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April in review

In my last round up post at the end of March I was again giving myself a bit of a hard time over how few books I had read, compared to how much I used to read. I have to stop doing that, it’s fairly clear that this is some kind of new normal, and instead of endlessly going on about how little I read, how slowly I am reading, how I have only managed six books in the month etc, I need to just celebrate the books I have read. I had questioned whether I would continue with these roundup posts, I wasn’t sure whether the act of writing them was unintentionally putting me under pressure to have to have a nice pile of books to show at the end of the month. Well, anyway I have decided to continue with these roundups for now – and the piles of books are considerably smaller, and likely to stay that way. This month’s pile made smaller by the fact I read three books on my kindle.

April seems to have flown, perhaps because of the time off work, holiday weeks always go too fast. I managed a little more reading time, had some time away by the sea and slept a lot.

Here’s what I read.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell (2022)– which I had originally wanted to read in March for Read Ireland month but my hastily purchased copy didn’t arrive in time. I had already seen some positive reviews for this so I was quite confident I would enjoy it. This is the story of the Belfast Blitz in April and May 1941 as seen through the eyes of the Bell family, especially two sisters Audrey and Emma. These Days is an intensely moving story, Caldwell’s descriptions of the German raids, the fear of the people and their incredible resilience to come through it.

I read the highly acclaimed novella Assembly by Natasha Brown (2021) with my book group. I was enormously impressed with the writing, and my book group enjoyed our discussion. At the time I read it, I wasn’t so mad about the episodic nature of the story, yet I found it very thought provoking and the book has really stayed with me and I found myself thinking about it afterwards more than I might have expected to.

Read of course for the 1954 club The Gypsy in the Parlour by Margery Sharp (1954) was a fairly expensive e-book, which I was very glad I had stumped up for. Set mainly in Devon in the late nineteenth century, it is the story of the Sylvester family, particularly the women who drive it. As the novel opens, the three Sylvester women – each of them married to one of three brothers, await the arrival of the new, and so far unseen fiancé of their youngest brother-in-law Stephen. After Fanny Davis arrives, life at the Sylvester farm may never be the same again.

My second club read, again on my kindle was Charlotte Fairlie by D E Stevenson (1954). Definitely one of the highlights of the month, every bit of it was a pleasure the read. The novel is named for the central character, Charlotte Fairlie is a young, girls’ school headmistress. Two years into her dreamed of position, she has discovered that to be a headmistress is a very lonely profession. Tessa is a new girl at the school, who Charlotte finds herself feeling a lot of sympathy and affection for, after a tumultuous school year Tessa and her father invite Charlotte to the idyllic Scottish island where they live, during the long summer holidays.

Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women edited by Angela Carter (1986) is the last of the books I bought in January with my Christmas book vouchers. It is a fairly chunky collection of short stories. Tales of female sexual disruptiveness, bad manners, and discontent. Written by a host of big names including Grace Paley, Elizabeth Jolley, Katherine Mansfield and Angela Carter herself. There was only one story I didn’t get on with.

Some of you may remember my year of Muriel Spark reading in 2018. Well I didn’t quite get to them all. Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark (1979) reminded me why I love her writing. Set mainly in Venice (one character back in the UK lives in Birmingham, but we don’t see anything of the city sadly) it follows the fortunes of Robert, his father and his mistress, a Bulgarian defector, and a secret from the war. It’s all a bit mad and chaotic and I rather loved it for that. Not her best perhaps, but so what.

With Daphne du Maurier reading week not that long away, I felt I needed to start my reading early, so as to be ready. I chose to read The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier (1931) first. It was Daphne du Maurier’s first novel, and really shows what kind of writer she was to become. It is a fantastic, sweeping story of four generations of a family in Cornwall. It was definitely my best read of the month.

I have begun another book by Daphne du Maurier – The Doll and other stories – but as that one will be finished in May it can go into the May pile.

So on to May. Of course I am rather taken up with Daphne du Maurier reading week. I haven’t decided if I will try and squeeze a third DDM read in yet, after I finish The Doll, I need to read my May book group read The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Maas (2019) so it is all a question of time.

Daphne du Maurier reading week begins Monday 9th May and runs until the 15th. There will be a giveaway – I have already bought the prize – more of that during the week. I do hope some of you will be joining in, if you are, tell me what you are planning to read? As for after that, who knows, I shall wait to see how the mood takes me.

Happy reading to all of you in May.

Reviewing just a little out of order now, not that it matters, I read Assembly with my book group before I read the last two books I reviewed for the 1954 club. It’s an extremely short novella, though one that packs a punch – and I was enormously impressed with the writing, and how thought provoking it is, especially given its size.

I am well aware how mood and timing can affect my reading – and I wasn’t in the best of moods when I read this. Firstly it is a novella short enough to be read in one sitting – however, I was very tired, at work during the day, and so only manged to read this is three shortish bursts over three evenings. I don’t think that is necessarily the best way to read it – I wish I had read it on a Sunday afternoon or something, when I could have given it the attention it requires and deserves.

Nevertheless, I found Assembly a tremendously powerful debut novel and also (no spoilers) desperately sad – something my book group discussed, a few of us were really saddened by it.

In this novel Natasha Brown explores the legacy of Britain’s colonial past – what living within today’s British society is really like for a young Black British woman, who is politically aware and trying to make her way in a competitive world.

“The answer: assimilation. Always, the pressure is there. Assimilate, assimilate … Dissolve yourself into the melting pot. And then flow out, pour into the mould. Bend your bones until they splinter and crack and you fit. Force yourself into their form. Assimilate, they say it, encouraging. Then frowning. Then again and again. And always there, quiet, beneath the urging language of tolerance and cohesion – disappear! Melt into London’s multicultural soup.”

The novel is narrated in a series of non-chronological vignettes by an unnamed Black British woman. On the surface she seems to be a wonderful success, working in a London financial firm, she has just achieved a promotion. She has money, her own place, and a boyfriend from a privileged white family, who have invited her to their family anniversary garden party.

“I’m unsure about this weekend. It seemed fine, even enjoyable, when proposed. Months away, abstract. But here it is, now, and here I am, too. And this train – very real, very concrete and travelling fast – is tearing us together. Close your eyes.”

It’s all taken a terrible toll. At work, among her mainly male colleagues, her success, her new promotion is treated with suspicion, an assumption that it is due only to the company’s diversity programme. She has learned long ago that she has to worker harder, be better – constantly proving herself. She is so weary of it all – that’s the feeling that Brown manages to convey so powerfully, that this young woman, is already exhausted by it all. The work it has taken, the feeling that one has to assimilate – assimilation is a topic Brown returns to in this novel several times.

“Be the best. Work harder, work smarter. Exceed every expectation. But also, be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience. Exist in the negative only, the space around. Do not insert yourself into the main narrative. Go unnoticed. Become the air. Open your eyes.”

Her success allows her to pass on something of what she has learned to the next generation, she goes into school assemblies, universities or colleges and shares what they can do to be like her – what they can expect. Yet, she has come to find it all rather depressing, like she is dishing out a load of lies.

“Best case: those children grow up, assimilate, get jobs and pour money into a government that forever tells them they are not British. This is not home.”

The narrator’s relationship with her white boyfriend seems great on the surface, yet again though, here there are layers of complexity that Brown unearths and explores briefly, though memorably. A longer novel would have allowed for a deeper exploration of this – the hidden motivations and prejudices of other characters, should they exist.

The narrator’s boyfriend is from a very white background, wealthy, privileged, his parents living in the countryside. This is a world in which she feels she needs to play a role, to be a part of – to be fully accepted. She senses that her boyfriend’s parents tolerate her, assuming her to be just a phase that will pass out of their lives in the fullness of time. There is the ‘family friend’ someone her boyfriend knew when he was a lot younger, who is helping his mother with the garden party arrangements – a reminder that she isn’t needed – her offer of help turned down with a smile. Going out with a Black woman gives the boyfriend a kind of liberal credibility, while for her, going out with a white man, adds a gloss of acceptability to her with certain colleagues at the firm where she works. It’s hardly any wonder she finds all this hard to reconcile.

Alongside all of this, the narrator has had a diagnosis of cancer handed down to her. She has been made very aware of what will happen if she doesn’t accept treatment soon. She is faced with a choice – to receive treatment and continue hopefully in this imperfect, exhausting world or to check out and leave it all behind.

This is as I have said an incredibly powerful debut novel – my book group enjoyed our short discussion of – it was overwhelmingly positive, there is less to discuss when we all largely agree. Forgive me the use of so many quotes, I could have used far more. This is an author to watch.

My second read for the 1954 club was Charlotte Fairlie by D E Stevenson, another great read from Dean Street Press. D E Stevenson is such a lovely writer, this provided a delightful escape from the twenty-first century.

The novel is named for the central character, Charlotte Fairlie is a young, girls’ school headmistress – who sometimes tries to look a little bit older than she is so she is taken seriously. Charlotte was once a pupil at St Elizabeth’s herself, and dreamed of being headmistress, and now she is. Two years into her dreamed of position, she has discovered that to be a headmistress is a very lonely profession – unable to make friends among her staff – and with the responsibility of the school resting on her shoulders. Another teacher at the school; Miss Pinkerton had been in the mix for headmistress, and is very resentful of Charlotte – and her resentment becomes really poisonous. With her secretary Miss Post ever desperate to know the contents of private letters, or the other side of a private phone call, Charlotte is not exactly surrounded by friends.

When the new school year starts, Tessa MacRynne is brought to the school by her American mother. Tessa lives on an island in Scotland – a place she loves as much as she does her father – the lord of the isle. It soon becomes apparent that Tessa’s mother won’t be coming back to visit – as she has left her husband, and returned to America. Tessa is terribly hurt by her mother’s departure, unable to understand why she would leave her father, and is desperate to go home to be with him.

“It’s a very bad thing to harbour resentment, Tessa. Do you understand what I mean? It won’t do your mother any harm if you think unkindly about her, but it will do harm to yourself—to your own character.”

When Tessa tries to run away, she draws Charlotte into a little deceit. Charlotte comes across Tessa late at night, and realising how distressed she is, she sneaks her back into school – and the sick bay. Charlotte can’t show favouritism to any pupil, but she is drawn to Tessa, and Tessa responds to her kind sympathy. Miss Pinkerton knows there is something odd about Tessa’s sudden apparent illness – and doesn’t really let the matter drop, keen to prove that Charlotte is showing inappropriate favouritism for a pupil. Miss Pinkerton’s resentment becomes more and more apparent – and the horrible woman is driven to play a very nasty trick on Charlotte around the time of the Queen’s coronation.

Tessa becomes friends with Dione Eastwood (known as Donny) – whose family home is nearby, though Donny only goes home on Sundays. Donny’s two brothers go to a local boys school – whose headmaster is a friend of Charlotte’s. When Tessa goes home with Donny one Sunday, she sees why it is that poor Donny often lacks confidence in herself. All three of the Eastwood children are horribly, bullied by their father Professor Eastwood – no one can do or say anything right in his presence. Donny’s brother Barney is particularly badly affected by his father’s bullying – and although, bright, witty, and chatty when he’s not around, becomes a stammering, nervous wreck as soon as he enters the room. Such is Tessa’s trust of Charlotte that she tells her all about the Professor and his unhappy children.

Over the rest of the school year, Tessa and Charlotte become really good friends – though there is little chance for Charlotte to speak to her young friend on many occasions. There are things about Tessa’s life that reminds Charlotte of her own childhood, she can’t help feeling an extra degree of interest in the girl who has made her affection for her headteacher very obvious. Charlotte is charmed by the girl’s stories of Targ, the island where she lives with her father.

As the summer holidays draw near, Tessa decides to persuade her father to write and invite Miss Fairlie to Targ for a few weeks. Charlotte is very unsure if she should accept the invite – but Tessa’s tales of the island have made her long to see it. Charlotte then manages to persuade Professor Eastwood to allow his three children to also make a summer visit to Targ.

When Charlotte arrives on Targ, the Eastwood children have already been there a week or two – and the change in them is remarkable. Barney has found a hero in Tessa’s father Rory MacRynne and has taken to island life extraordinarily well.

“It was bright and breezy. The sea was very blue with crisp white caps upon the waves; the sky was a paler blue and cloudless. The land was green, the beach was of pure white sand with piles of bright yellow seaweed. Far in the distance there were purple hills, their outlines softened by haze. All the colours were clean—like the colours in a brand new paintbox—and the sunshine was so strong that the very air seemed to glitter.”

Charlotte is soon equally beguiled by the beauty of the island – and life with Tessa, her father and her father’s two elderly aunts who live in their own apartment in the castle. She meets other residents of the island – listens to the old legends about the MacRynne family – it is all a million miles from the realities of being a girls’ school headmistress. It isn’t long before she knows she will be very sad to leave – but the school year begins soon, and all this is complicated by her feelings for Rory MacRynne. A terrible incident – brings Professor Eastwood’s treatment of his children into sharp focus – and Charlotte works with Rory to help Barney who is clearly very damaged.

Targ has changed things for Charlotte and Barney forever – but Charlotte has no idea about the future – she returns to St Elizabeth’s reluctantly to take up the reigns again. I won’t say anything about how things end – but you can probably guess. This was an absolutely delightful read – the kind of book you look forward to returning to later.

The 1954 club starts today, hosted again by Karen at Kaggsy’s bookish ramblings and Simon at Stuckinabook. Both books I have been reading for this were kindle reads – and kept me happy over the first week of the school Easter holidays. The first of these Gypsy in the Parlour was a surprisingly expensive e-book – but as I had thought I had a copy, finding I didn’t, decided I had to read it. There were other books I could have read instead, but I am glad I shelled out a little more, as this was a great, escapist immersive read.

Set mainly in Devon (where I was while I was reading most of it) in the late nineteenth century, it is the story of the Sylvester family, particularly the women who drive it. As the novel opens, the three Sylvester women – each of them married to one of three brothers, await the arrival of the new, and so far unseen fiancé of their youngest brother-in-law Stephen.

“In the heat of a spacious August noon, in the heart of the great summer of 1870, the three famous Sylvester women waited in their parlour to receive and make welcome the fourth. Themselves matched the day. The parlour was hot as a hothouse, not a window was open, all three women were big, strongly-corseted, amply-petticoated, layered chin to toe in flannel, cambric, and silk at a guinea a yard. Their broad, handsome faces were scarlet, their temples moist. But they stood up to the heat of the parlour as they stood up to the heat of the kitchen or the heat of a harvest-field: as the sun poured in upon them so their own strong good-humour flowed out to meet it—to refract and multiply it, like the prisms of their candlesticks, the brass about their hearth. Nature had so cheerfully designed them that even wash-day left them fair-tempered: before the high festivity of a marriage their spirits rose, expanded, and bloomed to a solar pitch of stately jollification.”

The novel is narrated by the young niece of the Sylvester family who spends each summer at the Sylvester farm, which is a long way from the gracious London home of her lawyer father and society mother. However these are the happiest days of each year for her, her aunts make her so welcome, here she is surrounded by love, and happiness. When at home in London, she longs to be back at the farm. Margery Sharp’s descriptions of the farm do make it sound utterly idyllic, life here is simple, uncomplicated, and honest – the beautiful crab apple that grows outside the window of the niece’s bedroom, a symbol of all that is good and unpretentious in this world.

Charlotte in the oldest aunt – married to Tobias the oldest brother, she chose the wives for her husband’s brothers, Grace and Rachel are women in Charlotte’s own image – they are large, attractive, strong, capable women – good humoured and loving.

“My three aunts talked splendidly. I choose the word with intent. As a rule their continual loud conversation flowed in a spate of broad Devonian, varied by an occasional touch of Norfolk from Charlotte; but they had all received quite grand educations in their time, my Aunt Grace had even been to boarding-school, and when they chose they could out-niminy any lady in the shire.”

Each of the Sylvester women has raised a son, and then sent off their sons to make lives of their own in far corners of the globe. Stephen the youngest brother has long been a happy bachelor. Now out of the blue, Stephen, has gone off and found his own wife to be, and Charlotte, Grace and Rachel are happy for him, anxious to welcome the girl into their family and their home. When she arrives, it is clear that Fanny Davis is a very different woman, they are large, blonde, and impressive, she is small, dark haired and fragile, until recently she had worked in a hat shop. What is less clear at first, is how life at the Sylvester farm will change forever because of her.

Fanny Davis is made welcome by the Sylvester women, for that is all they know how to do. Arrangements for a wedding begin, and our narrator remembers how sad she was that the wedding would take place after her return to London. She looks forward to hearing all about the wedding. However, there is no wedding, for on the eve of the wedding, Fanny succumbs to a mysterious illness. She is confined to the couch in the parlour – where she finds she is able to host the occasional visitor – but can do more than that. The doctor can find no reason for the sudden malaise.

When Charlotte’s niece returns the following summer, she finds the cosy parlour has taken on the air of a sick room, Fanny never moves from it. It would seem that poor Fanny Davis has entered into a decline. The niece knows all about declines for she borrows the novelettes of the cook at home, she sees Fanny as a tragic, rather romantic figure, and Fanny is quick to take advantage. She casts the girl into the role of her ‘little friend’ and manipulates her to do her bidding. The child is only eleven or twelve at this point – and can’t see what is blatantly obvious to the reader, Fanny Davis is pulling a fast one.

Bit by bit that summer the niece begins to detect changes between the Sylvester women, who have always lived so harmoniously together. She is absolutely shocked when she hears Charlotte, Grace and Rachel arguing, in time she begins to see it has something to do with Fanny.

“I stopped talking and lay quiet. Whatever had happened, whatever was going to happen, it was no longer a matter for children.”

Returning to London again, the niece is drawn further into Fanny’s games when she is asked to pass on a letter, and leads her into a delicious little adventure. The niece can think of no malign intention, she sees only good – and so when months later she is back in the parlour with Fanny, she can have no idea that her innocent chatter will have the most remarkable result. She manages to effect a cure, and Fanny rises from the couch. When the truth is revealed – there is nothing more for Charlotte to do but to roll up her sleeves and take on London herself – and this she duly does – in her own inimitable way.

Margery Sharp is a great storyteller and I loved this novel, which is packed full of brilliant women, the men mere bystanders I’m afraid, a perfect holiday read.

I have long been fascinated by the Second World War, it’s a subject I seem to return to in my fiction reading particularly, time and time again. Although, I generally prefer novels of wartime life to have been written during the period, I have also read lots of excellent historical novels written in the decades since, These Days will definitely join that list.

I had originally wanted to read this novel during Reading Ireland month, but I ordered it a little too late and by the time it arrived I was reading something else. It was the reviews of other bloggers that had prompted me to buy it.

The London Blitz has been written about tirelessly since the first bombs rained down on the capital all those years ago. We are familiar with the stories of Londoners being bombed out their homes, sat in underground shelters for hours, drinking weak cocoa by torchlight. Less familiar to many of us I suspect is the story of the Belfast Blitz. The Belfast Blitz occurred between April and May 1941, four separate, nightly bombardments, that came to be called The Dockside Raid, The Easter Raids and the Fire Raids – sections of Lucy Caldwell’s brilliant novel named for these attacks. These attacks were utterly devastating for Belfast the loss of life was horrendous, the city landscape changed immeasurably and many wondered whether Belfast wasn’t finished by it.

“She realises she didn’t wake voluntarily from the dream. Not even at the behest of some desperate instinct to protect herself – or flee. It was something else that jolted her awake.

And then she hears it again. The Long roaring whine of a plane flying overhead, unmistakable, the crackle of what must be gunfire, then a dreadful, dull booming thud.”

Lucy Caldwell recreates this period with unflinching honesty. We see the events through the eyes of the Bell family. Phillip Bell is a doctor; he and his wife Florence have three children who live with them. Their two daughters are grown up, twenty-one year old Audrey who works in the tax office and Emma who at just eighteen, is volunteering at the local first aid post. Then there is the youngest, Paul even at thirteen he is very much still a boy, playing games of adventure and reading comics. The sisters are quite different, Audrey is engaged to a serious, safe young doctor, Richard, but she has a head full of dreams and ideas of how life could be so different. Emma is very serious and dedicated to the first aid post, she is very kind though sometimes a little awkward – she has begun a secret relationship with another woman, at the first aid post, Sylvia who is almost thirty.

At work Audrey has become friends with Doreen Bates, a woman some years older than herself who has come to work in Belfast from London. Audrey is impressed by Doreen’s cultured ease, and through their conversations she begins to wonder about her relationship with Richard, and whether her feelings for him are enough to sustain a marriage. Emma has been bowled over by Sylvia, she hadn’t known she could feel like this – and she needs Sylvia’s steadying hand to stop her from shouting her joy from the rooftops – Sylvia well knows the difficulties they could face.

Meanwhile, their mother Florence is trying to hold them all together – she worries for them all as they are out and about, and she is at home with Paul. As the planes gather overhead, she fears what could happen to her girls. She also carries a guilt – guilt that she doesn’t love her husband enough, as much as he deserves.

“On the landing she thinks: What if that were the last time I were to see him? And she thinks, with shame, Even when we were making love just now, even then, I wasn’t truly there: it wasn’t Philip I was thinking of.”

For with her always is the ghost of another man, a young man Reynard, killed in the First World War, her first love. She allows a bit of time during the weekly Sunday service to think about him, trying to put him away the rest of the time, and yet he remains there still after all those years.  All of these concerns continue, against a backdrop of almost unimaginable destruction, death and injury.

“The fires, the tramlines ripped from the road and pointing up in helpless angles at the sky. A tram car on its side. With every breath, the thick stench of burning lodged deeper in you. The people you passed in the streets, some walking with purpose, some wandering one way, then turning and walking back the other. Others just standing.”

No one will be left unaffected by the raids – how could they be. Lucy Caldwell is unflinching in her portrayal of the aftermath of each raid – and of the effect it has on the people in the midst of it. Injury and death is everywhere, people witness to the kinds of horror they will never forget, houses razed to the ground, bodies laid out at the local swimming baths for identification. Grief and unimaginable loss becoming a daily story.

This is an intensely moving story, Caldwell’s descriptions of the German raids, the fear of the people and their incredible resilience is breath-taking – it feels so real. A truly wonderful novel by an author I clearly need to read more by.

It’s that time of year again – well nearly!

Daphne du Maurier reading week is back – which this year will be the week beginning Monday 9th May.

I have loved #DDMreadingweek the last three years, so many people have joined in, discovered, or remembered a love of all things Daphne and shared that with me and each other. I was wondering if I could manage it again this year, my reading and blogging has been pretty slow – but with the help and enthusiasm of Daphne du Maurier readers, I think it will be fine. After all, it’s all about Daphne, not my blog, so I probably won’t be posting on the blog more than two or three times during that week, however, I will be reading Daphne, sharing, and reading everyone’s posts. I am also planning a cheeky little giveaway 😉 as I didn’t do one last year – watch this space.

I share a birthday with Daphne du Maurier, so during the week of our birthdays I like people to read and review Daphne du Maurier books – fiction or nonfiction, share thoughts and pictures on social media – and generally get enthusiastic. You don’t need to have a blog, just join in any way you can. Cake is optional.

For me reading the fiction of DDM ticks so many boxes – and I assume that is why she remains so enduringly loved by readers. Whether you want novels or short stories, mystery, chills or romance, historical escapism, or something a little more contemporary (to her time of course) Daphne has the book for you. If you need any inspiration for what to read – have a look at the event page on my blog for last year’s event – here. Her writing is excellent, her sense of place, and the relationship she has with landscape in many of her books quite extraordinary. Classic, are classics for a reason.

I promise to get myself prepared – so if you follow me on social media and see my reading DDM books weeks before the event – don’t panic – I’m just getting ready. I have more unread Daphne du Maurier books tbr than I can possibly read in one week anyway, so I will have to start early.

I will let you all know what I am reading nearer the time, for now just let me know if you think you would like to join in.

I finished my March reading with Cecil – the final novel by Elizabeth Eliot. Cecil is the fourth novel by Elizabeth Eliot I have read, all of them reissued by Dean Street Press. With all of them, I have really enjoyed the way she creates characters, exploring them within a story spanning several decades. In this novel, like in two of those previous novels Eliot tells the story of her eponymous character through the eyes of another. It is an interesting lens through which to tell a story, one that I imagine is difficult to get right. The character telling the story can’t possibly know everything, and yet they need to know enough to tell the story, Elizabeth Eliot seems to get this limited perspective just right. There is both humour and darkness here, and Eliot’s gift of observation sits alongside her skill as a darn good storyteller perfectly.

Lady Anne, the wife of Charles Guthrie narrates this story, which starts in the 1870s. From old age she looks back on the life of her husband’s half brother Cecil, telling the story of the relationship between him and his mother, the beautiful, dominating Lady Guthrie, who married a man many years older than herself. Although the novel is named for Cecil, Lady Guthrie is necessarily the main focus of the novel – for her influence upon Cecil, his life and everything that happens to him is key. Lady Guthrie is that wonderful thing, a brilliantly written monster, who sees herself entirely differently.

“As I waited for the carriage I realised that whereas before I had been accustomed to think of her as a selfish and often foolish woman I now regarded her as a veritable ogress.”

Cecil is Lady Edythe Guthrie’s adored son – he has been petted, coddled and gushed over his whole life by his mother, a woman prone to sudden, unexplained illnesses (which will often occur when most convenient to her) and adept at manipulation. The two have a strong bond and even as an adult, when away from home Cecil writes long and affectionate letters home to her. Lady Anne, her husband, the mild, dependable Charlie, and their cynical American cousin Nealie, watch from that unique and privileged position enjoyed by family as Cecil’s life is systematically destroyed by Lady Guthrie’s absurd and selfish domination.

“What dark secret could there possibly be in the boy’s life that would not be at least suspected by us? It was Lady Guthrie’s almost insane desire to possess her son and keep him for ever chained to her side that was so horrible.”

As a young man, Cecil falls in love, and despite the fact the couple are still very young, Cecil is eager to marry. Lady Anne is concerned from the first that Lady Guthrie will somehow ruin it all, and as things transpire she has reason to fear. Cecil appears oblivious to his mother’s behaviours, her illnesses that mean he must immediately return home to her side, her pretended support – that to others looks rather different and slightly malevolent. Time and again, Anne, Charlie and Nealie conspire gently, charmed by his happiness and obvious love, wanting only to save him from his mother. Later, Lady Anne and Charlie even manage to take Cecil’s manservant Thompson into their confidence, someone else who cares what happens to Cecil but is powerless against the power of Lady Guthrie.

“Intensive preparations for the wedding started a full month before it was due to take place. It was to be in the grand manner, although of course big weddings were then much smaller affairs than they became later. In those days, although the custom was already beginning to change, people invited only their relations and more intimate friends to see them married and didn’t bother with persons whom they had only met once in their lives.”

For the reader, there is a poignancy in witnessing Cecil’s slow decline, all the promise, love and optimism that we witness when he is a young man starting out, replaced by illness, addiction and manipulation. There is an inevitability to parts of this story, Elizabeth Eliot is too subtle just to tidy everything away neatly, and we sense from the start there is no happy ending in store for Cecil. Still, there is a shocking, unexpected element to this story, which really makes it a wonderfully compelling read.

Elizabeth Eliot shows us in this story of a late Victorian family, that we can’t ever really know all there is to know about the people around us.

A lovely conclusion to my March reading, as I enjoyed spending time among the leisured classes of the late Victorian age, the houses, house parties, carriages etc being rather a lovely escape from reality.

With thanks to the British Library for my copy.

Some books are easier to write about than others, even when they are very good books, this is the hill that I will die on.

Regular readers will knows I am quite the Rose Macaulay fan, so when this new edition of Keeping Up Appearances by Rose Macaulay arrived courtesy of the British Library I couldn’t wait to read it. I started it within a few days of it arriving, and wasn’t disappointed.

Rose Macaulay had a long and prolific writing career, her first novel was published in 1906, and from then until the mid-1950s she regularly published novels, poetry, and non-fiction. First published in 1928 Keeping Up Appearances was her sixteenth novel. It certainly deserves to be better known, and in this Rose Macaulay has written both a clever novel and one that it highly entertaining.

Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is on fine display in this novel, it is a delightfully funny book. However, Macaulay always has something to say, and this 1928 novel has much that will resonate with readers in this twenty-first century social media crazed world. This is a novel about identity, and deceit – and especially how we appear to others. Written at a time when class was far more important, and apparent to people than perhaps it is now, Macaulay uses class (as she has done in other novels) as a way of driving her message home.

As the novel opens we are introduced to Daisy and Daphne – half sisters, who are on holiday in the Mediterranean. Daisy compares herself always with Daphne and finds herself wanting.

“Born of one father, but of two quite different mothers, Daphne and Daisy looked alike, though Daphne was the better looking, the more elegant, and five years the younger. But in disposition, outlook, manners, and ways of thought, they were very different, Daphne being the better equipped in facing the world, Daisy for reflecting on it, though even this she did not do well.”

They are in the company of the Folyot family, who are very highbrow people. Mr and Mrs Folyot, their adult son, zoologist Raymond and their two younger children. The Folyots spend their time doing good, important political work, generally involving the rescue and assistance of refugees and the publishing of leaflets.  

Daphne is twenty-five, elegant, practical, brave, cool, and rather remote – her background is first class. Daisy on the other hand is thirty, born illegitimately her mother is of a lower class, warm and loving but rather garrulous she laces her tea with gin, and lives in East Sheen in a house called Thelka with her painter and decorator husband. Daisy feels the difference between these two worlds, seeing them from the inside – she was educated well, and lived with her father’s sister while at school, so she speaks differently to her mother and Macaulay uses language cleverly to show the differences between the world Daisy wants to inhabit and the East Sheen world where her much loved mother lives. Daisy is also a popular novelist and journalist, churning out silly articles, that were very much in vogue in the 1920s – with titles such as Should Clever Women Marry Stupid Men? Yet despite her success and the need to make a living, Daisy is rather ashamed of her profession.

“Mother’s clever girl, earning her living by writing for the London papers, writing such bright, clever pieces, that people always liked to read. One of those vulgar little journalists who write popular feminine chit-chat in that kind of paper that caters for mob taste. Oh, what matter? She was either, according to her environment.”

Daisy looks to Daphne and wants the world to see her in the way they see Daphne – and she especially wants Raymond to look at her in the way he looks at Daphne – but she doesn’t think he could possibly do so. Daisy recognises herself to be a snob – and she is ashamed of that too – and when she passes her mother off as her old nanny – to the bright young things who live upstairs – she knows she has done a horrible, hurtful thing. Mrs Arthur, Daisy’s mother is clearly one of the nicest characters in the book, and even Daisy can see, how blessed her mother is, in the life she has with her husband in East Sheen.

“Before Daisy’s eyes all the love of the world suddenly sprang up, a soaring edifice, with pinnacles and impregnable towers. Psyche and Eros, Alcestis and Admetus, Paolo and Francesca, Anthony and Cleopatra, Jacob and Rachel, Mr and Mrs Robert Browning, Mr and Mrs Arthur – all the fervent and constant lovers of history cried aloud that love was immortal. Those other lovers, as fervent, doubtless, but less constant, who cried that it was not, were shouted down by this cloud of witnesses. The sad and frail mortality of love was triumphantly, in the sitting room of Thelka, denied.”

What Rose Macaulay does so well is to show us, how we see ourselves and how we want to appear to others – but also how we actually appear to others. The Folyot family are particularly interesting, there they are, impressively highbrow, politically aware and doing good for all sorts of people from around the world, and yet how we the reader see them, and how Daisy sees them – is quite different. Again, Macaulay shows us that she has a very astute observer’s eye for the society in which she lived.

In a world obsessed with appearances not to mention the various merits and pitfalls of social media – Macaulay’s exploration of identity and how we see ourselves and others resonates still.

March in review

A fairly brief round up for March. I continue to be (not) enjoying the worst reading year of my adult life. Never have I read so few books by this point in the year – and yes it is only just April, so I keep hoping things will improve. I have said before how I am trying to embrace my reading and not get bogged down in how little I am reading – compared to my past self that is – but it’s hard not to feel frustrated. One week this month was especially bad, due to extra busyness – so even though I am doing better finding little reading slots after I finish work, that week has meant my overall total for the month has not improved on last month.

Here is what I managed to get through – thankfully some thoroughly excellent reads this month again. Quality, after all being the most important thing.

I began March with The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed (2021) which was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. Based on a true story, it is an extraordinarily poignant novel about injustice and racism set in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in the 1950s. The story of Mahmood Mattan, a well-known figure in the bustling, diverse community of Tiger Bay. The area busy with people from all over the world, Mahmood is a sailor from Somalia, living alongside men from the West Indies and Africa.  

March of course is Reading Ireland Month – a reading event I always enjoy. Fools of Fortune by William Trevor (1983) had been on my tbr for quite some time. It turned out to be the first of two outstanding reads for Reading Ireland month. Spanning a period from just after the First World War it tells an unforgettable story of a cycle of revenge and a painful legacy within an Irish family.

Another for Reading Ireland month The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (1998) a superb collection of short stories. There are three groups of linked stories in this volume, which could almost be read as three novellas. Brennan’s writing is fantastic, the kind of writer where nothing need to happen much, and yet she holds her readers rapt. It’s a slightly longer collection than many, but none the worse for that, I loved every bit of it.

One of the books my Christmas book vouchers bought was The Island by Ana Maria Matute (1959). A book I first heard about from Jacqui at Jacquiwine’s Journal. Translated from Spanish, it is a dark, coming of age novel set on the Island of Mallorca during a blistering hot summer as the Spanish Civil War is being fought on the mainland. It is a beautifully written novel, with images that linger long in the mind. The story is narrated by Matia, a fourteen year old girl, who having recently been expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress, has been sent to live with her grandmother.

Once again thanks are due to The British Library who have recently reissued two more novels for their Women Writers series and sent me both. I simply couldn’t wait to read Keeping Up Appearances by Rose Macaulay (1928) – she’s a writer I admire so much. I wasn’t at all disappointed – I shall keep my thoughts for my review, which I hope to get up next week. Suffice to say it is hugely readable, shot through with Macaulay’s satirical wit, it is a novel about identity and deceit. First published in 1928 – its themes resonate sharply still.

The month ended with a lovely Dean Street Press novel Cecil by Elizabeth Eliot (1962)– I have read three other novels by Elizabeth Eliot, and enjoy the way she tells her stories. In this novel Lady Anne tells us the story of her husband’s step-brother Cecil. We only see Cecil from Anne’s perspective – and yet it is a brilliant portrait – not so much of Cecil himself, but of his mother the dreadful Lady Guthrie – who so dominates Cecil’s life, that she destroys it. Eliot reminds us how we never really know the complete truth about the people around us. I only manged to finish this on the evening of the 31st – so right up to the wire – and at time of writing haven’t started my next read yet.

So, on to April. Two things in particular stand out, the first; two weeks Easter holiday from work, including time by the seaside, and maybe more reading time, the second the 1954 club.

I haven’t decided what I will spend my Easter holiday reading, but it will be exciting to decide next week. I am very much sticking to going with mood – it’s the only way I can approach it at the moment. I had intended to try and read something for the Librarything Virago group’s challenge this moth – but that didn’t happen – and I had wanted to read Lucy Caldwell’s These Things for Reading Ireland month – but my impulse buy didn’t arrive in time – so perhaps I will read it in April instead. At any rate very much looking forward to the holidays – as I know many school staff will be. My book group will be reading Assembly by Natasha Brown, although I will be away when we have our meeting – as we meet by zoom I may be able to join in.

Karen and Simon’s 1954 club is just a couple of weeks away, and I know I have a couple of Dean Street press books by Margery Sharp and D E Stevenson on my kindle from that year. It’s time I had a look to see if I have anything else. There’s plenty to choose from I know, and the fifties are one of my favourite decades to read from.

Well that’s it – and as ever I love to hear what you’ve been reading and what your plans for this brand new month might be.

Translated by Laura Lonsdale

Another of the books I bought in the New Year with my Christmas book vouchers, The Island by Ana Maria Matute is a delicate coming of age novel, that I first heard about from Jacqui at Jacquiwine’s journal.

Set on the island of Mallorca just after the start of the Spanish Civil war, this is a beautifully written novel, with images that linger long in the mind. The story is narrated by Matia, a fourteen year old girl, who having recently been expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress, has been sent to live with her grandmother. Her aristocratic grandmother is a watchful, domineering woman, and Matia is not particularly happy with the new arrangement. She has already undergone a lot of change and upset in her young life, her mother dead, her father has gone off to fight the war. For a while she lived with her father’s old nurse, then she left for school, and now she’s been sent to the island. There’s a subtle atmosphere of oppressiveness even at the start of this narrative, a growing sense of childhood’s end, a shadow ever present.

“My grandmother’s hands were knuckled and bony, and they had some beauty in spite of their coffee-coloured stains. On the index and ring fingers of her right hand jiggled two large, murky diamonds. After lunch she would drag her rocking chair to the window of her private drawing room (mist and gloom, the scorching, damp wind tearing itself open on the agaves or pushing the chestnut coloured leaves under the almond trees; swollen, leaden clouds blurring the green brightness of the sea) and from there, with her old jewel-encrusted opera glasses – the sapphires were false -she would inspect the white houses on the Slope, where the tenant farmers lived, or she would peer out to sea, where there wasn’t a boat to be seen, not any trace of the horror that fell from the lips of Antonia, the housekeeper.”

In Matia’s grandmother’s house lives her Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja, Aunt Emilia is an insubstantial figure, cowed by her mother’s domination of the household. Borja is a year older than Matia, a sly boy, capable of malevolent spite, he manages to always be on his best behaviour when the grownups are around. The housekeeper, Antonia, her son Lauro and a parrot complete the household. Lauro acts as a kind of tutor to Borja and Matia, following them around and keeping them company outside the house. Borja is spitefully cruel to Lauro, calling him ‘Chinky’ and seeming to hold some special knowledge over his head. Matute portrays this uncomfortable and unequal relationship well, the reader knows we are only just starting to see Borja’s real character.

The teenagers on the island all seem to have their own little ‘bands’ with whom they run around – I stop short of calling them friends, they are merely allies – for a time. Matia and Borja spending pretty much all their time together, have their band of hangers on too. This is summer, they all spend long hours outside, yet there is a darkness to this unfettered freedom, and bright, blisteringly hot summer days.

“A tiny green lizard came out from under a stone. The two of us remained very quiet looking at it. Our eyes were close to the ground and, from between the grasses, the lizard looked at us. His tiny eyes, like pinheads, were sharp and terrible. For moments it seemed like the awful dragon of Saint George, in the stained-glass window of Santa Maria. I said to myself: “He belongs among the men: the ugly things of men and women.” And I was at the point of growing and changing into a woman. Or probably I already was.”

Matia meets Manuel, an outsider, and feels instantly drawn to him. Manuel and his family have long been persecuted for their Jewish heritage. Manuel’s step-father killed by other members of their own family for his politics. This is childhood’s end for these teenagers and nothing is quite as it might seem. The story of Mallorca and these teenagers at this time takes place against a dark historical backdrop of anti-Semitic atrocities – the evidence of which still exists in the town square.

“From high up in the square, where the Jews had been burned alive, the sea was like a deep, blue threat, terrifying and unsteady, mixing with the wind and sky. And it seemed that shining worlds could disappear there, and rootless echoes wander and be lost.”

Matute’s descriptions of the island and its landscape are beautiful, and yet there isn’t any feeling of idyll. This is a time of ancient hatreds and complicated allegiances – and a war is being fought not too far away. Borja hates Manuel and lets Matia know it, he is jealous of Manuel, when he learns there may be an unexpected connection between him and the powerful local landowner Jorge, who Borja clearly hero-worships from afar.

As the novel progresses, Matia starts to see things for how they are – how the real adult world is not a very nice place. Everywhere around her there seems to be betrayal or unkindness, the Fairytales she once loved so much are shown up to be lies.

This is a subtly lyrical novel, a coming of age story with a seam of darkness running through it.