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!)



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’.

I didn’t mean to go to the Trinity Book Sale again…

Trinity Book Stash

My (our) latest stash

Well, when I say that, I really mean that I fleetingly considered not going to the Trinity Book Sale this year as I still have the inevitable pile of un-read books. However, as I managed to miss last year’s event due to its move away from an end of the week spot, I thought that I would make the effort and toddle along. The more I considered the matter, the less I wanted to risk missing any book bargains, especially as I am an aficionado of the half–price last day. Previously held on a Saturday, but now a Thursday, it is my ultimate book bargain pleasure.

This year, my final tally was seven volumes for a modest six euro; though two of the books were for The Bookworm, (I also blame her for drawing another couple of titles to my attention). As is usual at book sales, I felt that I could easily have gone along picking up books left, right and centre. I have done this at a library sale before now and virtually needed a fork lift truck to carry my purchases home. On this occasion, only a carrier bag was required to lift the spoils.

Miss Brown's Hospital

An early pioneer of women’s medical training.

As you can see from the photos shown here, I brought home an interesting mix of fiction, biography and classic works. The Bookworm sneaked in an extra visit on the previous day, so here is our combined haul of reading matter for the next wee while. I was particularly struck by the little book, Miss Brown’s Hospital by Francesca French (1954). This is the story of Dame Edith Mary Brown who was the founder of Ludhiana Medical College in Eastern Punjab. I had not heard of her before, but Miss Brown apparently had ‘many claims to distinction: as scholar, doctor, educationalist and pioneer’. She was a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, studied for a medical diploma in Scotland and obtained her MD in Brussels.

Edith Brown was also devoutly religious and ‘at the back of her mind was the unswerving determination that in applying her medical skill to the benefit of mankind she must combine it with the great emancipating power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’. She decided to focus both her medical skills and her spirituality upon the women of India in the role of a medical mission. Her appointment in 1891 to the medical mission at Ludhiana gave her the opportunity she sought. This led to her establishing a medical training centre for Indian women. I hope to return to Miss, or rather Dr Brown in a future blog post when I have had a chance to read the book properly and perhaps also to delve a little more into the period and the location.

Sir Christopher Hatton

Elizabethan statesman and courtier

I was particularly pleased to discover the book on Sir Christopher Hatton (Eric St. John Brooks) as I have been having an extended Tudor-related reading period. This ties in quite nicely with a few other books that I have read over the past few months (some previously featured on this blog). Christopher Hatton was one of Elizabeth I’s favourites, a statesman and councillor who held the office of Lord Chancellor. As the lives of the courtiers in Elizabeth’s hotbed of political scheming were inextricably entwined, Hatton has popped up in my historical reading several times. This book, first published in 1946 was apparently an attempt to present a balanced view of Hatton’s life and achievements. The blurb claims that ‘Hatton’s part in the history of his times has been largely misunderstood’. It may be that later scholarship has superseded Brook’s study, so I will check to see if anything has been published on Hatton since then. Anyway, after enjoying an account of Sir Walter Raleigh’s life recently (Margaret Irwin), I shall look forward to reading it. No doubt I will meet up with Raleigh again as I read about Hatton, as I note that he merits several entries in the index.


Now, I am off to decide which of my Trinity Book Sale acquisitions to tackle first!


Eleanor and Sarah: The Llangollen Ladies

I can’t believe that so much time has slipped by without a Landing update. The whole of October seems to have sunk without trace, although I have been quietly reading behind the scenes so not all is yet lost. However, I feel as though I have many loose ends to tie up, with various books lying about that I have planned to record on the blog. Some books have been genuine TBR subjects while others have been serendipitous library finds.

The Llangollen Ladies

A reprint of a 1936 title by Dr Mary Gordon

One Landing TBR Pile title tackled earlier this year was The Llangollen Ladies: The Story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby known as the Ladies of Llangollen. I had heard of the Ladies before I spotted this book, so when I saw the title I jumped at the chance to discover something about the women’s history. Yet again, I have one of the Trinity College book sale events (in 2009) to thank for this little find (and even better, I bought it on half price Saturday).

This book by Dr Mary Gordon is a reprint (John Jones Publishing, 1999) of her earlier title, Chase of the Wild Goose that originally came out in 1936. Gordon tells the story of the relationship between the two Irish women, Lady Eleanor Butler (1745-1829) and Miss Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) who left Ireland to make their home in the Vale of Llangollen in 1778. Gordon was a devoted fan of the Ladies and was keen to put forward a fresh view of the story. Gordon felt that time had obscured the real background of the Ladies’ flight from Ireland to Wales and that over the years, rumours and gossip had become myth. In this book, she set out to revive the Ladies’ reputations and to return to available contemporary evidence such as surviving journals and letters from one of the Ladies’ friends.

The two women met and became fast friends at Eleanor Butler’s family seat, Kilkenny Castle. Subsequently they fled from their families and social obligations to live in a modest cottage in north Wales, which caused much consternation amongst friends and family. Neither woman wished to obey their family and make advantageous matches. They wished to live independently and have the opportunity to study and develop their minds. I admire their urge for freedom from the constraints of marriage, but the ladies were no revolutionary spirits. They were very aware of their social status as ladies and so this was not a bid for the freedom of earning a living or roughing it in rural poverty.

The Libray, Plas Newydd

An undated interior image of the house, taken from the book.

The Ladies lived In Llangollen for the rest of their lives, turning a stone cottage (renaming it Plas Newydd) into a place where, over a period of fifty years, the great and good were eager to visit. Not that Lady Eleanor and Miss Sarah by any means admitted all of their putative visitors. They were rather choosy about callers, never forgetting their respective aristocratic backgrounds.

Several writers have since written about the two women and their relationship. Were they a lesbian couple or were they simply fleeing from the limited opportunities then available to women. Romantic, even passionate friendships between women were common at this time. This extract from a Telegraph article by Anne Campbell Dixon refers to another biography on the Llangollen Ladies that I have found (details below),

My guess, from reading Elizabeth Mavor’s excellent biography, is that Eleanor was a lesbian, whether she realised it or not (likely not, as it was unheard-of until an outbreak of “sapphism” at the French court brought it to English society’s notice in 1789); but that Sarah – if she had not met Eleanor at the impressionable age of 13, and if she had not needed to escape from her guardian – might have settled down just as happily with a husband.

I suppose at this stage, nobody can ever give a definitive opinion on the Ladies’ sexuality. Especially, since social mores have changed so much. As Campbell points out, ‘The word romantic simply meant fanciful or eccentric in the 18th century. And it was the fashion for friends – male as well as female – to write and speak to each other in language which we now reserve for sexual partners. Nor was it uncommon to share a bed with a sister or friend.’ I also discovered an essay by Alison Oram in Re-presenting the Past: Women and History, entitled ‘Telling Stories about the Ladies of Llangollen: the construction of lesbian and feminist theories’, which I have yet to follow up on.

The intriguing story behind the origins of this book is that Mary Gordon claimed to have seen and spoken with the ghosts of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby in their former home in Llangollen. I am not sure that the story convinces me, as I am sceptical of ghost sightings in general. Part of me would like to believe that Gordon did indeed meet the Ladies, and had a cosy natter, but part of me feels that it was it was simply a good way to frame her story. I suppose we will never know for sure. However, her book introduced the lives of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby to a new audience, despite the ‘did she/didn’t she’ question hanging over its ghostly origins.

Mary Gordon freely imagines conversations taking place between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (such as on their first meeting) as well as other family interactions, so the book reads more as a sentimental novel than a rigorous biography. Clearly, Gordon was biased in her admiration of the two women and she is not particularly interested in examining their actions with any degree of criticism. For instance, it is plain that though the Ladies wanted to be free to live in their own way, they also expected and assumed that there would be financial support appropriate to their social station. Gordon places much emphasis on the aristocratic status of the women as which comes over to a modern ear as somewhat obsequious.

The book did however inspire me to delve further and I discovered two books by Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship (Viking, 1971) and Life with the Ladies of Llangollen (Viking, 1984). The latter is a fascinating collection journal extracts, arranged to give a flavour of country life from season to season, year on year. I have written a blog post on some of the recipes given for Curiously Creatively, though I haven’t got around to trying any out yet. I would recommend either of Elizabeth Mavor’s two books, as a better way of getting to know Lady Eleanor and Miss Sarah.

Now, back to my reading….


Arabella Stuart and Bess of Hardwick

I mentioned in the last post immersing myself in some dubious sixteenth century doings. Wreath for Arabella by Doris Leslie (Hutchinson 1948) was the book that started me off on my tour of historical skulduggery. This is one of the spoils from a previous Trinity Book Sale. I feel sure that I must have read Leslie’s books before, but perhaps it’s just that I remember my mum having them from the library (along with Miss Reed and Mazo de la Roche). Doris Leslie (1891-1982) was a British novelist and historical biographer who originally wanted to be an artist, then studied drama and finally discovered a talent for writing, publishing her first book in 1927. I didn’t know anything about her before lighting on a biographical note by the Southborough Society who have put up a blue plaque in Leslie’s honour. She does not seem to be particularly well known today. Although she was writing contemporaneously with Georgette Heyer whose books are still widely available, her books have since slipped through the publishing cracks.

Wreath for Arabella is a lively, well-written fictionalised account of the life of the ill-fated Arabella (Arbella) Stuart (1575-1615), a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Both women descended from Henry VII: Elizabeth was his granddaughter (Henry VIII’s daughter) and Arabella his great great granddaughter (her father Charles Stuart was descended from Henry VIII’s sister Margaret of Scotland). Elizabeth apparently favoured choosing Arabella as her successor to the throne, only to change her mind in later years. From her earliest years, Arabella was educated as befitted as princess, studying Hebrew, French, Greek and Latin. In the end, Elizabeth’s choice of successor settled upon another cousin, James Stuart, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, so the careful preparation was to no avail. England was not to have three women (four queens if you count Lady Jane Grey) in a row on the throne after all.

As you might imagine, being a potential heir to the throne was not a particularly safe place to be. In fact, Elizabeth had taken it amiss that Arabella’s parents had married in the first place, due to the likelihood of creating yet another claimant to the throne. Arabella’s grandmothers languished in the infamous Tower of London for a while. In such family circumstances, probably it would be wiser to keep your head down (lest you lose it) and to be of a very shy and retiring disposition. Unfortunately, according to Leslie’s novel, Arabella was anything but shy and retiring and consequently earned the queen’s displeasure on more than one occasion. Elizabeth once sent Arabella away from court for flirting with her current favourite, the young Earl of Essex. More seriously, Arabella was the focus of various Catholic plots to remove Elizabeth from the throne, though admittedly she was not directly involved. Whether that was loyalty or merely the lesson learned from her cousin Mary Queen of Scots’ bad judgment, it is hard to ascertain from the novel. Suffice to say that many political figures would have liked to use Arabella as a pawn in their schemes (see, I told you there was skulduggery afoot).

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Stuart family history in general has always fascinated me, but as a bonus, Arabella’s story meshes with the most formidable woman of the era (apart from Elizabeth herself that is), her maternal grandmother, and known to history as Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608). From relatively modest origins, Elizabeth Hardwick rose to become the richest woman in England with a penchant for building beautiful houses such as Hardwick Hall. She came very close to being the grandmother of a queen, after engineering the marriage of Arabella’s parents and coming into conflict with her royal namesake. Unfortunately as I have said, Bess’s ambition didn’t allow her to achieve her final goal, but she still left her descendants very well placed in Tudor society. She even managed to survive the other Elizabeth by five years, and lived to see Arabella welcomed at the court of the new monarch James I (VI of Scotland) and his wife Anne of Denmark.

Bess would probably not have been a very comfortable relative to have around, but her drive and her energy were undeniable. Moreover, in an era when women’s role was to play a quiet domestic part, Bess had a public status not common at the time. Bess of Hardwick organised her own life very effectively, as well as those of her extended family, whether they liked it or not. The lady of Hardwick was the one moving the pieces across the chessboard and not the other way around. She married four times, each time carefully moving further up the social scale and acquiring more land and property. Her first marriage to Robert Barlow was very short and both bride and groom were only teenagers. After her husband’s death, Bess married a widower, Sir William Cavendish, with whom she had several children, six surviving into adulthood. After marrying and burying Sir William St Loe within a few short years, her crowning achievement was to become a countess upon her fourth marriage to another widower, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. She then very shrewdly married two of her children with two of the young Talbots to keep assets within the family. Oh, and in later years she had a very public marriage breakdown. Twentieth century celebs have nothing on Bess!

One of the short live series, Kate Hubbard’s A Material Girl from Short Books (belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up) is a great introduction to this most fascinating of women. I first came across Bess of Hardwick many years ago via a BBC television programme but I can’t find any trace of it on the usually reliable YouTube. However, you can watch some more recent biographical clips if you want to look. Reading these two books has reminded me that I have yet to get around to visiting Hardwick Hall, so maybe I will manage to fit it in during my next trip over to see the family. I will also keep a look out for more of Doris Leslie’s historical novels (or perhaps not depending on the state of the TBR Pile!)

Meanwhile, I will continue with reading more of my Trinity Book Sale bargains…

Extra picture credits: the Doris Leslie plaque taken from the Southborough Society page (see above)

Cold War publishing: The Zhivago Affair

A recent library visit found me as usual scanning the ‘New Titles’ and ‘Just Returned’ shelves for any likely contenders for a bedside table slot. Sometimes I have a deal with myself that I won’t take yet another book home (to distract me from the TBR Pile) if I can get out of the building without anything on the two aforementioned shelves catching my eye. Well, dear reader, as is so often the case something did catch my eye, thus pushing another book back a notch in the reading order. I should really ban myself from libraries until I have nothing left to read on The Landing.


The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée was the title that grabbed my attention and threatened the status of the bedside table pile. The subtitle: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book at first made me assume that the book was fiction. It sounded like a literary caper that would be right up my street. As it happens, the book is a real life literary caper that indeed proved to be right up my street. One of those ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’ or you ‘couldn’t make it up’ reading experiences. It really was like reading a Cold War spy novel but with added poetical asides and royalty disagreements to add piquancy.

The Zhivago Affair

My library find…

Finn and Couvée’s book tells the story of the battle to get Doctor Zhivago published and in particular reveals the CIA involvement in publishing and distributing a Russian language edition in 1958. As might be supposed, the CIA involvement had as much, if not more to do with propaganda than literature. According to one of Pasternak’s sons, Yevgeni, the author wasn’t at all happy about his work being used for Cold War propaganda purposes. Over the course of several years of research, Finn and Couvée uncovered the complicated saga of Doctor Zhivago with the help of previously classified CIA files. I could not help feeling that releasing the files was in itself yet another propaganda act. This is the CIA saying, ‘look it’s not all guns, we’re really nice guys and we love culture, and books and stuff’. It’s hard to judge whether the people in the organisation actually cared about the book or Pasternak, or whether they just cynically used a golden opportunity to poke the USSR. In these days of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the idea of a novel being such a powerful propaganda tool may seem quaint but it truly was that important in the West’s campaign against Communist ideology.

As you might recall, I read Pasternak’s book last year, many years after I first saw the film version and fell in love with Omar Sharif and the wonderful Russian scenery (which of course wasn’t Russian at all). The first edition of Doctor Zhivago was published in 1957 in Italy, as Pasternak was unable to get his first and only novel published in his own country. Pasternak told Italian publishing agent Sergio D’Angelo that ‘In the USSR, the novel will not come out. It doesn’t conform to official cultural guidelines’. Literature was very important in Soviet Russia, however the chilling fact was that it had to be the correct sort, as was made clear by Stalin in a 1932 speech at a gathering of writers to launch the ‘new literature’,

The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks…Here someone said that a writer must not sit still, that a writer must know the life of a country. And that is correct. Man is remade by life itself. But you, too, will assist in remaking his souls. This is important, the production of souls. And that is why I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.

Doctor Zhivago: First Edition

Italian First Edition

If Golslitizdat, the state literary publisher did not consider a writer’s work suitable (not sufficiently productive of souls), then it would not see the light of day. There may also be serious consequences for the unfortunate author, despite the apparent thaw since Stalin’s death. As Doctor Zhivago had no merit in the eyes of the state publisher, Pasternak’s manuscript was smuggled out of Russia by D’Angelo. He was acting on behalf of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a Milanese publisher (a member of the Italian Communist party). Pasternak handed the manuscript over knowing that he was potentially putting his life at risk, as well as those of his family. He rather theatrically said to D’Angelo, ‘You are hereby invited to my execution’ after handing over his work with the words ‘This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world’. I wonder if he had rehearsed those lines?

Having read the book, I would now like to read a straightforward biography of Pasternak, as this book obviously focuses on the Zhivago story. From what I have gleaned from this book, Boris Pasternak’s character was contradictory and he was probably not the easiest person to live with (whether his second wife Zinaida or his lover Olga). He had an unshakeable belief in his own talents yet was also unassuming, modest and personally engaging. It is hard to get to grips with, and understand Pasternak’s character. He seems to have been selfish enough to pursue publication even knowing that it could rebound badly upon his family. In fact, his mistress Olga Ivinskaya was twice imprisoned for her part in the affair, the second time after his death in 1960. Yet, according to the evidence, Pasternak was courageous enough to support the family members of those writers sent to the Gulag when others kept a distance.

Reading The Zhivago Affair has given me more leads to follow, not only on discovering more about Pasternak and his family but also about other writers mentioned in the text such as Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. One book that I did read a few years ago was a fictionalised account of Isaac Babel’s imprisonment in the Lubyanka, The Archivist by Travis Holland which I would highly recommend. It’s not a happy read as you might expect, but there is still a bit of hope for humanity and the written word in it. Which brings us back to Pasternak’s work making its way around the world despite the repressive regime under which he lived.

If anyone has got any related recommendations, I would love to hear them…

Picture credit for the Italian First Edition : Wikipedia, with thanks.

Yes, We Have No Oranges (Nor Bananas)…

Last year author Juliet Greenwood (We That Are left, Honno Press)) wrote a guest blog post on the topic of producing and preparing food for the Home Front during the First World War. In her novel, the main protagonist, Elin goes back to her mother’s old recipe book to help her produce nutritious recipes for wartime. Recipes from the period were reproduced at the end of the book, some of which you can find on Juliet’s guest post. I have gradually tried out Juliet’s recipes, most recently the seed cake, which I have blogged about over on Curiously Creatively this week. It was most delicious!

Few Eggs and No Oranges

Reprinted edition

As Juliet pointed out at the time, rationing only came about towards the end of World War I, and lessons learned from this conflict influenced rationing decisions in the Second World War. I was reminded of this when I was browsing recently in Hodges Figgis and spotted a reprint of a Second World War diary. Few Oranges and No Eggs (Persephone, 1991, 2010) was the work of Birmingham born Vere Hodgson (1901-1979) who began work in London in 1935 and stayed there throughout the war. She worked for the Greater World Christian Spiritualist Association in a welfare role and helped to produce the association’s newspaper. The office was in a house (named The Sanctuary) in Lansdowne Road and Vere lived nearby in Ladbrooke Road, though she often spent the nights of The Blitz at The Sanctuary taking a turn on fire watch duty. Although the diary entries continue until VE Day, I have just quoted from the early part of the book to give you some idea of Vere’s life. The diary actually began life as letters sent around to family members and then posted out to a cousin in Rhodesia. Only one batch of letters ever got lost en route. Not bad for a war-time postal service!

As the book’s title suggests, one of the major preoccupations of the author was obtaining food during the lean years of the war. On 9th July 1940, Vere Hodgson was recording that “We are to have six ounces of butter cum margarine, and two ounces of cooking fat” and on 16th July she was writing of the shortage of eggs in London, declaring, “I shall have to switch over to baked beans”.   Rationing restrictions changed over the years, but began in January 1940 with bacon, butter and sugar. Later, several other food products were added to the rationed list and supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables were limited, though not rationed. Tinned products were un-rationed but you needed points to buy the food. The chart I have included (taken from Wikipedia) will give some idea of the range of weekly rationing, from lowest to highest. Not on the chart are eggs (one per week) and milk (3 pints per week). There were increased milk rations for children, pregnant women and invalids and oranges, when available were usually only for children or pregnant women.

World War II Rations

Ration Chart

Vere’s observations marked the daily difficulties of obtaining scarce supplies and the alteration in the rations. Despite fruit not being rationed, imported fruits such as bananas and oranges were obviously hard to come by at all. Prices of homegrown produce varied a great deal as this entry from February 1941 shows, “Bought a pound of apples yesterday for one shilling…what a price. No oranges at all, at all. Very annoying.”  Later that month she notes that the cheese rationing will probably amount to a one inch cube per week. At that point, it was immaterial as none was available in her area anyway.

One of the effects of rationing and shortages appeared to be that people craved that which they would not ordinarily have eaten, such as in this case, onions. “Mr Booker was saying that though he hates onions, when once more we can get them he will sit down and really enjoy one. I think we shall go in for onion binges when the war is over”. (16th February 1941) I have a vision of Vere tucking into endless plates of fried onions after the war. In many entries such as this one, Vere displays that sense of humour and stoicism that enabled many people to carry on despite the shortages. I will just finish with this excerpt from 22nd February 1941, which details the proceeds of a shopping expedition:

Managed to get a few eating apples yesterday to my great joy. I treated myself – they are one shilling and one penny per pound. I carried them home as if they were the Crown Jewels. Also had some luck over cheese. Went for my bacon ration and while cutting it had a word with the man about the Cubic Inch of Cheese. He got rid of the other customers and then whispered, ‘Wait a mo’.’ I found half a pound of cheese being thrust into my bag with great secrecy and speed!

Then going to the Dairy for my butter ration I was given four eggs and a quarter of cheese! Had no compunction in taking it, for I went straight to my Mercury Cafe and gave it to them….they had said they did not think they could open the next day as they had no meat and only a morsel of cheese. I could not resist, when I got in, cutting off a hunk of my piece and eating it there and then. I always sympathised with Ben Gunn when he dreamed of toasted cheese on that desert island.

If you’ve never come across this diary, I recommend it for the day-to-day picture of war-time life. The experiences are particular to one educated, middle class woman but it does give you a vivid picture of what life must have like for Londoners and Brummies in all walks of life as they coped with the destruction and privation on the Home Front. This is one book that I am sure I will dip into again and again. Vere Hodgson’s voice is lively and compassionate; her conscientious recording of all that happens draws the reader into her world.

I have also written a piece for Headstuff if you would like to read it too:

Until next time!

Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

While I was working on Juliet Greenwood’s guest material, I was reminded of a short review that I wrote of Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith (my edition is Virago). This was published in the reader review column of Herstoria in 2009:

One of my all-time favourites...

One of my all-time favourites…


Not So Quiet  Helen Zenna Smith (Feminist Press at the City University of New York)

I first read this novel sixteen years ago and it has since stayed with me, literally and metaphorically. The title first caught my attention, its nod to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) intriguing. I discovered that the author Evadne Price, a children’s writer and journalist had been asked to write a parody of All Quiet.  Fortunately for the canon of First World War literature, she declined to do so. She said, ‘that wonderful book…. anybody would be mad to make fun of.[it]’.  Instead Price, in the guise of ambulance driver Helen Smith wrote a vivid, unforgettable novel (1930) based on the war time journal of Winifred Young.

Price gives a view that complements that of Remarque‘s book. She graphically illustrates the experiences of the women struggling to get wounded soldiers to the field hospitals. They slogged day after day, night after night in appalling conditions, the night  driving often in blackout conditions under heavy bombardment. They had poor rations, lice infestation, very little sleep and a tyrannical commanding officer, nicknamed ’Mrs Bitch’ by the ambulance drivers. They may not have seen themselves as heroes, but they were. This makes it for me an inspiring read, written as it is without sentimentality.

Young’s family were proud of her ‘doing her bit’, but not keen to face the reality of her experiences. In having her journal reworked as a novel she publicised the truth. The attitude of  armchair patriots is clearly condemned in the novel. There is a terrible, chilling competitiveness amongst the committee sitting, sock knitting mothers,  about who is giving the most (in the form of their offspring) to the war effort. The book is harshly critical of both war itself and those patriotic souls who pressured others into risking both their lives and their sanity. But it also shows us the toughness, resilience, camaraderie and humanity of the women who volunteered. There were clashes of personality and perspective but the women functioned as a courageous team. I often wonder how I would have fared in the same situation.  I like to think that if the need ever arose, I would do as well as they did.


Since this is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, it seems a good occasion to re-read Not So Quiet in tribute to the women who worked so hard for the war effort and faced dangers that they could never have imagined…

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

Alighting on Westwood as the next Landing read was the first result of my rummage and dusting session, and it is a mere whippersnapper at only a couple of years of residence. Vintage Books re-printed Westwood in 2011 and I bought it along with Conference at Cold Comfort Farm in I think, 2012. I’ve since read this sequel to Cold Comfort Farm (which I enjoyed, having been terribly afraid of being disappointed) but not got around to Westwood until now. Writing this post has reminded me that at some point I would like to get hold of Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm.


A picnic at Kew

When I first spotted the Stella Gibbons (1902 – 1989) re-prints I was probably as guilty as most people in thinking that she had written just one book. In her introduction to this edition of Westwood, Lynne Truss says, ‘This is what everyone knows about Stella Gibbons: she wrote only book, but it was a very, very good one’. Fortunately, I now know better; Gibbons went on to write in total, twenty-five novels, three volumes of short stories and four volumes of poetry. She started out as a journalist, working for amongst other papers, the Evening Standard, having studied her craft at University College, London. No mere flash in the pan then, you’d have to admit, though nothing ever attained the critical and public success of Cold Comfort.

Cold Comfort Farm, published in 1932 was Gibbons’ first novel but she began her literary career as a poet with a collection entitled The Mountain Beast in 1930. Westwood was published just after World War II, in 1946 and was set in a war ravaged London landscape. The book may be set in a city, and a damaged one at that, but Gibbons was able to find the same natural beauty in London, that she describes in Cold Comfort Farm and juxtapose it with the grim reality of blitzed houses,

‘The ruins of the small shapely houses in the older parts of the city were yellow, like the sunlit houses of Genoa; all shades of yellow; deep, and pale, or glowing with a strange transparency in the light…Pink willow-herb grew over the white uneven ground where houses had stood, and there were acres of ground covered with deserted, shattered houses whose windows were filled with torn black paper.’

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm

One of the sequels


Set against the background of wartime privation, Westwood is a satirical comedy of relationships focussing on two very different friends, Margaret Steggles and Hilda Wilson. Margaret is plain, bookish, serious and not particularly attractive to men (as her mother had no compunction in telling her) whereas Hilda is lively, down to earth, very pretty and has any number of service boys. Margaret feels that she is never likely to meet a man who will want to marry her, while Hilda just wants to have fun without getting too involved with any of her ‘boys’.  Independently of each other, they both encounter the same man; a distinguished, rather pompous playwright called Gerard Challis (based on real life writer Charles Morgan) who lives a somewhat charmed life despite the war, in a lovely old house called Westwood in Hampstead.

Margaret is drawn into the Challis family circle because of finding a ration book on Hampstead Heath which proves to belong to Challis’ daughter Hebe Niland. When she belatedly remembers to return it, the spoilt Hebe, rushing off to a party leaves her two children in Margaret’s care until Grantey (Mrs Grant), the family’s old retainer comes to baby sit. Margaret adores Challis’ plays and is thrilled to have the chance to make the acquaintance of the writer and his family: his elegant wife Seraphina, the beautiful Hebe and artist son-law Alex Niland. Margaret also becomes friendly with Zita Mandelbaum, a refugee who helps around the house. Zita is passionately fond of music and the two young women go to concerts together, which opens up a new world of experience for Margaret.

In contrast, Hilda meets Gerard Challis as they both travel home on the tube one evening after blackout. Gerard has spotted Hilda, admires her hair and eyes, and sees in her an opportunity for a romantic dalliance. As he gallantly offers to see her home in the dark (her torch has broken), he gives his name only as Marcus since Hilda doesn’t realise his celebrity status. Gerard is convinced that since Hilda looks like a Daphne or a Thetis, she must have a poetic soul that he can nurture, but he is sadly mistaken as he gradually realises over several months of clandestine cultural outings. Hilda feels quite sorry for ‘Marcus’; she feels he is a lonely old thing, doesn’t take him terribly seriously and has no time for mythical references,

‘Hilda was beginning to feel annoyed. She was not used to this sort of talk, and for Thetis and enchanted paths, she could not have cared less. She said suddenly:
“Are you on the B.B.C?”
“Good heavens, no!” he replied, shuddering. “You odd child, why do you ask?”
“ You talk like one of the announcers; Robert Robinson, I think his name is. “And you sound like one, too,” she added darkly.
“No,” he said after a pause, “no, I have nothing to do with that institution for perverting the taste and moulding the opinions of the masses.

Stella Gibbons

Portrait from the 1980s


As you can see by his maligning of the output of Britain’s national broadcaster, Gerard Challis had a well-developed sense of his own cultural superiority. However, he also was fond of moulding the minds of those around him, particularly the women in his life. Clearly there were times when this didn’t work, such as during his courtship of Seraphina twenty years previously. Gerard Challis has spent so much of his life in writing about his ‘Ideal Woman’ that he is unable to appreciate the qualities of any flesh and blood ‘ordinary’ females. Is it possible that he doesn’t actually really like women, as his wife suspects, since he keeps on wanting to ‘improve’ them,

“You were such a pet, always wanting to improve my mind.”
“My desire seems to have remained unfulfilled,” said Mr Challis dryly.
“Well, you must remember me trying to read all those alarming books you unloaded on me…I did try…only somehow there was never any time for anything;…”

There is a wonderful cast of supporting characters including Hilda’s kind-hearted, jolly mother, two American servicemen (Lev and Earl) and Lady Challis (Gerard’s mother) who runs a virtual commune in a row of converted cottages. Westwood doesn’t have a conventional love story ‘Happy Ever After’ ending though there are romantic entanglements a-plenty (don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you what does happen).  Suffice to say that by the end of the novel Margaret has learned much about herself and is a much happier person than she was at the beginning. Gibbons leavens the sadness and poignancy of the book with her sharp humour and a very funny set-piece during a picnic at Kew Gardens.

And what of Hilda, Gerard, Zita, Lev and Earl et al? Well, I’ll leave you to find that out for yourselves. Meanwhile I’m off for another rummage on the shelves. Are there any more Stella Gibbons fans out there?

Picture credit: portrait of Stella Gibbons taken from Wikipedia, with thanks.


Lewis Chessmen and Noggin the Nog

Last Saturday afternoon my daughter and I went along to one of the National Gallery of Ireland’s regular showings of made for television art documentaries. This week’s film was on the Lewis Chessmen and their strange history. We have (or should I say He Who Put The Shelves Up has) a replica set of the Lewis Chessmen and even though I’ve never mastered the game I’m very fond of the little men (fiendish to dust though they are).

The Lewis Chessmen

Incredible Carving

The history of the chessmen is shrouded in mystery as they were discovered sometime prior to April 1831 (when they were exhibited in Edinburgh) having been at some point buried in sand on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It is now thought likely that the figures which were carved from walrus ivory, were made in Norway between 1150-1200 AD. But how they came to be where they were found and who owned them is still, and will probably remain unknowable. The most likely theory is that they were being taken by a merchant to be sold. Even the details of the actual discovery of the carvings seems vague and uncertain.

The hoard found consisted of seventy-eight chess pieces plus fourteen counters and a belt buckle. The chess pieces are all exists  from four chess sets but the remaining pieces have never been discovered. The known pieces are all in public hands, with sixty-seven in the British Museum and eleven in the Museum of Scotland and they do also apparently go on tour. The cover shown here is from a British Museum booklet that we have on our bookshelves. I scanned the back too because it gives a good idea of the tremendous detail in the carving. In the documentary, a craftsman explained how difficult and with what skill the ivory figures were carved.

Lewis Chessmen Book

The Story of the Chess Set

But where does Noggin the Nog come into it I hear you ask? The answer is that the creator of the BBC Children’s Television series Peter Firmin was inspired by his visits to see the Lewis Chessmen to tell ‘their’ story. The result was a delightful saga of Noggin the Nog and his kingdom. As a child I loved this series so much that it is an indelible paart of my childhood memories. For anyone out there who has never heard of Noggin, or indeed of Nogbad the Bad, if you have trawl though YouTube you will find plenty of excerpts. The series was made by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate and was first broadcast in 1959, originally in black and white.

Every episode began something like this (I think it was Oliver Postage’s voice):

Listen to me and I will tell you the story of Noggin the Nog, as it was told in the days of old”, or “In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale … and those tales they tell are the stories of a kind and wise king and his people; they are the Sagas of Noggin the Nog. Welcome to Northlands, a tribute to Noggin, King of the Nogs and the People of the Northlands.

I am now feeling very nostalgic for old television programmes. I also have a renewed interest in one day going to see the original chessmen in either location. There have been calls for all of the pieces to be relocated to Scotland but there’s probably not much likelihood of that happening in the near future. However, the history society in Uig, Isle of Lewis has said that it doesn’t support calls to remove the men from London and is happy for them to remain where they are. Now, if anyone ever proves where the chess pieces were actually made then no doubt there will be another claim put foward for return to rival that of Lewis.


Credits: Lewis Chessmen image taken from British Museum pages.

Noggin the Nog quotation taken from Wikipedia.