January in review

It’s the 1st February today, and can I really write a January in review post without acknowledging that yesterday was a pretty momentous occasion in the UK? Some of us are feeling rather bruised today – and that is all I am going to say on the matter.  

As many of you will know I have been struggling with chronic sciatica for the last two months, complicated by my Rheumatoid Arthritis – so I am off work, with more potential reading time on my hands. While I have read a couple more books than normal this month, my reading rate has not increased by much. Nevertheless, despite being sucked into mind numbing daytime tv and overlong afternoon naps, I have been enjoying reading just whatever I fancy. I think allowing my mood to direct my reading is working well for me, especially at the moment.

I started the month reading Milton Place by Elisabeth de Waal, a lovely Persephone book; an elegantly written novel about the changing fortunes of English houses and the families in them. It is also an unusual love story.

Your Duck is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg was a good collection of stories, by a new to me author. While a couple of the stories fell a little short for me, the others were of a high standard.

The Way Things Are by E M Delafield only served to remind me that I really haven’t read enough of her novels. A novel both sombre and humorous, it depicts a woman in an unsatisfying marriage, who has her head turned by someone more interesting than her dull husband.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson is a really good, locked room style mystery. Though for me the real interest in the novel is in the setting of the House of Commons during the 1930s, and the fact the author herself was a labour member of parliament.

Magda Szabó is an author whose novels many readers have been discovering over the last few years. Abigail is the fourth of them to be published in English, translated by Len Rix. Set during WW2 in Hungary. A spoilt teenage girl is sent to a fanatically puritanical boarding school by her father. This is as far as I have got with reviewing – (I almost always review in the order I read). So, several books I read this month have still to be written about. I’ll get there in the end.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby is another lovely offering from Dean Street Press. Another novel set during WW2, it is also a delicious piece of whimsical escapism. A middle aged woman throws a block of wood on her fire and unwittingly unleashes and ifrit (like a genie) who declares himself her slave. Miss Carter decides to name him Joe.

My second collection of short stories was A Romantic Hero by Olivia Manning, and I loved every bit of it. Fourteen beautifully written stories, portraits of lonely childhoods and complicated adult relationships. Olivia Manning is always such a good writer.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford is a review copy from Handheld Press which I had been really looking forward to. It’s not out till March I’m afraid, but it will be worth waiting for. An illustrated novel in letters, a well-educated young woman of good family from Edinburgh is determined to support herself for a year, working in a London department store.

No More Meadows by Monica Dickens is a book I found in a second-hand book shop in Devon last year. I had never heard of it, but really enjoyed it. The ending is a little depressing, but I found the story of a woman leaving her family and her job in a department store to marry an American naval officer and follow him to Washington, to be enormously engaging.

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald is a fabulous portrait of Broadcasting House during the blitz. A novel that manages to be both touching and funny, Fitzgerald introduces us to a cast of often slightly eccentric but ultimately realistic characters.

Consider the Years by Virginia Graham – a rare collection of poetry. I began reading it for the Mini Persephone readathon last weekend and dipped in and out of it over the whole week. This is a collection of World War Two poetry by the woman who counted Joyce Grenfell as her closest friend. I had to skip a handful of poems as they are written in French or German – and my ability in either is non-existent.

So, in February I will continue to read very much by mood. My book group will be reading a novel in translation, Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth. I have missed some book group meetings recently, and I’m very unsure whether I will get to the next one (getting myself from A to B is a major issue just now) but I want to try and read this as it sounds so interesting.  I’m currently about a third of the way into Dust Tracks on a Road, the autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston. One of three beautiful new editions sent to me by Virago. I read Their Eyes were Watching God a few years ago, so looking forward to Jonah’s Gourd Vine at some point in the future. I can certainly highly recommend this one, such incredible writing. These gorgeous new editions are published in a couple of weeks, and the covers alone are just fabulous, I think.

Let me know what wonderful things you have been reading in January, and happy February reading to you all.

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

This is the fourth of Magda Szabó’s to be translated into English by Len Rix, and for me it is an early contender for my books of the year list – which is a very long way off I admit. I have previously loved each of Magda Szabó’s other novels available in English, The Door, Iza’s Ballad and Katalin Street, and it is quite hard to pick favourites when the books are so different, but Abigail might just be it. I found Abigail to be such a fully immersive novel – I was glad it was a fairly chunky 440 odd pages because I didn’t want it to end.

Other Szabó novels hark back to the war and how it has impacted on people – though from a distance of years, this theme is continued here, though Abigail by contrast takes place during the war. It is 1943, and in Germany, Hitler is becoming frustrated by the direction the so called ‘Jewish question’ has been moving in Hungary. A senior army General in Budapest, sees the way the wind is blowing, knowing that their allies Germany will surely invade soon, he decides to send his fourteen year old daughter Georgina Vitay, across Hungary to a boarding school in Árkod, an old University town in Eastern Hungary.

Gina is rather spoiled, having had her father’s undivided attention for years, and with a doting aunt nearby who only encourages her romantic aspirations. Despite being only fourteen Gina already has her eye on a handsome young officer, only in his late teens his uniform gives him an irresistible glamour. Her French governess Marcelle has been sent home, because of the war, and Gina finds all the changes happening in her life overwhelming. Always able to persuade her father of things she wants in the past, she can’t imagine why he is determined to stick to this plan of a boarding school so very far away from home. She can only imagine he wants her out of the house, perhaps he is going to be re-married. As she and her father start out on the journey to Árkod Gina descends into a hopeless misery.

The school Gina’s father takes her to, is a fanatically puritanical school – compete with a black wholly enveloping uniform – and dozens of rules. It’s an environment unlike anything Gina has experienced before – the building itself more like a fortress than a school is impenetrable from the outside world. Her father promises to telephone each Saturday, explaining he will be too busy to write letters, then he leaves her with Sister Susanna, a Deaconess with whom Gina is destined to have a sometimes difficult relationship. Gina is shown to the year 5 dormitory (each year group stays together almost all the time, having little to do with other year groups) where all Gina’s belongings are taken from her and replaced with school issue – including her extraordinary uniform.

“As she pulled on the black ribbed stockings and the tall black boots she thought that that would be all. But she was wrong. What came next was, in its own way, even more horrifying than the new outfit. Susanna teased out her long tresses with the new wooden-handled brush that had replaced her old silver backed one, then chopped them short to match the other girls’ and added a parting down the middle and plaits, tied by the same black shoelace. Gina was now trembling with shock. They have swallowed me whole. I am no longer myself, she thought, and her breathing became a rapid pant.”

She meets the first of the girls with whom she will be spending her time. Gina; devastated at being separated from her father – is completely at sea in this new and strange environment. Gina starts to learn something of the strange traditions that exist in this place – several she decides are absurdly childish – and in her disdain she makes an early serious error – which puts her at serious odds with her classmates for weeks. During this period, Gina is horribly isolated and miserable – and she knows now she made an error of judgement, she has in fact a lot to learn. Gina begins to plan to run away. However, that won’t be quite as easy as she thinks. Gina’s superior attitude doesn’t always go down well with her teachers either. The school Director is Mr Torma a forbidding, inflexible presence whose niece is one of Gina’s classmates.

One of the most important traditions at the school centres round a statue in the gardens. The Abagail of the title, where since the First World War girls have been leaving notes asking for help with their problems and receiving advice in return. No one knows which adult in the school is ‘Abigail’ but in time Gina starts leaving her own notes.

“…she saw that they had reached the end of the garden, where a high stone wall marked the school boundary. A curving recess had been cut into its considerable depth, and in it stood a statue, the statue of a young woman. Curly locks spilled out from under her headband, over a gentle brow, and she held a classical-style stone pitcher.”

One of the school’s ‘old girls’ who became romantically engaged during WW1 lives nearby – and sometimes girls are invited to tea parties at her home. To most of the girls Mitsi Horn is a generous, glamourous intriguing figure – but Gina is not so easily beguiled and is irritated by the adoration shown towards the woman. She has several battles with Susanna who she loves and loathes alternately, and early decides Latin master Mr Kőnig is an idiot, while the handsome, patriotic Mr Kalmár she casts as a kind of hero.

One day Gina’s father appears for an unscheduled visit. He takes her out for cakes, and urges her to settle down, trusting her with a desperate secret. Filled with a new purpose Gina returns to school after waving her father off again with a new determination to make him proud and do as he asks. She involves herself in the life of the school as much as she can, building bridges in time with her classmates, making friends and learning that not everyone is as privileged as she is. Confronted with some of the more sinister aspects to the war, Gina keeps her father’s secret – but there are darker forces at work outside of the school gates.

I loved every bit of this novel – I had seen some readers say that not enough happens in the novel until quite near the end – where the drama is racked up – but I like that kind of narrative. Fantastic characterisation and brilliant storytelling, no wonder that this was Magda Szabó’s most popular novel in Hungary.

I was fortunate to have two Ellen Wilkinson novels come into my life around the same time. Both of them were part of bookish secret Santa parcels, the first; The Division Bell Mystery was Ellen Wilkinson’s only published mystery novel. A few days after receiving this book I was delighted to unwrap Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, a VMC edition I hope to read fairly soon, one of the books in my Librarything Virago secret Santa which Liz chose for me. Clash, published a few years before this one, depicts the General Strike from the point of view of a woman trade unionist. I am looking forward to it.

Ellen Wilkinson was a Labour MP, first elected in 1924, she became a key figure in the Jarrow March and supported the general strike. During the war she served as a junior minister in Churchill’s coalition government, later as her health was failing was appointed as Education Minister by Clement Atlee in Labour’s post war government.

Wilkinson was perfectly placed therefore to write a mystery novel with a political element to it, the fact she manages to slide a little satire into the story which she sets in the House of Commons makes it all the more enjoyable.

“But, sir, I’ve often wondered why more people don’t get murdered in this place when you think of the opportunities.”

Up and coming young politician Robert West is parliamentary private secretary to the Home Secretary. On the day his old friend Donald Shaw arrives at the House of Commons for dinner, the Home Secretary is meeting American financier Georges Oissel in a private dining room. Before the nine o’clock division bell rings calling members to vote – Robert and the Home secretary are two among many members who hurry off to do their duty, and it is at that very moment that Georges Oissel is shot and killed in a room empty of anyone other than himself. Robert and his old friend are just outside the door of the room where the dead man is discovered, and with Oissel’s gun lying on the floor, at first everyone assumes the millionaire must have taken his own life.

However, Oissel’s glamorous grand-daughter insists her grandfather would never have taken his own life. Soon, the police are led to believe that perhaps Mr Oissel was in fact the victim of murder after all. At the time the murder was committed the victim’s house was in the process of being burgled and a manservant on loan from the Home Secretary killed at the scene apparently in defence of Oissel’s private papers. Poor West is rather dazzled by Oissel’s granddaughter Annette’s elegance and her insistence that her grandfather must have been murdered. It is soon apparent that we are in the midst of an ingenious locked room mystery.

Bit by bit, Robert West is drawn deeper into the mystery, aiding the sensibly humane Inspector Blackitt in his investigations. Sir George Gleeson the head of the civil service, deeply concerned with the potential diplomatic consequences oversees the progress of the case. Placed as he is, in the House of Commons, Robert is quite able to sneak about making enquires, asking questions and calling in favours. One of his friends is Grace Richards; a member of parliament from the opposition benches (I couldn’t help but see this as a self portrait for Wilkinson herself) whose help Robert enlists.

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? He came from an old political family. Had one of the women of his family ever asked why she should help?”

 Here we see (slightly tongue in cheek, I felt) the depressing attitudes of the time. Grace is a brilliant character and I would have enjoyed seeing more of her in this novel. Lady Bell-Clinton is another brilliantly drawn creation – (a Lady Astor perhaps?) and adds perfectly to the atmosphere of the House of Commons at this time, which was of course largely inhabited by the political male.

“Lady Bell-Clinton took an impish joy in inducing the most extraordinary people to mix together, but the party that Robert West found on this occasion was one of her super-respectable kind. It included a Cabinet Minister with a wife who must surely have been to her christening in a robe of black crêpe de Chine and old lace; a couple of City men whose wives were not in evidence;  a champion lady golfer; and Lord Dalbeattie, a member of the synthetic aristocracy whose peerage had been made for him only six months previously.”

Enquiries reveal a missing notebook containing notes written in code, figures lurking in dark corridors at the house late at night and papers hidden in the Home Secretary’s office. West takes Lord Dalbeattie into his confidence, and in him finds a man willing to get things done, even if feathers are a little ruffled.

The ending when it comes is fiendishly clever (albeit a tiny bit improbable) though the final unravelling felt just a little bit rushed. Nevertheless, The Division Bell Mystery is very readable and particularly fascinating for its setting and those thinly disguised political portraits.

I had started to think that there were two sides to E M Delafield. The side she shows us so delightfully in The Provincial Lady so beloved of many of us, satirical, tongue in cheek with superbly sharp observances. Then there are her significantly more serious books like Consequences and The War Workers in which she shines a light on aspects of her society. However now I realise that is too simplistic, I am saying that with all the confidence of someone who hasn’t read all that many Delafield, though I have been wanting to read a lot more for years. In this novel I can definitely see aspects of both of the above – themes explored in both The Provincial Lady and Consequences are in evidence.

The central character in The Way Things Are is a little reminiscent of The Provincial Lady (earlier though and less hilarious) it’s a kind of subdued Provincial Lady and 1920s Motherland (BBC comedy if you haven’t seen it you must.) Her topic isn’t especially comic though, at the centre of this novel is a woman dissatisfied with her life and her marriage. E M Delafield explores how women like her character Laura could be trapped by marriage – though readers can’t help but recognise that these trappings were rather comfortable. In the hands of another writer, this could be a really rather sad novel, however there is lightness and humour here, and while there is a serious point about marriage being made, Delafield knows how to keep her readers engaged.

Laura Temple is a wife and mother in her early thirties, living comfortably in the country beset with all the usual domestic problems and feeling deeply unsatisfied. She is married to Alfred, he is desperately dull, but in no way a bad man, or unkind, he spends most of his time outdoors, and is mainly interested in vegetable matter. Laura is also a writer, she has had some success with getting some stories published, though her writing takes something of a back seat to everything else.

“Laura now admitted to herself – what she had not admitted to herself at the time – that she had been rather anxious to be married, just when she first met Alfred.

The war was over, and there had been a question of her returning home, which she did not want to do, and so many other people seemed to be getting married… She wanted the experience of marriage, and she was just beginning to be rather afraid of missing it altogether, because so many of the men belonging to her own generation had gone.”

Alfred has a habit of being quite strict with their two spirited little boys and otherwise hides himself behind The Times to prevent himself having to engage too much in matters domestic. Each morning Laura wakes to the knowledge of what the day has in store, that includes wrangling with her sons, their Nurse, the domestic staff, and trying to come up with an interesting menu that won’t upset cook. She is a little intimidated by her servants, terrified of them giving notice – which they all seem to with hilarious regularity.

Laura’s two boys are Edward and Johnnie, Edward is the eldest, a quieter more thoughtful boy, far better behaved than the younger precocious, temper tantrum throwing, Johnnie. Laura though, seeing something of herself in her younger child favours Johnnie, she knows that she does, and while acknowledging it to herself she does nothing to redress the balance, and my heart broke a little for Edward. Laura went down in my estimation here, although I didn’t totally dislike her, I found her very annoying on lots of occasions, and my sympathies were often with her husband and children.

There are some fabulous peripheral characters, Edward and Johnnie sometimes go to a dancing class with some other children. Here Laura is plagued by a boastful mother who is keen to show her own little darlings in their best light, much to Laura’s chagrin.

“‘It’s very nice of you to say so, but then,’ returned Mrs Blakewell more brightly than ever, ‘Cynthia has danced ever since she could walk.’

Laura thought: ‘I wonder whether the mere fact of being a mother does really reduce one, conversationally, to the level of an idiot.’ Aloud she said: ‘Yes, of course.’”

One of her near neighbours is Lady Kingsley-Browne, who has a grown up daughter Bébéé (Laura, her sister Christine and Alfred call her Bay-Bay when speaking of her in private). Bébéé is a hit with eligible men, and her mother has high hopes for her and the richest commoner in England. When Christine comes to visit her older sister, local entertainments are organised, and Laura meets a friend of Christine’s; Marmaduke Ayland (known as Duke). He is a good looking, thirty five year old single man, who immediately sees more in Laura than her marriage and motherhood – and Laura is ripe for that kind of attention. Laura finds herself falling in love with Duke, arranging secret meetings when she goes to see Christine in London, revelling in the attention he gives her. Duke wants them to be together – but their love affair – if that is what this is, is pretty tame. Laura is plagued with guilt about her husband and children, she can’t possibly give up her children, and Alfred is totally undeserving of any betrayal.

Ultimately, there is a kind of acceptance in Laura for the kind of life she is living and must continue to live. Also, her great love for Duke is unconvincing, it’s more that she craves the affection that Alfred doesn’t show, desperate for romance before she is firmly middle aged, Laura falls in love with an idea. Her ‘romance’ is contrasted with those of her sister and Bébéé – who are younger with a more modern approach to romance.

The final few lines of the novel are just brilliant – and possibly quite poignant. A little less brilliant than The Provincial Lady perhaps, The Way Things Are is a more reflective novel and I liked it enormously.

I generally really like short stories, and while my preference is usually for collections from backlisted women writers, I am perfectly happy to sometimes read more modern collections. Your Duck is My Duck is a collection of six stories by American writer Deborah Eisenberg, who has written several other collections. I first read about the collection on Susan’s blog A Life in Books, and bought it immediately, it sounded right up my street. Overall, I did like this collection, though a couple of the stories fell a little short of my initial expectations. It is well written, and though a couple of stories left me a little cold, the others I liked. These stories are all a bit longer than some short stories, and Eisenberg uses their length the fully flesh out her characters.

The stories are by turns, dark, funny and mysterious. Eisenberg explores the strangeness in the lives and emotions of her characters with astuteness, characters are well defined. In these pieces she explores aspects of money, sex and power.

The opening story in the collection is Your Duck is My Duck from which the collection takes its title. This was I thought a very good opening to the collection. An artist is taken up by a wealthy couple who she meets at a party. It becomes clear that she has been struggling with her work, and the couple invite her to their retreat. Their retreat is on the edge of a coastal village which the couple have spoiled with their schemes. On arrival, she finds her hosts engaged in an awkward domestic conflict. There is a wonderful sense of place in this story – as there is in other pieces, I particularly enjoyed Eisenberg’s descriptions.

“I was looking out at cliffs and the sea, all sluiced in delicate pinks and yellows and greens and blues, as if the sun were imparting to the sleeping rock and water dreams of their youth, dreams of the rock’s birth in the earth’s molten core, the water’s ecstatic purity before it was sullied by life—as if the play of soft colors were the sun’s lullaby to the cliffs and the sea, of endurance and transformation.”

(Your Duck is My Duck)

Taj Mahal was definitely my favourite story in the collection, and the one I remember best. The story very cleverly moves across time periods and there are shifting perspectives, as a group of ageing movie stars react to the newly published biography of a film director, written by his grandson, based on his childhood memories of visits made to his famous grandfather. A story about the reliability of memory – as the former stars rage and dispute the facts laid out in the biography. Can their memories of the past really be trusted?

“What to do about all this horseshit? Nothing, really, nothing. But still, the ones who are left, those who happen to be in New York – Duncan, Coral, Roman and Luther – have collected, on this glassily brilliant autumn day, in the noisy bar of a restaurant that Roman likes. Emma has been included, too, although if it weren’t for this so-called memoir, these old friends of her mother’s would no doubt have forgotten all about her. Even in the book her existence is confined to pages 48, 49 and 316.”

(Taj Mahal)

In Cross off and Moves on the death notice of a cousin in the newspaper, leads a woman to remember how her difficult mother loathed her father’s sisters. She realises how many things were hidden from her, her memory of her aunts is positive, she recalls their kindness. She spends time trying to piece together the past.

Merge Is the longest story in the collection, and it started out really well, but the ending fell flat for me – and left me a bit confused. It tells the story of Keith, the son of a wealthy man, he has fallen out of favour at home, and is need of employment. He meets Celeste, a young woman a little older than himself, and she finds him work, helping an elderly neighbour of hers and giving him a place to stay while she is away. Keith helps out Mrs Cordis, one particular duty being to walk her dog Moppet. Meanwhile, somewhere a long way from home, Celeste appears to be in trouble of some kind.

The Third Tower was the story that worked least well for me, I found it all rather confusing. The confusion might well be deliberate as it portrays a young woman undergoing some neurological tests. She finds herself refusing to trust the things that are really in her mind but instead allows herself to be influenced by her doctor.

Recalculating is another excellent story; in which Adam a young man from a traditional American community, travels to England to attend the funeral of an uncle he never knew. Adam had often wondered about this uncle, had grown up asking questions which were never satisfactorily answered. Here he meets his Uncle Phillip’s circle of fairly bohemian friends; they all instantly accept Adam and he is drawn into their world.

On the basis of this collection I would definitely be interested in reading more by Deborah Eisenberg, I really liked her writing and her ability at exploring character and place.

I began 2020 with a lovely Persephone book – starting the year with a very me kind of book seemed a good beginning to my reading year. Milton Place is novel about a very English house, and a very English family, during a period of time when such families and their way of life were changing.

“The great house hung like a vast garment many times too big for the shrunken stature of its diminished inhabitants…”

 Large houses were falling out of fashion after the two world wars and hideously expensive to run. Many such places were being acquired by institutions or county councils, transformed from exclusive family homes into municipal buildings. All of that is very much in the background of this novel – the novel itself is much more about the relationships between the people who live in Milton Place, or come regularly to visit.

Milton Place is the second novel by Elisabeth de Waal that Persephone have published, a novel which failed to find a publisher when it was written, and it is published for the very first time by Persephone. Written around the 1950s/60s the setting is clearly a few years after the second world war – I assumed the very early 1950s.

Mr Barlow is the owner of Milton Place, an elderly widower with two middle aged daughters, who pay him occasional visits, and disapprove of him hanging on to the old family home. After the war – during which the house was given over to the military – Mr Barlow stubbornly returned to Milton Place the large country home he loves. Here he lives with a couple of old retainers, his eighteen year old grandson Tony visits during his holidays from school, as his relationship with his parents is complex and quite toxic. Mr Barlow’s existence is a quite lonely one, though he perhaps hadn’t realised that.

As the novel opens, Mr Barlow receives a letter from the daughter of an old friend. Anita Seiler is the now middle aged daughter of a woman Mr Barlow fell in love with as a young man in Vienna many years earlier. The two were unable to marry, and Mr Barlow had carried the memory of his lost love ever since. He is delighted to hear from her daughter, the letter bringing back memories of his young love. Anita is Austrian, a widow, with an adult daughter, now she is looking to move to England and asks Mr Barlow to help her find some kind of work as a housekeeper or similar. Mr Barlow invites Anita to Milton Place – with little real idea of helping her find work, he thinks perhaps his daughter might help with that.

Anita arrives and quickly sets about breathing new life into Milton Place. She appears to be just what the old place, and Mr Barlow need, her very presence is a tonic. She and Mr Barlow become great friends – though they never quite leave the formalities of calling one another Mr or Mrs behind – taking long walks together, delighting in the gardens, talking about everything.

“…walking was living with a place and making friends with it, it needed time and patience and the measured rhythm of your own pace to put you in touch with the things that are near, while the distant prospects shift very slowly and you take them in from imperceptibly changing angles.”

Anita delights in the work she finds herself to do at Milton Place, bringing the rooms back to life, polishing silver, caring for Mr Barlow’s beautiful home with cheerfulness and energy. Mr Barlow is in no hurry for Anita to leave, and Anita is happy, the house and Mr Barlow’s friendship doing much to heal the terrible scars that she is carrying from the war. Her story is a heart-breaking one. Then soon after Anita’s arrival Tony, arrives for his summer visit, school has ended and national service beckons, which the young man can’t help but dread. With Tony’s arrival, relationships at Milton Place change in some surprising ways. As the novel progresses, we learn more about the people who inhabit Milton Place, and those who merely sweep in from time to time and upset the equilibrium.

“One cannot do arithmetics with pain – neither add nor multiply nor divide it. It is always one and indivisible, and everyone carries the whole of it.”

Mr Barlow’s daughters are both quite horrible – though in rather different ways. Emily married well, is constantly busy with good works, charities and local committees, she is constantly scheming to sell Milton Place – and move her father somewhere more sensible. She drops by once a week, seeing it as a duty that she does so. She is unsettled and irritated by Anita’s presence – fearing she might have an agenda of her own. Cecilia meanwhile is a very unhappy woman, though no more likeable for that. Married to provincial doctor with a social conscience and a chip on his shoulder, she is a depressed and bullied woman. Her son Tony, goes to a private boarding school, paid for by her father, Tony’s father is so resentful of this fact, that it has destroyed their marriage and the relationship that Tony has with both his parents. He is aware his mother is bullied and unhappy but is incapable of much sympathy.

The survival or demise of the English country house is a recurring theme in several Persephone novels, and Milton Place fits perfectly into that group. Like de Waal’s novel The Exiles Return, it also concerns itself with the aftermath of war, those scars that people carry with them. Elisabeth de Waal writes lyrically and gloriously about the English garden at Milton Place, the flowers and the pleasure they give those who love them. It’s really quite ridiculous that Elisabeth de Waal was unable to find a publisher for this wonderful novel, so glad Persephone brought it back.

Aiding and Abetting was my final read of 2019, it was a strange, quirky little tale from Muriel Spark. Her inventiveness and altered view of the world are never dull. Spark’s satire is never in short supply in this novel, in which she takes one of Britain’s most notorious murder cases as her inspiration.

“Lucky Lucan believed in destiny. By virtue of destiny he was an earl. His wife had been destined to die, according to his mad calculation. It was the madness of a gambler.”

In 1974, Lord Lucan allegedly murdered his children’s nanny – in mistaken identity for his wife, attacked his wife – and then disappeared into the night. It has since been generally assumed that the 7th Earl of Lucan died by his own hand that same night, though his body was never found. However, there were many who thought he had manged to escape, for decades there were rumoured sightings of him all over the world. Some people always believed that he had been helped by his network of wealthy friends who had provided him with money and opportunities to pass through international borders. These people, his aiders and abetters. The case has fascinated for decades, and Muriel Spark’s unusual take on it, is wickedly subversive.

“‘I have come to consult you,’ he said, ‘because I have no peace of mind. Twenty-five years ago I sold my soul to the Devil.’”

When, more than twenty years after the case hit the headlines, a man walks into psychiatrist Hildegard Wolf’s Parisian office claiming to be Lord Lucan she has one particular reason for doubt. For, Dr Wolf already has another patient claiming to be the missing aristocratic murder suspect, and they clearly can’t both be telling the truth. Perhaps neither of them is. Both men bear a passing resemblance to the missing Earl bearing in mind the passage of time, each of them able to spin a fairly credible tale.

Dr Wolf is something of a strange character herself, for a start her method of therapy is quite unorthodox, she mainly talks about herself. She is also hiding a secret from her past, a secret one of her Lucan claimants knows all about. It is made clear that if she doesn’t keep the Lucan secret, then her secret will also be revealed.

Dr Wolf is not the only one trying to discover the true Lord Lucan. One of Lucan’s old friends, and the daughter of another acquaintance (who wants to write a book) team up in a bid to finally unravel the mystery.

“People who want to write books do so because they feel it to be the easiest thing they can do. They can read and write, they can afford any of the instruments of book writing such as pens, paper, computers, tape recorders, and generally by the time they have reached this decision, they have had a simple education.”

One of the things I really liked about this novel is that Muriel Spark reminds us that at the heart of the mystery is a young woman who was brutally murdered. So often Sandra Rivett is almost an add on to the mystery. If Lucan really did have people helping him escape justice – and despite Lucan being declared dead in 1999 we may never really know this – they did so in the knowledge that he had done a terrible thing. To those aiders and abetters, she really was unimportant.

There is a great little twist at the end of the novel – would you expect anything less? – as Spark explores the nature of the Lucan myth in her own inimitable fashion.

Anyone familiar with Muriel Spark will know she never shied away from difficult or even distasteful themes, and with this novel she certainly treads a fine line between the satirical and the downright unpleasant. She is I think just clever enough to stay on the right side of that line, though some may think the subject matter inappropriate to be satirised in this way. However, what Spark does do well is to remind us that a young woman died horribly, and if Lucan survived that terrible night – he must have had help and plenty of it.

A personal note: I am struggling with the blog at the moment, I haven’t been well for weeks, and despite being off work and able to blog whenever I want to – I find I don’t often want to. Posts have been a bit lacklustre I suspect lately – reflecting my mood, so thank you for sticking with me while I get back to normal.