Category Archives: Biography

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!