this point (about 60% of the book) most of it has been about Bronson Alcott, her father and it is Louisa who I find most interesting.

Louisa wrote in vortices – completely engrossed in her writing, with barely time for anything else, so intense was her concentration. Mostly she wrote in her bedroom at a desk Bronson had built for her, but sometimes she sat on the parlour sofa. Her family knew that if the bolster pillow next to her stood on its end they could speak to her, but if the pillow lay on its side they couldn’t disturb her. In two and a half months she had completed writing 402 manuscript pages and at the end of it she had briefly broken down.

Little Women was an instant success, the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out within days of the book’s release and another 4,500 copies were in print by the end of the year (1868). Three months later she had written the second part of Little Women – the book I know as Good Wives. She had

… plunged back into a creative cortex on November 1, vowing to write a chapter a day. She worked ‘like a steam engine’, taking a daily run as her only recreation and barely stopping to eat or sleep.  Falling behind the ambitious schedule she had set for herself, she spent her birthday alone’writing hard.’ (page 345)

She put her heart and soul into her writing.

Both Louisa and her father were complex characters and Matteson’s biography is detailed and in depth. It’s not a quick read, but then biographies never are in my experience.

ABC Wednesday – G is for George VI

We went to see The King’s Speech on Monday, a BAFTA Award winning film based on the true story of how King George VI overcame his stutter.  This had me reaching for an old book that I used to look at as a child – The Coronation Book of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. It’s full of sepia photos and gives details of the coronation on May 12 1937 together with a short history of the ceremony and accounts of the lives of George VI (Prince Albert) and Queen Elizabeth (Lady Elizabeth Lyon) up to the coronation.

The only mention I can find in the book about George VI’s stutter is below this photo of him taken when he was 25, then the Duke of York, stating that ‘he fought, with remarkable courage, his only handicap – a slight hesitancy in speech. Though five years were to pass before complete mastery was achieved the task was well begun.

I love this photo taken in 1898 of the Royal family showing Queen Victoria in the centre of a family group on the lawn at Osborne in the Isle of Wight. (Click on the photos to enlarge) George VI who was at that time Prince Albert is  to the right of Queen Victoria standing in front of his father, then the Duke of York.

What is not shown in the film, because it focuses on George VI’s speech problems leading up to his brother’s abdication and his ascension to the throne, is that he was had entered the Royal Navy in 1909. His destiny as the second son of the Prince of Wales was to remain in the Navy for his whole career. He served in HMS Collingwood which was a battleship that took part in the battle of Jutland in 1916. The Collingwood escaped damages and Prince Albert was mentioned in dispatches for his coolness under fire.

After the war he went to Trinity College  Cambridge University. As the son of George V he didn’t take a full-time degree course but took courses in special subjects, in his case Prince Albert took history, economics and civics. He was also a keen sportsman and played tennis, golf and polo. He won the Royal Airforce Lawn Tennis Doubles Championship at Queen’s Club in 1920

As a child I spent hours looking at the photos in this book but I don’t think I actually read much of except for the captions. It begins with these words:

Destiny has had a strange errand for Albert Frederick Arthur George, Prince of the Royal House of Windsor. Within eleven months he served two kings and became himself a king.

All this was history to me, not history I learnt at school, but at home. I don’t know whether the book originally belonged to one of my grandparents, but I have a feeling it could have been my mother’s mother as she was a staunch Royalist. It was the photos of George VI’s children that interested me most as a child – Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, now I’d like to know more about George himself.

The only colour illustrations are the end papers – a painting of the coronation carriage:

See more illustrations of the letter  G at ABC Wednesday and on my other blog where I’ve written about Gauguin and his relationship with Van Gogh.

Sunday Salon – Current Books

This week I’ve finished reading two crime fiction books:

and posts on these books will be on my blog this coming week.

I’m still reading Eden’s Outcast: the story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. So far I’ve been reading about Bronson Alcott and his unorthdox ideas about educating and bringing up children.  It was quite a coincidence I thought, when I was reading the Daily Express in the coffee shop recently and came across a review of Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and their Search for Utopia by Richard Francis. The reviewer describes this book as a

… richly textured history of the life and times of a back‑to‑nature community in 19th-century America. It was called Fruitlands, though Fruitcakes would have been more apt.
(Read more from this review.)

I haven’t got up to this venture so far in Eden’s Outcasts. There are many entries in the index under ‘Fruitlands’ so I expect to find out much more about it. His career as a teacher was not a success and it seems that his venture into communal farming wasn’t either.

I spent other reading time this week downloading more books onto my Kindle and have read the opening paragraphs of most of them. It really is so easy to get carried away and add more books to my to-be-read lists! But I only bought one book this week, so that’s not too bad.

It’s Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose and it’s been on my wish list for a long time. I read fairly quickly and know that I often read too quickly to take in all the detail. Prose writes that reading quickly can be ‘a hindrance‘ and that it is ‘essential to slow down and read every word‘. She also contradicts the advice to novice writers ‘to show, not tell‘, when ‘the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language‘. Using Alice Munro’s short story Dulse as an example, she says:

There are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing. A lot of time would have been wasted had Alice Munro believed that she could not begin her story until she had shown us Lydia working as an editor, writing poetry, breaking up with her lover, dealing with her children, getting divorced, growing older, and taking all the steps that led up to the moment at which the story rightly begins.

Most interesting, I thought.

I still haven’t got used to Kindle’s use of locations as opposed to page numbers – the extract above is from Location 409 – 12. Nor have I mastered the technique of transferring my highlighted passages and notes from the Kindle to the computer!

I’m also reading The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney. This is an Advance Uncorrected Proof; the book is scheduled to be on sale on 8 February. It’s the first book I’ve read by Delaney, described by the publisher as a

… lush and surprising historical novel, rich as a myth, tense as a thriller …

From what I’ve read of it so far I’d go along with that description, except for the tenseness – but it’s early days yet. It’s set in 1943 in Ireland, a neutral country in the Second World War. It’s a long book and takes its time in setting the scene and introducing the characters. It promises well.

Weekly Geeks – The books you’ve waited too long to read

This weekend, Weekly Geeks host EH asks about books we have waited too long to read.

Is there a book that has been hanging around your reading pile for far too long before you got to it. A book that probably got packed away until you accidentally got to it or a book that you read a few pages in and never got back to.

There are quite a few books over the last few years that I have started to read and not finished. I don’t mean the ones that I don’t intend to finish. Rather these are books I would like to read all the way through but have not so far got round to it. They are mainly non-fiction and the reason I’ve not finished them is usually that they take more time to read than fiction and so I slot other books in between reading sessions and sometimes just don’t get back to the non-fiction.

These are some of them – all books I do intend to finish:

  1. Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin – I stopped reading this partway in as I decided I needed to read more of Hardy’s own books before going further. I’ve read a few more of his books, but have never got back to this biography.
  2. A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela – I must have read about half of this book before I stopped. It was so long ago that I can’t remember why I didn’t finish it.
  3. A Dead Language by Peter Rushforth – this one is fiction. I loved Pinkerton’s Sister by Rushforth. I found A Dead Language hard-going, but I will get back to it one day. The downside is that I’ll have to start it again as I’ve forgotten who all the characters are.
  4. 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro – I can’t remember any specific reason I haven’t finished this book.
  5. Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each essay that I’ve read so far. As the essays are self-contained there is no problem in reading it in instalments.

Saturday Selection

I’ve recently finished Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty and am over halfway into The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. Even though I’ve started The Serpent Pool by Martin Edwards I’m thinking what to read after that. I have a number of books lined up – my birthday books for example, but I have several library books and a couple of new books that are also in the running. They are: 

  • The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton. I’ve read one other book by Rosy, which I enjoyed very much – Hearts and Minds, so I was delighted when she asked me if I’d like to read her latest book. I see that other bloggers have already reviewed it with good reports, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy this one too. It’s about Catherine who moves from  England to a rural idyll in a tiny hamlet in the Cevennes mountains, where she sets up in business as a seamstress.  But sometimes a rural idyll isn’t what it seems …
  • Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas. This is a library book.  I surprised myself by borrowing this book as I don’t like to read scary books and the blurb tells me that this is a frightening and surprising novel about a problem with wolves in  the French mountains – possibly involving a werewolf.
  • Yet another book (another library book) with a French connection is All Our Wordly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky. I’m hoping to enjoy this as much as I did her other books – Fire in the Blood and Suite Francaise. It’s the gripping story of family life and starcrossed lovers, of commerce and greed , set against the backdrop of France from 1911 to 1940.
  • I read about Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer on Bernadette’s blog Reactions to Reading and was convinced that I should read it too. Fortunately my library had a copy. Set in South Africa (and translated from Afrikaans) Detective Benny Griessel investigates the disappearance of an American backpacker, whilst trying to stay sober and mentoring the next generation of detectives.
  • And for something completely different I have The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott. This came to me via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Programme. Grimaldi was the most celebrated of English clowns and this biography not only tells the story of his life but also paints a picture of the theatrical scene in London in Georgian England. Grimaldi was also an acrobat and an innovator, who struggled with depression.

Birthday Books

These are the books I had for my birthday.

The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction is a reference book that I can just dip into. The rest are all books I’d love to read immediately. If you click on the photo you’ll see from the enlarged view showing the creasing on the spine that I’ve already started to read the Creative Writing book. I’m always fascinated by this type of how-to book and already have a few. I saw this at one of the airport bookshops on our recent trip to Stuttgart (see Flickr for some photos) and thought it looked interesting – I’m much better at reading books like this than actually writing anything.

I’ve also read the first few pages of Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens. I’ve read several of Dickens’s books and am currently reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so I want to know more about him. This biography begins with his death and the reactions to his death, not only in Britain but also in America.

I’ve read Martin Edwards earlier Lake District Mysteries – they’re excellent. I couldn’t resist reading the startling opening of this latest one, The Serpent Pool:

The books were burning.

Pages crackled and bindings split. The fire snarled and spat like a wild creature freed from captivity to feast on calfskin, linen and cloth. Paper blackened and curled, the words disappeared. Poetry and prose, devoured by flames. (page 7)

This grabs my attention and makes me want to read on immediately.

But there are also the other books I can’t wait to get to:

  •  Susan Hill’s latest Simon Serrailler novel The Shadows in the Street, because I’ve all the others and found them all compelling reading.  This is the fifth one.
  • The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith, the first Isabel Dalhousie book. I’ve read and loved some of the later ones.
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. I’ve read good reports of this book. Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors and this book promises to be just as good as her others.

As usual I wish I could read all of them at once!

Friday Finds – Books and a Bookshop

New-to-me books this week are Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh,  and The Sisters who would be Queen by Leanda de Lisle.

Louise Welsh is the author of The Cutting Room, a dark mystery, which I read several years ago and thought was good, if rather scary. Naming the Bones looks promising:

Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here? (Blurb on the back cover)

Dipping into the book I see that the story moves from Edinborough and Glaslow to the Isle of Lismore a small island off the west coast of Scotland. I’m tempted to start reading at once and as I’m nearing the end of Barbara Vine’s A Dark Adapted Eye I think this will be my next book.

I seem to be drawn these last few months to the Tudor period. Having read fiction – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell) and currently reading Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Thomas More’s family) I also bought a book of non-fiction, namely The Sisters who would be Queen: the tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle. This is the story of the tumultuous lives of Lady Jane Grey, known as the “Nine-Day Queen”,  and her sisters. I nearly didn’t buy this book as I don’t like pictures of headless women on book covers! But the blurb by Julian Fellowes attracted my attention:

An enthralling story of tyranny and betrayal … meticulous history that reads like a bestselling novel.

I bought these books in a real bookshop – Main Street Books in St Boswell’s. I first found out about this shop from Cornflower’s blog (where she has lovely photos of the shop) and it is a real find – not only books, but a cafe and gift shop and they also sell antiques. We’d been to Melrose and stopped in Main Street Books on the way home (just a short detour), where we browsed and had lunch.

Friday Finds is  hosted by Should Be Reading.

Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days by Jared Cade

In December 1926 Agatha Christie disappeared from her home, Styles, in Berkshire. She was found eleven days later in a hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire apparently suffering from amnesia. Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days by Jared Cade delves into the mystery of her disappearance. The book is not just about those eleven days but is a biography that reveals how those eleven days and the events that led up to her disappearance influenced the rest of her life.

Agatha’s Autobiography is silent on the matter. She recalls how they chose Styles, remarking that it was an unlucky house and that she had felt it as soon as she moved in. She then moved swiftly on merely saying:

The next year of my life is one I hate recalling. As so often in life, when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong. (page 356)

Sadly she was  right, as Jared Cade reveals from information given to him by Judith and Graham Gardner. Judith’s mother was Nan Watts, Agatha’s sister-in-law and life-long friend. They showed him photographs and private letters shedding light on the situation.  It makes a fascinating book. I did feel as though I was intruding into Agatha Christie’s private life that she had not wanted made known but Cade writes sympathetically. Now I really must read her life story in her own words, as so far I’ve only dipped into it reading snippets here and there.

The Rebecca Notebook & Other Memories by Daphne Du Maurier

Why do writers write? How do they go about it? What inspires them? The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories gives a glimpse into the mind of Daphne Du Maurier.

Du Maurier began to write Rebecca in 1937 when she was thirty years old, living in Alexandria and feeling homesick for Cornwall. She jotted down chapter summaries in a notebook, setting the book in the mid 1920s ‘about a young wife and her slightly older husband, living in a beautiful house that had been in his family for generations.’ As she thought about it ideas sprang to her mind – a first wife – jealousy, something terrible would happen – a wreck at sea. She became immersed in the story, losing herself in the plot, as so many of us have done ever since.

One question that many people asked her was why she never gave the heroine a name and her answer is so simple – she couldn’t think of one and ‘it became a challenge in technique, the easier because I was writing in the first person.’ I thought this was quite surprising – if it had been me I would have not been able to write it without giving the heroine a name. It’s almost as if Du Maurier identified with her heroine so much that a name wasn’t necessary. It has puzzled me for years and now reading the reason she has no name I’m even more puzzled. See comments.

She made changes to the final published version of Rebecca merging the epilogue into the first chapter and changing the husband’s name from Henry, which she thought dull, to Max and making the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, more sinister.

I enjoyed the other short pieces in this book – her ‘memories’ of her family and her own life and beliefs. The first three are about her grandfather, George Du Maurier, her father, Gerald and her cousins, the Davies boys. She wrote with nostalgia about George, who was an artist and writer – ‘a man who worshipped beauty’ and Gerald, who she described as ‘the matinee idol’, a leading actor-manager in the 1920s and early 30s.

Then there are memoirs on her thoughts entitled My Name in Lights, Romantic Love, This I Believe and Death and Widowhood. She disliked the ‘trappings of success’, thought there was no such thing as ‘romantic love’. The ‘sceptic of seven who queried the existence of God in the sky, of fairies in the woods, of Father Christmas descending every London chimney in a single magic night, remains a sceptic at fifty-seven, believing all things possible only when they can be proved by scientific fact.’

She wrote Death and Widowhood with the aim of helping others ‘who have suffered in a similar fashion’, about her husband’s death and the finality of being alone, pondering on immortality and the practicalities of daily life.

There are descriptions of finding the house she loved, Menabilly, of the upheaval of leaving it, and the move to Kilmarth (the house she wrote about in her novel The House on the Strand.)

Sunday (written in 1976) looks back on that day’s events when she was a child contrasted with the events of that day in her old age – a day for privacy and reflecting on the miracle of creation and a Creator. Finally, there are three poems, The Writer (1926), Another World (1947) and A Prayer (1967).

Mine is the silence

And the quiet gloom

Of a clock ticking

In an empty room,

The scratch of a pen,

Inkpot and paper,

And the patter of rain.

Nothing but this as long as I am able,

Firelight – and a chair, and a table.

(from The Writer, 1926)

Poetic Lives:Shelley by Daniel Hahn

I didn’t know much about Shelley before I read Poetic Lives: Shelley by Daniel Hahn. This biography gives brief details of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s short but extraordinary life, from his birth in 1792 to his early death in 1822, shortly before his thirtieth birthday.

The opening paragraph caught my immediate attention in pointing out that Shelley was not that far away from the present day. Although he was born during the reign of mad King George III when there were struggles for independence in Europe – the French Revolution and then Napoleon’s rise to power, his granddaughter saw the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War and the Great Depression.

Shelley was an unhappy child, an unconventional teenager, an atheist and a radical reformer. He was expelled from Oxford University before he could complete his degree and was at odds with his father. He eloped with the daughter of a coffee-shop owner in 1811 but after three years the marriage was over when he met Mary Godwin. He was constantly in poor health and for much of the rest of his life they lived a nomadic existence travelling around Italy and France.

Hahn also quotes extracts from Shelley’s poems and prose. He also uses various sources such as Shelley’s friend Thomas Hogg, who wrote his Life of Shelley in 1857, Shelley’s cousin Tom Medwin who published a memoir of Shelley and a two-volume Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1847 and another friend, Edward Trelawney who wrote Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron in 1858.

I found parts of the book moving, Shelley’s  reaction to John Keats’s death for example and the events of his own death, but on the whole it is a prosaic account of Shelley’s life. Hahn’s repetitive use of the word “would” was irritating. It has interested me enough to want to read more about Shelley and his poems. I have started reading  Ann Wroe’s book Being Shelley: the Poet’s Search for Himself, which promises to be a much fuller account and also more about him as a poet. More about that book another time.

I received Poetic Lives:Shelley from the publishers via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers’ Programme.

It’s All About Me – Booking Through Thursday

btt button

Deb’s question today is: Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

I’m not sure I can decide which I prefer.

I read both biographies and autobiographies and they both have their pros and cons. Both can be biased and written to present a certain portrait, either flattering or otherwise. Biographers are trying to reconstruct a person’s life from different sources, including letters, diaries, and personal accounts. The end result may seem as if it is factual, but it is an interpretation and quasi-fictional. I don’t like biographies that make general assumptions about a person’s thoughts and motives based on speculation and the author’s own views and impressions.

Inevitably neither a biography nor an autobiography can retell the whole of a person’s life so there has to be a selection and the skill is deciding what to include and what to leave out. This does of course mean that secrets/events a person doesn’t want reveal may be revealed by a biographer with a particular axe to grind or be left out to paint a more flattering portrait.

A good example of a biography is Jane Austen: a Life by Claire Tomalin. It’s well researched, detailed, based on documentary evidence such as diaries and Jane Austen’s own letters.

Memoirs are what a person remembers about their life. Generally they’re more about a particular part of a life rather than the whole. I’ve recently read Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, which is a good example of an autobiography/memoir. It won the Costa Biography Award in 2008 and I think the judges comment sums up what makes a good autobiography/biography:

A perfect memoir of old age – candid, detailed, charming, totally lacking in self-pity or sentimentality and, above all, beautifully, beautifully written.

 

Jane Austen: a Life by Claire Tomalin

jane-austen-tomalinIt’s been a few weeks since I finished reading Jane Austen: a Life by Claire Tomalin. I listed this book as one I hadn’t reviewed in a Weekly Geeks post  – the idea being to spur me on to writing the outstanding reviews and invite questions about the books from other book bloggers.

Dorothy, who sent me the book and who writes Of Books and Bicycles asked Were there things you learned in the book that surprised you? And Eva who writes A Striped Armchair’s questions are – Are you a big Austen fan? Did reading her biography enhance her fiction for you, or take something away? Is Tomalin a relatively objective biographer?

My outstanding impression of the book is how amazingly detailed it is given the fact that few records of her life have survived. It did surprise me a little that Claire Tomalin admits that it was not an easy story to investigate, but explained that Jane Austen wrote no autobiographical notes and if she kept any diaries they did not survive her. Most of her letters to her sister Cassandra were destroyed by Cassandra and a niece destroyed those she had written to one of her brothers. However, 160 letters remain and there is a biographical note of just a few pages written by her brother, Henry after her death. He explained that her life “was not by any means a life of event.” But as Tomalin discovered her life was “full of events, of distress and even trauma, which left marks upon her as permanent as any blacking factory.”

As I’d previously read Carol Shields’s biography of Austen there was really very little I learned reading this book that surprised me – I already knew the outline of her life, that she was considered rather unrefined by her relatives and of her love for Tom Lefroy who eventually married an heiress.

In answer to Eva’s questions I have loved Jane Austen’s books for years – since reading Pride and Prejudice as a young teenager. I’ve also enjoyed and been impressed by Claire Tomalin’s biographies. Reading her biography of Austen has enhanced my reading of her fiction, setting them in the context of her world. Jane Austen was not remote from the events of her day, with brothers in the navy, and England at war with France.  Tomalin is a relatively objective biographer although every now and then she voices opinions based on her impressions, such as this one concerning Jane’s lack of vanity and efforts to be concerned with fashion and dress design:

In her letters she may comment on the fact that ladies are wearing fruit on their hats, and that it seems more natural to have flowers growing out of the head, and be precise about the colour she requires for dress material; but the impression we get is that, had she lived two hundred years later, she would have rejoiced in the freedom of an old pair of trousers, with a tweed skirt for church, and one decent dress kept for evening. (pages 112 – 113)

But mainly she sticks to the facts, gleaned from the documentary material and concludes that Jane Austen

 …  is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky.

She has a way of sending biographers away feeling that as Lord David Cecil put it, she remains “as no doubt she would have wished – not an intimate but an acquaintance. ”  Her sharpness and refusal to suffer fools, makes you fearful of intruding, misinterpreting, crassly misreading the evidence. (page 285)

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and particularly liked the quotations from Austen’s letters and the details about her family and friends.

map-of-steventon I always like maps and thought this map at the front of the book showing Steventon and the Austens’  Hampshire Neighbours was a useful feature – I consulted it regularly. The End Notes are good, giving information on the sources and there is also a helpful index.

This Time Five Years Ago

I’ve previously written about what I was reading ten years ago so when I read Literary Feline’s post about the books she read in January 2004. I thought I’d have a look at what I was reading five years ago. It was in that month that I once again tried to keep track of my reading – I hadn’t recorded my reading since February 2003!  Even then it seemed to be a bit of a hit and miss affair.  I just jotted down a few details about each book.

The first entry in January 2004 is Iris by A N Wilson. A year earlier I’d read John Bayley’s iris-by-conradibiographies of Iris, which I found rather uncomfortable reading with maybe too many personal details for my liking. Iris had died in February 1999 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I’d also read Iris Murdoch: a Life by Peter J Conradi. This is a very different account of Iris. I’d noted that it was “very long and detailed – mainly a literary biography – OK when I had read the books – most interesting when about events and descriptions of her and John.”

iris-by-wilsonA N Wilson’s biography is very different yet again and all I noted was that it was interesting because of that. This book received some very critical reviews, but I didn’t know that when I read it.  It made me want to read more of her books so I then read The Italian Girl as that was the only book by her on the shelf in the library. I thought it was “quite strange with unattractive characters”. I enjoyed it though and thought it “does make you want to know more about them, what happens and why. Not a book to re-read.”  

Unlike the next book I read – Middlemarch by George Eliot, which I thought was “very good, middlemarchvery long and in places too wordy, but excellent in character description, analysis and plot development. I’d seen it on TV but long enough ago to forget what the characters looked like so it was easy to use my own imagination. Lots of different characters and much social background of 19th century England.” I still dislike having TV or film adaptations of books intruding into my own vision of how the characters look.

solitaireThe last book I wrote about in January 2004 was The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder (who wrote Sophie’s World, that I’d read earlier). I described this as full of philosophical ideas, a story within a story – fantasy/reality/philosophy – about a boy and his father travelling from Norway to Greece in search of the boy’s mother. A dwarf gives the boy a magnifying glass and a baker gives him a miniature book telling the story of a sailor shipwrecked on a desert island in 1790. There is also a pack of playing cards with lives of their own, including a Joker (his father collects Jokers). These are all things he needs to solve the mystery. Unlike Sophie’s World this doesn’t mention specific philosophers but discusses ideas about destiny, the supernatural, conincidences and the reality of the everday world.

I wouldn’t mind re-reading these books, even The Italian Girl!

Wild Mary

I’m still catching up with writing about books I read last year. Wild Mary by Patrick Marnham is a biography of Mary Wesley, the author of Camomile Lawn and other books. My only knowledge of her before reading this was that her first book was published when she was 70 and my impression was that she had only started to write later in her life. That was not the case, however, as she had been writing for many years and had had two children’s books published.

She had an extraordinary life – born in 1912, her mother told her she had been an unwanted child, that it would have been better if she had been born a boy and that she and Mary’s father loved Susan, her sister, more. She married Lord Swinfen and later said that she had done so to get away from her mother. She was soon bored and began a series of love affairs.

The couple eventually divorced in 1945. In 1944 she had met and fallen passionately in love with Eric Siepmann, a penniless writer, then unhappily married to Phyllis, who embarked on a campaign against him, resulting in him losing first one and then another job. Mary and Eric were married in 1952 just two weeks after his divorce. She was devasted when he died in 1970.

Wild Mary is a detailed book about a complicated life written at Mary’s invitation, based on her personal papers, and conversations between Mary and Patrick Manham in 2002. One of the most fascinating things about Mary’s life for me was her wartime experiences, working for MI5 in the decoding unit. She was an intensely private person who lived her life dividing it into compartments. As Patrick Marnham describes:

Almost everyone who remembered Mary Siepmann agreed on one thing; she lived her life in separate compartments. In love and friendship she was happiest with one-to-one relationships, and when she loved her love grew from a response to the distinct separate personality that confronted her own. She had three sons but in the last twenty five years of her life she never invited them to her house at the same time. Her sons, with three different fathers, also had three different mothers – since she could be a different person to each when she saw each alone; and she never shared a child with its father.

She was estranged from her oldest son Roger (due to a legal case between him and his half-brother Toby) but two months before she died he visited her and it had been nearly 30 years since they had seen each other!

I found Marnham’s portrayal of Mary Wesley difficult to follow in parts, maybe because there was so much intrigue and rumour surrounding her life which he was disentangling and at times I thought I certainly wouldn’t like to have met Mary. She seems to have been a difficult and determined woman who aroused strong passions in those who knew and loved her. Although Marnham highlights the links between Mary’s own life and the novels she wrote this biography did not make me want to rush out and read more of her novels.

The Life of Dodie Smith

I’ve just finished reading Dear Dodie: the life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove. It has taken some time to read as at first I only read short sections at a sitting. This week I have spent more time on it – one reason being that it is a library book and I can’t renew it. I do like biographies and this is no exception. It is very readable and gives a very full picture of Dodie’s life, and it has an excellent index (always a plus for me).

I think the best way to sum up this book is to quote these extracts (some are very long, but I wanted to quote in full as I have to return the book):

Of the six plays and six novels that Dodie published between 1931 and 1967, at least one play and one novel will stand in a class of their own. Her life was essentially limited and, to a degree, pampered. Though she had to struggle in her actress days, even at her poorest she never cooked herself a meal, and even as a ‘shopgirl’ there was always someone to wake her and fetch her breakfast. After her mother’s death, she never had to look after anyone – husband, children or aged parents: and she was nannied by her husband for fifty years. A writer who has no family, no responsibility for other people, nobody to consider but himself and his own work (and there are legions of such writers, most of them men) lives a peculiarly privileged and self-indulgent life. But however self-absorbed, she was always curious about others, perceptive, incisive, extravagant, obsessively hard-working and oddly vulnerable. One cannot help liking Dodie for her spirit and humour. (page 323)

 She had a compelling presence; she talked precisely, listened intently; and her indomitable determination and diligence in the face of her own fading appeal were quite remarkable. (page 323)

From Dodie herself:

I am constantly trying to possess life, to save it up, to bring the then into now, and make it available for ever. (page 324)

Dodie Smith was born in 1896 and died in 1990. During her lifetime the world when through enormous changes and numerous wars. This biography not only relates Dodie’s life, but is also a record of those years, containing so much about the changing society, culture, values and recalling an unknown (to me at any rate) theatrical age.

She was the author of two classics – I Capture the Castle and The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Those are the two works that I knew before reading this book. She was also an acclaimed playwright and her plays receiving most praise were Autumn Crocus and Dear Octopus. This book has triggered my interest in reading these plays and more of Dodie’s books. She wrote millions of words, mostly about herself – in her journals and five volumes of autobiography. She simply loved writing. But at times she became depressed and stuck:

The death of Hitler was announced on 2 May 1945, the eve of Dodie’s forty-ninth birthday. In the ensuing week, when the European war reached its end – the very thing she longed for – she found she had a terrifying case of writer’s nerves. ‘My inner ear – that faculty for hearing every word spoken in my head before I write it – suddenly went out of gear; or it had become impossible to pull it out of gear because it never stopped morning or night. It worked while I was writing, reading and even sleeping. Always I heard the words battering at me, trying to form their own satisfactory sentences. I became obsessed by rhythm. I have always fussed about the balance of my writing but in a very amatuer way. Only recently it dawned on me that every word of a novel ought to be as carefully balanced as every speech in a play. Since then, life has been quite nightmarish. I found I was trying to impose on sentences the rhythm of poetry. I heard every word that was said with exaggerated accents. Moreover I couldn’t get any relaxation in reading because my ear listened to the rhythm of everything I read and I couldn’t take in the sense. And nights have been almost more exhausting than the days for I dreamed in words as well as happenings.’ (pages 166 -7)

One touching note – Dodie’s last Dalmatian, Charley, slept on the floor by her side on guard, as it were, during her final days. Dodie left £2000 in her will for ‘the utmost care and protection of Charley’, but three weeks after her departure he died.

Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll

It has taken me a long time to read this biography of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). At times I nearly stopped reading it as Cohen makes so many assumptions and speculates seemingly with little evidence to support his interpretation of the facts. His account of Charles Dodgson’s life is basically chronological, but because he also looks at different aspects of Charles’s life it is a bit repetitive. As biographies go this is not one of the most straightforward or readable. It’s extremely detailed and at nearly 600 pages it is not a quick read.

Cohen uses many sources, including the published Diaries and Letters of Lewis Carroll, along with earlier biographies and magazine articles. There is an extensive index and the chapters are extensively annotated. It is also a very well illustrated book, including many photographs taken by Charles Dodgson as well as reproductions of illustrations from his works and facsimile copies of his letters.

I’m reading Hermione Lee’s Body Parts: essays in life-writing and she quotes a passage from Virginia Woolf on the reductive effects of biography, which I think, is very apt. Woolf compares the writing of biography to the examination of species under a microscope and considers that we arrange what we see about a person and read into their sayings all kinds of meaning that they never thought of. Because of the mass of material available this means that Cohen has inevitably had to select what to include and what to omit and there many places in his biography where he has hypothesised and interpreted the events in Charles Dodgson’s life. For me there are too many questions that Cohen asks and suggest answers which he uses to pyschoanalyse Dodgson’s personality. The parts of the book that I liked best are those about the production of the Alice books, Charles’s interest in photography, his beliefs, and love of games, puzzles and inventions.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born on 27 January 1832 at Daresbury in Cheshire and died on January 14 1898 at Guildford. He was tall and slim, had a stammer, was deaf in his right ear, was generous, sociable and had many friends. Charles told one correspondent that he used the name “Lewis Carroll” rather than his own name “in order to avoid all personal publicity. “ Charles attended Rugby School from 1846 to 1849, went to Christ Church Oxford University where he was awarded a BA with First Class Honours in Mathematics in 1854, eventually becoming the Mathematical Lecturer (until 1881). As well as the books he published as Lewis Carroll, Charles also wrote and published many mathematical works.
Cohen recounts the story of how Charles came to write the Alice books. In 1862, he and his friend Duckworth were rowing on the river at Nuneham with the three Liddell sisters, Ina, Alice and Edith. Charles told them the story of Alice down the rabbit hole and Alice liked it so much that she pestered him to write it down for her. It was two and half years later that he completed his manuscript, illustrated with his own drawings. The book was eventually published in 1865, with the well-known illustrations by Tenniel. I was interested to read how Charles went about writing:“Sometimes an idea comes at night, when I have had to get up and strike a light to note it down – sometimes when out on a lonely winter walk, when I have had to stop, and with half-frozen fingers jot down a few words which should keep the new-born idea from perishing … I cannot set invention going like a clock, by any voluntary winding up … Alice and Looking-Glass are made up almost wholly of bits and scraps, single ideas which came out of themselves. Poor they may have been; but at least they were the best I had to offer.”

He was ordained as Deacon in 1862 but never took full orders as a priest. He was deeply religious, but took a moderate and tolerant view of others’ beliefs. He was not a “High Churchman”, was repelled by ritualism, did not believe in eternal punishment, and refused to exclude non-Christians from salvation. Side by side with his religious beliefs Charles was also interested in psychical research and was a charter member of the Society for Psychical Research along with Conan Doyle, Gladstone, A J Balfour, Frederic Leighton, Ruskin and many more. He took a particular interest in ghost stories and ghost pictures, spiritualism, thought transmission and supernatural phenomena. He was also a keen photographer and theatregoer and was acquainted with the Terry family.

Charles had many other interests. He loved games, puzzles and gadgets and was very inventive. He invented amongst other ingenious objects, a chessboard to use when travelling; a Nyctograph for taking notes under the covers at night – this was in the days before the college rooms at Oxford had electricity; a variety of word games and games of logic, a game of circular billiards, a rule for finding the day of the week for any date; new rules for elimination for tennis tournaments; new systems of parliamentary representation; a device for helping a bedridden invalid to read a book placed sideways; a new sort of postal money order; and many other things. He was an accomplished conjurer and a collector of toys, games and puzzles and mechanical and technological inventions as well as music boxes, fountain pens and pencil sharpeners.

When he heard that Charles Babbage had invented a new calculating machine in 1867 he met Babbage, who showed him over his workshops. Charles then bought a calculating machine and in 1877 an “electric pen”, recently invented and patented by Edison. In 1888 he bought an early model of the “Hammond Type-Writer” which he used to write letters and entertain his child visitors. In 1890 he went to the London exhibition of “Edison’s Phonograph”, which he thought was “a marvellous invention”. When he heard the “private audience part”, he recorded that“Listening through tubes, with the nozzle to one’s ear, is far better and more articulate than with the funnel: also the music is much sweeter. It is a pity that we are not fifty years further on in the world’s history, so as to get this wonderful invention in its perfect form. It is now in its infancy – the new wonder of the day, just as I remember Photography was about 1850.”

Much of the book is taken up with Charles’s writings as Lewis Carroll, his relationship with the Liddell family and his friendship with many children, apparently mainly young girls. The relationship between Charles and the Liddells has been the subject of some controversy and there is a mystery surrounding the disagreement that led to a breakdown of the friendship. Cohen analyses and speculates for many pages on this and on the implications of Charles’s friendship with young girls. I didn’t like it, nor did I like the chapters on Charles’s interest in child photography. Morton quotes from a letter Charles wrote to his sister in1893, in reply to her letter about the gossip she had heard:

“You, and your husband have, I think, been very fortunate to know so little by experience … of the wicked recklessness with which people repeat things to the disadvantage of others, without a though as to whether they have grounds for asserting what they say. I have met with a good deal of utter misrepresentation of that kind.”

He went on to explain that he applied two tests when having a particular “girl-friend” as a guest. These were first his own conscience, whether he felt it to be entirely innocent and right, in the sight of God and secondly, whether he had the full approval of the friend’s parents for what he did. He continued: “Anybody who is spoken about at all, is sure to be spoken against by somebody: and any action, however innocent in itself, is liable, and not at all unlikely, to be blamed by somebody. If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much!” Enough said, I think.

Charles Dodgson had enormous energy, worked extremely hard in all he did, was concerned and engaged in many of the topical and political issues of his times, was deeply and sincerely religious and produced the Alice books, that have been widely praised and acclaimed since they were first published. He had a great many friends and his generosity was boundless, both to his family and to others wherever he saw a need. He loved giving presents (unbirthday presents, like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass), and gave away many copies of his books to children’s hospitals, mechanics institutes and village reading rooms. He was known and welcomed for his gift for making people laugh. Morton Cohen writes: “Humor and its concomitant laughter are surely minor miracles, overflowings of a mysterious inner force, momentary flourishes like lightning or a rainbow. They come from where we know not where and last but a fleeting second. Charles was one of those rare artists who could create those flashes, and did, to divert and amuse others.”

This book has increased my interest in Charles Dodgson. Other writers have written biographies, giving a different interpretation of his life from Cohen’s. In particular I would like to read In the Shadow of the Dreamchild by Karoline Leach – see also the website The Carroll Myth.

Lewis Carroll, Photography and Memories of Childhood

I’m reading Lewis Carroll: a biography by Morton N Cohen. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, two of my favourite books from childhood, was the pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832 – 1898), a Victorian mathematics don at Oxford University.

In this post I’m concentrating on Charles’s keen interest in photography. This developed from his early drawings and sketches illustrating verses and short stories he wrote in the family magazines and booklets. By the time he was 24 in 1856 photography had become an absorbing pastime for him, encouraged by his uncle and fellow students at Oxford. He bought a camera, the necessary chemicals and the extensive and cumbersome equipment needed to take photographs. It was very different from photography today, when all you need is a small digital camera that goes easily in a pocket or handbag (unless you’re a professional photographer, or very keen amateur) and the results can be instantly seen.

He arranged his photographs in albums, all indexed and listed in registers. He took landscapes, architecture, drawings and sculptures – but his main interest was in portraits of people, his family, friends and Oxford colleagues. Photography gave Charles entry to the Oxford social world through his portraits, mainly of small children. He introduced himself to Alfred Tennyson, as a result of simply arriving uninvited when Tennyson was visiting friends in Coniston and proposing to take photographs of his children.

His main focus was the Liddell children. Henry Liddell was the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, where Charles had become Mathematical Lecturer in 1855. The Liddell family included Alice and her older sister Lorina. Charles was a great favourite with the Liddell family and the stories he told to them and in particular to Alice were later published as Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He became well known as a portrait photographer and took many photographs of friends’ families, enjoying the theatricality of dressing up, using props and composing scenes for his set pieces. He was particularly interested in the composition of his photographs for proportion and balance, and examined other photographers’ work at the Exhibition of he British Artists in London in 1857 “… chiefly for the arrangement of hands to help in grouping of photographs.”

Photography in the 1850s was a complicated and intricate business. You needed a darkroom to prepare the “plate” – film didn’t come into use until the 1880s – by pouring a gummy solution of collodion onto a glass plate. This had to be carefully prepared so that it wasn’t smudged or spoiled by dust particles and then carried to the camera. Once the plate had been exposed you then had to rush back to the darkroom to develop it and then it had to be fixed, varnished and allowed to dry.

For outdoor photography all the equipment, including a darkroom tent and water for rinsing the plate when there was no fresh water available, had to be transported to the countryside. There was so much equipment that Charles had to hire a porter and a carriage or horse-drawn van to carry it all. It was a major expedition and not surprisingly Charles didn’t take many landscape photographs.

Photography is no longer such a difficult process, so much so that we take it for granted. My grandchildren are used to instant digital photographs and have no idea of what it was like when I was a child, anymore than I had any idea of what photography was like when my parents were children, let alone in the 1850s. My dad had a Kodak Box Brownie camera and I remember waiting for what seemed like ages for our black and white holiday photos to arrive back from the chemists. You had to be careful with loading the film not to expose it and had to remember to wind it on between photos. Later we had colour film and then the excitement of Polaroid cameras when you could hold the print in your hand as it developed – instant photographs!

This has sent me on a trip down memory lane and here are some photos taken on the Box Brownie. I was about three in the photos on the beach. I think it’s amusing to see what my Dad wore on the beach – a jacket and with his trousers rolled up for paddling.

I’m perhaps a bit older in the photo with my Mum, looking at lots of sandpies. We used to go to New Brighton in the summer, so I think these photos were taken there.

Here I am in the garden at home looking very fed up at having to pose in front of the raspberry bushes for the photo. The last photo is of me and my Taid (Welsh for grandfather) – my mum’s dad. Granny and Taid came to live with us when I was 6.

Wilberforce

D and I finished reading Wilberforce with only a couple of hours to go before the book group meeting last Thursday. As D said it was like climbing a mountain – a hard slog at first and when you get half way you wonder why you are reading it and whether you should give up but as you’ve got so far decide to carry on. When you reach the top you see that it was all worthwhile. It’s an achievement and also somewhat of a relief to complete the book.

We both found it hard to get into and probably wouldn’t have read it if it was for the book group. Part of the difficulty is that there are so many references to the people of the time, both in politics and society in general, that without some background in the period you begin to flounder and the eyes glaze over. Other members of the group had found the same. But if you like reading historical and biographical books don’t let this put you off. There are fascinating insights into family life in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, references to the French Revolution and its effect in England, visits to Yorkshire, the Lake District, Buxton (to take the water and endure the “horrible treatment of Skin Rotations’ – a massage bath lying on a flat dish of copper), and to Bath, to mention but a few.

The main cause and aim of Wilberforce’s life was the abolition of the slave trade and the end of slavery itself. He also wanted to remake England by reforming the morals, attitudes and fashions of the nation. The majority of the book is made up of the account of the twenty years struggle to end the slave trade through legislation, culminating in the passing of the Act of Abolition in March 1807. This made the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. In America also an Act of Congress outlawed the slave trade.

Wilberforce’s character gradually reveals itself throughout the book in extracts from his letters, diary entries, and contemporary accounts of him by friends, supporters and opponents. I particularly liked Marianne Thornton’s memory of him:

“ He was as restless and volatile as a child himself and during the long and grave discussions that went on between him and my father and others, he was most thankful to refresh himself by throwing a ball or a bunch of flowers at me, or opening the glass door and going off with me for a race on the lawn ‘to warm his feet’. I knew one of my first lessons was that I must never disturb Papa when he was talking or reading, but no such prohibition existed with Mr Wilberforce. His love for, and enjoyment in, all children was remarkable ….”

The Wilberforce household at Broomfield in Clapham was ‘a rather eccentric home’, with its unkempt shrubberies and domestic servants who “were deserving rather than efficient, nor would he cast off the useless or infirm until they found suitable berths.” The servants adored Wilberforce. Guests had to fend for themselves in “a Yorkshire “ way at dinner – Barbara (Wilberforce’s wife) would

“see that ‘Wilber’s’ plate had plenty and he was too short-sighted to notice the others; then Dean Milner’s stentorian voice (so Marianne Thornton recalls) would be heard ‘roaring “There was nothing on earth to eat”; and desiring the servants to bring some bread and butter, he would add “and bring plenty without limit”, while Mr W would join in with “Thank you, thank you kindly, Milner, for seeing to these things. Mrs Wilberforce is not strong enough to meddle much in domestic matters.”’

Wilberforce was an excellent orator, good company, and irresistibly happy according to his friends’ accounts. He was involved in so many other causes, including agricultural improvements, medical aid for the poor, education in charity and Sunday Schools, improving living conditions for the poor, campaigning against the use of boys as chimney sweeps, distributing Bibles through the British and Foreign Bible Society, improving conditions for prisoners, education for the deaf and training for young men who would make good clergymen, etc, etc. As Pollock says “Good causes attached themselves to Wilberforce like pins to a magnet.”

Wilberforce was converted to Christianity in 1785. At first he felt he was not “in the true sense of the word a Christian”, because he was still behaving as a man of the world. Pollack writes that Wilberforce “began to sicken of the profligacy and selfish luxury of the rich, of the hours they wasted in eating.” He thought he must withdraw from the world, but after correspondence and talks with Pitt and later with John Newton (author of ‘Amazing Grace’ and many other hymns) he remained in politics. He introduced family prayers in his household, and took “the Sacrament regularly. On Sundays he went to church twice, and would neither travel nor discuss politics except in gravest emergency.” He tried to introduce a new spirit of tolerance – it was his “endeavour to promote … the essentials of Christianity, softening prejudices, healing divisions, and striving to substitute a rational and honest zeal for fundamentals, in place of a hot party spirit.”

He was buried on 3 August 1833 in Westminster Abbey. Thousands of Londoners mourned.

“Two royal dukes, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker and four peers supported the Pall. Members of both Houses walked in the procession.

‘The attendance was very great’, recorded a Member in his diary that night. ‘The funeral itself with the exception of the Choir of the Abbey perfectly plain. The noblest and most fitting testimony to the estimation of the man.’”

May – Books of the Month

Despite the risk of being reviled for “yammering” (see my previous post) I’m writing about the books I’ve read in May. No apologies – this does not pretend to be a “review”, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous, but these are just my thoughts on the books I’ve read.

I’ve slowed down in my reading this month, partly because I’ve been blogging more, but also because some of the books have been long and detailed. So, I’ve read 6 books. The first one to be finished was The Giant’s House, which I’ve already written about. I read two non-fiction books – a biography Daphne by Margaret Forster and Alistair McGrath’s The Dawkin’s Delusion? which is a critique of Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion.

Daphne is an extremely well researched and informative account of Daphne Du Maurier’s life, taken from her letters and private papers, with personal memories of her from her children, grandchildren and friends. I didn’t realise until I started this that this year is the 100th anniversary of Daphne Du Maurier’s birth and my reading was enhanced by several broadcasts on the radio and television of dramatisations of her books, plus the excellent programme made by Rick Stein “In Du Maurier Country”, filming the locations of her books and interviews with her family. I’m also enthusiastic about Rick Stein’s books and programmes, (cookery for those who don’t know) – but I digress.

There is too much I could say about Daphne, not least that it is a candid account of her relationships, eg her troubled married life; wartime love affair; and friendships with Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday, as well as an excellent source of information on Du Maurier’s method of writing and views on life. She doesn’t sound an easy person to live with or be related to, but that doesn’t detract from her passion for writing and Cornwall. Of course there is Menabilly and the biography gives so much detail of her love for the house and how she renovated and restored it that made me realise all the more how poignant it was when she had to give it up. What makes this book unforgettable for me is Forster’s eloquent way of writing, including so much detail, but never being boring or stilted, leaving me wanting to read on and on. And the book is illustrated with lots of photos.

In complete contrast to this is the Dawkin’s Delusion, which I borrowed from the library. I read Dawkin’s book earlier this year and didn’t have it to hand when I read this one (I’ve lent it to my son), so I had to rely on my memory of The God Delusion. I was interested to read what an Evangelical Christian had made of Dawkin’s book and wasn’t surprised – he didn’t agree with Dawkins! For an excellent review of Dawkin’s book have a look at Bill Hanage’s article “Them’s fightin’ words” on LabLit’s blog . I think I got more out of this article than from McGrath’s book.

Turning to the fiction, I read Blessings, by Anna Quindlen, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, Body Surfing by Anita Shreve and finally Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders.

Anna Quindlen is a new author to me. I came across her whilst reading Danielle’s blog. Blessings is a satisfying read about a baby abandoned outside “Blessings”, a large house owned by Lydia Blessing. The baby is taken in by Skip, the caretaker cum handyman-gardener, who looks after her at first in secret. The past of all the characters is slowly revealed and the effect that the baby has on them all. It’s a sad book over all, with regrets for what has happened in the past. I shall look out for more books by her.

As for The Thirteenth Tale, I have resisted buying this book, after reading either how fantastic people have found it, or how disappointing it is. The copy I read is a BookCrossing book I found in our local coffee shop. It took me some time to get into this book and I found myself being both reluctant to read it and yet unable to stop. It was only with the appearance of the governess that I found myself actually enjoying the book – and that is the second section. I usually give up on a book before then. Part of the problem I have with this book is that I couldn’t really like the characters, even Margaret, the narrator irritated me somewhat, even though she loves books. Another problem is the ending, which I found to be contrived. All in all, it is not a book I’ll read again and I’m going to release it back to its travels.

Which brings me to The Woodlanders. I borrowed this book from the library to read before continuing with Tomalin’s The Time-Torn Man. I enjoyed it so much that I went out and bought a copy for myself. I’ll post my thoughts in another post. This one has gone on long enough and the sun is shining!