until we are free

Last year, while I was at the Hay Festival I attended an event with Shirin Ebadi – who I admit – I knew nothing about. I thought a talk by an Iranian human rights lawyer would be interesting – it was fascinating, and inspiring. I couldn’t help but buy her most recent book – and queued up to have it signed.

Such is the state of my tbr – and my fickleness as a reader I can buy or receive as a gift a book I long to read and have it sit there for two years – another time I buy a book and read it a week later. I don’t know why Until we are Free has sat unread for almost a year – but I recently suggested it to my very small book group and we will meet next week to discuss it.

Shirin Ebadi published two previous volumes – Iran Awakening a memoir of her life and work, and The Golden Cage, which tells stories of living under the Iranian regime. Until we are Free is another memoir – this time it tells the story of what happened to Shirin Ebadi and her family after she won the Nobel Peace prize in 2003. It is a story of extraordinary determination, and heart-breaking personal sacrifice.

“The story of Iran is the story of my life. Sometimes I wonder why I am so attached to my country, why the outline of Tehran’s Alborz mountains is as intimate and precious to me as the curve of my daughter’s face, and why I feel a duty to my nation that overwhelms everything else. I remember when so many of my friends and relatives were leaving the country in the 1980s, disheartened by the bombs raining down from the war with Iraq and by the morality police checkpoints set up by the still new Islamic government. While I did not judge anyone for wanting to leave, I could not fathom the impulse. Did one leave the city where one’s children had been born? Did one walk away from the trees in the garden one planted each year, even before they bore pomegranates and walnuts and scented apples?”

Shirin Ebadi has spent her life working for improvements in democracy and human rights, especially women’s, children’s, and refugee rights. She became a judge in 1969 but following the revolution in 1979 – clerics ruled that Islam prohibited women being judges and Ebadi was forced to step down. Until 1993 she was unable to practice law – and during those years she write extensively, publishing books and articles which frequently put her into conflict with the Iranian authorities. Throughout these years, she had the full support of her husband Javad – who she had met in the comparatively balmy days of pre-revolution Iran in the 1970s.

Shirin Ebadi had never feared speaking out, publishing articles in Iranian journals and periodicals she became a well-known figure. When she began to practise as a lawyer in the 1990s – Ebadi worked mainly pro-bono and took on many controversial cases – including fighting for abused children and people of the Baha’i faith who are treated badly by the Iranian regime.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize increased Ebadi’s standing worldwide and brought some unwelcome attention to the regime. By the time, she received the prize – Shirin’s two daughters had left Iran to finish their education and start out on their own careers in the US and Canada. The money that Shirin received with the Nobel prize allowed her to continue the pro-bono work she was doing, it also allowed her to travel abroad, where she continued to pull no punches. This didn’t endear her any further the authorities at home, who she knew quite well were always watching, always listening. She and her husband lived in an apartment with a metal door – she received threatening phone calls, found messages pinned to her door. After the prize, the intimidation she received was stepped up, one man; an intelligence officer was completely obsessed with bringing her down. Her law centre was closed down, her phones were tapped. The intelligence officer had Shirin followed, her colleagues harassed and questioned. It led him to set up a dreadful entrapment.

In 2009 Shirin Ebadi’s Nobel medal was confiscated by the regime – while she was abroad. It was seized along with other belongings from her safety deposit box. She was advised not to try and return to Iran – and found herself thus in exile.

“…My great sorrow arose from being so far from Iran, and no medicine could alleviate this pain.
Some days, when the sun was setting, I imagined I heard the sound of the call to prayer, the azaan, as we say in Persian. I thought perhaps there was a local mosque, and I would search for it. But I soon realised there was none nearby; it had been my mind producing the sounds of the familiar. Sometimes I would overhear people speaking in a shop and would think that I’d picked up a scrap of Persian; but when I listened again, I was usually wrong. So I did the only thing I knew how to: I worked harder.”

The resolve Shirin Ebadi shows in the face of the most terrifying intimidation is in itself inspiring, she knows fear, but she never allowed it to stop her. In a bid to shut her up – members of her family were targeted, arrested and questioned at length – her husband of over thirty years was led into a terrible entrapment – and still Shirin stood firm, she never forgot the people she had fought for over the years. She wouldn’t let them win. Shirin Ebadi remains in exile, living in London.

Until we are Free is a hugely compelling memoir, eye opening and unforgettable.


seaview house

All six of Elizabeth Fair’s novels have been re-issued by Dean Street Press in conjunction with Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow – this is the second of them that I have read. A Winter Away was the first, and with Seaview House we are in fairly similar territory. A village setting, its inhabitants, a few humorous incidents and some romantic misunderstandings. If nothing else it is lovely, feel good escapism, and there are plenty of times when we all need a bit of that.

The village in question is Caweston a seaside village on the East Anglian coast. The inhabitants of this small coastal community have always enjoyed their uninterrupted view of the sea. Two of the village’s most prominent residents are sisters Rose Barlow and Edith Newby – they have come down in the world – so thinks their friend Mr Heritage – as they have been forced to run a small hotel. Widowed Rose, and her elder sister Edith are the daughters of Canon Newby – who had enjoyed a certain standing in Caweston, as did his daughters. Now with the occasional help of Rose’s daughter Lucy – who is taking a secretarial course at college – they must minister to the vagaries of summer visitors. During the summer season, Rose, Lucy and Edith must live in the small attic rooms they can’t let out to guests – where they are surrounded by the memories of their past in the old furnishings that surround them up there. Mr Heritage is a confirmed old bachelor who has all his needs catered for by a cook and butler. He is a terrible snob, set in his ways, and oddly suspicious of Lucy, Rose’s daughter. As the novel opens Mr Heritage is taking tea with Edith and Rose – and is – he believes the bearer of interesting news.

“Her three elders, however, did not realise that Lucy had outgrown the little stool, though Mr Heritage noticed how hunched and awkward she looked. He was more ready than usual to find fault with her, because her arrival had been so particularly ill timed. He was the bearer of interesting news, and he had been saving it up to tell his old friends and looking forward to the effect it would produce. The right moment for the telling would have been just now, when the first cups had been drunk and the pangs of hunger assuaged; but Lucy’s entry had deprived him of their undivided attention, without which he could not so himself justice. He felt aggrieved, cheated of his happy moment, and he almost decided to keep the news to himself.”

A controversial new development is underway in Cawseton, a small terrace of superior houses with a sea view – they will block the view completely for some residents. Edward Wray, a young architect is involved with the project and is obliged to come and stay in the area from time to time. Edward, is the godson of Mr Heritage, and with Edward spending so much time in the area, the two take the opportunity to get to know each other again after having lost touch. Edward stays with his godfather at his home Crow’s Orchard. Edward is passionate about the future regeneration of this seaside town, for which he can see a great future.

Some delightful little dramas are given a lovely little touch of humour by Elizabeth Fair, including a fire in a neighbouring bungalow, and Rose and Edith getting trapped in a caravan. Peripheral characters are brilliant too – we have the hotel cook Mrs McWilliams-Jones – commonly known as Mrs M-J and the colourful Mrs Turnbull, she of the bungalow and the caravan.

In the months before the summer season gets underway for the women at Seaview House, Edward Wray becomes a regular visitor. Always happy to help out, Edward soon begins to get involved in the life of Seaview House and its neighbours. Lucy is always delighted to see Edward, he shows himself to be thoughtful and good company. Two people, Mr Heritage and Lucy’s childhood sweetheart Nevil; a school master at a local private school, are less than happy about Edward’s friendship with Lucy. Lucy can’t help but compare the two young men, and often it is not to poor Nevil’s credit, Nevil has developed some annoying habits – including taking meals at the hotel, and never offering to pay, despite the narrow margins Lucy’s mother and aunt must work to. Nevil can’t help but see Edward as a rival – but Nevil is sometimes just a little too confident in his prior claim to Lucy’s affections. Rose thinks Edward would be perfect for her Lucy while Edith seems to favour Nevil.

“‘I wonder what Mr. Heritage thought of his godson,” she said quickly.

‘Rather clumsy, but quite good manners,’ Edith remarked. ‘And a well-shaped skull.’

These were her own views, but she took it for granted that sensible people would agree with her.”

Another rival is Lucy’s friend Philippa – the two young women don’t seem to have much in common but have been friends for years. Philippa is very concerned with her appearance, shocking her parents and naturally old Mr Heritage with her London bought latest fashions. When they meet, Philippa is very taken with Edward herself, and arranges an outing for herself, Edward, Lucy and Nevil.

Mr Heritage becomes obsessed with the idea of keeping Lucy and Edward apart, going as far as to try and arrange their engagement with the help of his doctor – Nevil’s father. Mr Heritage, is a brilliantly written character – guaranteed to make the reader’s blood boil – he is bitter, small minded, manipulative and downright nasty, and it isn’t long before his godson begins to see him for what he is.

As the summer season gets underway Lucy finishes her college course and promises to spend the summer helping at the hotel. Manipulations and romantic misunderstandings get tidied up after a disastrous lunch to celebrate the memory of Edith and Rose’s father – where everything gets a little bit fraught.

Elizabeth Fair’s fiction is light, bright and affectionately humorous – perfect escapism, though written with a certain amount of shrewd observation, and brilliant characterisation.

elizabeth fair

April in review


April was a pretty good month for books – about as good as it ever gets these days. More importantly I read ten fantastic books, a couple were contenders for my end of year list.

(You can click on the titles – to take you to my reviews of those books I have already reviewed).

As April began I was already reading A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau – a novel which is immediately captivating. It tells the story of Penelope Wells, and other characters in the South of France and England. This novel confirmed my love of Pamela Frankau and I am looking forward to reading more soon.

The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning – the second book of the Balkan trilogy – was even better than the first book. The realities of living in a city under threat of invasion impacts on all the characters we met in that first book. Alliances are formed between Rumania and Germany and some of the non-Rumanian residents begin to leave.

1951-clubI managed to read three books for the #1951club which was another fabulously successful event hosted by Karen and Simon. My first read was They Came to Baghdad, a standalone Agatha Christie novel which doesn’t feature either of her most famous sleuths. It is part mystery part espionage novel – and it is a rollicking good read.

Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies was my second read for the #1951club, it is the first of a trilogy – and so far, the only novel by the author I have read, hopefully not the last. This novel tells the story of an amateur production of The Tempest – unrequited loves, jealousies and petty squabbles, in a small fictional Canadian city.

School for Love by Olivia Manning my final read for the club is probably my book of the month. I seem to be on a bit of an Olivia Manning binge at the moment, and this novel set in Jerusalem toward the end of the second World War is superb. It tells the story of Felix Latimer – an orphaned young boy who comes to stay with a distant relative in Jerusalem from the home he shared with his mother in Baghdad.

Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington, is that marvellous thing – a big fat Persephone book. I took it on holiday to Devon with me. A book with an odd publishing history, it is a novel I have seen compared to Henry James, Edith Wharton and others – certainly it has a tone not dissimilar to those writers – and there is something about the novel which stays in the reader’s mind days and weeks after finishing it. The middle section of the novel drags a bit – but the whole remains an exceptional piece of writing.

The Librarything Virago group had selected Elizabeth von Arnim for April’s author of the month – and I decided to read Mr Skeffington – her final novel. It is a novel which concerns itself with ageing – and how society views and treats a once glamourous woman as age catches up with her. It has a surprisingly poignant ending.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark is a novella which was recommended to me very recently by a bookseller on Twitter. I already had several Muriel Spark books sitting unread on my shelves – but the cover really drew me in and it was a wonderfully quick, involving read. Muriel Spark cleverly subverts our expectations – in fact it is a book that is difficult to talk about without spoiling, though I think I managed a spoiler free review.

Seaview House by Elizabeth Fair – was perfect for my first week back at work after a two-week holiday. Another of the titles re-issued by Dean Street Press in conjunction with Furrowed Middlebrow, I still have it to review, but it is a very enjoyable bit of middlebrow escapism.

My final book of the month was a book I bought in hardback last May at Hay festival – but still hadn’t read, I managed to persuade my very small book group to pick it for May. Until we are Free by human rights lawyer and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi – tells the story of what happened to her, and her family after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. I’m looking forward to telling you all about it properly – Shirin Ebadi is a quite remarkable woman.

I am now reading the new Persephone edition of Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane, just over 80 pages into it – I am enjoying it immensely.


May is one of my favourite months – and I am also looking forward to some more great reading. The Virago group on LT have chosen Willa Cather for May and as I only have one of her novels left to read – The Professor’s House – I shall most likely get to that at some point. I also have an enormous volume of her letters – which looks excellent but I must admit the size of it makes it a bit daunting. I’m sure there must be more short stories by Willa Cather I have yet to read – I have read just one volume – so that might be another option if I can find a copy, (I seem to remember that some are available as ebooks). I do so love Willa Cather so I’m looking forward to seeing a few reviews of her work floating around later this month.


the driver's seat

I’m sure you will all be delighted to hear that this review is likely to be quite short (famous last words). The Driver’s Seat is definitely a book about which it would be quite possible to say too much.

Muriel Spark is an author I have been meaning to properly get to grips with for a long time, having only read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – which I liked but didn’t love. Although I already had two or three other Muriel Spark novels tbr – this was recommended to me recently by a bookseller on Twitter. I knew nothing about the book, but the cover practically sold it to me. I’m glad I knew nothing about the novel before I started (the blurb to this edition intrigues without giving too much away).

The Driver’s Seat is immediately unsettling, we meet Lise who appears to have been driven to distraction – working in the same office for sixteen years. Lise is leaving everything behind – jetting off to an unnamed European city.

“Her lips are slightly parted: she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was 18, that is to say, for 16 years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and judging mouth, a precision instrument.”

As the novel opens Lise is acting a little erratically – the reader still doesn’t know Lise – we don’t know what she is doing – and yet sense that something isn’t right. She’s shopping for holiday clothes. In the first shop, Lise tries on a brightly coloured dress she likes the look of, the assistant excitedly tells her how it is made of new stain-resisting material. Lise is outraged – that she should need stain proof garments! – her anger is out of all proportion – and our sense of things being a little bit out of kilter is increased.

Lise goes to another shop – no stain-resisting materials here to upset her. She selects a brightly coloured dress – overlooked by most shoppers – a yellow top, with the skirt a pattern of blue, mauve and orange vs. She selects a coat to wear over the top – narrow, red and white stripes – a combination the salesgirl delicately suggests couldn’t be worn together – Lise laughs off such advice. (Here we see how utterly perfect the cover of this Penguin Modern classics edition is). Everyone is wearing mini-skirts – Lise seems happy to wear her skirt well below the knee – and so, thus unfashionably and garishly attired she is transformed – and it would appear quite deliberately unforgettable.

Lise leaves everything behind – intending to leave her car keys in an envelope for someone to pick up she is distracted at the last minute and goes off with them still in her hand. Lise seems to be embracing the new excitements and freedoms of the 1960s.

“‘Sex is all right’ he says
‘It’s all right at the time, and it’s all right before’ says Lise, ‘but the problem is afterwards. That is, if you’re not an animal. Most of the time, afterwards is pretty sad.’”

She boards her plane, seating herself between two men, one of the men instantly feels uneasy about her. The other one seems very happy to meet her, instantly engaging Lise in conversation – Bill – is a proponent of the macrobiotic diet, and wants to meet up the following day. We can’t be completely sure if there’s something odd about Bill – other than his diet. Once they have landed – in what we assume is a Mediterranean city – Lise sets about bringing to fruition her plan – whatever that may be. She talks brightly and loudly to everyone she meets, seems to be searching for a boyfriend, accompanies an elderly woman to a department store – more shopping. The reader never gets especially close to any of these characters – we don’t need to – their presence merely helps to show Lise for the self-destructive nightmare that she is. Lise also remains something of an enigma, we never know her inner thoughts, fears or motivations – of course this is deliberate. We really get to know Lise through her extravagances her increasingly strange behaviour – and as we struggle to understand her – our mind goes back to the woman who shopped for deliberately garish clothing, jibbed at stain-resistant fabrics and left everything behind her.

I am loath to say anything else about the plot, I really wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone. In a sense a review can’t possibly do justice to this extraordinarily, dark novella. Muriel Spark messes with our heads brilliantly, subverts our expectations – and leaves us with a story that is both uncomfortable and unforgettable.

Reading The Driver’s Seat has definitely whetted my appetite for more Muriel Spark – I know I have three others buried somewhere on my tbr bookcase – I would love to tell you which ones. However they are hidden by stacks of other books and I can’t remember which they are – but I shall have dig them out sometime soon.


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.


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.



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!)