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a-game-of-hide-and-seek

I was delighted when I managed to persuade my very small book group to read Elizabeth Taylor. A Game of Hide and Seek, a novel I had only read once before, is considered by some to be her best novel (others claim that, that accolade belongs to Angel – perhaps it depends on the reader). I first read this novel in 2012 – and although that’s only four years ago, I was surprised at how many details I had forgotten, and how my sympathy for one character completely disappeared this time around. For two of my friends this was their first experience of reading Elizabeth Taylor – and it proved a big hit.

In A Game of Hide and Seek Elizabeth Taylor created a delicately poignant love story. I imagine the story was shaped largely by events in Elizabeth Taylor’s own life – and this shows in the writing of domestic disappointment with what feels for the reader, as complete authenticity. Although she remained happily married until she died, and had two children, Elizabeth Taylor did have a relationship with another man during her marriage. It is this relationship which is honestly portrayed in the only biography about Elizabeth Taylor to have been written to date. Nicola Beauman; the author of The Other Elizabeth Taylor considers the character of Harriet – along with that of Julia in At Mrs Lippincote’s to be the characters most like Elizabeth Taylor herself.

The daily routines of a conventional wife and mother are brilliantly reproduced. The conversations between Harriet and her daily help Mrs Curzon, the frustrations with her mother in law, the dullness and disappointments of life. These are the preoccupations of many middle-class women and Elizabeth Taylor’s view of them is sharp. Even Harriet’s view of foreigners seems so like Elizabeth Taylor’s would have been, rather modern by the standards of the time she absolutely understood how it would feel to be cast adrift in a new country – the confusion and incomprehension of England and its ways. Children are done brilliantly as ever – their little observations and worries beautifully observed. Time and again in her writing Elizabeth Taylor shows how wonderfully well she understands children. It is often in these wonderful observations of children and childhood that we see some of the best examples of Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful wit.

“Deirdre suddenly remembered that she would get infantile paralysis if she ate ice cream that had not been made in her own home.”

At eighteen Harriet and Vesey have already known each other for years, his aunt and her mother were great friends, suffragettes once imprisoned together. They sacrificed their liberty, endured derision and scandal for the sake of Harriet’s generation, there is a sense sometimes, that they don’t fully appreciate it. During the summers, Vesey comes to stay with his aunt, escaping the suffocation of his mother, for a more relaxed atmosphere. The novel opens the summer before Vesey goes to Oxford, he and Harriet spend time with Vesey’s young cousins, giving them ample excuse to be together, both though still unsure exactly how it is they should act toward each other.

“Sometimes in the long summer’s evenings, which are so marked a part of our youth, Harriet and Vesey played hide and seek with the younger children, running across the tufted meadows, their shoes yellow with the pollen of buttercups. They could not run fast across those uneven fields; nor did they wish to, since to find the hiding children was to lose their time together, to run faster was to run away from one another. The jog-trot was a game devised from shyness and uncertainty. Neither dared to assume that the other wished to pause and inexperience barred them both from testing this.”

Vesey is carelessly rebellious, unreliable, amusing and irresistible. Harriet loves him quietly and nervously. When Vesey goes to Oxford – their lives begin to diverge. Harriet looks forward to the next summer, it feels a long way off – and in the meantime life changes. She gets herself a job as a sales assistant, working alongside a brilliantly drawn group of women who make quite a ceremony of brewing up their morning tea. Following the death of her mother Harriet marries Charles, older and dependable he provides her with a lovely conventional home, and draws her into a social circle that includes Kitty and Tiny. Taylor’s depiction of 1950s domestic middle class life is perfect. Harriet doesn’t work she is a mother, a wife, a daughter-in-law, she has a daily who she gossips with. Social evenings of dancing, fuelled by strong drink punctuate the year, and accompanying Charles and Harriet is always Kitty and Tiny. Kitty who married the man who could provide her with the kind of life she wanted, is cynical and weary.

Vesey is never forgotten by Harriet who carries him with her over the years which follow. Taylor reminds us how so often our memory/fantasy of someone cannot always be trusted. She glimpses him only briefly thereafter – until he returns to her when they are both middle aged – he a rather down at heel actor she a mother of a fifteen-year-old daughter. Harriet finds herself disregarding her marriage to see more of Vesey, a situation that Charles and Kitty soon become aware of. Charles’s jealousy nearly gets the better of him, he has never coped very well with the idea of Harriet’s relationship with Vesey – the memories and past they share, Vesey was always a shadow.

Harriet finds herself surprised by the passage of time – suddenly she is middle aged with an almost grown daughter, more than once she wishes she could be young again – that she and Vesey could have their time over.

“If only we were young again!” she said in a tired voice “And mi ght have a second chance”

It was delightful re-visiting this novel, and I was so glad that my friends enjoyed it too. It reminded me how re-reading an old favourite can often enhance the book for me, I often find I discover new points of interest.

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I don’t think I am alone in loving Christmas books, it is one of my seasonal guilty pleasures along with Lindoor chocolates, mince pies and chestnuts.

What is it I wonder about these Christmas stories that bring us back to them again and again? For me I think it’s the chance to return to a simpler time, so many of my personal favourites written in a different era. Other books, perhaps remind us how Christmas can be difficult, fraught with family tensions – it’s nice to know we aren’t alone in finding it tough. Some cosy Christmas reads tease us into believing that the perfect Christmas is achievable in the same way as Christmas movies and those big budget Christmas adverts do, while some show escape from the madness might be the way to go.

So, if you’re looking for some seasonal inspiration for your reading pleasure, I have some recommendations for you – from me – and from others.

Often Christmas is not the focus of an entire novel – but just one part of it. Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and Little Women (1868) – would feature on my Christmas reads list, they each open at Christmas time. While neither novel is wholly about Christmas, the Christmas scenes are so beautifully written and so evocative that they have stayed with me. Hardy’s depiction of the Mellstock Quire carolling through the village, is simple perfection, it is then on Christmas Eve that Dick the tranters son falls in love with Miss Fancy Day – the relationship which drives the remainder of the novel. Little Women; is twee and preachy I know – but there is something oddly comforting about this old fashioned Victorian novel (I tend to ignore the preachy tone) and when Jo says ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents’ we feel for her – because however ideologically flawed that statement might be – it is true. When the March girls each receive a book, and take pleasure in reading it slowly to make it last – all book lovers nod in simple agreement – which of us hasn’t done that. Both those novels I feel I have known for years, others I discovered more recently.

Ten days of Christmas by G. B Stern (1950) – Set at Christmas 1946 in a country house. Two sides of a complicated family are gathered for ten days over Christmas. The children: Roddy, Lal, Erica, Terry (a girl) and Clare visiting from America decide to produce a play. They are helped by aspiring theatrical producer Jonathon the 19-year-old Son of the local doctor – who’s sister Judy is also one of the gang rehearsing the play. I read this five years ago – I will definitely re-read it one year, though I doubt it will be this year. I love my old 1950s hardback, but they can be hard to find. I have just learned that this is currently available via kindle in the UK for 99p.

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford (1932) There is in fact something slightly Wodehousian about this society comedy, in which Christmas only plays a very small part. For here we have an impoverished writer, an infamous and enormously popular society beauty in her mid-forties, a young Etonian baronet, a romantic heiress, a devoted couple with a new baby, an eligible, though slightly dull lord and a slightly terrifying mamma who devotes herself to all things hunting. Bright young things, and landed gentry, a world Nancy knew well, and there is just a hint of Mitford’s bitter streak – but naturally it is suffused with humour. I read it two years ago, on Christmas day and Boxing Day – it was an effervescent joy. Not to be taken too seriously – but fun.

The Very Dead of Winter – Mary Hocking (1993) – With the countryside and surrounding woodland deep in snow, a fractured family gather for Christmas at a remote country cottage. The cottage is where sisters Sophia and Florence spent childhood holidays and was once owned by their grandmother. Sophia – who now owns the cottage has not seen Florence in years. Florence her dying husband Konrad and their adult children Nick and Anita gather at Sophia’s cottage for the season and to ease Konrad’s passing. While Florence is dominating and confrontational, Sophia used to living alone, is unorthodox, guarding secrets and managing to keep herself somewhat distanced from the turmoil around her. Not a cosy read, Christmas is something of a backdrop, one reason to bring everyone together. I read this three years ago – 2013 was I think the year I discovered Mary Hocking. (This of course now available as an e-book or print on demand edition from Bello books).

The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse (1956) which I read last year is an autobiographical novel about an eleven-year-old girl’s two week Christmas visit to her grandparents’ house sometime around the mid-nineteenth century. It can be a difficult book to find, and I was fortunate my edition came with gorgeous illustrations.

Some other favourites include: Christmas at Thompson Hall by Anthony Trollope (2014) which I also read last year – one of those gorgeous Penguin Christmas classics, that all look so very collectable. Golden Age mysteries; (who doesn’t like murder at Christmas?) Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) by Agatha Christie and Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937). Also a surprise read several years ago was The Inn at the Edge of the World (1990) – by Alice Thomas Ellis – “Five strangers gather at Eric’s inn on a remote Hebridean island after he advertises in the London weeklies for “Christmas at the edge of the world.” A really good psychological read.

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Recently I asked on Twitter for Christmas reading recommendations, and ended up with a lovely list – which it would only be fair to share.

Some of these were books/stories I had read, some I have heard of, but just haven’t read – but quite a few are completely new to me. A mix of children’s books, adult novels, stories and collections were recommended to me.

A couple of other people shared my love of Christmas Pudding and Christmas at Thompson Hall and other stories.

One title I hadn’t known was; Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S Buck – recommended by Robin.

The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden – recommended by Kerry, who also loves A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens (also recommended by Amy and me!), The Chalet School, end of term by Antonia Forest, The Tailor of Gloucester, and Jostein Gaarder’s Christmas Mystery.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales  by Dylan Thomas (how have I never read this) got a number of mentions, as did The Hogfather by Terry Prachett.

Bellezza recommends a collection – The Everyman Christmas stories which include Dickens, Gogol, Tolstoy and O Henry.

Anbolyn mentioned A Christmas memory by Truman Capote – a story I have wanted to read for a while, I read lots of Capote stories a couple of years ago, but that wasn’t in my collection. I have ordered a little hardback edition of three Capote Christmas stories – though I’m not sure when it will arrive as it was out of stock.

Bagfulofbooks highlights a children’s book called The Box of Delights by John Masefield.

I loved all these recommendations, thanks to everyone who took the time to tweet me – if you have any other Christmas recommendations please let us know.

This year I am looking forward to read Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days which I bought recently, and those Capote stories if they come in time.  Whatever you read this Christmas – I hope it sparkles for you.

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the-adventures-of-elizabeth-in-rugen

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen is the third in a series of autobiographical novels by Elizabeth von Arnim which starts with her novel Elizabeth and her German Garden. The second novel The Solitary Summer I have yet to read, (or even possess) but I don’t think it really matters which order one reads these novels, they don’t follow on really in the conventional sense.

This beautifully written novel took me right away from the here and now, to another time and a place I must admit to not even having heard of. In that first and probably more famous novel, Elizabeth is content to stay in her home, delight in her garden, her children and poke gentle fun at her husband The Man of Wrath. In this novel, Elizabeth is a little older, a little more jaded perhaps, she needs a break from her home, and so we join her on a journey round an Island in the Baltic sea. Elizabeth von Arnim’s descriptions of Rügen are wonderful, and I am now keen to follow in the footsteps of Elizabeth one day and take a trip around Rügen myself.

“Round this island I wished to walk this summer, but no one would walk with me. It is the perfect way of moving if you want to see into the life of things. It is the one way of freedom. If you go into a place on anything but your own feet you are taken there too fast and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.”

In 1901 the real Elizabeth (Countess von Arnim) took a well needed break from home, children and husband to travel around Rügen with a woman friend, they travelled by horse drawn carriage, and were away about ten days. Nothing very particular happened on her holiday, nothing that the writer could weave a story out of. So, the writer invented some adventures, and some humorous characters and the novel based loosely upon her own trip, and celebrating the place she loved so much, came into being.

The Elizabeth of the novel; like the woman who created her was a woman needing a break from the domestic realities of home, having come across a map of Rügen she was determined to explore it independently of her husband. Convention dictated that Elizabeth did not travel alone, and she could find no woman friend to join her, she contented herself with her old maid Gertrud. Gertrud, at least could be trusted to be mainly silent, content with her one small bag, and her knitting, Elizabeth feels it will almost be like travelling alone. Travelling first by train to Miltzow, Elizabeth and Gertrud begin their journey, they transfer to a carriage at Miltzow, pulled by a pair of horses and driven by their coachman for the journey; August. The two women are settled in the back, hemmed in by Elizabeth’s luggage.

“The carriage was a light one of the victoria genus with a hood; the horses were a pair of esteemed at home for their meekness; the coachman, August, was a youth who had never yet driven straight on for an indefinite period without turning round once, and he looked as though he thought he were going to enjoy himself.”

During her eleven days away from home, Elizabeth has a series of memorable mini rugenadventures, including getting left behind on the road as August drives on, unaware he has lost his passengers. In everything she does, and with everything she sees Elizabeth brings the Island of Rügen at the beginning of the twentieth century to life, its beauty, its hoteliers and sightseers, even a fisherman and his son who take the travellers and their carriage over to Vilm.

If you have ever taken a holiday in a small place, you will probably have found you see the same people over and over again, you may even run into someone you know (it’s happened to me in Devon). Like so many holiday makers, Elizabeth does meet the same people again and again, particularly the dreadfully snobbish Bishop’s wife, and her son – a very personable young man Brosy Harvey-Browne. The Harvey-Brownes turn up at regular intervals, the Bishop’s wife pushing herself more and more onto poor Elizabeth as she travels around the island.

“You must be dying for some tea,’ I interposed, pouring it out as one who should pour oil on troubled waters.
‘And you should consider,’ continued Charlotte. ‘that in fifty years we shall all be dead, and our opportunities for being kind will be over.’
‘My dear Frau Nieberlein!’ ejaculated the astonished bishop’s wife.
‘Why, it is certain,’ I said ‘You’ll only be eighty then, Charlotte, and what is eighty? When I am eighty I hope to be a gay grandame skilled in gestic lore, frisking beneath the burthen of fourscore.’
But the bishop’s wife did not like being told that she would be dead in fifty years, and no artless quotations of mine could make her like it; so she drank her tea with an offended face. “

Deciding to take advantage of some bathing machines in one place early in her tour – Elizabeth watches her unknown neighbour in the other of the two cells available for bathers. The woman enters the water from the platform and shrieks. Elizabeth is determined to do nothing so ridiculous. So, Elizabeth follows suit, and when she enters the cold water, she too shrieks, worse than that she finds herself clinging on to the unknown woman in the water. Dimly aware that she has seen the woman before, Elizabeth has no idea until later, when both women are out of the water that her fellow bather was none other than her cousin Charlotte, who she’s not seen in ten years. Charlotte is something of a bluestocking, who went to Oxford and married her Professor, a much older man, who she is now trying to evade. An early feminist Charlotte is very serious, wanting to promote the idea of female liberation, she doesn’t really appreciate Elizabeth’s wry humour, neither is she very keen on her cousin’s obvious desire to interfere in bringing her and her husband back together.

This is a truly wonderful book, Elizabeth’s vivid descriptions, astute observations and her tongue in cheek humour make this a joyful read. I adored the feeling of being in a world with an entirely different pace of life. It was absolutely what I needed.

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November in review

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November has sped by somehow, and in terms of the number of books read it hasn’t been particularly good. It seems I have been saying that each month this year, and I am quite concerned with how the amount I read has plummeted over the past two or three years. Thankfully though, the quality of books I read this month was high – which I know is far more important than mere numbers. I have determined however that next year I won’t allow myself to get bogged down with review copies and reading challenges and instead read the books I really want to. I have found increasingly, that I let myself get a bit overwhelmed with books/blogging/reviewing, I need to take the pressure off – which only comes from myself. I do have a couple of review copies which I am overdue reading, and I do really want to read them, and I will get to them soon. There are three others which I don’t think I will be reading, and I have some guilt about those – but I’m afraid I just need to move on.

I started the month reading The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter for my very small book group, I loved it – we all did – and I am keen now to read more Angela Carter.

For phase 6 of #Woolfalong I read Jacob’s Room, a novel which wowed me less than some of the others, though I did like it overall, especially the beginning and the end which are quite perfect. The prose is beautiful, and it was interesting to read Woolf’s first really experimental novel. I can see how I would get even more out of it with a second reading one day.

I had intended to join #GermanLit month with Danger from Deer by Vicki Baum, though when I found out that the novel – which is a brilliant read, was in fact written in English I wasn’t sure that it counted. Reminiscent of those old 1950s films, Danger from Deer while very different to Baum’s famous Grand Hotel, would fit in the ‘thumping good read’ category.

Bella Mia is recently published English translation of an Italian novel which was shortlisted for Italy’s most prestigious literary prize. Published in English by independent publisher Calisi Press, who kindly provided me with a review copy.

I have loved Willa Cather’s writing for years, though I have been trying not to read the books too quickly. Death Comes for the Archbishop is quite simply outstanding, definitely one of Cather’s best novels, and in my personal top three.

In need of some comfort reading I turned to Agatha Christie and Murder at the Vicarage, the first Miss Marple novel, which I first read about thirty years ago, when as a teenager, I would devour the Agatha Christie shelf at my local library.

I always love picking up a Persephone book, it always seems like a treat – even having read so many. The Victorian Chaise-Longue was a novel I hadn’t thought I wanted to read, but had taken a chance on it because of liking other Marghanita Laski novels so much. While it is very different to those other novels, I did like it very much. It’s clever, subtle and restrained – all good things in my book.

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen my final book of November – is the third book in the series which starts with Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and her German Garden. Now I usually prefer to read trilogies in the correct order, but I haven’t read A Solitary Summer, the second book, but I decided it probably didn’t matter. I adore Elizabeth von Arnim’s voice, her humour and observations. This book takes the reader on a wonderfully picturesque journey, in the company of some extraordinary characters. I hope to review it fully, in a few days.

December is here – and yes, I still have lots of Christmas shopping to do, and my first Christmas meal out is tomorrow! I always love to read a Christmas book or two leading up to the big day to get me in the mood – this year I only have one – so far at least. The christmas-daysChristmassy book I treated myself to is Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson, a collection of twelve stories and twelve feasts for the season. I must say it looks brilliant.

Speaking of re-reading my first book of the month will be for my very small book group – I persuaded them to read A Game of Hide and Seek by the divine Elizabeth Taylor – I am a bit nervous, because I want them all to love it as much as I do. Fingers crossed.

Whatever you’re reading in this final month of 2016 I hope you love it. If you have any special plans I would love to hear them.

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This disturbing – but compelling little novel, is one I hadn’t thought I wanted to read. I knew however, that I liked Marghanita Laski’s writing, her female characters particularly are very real, flawed and believable, and her novel Little Boy Lost is one of the most poignantly heart-rending novels I have ever read (that’s not a criticism). So, I decided to give it a try – after all it’s very short.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue is generally described as a horror story. The horror lies in the way the story plays upon the reader’s fears of entrapment and loss of control and confusion of identity. That nightmare thing of trying to get people to believe the unbelievable, of having no way out of a situation with only one possible horrifying conclusion.

This is a novel about which it is difficult to write without potential spoilers, and so while I am intending to keep this short – I can’t promise the following won’t be a tad spoilery.

It is worth keeping in mind that I am just about the last person to ever read a horror story, and yet I really enjoyed it (though it is rather shuddery). The Victorian Chaise-Longue isn’t really a horror story by modern standards. It is instead, a quietly disturbing novel, cleverly psychological, it also has something to say about women’s lives and their positions in society during the two periods in which it is set. In the hands of a modern writer, I suspect everything would have gone a little OTT and been drawn out for 400 pages, Marghanita Laski is wonderfully subtle, and restrains herself to not revealing everything. The Victorian Chaise-Longue is far more powerful, in my opinion, for such handling.

Melanie Langdon is a young 1950s wife recovering from TB. She constantly seeks reassurance of her doctor that she won’t die, pretty and a little spoiled, she is constantly indulged by those around her. She was pregnant when the TB was discovered, and despite concerns, her doctors had allowed the pregnancy to continue. Her son Richard was born seven months earlier – since when Melanie has barely seen him. Her days are spent in bed, where she looks forward to her husband Guy’s visits, the nanny coming to hold Richard up at the door for her to see, and the continuing good reports from her doctors. Melanie has everything she could wish – apart from her health, which appears to be slowly returning, her life is one of privilege.

With her condition improving, her doctors agree she can leave her bedroom in the afternoons, to lie in the sun in the drawing room. The drawing room is where the Victorian Chaise-Longue has been put. A large, old fashioned piece of furniture, rather ugly with a scrolled back and cross-stitch embroidery cover.

“Through the open window the spring poured in. From her couch, bathed in the soft sweet air, Melanie could not see the canal that lay beside her home, but it flowed through her imagination, dark and still and beautiful. From the water on the far side, a rough bank rose steeply to a bombed, still desolate waste, and from one of the brambles that sprawled all over it, a branch curved high and free to lie across the blue sky. Suffused with sunlight faintly swaying across the pale blue sky. Drowsy, Melanie looked at the flowers and the sky, and the noises of the city – the soft continuous roar of traffic, the whine of the milkman’s electric cart that stopped and started in the street behind – died away with her slow beatific loss of immediacy.”

Melanie had bought the chaise-longue in an antique shop the day before she received her TB diagnosis. On that day, Melanie had been aware of a fleeting memory which swept over her as she first came into contact with the chaise-longue. At first, the reader takes this memory at face value, though it seems vaguely out of place – which in time we realise it was.

On the afternoon, that Melanie is carried by her husband to lie on the Victorian chaise-Longue in the afternoon sun, she falls asleep, and when she wakes up, nothing is what it was.

“She opened her eyes and it was dark. I am still asleep, she thought, and she shut her eyes again; but soon she realised that it was not now the delightful chaos of sleep still imposed on her brain. Now, this time, I am really awake, she said, and again it was dark, darkness charged with a faint foul smell.”

Melanie has woken up in the body of another woman, a woman who lived in the Victorian era – the 1860s – and like Melanie is lying on the chaise-longue, a victim of TB. Melanie finds herself in the body of Milly Bains, with the thoughts and longings of Melanie. The room is unfamiliar, yet known, the people around her unknown and yet gradually familiar. There are things which have happened to Milly in the past which neither we nor Milly can be sure of, some disgrace she has brought to the family, a reason why her sister is so coldly disapproving. It is like we have stepped into the middle of a story having entirely missed the opening chapters. Like Melanie, the reader isn’t always sure what is going on, this is particularly clever as it heightens the sense of claustrophobic uncertainty. Melanie – tries to believe she is in a nightmare – for as long as she can, before the true horror of her situation becomes apparent.

I was surprised actually, at how much I enjoyed this novella, and while it won’t be my favourite Marghanita Laski novel, it has renewed my appreciation for a gifted novelist who wrote several very different novels.

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murder-at-the-vicarage

“There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

I think it must be something like thirty years since I read The Murder at the Vicarage, (I was very young) though I had forgotten almost all the details, I do remember how enthralled I was back then. It was the first time I think I had encountered anyone called Lettice in fiction, and the one part of the story I had remembered involves Lettice – she must have created quite an impression. The other thing I had forgotten was that Murder at the Vicarage, is the first Miss Marple story – set of course in her village of St. Mary Mead.

“The young people think the old people are fools — but the old people know the young people are fools.”

While I was reading – I distinctly heard the voice of the wonderful Joan Hickson, whenever Miss Marple spoke. It occurred to me, that Joan Hickson must have studied the character in the novels, and which better one to start with than The Murder at the Vicarage. It has all the ingredients of a classic mystery, gossip, peculiar telephone calls, anonymous letters, an affair, a mysterious woman, missing church funds and the death of a thoroughly unpleasant man. There are, plenty of suspects residing in St. Mary Mead, and no one is very sorry that Colonel Protheroe has been killed.

The story is narrated by Mr Clements; the middle-aged vicar, not long married to Griselda, a much younger woman. Pretty, kind hearted, she has a cheerfully slap-dash attitude to domestic matters, desperate to keep hold of their dreadful maid Mary.

“Some oysters which Griselda had ordered, and which would seem to be beyond the reach of incompetence, we were, unfortunately, not able to sample as we had nothing in the house to open them with—an omission which was discovered only when the moment for eating them arrived.”

Staying with the vicar and his wife is Dennis, the vicar’s sixteen-year-old nephew, who is dreadfully excited when he finds himself in the middle of a real mystery. Worried by Hawes; his new curate – who is rather too high church – Mr Clement’s is more frequently harried by Colonel Protheroe. Money has gone missing from church funds, and in his capacity as church warden, magistrate Protheroe is determined to get to the bottom of it. Mr Clements has a meeting with Protheroe scheduled, to examine the accounts.

Colonel Protheroe lives at Old Hall, with his second wife Anne and his daughter Lettice from his first marriage. Lettice seems to have affected an attitude of dizzy vagueness, which Mr Clements for one does not entirely believe. An unknown woman has come to live in the village recently, and all the old biddies who love to gossip, are desperate to know more about her. Meanwhile, artist Lawrence Redding has been linked to Lettice, and gossip has it that Protheroe did not approve. There’s also a good bit of gossip about Gladys Cram, assistant to Dr Stone, in the process of excavating a site in the grounds of Old Hall. Miss Marple sees it all, she is a fine examiner of human nature.

“Intuition is like reading a word without having to spell it out. A child can’t do that because it has had so little experience. A grown-up person knows the word because they’ve seen it often before.”

The day of Protheroe’s death, is the one on which the Vicar was due to meet his church warden, when a telephone call to the vicarage obliges Mr Clement to rush off to visit a parishioner, leaving a message for the colonel who will be waiting for him in his study. By the time the vicar returns, Colonel Protheroe is dead, shot while apparently writing a note at the vicar’s writing desk in the vicar’s own study.

The police are called, and we are introduced to Inspector Slack, who is keen to clear matters up quickly – and is too full of his own importance to listen to the vicar’s statement about the clock in his study. Miss Marple is quickly in the thick of it – demonstrating as only she can, what an acute observer of life she is. Miss Marple’s cottage is next door to the vicarage – and she had a perfect view of all the comings and goings on the fateful day.

The Murder at the Vicarage is great comfort reading, though I really don’t think it is one of Agatha Christie’s best, in fact if I am honest, I prefer the Poirot novels. However, I loved getting to grips with this one again – prompted by a read-a-long on a Miss Marple Facebook group.

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deathcomes

“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”

I love the writing of Willa Cather, and I have been trying to spread out her books so I don’t read them all too quickly. I just have some story collections and The Professor’s House left to read (although I think I have read that before – I just can’t remember it).

I have seen Death Comes for the Archbishop described as Cather’s masterpiece, and given the quite wonderful writing, and the scope of the novel I can understand why. Personally, it isn’t quite my favourite (that would be A Lost Lady) but it is still, quite simply wonderful – and definitely in my top three. Some of Cather’s best known novels deal with the realities of rough pioneer life in Nebraska, and the creative life of great singers. This novel is very different to those.

Willa Cather became interested in the deserts and Indian villages of the American South West years before writing this novel, and found the story of the Catholic church in that region of great interest. She formed a friendship with a Belgian priest on a visit to Santa Cruz and it was from him that she learned a great deal about the traditions of the people in New Mexico and the stories of the nineteenth century French priests who are the quiet heroes of this novel.

In 1848 on a summer evening in Rome, three cardinals and a missionary gather for their evening meal, and together decide the fate of one, simple French parish priest; Jean Marie Latour. Father Latour is go as a missionary to New Mexico, taking the Catholic faith with him, into a vast region of desert, adobe villages and native American peoples.

“One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me not to rest so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

Accompanying Father Latour on his marathon journey to Santa Fe – a journey on horseback, taking months, – is old friend Father Valliant. The two were in the seminary together in France as young men, and together had set out on their missionary life together. Death Comes For the Archbishop takes place over a period of around forty years, beginning when Father Latour is a young man.

“In New Mexico, he always awoke a young man, not until he arose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry ‘To-day, to-day,’ like a child’s.”

The story of Father Latour’s ministry, and the life he makes for himself among the rocky landscape of New Mexico, is told in a series of vignettes spanning several decades. We witness the friendship which exists between Father Latour and Father Valliant, the perilous journeys on horseback or on donkeys as the Frenchmen journey into the furthest reaches of their territory, and meet the people they minister to.

In these stories, we meet a host of memorable characters. An old rogue Pare Martinez, and his friend the miserly Father Lucero. Dona Isabella, who is so vain of her youthful beauty she almost loses everything in a lawsuit rather than admit her real age. Magdalena, a young woman whose violent, husband sets his murderous sights on the two French priests, is rescued by the two men, and restored to a better life. One of Father Latour’s most unlikely friends perhaps, the Navajo Eusabio.

Throughout his ministry in New Mexico, Father Latour dreams of building a cathedral, using the golden yellow stone from the desert, a Romanesque Cathedral in a simple French style, that will celebrate his faith and stand for it after he is gone. The death of the title, is merely one event out of many, in the course of a life well lived. Death comes for the Archbishop as it must come for us all one day, and when it does, he is in a place he loves, surrounded by people who know his worth. The ending I felt was sheer perfection, there is a feeling of everything being in its right time.

Throughout this novel Cather weaves together, the French culture and spirituality of the priests with the traditions, history and vibrant stories of the people of New Mexico.

“Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!”

This exquisite novel – which I loved more and more the further on I got with it, is a story of faith and the nature of love and friendship. Set against a backdrop of a beautiful, wild, untamed land which existed on the edge of the American civilisation of the nineteenth century, it is surprisingly tender.

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