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.

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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)

A Pre-Raphaelite Summer (Reading part 2)

As you will probably have guessed, this art-themed post is to be the second part of my belated round up of summer reading. Very belated, considering that Halloween is upon us as I write. Again, I propose a quick nod to three more of the books on my recently accomplished list, but just drop me a line if you want a little more information on anything. This blog post fails to do justice to some fascinating books, but I hope that at least by mentioning them, the inspiration to explore further may strike someone reading the post. I still want to mention the remainder of the summer reads, but I will pop those in here as and when I can, so that I may begin writing about my autumn reading (at this rate I will never catch up!)

To continue with the list in reading order (which again is also following a roughly chronological trajectory) I begin with Desperate Romantics: the Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites (Franny Moyle, John Murray, 2009). This I bought in 2009, having heard of, but not watched the television series loosely based on the book. I was curious to read it after having heard about the rollicking television series, but clearly my curiosity faded, as the book remained un-read until this year. I am glad however that finally I got around to reading Moyle’s book, which draws on the wealth of research available on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). She explores the tangled relationships of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and their models, wives, lovers and artistic colleagues. The champion of Pre-Raphaelitism, John Ruskin; Rossetti’s one time teacher Ford Maddox Brown and later PRB members William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones all have parts in the painterly drama.

Desperate Romantics inspired a re-read of Lizzie Siddal: the Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel (Lucinda Hawksley, Andre Deutsch, 2004, 2005). This is an excellent account of Lizzie Siddal’s life, but I think the subtitle was an unfortunate choice. As Hawksley makes clear, Siddal had her own artistic ambitions, both as a painter and a poet and was not merely Dante Rossetti’s model (and lover). Not surprisingly, the book jacket features Lizzie Siddal’s most famous modelling role, that of Ophelia for Millais’ painting of that name. However, Lizzie had ambitions for herself and renowned critic John Ruskin considered Lizzie talented enough to become her patron. I knew that Lizzie Siddal had painted (see below) but I had had no idea that she wrote too. Apparently, the poetic bent was not enough to endear Siddal to Dante’s poet sister Christina Rossetti who saw nothing to admire in her and disapproved of her relationship with Dante.

Ending my Pre-Raphaelite binge was Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists (Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Thames and Hudson, 1998). Manchester City Art Galleries originally published this book in 1997 to accompany its exhibition, which I saw in 1998 when it travelled to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Some of Lizzie Siddal’s work was on show at the exhibition, such as Pippa Passes (pen and ink drawing) and Lady Clare (watercolour on paper). For some reason I never bought the catalogue at the time so I was delighted to receive this copy as a Christmas present last year. Both the exhibition and the book highlighted women whose work was part of the wider Pre-Raphaelite tradition. As was pointed out in the book, Pre-Raphaelitism was a collegiate movement and female artists were able to benefit from support between men and women (Pamela Gerrish Nunn). Perhaps not surprisingly, several women featured came from artistic families and were able to count on that support to aid their artistic growth. Ford Maddox Brown’s two daughters Lucy and Catherine painted, taught by their father. Also coming from artistic families were Rebecca Solomon, Rosa Brett and Emma Sandys all of whom had brothers who became professional painters.

It was great to re-discover this book and to browse the artworks again. I will leave you with a sentence from Gerrish Nunn’s essay, which sums up for me the whole purpose of the exhibition and catalogue:

Woman – the object, icon, motif and motive of whom and from whom Pre-Raphaelitism is said to have been made – has perversely, masked the presence within the movement of women – active, executive autonomous subjects making Pre-Raphaelitism.

I hope you have enjoyed that snapshot of my Pre-Raphaelite summer reading. Do let me know if you have an interest in this area. I’d love to hear from you!

The Long Summer of Reading (but not Blogging…)

Well, my unintended summer break from The Landing has proved to be much longer than I would have wished. Somehow, just getting back into the blogging frame of mind has proved remarkably difficult. Not so, my book-reading frame of mind I am thankful to say. I would go so far as to say that reading wise, this has been a moderately profitable summer. A few longstanding members of the TBR pile have bitten the dust, most enjoyably I might add. This has also encouraged a couple of related re-reads to add to the literary tally.

I find that I can spend ages planning how to read more efficiently around the Landing Book Shelves, but then at other times (such as the last few months), the reading just flows without any thought or strategy. Maybe it was the influence of summer, but as I said, I have been having a reasonably prolific mow through the shelves and stacks of books at Landing Towers and I feel quite virtuous as a result. So what did I actually read then, I hear you cry. I will attempt to give a reasonably coherent run-down, unless you merely want to skip to the gallery below for a pictorial view. I will just give a brief over view of my summer’s reading (in two parts) then I hope to get back into the swing of TBR pile blogging properly.

A brief gallop through the shelves (part one)

After a few literary adventures in the 16th and 17th centuries, ending up you will recall with the dramatic execution of Sir Walter Ralegh, I have unintentionally continued to travel further in time. I was not planning this chronological direction, but after embarking on a biography of novelist and diarist Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840), I simply went with the flow. The biography of Fanny Burney: A Biography (Claire Harman, 2000) was another of this year’s Trinity Book Sale purchases, so almost doesn’t qualify as an item on the TBR pile (not by my usual standards of longevity anyway). Reading this excellent biography prompted me to re-read a novelised version of Burney’s life that belongs to my mum (I know, this is not technically not on the TBR pile at all), A Coach for Fanny Burney (Florence Bone, 1938). Reading this as a teenager was the first time of encountering the redoubtable Fanny Burney, as well as literary luminaries Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale who befriended the debut novelist. As you can see, the book is now somewhat ‘foxed’ in condition but still perfectly readable. Returning to it after all of this time, I found the author’s style rather flowery and sentimental, though the story was still an enjoyable read.

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A slim volume belonging to The Bookworm was my next choice, Lady Susan (Jane Austen, probably written in 1794 when she was still a teenager). This entertaining tale was a logical read to slip in here as Jane Austen was an admirer of Fanny Burney’s novels. From there, I moved on to Words & Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition (Jenny Uglow, Faber and Faber, 2008). I can’t remember buying this book, but it is a withdrawn library book so I must have bought it at a library sale. I do know that it has been awaiting perusal for some while. In three sections, Uglow looks at John Milton (1608-1674) and John Bunyan (1628-1688); William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Henry Fielding (1707-1754) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Thomas Berwick (1753-1828). I like Hogarth’s work, but  I had never come across Thomas Berwick, who developed new techniques in wood engraving (see the illustration for an example). Reading the first pair of studies reminded me that I have never read Pilgrim’s Progress, which I last thought of doing while writing a blog post about Little Women. If you recall, each sister received a copy from their mother as a Christmas gift. You see, no sooner do I get through a bit more of the TBR pile than I realise that there is still much more to read!

Here endeth the first catch-up post – more to follow soon (I hope!)

 

Springtime for Miss Read (and Mrs Griffin)

Cover of Mrs Griffin Sends her Love

A Country collection…

This latest post is going to be a spring-themed blog post, to continue the recent seasonal bent on The Landing’s sister blog, Curiously Creatively. It is also another of those literary digressions where I sideline my TBR Pile in favour of a library discovery (or in this case a re-discovery of sorts). For anyone who came across the Miss Read (real name, Dora Saint) ‘Thrush Green’ or ‘Fairacre’ books many years ago, to discover a relatively new publication is a great find. As is my wont, I was browsing in the local library despite the presence of plenty of unread volumes on my shelves. Having spotted Mrs Griffin Sends her Love in my favourite section for serendipitous discoveries (AKA the ‘Just Returned’ shelf), I threw caution and the TBR pile to the winds. I may have also picked up a couple more books in addition, but let us not go into that little matter now.

Mrs Griffin Sends her Love is a collection of short pieces and articles compiled by Dora Saint’s daughter Jill and her former editor Jenny Dereham, to mark what would have been Mrs Saint’s 100th birthday in 2013. Some of the pieces were originally published elsewhere, some only discovered after Dora Saint’s death. They are a mixture of essays, humorous articles and extracts from longer works. The anthology includes articles on education (originally for the Times Educational Supplement), as well as pieces taken from Tales from a Village School and Time Remembered. Included also is part of a projected book on ‘The Village Year’ only discovered after Dora Saint’s death and some diary extracts from 1963, begun while Dora and her husband were housebound due to the heavy snow that winter. Just for the record, it has to be said that Mrs Griffin does not get a very big part, given that she provides the collection’s title

My favourite pieces are the ones about village school life: particularly the extracts from Time Remembered and a set of articles gathered under the heading ‘The Joys and Perils of Teaching’. As you might imagine it is the telling of the perils that is the most entertaining to read. In one article entitled ‘Scriptural Matters’ one youngster observes ‘Why didn’t God make us knowing everything? It would have saved a lot of trouble’. Saint describes her own early years as a pupil at a village school after her family moved from London to the Kent countryside. She reminds us how boring school life could be, and how the smallest things could be a fascinating distraction to pupils: ‘Small pieces of pink blotting paper, torn from the precious three-by-four allowed, were surprisingly nice to eat, and occasionally an obliging fly would settle on the arid desk top and create a diversion’.

Dora Saint had a real love of the natural beauties surrounding her on her walk to school as a youngster new to the countryside. The descriptions of the flowers and fauna are a joy to read and it is clear that Saint loved the country sights from a very young age. She recalls her very first experience of arriving in Kent, ’I discovered dog violets and harebells in the North Downs countryside, as well as old friends like buttercups and daisies’. However, Saint was not enamoured of all aspects of country life. She disliked seeing, ‘poor dead rooks hanging upside down from sticks among the crops, their black satin wings opening and shutting macabrely in the wind.’ I can’t say that I blame her, it must have been an unnerving sight for a young child.

Cover of The Year at Thrush Green

Two more Miss Read books …

Having picked up this library book inspired me to have a root around on The Landing shelves and see what Miss Read books I could come up with to re-read. Miss Read is one of the authors that I discovered many years ago, courtesy of my mum’s reading tastes and I borrowed several from our local library as a teenager. We have a couple of Miss Read titles here on The Landing, so I have just been dipping into The Year at Thrush Green, looking at the seasonal changes that she describes. Taking the February entry, here is her observation of signs that spring is beginning in Thrush Green,

Soon yellow primroses would star the woods, and the daffodils would blow their trumpets in the gardens of Thrush Green. Yellow, gold and green, spring’s particular colours, would bring hope again after the bleak black and white of winter.

Miss Read also has an eye to the spring garden, as she describes the vicar wandering in his garden one bright March morning, seeking respite from a particularly trying parishioner. Blackbirds and thrushes are busy looking for food, while daffodils and narcissi promise better things to come and ‘polyanthus plants turned their velvety faces to the morning sunshine, bright yellow, orange, red and a deep mauvish-blue’. Add an almond tree scattering blossom and you have a very inviting seasonal snapshot.

Her evocation of the colours and imagery of spring scenery is delightful. By the merry month of May, ‘the roses were showing plump buds’, wisteria ‘drooped massive tassels against the Cotswold stone’ and along the lanes was ‘cow parsley frothing each side as far as the eye could see’. I particularly like the wisteria analogy as it is one of my favourite climbing plants and there are some lovely examples to enjoy around my part of Dublin.

I think that I will now head into June (in a literary sense if not in reality) and see what is growing in the hedgerows and gardens. I might even catch up with a few Thrush Green inhabitants at the same time. There sure to be a bit of gossip circulating…

Drop a line in the comment box if you are a Miss Read fan!

Sir Walter Ralegh: A Gallant Adventurer

 

TBR Pile Brum

My TBR annex!

My latest Landing Tales read is technically a newcomer to The Landing, yet has long been on my TBR Pile. If that sounds like a riddle, blame The Bookworm and The Hobbit for the riddling influence. What I should explain is that That Great Lucifer: A Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh (Margaret Irwin, Chatto & Windus, 1960) has been on one of my other TBR Piles for more years than I care to remember. My book on Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) is one of several that I have finally liberated from my parents’ house and lugged back over the water to The Landing. Sadly, I now have no idea where I bought it and I have left no clue on the inside pages. The only thing I can definitely say is that Ralegh is not one of my ex-library finds as there are no stamps or marks of any kind. The inside cover does not even have a dedication or name from a previous owner to jog my memory a little. It did however have a published price of 25s, which is amazing considering the price of hardbacks now. I am hoping that if I stop trying to remember, then the light may yet break through my literary fog. I do like to be able to ‘place’ the acquisition of a book, especially a second-hand one, as it adds a layer of personal memory.

However, to return to the story of the gallant Walter Ralegh (this spelling of his name was the one that he apparently used) and to Margaret Irwin’s telling of his life and career. In writing the book, Irwin allowed Ralegh to speak for himself as much as possible, quoting from his surviving prose and poetry. Irwin tells Ralegh’s story in two sections, dividing his career into the periods under the two monarchs under whom he served, Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and James I [IV of Scotland] (1566-1625). Woven in between Ralegh’s exploits are pen portraits of his contemporaries, some friends, some enemies (some, such as Robert Cecil were a little of both). Irwin gives scenes to the tempestuous young Earl of Essex (another of Elizabeth’s favourites) and to England’s sworn foe Phillip II of Spain. I was amused at her description of the formidable and devout Phillip as ‘A born Civil Servant, who believed in paper as devoutly as in God, he would have revelled in forms in triplicate’. I have a mental picture of him transported to the 21st century and firing off testy emails around the Spanish Empire.That Great Lucifer book jacket

Irwin describes in her preface how John Buchan gave her a first folio edition of Ralegh’s History of the World (1614) and says that ‘from then on I had his World as my own to enter at will’. Irwin put her extensive reading to good effect, bringing this scholar, poet, adventurer, sailor and courtier to vivid life in her biography. She did point out that she was not intending to pen a comprehensive biography, but a portrait of Ralegh and his circle and their lives and times. In this, I think she has succeeded very well, personalities, scheming and politics leaping off the page. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering how anyone stayed alive and sane in the hotbed of Elizabeth’s court. Margaret Irwin obviously had a soft spot for Ralegh, though she does acknowledge his faults and blind spots. He seemed to be blithely (and unwisely) unaware of the potential danger to his safety amidst the conflicting loyalties of the court. Irwin quotes biographer John Aubrey (1626-1697), who says that ‘he was damnable proud’, which naturally enough did not endear him to his fellow courtiers especially since Queen Elizabeth listened to his advice. Writer and politician Sir Robert Naunton (1563-1635) said ‘she took him for a kind of Oracle, which nettled them all’.

I probably shouldn’t plot spoil (so to speak) for those of you who haven’t read anything about Walter Ralegh, but suffice to say that he did not hit it off as well with the Scottish king as he did with Elizabeth I, his ‘Lady whom time hath surprised’. Ralegh and the queen had their differences, most notably when he secretly married his own Elizabeth, Bess Throckmorton, but Sir Walter appears to have been a most steadfastly loyal subject and advisor. James I however, did not appreciate advice from Ralegh, once saying that he was ‘too saucy in censuring princes’. James also resented that his eldest son Prince Henry, Prince of Wales was a great admirer of Ralegh and his ideas. Ralegh spent many years in prison during James’ reign, but he used his time in extensive scholarly reading and writing. He wrote the intended first volume of his History of the World, dedicating it to Prince Henry, ‘that glorious prince’ after his sudden death. Not all of Ralegh’s writing has survived, as Margaret Irwin mentioned; she says that he wrote a study of Queen Elizabeth, a ‘Description of the River of the Amazons’ and a treatise on the West Indies.

Painting: The Boyhood of RaleighAfter reading the Margaret Irwin book, I decided to scout around for an up to date biography of Sir Walter. On a trip to the library, I came up with Sir Walter Raleigh in Life and Legend by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams (Continuum, 2011). It probably isn’t fair to compare the two books as Irwin didn’t intend to write a scholarly biography, so I don’t intend to try. Irwin’s book is tremendously readable and is certainly as factual as she could make it, but of course, the later book benefits from recent scholarship. Of course, the authors also take a more academic approach to their subject, using a wide range of contemporary sources. Having said all of that, Nicholls and Williams still manage to tell a rattling good story in their study of Ralegh. I was interested to note that despite using the spelling ‘Raleigh’ in the title to satisfy modern preferences, the authors use Ralegh’s own chosen spelling throughout the text. I am still only half-way through this book but enjoying it very much and I plan to follow up the references to Ralegh’s surviving work. The authors also mention a book that I read years ago, The Creature in the Map by Charles Nicholl about Ralegh’s voyages of discovery, which is an excellent read.

I’m not sure yet what will be next up on The Landing, so call back soon and take a look!

Additional picture credits: Wikipedia, with thanks, for ‘Raleigh’s Boyhood’.