Asstrangers here

In her 1960 novel As Strangers Here, re-issued by Turnpike books this year, Janet McNeill focuses her attention on middle and working class Belfast society in the years before what became known as The Troubles (generally seen as having started in the late 1960’s). The scope of the novel is mainly domestic; she explores the underlying tensions of that society within the confines of family life. Like the writers she has often been compared to – Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, McNeill has a practised observant eye.

Janet McNeill was born in Dublin in 1907 where her father was a Presbyterian minister. In 1913, the family moved to England when her father was appointed to a church in Birkenhead. Janet’s father returned to Northern Ireland in 1924, although was later forced to retire through ill-health. Janet McNeill then moved to Belfast, where she worked as a typist and secretary at the Belfast Telegraph. After her marriage, Janet McNeill and her husband Robert Alexander moved to Lisburn to bring up their children. In 1951 Janet McNeill began to write following a BBC competition. She went on to write radio plays, novels for adults and many children’s books. It was for her children’s books that she became best known.

“It had always seemed to him incongruous that in his ministry there should be so much necessity for conventional flippancy. He had colleagues to whose tongue a story would rise to meet any occasion and it was, he knew, the popular approach. These people had come to enjoy themselves, and whether he liked it or not he must wear the mask of a mild humourist.”

belfastBelfast clergyman, Edward Ballater, fears for both his family and his faith. Edward has concerns about the depth of his congregation’s faith – their attitudes to Catholics in the community just a part of his worries. Edward is called upon to help a young man, a member of his community who has been picked up by the police, suspected of involvement in a violent crime. In time, Edward begins to suspect that Ned Donnelley’s family have been lying to him – lies which have had a terrible effect on the how he thinks of himself.

On the day that Edward goes to Ned’s aid at the police station, an I.R.A bomb is thrown. Edward and young Ned find themselves in the role of unexpected heroes, risking their lives to save others.

…He had often tried to prepare other people for death.
He thought of the words that he had used – texts, phrases from hymns, familiar blessed words that by their association carried with them more authority than anything original or spontaneous that he could have said. “At evening time there shall be light.” It was the one he could remember. Old people loved it. It was no good to him. This wasn’t his evening, but the middle of his afternoon, an interruption in a busy working-day. He had always believed that there was a rounded plan for his life, a framework of Divine intention within which his free will had a share of work to do. It was senseless as well as hurtful to accept that his services could be so lightly dispensed with. Yet acceptance was necessary. So often on the faces even of the dying who had long expected to die he had seen in the last moment an incredulous surprise. Not me? Not my turn to die?”

Life at home is difficult too, though Edward has been deluding himself about the truth of the situation. Edward’s wife Florence has been an invalid for several years. Keeping to her room, tapping on her bedside table for attention – her behaviour is rather reminiscent of Victorian invalids. Her illness is unspecified – vague references to bleeding and headaches the only clues we get. Edward and Florence’s son, Colin is married to Clare; the couple are already sniping at one another in the chill of their small flat. Colin was always the apple of his mother’s eye – she watches keenly for his visits, but Colin is beginning to show his own frustration with his mother’s illness. Joanna, Colin’s anxious teenage sister, has grown up in the shadow of her mother’s illness. While her father is out in the evening, Joanna checks the gas taps, checks the back door, checks again, and on returning to her room worries that she may have not checked after all.

“Once out on the landing she felt compelled to make the entire tour again in case anything had been overlooked. There were people who could go to bed light-heartedly as if it were the most natural thing in the world, doors unlatched, lights still burning, one day’s mess left over till the morning of the next day, lying down untroubled. But going to bed was, in a sense like dying, and how could one sleep with an unlatched door on one’s mind any more than with a sin on one’s conscience?”

McNeill often shows wry humour, showing understanding for the absurdities of human behaviour, for example in her depiction of a church treasure hunt. Edward wedged into his own car with four parishioners, as they run around trying to find the contents of their list which includes a chocolate mouse and a hair from the beard of a red haired man. Edward finds himself almost without realising it drawing ever so slightly closer to family friend and parishioner Marion Powell. Marion is friend of Florence’s from girlhood – the only person now outside of the family and the doctor who visits Florence. Marion’s husband Toby has disappeared – again – this time with the girl from the corner shop. Marion, wishing for his return, listens out for his car in the drive; Edward can’t even bring himself to say his name.

Although As Strangers Here takes place in 1950’s Belfast, a place rife with social tensions, McNeill does not really concern herself with the wider political situation; her focus is the domestic, within that society. The devil they say is in the detail, and it is certainly in the detail in writers like Janet McNeill which lifts the narrative above the ordinary. Subtlety and astute observation combine with superb characterisation to bring us a novel of family disharmony set against the background of society in some crisis.

Turnpike books also publish The Small Widow and The Maiden Dinosaur – which I have yet to read – and this reader is grateful that at least some of her novels have been brought back for us.


flowering wilderness

Sitting down to write reviews of these Galsworthy books is always hard. I have to remember that many – possibly most – people reading this review (assuming anyone bothers) won’t be that familiar with the previous novels. As a reader these books have been a great joy for me this year – Flowering Wilderness the eighth of the nine total Forsyte Chronicles. However as a blogger, I wonder how relevant these reviews are for other people. Oh well, apologies to those of who don’t know what I’m talking about.

Incidentally, though – if any of you are looking for an achievable reading challenge for next year – these nine books and connected interludes are perfect for a yearlong challenge.

theforsytesaga3Flowering Wilderness is the second book in the third volume titled The End of Chapter. This novel continues the story of the Cherrell/Charwell family who are related by marriage to Fleur Mont (nee Forsyte, daughter of Galsworthy’s great creation Soames Forsyte). As the novel opens three figures each stand and contemplate a statue – they start out as strangers – yet they are in actual fact loosely connected.

“In 1930, shortly after the appearance of the Budget, the eighth wonder of the world might have been observed in the neighbourhood of Victoria Station — three English people, of wholly different type, engaged in contemplating simultaneously a London statue. They had come separately, and stood a little apart from each other in the south-west corner of the open space clear of the trees, where the drifting late afternoon light of spring was not in their eyes. One of these three was a young woman of about twenty-six, one a youngish man of perhaps thirty-four, and one a man of between fifty and sixty.”

Dinny who we first met in Maid in Waiting, the daughter of General Conway Cherrell meets Wilfred Dessert – who we last encountered in The White Monkey. Then, early into the marriage of Fleur and Michael, Wilfred had developed a rather hopeless passion for his best friend’s wife. Following that Wilfred had taken himself out of England, and for several years has been travelling in the East. Now he is back in England, and he meets Dinny, who remembers him from Fleur’s wedding, despite having been only sixteen at the time. Ten years on the impression Wilfred created then, remains, and Dinny quickly falls in love with Wilfred and Wilfred is equally smitten. Wilfred tells Dinny of a difficult situation he got into while abroad. A tale she must then impart to her family. Wilfred – a man with absolutely no faith himself – he sees organised religion as being rather ridiculous – converted to Islam – while under great threat to his life. Here Galsworthy does what he does best; that is to show how British people of a certain class can make a whole lot of fuss about not very much.

Wilfred is a poet, and has written a poem about his experiences, this poem is the title poem and the first one to be included in a new collection due to be published. Naturally the story of Wilfred’s conversion is soon known by all – and despite his explanations – it is considered a dreadful, shameful thing. Strangely it would appear that the world would forgive him (as pass him off as a mere eccentric) if his conversion had been a matter of conscience. However as it was at a pistol point – he is considered a coward – his actions contrary to the behaviour expected of an Englishman abroad.

Dinny is fabulously and valiantly supportive, and is desperate to lessen the scandal that is being unleashed around her and Wilfred. She enlists the help of her beloved uncles, Lawrence and Adrian in particular work hard to find a solution, while struggling themselves a little with the knowledge of what Wilfred did. Everyone in the family has an opinion, most generally seeming to believe that Wilfred’s actions will be, once known, a terrible shame – and will only end by dragging Dinny down. Fleur is rather more sensible, but she does appear to be a small lone voice crying out for good sense to be resumed as the madness around Dinny and Wilfred gathers pace.

“Fleur smiled. “True to type. Would it surprise you, as they say in the courts, if I told you that there isn’t one in twenty people about town who’d do otherwise than yawn if you asked them to condemn Wilfrid for what he did? And there isn’t one in forty who won’t forget all about it in a fortnight.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Jean flatly.
“You don’t know modern Society, my dear.””

It is of course poor Dinny who is shown to suffer most in the resulting fuss, she is aided by Wilfred’s faithful old family retainer Stack the two of them desperate to reach out to the young man made miserable by the furore. Wilfred is a complex, damaged young man, of that generation particularly harmed, changed and embittered by the Great War. The reader does fear for the happiness of these two – indeed their story is a rather emotionally compelling one. Although as time went on, I sympathised more with Dinny and could happily have throttled Wilfred despite his utter misery.

How time does fly – and here we are at the end of November and I have only one of these Forsyte books left to read. I am very much looking forward to seeing where Galsworthy takes me and his characters next.

john galsworthy

my mother river

My Mother is a River is the recent offering from new independent publisher Calisi Press. Calisi Press is a publisher committed to bringing out works by contemporary, Italian women writers. I was really pleased to be offered a review copy of what promised to be a delicately rendered story and I am glad to say that I wasn’t disappointed. The writing is beautiful, owing much I am sure to the translator Franca Scarti Simpson.

At under 200 pages this lovely book easily fits into Poppy’s #NovellaNovember which I hope you’re all following. It’s been fantastic.

My Mother is a River is the story of a mother and daughter, the story of their relationship; a love gone wrong from the start.

The narrative switches from first to second person, from the present to the past and back again. Our narrator is a woman with her own life; a partner and a son, but she also must now try and care for the mother Esperia, who she struggled to bond with.

“I am incapable of showing her kindness. I never touch her. I can only imagine being able to caress her, her arms, the hands deformed by arthritis, her cheeks, her head. Her hair’s started to thin out too, as if the withering at work inside her skull were infecting its very roots. It’s like cancer in reverse; it shrivels instead of spreading out. She seems too young for this, she isn’t ready. We are not ready.”

Esperia is in decline, suffering from dementia, and so her daughter talks to her – telling her kindly and with real tenderness the story of her life, the things she is beginning to forget as her own mind cruelly robs her of her memories.

The story she tells is of the mother’s upbringing in Abruzzi, the eldest of six daughters – with the colourful, rural traditions that went with it – pig sticking, dances the social politics of selecting partners. The daughter recounts the story of her grandparents; Esperia’s father who sent his wife the names he had selected for each of his first three daughters in letters from the war, (those first three daughters, each conceived while he was on leave). A man who finally limped home, broken and changed to resume his hard life on the farm and father more daughters. We learn about school days, the villagers and family members who Esperia grew up with. Her adolescence, and how she finally met our narrator’s father, a cousin she hadn’t seen in years, and following dispensation from Rome married him, moving away down the valley to start a new life. Esperia’s life growing up was a hard one, long hours of farm work or house work, and as a young mother her life isn’t any easier, she was simply unable to relax into spending time with her baby.

“Our love went wrong from the beginning. She was too accustomed to sacrifice to allow herself the pleasure of spending time with her baby. Every now and then she’d look up from the ground she was toiling on and towards the bundle she had left under a blanket in the shade of a tree. I was still there. She would have heard a loud cry. She was reassured. She couldn’t understand why at night I would ache so much for her attention and play up to get it, while she had all the housework to catch up with, after a long day.”

Our narrator is honest about the realities of caring for someone with dementia. Cesare, her father, is struggling to cope with the woman his wife has become, but the focus remains that of the daughter. She can’t help but recall the past – the difficult years of her childhood, the times her mother tried to take over when her grandson was born. The layers of the past and present overlap – showing how complex these mother, daughter relationships can be, especially where there has been conflict. The daughter is still smarting over the past, but there is an underlying tenderness. Compelled to visit her mother every couple of days – terrified of what longer separations might mean. The daughter, patiently telling her mother the story of her own life, as she goes about the difficult business of caring for her the best way that she can.

I dreamed of you last night. I came to look for you with Giovanni, but we couldn’t see anyone, only the dusty road crossing the dull green field, a falcon flying above. Then you emerged from the other side of the hill, head first, then your shoulders, your waist, the swing of the hips, all of you. Like a sun rising, a dot becoming a whole circle of light above the line of the horizon.

This is a beautifully expressed little novel, delicately poignant and heartfelt. Hooray for independent publishers like Calisi Press who are able to bring us writers like Donatella Di Pietrantonio.


lolly willowes


“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.”

I have wanted to read Lolly Willowes for ages, and yet for some unknown reason I read three other Sylvia Townsend Warner novels before tackling the one I have always assumed is her best known. It’s not an especially long book, but it wasn’t just the length which made me gobble it up in great gulps. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is wonderful; she was a gifted, imaginative storyteller whose use of language is really quite lovely. Having read The Corner that Held Them, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and Summer will Show, I was already a fan of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing, so I had big expectations of Lolly Willowes which I know a lot of people love. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed, hence the gobbling up of it. Even in the midst of the gobbling up however I was often stopped in my tracks by the most glorious prose, descriptions of utter perfection.

“…she looked with the yearning of an outcast at the dwelling so long ago discarded. The house was like an old blind nurse sitting in the sun and ruminating past events. It seemed an act of the most horrible ingratitude to leave it all and go away without one word of love. But the gates were shut, the time of welcome was gone by.”

The story itself is tender and a little magical, and I simply adored the character of Lolly Willowes herself. Laura Willowes (to allow her, her given name) is a dutiful unmarried daughter of twenty eight when her beloved father dies. Laura had always enjoyed her quiet life in the country, sometimes gathering herbs and making distillations with them. Laura is at one with the countryside, and its yearly round of traditions. Born some years after her two elder brothers; Henry and James, Laura grew up almost as an only child, the apple of her father’s eye. Laura has run her father’s home with ease, helped by the servants, people of good old country stock, who make beeswax furniture polish and pigeon pie. Upon her father’s death Laura is devastated; everything she knows and feels secure in is lost. Her elder brothers and their wives take control, it is quickly decided – that despite Laura having a good income of her own left to her by her father – she should go away from the country to London and live with Henry and Caroline and their two young daughters. Between them; Henry, James and their wives make all the decisions, what furniture Laura will take with her, and how useful she will be. London life will be very different, but Laura submits to the decisions made for her.

Of course Laura is useful, for that is how she is made, she proves herself invaluable. It is one of Henry’s young daughters who bestow the name Aunt Lolly on Laura – and the name sticks and Laura is Laura no longer, her life no longer her own. Laura settles her things into the small spare room in the London House that she will now call her own, while her brother and sister-in-law set about introducing her to potential, suitable husbands.

For twenty years Aunt Lolly makes herself indispensable to family life in London. Holidays are taken at Lady Place, her former home where her brother James his wife and son Titus live. Aunt Lolly is taken for granted, she is so very reliable. The years slip by quickly – the girls grow up and begin to make lives for themselves. A war is fought; the world is a different place. In the 1920’s Laura finds, at forty-seven, that she wants something different for herself. She has the feeling that something is pulling her towards the countryside again, feeling herself at one with the natural world, she longs for woods, and hillsides. Laura decides to break free of the life which has been organised for her realising suddenly that she can have a life of her own. Laura’s realisation coming in a greengrocer’s shop of a quite old fashioned kind;

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

Laura finds herself drawn to the countryside of Buckinghamshire, and the tiny village of Great Mop. Her family are both horrified and astonished at Laura’s announcement, and at first they don’t take her quite seriously. On finding her brother has mismanaged her money; Laura can only afford to rent a couple of rooms in the cottage of Mrs Leek. Here in two small rooms and roaming free in the countryside that surrounds the cottage, Aunt Lolly becomes Laura again, her happiness is complete, and she finds within herself the woman she should always have been. There appear to be unusual forces around the village of Great Mop and the nearby countryside, forces with which Laura is at one. Here the story does get a little odd – but I knew that before I started – the reader has to suspend belief a bit, that’s all. When Titus turns up to stay with his good old Aunt Lolly; his presence upsets the delicately balanced atmosphere of the area, and unleashes forces, that finally bring Laura to an understanding of who she really is.

Published three years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s assertion that all single women should have their own liberty and lives of their own not dictated for them by others.


bad feminist

Chosen by one of my book groups, Bad Feminist a collection of essays by American writer and academic Roxane Gay has given me a great deal to think about. Firstly, however it surprised me, I hadn’t quite expected to be as enthralled by it as I was. I had left it a little bit late to begin reading, the evening of my little Feminist book group’s meet was only a few days off and I had only read two or three essays, which might have been enough to at least take part in a discussion, but I was hooked and for the next three days I read it insatiably. When I met up with my friends I hadn’t much left to read and in fact finished it after work the following day. I had immediately engaged with Gay’s easy, straightforward style, her honesty and her realistic feminist standpoint.

“In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.”

Even in 2015, Feminism can get a rather bad press, is sometimes spoken of tongue in cheek or with undisguised derision. I think for some people, Feminism can feel like something for others; people who are cleverer, more politicised, academics and campaigners. Of course that isn’t so, and in this brilliant collection, of funny, brutal, deeply personal, and superbly accessible essays Gay demonstrates, how really feminism is for us all, that we can find reasons to uphold it, and think about what it really means in the most unexpected places. This book is not an academic text; it is deliberately more accessible and relevant than that.

“Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights. I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves. I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.”

Gay explores feminism within the confines of modern popular culture, as well as her own experiences. Sweet Valley High, Fifty Shades of Grey, and films such as Bridesmaids and Django Unchained all come in for scrutiny. While the many American popular culture references went right over my head – I had seen only one of the TV shows talked about and seen none of the several films alluded to – it really didn’t matter at all. The cult of celebrity, the expectations of female perfection, issues of gender and race and the depiction of the black experience by Hollywood screenwriters and directors all come in for criticism. This criticism although sometimes angry is balanced however, Gay freely admits where things work, where writing is good even if she hates the finished product as a whole.

Throughout this collection, we are given ample opportunity to get to know the woman who wrote these essays. Roxane Gay; a woman of colour, born to Haitian parents, teaching at a university which she describes as being ‘in the middle of a cornfield’ a place where as a black woman she rather stands out. We see her as a new professor, starting out on her university teaching career, we experience American fat camps (shudder) with her, the world of competitive scrabble – (so, so funny). She explains how she struggled for acceptance at High school, and in a deeply personal account how she was victim of a horrendous sexual attack. Gay admits to rather admiring Countess Olenska from The Age of Innocence, and preferring Nellie Olsen to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“We’re not supposed to like her, but Countess Olenska intrigues me because she is interesting. She stands apart from the blur of social conformity. We’re supposed to like, or at least respect, May for being the proper and sweet innocent she carries herself as; but in Wharton’s skilled hands, we eventually see that May Welland is as human, and therefore as unlikeable, as anyone else. This question of likability would be far more tolerable if all writers were as talented as Edith Wharton, but alas.”

It is very hard to sum up a whole collection easily – and really I suppose I could talk at some length about many of the ideas in this book, some of which really made me sit up and think. Much of what Roxane Gay writes about here is firmly rooted in American life, as my friends and I discussed the other night though, some of those experiences may have been quite different over here, that’s not to say these essays are only relevant to a US reader I obviously don’t think that at all. I felt I learned an awful lot, and I think I shall go on thinking about the issues raised in this book. I realised that there were things I had taken for granted and others I had never considered – because as Gay points out, for some time feminism has not been doing a wholly perfect job. Feminism and privilege it would seem have walked shoulder to shoulder, and therefore Feminism has not always done much for women of colour, or for transgender or gay women. So in this collection, Feminism itself comes in for criticism, Feminism is imperfect, and some of us are still figuring out what it is anyway, Gay herself describes herself as a Bad Feminist, probably most of us are.

roxane gay

murder at the manor

With thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

There is something about these dark, late autumn evenings that are perfect for a bit of old fashioned mystery and suspense. Murder at the Manor – edited by Martin Edwards brings together a fabulous collection of short stories, mysteries that are set in that favourite golden age setting of the country house. As Edwards explains in his introduction, country house crime stories remain as popular as ever. Their appeal is driven particularly by nostalgia for a bygone era. The stories in this collection were written over a period of approximately sixty-five years, and cover a period in which society in Britain and life in those country houses was changing. These stories therefore cover a period before, after and naturally during that period typically referred to as the Golden Age of crime fiction. There are some real gems in this collection, with several well-known authors of these kinds of tales, including Arthur Conan Doyle, E W Hornung, G K Chesterton, Margery Allingham, Ethel Lina White and Nicholas Blake.

It is always hard to review an entire collection of stories, so rather than trying to talk about each story – I will endeavour to give just a flavour of this superb collection, which I just loved. Each story is prefaced with a short bio of the author, setting the story which follows in the context of the author’s body of work. Several of the authors were new to me, some old friends.

In this collection we are treated to a glorious mixture of mystery story ingredients, country house parties, poison, jealousy, strange inscriptions, bizarre and unexplained phenomenon, wills, suspense, jewel theft, amateur sleuths and ingenious policemen.

conandoyleThere was only one story in the collection that I had read before, The Copper Beeches by Arthur Conan Doyle, which is the opening story. As a Sherlock Holmes fan, I was happy to read it again. A young woman named Violet Hunter consults Sherlock Holmes as to the wisdom in accepting a position of governess which she desperately needs, the job specifications are very odd – her prospective employers requiring her dress in a certain way when asked, and to cut off her hair. Miss Hunter decides to take the position in Hampshire at a house called The Copper Beeches, but it is agreed that Holmes and Watson should be on standby in case needed. It is not long before Holmes and Watson are travelling to Hampshire to meet with Miss Hunter again, and hear the story of her peculiarly sinister employment.

The Mystery of Horne’s Copse by Anthony Berkeley was among my favourites (although that could be a fairly long list). As anthony berkeleyMartin Edwards explains:

“The story features both Sheringham and another regular Berkeley character, Chief Inspector Moresby, and its twists and turns illustrate why Agatha Christie, among others heaped praise on the ingenuity of Berkeley mysteries.”

Anthony Berkeley is a writer I hadn’t read before – and this mystery is absolutely brilliant – true I had mostly worked out what was going on, but I was desperate to know how it would all be solved. The story revolves a young man, Hugh, who had suffered from shell shock in the First World War. He is the owner of Ravendean, and his cousin Frank who is abroad with his wife, is Hugh’s heir. Happily engaged to Sylvia, his future seems an assured one. Until one night, following dinner with his fiancée and friends, Hugh finds his car won’t start and decides to walk through Horne’s Copse. Half way through the wood, Hugh stumbles upon the body of his cousin Frank, with a bullet hole through his head. Shocked, supposing his cousin to be in Italy Hugh races off for help, the doctor and the police. On his return with the police and his friend the doctor, Frank’s body is gone, and all sign that Hugh was ever there obliterated.

J J BellJ J Bell is another author who was new to me – and his story The message on the Sun Dial is superbly executed in which he uses the plot device of the ‘dying message’. Philip Bolsover Wingard (generally known by his middle name) is a man with debts. Bolsover is heir to his more sensible and reliable cousin Philip Merivale Wingard. When Bolsover’s latest forgery of his cousin’s name is discovered by his furious cousin, Bolsover is driven to take extreme action. Later that night, in the grounds of his cousin’s estate – a knife is drawn, and a man is murdered. Behind him is left a strange and inexplicable message on the edge of the sun dial. Can anyone fathom what it means, and solve the mystery of the attacker?

ethel lina whiteI recently read Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White, so I was looking forward to reading The Unlocked window which comes toward the end of this collection. I wasn’t disappointed; it’s a fantastic story of suspense, set in a country house where two nurses have care of a very sick patient. The neighbourhood have been terrified by a series of recent murders; nurses have been targeted by a medical student with a grudge.

“Nurse Cherry hurried through her round of fastening the windows. As she carried her candle from room to room of the upper floors, she had the uneasy feeling that she was visible to any watcher.
Her mind kept wandering back to the bad business of the forgotten oxygen cylinder. It had plunged her in depths of self-distrust and shame. She was overtired, having nursed the patient single-handed, until the arrival, three days ago, of the second nurse. But that fact did not absolve her from blame. “I’m not fit to be a nurse,” she told herself in bitter self-reproach.”

Will the unprotected women in the house fall victim to the murderer on the loose, are they really as vulnerable as Nurse Charry starts to fear? I read that whole story with my heart in my mouth. Brilliant, spine tingling stuff! I really must read more Ethel Lina White.

Murder at the Manor is a superb collection – most especially for fans of the Golden Age.


“For man walketh in vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain
He heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.”

Vain Shadow Persephone book 112 is the only published novel of Jane Hervey – who went on to write two more works which have never been published. Now ninety-five, Jane Hervey originally wrote the novel in the 1950’s but put it away in a drawer for almost ten years before taking it out and polishing it. The setting of the novel we discover very early on however is the early 1960’s, a time of burgeoning social change (no doubt the first draft of the novel had a fifties setting – indeed it has a definite fifties feel). As Celia Robertson says in her brilliant Preface to the Persephone edition, this novel is unashamedly of its time and class – yet it also shows us how far women’s lives have changed and certainly improved since the 1950’s. Vain Shadow is a very autobiographical novel – certain characters so recognisable as themselves by members of her own family that Jane Hervey found herself on very bad terms with them after its publication. Jane Hervey is a pseudonym for Naomi Blanche Thoburn McGaw, whose own life could easily be mistaken for the plot of a domestic drama. Widowed very young during the war, her second husband was a bully who made her miserable, and from whom she was eventually divorced, She found happiness at last with her third husband with whom she founded English Country Cottages for self-catering holidays – a company I am certain my own family have used several times.

vainshadow.The story in Vain Shadow is simple enough – a wealthy family gather at their country estate in Derbyshire following the death of the patriarch. Over a period of four days they mourn him, arrange his funeral and read his will. Here Hervey shows how well she understands families; there is black humour and astute observation in her portrayal of a family living in the midst of death. Mrs Winthorpe is informed of her husband’s death over night by Upjohn the housekeeper, the only member of the household to shed a tear. Mrs Winthorpe had been living in thrall to her husband for fifty-three years; she sits up in bed the morning of her husband’s death playing patience as the news is imparted to other members of the family.

As the nurse leaves the family, her job now at an end, we already have a picture of a man who will not be much missed by his family. A man whose word was law, who was quite adept at ensuring his will was done. His widow upon hearing the news immediately reflecting:

“Never again to have to kiss him goodnight! After fifty-three years of having to kiss him… What a blessing it was all over! (A blessing for him, she meant, of course!) All over! Sickness. Health. Till death us do part.”

Already in the house are the middle aged sons Jack and Harry – Jack is the elder, but it is Harry who seems always keen to take control. Jack’s wife Laurine an actress many years his junior, was disapproved of by the Colonel and Jack is unsure whether his father ever did carry out his threat to cut him out of the will. The third son Brian soon arrives with his wife Elizabeth, and Joanna; the daughter of Jack, Harry and Brian’s deceased sister. Joanna is unhappily married to Tony, another controlling man. Joanna’s future; it seems, like so many women before her – rests in the hands of men, her grandfather, her uncles and her less than trustworthy husband. Over the course of the next four days, Joanna begins to wake up – recognising the parallels between her own life and that of her grandmother, for whom it is now rather too late.

“She looked at Tony, seeing him quite clearly, perhaps for the first time: a man who had caught a wild bird, blinding it so that it would sing for him better in the dark. Slowly, with deliberate cunning , he had edged his darkness down upon her, biding his time until the day when she would sing any tune he called – ‘your money, sweet…’ she could hear him saying it ‘…let me handle it for you. You know how careless you are, sweet!’ – only he had bargained without the singing bird regaining its sight.”

The power play between each of these people is brilliantly done, the jealousy and resentment that simmer quietly between

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

siblings, the changed relationship which exists between adult children and ageing parent, the politics of power between husband and wife. Each character have their own concerns; Jack worries about his position as eldest son, fears being made ridiculous by exclusion from the will, his young wife is anxious for a child and has her covetous eye on a few pretty pieces in a glass display cabinet. Harry is concerned that Joanna does not cause a scandal by breaking up her marriage.

There are petty arguments surrounding the funeral arrangements – burial or cremation, sorting out precise timings for the day, and flowers. Upjohn takes up a collection among the estate workers for a wreath, later conducting them to stand before the coffin,to show the traditional respect for a man who is very much a symbol of the old ways.

There are some wonderful set pieces in this novel, the high speed funeral procession to the crematorium – in order to stick firmly to that timetable! The heart in mouth wrangling over the contents of that glass display cabinet, are just brilliant – funny in their way as they record the poignant ridiculousness of those rites which surround a death. Jane Hervey keeps a tight hold on the narrative in Vain Shadow – the story evolving over those four days, the action, such as it is – taking place almost entirely within the house, in bedrooms drawing room and dining room. The focus switches between each of these characters, the one the reader roots for is Joanna, though the one we feel for most, perhaps, is Mrs Winthorpe herself, like her, we feel the weight of those fifty-three years.

Vain Shadow is a novel of simple, quiet brilliance, it is our great loss that there are not more books to read by Jane Hervey.

jane hervey


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