This is Not Your Final Form: Emma Press

Cover of This is Not Your Final Form For this post I am having a change of direction and featuring a poetry book as I have not done so for a quite a while (sadly remiss of me). The collection This is Not Your Final Form (edited by Richard O’Brien and Emma Wright) is comprised of entrants and winners from the Birmingham based 2017 Verve Festival Poetry Competition. This book isn’t a long term TBR item as it only took up residence on my bedside table a few months ago and I did start reading it straightaway. I was browsing on the Emma Press website and as a Brummagem lass now based in Dublin, this collection was too tempting to pass up, so dear reader, I bought a copy. The back-cover blurb says this is ‘a tough, unsentimental love letter to the Midlands metropolis, which finds beauty in concrete and unity in contradiction’. And there is certainly a lot of concrete in Birmingham to inspire conflicting emotions, especially as Birmingham never seems to achieve its ‘final form’. I suspect it never will.

Canals and stories

There are so many poems that I like in this anthology, that it is difficult to know what to feature in a short article such as this. I am simply going to pull out a few themes from the collection that particularly resonated with me, starting with that old saying about Birmingham having more canals than Venice. I think that one cropped up in three poems altogether. Here’s an extract from ‘Birmingham – some advice’ by Rob Walton which amused me, as it suggested that we should change the saying to better attract tourists to Birmingham:

Seems you have ‘more canals than Venice’,
but surely ‘more canals than roads’ would be more impressive.
And wetter. Which could lead to more souvenir towel sales.
I got soaked in Birmingham! How about you?

I like the sound of the idea, but would it work I wonder? Let’s have your tea towel designs on a postcard please! Kibriya Mehrban’s poem takes as its title ‘More Canals than Venice’ and links the man-made waterways of Birmingham with rivers, tears and the currents that brought her family to Birmingham from Kashmir:

We were washed into this world,
soaking it with our colour.
Some stood, splattered, scandalised,
while others called us sisters and brothers,
offered us cloud cover.

When my grandfather first saw a girl in a hijab
working at the local post office,
he cried this city a river.

Mehrban’s poem tells us her family’s story though different generations and experiences. How they found a home in Birmingham despite the hostility of some people. This collection serves to remind us that Birmingham has been the scene of many family stories, some sad, some happy, during its long history. Birmingham also played a crucial role in the story of the modern nation. Rishi Dastidar’s lines say it all:

The middle is where the future started –
our modern world was invented here.
Minds, steam, capital met in manner uncharted –
the middle is where the future started.

 

An unsolved mystery

Continuing with the theme of story, what place would be complete without at least one unsolved mystery? The one featured in this collection was somewhat macabre and has proved endlessly fascinating to later generations as this poem proves. ‘Who put Bella in the Wych Elm Tree?’ by Helen Rehman is about a 1940s murder that remains unsolved to this day. In 1943, four boys were poaching in Hagley Wood when they discovered a skeleton, later found to be that of a female, hidden within a tree trunk. To cut a long story short, there have been many theories and stories around the discovery. These were partly fuelled by the appearance of graffiti that gave a possible name to the dead woman. The poem title references one version of the provocative question, which appeared on locations around the Midlands after the remains were found.

As the last verse tells it, time has moved on, the remains can no longer be located and the mystery endures:

The skeleton’s mislaid, the experts can’t agree,
the boys are grown and gone and lost to history;
she haunts the city’s dreams and grows a mystery.
I wonder who put Bella in the wych elm tree.

Brummie-isms

I move onto what is possibly my favourite poem in the book as it references some of the Brummie expressions that I grew up with and still fondly remember. The strange thing about local quirks of language is that you accept them while young and it never occurs to you to ask where/why/how these expressions came about. Here’s a snippet from ‘Never in a rain of pig’s pudding’ by Jill Munro:

You can take the girl out of Brummagem,
let her leave behind old Winson Street.
dress her in some bostin Southern glad rags,
marry her to a yampy Cockney with some ackers

But don’t throw this babby out with the bathwater,
for so long as it’s a bit black over Bill’s mother’s
you’ll never take the Brummagem out of the girl –
even way down south, she’ll always be Our Kid.

I like the last line, it reminds me of my uncle calling my dad ‘Our Kid’ even though dad was the eldest brother. If anyone wants an explanation of some of the terms in the verses quoted, there is a handy guide on the Birmingham Live website, giving you fifty Brummie and Black Country words and phrases to chew over. Not all the phrases given necessarily originated in or are exclusive to Brum as language travels as people move around the country.

I’m going to finish with my own contribution to the topic of language with one of my Paragraph Planet pieces from 2016, with some of my Brummagem memories.

 

Hepserus: a 75 word piece from Paragraph Planet

I’ll just note that whereas Jill Munro’s poem has ‘faces as long as Livery Street’, I grew up with ‘arms as long as…’. Which just goes to show the adaptability of the local lingo.

That’s it for now and I hope it won’t be too long before I dig another poetry book out of the Landing Book Shelves!  

 

 

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Month of Letters Round-Up: Final Stages

Month of Letters yellow logoI did say on an earlier post that I would give you an update on my Month of Letters progress and so here it is. The short version is that I am still keeping going and I think I can safely say I am on track to complete the month. If you want a bit more detail than that, do read on And if you want to look at one of my previous Month of Letters post try here or here. You might want to give it a try yourself next year!

As I have done before I jotted down a list of possible recipients before starting, beginning with family and friends back in the UK. I have begun to see Month of Letters as a wakeup call where I have become slack in keeping in touch with old friends. I then add all of my Ireland based friends, most of whom are in Dublin. I suppose really I end up re-writing my Christmas card list in February (maybe next Christmas I should simply file it away for February instead of putting it in the recycling bin).

Birth of Venus

From Teri

My intention to do something really imaginative in the mail line this year has not actually transpired. In fact, I am being a very thrifty correspondent and operating a ‘using up’ system, which I am aware may sound rather heartless. However, it is all in an environmentally aware kind of a way really. I have collected up so many postcards over the years that to either dump them or buy yet more would be foolish. And anyway, I do have some nice cards to bestow. This year I have been using up my Penguin book jackets, Spike Milligan cartoons and some Chagall cards from The Tate Gallery. I have also indulged my passion for free stuff, acquiring book marks, postcards and tourist information cards to enclose with a note for my international recipients.

Excavation: Iraq 1933-34

From Barbara

The one big difference for me in doing Month of Letters this year is that I no longer have my dad’s birthday to mark, as he died in June 2016. I also used to squeeze in my parent’s anniversary card at the end of the month since it fell at the beginning of March, so that has now gone. I gave the challenge a break last year for these reasons, but decided to return afresh this year and try to include as many people as possible who mattered to me. It’s never too late to make an effort somewhat greater than clicking on a Facebook ‘like’ button for a change. I will say no more for fear of sounding mawkish but you see what I mean.

So now I am on the home straight with only a few more posting

Winnie the Pooh, Piglet & Heffalumps

From Karina

days to go so I might have to double up a bit more to fit in the waifs and strays. I have been writing to my mum more often these days and also sending mail to our daughter who is studying away so I already have been doubling most days. This year I have included some new faces, as I have despatched postcards to new correspondents gained from the Month of Letters membership. This has broadened my range to Canada, Scotland and Northumberland (and I haven’t quite finished). I have added in here pictures of some cards that I have received in return, but the nice thing is that I usually find that replies trickle through into March, which makes February into a nice long month really.

And now I am off to pen my last few postcards of the month!

 

Daphne du Maurier’s letters to Oriel Malet

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been following the Month of Letters February challenge for the past few years, I think since its first year. I missed last year, but I am back on course for 2018. In honour of Month of Letters, I usually try to write a letter themed post at this time, and so here is this February’s offering. I also hope to give an update on my letter writing progress too as the month goes on.

Letters from MenabillyMy letter themed post this time features one of my all-time favourite writers, Daphne du Maurier in correspondence with a fellow writer, Oriel Malet. The collection, edited by Oriel Malet is entitled Letters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1993). I have had this collection for some while and I don’t think I have ever got around to reading it properly. It was published in the same years as Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, whom Oriel Malet credits in her acknowledgments. I bought the biography the same year it came out, but I think Letters from Menabilly came to me some years later as a second-hand bargain. The letters interspersed with Malet’s commentary chart the course of a thirty-year friendship between the women and their families beginning with their chance meeting in the mid-1950s.

Oriel Malet begins the book by talking about how, when and where she and Daphne du Maurier first met and how their relationship developed. She was still a young writer at this point whereas du Maurier was very successful and well-known. Malet at this point had heard of du Maurier but not read any of her books. They shared an American publisher, Doubleday, and first met at a London party hosted by the publisher’s wife Ellen Doubleday. They had shared a mutual dislike of social gatherings and being forced to meet new people, but when they found themselves waiting outside the Doubleday hotel suite for the hostess to arrive, they struck up an unforced conversation. Neither woman introduced herself and it wasn’t until the party began that Oriel Malet realised to whom she had been speaking. She described Daphne rather poetically thus, ‘she reminded me of a figurehead at the prow of a ship; alert, poised, looking into the distance yet perhaps laughing inwardly and no more at ease in so worldly as setting than I was myself’. If you look at this photo from the book you can see what she meant. They sneaked away from the party together and talked while Daphne packed for her return to trip to Cornwall. And the rest as they say, was history. The letters cover many topics and events in the women’s lives, but I just want to focus on one of the conversational threads for this blog post.Portrait of Daphne du Maurier

Literary advice

I was particularly interested in Daphne du Maurier’s generosity in giving advice to the younger writer. Over the course of the years the two women discussed writers (both of them were Katherine Mansfield fans) and writing in both general and specific terms. In one of the early letters in the collection, du Maurier gives Malet advice on a book that she is working on, saying ‘You don’t have to have a ‘plot’; it sounds like Guy Fawkes in his old cloak, creeping with a lantern’. The imagery is amusing but she goes on to explain her point, elaborating thus, ‘You don’t even have to have action  (think of Proust). But you must have a real reason for it all, a reason for the things you want to say’. Eminently sensible advice from a seasoned professional. In a later letter after reading a draft of a short story, du Maurier urges Malet to consider its potential as a novel,

I read your story going up in the train, and was absorbed by it. I love the way you write, and the things you write about, but my criticism would be that this atmosphere and story are wasted on a short story – you should develop it into a novel … I think you have the potential material here for a lovely long and interesting book.

The letters and Oriel Malet’s memories of her visits to Menabilly also weave in the progress of du Maurier’s own work. On one such visit, Malet recalls crossing a field and being afraid of a resident bull. Du Maurier was however more concerned with a flock of seagulls, remarking how frightening it would be ‘if all the birds in the world were to gang up together and attack us…..They could you know’. She was proved right in the disturbing short story ‘The Birds’ (from The Appletree, Gollancz, 1952) which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963.

I was also intrigued by the importance of the Brontës’ early writing about the fictional world of Angria and Gondal. In du Maurier-speak, ‘to Gondal’ meant to pretend or to make-believe and the expression crops up several times during the course of the correspondence. In August 1963, Daphne wrote to Oriel,

If I pass a place I once lived (like at Hampstead), I often do a Gondal, whereby I go into it just as if it were still mine, and take my coat off, and somehow settle down, and then try to imagine the amaze surprise of the new owner coming in, and how one would behave in the Gondal just as if they were not there, and one was still in possession.  …

Another thing I Gondal about, is supposing one suddenly went and rang at a person’s house, who was a Fan- …

Du Maurier was fascinated by Branwell Brontë and the book she wrote about him, the Infernal World of Branwell Brontë appears to have been simmering in the background for many years. She was very knowledgeable about the Brontë family and visited Haworth with Oriel after being asked to write a preface for a new edition of Wuthering Heights in 1954.  Oriel later received a letter in which Daphne says the Macdonald Classics editor claimed that ‘he had never read anything before that gave him such a vivid and convincing impression of her [Emily’s] work and personality’. I was amused to note that the literary tone of this letter finished on a prosaic note however, mentioning a friend’s assertion that the Channel boats would go on strike as they were owned by British Railways. Daphne anxiously enquires of Oriel, ‘Do you think this is true?’ Clearly even best-selling writers have to be practical.

A note on the ‘in’ language in the letters

The first thing a reader notices in reading any collection of letters such as this, is that a private world is laid open for perusal. I would recommend not neglecting to read Oriel Malet’s helpful glossary of the du Maurier family’s expressions and nicknames before you start the letters, or you will be forever dodging back and forth to clarify the meaning of sentences, especially Malet took on some of these expressions and uses them in her reminisces. I found it strange to be grappling with family language because it did at times make me feel that I was an unwanted intruder into a private world. There is also the disconcerting feeling that it is all a bit childish for adults to be using what sometimes seemed like nursery language. For instance, Du Maurier refers to having a period as having a ‘Robert’ and ‘to wax’ meaning sex. On the other hand, her term ‘brewing’ for working on a story or plot makes perfect sense and conjures up a sense of the author intently and productively mulling over her characters and their actions.

Having said all of that, I found much to enjoy in the letters and the accompanying contextual passages. In fact, I am struggling to suppress an urge to re-read all of the Daphne du Maurier books I have ever read and to catch up on those I have mysteriously missed out reading to date. Another blog series methinks. Now on my mental TBR pile are books by Oriel Malet, as I must confess that I have never read any of her books.

I have also come across a post about Daphne and Oriel on a blog called Something Rhymed, which looks at female literary friendships.

Do drop me a line if you are a Du Maurier fan too!

 

Fanny Burney: Novelist and Diarist

Cover of Fanny Burney: a BiographyFor today’s post, I want to return to one of the books I mentioned in my summer 2017 round-up, a biography of Fanny Burney (1752-1840) to talk about her in a little more detail. I have had a long acquaintance the novelist and diarist. As I mentioned previously, a novel called A Coach for Fanny Burney by Florence Bone (1938) captured my interest as a teenager. At the time, I had no idea who she was, it was the title that caught my attention (I can’t say it was the cover as the hardback book had long since lost its dust jacket). That book was still tucked away on a shelf in my mum’s spare room, so it came to mind instantly when I spotted Claire Harman’s Fanny Burney: A Biography (Harper Collins, 2000) at last year’s Trinity Book Sale. We could digress at this point and discuss the inevitability of another of my TBS finds finding its way into a blog post, and how this is not actually tackling the TBR Pile proper, but we won’t.

As Fanny Burney came to know everyone who was anyone in eighteenth century literary society (see pictures of Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson below), she has tended to pop up in other people’s biographies, but this is the first detailed account of her life that I have read. It is a veritable tome indeed but a very readable one at that, covering Burney’s eventful life and times. She could have been a heroine in a novel herself; she married an emigre French aristocrat and soldier Alexandre d’Arblay with whom she lived on a shoestring until d’Arblay had the opportunity to return home to attempt to serve the new regime and reclaim a portion of his property. This resulted in the couple being unable to leave post-revolutionary France for ten years. One story that most impressed me when I first heard it was that in her later years, Fanny heroically underwent a mastectomy without anaesthetic. It almost doesn’t bear thinking about, but the redoubtable Fanny lived to tell the tale and left an account of it for posterity into the bargain.Portraits of the Burney family

Fanny Burney wrote four novels, Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814), several plays and also edited her musician father’s memoirs (1832). Her letters and diaries were not published until after her death, the earliest edition edited by her niece Charlotte Barrett and running to six volumes (1842-6). A more recent and comprehensive edition comprises twelve volumes (edited by Joyce Hemlow et al, 1972-1984) in a project yet unfinished. Claire Harman discusses the reliability of Burney’s diaries, her editorship of her father’s papers and the vast quantity of the Burney family’s archives which include letters from her siblings. Harman talks about Fanny’s phenomenal recall for events and conversations, but also acknowledges that she carefully presented a certain image of herself and her family. The family came from relatively humble origins, as expressed in Hester Thrale’s damming comment, ‘The Burneys are I believe a very low Race of Mortals’, furthermore, Fanny was ‘not a Woman of Fashion’. At this point Dr Burney taught music to Mrs Thrale’s daughter, but in later years Fanny attempted to gloss over parts of her family history.

Claire Harman’s biography is so comprehensive that I thought I would take a quick look at one episode of Fanny Burney’s life for this blog post. As both the British and Irish press have been talking about British royal weddings lately, I decided to cast an eye over Burney’s brush with royalty. She was appointed Second Keep of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, a post that naturally was supposed to be seen as an honour to her and her family. Fanny was not initially keen and only agreed to the appointment for her family’s sake. The appointment came about after Fanny made the King and Queen’s acquaintance through Mrs Mary Delaney, a highly cultured woman who was well-regarded by the royal couple. The first time she met George III, he had called unannounced to visit Mrs Delaney and Fanny later described what happened in a letter, likening the incident to a scene in a drama,

It seemed to me we were acting in a play. There is something so little like common and real life, in everybody’s standing, while talking, in a room full of chairs, and standing, too, so aloof from each other, that I almost thought myself upon a stage, assisting in the representations of a tragedy, …

Fanny went on to describe the various roles in this drama, adding her own part as that of ‘a very solemn, sober, and decent mute’.

Even before Fanny was offered her court position, she was having fun with the niceties of court etiquette. This is a snippet from ‘Directions for coughing, sneezing, or moving, before the King and Queen’ which she wrote and sent to her sister Hetty in December 1785.

In the first place, you must not cough. If you find a cough tickling in your throat, you must arrest it from making any sound; if you find yourself choking with the forbearance, you must choke – but not cough.

In the second place, you must not sneeze. If you have vehement cold, you must take no notice of it; if you nose-membranes feel a great irritation, you must hold your breath; if a sneeze still insists upon making its way, you must oppose it, by keeping your teeth grinding together; if the violence of the repulse breaks some blood-vessel, you must break the blood-vessel – but not sneeze…

Fanny goes on to explain that you must not ‘stir either hand or foot’ even if by terrible bad luck ‘a black pin runs into your head, you must not take it out…’

Mrs Thrale & Dr Johnson

I suppose we can only assume that things have changed for the better in court circles since Fanny’s time. When her court appointment was offered, considered and reluctantly accepted, Fanny’s new position paid her £200 a year, she had apartments in Windsor Castle and a footman. Fanny was allowed to have family and close friends to visit but her own freedom to travel was curtailed. Fanny was to be at court for five years, before begging her father to arrange her release from duties. Fanny likened her new commitment to marriage in a letter to her sister Susan saying,

I was averse to forming the union, and I endeavoured to escape it, but my friends interfered – they prevailed – and the knot is tied. What then now remains but to make the best wife in my power? I am bound to it in duty, and I will strain every nerve to succeed.

Fanny’s tenure coincided with the period of George III’s ‘madness’, though that is too large a topic to cover in this post. Suffice to say that Fanny was a first-hand witness of signs of his imminent recovery, when she accidentally encountered him walking with Dr Willis and his attendants one morning. Fanny was apprehensive as the King had been violent at the height of his illness, but he greeted her and questioned her about recent news saying, ‘I have lived so long out of the world, I know nothing!’ as Fanny recorded it. He also kissed her on the cheek, a great lapse of protocol. The whole experience was the ‘severest personal terror’ to Fanny Burney who did not know what to expect. However, she was able to pass to the queen this encouraging report (though as Harman remarks, Fanny no doubt kept the royal embrace to herself).

I will leave Fanny Burney’s court life there, but I hope I have said enough to pique your interest in her life and work. I have to confess that despite reading about Fanny Burney and her literary circle over the years, I have not yet read one of her novels. Another item on my virtual TBR Pile, to go with the actual TBR Pile groaning upstairs!

I hope your 2018 reading is proving fruitful so far. Do let me know what you are reading!

 

 

Diary of a Provincial Lady

For this, my first post of the year I want to introduce the The Diary of a Provincial Lady (E.M. Delafield) to anyone who hasn’t come across her before. I have been meaning to read the book for ages (hence the need for this challenge and this blog in the first place) and I did finally get around to it last year. Although it isn’t a 2018 read, I wanted to talk a little about it before I put it back on the shelf. My edition is a Virago paperback (1984) which comprises four diaries of the Provincial Lady. It also contains an excellent introduction by Nicola Beauman. I have discovered that Persephone Books offer a lovely reprint, using the original illustrations by Arthur Watts and with an afterward by Nicola Beauman. This edition sorely tempts me (see illustration below).

Cover of The Diary of a Provincial Lady

The Provincial Lady began life as a series of articles for a weekly feminist magazine, Time and Tide when Delafield was well established as an author, already having eighteen books under her belt. The first Diary of a Provincial Lady was published in 1930, followed in 1932 by The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America (1934) and The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940). My internet searches have also yielded the information that our PL also went to Russia (published 1937), this book slotting in between America and Wartime. That must be next on my wants list! I have read though all four books in my volume, but in this post, I will confine myself to the first volume to give you a flavour of the Provincial Lady and her world.

Before talking about our lady diarist, I will just sketch in a few details about the author. E.M. Delafield is the pen name of Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture (1890-1943) whose mother was a well-known author. This explains the transition from ‘de la Pasture’ to ‘Delafield’ when she came to publish her own work. Her father was a Count, descended from a family fleeing the French revolution; Delafield went on to marry Arthur Dashwood third son of a baronet and they eventually settled in Devon. Delafield’s Provincial Lady draws on her own provincial life and experiences in this part of the world, however the husband and children in the books were apparently only very loosely based on her own husband and offspring. Her first novel, Zella Sees Herself (1917) was published after Delafield had spent most of the First World War as a V.A.D. She went on to become a very successful author before her untimely death at only fifty-three.

The diaries humorously detail the ordinary life experiences of the un-named Provincial Lady, dealing with servants, school, children, balancing the household budget and those all important social duties. The characters include the snobbish and wealthy Lady Boxe, Our Vicar’s Wife, a couple of old school friends, various neighbours and visitors. The immediate household consists of husband Robert, daughter Vicky (her son Robin is away at school but makes his presence felt in  occasional unsatisfying letters), French governess Mademoiselle, Cook and Ethel the parlour maid. A common theme in the book is the Lady’s endless efforts to balance the financial books. Receipts go missing, the contents of the cash box is never what it should be and polite letters arrive from suppliers and bank managers requesting settlement. Great aunt’s diamond ring is regularly pawned (though at a suitable distance from the village).Illustrated Provincial Lady

I was surprised how many little incidents struck a chord, despite the 1930s setting and the fact that the social background of the character is somewhat removed from my own. Here is she espousing modern parenting by discussing the question of the existence of Hell with her daughter Vicky:

Am determined to be a modern parent, and assure her that there is not, never has been, and never could be, such a place. Vicky maintains that there is, and refers me to the Bible. I become more modern than ever, and tell her that theories of eternal punishment were invented to frighten people … (Query: Are modern children going to revolt against being modern, and if so, what form will reaction of modern parents take?)

While reading the diary entries on the vexed question of Christmas shopping, I was amused to note that her caustic reactions to the cost of gift ideas given in magazines in 1930 are eerily similar to my own (most recently given voice to in reading gift guides in 2017 Christmas supplements). Her gift guide makes suggestions ‘individual and yet appropriate-beautiful, and yet enduring’. It goes on to say, ‘Then why not Enamel dressing-table set, at £94 16s 4d or Set of crystal-ware, exact replica of early English cut-glass, at moderate price pf £34 17s 9d?’ The Provincial Lady’s response is a tart ‘Why not, indeed?’ After briefly surveying the section for ‘Giver with Restricted Means’ (5 guineas) she settles for a ‘one-and-sixpenny calendar with picture of sunset on Scaw Fell, as usual’. During an exhausting shopping trip to London she agonises over a ‘really handsome’ card for her old school friend Cissie Crabbe against an ‘almost invisibly small diary’. She eventually settles on the diary as it will fit into an ordinary sized envelope. The glamour of Christmas shopping on a limited budget!

Finally, I note that our diarist has the eternal discussion with her offspring whether hand washing before meals ‘is, or is not necessary’. She notes in an aside:

(Mem: Have sometimes considered -though idly- writing letter to the Times to find out if any recorded instances exist of parents and children whose views on this subject coincide. Topic of far wider appeal than many of those so exhaustively dealt with).

This reminds me of a John Drinkwater poem that I knew as a child called ‘Washing’ , which begins ‘What is all this washing about, Every day, week in, week out?’ It’s nice to know that some thing never change! All that washing business baffled me too.

I did actually read all four books straight through, which was probably not the best idea. As Beauman points out in her introduction, the diaries were not meant to be read straight through, so repetition of phrases and events is noticeable as you go on. However, I don’t think that detracts from the humour of the books, or the sharp observation that Delafield applies to the mundane round of life. I have since found myself dipping back to read entries here and there which is a better way to read the diaries I think. These are books you could return to over and over again for escapist humour with a dash of vim.

Now all I need to do is to track down the remaining volume for my collection.

Best wishes for a Happy Reading Year to one and all! Drop me a line below if you have any New Year reading goals.

Picture Credits: Additional image from Persephone Books online shop.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales: Dylan Thomas

As the snow is falling on the blog pages (courtesy of WordPress wizardry) and was recently attempting to fall perilously near to the The Landing Bookshelves region, I hereby present a very snowy, Christmas themed post. I was rooting around upstairs for an idea for a seasonal offering and as the snow was flurrying (I didn’t think that was a word but my spell checker obviously does) by the window I spotted the wonderful snow filled A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Dylan Thomas, 1959). We have a version with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone (1973, 1993) that I added to The Bookworm’s Christmas collection a few years ago. I took a few scans to show you some of Ardizzone’s brilliant drawings (see below) of small schoolboys having seasonal adventures in a snowy Welsh village. I have also included a picture of the 1959 edition taken from Wikipedia, alongside our own illustrated edition. It’s enough to make anyone ready for Christmas, with or without the white stuff. Last week we attended A Night Before Christmas at The Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire and I was delighted to hear Michele Forbes reading from A Child’s Christmas as part of the cornucopia of seasonal stories.

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I began leafing through the pages of the book with a wodge of mini post-it notes in hand, so that I could mark my favourite bits to quote. Before I had finished doing this I realised that the book was already bristling with little paper strips. There were so many bits of the text and so many brilliant drawings that I had to give up my post-it notes before marking up the entire book. As I was doing this on the Luas one morning, apart from trying not to lose scraps of sticky paper, I was also smiling away and imaging it was Christmas already.

For this brief seasonal post, let us just concentrate on the snowy parts of the book:

One Christmas was so much like another…that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

Such is the fascination of snow that we imagine that all our Christmases were snowy when we were young. The narrator of the book talks about several Christmases, that all meld into one big, snowy Christmas as he tells of childhood games and adventures.

Thomas describes the snow with a wide range of evocative descriptions. Snow was ‘shaken from whitewash buckets’ and then ‘it came shawling out of the ground’; on the roofs of the houses it resembled ‘a pure and grandfather moss’. The town was ‘bandaged’ and the landscape enticingly described as the ‘frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea’. It certainly sounded magical, as well as edible.

The reader becomes caught up in a white wonderland when anything could happen (at least in a schoolboy’s fantastic imagination) in between Christmas lunch with the aunts and uncles and a spot of carol singing:

Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world, on to the seaward hill, to call on Jim and Dan and jack and to pad through the still streets, leaving huge deep footprints on the hidden pavements.
‘I bet people will think there’s been hippos.’
‘What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?’
‘I’d go like this, bang! I’d throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill and then I’d tickle him under the ear and he’d wag his tail.’
‘What would you do if you saw two hippos?’
Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding snow towards us as we passed Mr Daniel’s house.

I love the thought of hippos charging through a snowy Welsh village, on the way to who knows where. The snowy scenes in A Child’s Christmas in Wales truly are scenes of the ideal Christmas that we all wish we had had or think that we have had. Much like the eternal sunny summers of our youth that you just don’t get any more. Or so we think.

Here’s wishing anyone who chances upon this post a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. If you want to browse a few seasonal posts from the archives, then have a wander around The Landing Bookshelves while you’re here! 

A Victorian Crime Wave

For the last few weeks, I have been indulging in my own mini crime wave, wallowing in two collections of short stories. The first anthology, The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, which I brought back from a visit to mum in October, I don’t think I have ever read before. Once finished with that crime spree, I felt compelled to re-read my Victorian Tales of Mystery and Detection (OUP, 1992) bought and read in the year of publication but not looked at since. In addition to these short stories, I have been reading a couple of Maigret novels belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up, but I will concentrate on the Victorian Tales anthology for this post.

Where do I begin the conversation about my rather guilty pleasure of detective over-indulgence? There is indeed a sense of a shameful, but delicious pleasure in reading just one more story, and then maybe one more very short one. Like eating one more chocolate from the selection box, you know you probably shouldn’t do it, but you do it anyway. I roved amongst the stories picking titles that grabbed my attention or choosing unfamiliar authors. I deliberately didn’t read the book cover to cover, but dipped in and out, reading whatever story my fancy lighted upon. Clearly, this upset the chronological structure of the book, designed to demonstrate the development of features in the detective story. I also kept popping back to read snippets of Michael Cox’s excellent introduction. However, finally the sad realisation dawned that I had finished the last story, no more left. On a more cheerful note, I have re-discovered stories and authors and created a few leads to follow up on (see the end of this piece).

I want to pick out a few female crime writers and detectives to talk about, continuing a theme that I have written about before, when I wrote about women crime writers of the Golden Age of Crime. To begin with, in Victorian Tales, I re-discovered a Baroness Orczy story that featured her ‘man in the corner’ amateur detective, solving a seemingly impossible crime. When I first came across ‘The Fenchurch Street Mystery’ back in 1992, I had only known Emmuska Orczy (1865-1947) for her Scarlet Pimpernel romps of which I was a great fan. Twenty-odd years later and I still haven’t read any more of the crime stories. The one in this anthology was originally published as part of a series called ‘London Mysteries’ (I assume this was a magazine series, but there is no more information in the sources section) and later reprinted in The Old Man in the Corner (1909). This was the un-named character’s first appearance in print. Here, the thin, quiet man presents a solution to a case that has apparently baffled the police. The entire story takes place in the corner of a bar, as the old man drinks his milk and knots and unknots a piece of string, while he unravels the seemingly baffling crime.

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As the old man declares, ‘There is no such thing as a mystery, in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation’. When his companion dares to suggest that many crimes baffle the police at present, the old man damningly comments, ‘I never ventured to suggest that there were no mysteries to the police’. As you can tell, he is no great fan of the police and he only appears to take an interest in crime as an intellectual puzzle. He declares that ‘As often as not my sympathies go to the criminal who is clever and astute enough to lead our entire police force by the nose’.

In two other stories in this collection, lady detectives take control of the crime solving. One of the detectives, created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis (1839-1910) goes by the rather un-detective sounding name of Loveday Brooke (clearly, her parents did not envisage her future career). In ‘Drawn Daggers’ (1893) Miss Brooke tackles a case of a valuable missing necklace, the loss of which appears to be connected to anonymous threatening missives containing sketches of daggers. She deals with the case with admirable efficiency. This story was originally published in a magazine called Ludgate Monthly and later reprinted in The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1894).

Unlike our previous detective, Loveday Brooke is a professional private detective. The plot introduces Miss Brooke and her colleague Mr Dyer as they disagree about elements of the case before them. Mr Dyer irritably declares that ‘When a young lady loses a valuable article of jewellery and wishes to hush the matter up the explanation is obvious’. In return, Miss Brooke explains to her sceptical colleague, ‘Sometimes the explanation that is obvious is the one to be rejected, not accepted’. Perhaps not surprisingly the outcome of the case proves her correct, as Loveday painstakingly examines the drawings, interviews household staff and then pre-empts the next move by the crime’s conspirators to conclude the case.

Our second lady detective is equally efficient. In ‘The Arrest of Captain Vandaleur’ (1894) Florence Cusack does the crime solving honours in a gambling themed case. This is a collaborative piece by Lillie Thomasina Meade (1854-1914) and Robert Eustace (1868-1943). Michael Cox’s introduction describes Mrs Meade as ‘formidably prolific’ but it is not clear from the bibliography whether any more stories featured Miss Cusack. From the context of this story, I am unsure if Miss Cusack acts in a professional capacity or as an amateur lady detective. She seems comfortably off, as we meet her in the well-stocked library of her house in Kensington Park Gardens. In the course of the story, it is clear that she has informants and ‘channels I need not detail’ as she phrases it so we can assume that she is an experienced detective, even if an amateur one.

However, we do know that the Criminal Investigation Department called has called her in to assist in solving a horserace betting fraud. This fraud case has a connection to a friend’s husband who has developed a gambling mania. The story particularly intrigued me because of the subject of the crime. Gambling and horseracing do not immediately spring to mind as familiar subjects to Victorian spinster ladies. Nevertheless, Miss Cusack is obviously quite au fait with various confidence tricks and shady characters. Even so, even she is stumped at the meaning of the only real clue and cannot see how the betting fraud is perpetrated. She admits that ‘For five continuous hours I have worked at those few words, applying to them what I already know of this matter. It has been of no good.’ Naturally all ends well, but I won’t reveal the who and the how of it. Miss Cusack did the brainwork backed up by the brawn of Scotland Yard.

To finish my crime spree I will mention my recent discoveries of follow–up reading material, thanks to a quick search on ABE Books. You can buy reprinted editions of Loveday Brooke’s Experiences from the very reasonably priced (Dover Publications, 1986) to the eye wateringly expensive (first edition from Hutchinson, 1894 at £2,675.66). I am sure that you can guess where my inclination lies but I will have to make do with cheap and cheerful. I have also found The Old Man in the Corner: Twelve Mysteries, published by Dover Publications (1980). It is worth mentioning here that Orczy also wrote detective stories featuring Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, found on ABE in various editions (maybe a future blog post). Lastly, Lillie Thomasina Meade was indeed a prolific author and many early editions of her books (she also wrote school stories for girls) are still available, some as print on demand books. I spotted one POD title, which appears to be a collection of her mystery stories written in collaboration with Robert Eustace. Whether these feature Miss Cusack is not clear from the seller’s notes.

In short, I have plenty of ideas for future forays into female Victorian crime writers. Now, I think I will just go and write out my Christmas wish list…

Picture credits: Wikipedia (except for the image of my own copy of Victorian Tales)