John Galsworthy – The Forsyte Saga


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“An intimate incarnation of the disturbance that Beauty effects in the lives of men”

I had never seen either the landmark 1967 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, starring Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter and Kenneth More as the three points of the major love story triangle, nor the 2002 remake with Damien Lewis, Gina McKee and Rupert Graves, but I did, I thought, know the story, despite not having read Galsworthy’s 3 volume epic, with two interludes.

Though originally published as a complete set as ‘The Forsyte Saga’ in 1922, Galsworthy had been writing his saga of an upper middle class family for over 15 years as the first volume The Man of Property had been published in 1906. In fact, he continued to follow the generations of Forsytes in the writing of a second trilogy The Modern Comedy between 1924 and 1928, and then a third three volume set, End of the Chapter, between 1931 and 1933.

Eric Porter, Nyree Dawn Porter, Kenneth More

And I must say, that though some aspects (for example the laying out of details of matters financial and legal in terms of entails, wills, investments, death duties and the like) had me reading without due focus and attention, I found this a fascinating, absorbing, moving read. Characters are wonderfully drawn, shown in complexity, and the rifts, risings and fallings of society itself, as followed through the generations of one particular family, which in this first trilogy of Galsworthy’s three trilogies, spans the period 1886 to 1920, works brilliantly

Damien Lewis, Gina McKee, Rupert Graves

We start in the high stability and certainty, with this family, in the Victorian era. Two generations earlier the Forsytes had been settled in Dorset, farmers. Now they are men of property, solicitors, financiers, investors, doing very well for themselves. The ‘old generation’ whose fortunes are first followed, are the ten, very wealthy, sons and daughters of “Superior Dosset” Forsyte, who became a builder, and amassed the family wealth through property

The first book, The Man of Property, begins with an engagement party gathering, of the great-grand daughter of Superior Dosset (long deceased) The family fortunes, togetherness and standing are at their height.  It is 1886 The last volume of this first trilogy is the marriage of a much younger great-grand daughter of Superior Dosset, one who is part of that giddy generation of flappers, young men and women fortunate enough to have been born a little too late to have engaged in the 1914-18 war

The main protagonists and driving forces in the novel are two cousins, very different from each other, ‘Young’ Jolyon Forsyte, an artist, son of Old Jolyon, a tea merchant and chairman of various companies, and Soames, the son of solicitor James. Old Jolyon and James, now elderly men are 2 of the 10 children of Superior Dosset. Soames, The Man Of Property believes in ownership – whether of artefacts – he is a successful speculator in art collection – or of people. Soames is married to the much younger Irene, an unwilling kind of femme fatale, purely because she is an eternal kind of beauty – of soul, as much as of body.

Could a man own anything prettier than this dining-table with its deep tints, the starry, soft-petalled roses, the ruby coloured glass, and quaint silver furnishing; could a man own anything prettier than the woman who sat at it?

The artist Young Jolyon has a different kind of worship of beauty – whether of people, or of art, nature, or any other manifestation of beauty – that it cannot be owned

it had been forgotten that Love is no hot-house flower, but a wild plant, born of a wet night, born of an hour of sunshine, sprung from wild seed, blown along the road by a wild wind. A wild plant that, when it blooms by chance, within the hedge of our gardens, we call a flower; and when it blooms outside we call a weed; but, flower or weed, whose scent and colour are always wild!

A struggle goes on between what Galsworthy terms ‘the Forsyte nature’ as typified by Soames – those aspects of society which seek to own, confine, regulate, and are cautious, rational, and repress or are uncomfortable with mystery, and what art seeks, meaning beyond the tangible.

the sanctity of the marriage tie is dependent on the sanctity of the family, and the sanctity of the family is dependent on the sanctity of property. And yet I imagine all these people are followers of One who never owned anything. It is curious!

I can’t and won’t say more about the strong narrative, the complexities and contradictions of character, and how the author is able to look at changes in culture, thinking, the progress of science and industry, politics, and much more through his complex family saga. He writes crisply and prosaically when needed, but, my how he also soars with metaphor, as appropriate

Suffice it to say, I have pages and pages of underlinings – Galsworthy’s truly epic piece of work is one of those which, as much as the reader would like to read on, read on, in order to discover ‘what happens next’, they are bound, if they really want to get the richness of the books, to stop, reflect, and absorb everything which the author is exploring

The Forsyte Saga UK
The Forsyte Saga USA


Domenico Scarlatti – Angela Hewitt – Hyperion (2016)


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“The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails”

It was searching for a You Tube video with Scarlatti piano pieces, to illustrate a post which happily brought me to the first of Angela Hewitt’s Scarlatti series CD

As Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) wrote over 500 piano sonatas, Hewitt’s intention, as I understand it, is to release more CDs, with a selection of the sonatas which she believes could work well together, as in a concert setting. They are quite short, most typically between 3 and 6 minutes. She has chosen and grouped the programme into sequences which she believes work well together, rather than the more obvious sequential, with the major and minor paired. She explains in the liner that sometimes one of a pair is weaker than the other which would make listening a more uneven experience

Hewitt not only plays these, deliciously, as if in some miraculous way music just happened to pour out from her fingertips, but she also writes liner notes of great clarity and illumination. Though the notes will I assume make even more sense to musicians, they are full of insightful pointers that open the pieces out to greater enjoyment still, for non-musicians

giphy starlings

I know that these pieces, most of them, are clearly not easy to play – the rapidity of notes, the interesting rhythms, the fiendish, darting crossing of hands, trills, turns, dabbed at notes, but the glory is that I was not sitting jaw dropped in admiration at what must be the strength, flexibility and control in the bones, nerves and muscles of her hands. I had no sense of the effort such mastery must take. Instead, this sense of music as an absolutely natural dynamic – like water racing over over pebbles in a stream, breezes whipping through leaves

The first two lines of a long forgotten poem, Sunday Morning  by Louis Macneice flashed through my mind as I listened to Hewitt dance through these pieces – many of them were indeed dance inspired, dance rhythms

Down the road someone is practising scales,

The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,

Not that Hewitt’s playing sounds like the practising of scales, but it is quicksilver

Scarlatti by Domingo Antonio Velasco 1738

Unfortunately, I had been hoping to find a You tube of a single sonata, by Hewitt, to embed, but alas, there is none, only the short compilation by Hyperion of this 2015 CD

Volume 2 of her Scarlatti sonatas will no doubt make its appearance here in due course. I have that pleasure to explore when I have soaked myself thoroughly in this first CD

However, I did find quite an interesting series of short lectures on ‘the Scarlatti Effect’ . The other three can be found on YouTube and there are of course other videos of other Scarlatti interpreters playing some of the 500. But for the moment, just leave me with Hewitt, whilst leaves, breezes, fountains, silvery shoals of fish and brooks-a-babbling pour from her fingers

There is a fairy story about a girl blessed by a fairy, so that each time she spoke, sparkling gems of great riches, rubies, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and pearls, fell from her mouth. That must have been a bit of a burden, actually, far better to receive the gift of pouring music from fingertips!

Angela Hewitt Scarlatti Vol 1 Hyperion Amazon UK
Angela Hewitt Scarlatti Vol 1 Hyperion Amazon USA

Rebecca Solnit – Men Explain Things To Me : And Other Essays


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‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ for the Twenty-First Century

I have adored Rebecca Solnit’s writing since I found her wonderful book exploring an activity almost all of us do, or have done, and take for granted, though some of us have a passion for it – walking.  Her book Wanderlust, A History of Walking showed what a fine, broad, interesting mind she has, exploring the biology and evolution of walking, the development  of walking for pleasure instead of necessity, cultural attitudes to walking, the sexual politics of walking, walking as resistance and political action, and much much more.

So I knew I was going to be absorbed, educated, enlightened angered and amused by Men Explain Things To Me and Other Essays, a collection of investigations into various aspects of the relationship between men and women, and into the workings of a society which has clearly shown of late how far we still have to go

In the first, title essay, Solnit looks at ‘mansplaining’ though she doesn’t use the term with a wince-worthy encounter with someone who clearly was all mouth and no ears.

The Longest War explores the dark subject of rape.

We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender

Worlds collide in a Luxury Suite takes the issue of power and domination into the relationship between capitalism, the IMF, and the way the developing world has been exploited and held back. She links this story with the personal one of Dominique Strauss-Kahn formerly head of the IMF, and the African chambermaid he was charged with assaulting

In Praise of the Threat looks at the changing history of marriage, and how same-sex marriage, without the historic inequalities of marriage between the sexes, metaphysically may make for a recognition that a marriage should be between equals. Which is not what marriage has traditionally been.

Grandmother Spider examines the invisibility of women within much genealogy. Look at the Bible, as example. All those begats, almost all men. Where are the daughters in  the list, where the mothers?

Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on; the tree branches, and the longer it goes on the more people are missing: sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, great-grand-mothers, a vast population made to disappear on paper and in history

Woolf’s Darkness is a celebration of Virginia Woolf, and her willingness to face the darkness – her own and the world’s, and to engage with the mysteriousness of life, and the not-knowing. This is probably the most poetic of the essays. By which I mean that it takes the reader, by flash of unknown and surprising juxtapositions, as poetry does, into seeing the non-linear nature of our lives

We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognise that we don’t. Sometimes I think these pretences at authoritative knowledge are failures of language: the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation

Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force is a celebration of feminism, which, as Solnit points out is not just about changing women’s lives for the better. We (men and women) are on a journey here

Feminism is an endeavour to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, Innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth – and in our minds, where it all begins and end”

“I think the future of something we may no longer call feminism must include a deeper inquiry into men. Feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world; many men are on board with the project, but how it benefits men, and in what ways the status quo damages men as well, could bear far more thought

Thought provoking, articulate, beautifully written; thoroughly recommended

Men Explain Things To Me UK
Men Explain Things To Me USA

2017, the reading year. Reading Bingo, and onwards to 2018


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2017 has been not the best of years, out in the world with the various heading-rapidly towards-disaster-and-foolishness events which certainly seem to be alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic.

It may or may not be coincidental that not only has it been a very bad year for my reviewing, but also for the memorable excellence of my reading (see next paragraph). I had a complete reviewing break for two months where I was working far too hard. I have been reading, reading, but seem unable to get my reviewing backlog down – currently just shy of 20 titles.

It has also been an unusually poor reading year in that a fair proportion of my reading did not make the ‘clear 4 star minimum. without rounding up’ for reviewing here – I only review what I am recommending. And some books were not good enough to stay with, and got abandoned, unfinished, unreviewed at all, anywhere. Punishment enough to read as far as I did, to spend further time thinking about such turkeys in order to write a review…life is far too short.

So, to that Bingo. I have tried where possible, to give preference to what is already  reviewed here – but there are titles which are still part of my backlog of what WILL be recommended reads, but are waiting to be reviewed.

There are links to all the original reviews on book titles within text, (as long as I HAVE reviewed them) not the pictures……and also, links to other blogs in places where thanks are due…….  If the chosen book is recommended by me but the review will be for future writing and posting, the link will be to that South American river site, where hopefully you can do a look inside.

More than 500  pages…..A good deal more, at 768 pages will be Mackinlay Kantor’s monumental American Civil War Pulitzer Prizewinning  Andersonville This is not available on Kindle though, and is something of a ‘forgotten classic’, winning its Pulitzer in 1956. More readily available at reasonable price Stateside, I read it as a small group ‘Buddy Read’ in my on-line book group, The Buddies each chose an American classic. I could easily have slotted this one into the next category, but as this was the only over 500 page novel I read which I can recommend………….(Other over 500s were abandoned turkeys. And I am vegetarian.)

A Forgotten Classic…..The Buddy group within the group again came up trumps (oh dear, that word has lost its original meaning, which I intended here), for our next lit-fic foray, ‘European (including UK)’ We gave one person two choices, as hers were short stories/novellas to attract more of the group to old classics (I think those of us in the Buddy might indeed ourselves be the old classics of the group !) So, not Flaubert’s most well-known novel, but the short, beautiful story of a faithful servant A Simple Heart 

A Book That Became A Movie…….there might have been several choices here, but the dark, perhaps horribly prescient, The Road seems almost too obvious a choice in the year where a dangerous and terrifyingly, elected man is escalating the despoiling of our planet

A Book Published this Year……has me staying Stateside with Jennifer Egan’s absorbing Manhattan Beach . 3 stories, interlinking, and a setting largely as America enters the Second World War, and women are moving into areas of the workforce not previously available to them.

A Book with A Number In the Title….Well I read a few, but the only one which I’m champing at the bit to recommend is one which is a scheduled post for next month, Joanna Cannon’s second book, to hit the stores on 11th Jan Three Things About Elsie There are reviews up (as positive, for the most part, as mine will be) but these are from Amazon Vine. Those of us who read and reviewed this from NetGalley are not allowed to post ours on Amazon till publication day

A Book Written by Someone Under 30…..Anne Brontë was only 28 when her second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published, and the following year, she was dead of consumption. Anne’s writing is being re-appraised, re-appreciated. She rather stands outside the Romantic Tradition of her sisters, and is being seen now in the light of being a feminist writer, a realist, someone with views which sit her beside politicised sisters. This one was my own choice for our Buddy foray into ‘Europe’ (as opposed to American), and old classics. How I finally came to read it, for the first time, will be the byline for another choice (non-fiction)

A Book With Non-Human Characters.…The weird and wonderful Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Cat’s Cradle Book was so happily brought to my attention by Jane from Beyond Eden Rock. Otherwise, this slot would have been filled by something which did not get reviewed on here. Unfortunately though, this delightful collection of folk tales told to kittens by their mothers is out of print, and I may have snaffled the last easily available, modestly priced on the internet copy. Keep your eyes peeled, habitués of second-hand shops for any chance found copies. It is lovely and features all sorts of talking animals

A Funny Book’s… place goes to a book which I so happily re-read, and is, indeed funny, but, oh so very much more than just a funny book. Gerald Durrell’s book about his childhood on Corfu My Family and Other Animals is a stunning delight for lovers of beautiful writing, of autobiography, and of close and loving observation of the natural world. This could also have won a place as a book which scares me….young Gerald loved all creatures……even including praying mantids, creatures which belong in my nightmares, mainly due to the detailed descriptions which terrified me, and which I read here as a child. Sadly, it was these which put paid to the fantasy that perhaps I could be a naturalist………

A Book by a Female Author… (sighs that this category might even be deemed to be necessary at all) but I am going to fill it with a book which is still waiting to have its 5 star, more if I could, review written. That glorious writer Rebecca Solnit, whose book Wanderlust: A History of Walking was one of the first load of reviews from my prior reviewing which I posted on here when I first started blogging. This year I read her book which probably fits this ‘by a woman’ category with nice irony and disdain Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays

My book with a mystery….. almost turned out to be a double mystery. It is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land I had adored her first novel The Historian, a historical/vampire story. I do not normally willingly read the vampire genre, but this was far more than an excuse for lots of gore, wooden stakes and the macabre. So even though the cover, and the setting (Romania) suggests the mystery will involve the pointy toothed ones, there are far more mysteries, and some, far deadlier and more chilling, which come along with twentieth century totalitarian politics

A book with a one-word title…….this must go to a wonderful writer on perfume, particularly natural perfumes. Mandy Aftel is a bespoke perfumer, teacher of perfume making, and, equally as important, a wonderful writer. She was in a prior life a psychotherapist, so her book is full of science, and of mystery and poetry. He description of natural perfume ingredients, and the potency of perfume, and its initial linking to the sacred, through the ages, is sheer delight. And don’t even get me started on the line drawings….Fragrant DOES have a sub-title, but I’m choosing to ignore that, as it is in tiny letters!

For my Book of Short Stories...I was very impressed with most of the stories in Jen Campbell’s The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night This is Campbell’s first foray into fiction …and a fine one it is too. She has a dark and vivid imagination, and I look forward to reading more of her imaginative writing. She may be known to those who love books about books, books about bookshops. As a bookseller in independent bookshops she has compiled a couple of books about the weird things customers say in bookshops, and also, a celebration of the world-wide quirkiness and style of independent booksellers

For my free space choice……There were so many I wanted to include here but I decided it must be Colm Toibin’s House of Names which explores the Oresteia story. I do particularly love Toibin’s explorations of myth and history. This left me feeling half here, half millenia ago. It was a hard choice, though, between this one and a couple of other books by less well established writers,; Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fires, and Sara Taylor’s second novel The Lauras were both singing a siren song. As was Richard Flanagan’s First Person, still stuck in my to be reviewed backlog

A book set on a Different Continent… yields that written by a favourite children’s author of mine, Marcus Sedgwick. Another book which seems a particularly pertinent one this year. Sedgwick has written a book for older teens set on the Mexican side of that proposed wall – so Central America. The cover of Saint Death is clearly designed to bring in YAs who like action and the macabre. It was the author (I have read many of his books) which drew me – I knew it would be a very different sort of book – and it is.

A book of Non-Fiction…. has to be Samantha Ellis’ Take Courage This is a kind of hybrid of biography, literary criticism and autobiography. The subject matter is Anne Bronte, her life and her writing, an analysis and review of how her writing was seen over the last 150 odd years, and also the influence of her writing on feminist writers. Ellis herself is one such. It was this book which made me, long, long after I should have done, pick up A Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I had fallen into the trap of not exploring her writing because of the way she had been dismissed by literary critics.

The First Book By A Favourite Author….must involve Ngaio Marsh, regarded as ‘The Empress’ of Golden Age crime. I am working my way sequentially through her canon (I think it is Book 10 which is waiting for its review before I am allowing myself to read the next. So, with a marvellous classic country house setting setting is the very first outing with wonderful Roderick Alleyn, A Man Lay Dead. Now the link is to a portmanteau review as my copy was a book containing the first 3 books, each of which gets its own review in the one post

A Book You Heard About On-Line might be another redundant category these days, given that so many of us discover books through bloggers, NetGalley, Goodreads, Amazon reviews etc. I am going to pick – because I really want to flag it up again ‘Samer’s’ The Raqqa Diaries, which I got as a digital ARC. This might also have been my ‘author under 30’ ‘Samer’ (anonymity essential, as his family are still in Syria) was part of a resistance group struggling both against the Assad Regime and against Daesh, who took Raqqa. Grim, humbling, heartbreaking and inspiring all at once

A Best Selling Book…. had me eventually surrendering to Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent which reminded me so much of the vitality and exuberance of writing to be found in Sarah Waters Victorian set writing. A similarly twisty turny delight in the Victorian period, the conventions of its literature, and the telling of a wonderful yarn. Assuredly, this was not just a book with an utterly gorgeous cover. I had feared it might only be a hyped book, and I ended up one of the many who fell under Perry’s spell

A book based on a true story…. was a marvellous crime and detective re-read, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time published in 1951. And that I came to read it again, for possibly the 4th, but at least the 3rd time, was because its 1951 publication meant it was my choice for Karen of Kaggsy’sBookish Ramblings co-hosted The 1951 Club. Co host of this was Simon of Stuck In A Book The true story, of course, that the book is based on, is the mystery of ‘What Happened to the Princes In The Tower’ and the whole complexity of the end of the Wars of The Roses, and the Tudor Succession. Richard IIIrd, in other words, wintry discontent, glorious summer of the sun/son of York and all

A book right at the bottom of my TBR… had to be a book I kicked myself for avoiding for so very very long. The estimable Fiction Fan had recommended this to me back in 2015. I bought it, and it languished on the bedside table, hidden by newer purchases. It almost became a running joke – was i ever going to read it? It seemed a good idea to make it MY Buddy Read Choice for our ‘American classics’ And I completely fell under the spell of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral I must be honest though and say the rest of the buddies really did not like it and I think we all wondered if we had been reading the same book as each other. I remain so moved by it, and so glad I read it, finally

A Book Your Friend Loves….One of the buddies (can you tell there are a lot of plugs for this group who are wanting to recruit members….more later) strongly recommended John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies to me. And how right she was. Reminding me not a little of William Boyd’s spanning-the-history-of-the-century books, this is a beautiful, warm narrative of an Irish boy, from 1945 to 2015. Fact and fiction wonderfully woven together with ‘real’ characters occasionally drifting through the margins

A Book That Scares You….Well Fiction Fan scores tangentially here, pushing me towards Algernon Blackwood’s extremely scary The Willows – the link is to HER review, though I have also read and reviewed it on here. It would indeed have been MY scary one, except that a commenter on that review suggested I should check out Blackwood’s The Wendigo. I have to admit that the shivery chilly scale of terror did indeed get even higher. Be afraid….be very very afraid

A book that is more than 10 years old.. is going to be another marvellous Buddy read, or, in fact, another re-read, from the American book project. This was the choice of the person who recommended the Boyne, and was one we all thought terrific. Published in 1966 Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is the story of a crime which happened in 1959 and shocked America – just that, a murder which took place ‘In Cold Blood’ and seemed to be a reflection of a changing society, losing its sense of apple-pie security

The second book of a series…. is sometimes the category I fall down on, as I am not a big ‘series’ follower. Well, not this year! Once again my online group, but this time, the group as a whole introduced me to a new author, when we chose, from the 3 books offered by the co-hosts, Mick Herron’s first in his series about the Z listers of Intelligence, dark, terrifying, and very funny. So I read Slow Horses and was instantly hooked, up-ended surprised, shocked, delighted……and have gone roaring through all 4. Book 5 comes out next year – I can’t wait – but, yes, I also read the second book in the Slough House/Jackson Lamb series Dead Lions

So to a book purely on the colour of its cover – Blue..Well I feared I might have used blues up in other categories, but, actually the blue was a hard choice between several worthy contenders. I decided, in this remarkably dystopian year, to go for Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters It is a horrific, beautifully written dystopia, which seems rather less ‘speculative fiction’ at this point, than one would like. It could easily have filled the ‘a book that scares you’ category, but for far less pleasant reasons. We read ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night for a kind of pleasure that we aren’t in a haunted house at this point – but, dystopias when we might be there, in some ways……….

So……..despite in some ways a disappointing reading year, due to the larger number of abandoned reads/so so, okay only reads, I’m delighted with the books on my ‘card’

And for those who might be interested in an online book club – we are a small group, choosing a book a month to do an online discussion of, which happens on a Sunday early evening. Those who can’t make the ‘live’ tend to post answers to discussion questions later. I have been very pleased with the more informal ‘join if you want’ Buddies this year, with those of us taking part reading something like a chapter a day and perhaps posting or offering a discussion point at some point during the week, and carefully avoiding any reading ahead reveals. Although UK based we currently have a Canada based member and have also had a Statesider Here is an email to contact one of the co-hosts if you want to find out more

And it only remains, this being my last post of 2017, to wish for all of us that our 2018s might be a year in which we see our extraordinary species embracing more of its amazing, inspiring side, treasuring our planet and our interconnectedness.

Anne Brontë – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


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The cold clear eye of the youngest Brontë: Marriage can seriously damage your health

I’m slightly shame-faced to say that until this year I had never read either of the two books written by the youngest Brontë sister, Anne, despite being an Eng Lit graduate, with a fairly sound lifetime reading of classics habit.

I had accepted, without exploring for myself, the generally expressed opinion that she was a lesser writer than her two more celebrated sisters.

And then I read Samantha Ellis’s wonderful biography Take Courage : Anne Brontë and the Art of Life. I very much admire Ellis’ writing, so the fact she was so warmly championing Anne meant I was going to rectify my ignorance of her writing. I had also been aware that she has very much been taken up by feminist readers and writers, as having a far less ‘romantic’ viewpoint, and engaging with far more realism, and, indeed, one could say political (left leaning) concerns.

Brontë sisters, by Patrick Branwell Brontë, with himself, originally between Emily and Charlotte, painted out by him

At the time, her writing, particularly The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was, on its first printing both popular and horrifyingly shocking, unmasking as it did, alcoholism, sexual abuse within marriage, adultery – and having a strong female character who takes the choice to break free of the despotism of her husband. This was Victorian upper middle class society, and marriage as commercial transaction, laid bare. Much of the filthy linen in society given a very thorough public washing.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published in 1848. It wasn’t until 1870 that the Married Womens’ Property Act gave women the right to own any property of their own – whether through the wages from their own work, or from inheritance. Before that time (and therefore at the time of this novel) marriage conferred ownership of the woman herself, and all her material assets, to her husband. Make a bad marriage, and there was little chance of escape, or to live independently. If a woman chose to leave an abusive marriage, without the right to take back control of any property which she had inherited, or to her own wages, if she could work, there was no way to support her children. Single women and widows had rights which married women had forfeited

The central character in the book, Helen Graham, makes an imprudent marriage, and has to find a way to disappear for her own safety and the moral safety of her son. More than this, Helen is strong, intelligent, and is able to make her own way as an artist, and support herself and her son through her art. In many ways, she is a kind of forerunner and beacon, in fiction, for the women Virginia Woolf was writing about and making clarion calls for in A Room of One’s Own

I found Wildfell Hall, in terms of its subject matter, marvellous, and yes, in many ways Anne’s creation seemed to speak in a far more profoundly and tellingly modern way than Emily or Charlotte’s. But – though the subject matter itself makes me completely understand why she has been rediscovered by feminists, I did find myself in agreement, still, with that judgement of her being a lesser writer than her sisters. She is far more polemical, and Helen at times is remarkably priggish, spouting page after page of extremely fine philosophical diatribe. The structure of the novel is also, perhaps, a less happy one. A large part of the book is a recounting, several years after the events of the novel, by one of the central characters in the book, Gilbert Markham.  This is done in the form of letters written by Markham to a close friend. The letters never, to me, seemed the kind of thing a man would write to another man, as there was far too much detail about upholstery, clothing, and the like. It would have been a far better decision to have told the story in the third person. Markham also assiduously copies out vast tracts of Helen’s journals in his letters to his friend. Which not only seems rather unethical, but, again, is not quite credible. Without wanting to reveal spoilers, there is also a rather incredible decision taken by the author, to keep information hidden from Gilbert Markham which leads to incidents of high dramatic misunderstanding. A simple revelation would have been what reality should have demanded.

So……….for the importance of Anne’s book, what she is writing about, and when, I absolutely admired it. She is, I think a writer of social realism, and also, despite the shock felt by some contemporaries that what she was writing about was degraded and horrible – an intensely moral one. The degradation and horror were that what she wrote about was real. She was assuredly not a romantic novelist.

Here is Anne, with Helen as her mouthpiece, talking about a disparity she regards as flawed, between the moral education of daughters and the moral education of sons:

You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others. Now I would have both so to benefit by the experience of others, and the precepts of a higher authority, that they should know beforehand to refuse the evil and choose the good, and require no experimental proofs to teach them the evil of transgression. I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself

Although on publication the book was popular with readers, the establishment view was not so favourable, with some contemporary literary critics bemoaning the ‘coarseness’ of the writing and subject matter. For example, Charles Kingsley author of The Water Babies, criticised the book thus:

It is, taken altogether, a powerful and an interesting book. Not that it is a pleasant book to read, nor, as we fancy, has it been a pleasant book to write; still less has it been a pleasant training which could teach an author such awful facts, or give courage to write them. The fault of the book is coarseness–not merely that coarseness of subject which will be the stumbling-block of most readers, and which makes it utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls…

As contrast, here is what Anne herself wrote, in the preface to the second edition, as a rebuttal to criticisms

When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers?

Anne by Charlotte


A powerful read, even though, in my opinion, it is not quite so satisfying purely in its literary merits.

The BBC TV production starred Tara Fitzgerald as Helen,  Rupert Graves as the handsome Byronic reprobate Arthur Huntingdon  and Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham, the assiduous letter writer!

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall UK
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall USA

Madeleine L’Engle – The Young Unicorns


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Read in time, for the 1968 club but bang-slap in the middle of my reviewing hiatus…..

Pressure of work had kept me away from reviewing for a good two months, and I have no idea, even now, when the reviewing backlog will get cleared, particularly as everything hots up again, work-wise, almost imminently.

Nonetheless, at the time I was keen to dig out from my shelves, and re-read, Madeleine L’Engle’s The Young Unicorns, which had been published that year

I had discovered L’Engle, primarily a children’s writer, as she would have been categorised, in the seventies. Her Newbery Medal winning book, A Wrinkle In Time, was published in 1962. This prize is awarded for ‘the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children’. The book was described as ‘a mixture of fantasy and science fiction’ Now, there are of course a lot of books written as ‘Young Adult’ these days, but this was a more unusual book at its time of writing, and the combination of mysticism, philosophy and rather horrifying, not to mention trippy vision, made this a book which was eagerly read by those who were turning on, tuning in and dropping out. ‘An evil planet where all life is enslaved by a huge pulsating brain’ could almost be a dire warning of technology to come, with the ‘brain’ one designed by us, but with capabilities far beyond those of its creators.

L’ Engle’s combination of scientific interest, rationality on the one hand (one side of the brain) and her spirituality and mysticism on the other, was one (and still is, in many many ways) which resonated very strongly with me. L’Engle, who died in 2007, was a Christian, and certainly active faith features strongly, with the Church seen as a powerful potential force for unity. L’Engle’s strong interest in science, and her Episcopalian faith meant that the right leaning fundamentalists within Christianity disapproved strongly of her writing, which was frequently banned from Christian bookstores. Her belief that

 “All will be redeemed in God’s fullness of time, all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ. All the strayed and stolen sheep. All the little lost ones.”

would never have found (and perhaps will never find) acceptance by those who like to believe that some are more equal than others

So…..after a long introduction to L’Engle, whom I have been inspired to further read, or re-read, thanks to the initial push by the 1968 Club, what about this 1968 book?

L’Engle effectively wrote a couple of series of books, which do touch each other, through the meeting or cross-appearance of characters in one or other series. One series primarily concerns the artistic and scientific Austin family, the ‘Chronos books’ The Austin’s are the main players in this book. The other series of books feature the Murry and O Keefe families, the ‘Kairos books’ A Wrinkle In Time belongs to this series

The Young Unicorns is set in New York, at its time of writing.  Dr Austin is a scientist working on a laser micro-ray, which has huge potential for use in healing. However, there are others who become more interested in how the micro-ray might be used as a means of social control, a way of offering some manipulation of the pleasure and reward centres of the brain. Very Brave New World, but without the need for medication to be taken.

Dr Austin is an extremely kindly, moral man, but has a certain naiveté about him. The whole family is strongly musical, and have taken a gifted young violinist, Emily, into their home, while her scientist father, a colleague of Austin’s, is working abroad. There is a challenge for Emily and the Austins. Emily was blinded during what appeared to be a robbery at her home. The robbery appeared linked to the work Austin and others were engaged on.

In the bath Emily was singing. Vicky had learned that Emily did two kinds of singing: when she was happy she invented her own melodies; when she was angry or upset she picked more formal themes from the composers she was studying. Bach always indicated deep and serious thinking, coming to terms with some kind of problem. Chopin and Schumann were indications of self-pity, but were seldom heard. A purely intellectual problem, like trouble with her studies or memorizing from the unwieldy Braille manuscripts was apt to be approached with Beethoven or, by contrast, Scarlatti

Also at large in New York are a group of bad lads, the Alphabat Gang. Worryingly, this group appear to be more organised and manipulated than would be expected. Their numbers are growing. Even more worrying, there appears to be something rotten in the state of the Christian community which centres on New York’s cathedral. Some struggle for power is going on, and forces of light and darkness link both the Church itself and the Institute which Dr Austin works for.

And then, a mysterious genie appears, offering to grant one’s wishes, when the Young Austins, mooching around in an antique shop, rub an old Aladdin’s lamp………But this is not, in any way, a book about ‘magic’ – so what is going on?

This is a crime and mystery thriller, a good and thoughtful one. In many ways, her thoughtful depth and intelligent expectations of and for her young readers, (and older ones!) reminds me of Philip Pullman

Unfortunately, this book only seems to be available now in the UK as a collectable, second hand – without even market place copies at reasonable price. But, for those of you who pleasurably rifle through the shelves of second hand bookshops and charity shops, I really encourage you to snaffle up this, or any other L’Engle

Or head over Stateside, where that large Amazonian store has several market place copies, reasonably priced…..though shipping costs might render this advice stupid

Meanwhile…..Searching for some Scarlatti, finding the heavenly Hewitt, has sent me a scurrying for her two Scarlatti albums. Eagerly awaiting…expect musical reviews. The discs are not available as MP3s, so this YouTube offers the best chance.

The Young Unicorns Amazon USA

Rory Clements – Corpus


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Politics, espionage, murder mystery thriller: 1936, Fascism, Communism and a Royal Abdication

Rory Clements’ Corpus, the start of a new series, I assume, nods towards his well-established John Shakespeare, Tudor set spy thriller series. This is because, though set in that turbulent time of the mid-30’s where totalitarian politics are on the rise, and the only possible response to fascism appears to lead to war, his central character here is an academic, an historian, with a special interest in the politics of espionage in Elizabeth’s court, Robert Cecil and Walsingham.

Tom Wilde is an attractive hero, drawn unwillingly into mystery. An American, with strong links to the UK, he has sadness in his life, as a man whose beloved wife and child died in a car accident. He is no bed-hopping Lothario, though he is aware of feeling a strong attraction for Lydia, a fiercely intelligent literary graduate, poet and publisher, with strong anti-fascist and socialist views

Spanish Civil War – Women from POUM demonstrating against Fascism

It is 1936. No one of intelligence can be unaware that there are choices to be made. Spain is engaged in its own fight against Fascism. There are those engaged in furthering the influence of Fascism, and there are those engaged in countering that, and secrecies, and plots, are all around.

Meanwhile, in England, still a hushed up scandal, and possible constitutional crisis is looming. Edward VIIIth is seriously enamoured of an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. There are those who would see him go – as much for his politics as for anything to do with the constitutional crisis between the King’s position as nominal head of the Church of England, and his desire to marry a divorcee. Edward’s politics were regarded suspiciously. It was thought that he would be more likely to interfere politically, rather than maintain the hands off stance of constitutional monarchy. He was also regarded in Germany as being sympathetic towards the Nazi cause, and so there were those abroad who felt Britain would be a better friend of the Reich if King Edward remained than if he abdicated. Stanley Baldwin, it was known, was implacably opposed to Edward marrying Mrs Simpson, and was inching abdication forward as the only possible solution

Chamberlain, Baldwin and Churchill

When a friend of Lydia’s dies in mysterious circumstances, back in the fiction world of this strongly ‘real world set’ book,  Wilde is drawn into trying to help her find out what has happened – and a real twisty, turny, wheels within wheels, where does anyone’s real allegiance lie tale begins to play out.

This scores, both in page turning plot, and in interesting history.

My draw back from 5 star is the result of the action man finale, where our motorcycling academic hero physically tangles with the bad guys he has been heading towards unmasking. Some might enjoy the derring do, but I generally find that action man hero stuff gets pretty unconvincing, given the real fragility of blood, flesh and bone, even given the fact that adrenaline rushes can numb awareness of horrid injuries

I’m certainly interested in going further with Wilde, and what looks like an intelligent series, and hope for tone down of the more Bondian, blockbuster film stuff, remarkably unreal as it pretty well always is

Corpus UK
Corpus USA


Christmas wishes for all of us……….


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Wishing us all  good time spent with those we love, and those who love us. (and that the ones we love are the ones who  also love us)

May you find your Christmas time be everything you might wish – as far as reality allows (!) and, even if it isn’t, let us all wish for the grace, humour and compassion for ourselves and those in our lives to help all of us appreciate the moments

George Saunders – Lincoln in the Bardo


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“We must try to see one another in this way………..As suffering, limited beings”

George Saunder’s 2017 Booker Prizewinning novel ‘Lincoln In The Bardo’ was a read at turns engaging and frustrating. It certainly fits current Booker trends for having something novel and arresting going on stylistically, and for exploring its subject matter in an unusual way.

The central premise sets the individual pain of the loss of a beloved child for a parent, one who occupies a pivotal place in history, against the pain of many, following the carnage of war. The parent is President Abraham Lincoln, whose beloved son Willie died suddenly of typhoid fever, which fatally raged through him whilst his parents were hosting a glittering reception. Such receptions, then as now, were also crucial political events, and as the American Civil War was current, the state of the nation was a serious one.

Saunder’s novel was inspired by a piteous event, piteous image. Willie’s body was interred in a crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery. Accounts and sources at the time record the fact that Abraham Lincoln visited the crypt twice in the middle of the night, cradling the body of his dead son in his arms

Lincoln with his youngest son, Tad

‘The Bardo’ is a between state, in Tibetan Buddhism, potentially this might be a state of healing, certainly one moving towards some kind of resolution. Here, the between is death, and whatever is to come, after. This might translate as the Christian tradition of Purgatory.

Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby almost must depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget

Lord, what is this? All of this walking about, trying, smiling, bowing, joking? This sitting-down-at-table, pressing-of-shirts, tying-of-ties, shining-of-shoes, planning-of-trips, singing-of-songs-in-the-bath?

Metaphorically, then, the nation itself could also be seen in a ‘between’ –  the conflict of the war itself, which would lead to something else, in the end

The structure of the book is initially complex, though in fact, once the reader accepts it, it becomes clear

Various chapters cite published sources from the time, or from later academic analysis of political events. I don’t know whether all of these are true, because certainly on the digital version, all the citings are within the text, and there is no afterword or bibliographical listing. Some of these texts certainly are real, as I searched for book titles

The bulk of the book is made up of a collection of voices from that Bardo, between state of death, where the dead are still attached to the material plane, and have not lost their desire to return to the land of the living. Spirits – many, inhabit the areas around their own graves, and constantly return to longings for their former lives. Some of the spirits resolve and move on. The spirits dialogue with each other, and there are 3 major voices, representing different times in America’s history.

At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the losses we must experience on the way to that end

It is the shocking, hopeful, strangeness of the living father embracing the body of the dead son which has sent shockwaves through the as yet, unresolved, unaccepting community of dead spirits.

This all offers the chance for the author to explore, in poetic, sometimes very funny, sometimes heart-breaking way, class, race, gender divisions in America. The spirits of the unaccepting dead continue their own individual personalities, unique strengths, unique weaknesses, so there are a crowd of dissenting voices bickering, battling to be heard.

First reading of the Proclamation of Emancipation by Francis B. Carpenter

This is indeed a brave piece of writing, one in which several issues are being explored, but it is not a completely satisfying one, to me. Firstly, I did feel it outstayed its welcome somewhat. To paraphrase the ‘too many notes’ quip for Peter Shaeffer’s Amadeus, ‘too many words’

And, more seriously, there is a kind of ‘wrap’ explaining Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which seems a little too convenient, a little too neatly imaginative.

But……..despite flaws, a piece of writing which lingers

Lincoln in the Bardo UK
Lincoln in the Bardo USA


Algernon Blackwood – The Wendigo


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“Savage and formidable Potencies…..instinctively hostile to humanity”

I was steered towards Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo by someone who read my admiring review of The Willows, another creepy, wonderfully written novella or long short story by Blackwood.

And I must say that I found The Wendigo an even more unsettling read, though also showing Blackwood’s particular interest and strength – the wild, wild, natural world, far from civilisation, and how that ancient world might be at best, indifferent to the puny biped who so often despoils and abuses it, but, sometimes, unleashes a power which might be felt as malevolent towards us

I suspect one reason that The Wendigo worked even more powerfully on me, especially as a long, chilly dark nights winter read, is its own dark, chilly, Northern wintry setting

A small group of moose hunters set forth in Northern Canada. There are a couple of friends, rational men, one a doctor, one a younger Scottish man, more imaginative perhaps, a divinity student. They are accompanied by two guides, also friends of each other, one of whom, a French Canadian, is prone to an occasional dark melancholy. They also have a cook, probably Algonquian, North American/Canadian Indian

Algoquian folklore recounts the presence of a much feared, malevolent spirit, The Wendigo, which inhabits the dark forests.

Rituals of the Sleepless Dead – Dark Art by Dehn Sora

Blackwood’s story explores this. There is, of course, that tension between those who dwell in cities, more or less free from daily exposure to the great wild, and those who are more used to, and both more respectful, and perhaps more fearful, of its power.

Like The Willows, the trajectory of the story begins with a love and an appreciation of the wild, a delight in being far from cities, healthfully experiencing the majesty and awe of nature. And begins, bit by bit, to sow seeds of doubt and terror in the minds, in the imaginings of the characters in the story. Not to mention in the minds and imaginings of the reader.

The forest pressed around them with its encircling wall; the nearer tree stems gleamed like bronze in the firelight; beyond that-blackness, and so far as he could tell, a silence of death. Just behind them a passing puff of wind lifted a single leaf, looked at it, then laid it softly down again without disturbing the rest of the covey. It seemed as if a million invisible causes had combined just to produce that single visible effect. Other life pulsed about them-and was gone.

It may be a while before I walk in forests again, unless the sun is brightly, brightly shining

The Wendigo Amazon UK
The Wendigo Amazon USA