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2016-02-11_16.11.14

First published in 1961 The Winter City was Mary Hocking’s first novel. This will be one of the novels available from Bello books at the end of February.

Set in an unnamed Iron Curtain country the action taking place in the week leading up to the outbreak of revolution against the communist government. As I have come to expect from Mary Hocking this novel – like those she wrote later – is very much rooted in time and place. The atmosphere of a grey, bitter chill with a gradually rising tension among the British and foreign community living in the capital city, those attached to the embassy and the journalists who are meant to be reporting on the situation for their newspapers.

“On the east side of the river, narrow cobbled streets ran up towards the centre of the city. It was still, as though the pulse of the city had been crushed. Scraps of washing hanging along the stone walls were hard as iron, and a jagged crust of ice stood out like broken glass around the rim of a pump. In Government Square, the flag above the City Hall was furled in stiff folds, and along the broad avenues the trees stood stark and brittle, rigid in the grip of a frost that had killed their roots.”

Thirty five year old widow Helen Jenner works alongside and shares a flat with twenty year old Canadian Kate Blanchard. Kate has become infatuated with Doyle Lawrence, an Irish Journalist. Doyle is secretive, unreliable and irresponsible, boastful of past adventures, hard drinking; he doesn’t appear to be writing much at the moment. Having become secretly involved with the revolutionary movement – he has been indiscreet enough to hint at his activities to Kate. Helen has concerns – as she sees Kate skipping happily around their apartment trying to squeeze herself into a sophisticated black dress to impress Doyle, she tentatively tries to warn the younger girl. Doyle meanwhile is making late night visits to a farmhouse, where revolutionaries Karel and his wife live.

Paul Daniels; another journalist has been drawing closer to Helen; he is a friend of Doyle’s though someone far more responsible, carefully watching the hourly changing situation. Paul knew the country years earlier, since when he has studied it, written about it and now is anxious to help – in whichever way he can.

“ ’But what can you do? Already her control was beginning to slip. ‘What can any of us do? We are helpless surely?’
‘But doesn’t the man who stands by, equally helpless, at a lynching make the same plea? Yet he still cannot escape the consequence, which is that his own freedom has been impaired.’
‘But that is something which happens in his own country, among his own people,’ she cried. ‘This is not your country, you have no responsibility here,’
‘No, No, no!’ They were shouting at one another now. ‘It’s not as simple as that. I am, after all, of the human race and I can’t stand by and watch a major convulsion without being touched, simply shrugging my shoulders and saying “It’s all very sad, but I am not responsible.” You ask me why I am moved by events here; but what astonishes me is that anyone should be unmoved.’ “

Lady Rosamund Hilton her husband Sir Edward and Marshall Pickard are three of the key figures of the foreign community, along with Jean Dulac a French journalist and Dr. Van Hals – who lives in the apartment above Helen and Kate. Pickard idolises Lady Hilton, she a graceful English beauty, married to a man she doesn’t love. In the past Rosamund had an affair with Doyle, it’s the worst kept secret in the city. Kate’s youthful certainty doesn’t see Rosamund as a threat – more as ancient history – but perhaps all is not entirely over between them. As much as he adores Rosamund, Pickard despises Doyle, and so when he witnesses a tender moment between the two, Pickard can’t help but want his revenge.

Over the course of the week the political situation worsens, revolution is in the air – and on the street corners and in the cafes people whisper the name Matthias. When revolution finally comes to the city – both Paul and Doyle drawing on what courage they have, must make some difficult decisions.

Mary Hocking concerns herself with those age old conflicts between our personal responsibility to others in our lives – and concerns and responsibilities for wider, social issues. As always Mary Hocking portrays complexities and fragilities in human relationships which exist for people, no matter what wider circumstances they find themselves in.

Mary hocking typing

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While I was struggling to get my feeble Virago/Persephone loving brain around The Cleft I rewarded myself every now and again with a couple of stories from this little collection. It was just the job. The Woman Novelist and other stories contains fifteen stories, adapted from a collection that was originally published in 1946 – with the exception of the title story which had not been previously published.

dianagardnerscottageDiana Gardner was a writer and artist who knew Virginia and Leonard Woolf; they were neighbours during the war. Whether Virginia Woolf ever actually read Diana’s work seems to be unknown – though she is reported to have scribbled a congratulatory note on the side of the Horizon pre-publication leaflet, which announced Diana Gardner’s story ‘The Land Girl’ would be included in the Christmas 1940 edition. The Land Girl is for me one of the best stories in this really quite superb collection. Gardner’s depiction of jealous selfishness and its destructive nature is breath-taking. The narrator Una, is a cool, heartless creature, who comes we find out early on from a fairly well-to-do family – she is initially enraged by the lack of sugar for her porridge. From then on the girl wages her own little war on the woman whose home she is staying in.

“It was then that something took possession of me. The sight of the old, chipped thermos on the orange tray and his spent, thin shoulders bent over it caused my dislike of Mrs Farrant to well up into a sudden storm of hatred.”

(From The Land Girl)

With the exception of ‘The Woman Novelist’, these stories we were written during the Second World War; and although some of the stories taking place in the Germany of this period, there aren’t that many references to the war itself. In The Splash a young Nazi stormtrooper seeks to prove himself to be a specimen of Nazi perfection, while at the pool with a couple of English girls. While in A Summer Holiday Gardner explores how people can – despite all the evidence available – be completely blind to what is going on around them.

Gardner is great at atmosphere, whether it’s comic or mysterious, or gently illustrative of difficult times – she manages in just a few pages to give her readers a whole world, her characters have pasts which we can imagine, their futures less certain perhaps. In Crossing the Atlantic two unlikely people find themselves spending weeks together in a boat on a voyage to New York. In this story we have one of Gardner’s wryly comic, surprise endings. In Halfway down the Cliff, what appears to be a daring Cliffside rescue of a child has an unexpected, comic conclusion, Gardner showing again how she enjoys surprising her readers. The Boathouse is a tender little story of love in a time of war.

In the title story it is difficult not to place Diana Gardner herself in the character of Madeline. Madeleine is a woman who must juggle the running of her home, with her writing, on which her family depends. Her husband is rather useless; their marriage appears to be based less on love but on a mutual dependence. Madeleine feels more supported in her work by her faithful maid.

“On the far side of the house, everything was deeply still; the conservatory was enfolded by silence. In that detached, blazing hour after lunch even the birds were withdrawn, not moving, or visible, and the tractor which, all morning, had droned on the hill was now quiet.
Madeleine looked at her manuscript. The next section was going to be the most difficult and involved, and the most significant.”

(from The Woman Novelist)

Gardner explores the oddness of relationships with a wonderfully practised eye. It seems the couple in A Summer Holiday reach the end of their relationship when the Germans invade France, and they disagree about the coming danger. Another couple, in The Couple from London, leave hotel staff horrified and perplexed when one of them is left behind by the other – in very mysterious circumstances. In The Visitation a Shepherd leaves his family to the mercy of German incendiaries and rushes off to tend to his flock – his wife takes his apparent desertion in her stride – she understands her husband. The volume opens with The House in Hove a lovely story told in reminiscence of a house, where a woman left her children with their father. The memories of that desertion are still painful many years later as the narrator remembers her mother leaving and ruminates on the failed marriage of her parents.

I loved how Diana Gardner sometimes leads us down the garden path – we think we know where we’re going – but in fact we don’t. In Miss Carmichael’s Bed – there is an atmosphere of mystery – the reader is convinced that there is something supernatural about the old box bed that so intrigues the woman who has come as a housekeeper to Miss Carmichael. Gardner is never as obvious as that – and the reader is left surprised but certainly not disappointed. Gardner does the same in the story Mrs Lumley – here again we have an atmosphere which brilliantly has the reader holding their breath – and here again Gardner surprises us – subtly and cleverly.

Gardner’s use of colour in her descriptions show her artist’s eye – she paints tiny canvases of perfect storytelling, such a shame she didn’t write more. Her novel The Indian Woman (1954) is firmly on my wish list – but inexpensive copies seem hard to come by.

diana gardner

(Diana Gardner by Mervyn Peake, 1937, in a private collection)

thecleft

Nobel prize winning writer Doris Lessing published an impressive number of novels, short story collections, poetry, plays and works of non-fiction in a writing career spanning nearly sixty years. Her first novel The Grass is Singing (1950) was the only novel of her’s I read prior to The Cleft – and really it couldn’t be more different.

The Cleft was picked by one of my two book groups as our February read – I don’t think I realised what I was getting into. So The Cleft is many things but for me it wasn’t often enjoyable – there were a few sections when I almost came to enjoying it – but they were few and far between. Yet, despite the fact I wasn’t generally enjoying it – I kept reading – and not just because it was a book group read. There are aspects of this novel which are extremely unusual but still strangely interesting, as a novel it shouldn’t work at all – and many readers don’t think it does – there is virtually no plot and the only characters that emerge toward the second half of the novel are necessarily two dimensional. This is definitely a book which splits opinion – over at Goodreads I was forced to give it three stars – the writing is good, the premise fascinating and overall although I can’t really say I enjoyed it, I didn’t hate it either.

The Cleft is based around a scientific premise that the first humans were female – and that males appeared later.

“The Cleft is that rock there, which isn’t the entrance to a cave, it is blind, and it is the most important thing in our lives. It has always been so. We are The Cleft, The Cleft is us, and we have always made sure it is kept free of saplings that might grow into trees, free of bushes. It is a clean cut down through the rock and under it is a deep hole. Every year, when the sun touches the top of that mountain there, it is always the cold time, and we have killed one of us, and thrown the body down from the top of The Cleft into the hole.”

thecleft1Clefts a species of pre-human, porpoise like creatures live alongside water where they live an almost amphibious existence giving birth to other clefts. The name clefts of course refer to their female genitalia and also to the rocky outcrop where they live. At some period one of the females gives birth to a creature which looks different – in place of a cleft the baby has lumps and protuberances of a different kind. Considered deformed, monstrous the baby is left out on a rock for the eagles. Other monsters are born and the process of cruelty to these male babies continues, The Clefts regarding these creatures with suspicion and horror. Some of the abandoned male babies are rescued by the eagles and taken to a nearby valley – where they are suckled by deer.

“And, of course, the babies being born. They were just born, that’s all, no one did anything to make them. I think we thought the moon made them, or a big fish, but it is hard to remember what we thought, it was such a dream. How we thought has never been part of our story, only what happened.”

In time two separate communities develop, one in the valley a community of messy, adventurous males, while on the rocks by the sea The Clefts live placidly in dreamy contentment.

Our narrator is an unnamed ageing Roman senator in the time of Nero. He is in possession of ancient records – a mixture of oral testimony that has been gathered over time. From time to time – the life of the Roman senator intrudes into the story of The Clefts. He is an old man who is married to an attractive much younger woman. In a novel about the battle of the sexes – the story of this Roman senator – who marries a woman so she will give him children and not for any sentimental reason – adds another dimension.

“In Rome now, a sect – the Christians – insist that the first female was brought forth from the body of a male. Very suspect stuff, I think. Some male invented that – the exact opposite of the truth. I have always found it entertaining that females are worshipped as goddesses, while in ordinary life they are kept secondary and thought inferior.”

In time (that word again – we never get a real sense of exactly how much time has passed – sometimes generations – the narrator returns again and again to the word ages) the two communities start to come together. This coming together isn’t particularly harmonious – but the males and females find they have need of each other, particularly as the women have now discovered they can no longer reproduce without the male ‘squirts’ as they are now often called.

The communities grow and evolve further; at last we have a couple of characters – Horsa and Maronna. Maronna is a kind of early matriarchal figure, Horsa; her son. Horsa leads a large party on a perilous expedition, which Maronna begs him not to undertake. These early humans are so far removed from us, that these characters can only ever be two dimensional, and are difficult for the reader to even envisage. Ignorance, wanderlust and natural disaster threaten these fragile communities, the women live in harmony with their world, while the men with their erratic adventurousness are frequently subject to their ‘nagging.’

Lessing writes well of course, and this novel of change, evolution and particularly the complicated relationship between the sexes is written very well indeed. Lessing gives stereotypical ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits to her Clefts and Squirts – the males shrugging off any fatherly responsibility, recklessly endangering the offspring they take for granted, the females violently protective when roused to fury – but largely more passive, in tune with the natural world, nagging and nurturing by turn. I came to wonder what Lessing was trying to say in all of this – how much if any of it, was parody – I don’t think I have reached any conclusions – but I suspect all of this will make for an interesting discussion this Wednesday evening.

dorislessing

cider with rosie

Probably for all of us there exist books we have always been aware of – books so well known, and well-loved by others, that their titles are as familiar to us as those books we’ve read over and over. Cider with Rosie is certainly such a book for me, why it has taken me until now to read it I don’t know. I think there was a time when my poor confused brain muddled it with The Darling Buds of May (why I don’t know) another book I haven’t read but have been well aware of. The Catharine Zeta Jones TV thing (even though I didn’t watch a minute of it) put me off that – and so by association Cider with Rosie. How strange and illogical are the connections we make between books sometimes.

Cider with Rosie is the first of three memoirs that Laurie Lee wrote about his life, this first book the account of his childhood and adolescence in Gloucestershire in the early twentieth century. Born to the second wife of his absent father, his mother, brothers and half-sisters move to their cottage in Slad village in the final summer of the First World War when Laurie or Loll as he is frequently called is just three years old.

“I was set down from the carrier’s cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began.
The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept. I had never been so close to grass before. It towered above me and all around me, each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight. It was knife-edged, dark, and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt through the air like monkeys.”

Beautifully chronicling a traditional way of life Cider with Rosie also portrays the changes that those years after the Great War brought; such as the coming of motor cars. The cottage built of Cotswold stone, was prone to flooding in heavy rain, when Annie – Laurie’s mother would shout at everyone to rise from their beds and take up brooms to sweep the flood water down the drain. Laurie paints a wonderfully affectionate portrait of his mother – a woman who always kept the bus waiting as she flew around looking for shoes, hat or bag. Having married a widower with five children, Annie, gave him four more children – before she was abandoned by him. She brought up both his families, never losing hope that one day he would return to her.

younglaurieleeLee paints a wonderfully cosy picture of life in the Lee cottage, I can’t help but suspect a little leaning toward nostalgia – as Laurie Lee was looking back from a distance of forty years or so. Nevertheless, I was rather swept away by Lee’s portrayal of a way of life – long gone. A family sat around the big kitchen table, household chores, his sisters gossiping, sewing, and later going out to work in shops, the younger children struggling with homework. It’s a lovely traditional family picture – the only thing really missing of course is his father.

We meet wonderful village characters Granny Trill and Granny Wallon – who hate each other, and compete to be the one to live longest. They refer to each other as ‘Er-Up-Atop and Er-Down-Under – Granny Wallon a tiny ancient shrew brews up her powerful wines which she took to her neighbours the following year. Granny Trill sticking with the habits from when she lived in the woods with her father rises at four o’clock in the morning and is in bed again by five o’clock in the afternoon, winter and summer. We are given the story of a village murder when Laurie was still very young, old fashioned village justice of a kind – to a man they felt deserved it. Village events move with the changing seasons, village jaunts, church teas, carol singing at Christmas, long summer days spent in the fields.

Laurie’s first school is the village school – ruled over by the dame teacher Crabby B – on his first day poor young Laurie has his baked potato stolen – so on subsequent days he gets his own back. In time Crabby is replaced by Miss Wardley from Birmingham and her glass jewellery.

“The village school at that time provided all the instruction we were likely to ask for. It was a small stone barn divided by a wooden partition into two rooms – The Infants and The Big Ones. There was one dame teacher, and perhaps a young girl assistant. Every child in the valley crowding there, remained till he was fourteen years old, then was presented to the working field or factory, with nothing in his head more burdensome than a few mnemonics, a jumbled list of wars, and a dreamy image of the world’s geography.”

As Laurie grows up – he runs around as adolescent boys will with his friends – girls are practically all they think about. A rather unpleasant plan is hatched by the boys to accost a rather unappealing local girl – who at least (poor thing) is possessed of a body. Their plan naturally fails – and the girl is left none the worse for their outrageous purpose. Laurie is finally seduced by Rosie after drinking cider.

“Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again…”

This lovely memoir ends with the feeling of great change – the death of the squire brings change to the order of things, the big house becoming a home for invalids. In the lanes around the village motor cars begin to be seen more often. The church
comes to hold less sway with the younger generation – as new excitements take over.

“The last days of my childhood were also the last days of the village. I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life. The change came late in our Cotswold Valley, didn’t really show itself till the late 1920’s; I was twelve by then, but during that handful of years I witnessed the whole thing happen.”

I loved this memoir of childhood – and so I shall have to seek out the books that Laurie Lee wrote about the next stages in his life. His prose is just beautiful, gorgeous descriptions everything deeply rooted in the English countryside.

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comforts for the troops 1

Fiona Joseph is a local author, one of four authors I have arranged to come and speak at the bookcrossing Unconvention (that’s unofficial convention) in September. I hadn’t read either of Fiona’s books and having both of them tbr – this novel appealed to me at once.

cadbury's2Often the butt of jokes Birmingham is in fact a fascinating city with an enthralling history – Fiona Joseph has really tapped into that history and brought it to life. I sometimes worry that novels set in Birmingham (and other places north of Watford) are only deemed (by publishers and the like) to be of interest to people from that place. I find that absurd – the whole world read books set in London and New York, why not Birmingham? If you have ever been to Cadbury’s World you will know the history of the factory and that the Bournville village created for the factory workers was a ground-breaking, life changing project in its time. I feel sure that the walls must be permeated with the stories of the men and women who worked there. Fiona Joseph has given us some of those stories with her novel Comforts for the Troops, and with her other book; a biography Beatrice: The Cadbury Heiress Who Gave Away Her Fortune – which I’ve heard excellent things of from Liz.

Comforts for the Troops, is a novel set in Birmingham during World War 1 – among the women who worked in the Cadbury factory.

“Leonora tried to control most things in life but she had to accept the weather and all its vagaries were beyond even her command. She smoothed the front of her cream pinafore – clean on that morning – and brushed down her sleeves, sharply tugging each cuff so that it lay against her wrist bone. She removed her cap and patted her hair in front of the mirror, twisting her head to check the bun firmly in place. An image of herself dressed in a green blouse, worn only by the works’ forewomen, came into her mind; quickly she shook the thought away.”

cadburyHousewife Jessie had left the Cadbury factory on her marriage to upholsterer Bill, however when Bill is injured in a factory accident, just before the outbreak of WW1 she finds herself feeling increasingly anxious about money. Bill’s recovery progresses slowly, and their savings won’t last forever. With the outbreak of war George Cadbury decides to allow married women back to the factory in place of the men who have joined up. Jessie returns to the Cadbury factory alongside other married women and very young girls, like Helen Daw who at fourteen is now expected to earn her way. Helen is a poor, nervous scrap – who under the Cadbury’s scheme of work, exercise and fresh air begins to thrive – but she is also tragically naïve and ill-equipped to cope when life treats her cruelly.

Leonora Lime is an unmarried woman who has worked at the Cadbury factory for years. She longs to wear the green blouse of the forewomen, and is eager to grab any chance she can to show her bosses her true leadership potential. Living alone in the house she once shared with her parents, Leonora spends Thursday evenings with the Baileys; neighbours who knew her growing up, with whom she shares all the news from the factory. Keen to impress, Miss Lime rallies the women under her to pack ‘comforts’ for the soldiers at the front. comfortsfor the troops 2

Boxes filled with knitted items, chocolates and a handwritten note – sent to soldiers to show they are not forgotten back at home. Later Miss Lime encourages her workers to volunteer outside their working hours at a local hospital where injured soldiers are being brought to recover before being shipped back to the front. Several women including Jessie and young Helen Daw begin to spend time at the hospital, it sometimes means spending even less time at home – but it’s all in a good cause.

Factory worker Mary is a vivacious, seemingly care free young woman, about whom Leonora is quick to make assumptions, there has been gossip among some of the women about her young man. Leonora is dismayed to see Mary and Jessie – of who she has high hopes – becoming friends. Mary keeps her cards close to her chest; wanting only to help her beloved Daniel – desperate to find out where he is and how he is fairing – she enlists the help of a Friends Ambulance Unit Volunteer. Will Mary be able to save one fragile young man from his past and the realities of war? Mary comes up with an apparently hair brained scheme to find Daniel, takes Jessie into her confidence before heading off to France, while Leonora’s intentions to impress lead to a spectacularly humiliating misjudgement.

“The first quarter of 1917 was one of the coldest winters that region of France had ever experienced. Mary had known icy winters in Birmingham but this coldness was something else. It was like being bitten all over or having your limbs in vice. She rued the thinness of her nurse’s uniform and thought with nostalgia about the Works’ dressing room with its steel hot pipe and the metal cages where she could warm her boots.”

With her home life becoming more difficult, Bill – being cared for by his mother and a neighbour – is resentful of his wife working, and frustrated by his injuries – Jessie finds great fulfilment at the factory and in her volunteer work. Jessie’s marriage is severely tested as her horizons are broadened and she begins to realise her own potential, meeting new and interesting people. Jessie has her head turned, is tempted, confused by her feelings and the changes in her husband since his accident, still grieving for the babies she lost – when all around her seem to have children easily.

I love books set in Birmingham and I very much enjoyed this book, believable characters and compelling stories, featuring areas of Birmingham I know well I found it pretty hard to put down. A story of work, war love and friendship Comforts for the Troops is a novel that is an excellent portrayal of the work women did during the Great War – work that as the war ended was taken from them as abruptly as it had been doled out.

fionajoseph

 

January in review

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January has felt very long – so long in fact that I feel I must surely have read more than nine and a half books – but there it is, nine and a half books and a month that sometimes felt more like three. Thankfully my reading during dreary January has been of a pretty high standard.

virginiawoolfI started the year on a real high reading wise, beginning my year and my #Woolfalong project reading To the Lighthouse (1927). It was a wonderful reading experience, so different from my first experience of it twenty five years ago. Maurice (1971) by E M Forster – another member of the Bloomsbury set I suppose, was the only novel by E M Forster I had never read (not yet read his short stories either). Beautifully written, it paints an extremely honest picture of what life might be for a young man attracted to his own sex in the early twentieth century – no wonder really that Forster didn’t live to see it published. The Land of Green Ginger (1927) by Winifred Holtby I had been saving for a few years – it turned out to be good – although certainly not her best. I was a tad disappointed – only because I had saved it so long, however a lesser Holtby is still pretty good – and definitely still worth reading. I was particularly cheered to learn that The Land of Green Ginger is an actual street – how I would love little address card with that address on! Next I read a Netgalley review copy on my trusty kindle – Exposure (2016) by Helen Dunmore. I always like Helen Dunmore’s writing, and this one was among the best of those that I have read. Her sense of place is always so good, and the atmosphere and tension in this latest novel is pretty much perfect. Actually reading Exposure made me want to read those Dunmore I’ve yet to get around to. Next I found myself returning to Virginia Woolf, re-reading Mrs Dalloway (1925) – which I had originally not intended to do until February. Mrs Dalloway is a fascinating, complex novel – I enjoyed it far more this time too. I think (I hope) I may have finally found my Virginia Woolf mojo. I will probably wait until March to read more Woolf, although I have (or will have) my first round up post for the end of the first phase to post at the end of this month.

Cassandra at the Wedding (1962) by Dorothy Baker is a book I had only ever heard good reports of, a slim book it packs something of a punch in its brilliantly memorable narrative voice, I think I would have liked it to be a bit longer. Leading up to Margery Sharp day I read Britannia Mews (1946) – such a brilliant read, it’s easy to see why it was adapted for a film in the 1950’s. The Half-Crown House (1956) an old novel by Helen Ashton – I assume it to have been one of her later novels as she died in 1958. Set on one day in 1954 it explores the history and family of the house on that day and in flashback. I enjoyed it a lot – although not quite as much as the previous two novels of hers that I read.

Many of you will know I am involved in bookcrossing – although not as active as I once was, though I am currently involved in organising the UK convention, here in Birmingham for September. One of the authors I have arranged to speak is a local author Fiona Joseph – having not read either of Fiona’s books yet I started reading her most recent Comforts for the Troops (2015) – so I could pass it round a few readers who are likely to attend her talk in September. I will review it in the next few days – but I loved it. Set among the women who worked in the Cadbury factory during WW1 I found it very compelling, I particularly loved the local connection of course. I begin February a little more than half way through Cider with Rosie (1959); a book I have meant to read for years – and so when I spotted it at a bookcrossing meet on Saturday I picked it up and began reading it right away.

 

thecleft

wide sargasso sea

I do have some plans for February – two book group reads – The Cleft by Doris Lessing and a re-read of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I also want to read at least one Mary Hocking novel and I have a couple of more recent novels on my kindle I have been trying to get round to for weeks. Though of course I do really just like picking up whatever takes my fancy at that moment.

So tell me what were your stand out reads for January and what are you planning to read in February?

the half crown house

Recently I wrote about Helen Ashton – and my pleasure at finding some copies of her books which remain (with the exception of one) out of print. My copy, a 1956 hardback  sadly lacks the dust jacket pictured above.

I had seen mixed reviews of The Half-Crown House – the third Helen Ashton book I have read – but I have to say I very much enjoyed it. Many readers might find it a little bit of a slow burn – I do think that that is simply Helen Ashton’s style. The story is that of a house on one day – with flashbacks to the past and the recent-ish history of the family who live there.

In the difficult years following the Second World War the families who owned large houses of a certain type had to rethink the way that they were run – if they had any chance of surviving. Fountain Court is a much smaller house than the famous houses like Chatsworth and Althorp – and is less of a draw to sightseers. On Saturdays and Wednesdays between April and the end of October Fountain Court is open to the public –for an entrance fee of half a crown. The household staff and members of the Hornbeam family who live there act as guides to keep down the costs. Built on the foundations of a Cistercian Abbey; Fountain Court had been home to the Hornbeam family since the Reformation. I loved Aston’s portrayal of the house, a place definitely feeling its age – it has its attics and dark corners and alongside the human occupants are the creatures that find their way in through its ancient nooks and crannies.

“At night the rats came out and frisked boldly through the attics, gnawed and scratched their way under doors, ran about with the thumping noises in empty rooms. The house-mice scampered up and down their own long corridors under the floor-boards; they squeaked and fought among the joists, made themselves nests out of nibbled paper and rags. Every autumn, when the corn and been carried, there was an invasion of field-mice; one year they got into the velvet pillows of the state bed in the Queen’s room, shut up for the winter, and nibbled holes in the embroidered curtains; cats and traps could not keep pace with the field-mice. They would get into the larder and drown themselves in cream-pans.”

The novel opens on the 30th October 1954 – the last day of the year that Fountain Court will be open before the long winter break. It is a busy day – the small group of visitors paying their half-crowns to look around just the least of it. Living in the old house now are just two of the remaining Hornbeam family – Henrietta – still mourning the death of her beloved twin brother during the war, and her grandmother; the dowager Lady Hornbeam. Henrietta’s young brother had married just a few weeks before his death, and the posthumous child (the fifth Baron Hornbeam) of that rash marriage is just nine years old – and coming to live at Fountain Court on the day the story opens. His mother has re-married and poor young Victor is being sent to live with his father’s family in the house which one day will belong to him. Sad to be saying goodbye to his mother, Victor won’t miss his horrid stepfather – Mr Pine – who smarts at the memory of his wife’s first husband.

“Henrietta did not come a moment too soon. She had been down the garden, she said, tidying up the herbaceous border. She kissed her nephew and his mother, offered tea or coffee and a walk through the State rooms, but could not persuade Mr Pine to abandon his grievance. “I got no time to spare,” was his ungracious answer to everything. “we’re late as it is. We got to get back to Stafford. There’s a man coming to see me about a conversion-job.” Inside ten minutes he had them all out under the pillared portico and had started up a car with a snout like a mouth-organ; his new wife was kneeling on the black and white marble flagstones, with her fur coat spread round her, kissing goodbye to her son. As they drove away she looked back and saw him standing by his tall aunt. He raised his hand in a timid farewell and his mother’s eyes filled with tears; after this morning he would never really be her boy anymore.”

Cousin Charles; came home from the war minus one arm and one eye, his help and support in running the estate, so invaluable to Henrietta – lives above the stables. Nanny is looking forward to having a child in the nursery again – and Mr Leaf the butler is preparing for an important lunch. Henrietta has been spending time with John Cornell, an American who has been staying at the nearby American base where his younger brother had served. John has organised a meeting between Henrietta and an antiques expert – who might be willing to buy a family portrait – money that the family and Fountain Court, desperately need. As Henrietta prepares for the meeting, all too aware of the feelings that John Cornell has begun to have towards her – her wily old grandmother upstairs attended faithfully by her Swiss maid is nursing a few old secrets. Henrietta is desperately attached to Fountain Court – she is desperate to save it – many people believe she should simply give it up – but would she really consider making a life with the American (as he is invariably referred to) and leave?

Although the action, such as it is – takes place on one day – a day heralding great change – the past weaves in and out of the 30th October 1954 through the stories we hear of the past. Memories are shared and recounted, stories that include a Queen’s visit, a disastrous marriage, several family tragedies and scandals. Ashton creates a lovely sense of history – a crumbling old house and a family still living in the past. As a visitor to many old English houses myself, where one hears so many similar stories – I know what changes the twentieth century brought to houses like this.

helenashton

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