Book Review: Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

10 Nov

Someone at a Distance

The art of letter-writing, as taught at the Pension Ste Colombe, had not included an example of a letter one could write to one’s lover’s wife to ask her to send the clothes he had left behind when he deserted her.

I’m a longtime fan of Dorothy Whipple and Someone at a Distance has been on my to-read list for years. I was inspired to pick it up after abandoning another book (which shall remain nameless) which I’d been struggling with due to overwritten, consciously ‘literary’ descriptions which did nothing to compensate for a rambling plot and vapid characters. Having cast that aside, I wasn’t in the mood to take a risk with my next read. I knew Dorothy Whipple wouldn’t let me down, and she didn’t.

This 1953 novel is a simple story of how a 20-year marriage breaks down, but the depth of insight, sympathy and period detail Dorothy Whipple brings to it make it a fascinating and page-turning read.

What dooms Ellen and Avery North’s marriage is their faith in it and in each other. Ellen believes that Avery is not the type to cheat, and so does Avery. Neither of them see Louise Lanier, the beautiful young Frenchwoman who unexpectedly enters their lives, as a threat until it is too late. Writing at a time when the predatory Other Woman usually took all the blame for marital breakdown, Whipple doesn’t hesitate to depict Louise as a calculating woman who cold-bloodedly sets out to snare another woman’s husband, but she also shows how Avery’s selfishness and vanity make him easy prey, and how Ellen’s trusting and naïve nature sets her up for betrayal and abandonment. Whipple is not sentimental about marriage, which was so heavily idealised and romanticised in the postwar years:

A happily married woman acquires the habit of referring everything to, discussing everything with, her husband. Even the smallest things. Like bad coal, for instance. To be able to say, sitting across the hearth from him in the evening, ‘Isn’t this coal bad?’ and to hear him say, looking up from his book at the fire: ‘Awful. Sheer slate,’ is to have something comfortable made out of even bad coal.

A loved husband is the companion of companions, the supreme sharer, and a happy wife often sounds trivial when she is really sampling and enjoying their mutual and unique confidence. But in doing it, she largely loses her power of independent decision and action. She either brings her husband round to her way of thinking or goes over to his, and mostly she doesn’t know or care which it is.

For twenty years Ellen had been so used to acting with Avery, never without him, that she had waited for him to agree that something must be done about Louise.

I have a fascination with literature’s bad girls, and I found Louise a very interesting character, and even an inspiring one. In some respects she is an updated version of the stereotypical French schoolgirls who appeared in Enid Blyton – obsessed with skincare, spending hours on fine needlework, lacking the English sense of honour. However, self-centred, manipulative and unscrupulous women exist in every nationality. It has to be said in Louise’s defence that she works very hard at being a homewrecker. She spends hours on grooming herself and on buying and caring for her clothes, with very glamorous results:

The light from the lamp shone downwards on her smooth, dark head. Her arms were bare and slender on the desk, her dress, her favourite magenta red, fitted closely over waist and bosom and spread into wide skirts as she sat. Avery was drunk; there was no-one to look at her. But it really didn’t matter, because she looked at herself from time to time in the mirror on the wall. She always gave as much pleasure to her own eyes as to any others. More, in fact, because she alone knew what perfect finish she had achieved.

(This was really where the inspiration part came in. It’s no coincidence that shortly after reading Someone at a Distance, I signed up for my first ever beauty box.)

The references to fashion help set the book firmly in the early 1950s. At Christmas Anne, Ellen and Avery’s fifteen-year-old daughter, is delighted with the gift of a white tulle dress with extravagantly full skirts – the archetypal prom dress originally made fashionable by an Edith Head creation for the teenage Elizabeth Taylor in the 1951 film A Place in the Sun. The dress and the role helped promote Taylor from child to adult star. Anne is just one of thousands of girls who hoped for a similar graduation to grown-up status. Ironically, it’s not her sophisticated dress but her father’s adultery which brings to an end her charmed childhood.

Raised during wartime, Anne prefers ‘mock cream’ made with sugar, cornflour and margarine to real cream but also revels in the luxuries returning to British shops – not only the ‘yards and yards’ of white tulle in her dress, but also a box of marrons glacés which have their part to play in the story. Unfortunately for Ellen, the ultimate luxury of a fully-staffed house is now an impossible dream, and while she has ‘daily women’ to help with the housework for two days a week, the rest of the time she struggles alone to keep up pre-war standards. On Christmas Day, not only does she take responsibility for cooking and serving dinner without outside help but in the evening she fills hot water bottles for the whole family and turns down the beds.

Louise, of course, is no help whatsoever.

‘Their conversation,’ thought Louise, ‘is for children and animals. I am here and there are three males. But they look at me with less animation than they look at the cat and don’t speak to me so much.’

The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her. Happy people were so boring.

Despite the differences between them, Ellen and Louise have something in common: they make men the centre of their world. While Louise doesn’t feel alive unless she is basking in male attention, Ellen, deprived of her husband, loses the will to care for herself:

It went dark. Rain scratched at the windowpanes. She added a boiled egg to the belated tea, to make one meal do for two. She had joined the great army of solitary women who have boiled eggs at night, the women without men.

However, the moment her son arrives to visit her, Ellen is restored to brisk efficiency: ‘In five minutes you shall have an omelet, bacon, coffee and goodness knows what.’

The collapse of her marriage at a time when divorce had very serious social consequences for all concerned, starts Ellen on a journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately it seemed to me that the book ends before her journey is complete. The most I can say without spoiling the ending is: I felt the conclusion of the novel was mired in the social customs of the day, and the book’s first readers most likely reacted very differently to the outcome.

This was too domestic and ladylike a novel to cause much of a stir on first publication, but today it should take its rightful place as an English postwar classic.

Image from Christian Image Source

Image from Christian Image Source

FTC required disclosure: I bought my own copy of Someone at a Distance.

Book Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

14 May

Les Miserables

On finishing Les Miserables I ticked another box on the mental list of Really Long Works of Classic Fiction I Want to Read Someday which I have been keeping since I started to read the classics in my teens. I’ve seen off a few of these titles in recent years, including Clarissa by Samuel Richardson and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. These books were usually first issued in separate volumes or instalments and are now published in monolithic blocks which tend to languish on bookshelves unread. (In the case of War and Peace, my copy has been languishing for over a generation, passing unsullied from mother to daughter: it’s a two volume tie-in edition to the BBC adaptation from the early 1970s, in mint condition, which my mother likely bought before I was born.)

I didn’t make much headway at first with Les Miserables and actually put it aside for a few months when I was only three sections into Part One. Reason: the story takes a while to get started. It opens with a description of the career and lifestyle of a bishop who doesn’t have much to do in the story apart from befriend the hero, ex-convict Jean Valjean. Not that the bishop is in any way superfluous: his kindness to Valjean saves his soul, changes his life and sets the plot in motion. But there was rather a lot about him. Then we met a new character, Fantine, but at this point I lost interest and put the book aside for a while. Fantine is an innocent country girl who drifts into sin in the big city (Paris) and will suffer enormously for her fall from grace. Once she is drawn into the orbit of Jean Valjean, who has fallen foul of the law again but has started a new life under a different identity (one of several he will assume in the course of the book), taking the bishop as his role model, I was enthralled and hardly put the book down until I had finished it. I think anyone making a serious attempt on Les Miserables should try to get to the end of Part One (Fantine) – if you’re not absorbed by the story by then, it’s not for you.

For such a long book, there are only a few really important characters: Valjean, Fantine, her waif of a daughter, Cosette, a couple called the Thenardiers and their children, a young lawyer named Marius and to a lesser extent his family and friends. And, of course, Valjean’s nemesis, the police officer Javert. Although the repeated coincidences which bring these people together could strain credibility, Hugo’s writing is so powerful that the action feels fated. This is a high-octane thriller to which Hugo brings a deep understanding of the human condition (one or two overly theatrical moments apart). But there’s much more to Les Miserables: the main action is set against a detailed backdrop of history, politics, society, religion and the revolutions which shook France from 1789 onwards. And that’s where the trouble starts. Hugo’s very lengthy digressions into the battle of Waterloo, the nineteenth-century convent and the Parisian sewers started off interesting and ended up wearying. Not only Hugo, but his characters occasionally plunge into irrelevance, in the form of long speeches stuffed with literary and historical illusions most of which will be a mystery to today’s reader. I ploughed through the unabridged version, but concluded that Hugo was a great writer who needed an equally great editor.

And that editor should have told him to cut the last hundred pages of the book. The final chapters read like fan fiction of the sort that attracts reviews complaining that everyone is acting wildly out of character. It’s hard to explain my objections further while avoiding spoilers, but I will say this: I think Hugo was aiming for a bittersweet ending and ended up piling on improbable melodrama in order not to be left with just the sweet.

I read a print edition of Julie Rose’s translation of Les Miserables for Vintage Books. It’s a beautiful edition, but too heavy to carry around on public transport, so on Kindle, I read Isabel Hopgood’s translation in the Harper Perennial Classic digital edition (excellent value). I preferred the Rose translation, but the Perennial Classic edition has some interesting extras, including the Atlantic Monthly’s July 1862 review of the first volume, Fantine, which condemned the book. 

Its tendency is to weaken that abhorrence of crime which is the great shield of most of the virtue which society possesses, and it does this by attempting to prove that society itself is responsible for crimes it cannot prevent, but can only punish.

The reviewer (Edwin Percy Whipple) correctly divined Hugo’s intention: to create sympathy for Valjean, a criminal whose odyssey begins when he steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Although the harsh penal system which traps him, where petty theft could lead to the galleys or even to the scaffold, has long disappeared, the book remains relevant in the way that it asks the reader to consider how personal and collective responsibility can best be balanced. Taking personal responsibility for your own life is crucial to survival, and no-one demonstrates that better than Jean Valjean. Throughout the book, he shows himself willing to take responsibility for others too, especially those marginalised by society, like Fantine and Cosette. But Hugo was well aware that paternalistic charity, however admirable in itself, was not the answer: for Fantine, Cosette and millions like them to have better chances in life, collective political action was necessary.

Marius and his student comrades famously try to bring about change at the barricades in the uprising of June 1832. Hugo depicts their willingness to lay down their lives in the cause of a republican France with great sympathy, yet he himself sided with the authorities in 1832. He had a great deal in common with the implacable Javert. It is Hugo’s understanding and empathy, his ability to see both sides of a question, which give the book its depth. He is not afraid to contrast the redeemed criminal Valjean with the irredeemable Thenardier couple, career criminals who are also abusive parents. The lost and abandoned children wandering through the novel are his most poignant symbol of societal failure.

In a letter to his Italian publisher (also quoted in the Harper edition), Hugo set out his ambitions for the book:

I do not know whether it will be read by all, but I wrote it for all. It is addressed to England as well as to Spain, to Italy as well as to France, to Germany as well as to Ireland, to Republics which have slaves as well as to Empires which have serfs. Social problems overstep frontiers. The sores of the human race, those great sores which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map. In every place where man is ignorant and despairing, in every place where woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of the book which should instruct him and of the hearth which should warm him, the book of Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: “Open to me, I come for you.”


I have more to say: in fact, two digressions of my own, which will be posted separately. Warning: spoilers.


I bought my own copies of Les Miserables.

Live Chat with Giveaway at BookTrib: Seduction by M. J. Rose

8 May

Seduction GiveawayJust to let you know that BookTrib will be hosting a live chat with M. J. Rose on May 8 at 3.30 pm EST. A free copy of Seduction will be given away among other things.  If you would like to ask the author a question, you will have to create an account with BookTrib, but it is free to do so. Thank you to Veronica Grossman of Meryl L. Moss Media Relations for telling me about this event.

Book Review: Seduction by M. J. Rose

7 May


I don’t usually quote jacket copy in my reviews, but Seduction has a complicated plot, and my brain feels fuzzy today. So here goes:

From the author of The Book of Lost Fragrances comes a haunting novel about a grieving woman who discovers the lost letters of novelist Victor Hugo, awakening a mystery that spans centuries.

In 1843, novelist Victor Hugo’s beloved nineteen-year-old daughter drowned. Ten years later, Hugo began participating in hundreds of séances to reestablish contact with her. In the process, he claimed to have communed with the likes of Plato, Galileo, Shakespeare, Dante, Jesus—and even the Devil himself. Hugo’s transcriptions of these conversations have all been published. Or so it was believed.

Recovering from her own losses, mythologist Jac L’Etoile arrives on the Isle of Jersey—where Hugo conducted the séances—hoping to uncover a secret about the island’s Celtic roots. But the man who’s invited her there, a troubled soul named Theo Gaspard, has hopes she’ll help him discover something quite different—Hugo’s lost conversations with someone called the Shadow of the Sepulcher.

What follows is an intricately plotted and atmospheric tale of suspense with a spellbinding ghost story at its heart, by one of America’s most gifted and imaginative novelists.

Seduction is one of a series, but reading it out of order didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book. I liked Jac, could empathise with her troubled personal life and felt I was given all the necessary backstory without it overwhelming the narrative.

However, the book wasn’t quite what I expected. The copy quoted above puts a lot of emphasis on the Victor Hugo storyline, which was what piqued my interest, as I was reading Les Miserables at the time I requested the galley. Seduction begins with extracts from a secret (fictional) journal written by Hugo which goes into detail on his dealings with the supernatural being known as the Shadow of the Sepulchre. It’s addressed to one of his mistresses, so veers into second person at times, resulting in Hugo telling her in detail about conversations they had and their sexual encounters, which was a slight strain on credibility. Nevertheless, Rose rises impressively to the challenge of writing in Hugo’s voice. I didn’t think her writing had the power of Hugo’s, but nor, thankfully, did it have the interminable digressions into French history, politics, croissants or whatever else happened to be on the great writer’s mind. The background of Hugo’s séances is fascinating, as are many other subjects touched on, including reincarnation and Jungian psychology – Jung, like Hugo, saw meaning in coincidence. (Jac has kept a list of coincidences in her life from her teenage years onwards, which I thought was an intriguing idea). Hugo’s journal extracts alternate with Jac’s story, which is told in the third person, both set in the atmospheric island of Jersey over a hundred and fifty years apart.

Jac describes herself as a mythologist, which sounded to me like a fictional profession, similar to that of Dan Brown’s symbologist, Robert Langdon. Career mythologists are welcome to correct me on this point. Jac presents a television series on myths, which she approaches from a sceptical angle. It is Jersey’s Celtic past which attracts her to the island, but she soon becomes involved in the quest to find Hugo’s secret journal. This quest isn’t as compelling as it might be due to the fact that the reader is already privy to the journal, so isn’t kept waiting as long the characters are for its revelations. When a third strand was added to the story in the form of the past-life memories of a Celtic family which Jac begins to experience, I felt the focus of the book was shifting and fragmenting. The Celtic plotline was as absorbing and well-told as the Victor Hugo story, but there wasn’t enough to tie them together. This isn’t a long book, and more space was perhaps needed to allow the plot and the characters to develop fully. As it is, the Hugo quest is sidelined and although the climax does attempt to integrate the two storylines, it didn’t quite work for me.

Despite these reservations I found Seduction to be a sensitively written and entertaining novel which I would particularly recommend to anyone interested in Victor Hugo and to fans of dual and triple-timeline novels.


Many thanks to Atria Books for providing an electronic review copy of Seduction via NetGalley.

Book Review: The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien

10 Mar

The Forbidden Queen

One of history’s most romantic figures, a widowed queen who defied convention to marry a servant, Katherine de Valois has moved back into the spotlight recently, with novels about her appearing from Vanora Bennett (Blood Royal) and Joanna Hickson (The Agincourt Bride, to be followed by sequel The Tudor Wife). In this offering from Anne O’Brien, Katherine tells her own story.

In keeping with the first-person point of view, the emphasis is on Katherine’s development from naïve young girl to widow and mother and finally to a mature woman who knows what she wants and will do what it takes to get it. Katherine is introduced as a love-starved, convent-educated French princess who hopes her match with Henry V of England will open a happier chapter in her life. Unfortunately, she finds that Henry’s interest in her is limited to her fertility and her claim to the French throne. It’s France he wants to conquer, not Katherine’s heart, and he leaves her to her own devices for much of the marriage.

I meant nothing to Henry other than as a vessel to carry my precious blood to our son, so that in his veins would mingle the right to wear both English and French crowns. I should have accepted it from the very beginning. I had been foolish beyond measure to live for so long with false hopes. But no longer.

After his death,  it’s made very clear to Katherine that as Queen Mother, she has no right to a personal life. But when she finds herself attracted to one of her employees, Owen Tudor, she starts to dream of breaking out of her gilded cage. Owen Tudor is first presented as self-controlled and sexy, swimming naked in the river and intervening to break up swordfights. Unfortunately he develops into an old-school alpha hero who says things like, ‘You were just a witless female’ and ‘Pour me a cup of ale, woman.’ Katherine adores him, but he’s very far from my cup of ale.

The Forbidden Queen is not without a few Hollywood moments - including the sentence which opens the swordfight in which Owen intervenes:

But then came the dangerous rasp of steel as a sword was drawn from a scabbard.

Unfortunately I know from friends who are re-enactors that swords only make that noise in movies (the rasping sound is added in post-production by Foley artists), so this detail jerked me right out of the fifteenth century and into a silver screen epic starring Russell Crowe.

Then there was Katherine’s first encounter with Owen:

And there he stood, Owen Tudor, illuminated by a shimmer of candles because, perhaps out of trepidation at the last, I had lit my room as if for a religious rite.

I couldn’t really understand why Katherine’s trepidation would make her want more light on the scene or why she would want reminders of religious rites at a first encounter with a new lover. I felt this image owed more to contemporary images of bedrooms in honeymoon suites lit with dozens of tealights. In the fifteenth century candles weren’t romantic lighting, they were the usual form of lighting. They were also a status symbol – lots of candles were expensive, another reason why I didn’t think Katherine would light the room this way, as she would be parading her wealth before a man of lower rank. Owen sensibly douses most of the candles before they have sex, but apart from reducing the fire hazard, I had to wonder if as comptroller of the household he wanted to keep the bills down.

Another puzzling moment came when Katherine, who is having difficulty getting pregnant by the King, discusses aids to conception with her ladies-in-waiting:

Meg pursed her lips. ‘Your hips are very small, my lady, for sure. It can make child-bearing difficult.’

My hands clenched into fists, well hidden in the soft silk of my skirts. So the fault was mine that I did not conceive. As perhaps it was, but I heard the scorn behind the carefully phrased fact.

I’m no midwife, but surely small hips cause problems with giving birth, not conceiving? Unless the suggestion is that Katherine’s hips are so narrow that Henry can’t wedge his member in there? That did make me smile, but I think it’s an anatomical impossibility.

However, I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t find much to enjoy in the book. Anne O’Brien’s writing is always at its most powerful at the emotional turning points in Katherine’s life – her reaction to the death of Henry V, her proud response to the end of a broken love affair and her insistence to the Privy Council that she has the right to marry again were three moments when I felt most on her side and caught up in her story. My favourite scene was actually one with the ladies-in-waiting, when Katherine chooses an unusual method of washing the men who have let her down politically and personally right out of her hair:

I lifted a skein of embroidery silks from my coffer, deciding in a moment’s foolishness to make a little drama out of it. ‘Bring a candle here for me.’

They did, and, embroidery abandoned as Cecily brought the candle, they seated themselves on floor or stool.

‘I will begin,’ I said, enjoying their attention. ‘I forswear my lord of Gloucester.’ There was an immediate murmur of assent for consigning the arrogant royal duke to the flames. ‘What colour do I choose for Gloucester?’

They caught the idea.

‘Red. For power.’

‘Red, for ambition.’

‘Red for disloyalty to one wife, and a poor choice of a second.’

I had difficulty in being mannerly towards Gloucester, who had attacked my future with the legal equivalent of a hatchet. The Act of Parliament he had instigated would stand for all time. No man of ambition would consider me as a bride. I was assuredly doomed to eternal widowhood. And so with savage delight I lifted a length of blood-red silk, snipped a hand’s breath with my shears and held it over the candle so that it curled and shimmered into nothingness.

‘There. Gloucester is gone, he is nothing to me.’ I caught an anxious look from Beatrice as we watched the silk vanish. ‘I can’t believe you are a friend of Gloucester, Beatrice.’

‘No, my lady.’ She shuddered. ‘But is this witchcraft. Perhaps in France…’

‘No such thing,’ I assured her. ‘Merely a signal of my intent. Gloucester will be hale and hearty for a good few years yet.’ I looked round the expectant faces. ‘Now Bishop Henry. He has been kind – but to my mind as self-interested as are all the Beauforts. Not to be trusted.’

‘Rich purple,’ from Beatrice. ‘He likes money and self-importance.’

‘And the lure of a Cardinal’s hat,’ Cecily added.

The purple silk went the way of its red sister.

Who next?

I loved the way Katherine uses the materials intended for a duty (embroidery) for her ritualistic rejection of masculine power. This scene shows her as a traditional medieval queen surrounded by her ladies, yet asserting herself as far as she can within her limited sphere. It’s exactly the sort of diversion which would appeal to women caught up in the stultifying routine of a court. Katherine was lucky none of the men she mentioned dropped dead soon after though or she might indeed have been facing charges of witchcraft!

Sadly, history doesn’t allow for a HEA, which will limit the book’s appeal to romance readers. Of course, it would have been possible to end the book on a happier note earlier in Katherine’s life, but then the author’s note explaining what happened next would come as a shower of icy water. It’s not a problem writers dealing with imaginary characters have – they are under no obligation to finish their books with an epilogue explaining that ‘unfortunately, two years later, the volcano in the next town reactivated itself and buried Hank, Jessica and their baby son under tons of lava and ash.’

The reader is well-served with more than 25 pages of additional material, including reading group questions, author’s notes, Q&A with the author, further reading and more.


Many thanks to Sophie Goodfellow at ED Public Relations who kindly provided me with an electronic galley and finished copy of The Forbidden Queen. All quotes have been checked against the finished copy.

Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop: 24-30 August 2012

26 Aug

ImageHolly at Bippity Boppity Book is hosting a giveaway hop for her favourite genre, historical fiction! Visit her blog before August 30 for a chance to enter her own giveaway and to check out the other participating blogs, many of which are offering international giveaways.

Book Review: The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

22 Aug

The UK edition of Philippa Gregory’s latest release has the tagline, The girl who would be queen. Not The girl whose father would that she were queen. Gregory veers away from the traditional depiction of Anne Neville as meek and mild, a pawn in the political games of her father, Warwick the Kingmaker. Anne begins her narration as a naive eight-year-old growing up in the shadow of her beautiful older sister Isabel. But like most medieval noble daughters, who were often married in their early teens or even before, she has to grow up fast. Warwick wants one of his daughters to be Queen of England – and he doesn’t care which one. Fortune’s Wheel spins wildly throughout this book, and Anne and Isabel are rarely at the top of it at the same time. Gregory is in her element with the depiction of sisterly rivalry against a background of court intrigue – it’s the same recipe that made The Other Boleyn Girl a worldwide bestseller. She is an expert in portraying the claustrophobia of court life: the constant fear and insecurity which were inseparable from rank and power in the turbulent fifteenth century.

The Kingmaker’s Daughter covers twenty years in the Wars of the Roses from Anne’s point of view (first-person, present tense). Although it is the fourth in the Cousins’ War series, it can be read as a standalone novel, as Gregory does not assume any knowledge of the period on the part of her readers. As Anne grows to adulthood, she learns more about the world she lives in, and the reader can learn with her. This would make a good introduction to the Wars of the Roses or to historical fiction. Although not aimed specifically at the YA market, with Anne a teenager for much of the book, I felt it was a natural fit for a YA audience.

I can’t help but wonder if the old king, the sleeping king, is awake tonight, somewhere in the wild lands of the North of England. It is rather horrible to think of him, fast asleep but knowing in his very dreams that they are dancing and that a new king and queen have crowned themselves and put themselves in his place, and tomorrow a new queen will wear his wife’s crown. Father says I have nothing to fear, the bad queen has run away to France and will get no help from her French friends. Father is meeting with the King of France himself to make sure that he becomes our friend and the bad queen will get no help from him. She is our enemy, she is the enemy of the peace of England. Father will make sure that there is no home for her in France, as there is no throne for her in England. Meanwhile, the sleeping king without his wife, without his son, will be wrapped up warm in some little castle, somewhere near Scotland, dozing his life away like a bee in a curtain all winter. My father says that he will sleep and she will burn with rage until they both grow old and die, and there is nothing for me to fear at all.

I love the bee in a curtain – one of the trademarks of Gregory’s writing is her apposite use of period-appropriate similes and metaphors. Margaret of Anjou travelling under guard being compared to a herded swan was another of my favourites from this book.

One of the more dramatic events of Anne’s life, when she finds herself acting as midwife to her sister Isabel at sea in a storm (which Elizabeth Woodville was accused of having “whistled up” through witchcraft), is an opportunity for Philippa Gregory to do what historical novelists do best – bring to life an event which is treated much more succinctly by historians. I had already listened to Philippa’s reading of part of this scene, so I was looking forward to it, and it didn’t disappoint.

‘She is taking her breath and then she will whistle,’ Izzy says. She turns away from me and lies on her back, her big belly rounded and full. Her hands come out and grip either side of the beautifully carved wooden bed, while she stretches her feet down to the bottom of the bedframe, as if she were bracing herself for danger. ‘In a moment now, she will whistle.’

I try to say cheerfully, ‘No, no, Izzy…’ when there is a scream of wind that takes my breath away. Howling like a whistle, like a banshee, the wind pours out of the darkened sky, the boat heels over and the sea beneath us suddenly bows up and throws us up towards the clouds that split with sickly yellow lightning.

‘Close the door! Shut her out!’ Izzy screams as the boat rolls and the double doors to the cabin fly open. I reach for them and then stand amazed. Before the cabin is the prow of the ship and beyond that should be the waves of the sea. But I can see nothing before me but the prow, rising up and up and up as if the ship is standing on its stern and the prow is vertical in the sky above me. Then I see why. Beyond the prow is a mighty wave, towering as high as a castle wall, and our little ship is trying to climb its side. In a moment the crest of the wave, icy white against the black sky, is going to turn and crash down on us, as a storm of hail pours down with a rattle that makes the deck white as a snowfield in a second, and stings my face and bare arms, and crunches beneath my bare feet like broken glass.

NB: it gets worse. Much worse. This particular scene is not recommended reading for anyone who will be giving birth in the near future!

While I enjoyed the characterisation of Anne herself and also of Richard III – he’s very far from Shakespeare’s villain but no milquetoast either – I felt other aspects of the book were underwritten. Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV and heroine of The White Queen, is a malign presence throughout this book, but although she functions effectively as an absent influence, I would have liked to read at least one meaty confrontation between her and Anne. Not necessarily an Alexis Colby/Krystle Carrington-style catfight – given the extent of Queen Elizabeth’s power Anne would hardly be likely to shove her into a lilypond however much she might want to. But I would have liked to read a long, in-depth conversation between them where both women would put at least some of their cards on the table – or pretend to. Equally, at one point in the book Anne discovers that her husband has been rather less than honest with her about certain legal aspects of their marriage. The information comes as a shock for her and I was disappointed that she never brings it up with him. 

Notwithstanding, The Kingmaker’s Daughter is a fast, entertaining read which should please – and add to – Philippa Gregory’s many fans.

FTC required disclosure: I bought my own copy of The Kingmaker’s Daughter.

The Children of the Abbey by Regina Maria Roche

19 Aug

Speaking of books. I read an old one of Aunt Ruth’s the other day–The Children of the Abbey. The heroine fainted in every chapter and cried quarts if any one looked at her. But as for the trials and persecutions she underwent, in spite of her delicate frame, their name was Legion and no fair maiden of these degenerate days could survive half of them–not even the newest of new women. I laughed over the book until I amazed Aunt Ruth, who thought it a very sad volume. It is the only novel in Aunt Ruth’s house. One of her beaux gave it to her when she was young. It seems impossible to think that Aunt Ruth ever had beaux. Uncle Dutton seems an unreality, and even his picture on the crepe-draped easel in the parlour cannot convince me of his existence.

-Emily Starr. From the chapter entitled “Driftwood” in Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery

Now, Emily Starr is a wonderful heroine and I just hate to disagree with her, but on this occasion I have to, because The Children of the Abbey is one of my favourite books of all time. If you like eighteenth-century fiction, this book has everything. Seductions, abductions, unrequited love, balls, masquerades, ruined castles and ancient abbeys, nuns and convents, storms, graves, missing wills, written confessions, tea and hot buttered muffins – this story has it all. Regina Maria Roche takes all of these disparate ingredients and blends them into five volumes of page-turning narrative*. The novel is also a roman à tiroir – at several points in the narrative the action stops to give a minor character the chance to tell their story, whether in person or in writing. Some of these stories are crucial to the main plot, others add in sub-plots which are resolved, usually with the help of extraordinary coincidences, in the final volume.

The Abbey of the title is Dunreath Abbey, a venerable Scottish pile, to which siblings Oscar and Amanda Fitzalan should be the heirs. However, their mother, Lady Malvina, became estranged from their grandfather when she married without his permission. When Malvina returned to the Abbey to try to make peace with her father, her stepmother ordered her turned away – although not without a pang of conscience:

Lady Dunreath, in the meantime, suffered torture; after she had seen Malvina turned from the abbey, she returned to her apartment; it was furnished with the most luxurious elegance, yet she could not rest within it. Conscience already told her, if Malvina died, she must consider herself her murderer: her pale and woe-worn image seemed still before her: a cold terror oppressed her heart, which the terrors of the night augmented. The tempest shook the battlements of the abbey; and the wind howled through the galleries, like the moan of some wandering spirit of the pile, bewailing the fate of one of its fairest daughters.

Towards the end of his life Malvina’s father relents towards her, but her stepmother hides the will so that her own daughter will inherit. Malvina dies in childbirth, leaving her husband to bring up Oscar and Amanda. With only a soldier’s pay to support the family, it isn’t easy, and matters are not improved when Amanda grows up into a beauty and promptly attracts the unwelcome attention of the local Lovelace, Colonel Belgrave. Belgrave will pursue Amanda from rags to riches throughout five volumes and across the length and breadth of the British Isles. Being Oscar’s commanding officer (unfortunately) he manages to wreck his romantic and financial prospects as well.

The Children of the Abbey was published at the height of the fashion for Gothic novels, so well satirised by Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey. We know she read this one as she references it twice – once as a favourite of Emma Woodhouse’s friend Harriet (Harriet wants her farmer suitor to read it – good luck with that, Harriet) and once through the name of Charles Bingley, which both she and Roche give to characters. Roche’s Sir Charles Bingley is a good sort, an honourable man who pays court to Amanda but cannot distract her from her first choice, Lord Mortimer. Austen’s choice of the same name for Jane Bennet’s suitor would have been a signal to her readers that here was the same kind of man, someone who was not capable of winning the heroine but was thoroughly deserving of happiness. In the same way, Roche’s choice of ‘Mortimer’ for her hero’s title would have reminded readers of the untitled Mortimer Delvile, hero of Frances Burney’s 1780s bestseller Cecilia.

The Gothic elements in The Children of the Abbey are all present and correct – wherever Amanda goes she finds herself among ruined castles, monastic buildings and windows and doors ‘in the Gothic stile.’ However, unlike Mrs Radcliffe, Roche chose to set her novel in the present day and in the British Isles – Amanda’s travels take her from England to Wales, Ireland and Scotland. This means that the descriptions of landscape are not necessarily based on imagination and travel literature, as Mrs Radcliffe’s Italian and French settings were. Amanda, like Jane Austen’s Marianne Dashwood and most heroines of the 1790s, loves to observe nature and the changing seasons. The novel opens in North Wales, which Roche describes as lyrically as Radcliffe does Provence:

The lawn gently sloped to a winding stream, so clear as perfectly to reflect the beautiful scenery of heaven, now glowing with the gold and purple of the setting sun; from the opposite bank of the stream rose a stupendous mountain, diversified with little verdant hills and dales, and skirted with a wild shrubbery, the blossoms of which perfumed the air with the most balmy fragrance. Lord Mortimer prevailed upon Amanda to sit down upon a rustic bench, beneath the spreading branches of an oak, enwreathed with ivy; here they had not sat long ere the silence which reigned around was suddenly interrupted by strains, at once low, solemn and melodious, that seemed to creep along the water, till they had reached the place where they sat; and then, as if a Naiad of the stream had left her rushy couch to do them homage, they swelled by degrees into full melody, which the mountain echoes alternately revived and heightened. It appeared like enchantment to Amanda, and her eyes, turned to lord Mortimer, seemed to say it was to his magic it was owing.

By coincidence, I found my copy of The Children of the Abbey in an antique shop on the Lleyn Peninsula about twenty years ago. Rural North Wales is so unspoilt that I felt I was seeing the very same tree-hung lanes and Gothic churches Roche describes. When the story moves to an Irish castle, the scenery becomes more rugged, but Amanda never loses her appreciation of it:

…They arrived when the sober grey of twilight had clad every object. Amanda viewed the dark and stupendous edifice, the gloom of which was now heightened by the shadows of evening, with venerable awe; the solitude, the silence, which reigned around, the melancholy murmur of the waves, as they dashed against the rocks, all heightened the sadness of her mind; yet it was not quite an unpleasing sadness, for with it was mingled a degree of that enthusiasm, which plaintive and romantic spirits are so peculiarly subject to feel in viewing the venerable grandeur of an ancient fabric renowned in history. As she entered a spacious hall, curiously wainscoted with oak, ornamented with coats of arms, spears, lances, and old armour, she could not avoid casting a retrospective eye to former times, when perhaps in this very hall, bards sung the exploits of those heroes, whose useless arms now hung upon the walls; and she wished, in the romance of the moment, some grey bard near her, to tell the deeds of other times, of kings renowned in our land, and chiefs we behold no more.

Amanda’s aesthetic sense is one aspect of the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility, which celebrated the ability to feel emotion and display it through tears or swoons. This does not apply solely to the female characters: Amanda’s brother Oscar frequently sheds tears and Lord Mortimer himself faints at one point:

The dreadful explanation lord Mortimer now found himself under a necessity of giving; the shame of acknowledging he was so deceived; the agony he suffered from that deception, joined to the excessive agitation and fatigue he had suffered the preceding night, and the present day, so powerfully assailed him at this moment, that his senses suddenly gave way, and he actually fainted on the floor.

To contemporary readers, Amanda’s tendency to faint and cry was evidence of a noble soul; to readers like Emily Starr, picking up the book in the early 1900s, it marked her as a woman of a bygone era. Emily’s reference to the New Woman is significant. Despite Amanda’s courageous exploration of reputedly-haunted Gothic ruins and ability to earn her own living if necessary, her physical frailty, dependence on male protection and willingness to sacrifice herself for others make her exactly the ultra-feminine stereotype which not just New Women but all women had to abandon at the turn of the twentieth century in order to win political rights.

The Children of the Abbey was reprinted throughout the nineteenth century because even after its context and setting became dated, it had a lot to offer readers of popular fiction. Sheltered Victorian girls must have loved to imagine what they would do if they were Amanda, cast adrift, friendless and penniless, wandering the streets of London as the evening shades draw in. Others who, like Amanda, had known adversity, could be comforted by the idea that their troubles, like hers, would be resolved by the triumph of virtue and a fortunate twist of fate. By the end of the novel, the wicked are punished, the good are rewarded, the repentant are forgiven and several separated couples, young and old, are reunited to live happily ever after. It’s a rich and satisfying book to read.

Unfortunately, unlike its more famous predecessor, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Children of the Abbey went out of print in the twentieth century. With luck one day it will take its rightful place as a classic of popular fiction; until then it is available online in various electronic versions here.

* My edition of the book was published by James Duffy of 11, Anglesea Street, Dublin, in 1837. The title page describes it as, “FIVE VOLUMES COMPLETE IN ONE. TWELFTH EDITION.” It’s a small book (32mo or 5.5 x 3.5 inches) with small print, typical of the less expensive complete editions which would follow the initial publication of a novel in separate volumes. The first four volumes each have 144 pages, pagination beginning anew with each volume. The final volume concludes the story in 62 pages, followed by a novella (The Cavern; or, The Two Sisters, translated from the French of Madame Backker) and two short stories (The Shrubbery: A Moral Tale, by T. Potter and Matilda and Henry: A Tale of Pity, uncredited). This additional material brings the fifth volume up to 144 pages. The Children of the Abbey was originally published in 1796 in four volumes; I have not yet had the opportunity to compare my edition to an earlier one to see how the volume breaks differ. Volume breaks were carefully considered by authors who would be aware that the majority of their readers would borrow each volume one at a time from a circulating library and would therefore aim to end on a note of suspense. For example, the first volume of Mansfield Park ends with Julia Bertram’s panicked announcement that her father has unexpectedly returned from his voyage. Altering volume divisions therefore affects authorial intention in the same way that altering chapter breaks would, although it does not affect the reader’s experience as much when all the volumes can be read one after the other.

The Early Gothic Romances of Regina Maria Roche and the Jane Austen Connection by Emma Hodinott

A Biography of Regina Maria Roche by Emma Hodinott


FTC Required Disclosure: I bought my own copy of The Children of the Abbey.

Author Event: An Evening with Philippa Gregory, Royal Masonic Hall, Rickmansworth, Wednesday 15 August 2012

17 Aug

As soon as I pulled into the crowded car park, I realised that this event, which inaugurated Philippa Gregory’s promotional tour for her latest release, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, was going to be popular. It was organised by Chorleywood Bookshop and the venue was the Royal Masonic School for Girls. Inside the Hall, I did a quick chair count and realised that there were at least three hundred people in attendance – mostly women from a wide age range.

The Hall, with its wooden panelling and heraldic stained glass windows, made an impressive backdrop for Ms. Gregory, who walked on stage in a peach-coloured sleeveless sheath dress, looking like the world’s most glamorous headmistress. She spent around forty minutes chatting to us about her latest heroine, Anne Neville. Born in 1456, Anne was the daughter of the 16th Earl of Neville, who was such a power player during the Wars of the Roses that he was known as Warwick the Kingmaker. Anne shared the fate of most noble girls of her time, which was to be married young for strategic and dynastic reasons. Due to her father’s powerful connections, she had not one but two chances to become Queen of England. (More about Anne Neville in this post for On the Tudor Trail by Anne O’Brien, author of another novel about Anne, The Virgin Widow. But watch out for spoilers for both books!)

Philippa’s talk was illustrated with slides and video clips which she interspersed with readings from The Kingmaker’s Daughter. (Later in the evening I met Morag of Chorleywood Bookshop, who commented that after hearing an author read you hear their voice when you’re reading their books – what could be better?) After the talk Philippa spent a few minutes taking questions from the audience. These are a few of the points which interested me most from the talk and the questions:

  • Philippa considered making Anne and her sister Isabel joint heroines of the novel, but decided against it as there was so little known of Isabel and she would only be on the scene for part of the book. She feels it is important to give equal weight to both halves of a dual storyline – so that the reader doesn’t feel bored with one viewpoint and eager to skip it to get to the more interesting character. My take: This is easier said than done. While it’s important with a dual storyline not to give one character all the meat of the story, readers will very often prefer one viewpoint to the other, and not necessarily the same one. Character identification is so subjective and anything but predictable.
  • Philippa chose to use the contemporary term, “The Cousins’ War” rather than the better-known “Wars of the Roses” because it expresses the family conflict at the heart of the period. Another popular medieval concept, the Wheel of Fortune, is a motif that she sees running throughout her Cousins’ War series of books (so far, The White Queen, about Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the Princes in the Tower; The Red Queen, about Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII; and The Lady of the Rivers, about Jacquetta, mother of Elizabeth Woodville).
  • She began writing her first novel, Wideacre, during her job hunt after completing a PhD on the popular fiction of eighteenth-century circulating libraries. Happily, Wideacre was a huge success and writing then became her job. As an enthusiastic reader of eighteenth-century fiction I thought her PhD topic sounded fascinating and would love to read it, but as there were only three copies published it might take me a while to track down!
  • Philippa also spoke about how she came to found her charity, Gardens for the Gambia, which was started with the aim of providing wells for rural schools in the Gambia. She personally sends enough money to build a well every month.

After taking the final question and accepting a small bouquet, Philippa was installed at a table for the book signing. Not only The Kingmaker’s Daughter but several of her other titles were on sale, and wine and soft drinks were served close by. I was one of those who took up the offer to redeem my ticket against the price of the book, and joined the end of a very long queue to have it signed. Bookshop staff efficiently patrolled the queue to write down our names on post-its stuck to our books so that Philippa wouldn’t have to ask how to spell each dedication. When I finally met her, she was gracious, relaxed and professional, just as if I was the first person in the queue instead of almost the last.

I can highly recommend this event to historical fictionistas – Philippa Gregory is an accomplished, funny and entertaining speaker. She does assume some knowledge of events covered in the book, which means that some of the content would amount to spoilers for anyone who doesn’t know the history. That said, this probably didn’t apply to the majority of the audience, many of whom would have read her three previous novels set during the Cousins’ War/War of the Roses.

Future tour dates for The Kingmaker’s Daughter

Thanks to: Philippa herself, of course; Chorleywood Bookshop for organising the event; and my stepsister Emma for telling me about it, coming with me and lending me £10 cash so I could buy a copy of the book!

FTC required disclosure: I bought my own ticket to this event. As detailed above, Emma lent me the money to buy The Kingmaker’s Daughter, but I will be paying her back.

Book Review: Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier

26 May

As she began work on this 1943 saga, du Maurier told her publisher, Victor Gollancz, that it would be ‘endless, full of birth and death, and love and disaster.’ Especially disaster. The story begins in 1820 as Copper John, patriarch of the Anglo-Irish Brodrick family, prepares to mine Hungry Hill for copper. Unfortunately, he neglects to ask permission of the hill first, and for the next hundred years, malevolent as Caradhras, it visits its vengeance on one generation of the family after another.

The book, while long by wartime standards – the first British edition has tiny print and incredibly narrow margins – isn’t long enough for a chronicle of five generations. Successive family members are born and rapidly grow up only to be whisked from the scene by the latest catastrophe, which has often been telegraphed pages in advance. The men, apart from Copper John, are flawed and weak; the women are stronger, but overwhelmed by circumstances. By the beginning of part four I was wishing the Balrog would just come out of the mountain and put them all out of their misery.

However, this was exactly where the book started to pick up for me. Du Maurier’s most powerful novels focus on a single drama played out among a small number of characters, and are written in the first person. Hungry Hill has a vast cast, a wide scope and third-person narration. Towards the end of the book, when the narrative concentrates on telling the story of the last days of the mine and of the impact of its closure on the community, it becomes much more compelling. This is a novel about decline and decay, a theme all too relevant to a twentieth-century readership who had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression and were about to witness the final days of the British Empire. It’s not exactly the escapist commercial read the critics condemned it as, but on the other hand it’s not as good as it could have been.  Like the mine itself, it’s an ambitious undertaking which suffers from fluctuating fortunes and in the end, fails to pay off as richly as hoped.


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