British Royalty: an AAUW Readers discussion

July 21, 2018 at 4:16 pm (Anglophilia, Book clubs, books)

Inspired by the recent wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry,, we members of AAUW Readers decided to read up on the British royal family. Here’s how the meeting went:

  That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, by Anne Sebba (recommended by Barbara). Just when everyone thought that the subject of Wallis Warfield Simpson had been done to death, along came Sebba’s book, replete with new and intriguing revelations.

I was reminded of a memorable scene described by Selina Hastings in her biography of Somerset Maugham. The year is 1936. Four men are seated a table, hunched over a radio – perhaps I should say “wireless,” this being England – listening to the abdication of speech of Edward VIII. One of the men is Maugham; the identity of two others I don’t recall; the identity of the fourth man was Graham Greene. (Oh, right: I should have designated him The Third Man.)

  Referring to Victoria, the PBS Masterpiece production, Pat filled us in on the culinary aspects of Victoria’s reign, especially as regards Charles Elmé Francatelli,  her chef from 1840 to 1842. I had never heard of this person, but I should have. His books, or versions of them, are available on Amazon. Some of the texts are available online, at Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, and other locations. (See the Wikipedia entry for links to these.)

From The Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s and Butler’s Assistant (1861), here is a recipe for “The Stock Pot:”

Place in a well tinned stock pot, capable of containing about eight gallons, about ten pounds of leg or shin of beef, and an equal weight of knuckles of veal, cut into pieces; to these add the carcass of an old hen and a knuckle of ham; moisten with two quarts of broth or water; set the stock-pot on the fire to boil down sharply until the liquid has become reduced to a glaze .

The heat must then be slackened by placing ashes upon the fire in order to abate its fierceness, so as to allow the glaze to attain a light-brown colour, with out its being burnt and carbonized: if this latter accident happen, it tends considerably to diminish the stomachic qualities and flavour of the stock or consommé.

As soon as the consolidation of the glaze is effected, make up the fire, fill up the stock-pot, and when it boils, skim it thoroughly; after which garnish with six carrots, four onions, three turnips, four leeks, two heads of celery, and an onion in which twelve cloves have been stuck; season with three ounces of salt, and having allowed the stock to continue gently boiling for about five hours, remove the grease from its surface; and then proceed to strain it through a sieve into clean pans for use, as will be directed hereafter.

Charles Elmé Francatelli

Queen Victoria was the subject of several of the group’s selections:

 

Jean recommended Victoria and Albert: A Royal Love Affair, by Daisy Goodwin  and Sara Sheridan, while Sharon favored Her Little Majesty: The Life of Queen Victoria, by Carolly Erickson. Caroline brought We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, by Gillian Gill. Debbie’s recommendation was Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch by Kate Williams

Queen Elizabeth II came in for several mentions. Marge recommended Queen and Country: The Fifty-Year Reign of Elizabeth II, by William Shawcross, while Debbie favored Young Elizabeth: The Making of the Queen by Kate Williams.

You’ll note that two of the recently mentioned titles were authored by Kate Williams. Williams comes trailing numerous accolades from academia (including a PhD from Somerville College, Oxford, alma mater of Dorothy L. Sayers, Iris Murdoch, and numerous additional women of note); she is also a frequent TV commentator (see YouTube). Her biography of Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, was a great read.

Suzanne recommended the following three titles:

The Royal Family: A Year by Year Chronicle of the House of Windsor, Paragon Books. I had a chance to page through this briefly; the pictures are gorgeous.

Figures in Silk by Vanora Bennett is a novel set in 15th century England. Main characters are John Lambert, a silk merchant with marriageable daughters, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who aspires to be king.

A Short History of England, by Simon Jenkins. Now this one looked familiar to me, so I began searching for it in one of my vast book repositories and lo! It was there. Yet another enticing volume, patiently waiting to be read.

To the right of A Short History of England can be seen additional titles by Sir Simon, plus three titles by my brother, Richard S. Tedlow   (and some health items that sneaked into the picture.)

  I began by recommending Restoration by Rose Tremain and film by the same name. Tremain’s wonderfully vivid and involving novel of late 17th century England centers on one of Charles II’s many peccadilloes and a hapless doctor, Robert Merivel, who is ensnared by  the King’s scheming. I remember really loving the film when it first came out. This trailer, however, makes it appear somewhat over the top, in several respects. It’s got a terrific cast, though, and might be enjoyable viewing, if one is in the mood for it:

 

   To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, by Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer and younger brother of Princess Diana. The book got off to a slow start but picked up steam fairly quickly, until I didn’t want to read anything else until I’d finished it. Charles’s great escape actually consists of several escapes, made possible by his loyal followers and often just barely succeeding. The forces of Oliver Cromwell hunted the Royalists relentlessly, but Charles and company always manages to stay a step ahead of them. I already knew the general outline of the story, but Spencer puts you right in the thick of events in a breathtaking way. Great story, great book.

 

 

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‘Holmes smiled. He was always warmed by genuine admiration—the characteristic of the real artist.’ – The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The English Country House Mystery

March 25, 2018 at 9:37 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The May 2017 issue of CADS 75 (Crime and Detective Stories) features an article by  Kate Jackson entitled.”Doyle’s The Valley of Fear and the Country House Mystery Novel.” The author had encountered an intriguing assertion made  by Zach Dundas in The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes. Dundas contends that The Valley of Fear  stood as  “prototype for the soon-to-be-classic English country-house murder mystery.” Jackson was intrigued and decided to investigate this claim.

In the event, she was not convinced; in fact, she believes that if there is a work in the Conan Doyle canon that prefigures the English country house mystery trope, it’s The Hound of the Baskervilles rather than The Valley of Fear.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s piece served as a reminder to me that I’d never read The Valley of Fear. So I set about remedying this omission. The result: I enjoyed this novella far more than I’d expected to.

I hadn’t realized that The Valley of Fear is in a sense a bifurcated novel. The first part describes a crime that by and  large replicates the classic country house murder scenario as we know it today (although it must  be recalled that The Valley of Fear is in fact a very early exemplar, having first appeared in The Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915).

Then, much to my surprise, the scene suddenly shifts to the Great American West. According to Wikipedia, this part of the novel was inspired by the activities of the notorious Molly Maguires and by the renown and resourcefulness of Pinkerton Agency detective James McParland.

I never expected to be reading a Western by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s been a while  since I read this book, but one thing I do remember: I enjoyed it tremendously, especially the second half.

Forthwith, some excerpts from The Valley of Fear:

“A touch! A distinct touch!” cried Holmes. “You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself.”

(Wiktionary defines “pawky” as ‘Shrewd, sly; often also characterised by a sarcastic sense of humour,’ adding that the word originates in northern England and Scotland.)

The second speaker is Sherlock Holmes.

“You mean that he has a great income and that he must earn it in an illegal fashion?”

“Exactly. Of course I have other reasons for thinking so—dozens of exiguous threads which lead vaguely up towards the centre of the web where the poisonous, motionless creature is lurking.”

The first speaker is Sherlock Holmes:

“Have you ever read of Jonathan Wild?”

“Well, the name has a familiar sound. Someone in a novel, was he not? I don’t take much stock of detectives in novels—chaps that do things and never let you see how they do them. That’s just inspiration: not business.”

“Jonathan Wild wasn’t a detective, and he wasn’t in a novel. He was a master criminal, and he lived last century—1750 or thereabouts.”

“Then he’s no use to me. I’m a practical man.”

“Mr. Mac, the most practical thing that you ever did in your life would be to shut yourself up for three months and read twelve hours a day at the annals of crime. Everything comes in circles—even Professor Moriarty. Jonathan Wild was the hidden force of the London criminals, to whom he sold his brains and his organization on a fifteen per cent commission. The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.”

I’m no Sherlockian scholar, but it seems to me that Conan Doyle isn’t given sufficient credit for the eloquence and inventiveness of his dialog (not to mention the sheer wittiness when you least expect it). To my mind, this is one of the chief aspects of the stories that makes them so readable even more than a hundred after they were first penned. I should also add that as I was reading reading The Valley of Fear, the character of Holmes became particularly vivid to me. He increasingly came across as congenial; dare I venture, even at times, sprightly.

The English country house murder is almost a crime fiction subgenre unto itself. Novels and stories with this setting were fairly abundant during the Golden Age; that is, the era between the two World Wars. I found several “best” lists online, such as this one from the blog Crossexamining crime, and this  from The Strand Magazine. Regarding the first, having recently finally gotten around to reading An English Murder by Cyril Hare, I confess I was somewhat disappointed. Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White has been recommended in numerous places, but I tried to read it more than once and had to give up. (This, despite very much enjoying White’s The Wheel Spins, the novel on which Hitchcock’s film The Lady Vanishes was based.) However, further down on the list I was pleased to encounter several favorites: Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, and most especially Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers and The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey. Regarding this last, let me quote from an earlier post I wrote on The Art of the Mystery:

Franchise is one of my all time favorite novels. Tey drew her inspiration for it from two actual  criminal cases. An adolescent girl levels a bizarre, horrifying accusation against Marion Sharpe and her mother. The Sharpes, who live in genteel poverty in a house called The Franchise, are stunned and bewildered by this turn of events. They have no idea what this girl is talking about and claim never to have seen her before.  The clashing versions of reality give momentum to a narrative that is riveting from start to finish. Comic relief is provided by the elder Mrs. Sharpe, whose name fits the action of her tongue perfectly!

Of the ten titles enumerated by William Shaw for The Strand Magazine, I’ve read and enjoyed all but two: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin and Blacklands by Belinda Bauer.I’m so glad that William Shaw makes mention of Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height, a truly great novel in any genre. Shaw states simply: “Hill was a brilliant writer.” I could not agree more. Here’s a link to Celebrating Reginald Hill, an appreciation organized by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain in 2012 . I felt very honored to be included in this company!

  One of my favorite short story anthologies is entitled English Country House Murders. Delightfully subtitled Tales of Perfidious Albion, it’s edited by Thomas Godfrey and was published by The Mysterious Press in 1989. (Rather curiously, both the paperback and a 1988 hardback edition have a different subtitle: Classic Crime Fiction of Britain’s Upper Crust.) This collection starts off with a bang: two terrific tales, ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” by Conan Doyle and “A Marriage Tragedy” by Wilkie Collins. There are also stories by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, and numerous others.

In his Introduction, Thomas Godfrey considers this question: “How to define  the English Country House Mystery?” He comes up with some lively suggestions, several of which are offered in a decidedly decidedly tongue in cheek spirit. To wit:

Authentic English Country House Mysteries should only be written by authentic English authors. (Americans and Canadians need not apply.)

Of course, there should  be a crime, with murder being preferred.

“Poison is the prescribed means for eliminating victims in English Country House Mysteries. The alternative is a good solid wallop on the head. (I find defenestration shockingly under-utilized and commend it to new practitioners of the art.)”

“The crime, whether attempted or successful, should take place in the house on the grounds. If events take the investigation elsewhere, the earliest possible return to the house is in order.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. English Country House Murders is available from Amazon and through interlibrary loan.

 

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A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846, by Alethea Hayter

January 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, France, London 2017)

While in London, I had the good fortune to find myself in the vicinity of the London Review Bookshop. (Sister-in-law Donna figured this out courtesy of the mapping function she employed with admirable dexterity on her iPhone.) Naturally that meant that I soon found myself inside the shop.   The cash register was at the back; there, I found issues of the venerable London Review of Books. I informed one of the young people staffing the desk that I subscribe to the review ‘back home in Maryland, USA.’ He immediately exclaimed, with booming gusto: “Cracking good mag, innit?!” Yet another wonderful British moment….

As it happened, I had a new issue waiting for me when I got back home. In it was a review of One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli ad the Great Stink of 1858, by Rosemary Ashton.

Reviewer Rosemary Hill observes that aside from the choking stench emanating from the Thames River, nothing else of great moment happened in London in the year 1858. It is therefore, she concludes, “the perfect subject for a microhistory.”

Hill continues:

Great events cast shadows over details which in an undramatic year, or season, can be more clearly seen. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, published in 1965, was one of the earliest and best examples  of what has become a popular  genre. Set in another heat wave, in 1846, Hayter’s account weaves together the famous, the obscure and the forgotten.

Hill enumerates just a few of the writers and artists who are featured in Hayter’s slender volume – Samuel Rogers, Jane Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett,  and Gräfin Hahn-Hahn (that’s her name alright – no mistake!). Hayter documents their lives and interactions so closely that “…from day to day and street to street, the sublime and the ridiculous appear in the proximity they occupy in life.”

Hill then goes on to make further observations on the microhistory subgenre:

This is surely one reason for the rise of microhistory, that it brings the texture of the past closer. It illustrates the ‘human position’, the way the momentous occurs ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’…When it is done well, microhistory opens out from its immediate subject matter and  the result is like looking through a keyhole and seeing a whole landscape.

Meanwhile, I had developed a strong need to get my hands on A Sultry Month. There is no e-book available; the physical book is out of print. I bought a used copy from Amazon.

I’m now about two thirds of the way through it. I am deliberately reading as slowly as possible, as I do not want it to end. I love it.

While Haydon was walking out of the northern fringe of London, Browning was sitting on the grass in the garden at New Cross, and was conscious of the immensity of the whole round earth under him, and saw it as an image of  the love that now supported all his life. At the same time Elizabeth Barrett was sitting on the drawing-room window seat in Wimpole Street, writing to him while he was thinking of her.

(Those of my generation may recall watching the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street on television in 1956. I was twelve years old at the time, and that production made an indelible impression on my  nascent romantic imagination.

Katharine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett)

I had never heard of Alethea Hayter before this. Her obituary in The Guardian – she died in 2006 at the age of 94 –  says this of her works:

In all these books, she manages to unite the narrative sweep and urgency of a novel with impeccable historical and social research and a uniquely elegant style.

I will certainly be reading more books by Alethea Hayter. I’ve  already downloaded this one: 

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I can recommend yet another microhistory: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. This book came out shortly after the release of a terrific film Le Retour de Martin Guerre starring Gerard Depardieu. (And while you’re  at it, seek out Janet Lewis’s novelized version of this true story, The Wife of Martin Guerre.)

 

 

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Escape with me to the Twelfth Century….

January 9, 2018 at 2:14 am (Anglophilia, archaeology, Film and television, London 2017)

So this small fellow came to us a few days ago, courtesy of the British Museum Gift Shop:

He is a replica, fashioned in clay, of one of the Lewis Chessmen; specifically, the King piece. Below is a three quarter view of the King:

And here is the back, courtesy of the British Museum’s image gallery:

He is about four inches tall.

In her 2015 book Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown advances the theory that the famous chess pieces were in fact the work of a woman, specifically an Icelandic carver named Margret the Adroit.   Well, adroit she must have been, to have created these little marvels made from walrus ivory. (For more on this intriguing story, see The Economist article, “Bones of Contention.”)

Here’s the picture I took of the Chessmen at the British Museum:

Why did I feel the need to own a replica? Author Nancy Marie Brown, who got to handle the eleven Chessmen currently housed in Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, expressed their allure nicely:

Out of their glass display case, they are impossible to resist, warm and bright, seeming not old at all, but strangely alive. They nestle in the palm, smooth and weighty, ready to play. Set on a desktop, in lieu of the thirty-two-inch-square chessboard they’d require, they make a satisfying click.

The British Museum puts out a myriad of publications. Among them is a series of booklets entitled Objects in Focus. I bought and read this one:

It’s beautifully illustrated and tells not only the story of the discovery of the Chessmen but also the history of the game of chess (a game, I should add, that I’ve never learned to play).

It turns out that there exist several versions of the story of the finding of the Chessmen. I particularly like one that originated in  book entitled The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, written by Daniel Wilson and published in 1851. Wilson describes the way in which the action of the sea demolished a portion of a sandbank, thereby “exposing a small stone chamber.”

A local peasant investigated the structure and was alarmed to discover ‘an assemblage of elves or gnomes upon whose mysteries he had unconsciously intruded.’ Shaken and fearing for his safety, the peasant described what he had discovered to his fierce wife, who made him return to the spot and gather up the ‘singular little ivory figures which ad not unnaturally appeared to him the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore.’

(Naturally I addressed our new acquisition thus: “What about it? Are you a pygmy sprite of Celtic folklore?’ He remained judiciously mute.)

Nancy Marie Brown notes that the Chessmen are clearly identifiable in the first Harry Potter film. Now I’m one of the few humans on the planet who have not seen this movie, but I was able to verify her statement with this YouTube clip:

All of the above has put me in mind of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. In this film, made in 1957 and set in the Middle Ages, a disillusioned Crusader Knight challenges Death to a game of chess. The stakes could not be  higher.

Ingmar Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister, and Bergman recalled visits they had made when he was a boy to various historic churches. Many of these contained distinctive wall and ceiling paintings; this was particularly true of Taby Church  in Taby, Sweden:

Brown says that the chess pieces used in the film were modeled on the Lewis Chessmen.

Here is the opening sequence of The Seventh Seal.

 

 

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‘…there is a haunted atmosphere, of evil, of struggling good in the ascendant, of the quiet, busy, Englishness of life.’

October 8, 2017 at 8:07 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction)

  While I was sifting through a cache of old papers, a printout entitled “Agatha Christie: Overview” rose to the surface. It is from an article that I found on a Gale database on the library’s site some seventeen years ago.

I find these observations by J.B. Lethbridge to be intriguing and elegantly expressed:

Christie makes effective use of the reader’s unconscious, often making crucial references to its depths, with lines from great literature or nursery rhymes, about which there hovers in the darkness of half-remembered things the suggestion of the answer to the whole mystery….Then, too, she makes use of proverbs, folklore, local legend, Gypsy warnings and prophecies, old-fashioned and forgotten wisdom from nannies and gardeners.

Christie’s characters are always a trifle  thin, for she is not a fully-fledged novelist, but their psychology is convincing and consistent, and this together with her vivid and characteristic descriptions give them the illusion of more rotundity than they possess….

But it is this apparent thinness of characterisation, story, atmosphere, and setting which makes the books so enduring. They have something of the spare style of a more ancient literature: nothing superfluous, nothing irrelevant, just the very basic necessities of storytelling and character: but nothing missing either. And yet in the interstices there is a haunted atmosphere, of evil, of struggling good in the ascendant, of the quiet, busy, Englishness of life. Perhaps this is why her books are so popular world wide; they recall to the English an idyllic lost country, and to the rest, suggest the charming perfection of the English way….

But perhaps what most sets Christie apart from other detective writers is her homely and secure wisdom; never tendentious, Christie is a little like a favourite nanny telling sometimes macabre fairy tales to her rapt charges, interspersed with the quiet, wise, homely but firm advice and wisdom which only an intelligent and acute observer of the ways of men could accumulate and disperse almost unconsciously: rather like her own Miss Marple in fact.

That passage  about “an idyllic lost country” brought to mind these stanzas from “A Shropshire Lad” by A.E. Housman:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

In the past twelve years, ever since my trip to Yorkshire reawakened my dormant love of England, I’ve seen these verses quoted over and over. In addition, I’ve read two crime novels with the same title, possibly drawn from the same source:

      I recommend both, by the way.

For me, the Miss Marple novels and stories most closely epitomize the qualities that Lethbridge enumerates above. I’m especially fond of The Body in the Library.   For one thing, I love the way the novel opens:

Mrs. Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but as is the blessed habit of dreams this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life…

Christie then comments that “Mrs. Bantry was enjoying her dream a good deal.” Poor Dolly Bantry! Her happy dream world is about to implode. Naturally, her first thought is to call for help from her most reliable and intuitive friend, Miss Jane Marple.

As for the filmed versions, I love Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. (These were made for television and filmed from 1984 to 1992.) Having none of the clownishness of  Margaret Rutherford, she portrays the elderly sleuth as if she were a kind of seer. She’s as the still center of every mystery she encounters, ranging her fragile physique and powerful intellect against a crime that personifies evil. Her goodness and steady belief in justice carry the day.

In The Body in the Library, retired Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering describes her as follows:

“The finest detective God ever made. Natural genius cultivated in suitable soil.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple with Raymond Francis as Sir Henry Clithering, 1984

 

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More praise for The Shepherd’s Life, courtesy of a letter to the Washington Post

August 7, 2017 at 8:10 pm (Anglophilia, books, Magazines and newspapers)

Kudos to Ann Massey for her letter which appeared in this past Saturday’s Washington Post. It’s entitled “Add this to your reading list;” in it, she sings the praises of The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.

I’ve done likewise in this space, on several occasions.

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Books read for a trip not taken

July 29, 2017 at 4:23 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

Crime fiction

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
The Dungeon House by Martin Edwards
The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid
The Hennessy and Yellich series by Peter Turnbull

Nonfiction

The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Grevel Lindop
The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James   Rebanks

  When you get your books from Amazon, you may get some surprises as well. I got one when The Crow Trap arrived: all 535 pages of it. I groaned inwardly (and outwardly too, just ask my husband), but as it turned out, I loved this book right from the get-go. It was eminently readable and completely absorbing. I finished it in a matter of days – would have done sooner, only I didn’t want my enjoyment to end prematurely.

Three women are gathering data as part of an environmental survey being conducted in the north of England. Their results will be crucial in determining whether a quarry can be established in the region.They’re at the center of a crowded canvas featuring people with various problems, motives, and intentions.

Their endeavors seem somehow to be death haunted. And this propensity brings Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope onto the scene. In a literary world replete with investigators of every type, temperament, and ethnicity, Vera seems to this reader at least to be rather unique. She doesn’t enter the narrative until almost halfway in, and when she does…well, she makes an impression, that’s for sure:

She was a large woman – big bones amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet. Her legs were bare and she wore leather sandals. Her square toes were covered in mud. Her face was blotched and pitted….Over her clothes she wore a transparent plastic mac and she stood there, the rain dripping from it onto the floor, grey hair sleeked dark to her forehead….

The Crow Trap, which came out in 1998, was the first novel featuring DI Vera Stanhope. There are now seven, with another due out in September.

I hadn’t read anything by Ann Cleeves since Blue Lightning, the fourth in the Shetland series. (I’ve also read  the three predecessors: Raven Black, White Nights, and Red Bones).  I’d forgotten what a terrific storyteller she is, a gift amply supported by the quality of her writing. I won’t forget again, for some time now at least.

Ann Cleeves met with us in Northumberland during a Smithsonian mystery tour in 2007

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I’d had The Dungeon House on my Kindle for quite some time, so I made it my business to read it in advance of the planned meeting with Martin Edwards on this trip. What a pleasure! This may be my favorite of his always enjoyable Lake District series.

  Martin has recently won accolades for The Golden Age of Murder, his meticulously researched (and hugely entertaining) history of the Detection Club. And now he has come out with this gem: . I acquired this last week at Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland – only a short ferry ride from St. Michaels, where we were staying. I’ve been putting off actually having a look inside. Treasures await, I know, in the form of all kinds of titles that I simply MUST READ AT ONCE!
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  I’ve written about The Grave Tattoo, a highly original and intriguing mystery, in a previous post. And finally, Peter Turnbull’s Hennessey and Yellich novels were commended to us. This is a series that I absolutely love, as much for Turnbull’s highly idiosyncratic style as for his appealing characters and strangely original plots.
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  I’ve already written about the two nonfiction titles listed above. Grevel Lindop’s biography of the perpetually fascinating Thomas De Quincey held me in its thrall from beginning to end. The following passage describes De Quincey’s strange out-of-body experience at the death bed of his beloved sister Elizabeth. He was seven years old; she was nine:

After pausing a moment he walked round to the side of the bed. His sister lay there, beautiful and calm, with no sign of her recent illness and pain, but unmistakably different, with a statue-like, frozen look, the lips like marble, ‘the stiffening hands laid palm to palm’ — an awesome being, and not quite his sister any more.
His attention was caught by a low surge of wind outside the open window, and listening to it for a moment he was carried on the sound of the breeze into a kind of trance: his bodily senses were suspended, and ‘A vault seemed to open in the zenith of the far blue sky, a shaft which ran up forever; and the billows seemed to pursue the throne of God; but that also ran before us and fled away continually . . . some mighty relation between God and death struggled to evolve itself until, after what seemed ‘a very long interval’, he regained normal consciousness and found himself standing, as before, by his sister’s bed.

I doubt I will ever again read so poignant a description of a grieving child. Elizabeth had been the only reliable source of affection in Thomas’s love-starved childhood.
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  I had already tried and failed to get into James Rebanks’s  chronicle of a shepherd and the vagaries of sheep herding in the modern world. I mean, slightly over three hundred pages about sheep -really?

The appearance of this title on the trip’s reading list prompted me to try again. Early on, James Rebanks has this to say about his book:

It is the story of a family and a farm, but it also tells a wider story about the people who get forgotten in the modern world. It is about how we need to open our eyes and see the forgotten people who live in our midst, whose lives are often deeply traditional and rooted in the distant past.

Give yourself a little time to get into it – the effort is very worthwhile. And I recommend my post on this delightful book. It contains some great photos as well as links to two memorable video segments. Rebanks, his sheep, and his marvelous sheep dogs – all are wonderfully photogenic.


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Along with several of my mystery-loving friends, Ron and I were all set to take this British Mystery Trip to the north of England, when we were unexpectedly waylaid by a medical situation that had to be seen to in a timely fashion. The outcome, I’m relieved to report, was excellent. I’d been cleared  for take-off, as it were, but the plane had long ago left the airport.

While abroad, my friends were wonderfully supportive, sending periodic dispatches and photos.

Interior of Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home, taken by Marge T.

Alnwick Castle, home to the Dukes of Northumberland, taken by Ann R.

British Mystery Trips always provides an annotated reading list that is a very model of erudition as well as pure literary pleasure. The reading I was able to complete represents only a fraction of what was actually on the list. Needless to say, I don’t regret the time spent on it. On the contrary, I’m grateful.

Rumor has it that beautiful Britain will be around for a long time to come, thereby giving me other opportunities to visit in future. I’m already looking forward to the occasion.

 

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The Past, by Tessa Hadley

May 30, 2017 at 10:44 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

At a recent book group planning session with the AAUW Readers, I gave voice to my frustration with much of the recent fiction that I’ve tried – and failed – to read. Where is the elegance of structure, I moaned plaintively? Where is the graceful, eloquently expressive writing? (You’re talking about craft, my dear friend Helene pointed out, when she and I had  this same conversation several years ago.)

As I was concluding my litany of woes, Debbie, a colleague sitting beside me, leaned over and asked in a whisper if I’d read The Past by Tessa Hadley. “It’s only that you’re passionate about good writing; that’s why I ask.” 

Now I had previously read two novels by this author, The London Train and Clever Girl. I recall enjoying them both a great deal. And I actually had The Past already downloaded onto my Kindle. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Debbie’s words resonated with me. I started Tessa Hadley’s book as soon as I got home. And I knew at once that Debbie was right on the mark with this recommendation.

The Past is a family story, and it reflects generously the messy realities of family life. The Crane family have temporarily abandoned their busy city lives and convened at the house of their late grandparents in the country. There is a question before them: Should  they keep and maintain the house, seat of so many of their childhood memories, or should they sell it? If they decide to keep it, they’ll need to arrange to have work done on it, with all the attendant inconvenience and expense. It would be much simpler to sell up. But then something intangible yet terribly vital will be lost to them forever.

Dramatis personae here consists of three sisters, Harriet, Alice, and Fran, their brother Roland, Roland’s new wife Pilar (or should I say latest wife – apparently he’s had several), Fran’s children Ivy and Arthur, Roland’s teen-aged daughter Molly, and Kasim, Alice’s – well, it’s rather unclear, actually. As you may well imagine, the house becomes a veritable laboratory of tension generation, the level rising and subsiding as argument and irritation are followed by a period of (transitory) calm. And there’s a derelict cottage not far away that’s familiar to Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland from their childhood. It catches some of the spillover from the grandparent house.

This is one of those novels in which as you’re reading, the characters become increasingly vivid, to the extent that you feel you must know them, or at least have known them, at some point in your own life. The conflicts and the emotions are that real.

Hadley’s feel for natural surroundings seems, to this reader, profound:

The lane was strewn with branches fallen in the last high wind; huge oaks growing out of the banks were contorted and bulging with age, their grey hides deeply fissured and crusty. In the high hedgerows the delicate flowering plants of early summer had yielded to coarsely thriving nettles and bramble and dock, rank in the heat. She crossed a stile, then climbed a stubble field up to where cylindrical bales of straw were stored in a Dutch barn. At the top of the hill the wide landscape was proffered bleached and basking, purged of its darkness: there were views across the shining estuary all the way to the blue hills of Wales and, behind her, inland to the moors.

She’s also extremely astute in her observations of children. (In this, she reminds me of Joanna Trollope and Ann Patchett.) Fran’s daughter Ivy is at a volatile age, often beset by surging anger and resentment and prone to misinterpret the words and actions of those around her. And yet she’s pretty much allowed the run of the place. Various people are assigned supervision of Ivy and her little brother Arthur, with the result sometimes being they they’re being supervised by no one in particular. It  seems to me only sheer luck that prevents her from precipitating a full blown disaster.

The odd result of all this commotion is that although The Past hasn’t get an especially dynamic plot, it has still got plenty of suspense. Oh – and lest I forget to mention it – Tessa Hadley has a wonderfully wry and subtle sense of humor.

This is a marvelous novel written by a master of her craft. I recommend it highly; I also think it would make an excellent subject for a book discussion group.

Tessa Hadley

 

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‘…Thomas began to learn how to apply the ointment of dreams to the wounds inflicted by experience.’ – The Opium Eater by Grevel Lindop

May 17, 2017 at 12:36 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

  The Opium Eater is subtitled, A Life of Thomas De Quincey. It was a deeply turbulent and difficult life. As an adult, De Quincey was chronically short of funds and relentlessly hounded by creditors, frequently needing to flee from them and find repose in the homes of friends or in designated sanctuaries like Holyrood House in Edinburgh. His health was frequently poor, with problems exacerbated by his use of opium.

All of this was preceded by a childhood positively Dickensian in its cruelty. That the cruelty was in the main psychological made it no less devastating to Thomas, a child in desperate need of warmth and encouragement. His mother Elizabeth Quincey, a domineering woman with a heart of flint, believed that praising children promoted vanity and this refrained from demonstrating any kind of approval or even basic kindness toward her children.

De Quincey’s father, a successful merchant, was often absent. He finally came home for good, to die of tuberculosis at the age of 40, as Thomas was approaching his eighth birthday. Shortly prior to this, Thomas had lost the one bright light of his chilldhood: his sister Elizabeth, who died at the age of nine.

What a catalog of miseries! The burden of sadness must have been nearly intolerable. And as for the mother in the case, I found her conduct so enraging that I had to stop reading from time to time, to give myself a chance to simmer down.

Despite the absolute lack of maternal love and support, De Quincey began to exhibit signs of an insatiable intellectual curiosity. These were accompanied by unmistakable signs of brilliance. His scholarship in the fields of the classics and philosophy was deeply impressive.

At thirteen he wrote Greek with ease; at fifteen he not only composed Greek verses in lyric measures, but could converse in Greek fluently and without embarrassment; one of his masters said of him, “that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.”

From NNDB.com

De Quincey attended Oxford but does not seem to have derived much joy from the experience. He began his writing career as a journalist, editor, and reviewer. He earned a precarious living in that manner  for the rest of his life. He married Margaret Simpson, a farmer’s daughter whom he loved dearly.

To this superb young woman . . . I surrendered my heart forever almost from my first opportunity of seeing her; for so natural and without disguise was her character and so winning the simplicity of her manners, due in part to the deep solitude in which she had been reared, that little penetration was required to put me in possession of all her thoughts and to win her love.

Quoted by Grevel Lindop from “The Household Wreck,” a story by De Quincey

They had a large family, though a number of the children did not survive to adulthood. The saddest story on that subject involves their son William. He contracted a rare and particularly cruel cancer called chloroleukaemia and died at the age of eighteen. He was the firstborn of Margaret and Thomas; they were devastated by the loss.

Somehow, amidst all the pain, loss, and hardship, De Quincey persevered. In September 1822, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” was published in London Magazine:

The Confessions were instantly famous and have remained so ever since. Between 1821 and 1823 some fifteen reviews appeared, nearly all of them enthusiastic about the book’s style and imaginative power, though a few thought the author vain or immoral and there were doubts about the truth of his story. Imitations and parodies abounded, and before long De Quincey’s literary influence, unknown to him, was spreading abroad. In 1828 his work was introduced to France by Alfred de Musset in L‘anglais, mangeur d’opium, a very free adaptation; in 1860 a better version was to be made by Baudelaire in Les paradis artificiels, and by then the Confessions had reached Edgar Allan Poe and contributed an important element to his style and vision. vision. De Quincey had written a classic work.

I cannot praise this biography too highly. Grevel Lindop’s writing is wonderful; his research, exhaustive. This was obviously a labor of love, and I, for one, loved it.

Grevel Lindop

Here, from Lindop’s site, is the story of his thorough-going involvement in the life and work of Thomas De Quincey:

In the late 1970s I became interested in Thomas De Quincey, ‘the English Opium-Eater’, essayist and friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge. I wrote a biography of him, published in 1981 as The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. Later I edited his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings for the Oxford World’s Classics series in 1985, and later still I piloted The Works of Thomas De Quincey, a 21-volume complete edition of his writings, produced by a team of eleven editors under my direction and published in 2000-03.

There’s much more in this biography that what I’ve described above. Of especial interest is De Quincey’s relationship with Wordsworth and his family. Anyway, read it, for that and for so much more.

The question arises as to what to read by De Quincey himself. I won’t deny that I find some of his writings abstruse. For one thing, his prose is liberally sprinkled with quotations from the Latin and Greek. For another, there is an antiquarian aspect to his prose that can  be rather daunting for the modern reader – or this reader, at any rate. Be that as it may, there are works that Lindop really made me want to read: The Avenger, The English Mail Coach – and of course, The Confessions. I’m currently rereading On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts and finding it tougher going than I did this first time; don’t ask me why. I do, though, have to share this quote from it:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.

The tone, I think, is what makes On Murder especially memorable. A good place to start, though, would be On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth. It’s short, powerful, accessible, and deeply profound.

Thomas De Quincey 1785-1859

 

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From Jane Austen, to Reginald Hill, to Sir Thomas Browne, and back to Reginald Hill, in one easy leap

March 19, 2017 at 3:28 pm (Anglophilia, books, Mystery fiction)

  The March 13 issue of The New Yorker featured a delightful piece by Anthony Lane about Sanditon,  Jane Austen’s final unfinished novel. By the time I finished reading it, I was scrambling to find a downloadable version. I’ve read all the other Austen novels – more than once, in some cases – but like many, I’ve always assumed that ‘unfinished’ meant ‘not worthwhile.’ Not so, avers Mr. Lane:

Although—or precisely because—“Sanditon” was composed by a dying woman, the result is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.

This encomium put me in mind of Reginald Hill’s novel The Price of Butcher’s Meat, in which Dalziel goes to a seaside resort called Sandytown, ostensibly to recover from wounds received in a recent attempt on his life. The place name is an homage to the fictional Sanditon of Austen’s invention. Hill says he got the idea when he had the pleasure of attending a conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Here are his prefatory notes to the novel:

To Janeites everywhere

and in particular to those who ten years ago in San Francisco made me so very welcome at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s AGM, of which the theme was “Sanditon–A New Direction?” and during which the seeds of this present novel were sown. I hope that my fellow Janeites will approve the direction in which I have moved her unfinished story; or, if they hesitate approval, that they will perhaps recall the advice printed on a sweatshirt presented to me (with what pertinence I never quite grasped) after my address to the AGM

–Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint–

and at least agree that, though from time to time I may have run a little mad, so far I have not fainted!

(AGM stands for Annual General Meeting.)

Reginald Hill passed away in January of 2012 at the age of 75. Later that year, the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain posted a memorial page in his honor on their site. I was deeply honored to be asked to contribute to this project. Click here to read what I wrote.

This might be a good time to revisit one of my favorite YouTube clips: Emma Thompson’s acceptance speech at the 1995 Golden Globe Awards for best screenplay for Sense and Sensibility:

The Price of Butcher’s Meat is the penultimate Dalziel and Pascoe novel, and this bit of reminiscence reminds me how much I loved those novels and how much I miss the presence on the mystery scene of the erudite and witty Reginald Hill.

The novel’s title is taken from a passage in Sanditon:

Aye–that young Lady smiles I see–but she will come to care about such matters herself in time. Yes, Yes, my Dear, depend upon it, you will be thinking of the price of Butcher’s meat in time.

But  the British edition has a far more euphonious title: A Cure for All Diseases. The phrase originates in this apt and wry comment from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici:

We all labour against our own cure, for death is the cure of all diseases.

Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a physician and author of works in a variety of fields. He was one of those admirable polymaths who frequently spring up in the course of British scientific and literary history.

Statue of Sir Thomas Browne in Norwich City Center

(You could say that Emma Thompson – writer, actress, and scholar – is another such polymath.)

*********************

The Price of Butcher’s Meat is followed by Midnight Fugue, the last novel the Dalziel and Pascoe series. Here is rare footage of Reginald Hill discussing that book:

 

 

 

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