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mr skeffington

Over on the Librarything Virago group, the author of the month for April is Elizabeth von Arnim, appropriately enough. Despite the temptation, I decided not to re-read The Enchanted April as I had three or four unread von Arnims on my shelf, two of them from my classics club list.

Mr Skeffington was Elizabeth von Arnim’s last published novel, written when in her 70s it certainly shows a certain preoccupation with ageing – (as did her 1925 novel Love). Elizabeth von Arnim’s adorable irony is present from the first page, her voice is instantly recognisable. I quickly settled into this occasionally poignant story of Fanny Skeffington’s self-evaluation, as she approaches her fiftieth birthday. (Spoiler, a certain book blogger not a million miles away will herself be approaching that birthday in thirteen months’ time – so, despite still having this year’s birthday to get out of the way first, I entirely sympathised). Although, I must say I do take great exception to the idea of fifty being as ancient as it is regarded by everyone in this novel.

Lady Frances Skeffington managed to rid herself of a husband with a roving eye, finding it hard to forgive dalliances with seven successive typists. Fanny seems to rather congratulate herself for this, there is little in the way of regret. Attempting to help her dear, adored brother; Trippington, Fanny married a wealthy Jewish businessman, and converted her religion in order to do so – she has never bothered to change it back. There are one or two slightly iffy remarks about Job Skeffington’s Jewishness – but nothing like as bad as I have read elsewhere – and it seem to highlight the attitudes of the times rather than the author’s – at least that’s how I saw it. The wealthy Mr Skeffington, made a very generous settlement upon Fanny when they divorced twenty-two years earlier, and Fanny has lived a very nice life ever since. A large London house, fully staffed, a country cottage, a fabulous social life, and many adoring lovers. Fanny was always a beauty, she knew she was beautiful, and enjoyed it.

Now she is rapidly approaching her fiftieth birthday, she has recently recovered from a long illness, which has ravaged her face, she has been obliged to visit a top beautician and wear some artificial curls pinned into her hair. Still, Fanny doesn’t consider she is too much changed, and believes she can still charm her much younger male admirers (although she is forced to admit they haven’t been around much lately).

One day in her Charles Street house, she becomes aware of Mr Skeffington’s presence, just as if he never left. Of course, she knows he isn’t really there – she hasn’t seen him at all for over twenty years – so it’s most alarming to see him looming at her as she eats her morning grapefruit.

“If she shut her eyes, she could see him behind the fish-dish at breakfast; and presently, even if she didn’t shut her eyes she could see him behind almost anything.
What particularly disturbed her was that there was no fish. Only during Mr Skeffington’s not very long reign as a husband had there been any at breakfast, he having been a man tenacious of tradition, and liking to see what he had seen in his youth still continuing on his table. With his disappearance, the fish dish, of solid silver kept hot by electricity, disappeared too – not that he took it with him, for he was far too miserable to think of dishes, but because Fanny’s breakfast, from the date of his departure to the time she had got to now, was half a grapefruit.”

Worried that she may be going a bit funny – what with that birthday fast approaching, she decides to consult the renowned nerve man, Sir Stilton Byles. Here poor Fanny gets a rather dreadful shock, far from telling her she looks very young for fifty (as she had expected) he says he rather thought she was sixty – and that her love days are over, and she really should have kept Mr Skeffington – poor chap!

Fanny is furious, in a rage she stalks off to Oxford to track down her most recent (very, very young) lover, who she finds in the fond embrace of another girl. On the train to Oxford she runs into her cousin George, of whom she is hugely fond – but even he manages to irritate her by telling her she looks tired, and looking at her in a way she doesn’t like. Also in Oxford, she meets a rather marvellous old lady, who rather grumpily tells Fanny exactly what she thinks – and takes her for being an actress from a touring group because of her painted face.

“What could be sillier in other people’s eyes than a woman kicking up a fuss because she too, in her turn, had grown old, and her beauty was gone? Yet what could be more tragic for the woman, who, having been used all her life to being beautiful, found that without her looks she had nothing to fall back upon? ‘That’s what is wrong,’ she thought. ‘There ought to be something to fall back upon. Somebody ought to have told me about this in time.'”

Slowly Fanny is forced to acknowledge that her looks are not what they were – for a woman known to everyone for her charm and beauty it is a hard lesson. Over the next few weeks as her birthday approaches Fanny meets up with several of the men whose hearts she once broke as she tripped her way charmingly through life. There is Lord Conderley, now married to a nice sensible wife with young children, a rabble-rousing, fasting clergyman Miles in Bethnal Green, Sir Peregrine Lanks hard bitten and so successful, he once turned down the Home Secretaryship, and Sir Edward Montmorency, home after twenty years’ governance in the Pacific. Each of these men help Fanny face who she is now, and never far from her thoughts is Mr Skeffington.

They years have not treated these men any kinder than they have Fanny, they are all drastically changed too – whether it be married and aged, exiled, or embittered. The most poignant change is in that of Miles Hyslup, who Fanny meets again preaching on the streets of Bethnal Green. Miles lives with his worn-down sister Muriel, his heartbreak over Fanny having led him to live a life of austere, religious sacrifice.

I refuse to say anything much about the ending – just to say it was a tiny bit of a tear-jerker.

This is a joyous little read – Fanny is definitely a woman of her time and her class – let’s be clear she doesn’t present as much of a feminist. Von Arnim shows us a society who put a too great importance upon such things as beauty and youth, for women of that class beauty and charm were all that mattered. Each of the men in Fanny’s life had wanted her to be something to them she didn’t want to be – in a sense she was always just herself.

Apparently, this was made into a film starring Bette Davis – I haven’t seen it – so don’t know how true to the book it is – but I would be interested in seeing it.

EVA1

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Madame solario

When I was first bought Madame Solario I was aware of Gladys Huntingdon’s writing having been compared to Henry James, I didn’t allow that to put me off – it is some years since I read Henry James, but I can’t say I find him easy. Now that I have read the novel, I understand the comparison, there is an elusive, intense quality to the narrative that is quite Jamesian – and one can’t help but think of Henry James, and perhaps Edith Wharton and E M Forster when one reads a novel of society people abroad. However, Gladys Huntingdon’s novel is far more scandalous than anything those other literary giants produced.

Before we get to the novel itself – the story behind the novel is in itself fascinating. First published in 1956 – Gladys Huntingdon chose to publish this, (I believe) her only novel, written when in her seventies, anonymously, it was thirty years before the author was revealed. No doubt, the mystery surrounding the authorship of Madame Solario contributed to its success at the time. Born Gladys Parrish, in 1887 the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphian Quaker, her life growing up was itself quite Jamesian in nature – so we are told by Alison Adburgham, in her afterword to this Persephone edition.

Back to the story itself – a beautifully written novel of almost 500 pages, there is drama here – however it is not a novel with a great deal of plot. Madame Solario is strangely compelling, the reader can’t help but be drawn into the intense relationships which slowly develop between a large group of mainly Europeans on the shores of Lake Como. It is a world painted exquisitely by the author – who herself would have experienced something very similar as a young girl, holidaying with her family on Lake Como.
Set in Cadenabbia on Lake Como in September 1906, Madame Solario transports us instantly to another world – a world of European and American high society, a lakeside retreat, shuttered villas, picnics, polite conversation and whispered scandal. madame_solario_pic_for_page_7.jpg

The novel is divided into three sections, the first and third sections told from the view point of Bernard Middleton, who we meet on page 2 – a nice, young Englishman in whose company we feel instantly at ease. He is young, his experiences of the word so far have done little to prepare him for the unspoken passions, and complexities he finds himself in the midst of.

“‘I don’t know what your studies have been, but you may know that geologists speak of faults when they mean weaknesses in the crust of the earth that cause earthquakes and subsidences.”
Having pulled on his gloves he was energetically buttoning them.
“And I will tell you something out of my own experience. There are people like ‘faults’, who are a weakness in the fabric of society; there is disturbance and disaster wherever they are.” He gave Bernard a fierce look beneath his bristling eyebrows.
‘Young man, go away from! Get on to solid ground as soon as you can.’”

The middle section – (I shall come to that again later) Bernard retreats from view, and my one minor quibble with this novel is that this section is longer than it need be. Bernard has recently finished at Oxford, destined for a career in banking – a career arranged for him, and one he doesn’t look forward to. A few weeks on Lake Como is a kind of compensation for the dull years ahead. Supposed to be meeting up with a friend, who having fallen ill can no longer come, Bernard is on his own, experiencing grown up society for the first time. Clustered around Bernard, at this society retreat are members of the American and European elite, British, Italian, Russian and Hungarian society are represented. Bernard is drawn to Ilona Zapponyi, daughter of a countess, but Ilona has had her heart broken by Kovanski, and the Zapponyi’s leave quickly. Bernard realises that Kovanski is at the hotel in pursuit of the mysterious Madame Solario, still young and beautiful – who arrives amid disturbing rumours of her past. Whispers of a terrible scandal within her family, leading to her being married off to her much older South American husband – only where is he now? And what happened to her brother who disappeared around the same time?

“Bernard saw coming out a lady he had not seen before. She was not a girl, not young in his sense, though he knew she could not be more than twenty-seven or -eight, and his eyes stayed on her – not with any interest that a girl might have aroused, only contemplatively, but stayed, because he at once thought her beautiful. Her figure was a little above medium height and very graceful; she was fair, and she wore a hat trimmed with velvet pansies in shades of mauve that deepened into purple. After she had walked out into the sunlight she opened a white silk parasol, and Bernard saw a tall Italian called Ercolani go quickly up to her; they stood talking – that is to say, she stood very still with her parasol resting on her shoulder, while he did the talking.”

Bernard starts spending time with Madame Solario, she seems to appreciate his easy company. Walking along the winding paths that run alongside the lake, he is a frequent, rather over-awed companion to this elusive beauty. Bernard is a great observer, he watches and listens to everything that goes on around him. Kovanski – who Bernard has taken seriously against – makes Bernard feel young and foolish. Just as Bernard’s unlikely friendship with Natalia Solario begins there is another surprise arrival at the hotel – Eugene Harden, Madame Solario’s brother – whom she hasn’t seen in twelve years, and who calls her Nelly.

The second part of the novel – explores the intense, rather disturbing relationship between Natalia and her brother and their reunion. Eugene cross examines his sister about their past, bitterness, jealousy and shared remembrances come into play. Eugene plots to raise his own social standing by taking advantage of various imagined alliances, and we lose sight almost completely of dear Bernard. This second section, as well as being a bit long is the weakest section of the novel – which is gloriously revived in the final section which sees Natalia leave Cadenabbia, and Bernard is right in the middle of the action as he is given the opportunity to protect the woman who has so beguiled and charmed him.

Gladys Huntingdon tells a story of disturbing scandal, against a backdrop of polite society, under which flows a current of something rather dark.

I finished reading this novel – both impressed and full of questions. Madame Solario remains elusive, we never completely get to know her – and this feels exactly right, as the memory of the glimpses we get of her, haunts the reader long after the book is laid aside.

GladysHuntington

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classics#

In October 2012, I signed up for the Classics Club. 50 books seemed too easy – so when I originally made my list it totalled about 130 books. If that wasn’t bad enough I have kept fiddling with the list over the years – you can see the complete list which include links to reviews here. By fiddling, I mean adding books, I thought I wanted to read, deleting things I had changed my mind about reading. I probably fiddled far too much – the list now stands at – well I’m not exactly sure I keep losing count – but I think it’s about 156.

So I there I was editing in links to my classics club page a couple of weeks ago – when I suddenly realised – that I was supposed to be finishing it this year. Thankfully there are only twelve books left on my list  – I took a few off last year, and haven’t thought much about it since. My original pledge was to finish my list by 12th October 2017 – that’s less than six months away!

This year, was supposed to be the year of no reading challenges – no lists (as soon as I make a list I don’t want to read anything on it), and here I am suddenly remembering that a pledge I made nearly five years ago needs completing – argh!!

One book – A Note in Music – I don’t even have a copy of yet. Another – Effi Briest is winging its way to me thanks to Persephone books. Many of the others I have had on my book case for years – which is why I added them to the list in the first place.

At the time of writing I am about to start reading Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim, but I might need a little inspiration to read 2 a month for the rest of the year. Thankfully all the ones left on the list do look very good – it’s just that list reluctance again which might hold me back.

So which of these books should I be reaching for next?

So here is what is left on that list:

Mr Skeffington – Elizabeth von Arnim
The Caravaners – Elizabeth von Arnim
Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte (a re-read)
Eva Trout – Elizabeth Bowen
The Professor’s House – Willa Cather
Cindie – Jean Devanny
Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane
The Yellow Wallpaper and other writings – Charlotte Perkins Gillman (a re-read of Yellow wallpaper)
The Conservationist – Nadine Gordimer
A Note in Music – Rosamond Lehmann
The Matriarch – G B Stern
The Devastating Boys and other stories – Elizabeth Taylor

classics (2)My classic club list has provided me with some fantastic reading over the last four and a half years – re-reads of Hardy, Madame Bovary and The Woman in White among my favourites. Modern classics that have delighted me from Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Willa Cather – novels which have opened my eyes to what incredible writing can look like from people like Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen. I really do want to complete it by October 12th.

One important question of course of course is:
What happens if I don’t finish, can I get an extension? 😉 (I suppose I could delete the unread books and shout fiiiinshed!)

classicsclub2

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school for love

It does seem as if I am on something of an Olivia Manning binge at the moment – this being the third of her novels I have read in something like six weeks. Although I realise I am reviewing this at least a day late for the event itself – I chose to read School for Love for Simon and Karen’s #1951 club. Simon and Jacqui have already reviewed it – it’s a book which has been a big hit with them.

School for Love is a beautifully written coming of age novel, set in Jerusalem towards the end of World War Two. Felix Latimer is a boy (we’re never told exactly how old; I assumed fifteen or sixteen, although there were moments he seemed younger) who has recently lost his mother. Told in the third person, we see everything through Felix’s eyes. While hostilities continue, he is unable to return to England – where he’s not lived for several years anyway. Felix had been living in Baghdad with his mother, about a year before his mother’s death, Felix’s father was killed by Iraqi forces. Now Felix is alone, his loneliness and total bewilderment is touchingly portrayed by Olivia Manning, a boy who has had the rug pulled out from under him. As a last resort, it was arranged by friends of his mother’s, for Felix to go to a distant relative in Jerusalem. Miss Bohun an older adopted sister of his father and a woman his mother had never wanted Felix to visit. As Felix arrives in Jerusalem, there is snow on the ground, though he is assured it won’t last too long.

Miss Bohun turns out to be quite a character – one beautifully rendered by Manning, complex and endlessly infuriating, she feels like a character who must have been drawn from life. Felix arrives at the house Miss Bohun runs as a kind of inferior boarding house – friendless, grief-stricken, not knowing what to expect.

“Miss Bohun was so unlike his mother, and, for some reason, he felt sure that when she had raised her eyes and looked at him she had somehow expressed disappointment in him. Perhaps she had imagined he would be older, or younger, or better-looking, or a more unusual sort of boy. Anyway she retired now into her own thoughts, eyes hidden, and he gave his attention to the meal of grey, gritty bread and tasteless tea. Then he heard a slight movement beside him. He looked down and cried out involuntarily in delight. As the bars of the fire had grown red, a Siamese cat had come out towards the warmth. It looked a sad little cat, as lost as himself, and his heart seemed to swell with relief at the sight of something – something he could love.”

Miss Bohun is hardly a warm, welcoming presence – she is in constant conflict with Frau Leszno and her son Nikki who work and live in the house. Like the rest of the house, Felix’s room is cold and unwelcoming, while Miss Bohun keeps an empty front bedroom, spick and span for some mysterious purpose, while the old Mr Jewel lives in the attic. Later, when Mr Jewel has been removed to the hospital – a new tenant; Mrs Ellis is installed and Miss Bohun moves up to the attic. Mrs Ellis is a very young widow, Felix can’t help but be enchanted by her.
Living in her house, eating her food and relying upon her for the only home he has, Felix is often uncomfortable by Miss Bohun’s frankly monstrous behaviour. Compelled by his reliance on her to legitimise her treatment of others, Felix clearly needs to see it as completely normal. Miss Bohun is miserly, desperately deluded, she suspects everyone of cheating her, and sees herself as a long-suffering paragon of virtue. Having bullishly taken over the house from its previous occupant; Frau Leszno, the Polish refugee, has been reduced to the role of a servant living in tiny, servants’ rooms. Miss Bohun, appears to honestly believe, that she has done the poor woman a great service.

Miss Bohun keeps fierce hold of the household purse strings, making savings where she can (substituting deep fried aubergine for fish!) Always calculating ways of making her money stretch, she manages to prise almost all Felix’s monthly allowance out of him, refuses to buy from the black market and successfully plots to get Mr Jewel out of the attic so she can have it herself.

Much of Miss Bohun’s time is taken up with a religious group known as the ‘ever-readies’ – whose exact purpose she seems shy of explaining to Felix at first – yet in time we discover it is all to do with the second-coming.

In the midst of the chilly atmosphere of Miss Bohun’s house, Felix finds companionship in Mrs Ellis, who couldn’t be more different from Miss Bohun, and who opens his eyes to his relative’s true character. With her scarlet, pointed finger-nails, she frequents the cafes and bars in the city – and in following her around – Felix finds himself entering a world he doesn’t entirely understand. He is a child still, in so many ways, clinging to the memory of the life he led with his gentle mother.

“A bleak atmosphere, like that which preceded the going of Mr Jewel, haunted the meals, but now it was not Miss Bohun who controlled the discomfort. Mrs Ellis had shut herself off in a silence that seemed to put Miss Bohun completely at a loss, Once or twice, perhaps attempting to test the surface of this frost, Miss Bohun had repeated tentatively and unconvincingly, remarks like: ‘Well, here we are! Just a happy family!’ or ‘One day, Mrs Ellis, we really must have that cosy chat in my room,’ but Mrs Ellis made no sign that she had heard. When she did not come in to meals, Miss Bohun would sometimes say to Felix, meaningfully: ‘Mrs Ellis seems to be sulking about something. So childish of her. It spoils everything, we could be such a happy family.’”

Felix continues to visit old Mr Jewel in the hospital – though stops short of telling him about the attic. Taking lessons from Mr Posthorn, Felix’s life is spent entirely with adults. There are few pleasures – he loves to go to the cinema, but the money he gives Miss Bohun leaves him with practically no pocket money. Soon however, the war will end – and a passage arranged for him back to England.

This is a deeply touching novel, the portrayal of Felix, growing up yet not quite grown up enough – coming to terms with his loss, and all at sea with the world around him, is breath-taking. Most impressive, however, is the extraordinary depth of character. Olivia Manning’s portrait of Miss Bohun is brilliantly unforgettable.

olivia-manning

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tempest-tost

When Liz reviewed Tempest-Tost I thought how excellent it sounded – and so was delighted when Liz kindly passed onto me her second copy, since when it has sat unread on my shelves. The #1951club therefore was the perfect opportunity to finally read it.

Robertson Davies, I have to admit was a completely new name to me, a Canadian writer I have since learned is hugely popular – and I also don’t think I had realised (or at least I had forgotten) that Tempest-Tost is the first book in a trilogy. Robertson Davies; was the author of three trilogies – the Salterton trilogy, the Deptford trilogy and the Cornish trilogy, there was also a fourth unfinished trilogy and Davies also wrote several plays as well as works of criticism and essays. His fondness for the theatre is certainly evident in this his first published novel.

1951-clubTempest-Tost tells the story of an amateur dramatic group, as they prepare to stage an outdoor production of The Tempest. The setting is the fictional Salterton, Ontario – which we’re told is a city – though it feels more like a town to me.

The Salterton Little Theatre group are a bunch of varied, eccentric characters, Mrs Nellie Forrester is used to running the show – and often gets her way. However, she has invited her old friend Valentine Rich who has had success as a theatre director in New York – and is home on family business – to direct The Tempest. Now Mrs Forrester finds she must yield some of her power, to a professional. Griselda Webster will play Ariel – she is the eldest daughter of one of Salterton’s wealthiest men, and they live in a nice large house called St Agnes’s with enviable gardens. Mr Webster has agreed to lend his garden to the little theatre group to perform what Mrs F calls their pastoral. Griselda and her sister Freddy have been brought up by their widowed father who sometimes feels the want of another pair of hands.

“Children, don’t speak so coarsely,’ said Mr. Webster, who had a vague notion that some supervision should be exercised over his daughters’ speech, and that a line should be drawn, but never knew quite when to draw it. He had allowed his daughters to use his library without restraint, and nothing is more fatal to maidenly delicacy of speech than the run of a good library.”

Griselda’s younger sister; Freddy and her partner in crime Tom; the Websters’ old gardener, are not at all pleased that the theatre group will be using their gardens. Freddy has enlisted Tom’s help in hiding the results of her wine making hobby – the bottles are squirreled away in ‘the shed’ – which is more of a large old fashioned conservatory where Tom keeps his tools. They really don’t want the theatre group messing around in there.

Other members of the group include: Solly – a young man recently returned home from Cambridge – who lives in the attic of his difficult mother’s house. Hector Mackilwrath a forty-year-old maths teacher who lives in the YMCA, eats at the snack shack and has never had any success with women – barely having talked to a woman outside of his professional life. Bonnie-Susan ‘The Torso’ who is talked about by everyone in non-too flattering terms – though we discover she has a good heart. Pearl – the slightly drab daughter of another suffocating parent, and Roger shallow and womanising.

“She was not he recognized, like any girl upon whom he had tried his skill before. She was wealthy, which meant that he must be very careful, for one does not lightly seduce rich girls; they have too many powerful relatives, and are too much accustomed to getting the better of things. He seriously questioned whether he could proceed to the usual conclusion of his plan with Griselda. Indeed, he marvelled dimly that gold, which could make an attractive girl so much more attractive should also protect her thoroughly. And as well as money, Griselda had the manners and the conversation of a well-bred girl who had read a great many books of the easier sort, and these qualities Roger mistook for worldly wisdom and unusual intelligence. For the first time in his life Roger had met a girl with whom he felt that a ‘nice’ – well, fairly nice – relationship was worth cultivating, Griselda was capable of giving him something which he valued even more than physical satisfaction; she could give him class.”

The stage is set for quarrels and hurt feelings, ambition and pride. Three men vie for the attentions of the beautiful Griselda – in a plot worthy of Shakespeare himself – Hector, Solly and Roger. While Pearl fancies herself in love with Roger; who barely knows that she exists – despite playing opposite her in The Tempest.

Over the course of the weeks of rehearsal and planning we get to know these characters. Solly and his ill, domineering mother, Pearl and her ridiculous father, Freddy who thinks her sister is just a bit dim, Roger who has calculated that Griselda could give him the class he lacks, and Valentine Rich who is trying to do a professional job with an amateur group. For me the most memorable of these is Hector, who is quite brilliantly drawn. Hector’s story is the saddest one, the son of an elderly clergyman – his mother plagued his childhood with cod-liver oil and unnecessary medications. He felt called to teaching in the way other men are called to the priesthood – and has devoted himself to it ever since. His strange upbringing made Hector into a too serious young man, unused to society and normal relationships with his peers – he has some peculiarly old fashioned ideas about women. When Griselda smiles at Hector one day – he decides, that it isn’t too late for him, that he isn’t, after all, too old to love her – a girl of just eighteen – and sets out to win her. Deciding he is no longer happy to just be the group’s treasurer Hector decides he wants to act in the play – much to Mrs F’s horror.

Tempest-Tost is a really good novel – the characterisation is just superb. The townspeople with their petty jealousies and attempts to outdo each other are faithfully drawn with some wry humour. So very glad I finally got around to reading it – thanks Liz, no doubt I shall have to look out for books 2 and 3.

Its seems I wasn’t alone in reading this for the 1951club – I have just spotted Naomi’s review of Tempest-Tost and I believe BuriedinPrint has been reading it too.

Robertson davies

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I have a small collection of Agatha Christie first editions – not the very early or rare ones of course as they are rather prohibitively expensive. Mine are from the 50s 60s and 70s while some are the true first edition others are just book club editions, the Crime Club editions always came out the previous year – in one or two cases I have both the Crime Club and the book club edition.

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1951-clubI have had They came to Baghdad for years – my earliest first edition – but never actually read it. You can see I have had to protect the fragment of original dust wrapper in a protective cover (and yes, I remove them to read the book). I was delighted to find an excuse to finally read a book I had almost forgotten I had got. Simon and Karen’s 1951 club began on Monday and I flew through this marvellous book last weekend – one of those books I was sorry to finish.

ac and hubbyThey came to Baghdad is not a Poirot or Marple story – and although there are a couple of deaths – which are not dwelt upon – They Came from Baghdad is more of a spy story – and a darn good one at that. Agatha Christie’s second husband was an archaeologist and the novelist travelled widely with him on his archaeological explorations, and she certainly used these experiences in several of her novels.

A secret summit is taking place in Baghdad – and a shadowy organisation intent on creating a new world order wants to sabotage the talks – and more besides.

Anna Scheele an intelligent, capable American woman takes leave from her job in New York and travels to London to visit her sick sister. Someone is watching her – and reporting on her movements – and then Anna disappears from view.

Carmichael is a British agent – born in Kashgar – his father was a government official – Carmichael grew up speaking several local dialects perfectly. He can blend in with the Arab people he feels so at home with – slowly, he makes his way with the help of men he trusts toward Baghdad.

“A faded red knitted scarf was tucked into the ragged coat. His head showed again the dignity of Arab dress, the inevitable keffiyeh of black and white held in place by the black silk agal. His eyes, unfocused in a wide stare, looked out blearily over the river bund. Presently he too began to hum in the same key and tone. He was a figure like thousands of other figures in the Mesopotamian landscape. There was nothing to show that he was an Englishman, and that he carried with a secret that influential men in almost every country in the world were striving to intercept and to destroy along with the man who carried it.”

Later at the British Consulate, Richard Baker a member of Dr Pauncefoot -Jones Archaeological dig notices a man in Arab dress, hears  the click, click, click of the prayer beads in his hands. He realises the face of the man is that of an old-school friend – and that he is signalling to him in Morse-code with the beads. Richard taps out ‘message received’, just before all hell breaks out – a shot is fired and the man in Arab dress flees.

Victoria Jones is a second-rate typist in London, her most recent position comes to a sudden halt when she is overheard impersonating her boss’s wife. She isn’t too distressed at getting the sack – again – Victoria is bored by the work, and by London, she has a lively imagination (not shy of gross exaggeration or downright lies) she longs for excitement and adventure. Victoria takes herself off to sit in a London square, here she meets Edward a good looking, friendly young man, and the two get on like a house on fire. Edward works for The Olive Tree; an organisation bringing English culture and poetry to the East – Edward explains he is off to Baghdad as dogsbody to his boss Dr Rathbone; who translates Shakespeare and Milton into Kurdish and Arabic.

Victoria thinks Baghdad sounds much more interesting than London and she can’t help but acknowledge to herself that she is very attracted to Edward and wants to get to know him. Impulsively, Victoria decides she must get herself to Baghdad, although she is possessed of exactly three pounds ten, with another five pounds in the P.O savings, and the fare to Baghdad being at least sixty pounds. Victoria needs a job that will take her to Baghdad – and sets out to do so with determination. Amazingly, Victoria does manage to get a job accompanying a woman with a broken arm – her salary is her ticket out – after that she is on her own. Victoria is full of hope, looking forward to surprising Edward and positive she will find an exciting job in Baghdad.

Once in Baghdad, Victoria find herself installed at the hotel Tio – where famous travel writer and explorer Sir Rupert Crofton-Lee is also staying. The hotel is presided over by Marcus, the cheerful and amiable owner – who promises Victoria a banquet of ‘baby chickens’.
Before poor Victoria can be re-united with Edward – who she learns has been sent on an errand to Bashrah but will be back in a couple of days – she finds herself embroiled in more excitement than perhaps she had imagined. A man stumbles into her hotel bedroom, mumbles some inexplicable final words and dies.

“She must call someone – get someone to come. She was alone here with a dead man and sooner or later the police would want an explanation.
Whilst her brain worked rapidly on the situation, a small sound made her turn her head. They key had fallen out of her bedroom door, and whilst she stared at it, she heard the sound of the lock turning. The door opened and Mr Dakin came in, carefully closing the door behind him.
He walked across to her saying quietly.
‘Nice work, my dear. You think quickly. How is he?’
With a catch in her voice Victoria said:
‘I think he’s – he’s dead.’”

Dakin enlists Victoria’s help in his secret work, he tells her to take no risks, and sends her to Basrah – one of the words whispered by the dying man. Here, she is told she must stay with the Claytons at the consulate – everyone stays there, and Victoria is delighted to realise she will finally be able to surprise Edward. From here Victoria’s adventures begin, when not trying to conduct a romance with Edward – who she is afraid, is also popular with other girls he works with – she finds herself getting into all sorts of trouble.

They Came to Baghdad is a rollicking good page turner – superbly plotted with plenty of surprises along the way – it is a very clever novel.

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In The Spoilt City; Olivia Manning continues the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle, Yakimov, Inchcape, Clarence Lawson and co that she began in The Great Fortune. Picking up where the previous novel ended, the city of Bucharest is increasingly a city beset with uncertainty – the so called phoney war is over, and German invasion seems a greater possibility than ever. Olivia Manning writes beautifully about the city of Bucharest in the summer of 1940.

“As the sunset threw its reds and purples across the sky, the waiting crowds grew restless. Time was passing. Those in the square had been mostly men of the working classes. With evening, women appeared, their light clothes glimmering in the twilight. The first breath of cool air brought the prosperous Rumanians out for the promenade. Though they walked from habit into the Calea Victoriei and the Boulevard Carol, they were drawn back again and again to the square, the centre of tension.
When Guy returned from the University, Harriet said they must eat quickly, then go out and discover what was happening.”

The position of English people appears to be more precarious than it was – and as some people begin to leave the Pringles stay on. Guy is determined to hang on to his job in the English department at the university – insisting he must wait to be reassigned and can’t just abandon his post. Harriet is more concerned about their position, and watches Guy holding on to a job that is daily becoming less and less required, with frustration. Guy’s students are dwindling in number and Harriet isn’t convinced, that the summer school, Guy is planning is a very good idea.

Yakimov – the glory of his appearance in Guy’s production of Troilus and Cressida fading – is still installed in the Pringle’s flat – much to Harriet’s irritation. As time goes on Yakimov is becoming more and more shameless in his constant pursuit of good food, money and something like a return to his former glory days. He thinks nothing of rummaging through Guy’s desk and removing something he thinks will make a good story and get him a couple of drinks bought in the English bar.

“In the small central drawer of the writing-desk he came on a sealed envelope marked ‘Top secret.’ This immediately excited him. He was not the only one inclined to suspect that Guy’s occupation in Bucharest was not as innocent as it seemed. Affable, sympathetic, easy to know, Guy would, in Yakimov’s opinion, make an ideal agent.
The flap of the envelope, imperfectly sealed, opened as he touched it. Inside was a diagram of a section through – what? A pipe or well. Having heard so much talk of sabotage in the English Bar, he guessed it was an oil well. A blockage in the pipe was marked ‘detonator’. Here was a simple exposition of how and where the amateur saboteur should place his gelignite.”

Yakimov is also ridiculously out of touch and naïve – asked to run a simple errand to Cluj – Yakimov decides to drop in on his old friend Fredi von Flugel – now a high-ranking Nazi – hoping only to benefit from his generous hospitality – thinking nothing will have changed between them.

Rumania has allied itself strongly with Germany in a bid to prevent German aggression – sacrificing some Transylvanian territory in the process. Soon there are Germans all over Bucharest – propping up the English bar and swaggering through the streets. Harriet’s friend Bella – married to a Rumanian, who speaks good German, claims to feel great comfort in the presence of their new allies – a stabilising community in a city rife with rumour and dissension. Harriet suspects her attitude to be one brought about by fear – a necessary bit of self-preservation in frightening times. Revolution is in the air, there are demonstrations against the king – who had been reigning as a dictator, and is finally forced to abdicate.

balkan trilogyIn the Great Fortune, Drucker a wealthy, Jewish banker was arrested and imprisoned, his son Sasha a student of Guy’s disappeared with his stepmother and the city has been rife with rumour about his whereabouts ever since. One day Guy and Harriet run into Sasha – though he looks nothing like he did. Guy says Sasha can stay with them, though with Yakimov still in the spare room, the only place he can sleep in some small servants’ rooms on the roof. Sasha manages to charm the Pringles servant Despina who delights in feeding him and keeping him company in the kitchen when the flat is empty – but Harriet is worried about what might happen if Yakimov becomes aware of Sasha’s presence – Yakimov is horribly indiscreet.

Things are becoming more frightening, there is news of people being attacked in the street – and more and more people are wondering about leaving. The Pringles realise that Yakimov has simply taken himself off – and they need to find a way of getting Sasha out of Rumania alive. In the midst of all this uncertainty and chaos Inchcape decides to invite Professor Pinkrose to Bucharest to give a lecture – inexplicably given the turmoil across Europe, Pinkrose travelled thousands of miles, expecting a rather more rapturous reception than that which he receives. Inchcape is attacked, and Guy persuades Harriet (finally thinking of her before everyone else) to leave for Athens and wait for him to join her.

In this second book of the Balkan trilogy Olivia Manning again brings to life the atmosphere of a city at war. It was a world she well knew; having lived there with her husband, a lecturer – arriving in Bucharest the very day that Britain declared war on Germany. There is much more drama and action in this novel, it is enormously compelling, and I can’t wait for Friends and Heroes; volume three – after which I shall no doubt immediately go on to The Levant Trilogy.

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