‘Ahh, so kind,’ muttered James through his beard and tipped his hat again and bowed slightly and then turned to umbrella-tap his way down the wide, white stone steps.
Adequate as an entertainment? Who did this homely prune of a spinster think she was? — Dan Simmons, The Fifth Heart

June 29, 2015

Ooh la la...

Maybe it's because I couldn't make vacation plans this summer, or because work is especially challenging and I so need a mental one, but I've been especially looking forward to Paris in July this year. Happily it's almost here!  In the meantime, I've been stacking up some things — books, movies and recipes — and I hope you'll either be embarking with us or hoping to find some postcards in your mailbox...à bientôt!

June 28, 2015

Mr. Trollope, Miss Austen, and Doctor Thorne

The one and only heir to Greshambury was named as his father, Francis Newbold Gresham. He would have been the hero of our tale had not that place been preoccupied by the village doctor. As it is, those who please may so regard him. It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart. Those who don't approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshambury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please the, 'The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the younger.'

As I've been reading (not reading ,,, delighting in, yearning for more of, already wishing I could re-read...) the #6barsets, I know I haven't been very good about writing about them here.  But I think it's good, sometimes, when it's more about the books, and about sharing them with friends.

I loved Doctor Thorne, as much as I loved The Warden and Barchester Towers.  Some of the characters from these first two, closely related books make cameo appearances in this one,  and there's another connection, as Doctor Thorne is a cousin of the Thornes of Ullathorne. But we're in a different place, meeting new people.
Miss Austen was surely a great novelist. What she did, she did perfectly. Her work, as far as it goes, is faultless. She wrote of the times in which she lived, of the class of people with which she associated, and in the language which was usual to her as an educated lady. ... Heroes and heroines with wonderful adventures there are none in her novels. Of great criminals and hidden crimes she tells us nothing. But she places us in a circle of gentlemen and ladies, and charms us while she tells us with an unconscious accuracy how men should act to women, and women act to men. It is not that her people are all good; -- and, certainly, they are not all wise. The faults of some are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered till they are bright as steel. In the comedy of folly I know no novelist who has beaten her. The letters of Mr. Collins, a clergyman in Pride and Prejudice, would move laughter in a low-church archbishop.
from a lecture Anthony Trollope gave in 1870

I definitely sensed a difference between this book and the first two. The humor was more delicate, less broad somehow. Earlier on, I noted a wonderful scene where Miss Oriel, a friend of the family, is teasing Frank Gresham about an alleged offer of marriage; a moment later, though, she is alone in the garden, suddenly serious, realising that she cannot make light of something that is so important.  In this and other ways, I was thinking of Jane Austen as I read, so of course I was enamored.  {Thanks to Lisa for pointing out that Mr. Trollope thought very highly of her writing.} And I was especially fond of some of this book's supporting characters, especially Miss Oriel and Miss Dunstable, the older, plainer, much wealthier spinster who is thrust on Frank Gresham as a suitable wife.

And I don't think there's any question of who the hero is. Doctor Thorne is a lovely character. As a physician and friend. he connects all of the characters, and is their very human moral compass. I have a book that's an encyclopedia, of sorts, of Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels, and it mentions that some of Thirkell's characters are descendants of Doctor Thorne and one of the women in this book. Hmmm. There's no hint of such a marriage in Trollope, so far,  so I'm not yet sure whether it was Mr. Trollope or Mrs. Thirkell who cooked that up.  If you know, please don't tell me ... it's a delicious idea, and I'm looking forward to finding out.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

I am so happy to have JoAnn and Lisa reading along for all or some of the #6barsets,  I realized that I had gotten the order of the middle books wrong, so here's our updated schedule:

The Warden
. . .
Barchester Towers
JoAnn, on Barchester Towers
. . .
Doctor Thorne 
Lisa, on "Falling in love with Doctor Thorne, man and book'
. . .
Framley Parsonage 
. . .
The Small House at Allington 
. . .
The Last Chronicle of Barset 

We would love to have you join us!

June 21, 2015

The Disinherited

In the spring of 1901, Victoris visited Spain for the first time. Unlike her daughter, Vita, for whom the country was later to become a place of high romance, Victoria was niot favourably impressed. There was 'so little to buy', she complained, and Madrid struck her as being 'wretchedly poor'; the capital's central square, La Puerta de Sol, was very disorderly, 'full of people loafing about all day.'...
     Although Spain was the land of her mother's birth, she made no reference to this aspect of her heritage in her diary. Nor did she refer in her Spanish diary to the activities of her brothers and sisters. And yet, in one of those curious near-crossings of paths, Henry was in Madrid around the same time, researching the circumstances of their mother's marriage at the church of San Millin fifty years before.
      On 30 October 1901, Henry's lawyer presented the Spanish courts with a Denuncia, a declaration that the marriage records in the church of San Millin had been falsified in such a way as to support his claim of legitimacy.... If ... doubt could be cast on the marriage between Pepita and Oliva, then it might be possible to prove that Lionel as, in fact, married Pepita, and that Henry was legitimate and the heir to Knole.
      The Spanish newspapers followed the Denuncia proceedings very closely, as did the press in England and France. The Heraldo was much taken with the way in which 'the fantasies of romance appear mingled with the realities of life.,' of a heroic young man from a distinguished and aristocratic English family who had come to Spain to defend his name. The Correspondencia also blamed the 'covetousness which stops at nothing' of Victoria and her husband, who had conspired to keep Henry out of inheriting Knole. Another newspaper reported  Henry's claim that he had left London for Paris toward the end  of 1898 because 'on several occasions his brother-in-law threatened to poison him'. ...
    The Imparcial described how reality had 'taken the aspect of a romantic novel, recalling the boldest inventions of Alexandre Dumas', and its account, like the others, was riddled with  errors, particularly about the more distant past.
I had put Robert Sackville-West's first book, Inheritance:  the story of Knole and the Sackvilles, on my list a few years, when a lot of our blogging friends were reading it, But it might be good that this second book came my way first, because there's a chance (probably a slim one) that the first one might tell a happier, less horribly fascinating story.

The author is the 7th Lord Sackville, who currently lives at Knole, a house that has been in his family for thirteen generations. His title {and, the house, in an entail restricted to male heirs} came to him from an uncle with five daughters, who inherited it in his turn from a gay and childless first cousin. But the main story in this very indirect lineage goes back to his great-great-uncle {I think -- if there was ever a book that needed to begin with a family tree, it's this one!} This Lionel Sackville-West {there are a lot of them} was a younger son who had five illegitimate children during a long affair with Josefa Dunn, known as Pepita, a beautiful Spanish dancer who has married to another man. Lord Sackville writes that after telling the story of the ancestors who inherited Knole, he wanted to write about the ones who didn't.

Lionel tried, in some feeble ways, to support and even possibly acknowledge his children. He installed Pepita, the children, and a slighly creepy friend, Count Beon, in a villa in the South of France; later, he eventually sent his two sons, Max and Henry, to seek their fortunes as farmers in South Africa, and brought his oldest daughter, Victoria, with him to serve as his hostess when he was a diplomat in Washington, D.C.  Still, 'the taint of illegitimacy' was always with them {a theme that runs through another book I've been reading, though the end of the story is very different...}.

When Lionel's brother died, he inherited the title and the house, and Victoria became the mistress of Knole. Since Lionel's sons could not inherit, his presumed heir was his nephew, another Lionel, and {does this sound familiar? :)} Victoria's place at Knole became permanent when she married him. They were the parents of writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, who grew up at Knole, and loved the house {more than her mother, who seemed to just covet it} but could not inherit it either. {And the grandparents of Nigel Nicolson and great-great grandparents of Juliet Nicolson, but not Virginia Nicholson, now that I have that straight. ;) }

I didn't mean to go on this long, but you almost need most of this detail to understand who everyone is and how they were disinherited.  The five siblings struggled for money, and a place in society, and depended on but also resented Victoria for the relative legitimacy that her marriage brought her (but not happiness).  The book details the long, drawn-out, headline-making and eventually unsuccessful court cases that Henry, principally, brought against his father, seeking to prove that either his mother, Pepita, was never married to her husband, which could lead to proof that she was married to Lionel, or that the relationship between Lionel and Pepita was a 'marriage by reputation,' and that Lionel's willingness, at the time, to consider them his legitimate children should allow him to inherit,

This is a family tree with many branches, and even though Robert-Sackville West is a close relative of the people he's writing about (the Lionel who married Victoria is his great-uncle), there's enough distance so that he writes as a historian interested in an old family story more than as a participant. Disinherited is very readable and well-written, and as I said, horribly fascinating or fascinatingly horrible, and has already sent me to the library for Inheritance.  Concidentally, a new biography of Vita Sackville-West that I put on reserve months ago has also come in, so when I'm not in Paris in July I will probably be spending a lot more time with the Sackville-Wests.

June 13, 2015

1939: The Last Season

I think that my (relatively recent) turn to reading more history stems from my (lifelong) love of reading biographies. I know that the biographies I enjoy most let me sense what a life was like through stories and details:  where the person lived, who they lived with, who they knew, what happened when they went to Paris or to a country house party (I seem to especially like biographies when the subject tends to go to Paris or to uppercrusty country house parties).  It's also true that most of the fiction I read is set in the past {or really set in the present, but written in the past} and the things that happen in these books sometimes glide by without me understanding their significance, and then sending me scurrying to Google or hopefully, eventually, to a good history.

I made a note to look for 1939:  The Last Season after learning about it from Darlene, and all this considered, it was definitely my cup of tea.  I even understand better what the London 'season' was:  the summer months that drew the upper crustiest back to London for what was apparently an annual routine of debutante balls, presentations at Court (a la Lady Rose), horse racing, garden parties at Buckingham Palace, country house weekends, glittering dinner parties, celebrations and cricket matches for Old Etonians, opera and theater, all conducted with rigid social rules, precedents and prejudices. The chapters about how this all unfolds are fascinating enough, and sometimes made me feel like I was hearing either juicy gossip (okay by me) or more often, the bland reality or funny reality behind what feels like such an unreal world (I loved the story of the first bored chaperones who dared to bring their knitting along as they sat for hours through another interminable debutante ball). I always love it when I encounter people in one book that I've read about in others, so reading about the Kennedys during their time in England, or Nancy Astor's political parties was very enjoyable, but there were many new figures to read about and hope to meet again.

But the summer of 1939 was, of course, the months leading to Britain's declaration of war against Germany, and so there's the added sense of unreality of a country preparing, but perhaps not mentally prepared, for a war that would change every aspect of their lives. So the social history is interspersed with chapters about how the government reacted, slowly but then decisively, to Hitler's aggressions, and a dovetailing of the end of the season with the coming of war. The more history I read, the more I realize how little I know beyond the broadest brushstrokes, so I appreciated these chapters as well.

The books covers a lot of ground in 230 pages, and there's a lot of detail that just left me hungry to know more. But it was a perfect book to dip into and out of during a distracting week, and I enjoyed it very much.

June 7, 2015

Thin Air

Our 'extra' PBS station shows British murder mysteries on Monday nights; right now it's new episodes based on Peter Robinson's DCI Banks (one of my favorite series), but last month it was Shetland, based on Ann Cleeves' books about Inspector Jimmy Perez.  The setting (on the islands northeast of Scotland) was very atmospheric, and there was a brooding detective to match ), so I enjoyed the four programs very much. It was nice to be led from the films to the books, for once, instead of the other way around. I almost always like to read a mystery series in strict order, but Thin Air, the newest one, came my way first.  In a way this was even better; the TV episodes told us a little bit about Perez' background, this book fleshed it out a little more, but in coming to this book first we weren't there, and it will be even more intriguing to go back and find out everything that has happened before.

Inspector Perez (the mystery of his un-Scottish name is that his ancestors sailed to the islands with the Spanish Armada and were shipwrecked there) is from Fair Isle, where his parents still live, has returned to the Shetlands after his wife is murdered, bringing his stepdaughter Csssie with him. In this book, Jimmy is just returning to work, and to himself, after her violent death, and going back to learn what happened to her is a big part of my wanting to read the earlier ones. There's a spark of something, on her side at least, between Jimmy and his Chief Inspector, Willow Reeves, and that's something to look forward to as well.

Oh, and there's a murder.  A group of college friends have come to celebrate the marriage of one of their number to a young man who has grown up in the islands.  Two of the women, one a quiet librarian entering in an unexpected relationship, and the other a film producer preparing a series about ghost sightings, both think they have seen Peerie Lizzy, the island's legendary ghost of a little girl who drowned 100 years before.  When one of the friends is found dead, the detectives find rooms to sleep and work in at the upscale bed and breakfast that has just opened in the mansion where the child lived.  As the investigation unfolds, there are enough theories, and enough suspects, to keep the story suspenseful, and a resolution that came just a little out of the blue. But, after all, having a good murder mystery in my murder mysteries is just a nice little something extra. :)

June 1, 2015

The Flowering Thorn

By the way, over the weekend I began experimenting with a new way of coping when I can't decide what to read next. I'll just stack up my overabundance of library books by due date and take off the one on the top. So far, it's working beautifully.

After learning {so belatedly, but not too late} about Margery Sharp from our friend Fleur, it's been great to find the libraries I use haven't gotten rid of too many of their older books. I'm so glad about it, because it would be so hard to run out. :)

Darlings! Once I started it, there was really much of a chance that I would put it aside even for a minute if I didn't have to. I remember from my first Margery Sharp that she is so good at drawing characters, at making you see them exactly.  Her 'flowering thorn' {more thorn than flower, to me, even at the end} is Lesley Frewen, a bright young thing in 1930s London, living in a service flat, impeccably dressed and made up, and living beautifully on a very small income.  Although her life in London only lasts through the prologue {sorry...it's hard to describe this book without a spoiler}, the way Sharp introduces her in these scenes is just about perfect.

      'Now, let me get you another,' said the stockbroker; and Lesley let him. 'The crowd, however, was now even thicker than before, and his progress being correspondingly slow she took up a good central position under the lights and had there been five times addressed as darling before he ever reached the buffet. There was also an invitation to dine, an invitation to lunch, and the offer of a desirable town residence for the next fortnight. The first two Lesley accepted, the last regretfully put aside; for though the Yellow House was charming indeed — a delightful modernised cottage in a mews behind Green Street — she could not quite make out whether the owner himself would or would not be also in residence. From his insistence on the second bathroom, decided Lesley, it seemed at least probable, and she had never liked the owner quite so well as that. Besides, two weeks .. if her suspicions were correct, surely a month would have been more flattering? So sweetly but firmly Lesley shook her head.
      'It's  very beautiful idea,' she said, 'only I happen to have a home already. You've seen it.'
Part of the joy of spending time with Lesley is that she's a very unsympathetic character {and to me, never really becomes one}. At this party, she {literally} disarms a young swain who threatens to shoot himself on the spot if she won't go to Warsaw with him, and surprises herself by dissolving into tears after another drives her home {'She had wanted Douglas Ford to make love to her, and he had not been sufficiently attracted'}, but only until she sees herself, and 'the disintegration, as it were, of so much elegance,' in the hall mirror.

After this, she 'want[s] something new,' and what happens next isn't all that surprising. Lesley goes to tea with her elderly, censorious aunt, Mrs. Bassington, who is coping with a domestic problem.  Her paid companion, a young Scottish widow, suffers from heart trouble — 'This disabililty she managed to conceal, however, until about fifteen minutes before dying of it; and it was the deception, the slyness of it, which Mrs. Bassington now professed herself unable to forgive' — and has left behind a quiet four-year-old boy, Impulsively, in a minute, Lesley announces that she will adopt him.

She accepts the offer of the Yellow House {the owner suddenly needs to see a man in Paris}, and when she can't find a new flat in London that will take a child or that she can afford, she rents an old, ugly cottage in the dreaded suburbs.  There's a good-hearted, crotchety housekeeper, an old and slightly randy baronet, a dishy vicar and his pleasant wife. Things could get very sappy, couldn't they, but I love it that Margery Sharp doesn't let this happen. Lesley haughtily tells the neighboring farmers that she'll be ordering her food, ready-made in dishes, from Fortnum & Mason, only to be horrified at the cost when she gets in provisions for a house party with her London friends (and only to find out much later that the awful Mrs. Sprigg is holding on to the dishes that are supposed to be returned, and sharing them around the village).  She readily admits, at least to herself, that she hates the quiet, self-contained little boy, who calls her 'Frewen,' and at best they become accustomed to each other. She fills her days with chores and reading from the lending library, sometimes a book a day.

Lesley has sentenced herself to living at White Cottage for only four or five years, until Patrick is old enough to go the posh boarding school where her wealthy old uncle has gotten him a place. But as she begins to lose her London friends, and her attachment to London ways, she starts to build a new life, in her own way.

Running downstairs one morning in September, Lesley was halted at the door of the sitting-room by a brilliant and novel blaze of color. For a moment, she stood bewildered, as though before a floor and wall that had blossomed overnight; but the truth was not in fact so far to seek. It was only early sunlight pouring through the transparent blue and rose of unlined chintzes; she had forgotten, before going to bed, to pull back the new curtains.
      The incident was a trivial one; not so in its consequences. All through breakfast Lesley's thoughts kept returning to that extraordinary vision of a charming room. For the first time in months she consciously looked about her; and the Brixton decor, nearly eighteen months shabbier than when she first saw it, completely failed to amuse. It was hideously ugly, it would very soon be sordid; but until Sir Philip [her landlord, and suitor?] had recovered from the bathroom, there was obviously nothing to be done. ...

Later, after a fit of wallpaper-stripping...

      ... [Mrs. Pomfret, the vicar's wife] sat down abruptly and looked back at the cottage. 'My dear, if you tackle it as you tackled Pat, it's going to be perfectly lovely.'
      'Oh, but this will be much more interesting than Pat,' said Lesley seriously. 'I know exactly what I want and I've just got time to do it.'
I love it that Margery Sharp always pulls us back to Lesley's fundamental character; she grows, but she doesn't change. It's a much more subtle way of telling a story than we sometimes get.  There's humor, and a little snarkiness. And there was, a propos of nothing, a sentence that I just want, literally, to carry around with me...
She felt quiet, protected, solaced of her troubles, acquiescent, assuaged.