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I have been meaning to read more Katherine Mansfield for months – and it is only because my tbr is so absurd that this tiny gem nearly got forgotten. The Aloe is the only novel (novella would be more correct it is less than 100 pages) of Katherine Mansfield’s it was published posthumously in 1930. It is the original version of what became Prelude – an exquisite short story first published by the Hogarth Press in 1918 – and which opens the Bliss and other stories collection.

There is a foreword by Kirsty Gunn in this lovely Capuchin Classic, who tells us:

“This is Katherine Mansfield making ‘a home for herself in words’, to paraphrase a line taken from the cultural and literary critic Edward Said when he’s describing what it is to be a writer. She is bringing together her broken life that is spread in bits about the world, the memories of her dead brother and her estranged family, all gathered into one house, one place, one time.”

(Foreword – Kirsty Gunn )

Katherine Mansfield wrote three short stories about the Burnell family – Prelude, At the Bay and The Dolls House – I think I could read them again and again they are so wonderful. So, when I found out about The Aloe – a longer, rather different version of Prelude – I bought it immediately. Those three stories and The Garden Party – about the Sheridan family Mansfield wrote in response to her own memories of childhood.  Kezia Burnell is the child character who represents the childhood of Katherine Mansfield, and throughout these stories she is beautifully portrayed. I think we can feel Mansfield’s yearning for her childhood – the place she brings us to here – is so warm and comforting.

This novella opens in a not dissimilar way to the story of Prelude – the Burnell family are moving to their new home in the New Zealand countryside. The buggy is piled high with people and belongings with not an inch of room for Kezia and her older sister Lottie. So, the two little girls get to spend the day at their neighbours the Samuel Johnson family. They are altogether different to the Burnells.

“The Samuel Josephs were not a family. They were a swarm. The moment you entered the house they cropped up and jumped out at you from under the tables, through the stair rails, behind the doors, behind the coats in the passage. Impossible to count them: impossible to distinguish between them.”

Later, following tea and games in the garden the storeman arrives to finally take Lottie and Kezia to the new house, tucked up in the buggy they watch the countryside fly by under evening skies.

“It was the first time that Lottie and Kezia had ever been out so late. Everything looked different – the painted wooden houses much smaller than they did by day, the trees and the gardens far bigger and wilder. Bright stars speckled the sky and the moon hung over the harbour dabbling the waves with gold. They could see the light house shining from Quarantine Island, the green lights fore and aft on the old black coal hulks.”

At the new house, the children are immediately hurried off to bed by their Grandmother. The next day they begin to get to know their surroundings. Stanley Burnell goes off to work, leaving behind Linda, his wife, her sister Beryl, their mother Mrs Fairfield and the children. Linda is dreamy, her sister sings love songs to an imaginary young man. The children ‘cook’ lunch on a concrete step outside the house, Kezia spots the Aloe plant in the garden. The children witness the killing of a duck for supper, Stanley looks forward to getting home to his beloved – and some nearby cousins pay a visit.

In The Aloe Katherine Mansfield paints an exquisite portrait of family life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Quite frankly, I love spending time with this family – and while I haven’t read all Katherine Mansfield’s stories yet – I could re-read those concerning the Burnells endlessly.

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Review e-book sent by the publishers

Bewildering Cares has been on my kindle for quite a long time – which I do have a conscience about because it was a review copy sent by the publishers, which I simply forgot all about. Oops.

“I quite see that the bewildering cares of a clergyman with a family on an inadequate income must distract the mind at times from God.”

Bewildering Cares is the story of a week in the life of a vicar’s wife during the early days of World War Two. First published in 1940 it depicts a busy, harassed woman who has too many calls upon her time and only one servant. The vicar’s wife in question is Camilla Lacely, and the story is told through her daily diary, which she seems set on sending to her cousin Lucy to prove just how relentlessly busy her life is in the small Northern manufacturing town of Stampfield. Here Camilla Lacely rubs shoulders with all classes of people, some of whom are easier to deal with than others.

I rather loved hearing about Camilla’s favourite books from time to time – and her treatment for a tired husband here seems spot on.

“Arthur came in looking so exhausted that I went to the book-shelf and took out Mr. Mulliner Speaks. I propped this against the water-jug for him, and Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell, which I have read thirty times already and will probably read thirty more, against the loaf for myself. There is nothing so good for worried people as to read at their meals, and funny books if possible; for laughter grows so rusty in war time.” 

Camilla’s diary is witty and charming but much less cosy than novels like The Diary of a Provincial Lady or Mrs Tim of the Regiment – which I was initially reminded of. There is something a little more serious about this novel – possibly because of when it was written – no one could possibly know how things would turn out – and Winifred Peck wouldn’t have wanted her novel to seem frivolous and yet she clearly did want to raise a wry smile. I think she gets the balance just about right.

Camilla begins by assuring us that her husband Arthur is nothing like the bumbling, stereotypical vicars one encounters in fiction. He is, a tall, dark, clever man who got a first in Greats before the First World War. He comes across as a gentle, weary man with a very good heart. The Lacelys have one son Dick, who has enlisted – and Camilla has that vague fear of so many mothers at this time who don’t quite know where their sons are. As she goes about her day to day life – with little time to ever stop and think – Dick is really never far from her thoughts. Camilla remembering little things he has said and done as a child – adds a bit of poignancy to her narrative.

Camilla’s days are divided between working parties, visiting the poor, a parish quiet day, far too many committee meetings – and running her too large, chilly home with the loyal support of the trusty Kate. Phone calls always come at inconvenient moments and have to be taken a long way from the comfort of the fire side. Meals are already becoming harder to cater for. In the midst of this Camilla must wrestle often with matters of faith – and there is a degree of introspection here as she does so. I have to admit that I found these religious aspects of Bewildering Cares rather tedious – it isn’t to my taste at all I’m afraid. However, I enjoyed Peck’s writing, as I did with the other novel by her I read – and I will certainly go in search of more.

“I see myself then, in my search for true Faith, as someone groping his way through a huge dark, shuttered house, in this black-out of our lives. At last I see a crack of light, and enter one room where there is an open, undarkened window at last, though the window indeed is small and high up in the wall. That there is a great and glorious view from it, if I could reach up to it, is certain; but that view, the vista of the whole truth of God’s scheme for the universe, I must leave to faith.”

 Overall, I enjoyed the book, though I did rather yearn for E M Delafield’s sharp, laugh out loud humour and irreverent outlook on life. There are lighter moments – even the suggestion of a little romance for a couple of parishioners – and another young man rather closer to home is soon to have his own romantic announcement to make.

There is one main story strand throughout the novel – which concerns Arthur Lacely’s curate Mr Strang. On a Sunday when Arthur is away from the parish – Mr Strang preaches pacifism – which really sets the cat among the pigeons. Unfortunately, Camilla – who was in the congregation that morning – was having something that can only really be described as a nap – and is therefore unable to discuss the sermon with everyone clamouring to discuss it at length in the days after. Arthur and his harried wife certainly wish that their curate had chosen his words more carefully – but they also wish to support the man who has everyone up in arms. The Lacelys are eager to calm everyone down – but feelings are running high – with some suggesting that Mr Strang is no longer a suitable curate.

This is another enjoyable novel from the Furrowed Middlebrow series from Dean Street – and for those readers who love to read books about WW2 written at the time, this is another for the list.

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The Last of the Greenwoods – was one of several novels published in 2018, that I rashly bought in hardback and have sat unread on my shelves ever since. Clare Morrall is a consummate storyteller – although I haven’t read much of her back catalogue – When the Floods Came is a book, I still find myself thinking about sometimes. Morrall’s prose is simple but accomplished – characters and settings are explored particularly well.

Set in Bromsgrove – a town not far from Birmingham, The Last of the Greenwoods is a story of past mistakes, damaged relationships and a final healing of wounds in the present. Morrall weaves together stories of several generations with understanding.

“The carriages, linked end to end on an old rusty track, are almost submerged by trees. Clearly, no one here is familiar with the concept of pruning: the trees are spreading wildly – up, out, down – embracing the carriages with passion, wrapping them in vigorous greenery. Branches tumble on the roofs, lean over the sides and take advantage of the light breeze to make their presence felt, tapping against the windows with a mischievous glee.”

In a field next to an old unused railway siding, the elderly Greenwood brothers live in two aged railway carriages, now overgrown and dilapidated. They have lived here since they were children, moving in with their parents, and sister following an eviction. Now the brothers haven’t spoken in years – each keeping their own side of the carriages, taking it in turns to venture into the communal areas undetected. They are each damaged by the past, angry about things they can’t quite remember. The carriage to the left is Johnny’s named Demeter, it has permanently drawn curtains, deliberately shut off from the world, should it choose to call. From here he runs an online computer business, never having to speak to anyone in person. On the right is Nick’s Carriage, Aphrodite – blinds open to he can see out, but no one can see in. Nick leaves each day for his job in accountancy.

One day, postal worker Zohra Dasgupta delivers a letter to the railway carriages, that she hadn’t even known were there – she has never delivered a letter to them before. A letter can sometimes change everything – and Johnny and Nick Greenwood each silently contemplate the handwriting on the letter which has travelled from Canada – handwriting they recognise immediately. The letter is from a woman claiming to be their sister Deb who was murdered in 1969.

Zohra Dasgupta; was a scholarship girl who dropped out after A levels and now delivers letters. She enjoys her job – walking keeps her fit, but it isn’t where she was supposed to be. She’s the only child of Indian immigrants, her father dreamed of being a solicitor, but instead ended up working long hours running a shop for his aunt and uncle, which he later took over and has run it himself ever since. Zohra’s parents are still lovingly bemused by what happened to their once outgoing, academic daughter.

“School eight years ago, the sixth-form common room, a friendly talk from Mrs Girling, the headmistress.

Fiona whispering into her left ear, like a bee mooching between the petals of a flower, searching for pollen. ‘Why weren’t you on Facebook last night?”

Now Zohra is scared to run in to anyone she used to know from school – keeping herself to herself. She has just one friend left over from school days, Crispin, who with his father, an impoverished Lord – is restoring an old railway line and steam engine. Zohra enjoys spending time with Crispin and his father, and they are joined by Nathan who has an intellectual disability and loves steam trains. It is very nearly time for the opening of the old line, and they happen to need a couple of railway carriages. When one of Zohra’s former school friends moves back to the area, into a house on her route – Zohra is forced to face up to the trauma she has been hiding from since leaving school.

The past is never far away for Johnny and Nick, the carriages crammed with memories of those who once occupied them. Their mother was a fierce little force of nature, cleaner extraordinaire who eventually bought the field where the carriages stand so the family would never be evicted again. Once the Greenwood brothers were rising local tennis players, although their competitiveness with each other was only ever destructive. Their older sister, Deb, capable, stylish, very much a young woman of the sixties. Her friend Bev – was always with her, dressing alike, pouring over fashion magazines, whispering secrets. Bev disappeared at the same time as Deb, presumed murdered too, but her body never found. After their sister’s body was discovered and identified, the brothers’ lives totally stagnated – they continued to bicker as they had through childhood, never moving on, until they stopped speaking altogether.

A week after the letter arrived – Johnny and Nick – having been forced by the circumstances to communicate – a little – are disturbed by the letter writer herself turning up. It has been forty-eight years since Deb and Bev disappeared – and neither Johnny nor Nick are certain that they recognise the elderly woman who knocks on their door.

“Debs has pushed her way into every dream, standing over him, laughing, (‘Can’t catch me, can’t catch me’); irritated. (I’ve been waiting for you two for hours. What do you think you’re playing at?); angry, (Don’t you dare let anyone pretend to be me! Just don’t dare, you hear me now?)”

Is she really Deb, or an impostor? Would Deb have really stayed away? and what about the body that was identified as her? What, really happened to those girls on their night out forty-eight years earlier?

The Last of the Greenwoods is an immersive novel about guilt, forgiveness and steam trains. Clare Morrall’s characters are quite delightful, as she skilfully unravels the mysteries of the past, we gradually get to know these emotionally damaged people.

I also completely bought into the idea of living in a railway carriage in a field. I can certainly think of worse places anyway. 😉

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Last year I saw so much love for Bookworm by Lucy Mangan across Twitter and the blogosphere. As I was deep into A century of books and it didn’t fit, I resisted the urge to buy it in hardback. Fast forward several months and it was chosen by my very small book group as our April read. The rest of the group met Wednesday night to discuss it and it would seem everyone loved it, though I wasn’t able to go, I joined in virtually.

“Each book is a world entire. You’re going to have to take more than one pass at it.”

Bookworm; A Memoir of Childhood Reading is a slice of deliciously warm bookish nostalgia. It immediately returns us to those timeless days enjoyed by a child bookworm, the days when spending time with a loved book was the most important thing to be done once the irritation of a day at school had been dispensed with.

The book starts with The Very Hungary Caterpillar and ends with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and in between those two there is a world of wonderful children’s literature to be reminisced over. From Sugar Pink Rose a feminist elephant who refuses to turn pink – through the adventures of My Naughty Little Sister and Milly Molly Mandy to the land beyond the back of the wardrobe, and dozens of more besides. Mangan has such a deep and genuine affection for the books she talks about that her joy in them becomes quite infectious.

There is a big section all about Enid Blyton and the controversy and snobbery she has unleased over the decades – I must say I read a gazillion of her books.

“Blyton is not demanding. She is not an expander of minds like any one of the imaginatively and linguistically gifted authors already mentioned or still to be discussed. Her great gift lies in proving beyond doubt to children that reading can be fun, and reliably so. That the marks on the page will translate into life and colour and movement with ease. This is a thing you can master, a foundation upon which you can build, and also a retreat into which you can escape. She makes it all possible, time and time again. It was for this reason that Roald Dahl – whose own professed primary aim in writing for children was always to entertain them and thus induct them into the world of books – went to bat for her when he was on the 1988 Committee on English in the National Curriculum. He fell out with the rest of the board on the issue of whether her books should be welcomed in schools.” 

Roald Dahl novels come in for several mentions too – as do all manner of children’s classics like The Railway Children, The Secret Garden (I wasn’t alone in my child crush on Dickon) Tom’s Midnight Garden, Goodnight Mr Tom and Little Women. I saw the shadow of TLotR looming – and so couldn’t help but raise a silent cheer when Mangan revealed a dislike of Tolkien’s fantastical world. Her feelings almost exactly my own – although she did actually read all of The Hobbit – while I have never read more than a couple of pages out of idle curiosity.

Whilst discussing the books of her life, Lucy Mangan inevitably talks about her childhood. We meet her family, her mother a gynaecologist – Lucy played quietly, usually with books, behind the secretary’s desk while her mother held consultations. Her quiet father who frequently bought her books, (I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own dear dad – who sometimes bought me books) her younger sister who wasn’t at all bookish. She missed out on outings with her dad and sister because her nose was stuck so far into a book – her family soon became used to her distraction. We meet the next generation – Lucy’s young son to whom she has now begun reading some of the books from her extraordinary collection of ten thousand books.

She was a child who didn’t have many friends – there was another Lucy who lived next door – hours and days lost to other worlds. We’ve all been there – just one more chapter – sneaking the light back on late on a school night.

“The intensity of childhod reading, the instant and complete absorption in a book – a good book, a bad book, in any kind of book – is something I would give much to recapture” 

Lucy Mangan reminds us – should we need it – what it is to be a real bookworm, particularly the child bookworm who without any responsibilities yet, practically eats books. Books were the young Lucy’s friend, her saviour and her frustration when they are banned from the dinner table – Lucy’s relationship with books was and is total – responsible for many of the joys and heartbreaks of her childhood.

Bookworm is a glorious achievement – and I can see why it has become a book so loved by readers. I realised however that I had missed out on a lot of children’s literature by moving on to adult books very early. By eleven I was reading Agatha Christie rather than Enid Blyton, Jane Eyre instead of The Railway Children, terrible nurse and doctor romance novels, Catherine Cookson, Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy, a few classics like 1984, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Nancy Drew (she was definitely for teens). I was less fussy back then. Perhaps I was in too much of a rush to move on to adult books but when it comes to Sweet Valley High – I really don’t think I missed anything.

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A Summer to Decide is the third novel in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy – which follows the fortunes of Claud Pickering and his ever changing relationship with his extraordinary step-mother Helena. The first novel Too Dear for my Possessing begins when Claud is about fourteen, living in Bruges with his father and Step-mother. This novel takes place about twenty five years later – in London, a lot has happened since those days in Bruges.

Claud is the narrator of all three novels, but it is the character of Helena who drives them, she is a brilliant creation – all PHJ’s characters are explored deftly and yet Claud still emerges a much paler creation than either Helena or her daughter Charmian. This, I am certain is deliberate, Claud is not a poorly written character – not two dimensional in any way – his colourlessness is a foil to Helena’s brilliance.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that very early in this novel Helena dies – we know that from the blurb of this edition.

“Personal tragedy is surprising in bright weather. That winter, however, I came easily enough to accept it. In a snow-locked London, reduced in fire and light, where thousand upon thousand of conscientious basement-dwellers lived by candlelight, the stage seemed set for the tragic event.”

What will a world without Helena in it look like? What next for Claud with his books of art criticism under his belt – and not much else going on in his life?

As this novel begins, the war has been over for a couple of years, Claud is in his late thirties – and living again with Helena after the events of the previous novel. His one great love is in the past, and he has a failed marriage behind him too. His half-sister Charmian is twenty-four and married to Evan Sholto who Helena and Claud both knew immediately was a man who would make her miserable. As Helena lies dying, Charmian is giving birth to her daughter Laura. Sholto is as usual nowhere to be seen when he is most needed, and the scales finally, fall from Charmian’s eyes.

“I cried for Helena that night; it was the first time I had done so. And in the morning I was able to think of her without anguish, remember her in joy, as I shall remember her always till the end of my life.”

Helena remains a subtle presence throughout the novel – though never ghost or spirit like – in the memories of Claud and Charmian. John Field formally a frequent visitor to Helena’s home, and once a great friend of the family, reappears on the scene too. Claud is alarmed at John’s friendship with his brother-in-law Sholto – he suspects – rightly as it turns out that the two are up to no good.

“Thus it was that John Field freed me of Helena. Whatever was the truth of his story, it had destroyed, for me, the power of her legend. I was free to delight in her memory, and to love her, without being tied to a conception so much larger than life-size.”

Charmian is committed to her baby daughter – but despite having completely fallen out of love with her feckless, philandering husband who has lately turned to drink – she vows to stick to him – and even moves his toxic mother into their home. Claud is hugely frustrated – continually urging his sister to leave her husband. Charmian is resistant to being saved.

Claud meets Ellen – a woman widowed during the war, who he is immediately drawn to – she is reserved, works for the board of trade and at home nurses a chronically hypochondriac father.

Meanwhile Claud takes up a position in a friend’s gallery – later investing some of his own money in it. There’s a sense of him being quite directionless without Helena in is life – he is frequently beside himself over the fate Charmian has decided to inflict upon herself – and this only increases when Sholto and John Field are embroiled in a criminal scandal. Claud is offered a life changing job which would require him to move ‘up North’ but would settle him for life – with everything else going on it’s a difficult decision to make.

PHJ’s affection and concern for Charmian and the terrible life she leads with Evan Sholto and his awful mother is what is at the heart of this novel. Helena’s influence can still be felt but is fading as both Charmian and Claud move forward with their lives and make decisions she may or may not have liked.

“I acknowledged now in the full clarity of my thought that she would never return, that I should never again hear the bursting out of her news even as the door opened to admit her, that I should never again know the stirring of the air about her wild and insatiable busyness. To think of her with joy was something; but it did not lessen the cold of knowing she had gone.”

Each of these Helena novels – and many other PHJ novels are available on kindle thanks to Bello books – and I believe can be ordered as quite expensive print on demand paperbacks too. I like my kindle very much, but as I so much prefer reading real books, the books I have on it do get forgotten. Which is why my reading of these three excellent books have been spaced out quite widely over the past three years. I enjoyed this novel very much. It would be fair to say that while it completes the story of these characters satisfactorily – it is not quite as wonderful as the two novels which precede it. Perhaps it suffers from a lack of Helena.  

The other thing about kindles of course is that unless you check first – you don’t really know how long the book is going to be. I don’t always remember to find that out first – and I so was surprised to find that A Summer to Decide is over 400 pages. I remember now that both Too Dear for my Possessing and An Avenue of Stone were a bit longer than I had expected too. None of that mattered except it meant I have been a bit late getting to my book group read.

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I managed to squeeze The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne into the end of Read Ireland month. I knew my review would be several days late. Brian Moore is a new to me author, though I have seen a lot of positive reviews for this novel and others. My lovely nyrb classics edition an ebay buy. Well how could I not buy this beautiful edition?

People said I would love this book – and they were right – there was so much to admire in Moore’s writing. Though it was an enjoyment tinged with sadness, for the story of Judith Hearne is not a happy one. We know that much from the title.

Judith Hearne – Judy – is a literary creation we remember, long after we have closed the book, and there is an irony in that, for in life she is the kind of woman we over look, or having met, instantly forget. Yet, Brian Moore won’t let us forget her quite so easily, he recreates her world with pinpoint perfection, showing us, the inner turmoil she tries so hard to hide from the world. We hear the bitter little conversations she has with herself – the small, vain delusions she tries to convince herself of. Desperate for one last chance at what other women have.

 “She watched the glass, a plain woman, changing all to the delightful illusion of beauty. There was still time: for her ugliness was destined to bloom late, hidden first by the unformed gawkiness of youth, budding to plainness in young womanhood and now flowering to slow maturity in her early forties, it still awaited the subtle garishness which only decay could bring to fruition: a garishness which, when arrived at, would preclude all efforts at the mirror game.”

As the novel opens Judith Hearne is moving into new lodgings in Belfast. She has come down in the world from the one she was born to. Brought up by her genteel aunt, who she later spent years caring for she is an unmarried woman of certain age with no obvious attractions. Destroyed, in effect by circumstances. We watch Judy go through the small moving in rituals that we sense she has gone through before – lovingly unpacking the silver framed picture of her aunt, briefly seeing her surroundings through her aunt’s eyes. Next comes the cheap mass produced oleograph of the Sacred Heart – which will be hung on the wall. There are still her trunks to be unpacked properly – no need to rush, she can do it in time, the slow finding of places to put things all part of the ritual. There are also new people to meet, her fellow lodgers, and what kind of breakfast will her new landlady Mrs Henry Rice serve?

At breakfast – just tea and toast, and a kipper on Sundays, Judy meets her fellow boarders, Mr Leneham, Miss Friel and Mr Madden. Mr Leneham a proud, opinionated Irishman, Miss Friel a small neat woman with her abstinence brooch clearly displayed on her collar, Mr Madden the brother of Mrs Henry Rice, returned lately to Ireland after twenty nine years in America. The two final members of the household are; Bernard, Mrs Henry Rice’s adult son, a grossly proportioned, idle malevolence, and Mary the young maid. Mr Madden is the only person to give Judy anything approaching a second glance. His friendliness goes to her head instantly – he talks to her about America. Judy later goes to the library to read more about New York, quick to capitalise on this new and unexpected friendship. James Madden, Judy learns was in hotels – and Judy’s imagination is fired up. She is excited – she has so much now, to tell her friends on Sunday.

“For it was important to have things to tell which interested your friends. And Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position.”

Each Sunday Judith Hearne visits her friends the O’Neills, Professor Owen O’Neill, his wide Moira, and their four children Una, Shaun, Kevin and Kathleen. Judy is proud of her friends, their gracious home, enjoys feeling a part of the family – unaware that the younger members of the family call her the great bore. She sits drinking sherry by the fire – and catches sight of the children’s small sharp smiles from time to time – and tells herself off for repeating well worn phrases that give the youngsters something to smirk at. The terrible awkwardness of these scenes is brilliantly portrayed, full of pathos and a deep understanding of loneliness.

Eking out an existence by teaching piano – and with the number of pupils dropping off, Judy tries not to spend money on meals if she can manage not to – so we know she hasn’t much money – but James Madden is under the impression that she does. In Judy, Madden – who we quickly realise is not a nice man – sees an opportunity. While heartbreakingly; in Madden, Judy sees the ‘last one’ – her last chance of love and marriage.

“And maybe, although it was a thing you could hardly bear to think about, like death or your last judgment, maybe he would be the last one ever and he would walk away now and it would only be a question of waiting for it all to end and hoping for better things in the next world. But that was silly, it was never too late.” 

Poor Judy – we really can’t help but call her that – we know she is fragile – a woman with a big secret, and she’s just one more big disappointment away from bringing everything crashing down on top of herself.

Moore’s storytelling is honest – he has a sympathy for Judith Hearne and her ilk – and in reading this, his sympathy becomes our own. We witness Judy’s descent into further degradation – and it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a wonderfully nuanced novel and a searing exposition of loneliness.

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Elizabeth Fair wrote six novels, now all thankfully brought back to us by Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press. Landscape in Sunlight was her second published novel, and the third of the six I have read to date. I also think it is my favourite so far too. It was the perfect book for me last week, undemanding, gently witty examining the politics of village life with a knowing eye. Of this novel, Compton Mackenzie said it was ‘in the best tradition of English humour.’

A novel of vicars, village rivalries, summer fetes, little snobberies and burgeoning romance, it is a perfect example of a certain kind of English middlebrow novel.

The novel is set in Little Mallin, separated from the larger country market town of Mallinford by a toll bridge across the river. As spring looks like turning into a glorious early summer, village life is mainly dominated by the preparations for the August Festival. Vicar’s wife; Mrs Custance is the driving force of the festival which she has decided this year will be held in the grounds of Sir James Brigham’s house. Mrs Custance has taken against George, Sir James’ son, who was once quite close to her daughter Cassandra. Feelings have been hurt and gossip aided misunderstanding – but Cassandra is thrown together with George over the summer – and perhaps a thaw is starting. It’s not just George, who Mrs Custance has taken against, Mrs Midge is another, she lives in Prospect cottage with her son Lukin – a grown man, who is supposed to be delicate.

“At the end of the war, Mrs. Midge stayed on. While the war lasted Mrs. Custance had accepted her as part of the war-effort; it was only in the past year or two that Mrs. Midge had been transferred to the category which Mrs. Custance described as “people we could manage without.”

Before the festival preparations get underway properly, Mrs Custance seems more concerned with getting her daughter married off. Her husband, meanwhile, spends rather a lot of time dreaming about ancient Greece.

Nearby, the eccentric Eustace Templer and his sister Isabel live in Prospect House. Their brother-in-law Colonel Ashford, recently retired from the tropics, is staying with them while his wife is in a nursing home. Eustace and Isabel’s two orphaned nephews and a niece also live at Prospect House, and Cassandra is employed to teach the youngest, Leonard. Lily is the eldest, at seventeen she has just left school and is desperate to grow up, she has started practising with lipstick. Prospect Cottage where Mrs Midge and Lukin live also belongs to the Templers, and it has occurred to more than one person that the cottage could be perfect for Colonel Ashford and his wife – if only Mrs Midge could be made to leave. Lily, realising she also needs practise talking to men, decides to befriend Lukin, who she has rather dismissed in the past. It is around this time, that Lukin decides it is time to start and defy his mother.

“Just as Lukin, to forestall or deflect criticism, adopted the character of a small boy, so did Mrs Midge, in moments of crisis, adopt the third-person and the lofty personification of herself as ‘Mother.’ At such moments it was not her everyday self who spoke, but a Superior Being inspired solely by an anxious devotion to duty, and therefore entitled to respect.”

Aside from summer festival preparations, there is an eventful picnic, tennis parties with Lukin, and some surprising matters of an artistic nature to be dealt with. Over all this, Elizbeth Fair casts her wry observant eye.

Like the village of Mallin itself, Landscape in Sunlight is filled with a host of memorable characters, including the Misses Fenn, middle aged sisters who live by the toll bridge. Whenever anyone they want to speak to pulls up at the toll, they race out to talk to them, caring little whether they hold everyone up. They really are a couple of characters, nicknamed Fizz and Pop, the talk about mysterious Mr Xs gushing and giggling like young girls. Poor old Sir James is living in thrall to two lazy servants who haven’t cleaned his large house properly in ages, are now refusing to do the mending, and simply won’t serve him custard cold as he likes it.

When Sir James decides his vicar Mr Custance needs a holiday, but, realising the Custances can’t afford it – he persuades his son George to write a cheque, and sends them away for a fortnight to Cornwall. A prospect that fills the poor distracted vicar with some small dread.

When the Custances return, arrangements for the festival get into full swing. Mrs Custance is a force of nature – but in the end it does seem as if there is a role for everyone.  

This was a novel I was quite sorry to finish, I liked spending time with these people in Little Mallin. It’s a different time of course and took me right away from current nonsense in the strange old times in which we live. I have a feeling, I may be reaching out for more of my furrowed middlebrow titles in the coming weeks and months, I have a few of the paperback books and several more on my kindle.

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