Stories for Christmas and the festive season from The British Library Women Writers Series

When one picks up a Christmas anthology and flicks through the list of stories and authors, it’s not unusual to come across the old favourites – a bit of Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Christmas excerpts from Little Women, perhaps something by Laurie Lee or Kenneth Williams. But for a Christmas story enthusiast, the need is always for something different.

Here’s a peek at a few of my favourite Christmas anthologies.

What is exceptional about the Christmas anthology from the British Library Women Writers collection is the selection of lesser known stories and some women authors – who at least for me, were largely unknown. 

The clever chronology of the stories also meant that the stories picked up on a wide range of Christmas activities – from Christmas shopping, Christmas preparation, carol singing concerts, pageants and pantomimes, decorating the tree, skating and much more. They could be read in one go or spread over the latter half of December and the New Year.

I approach a short story anthology a bit unconventionally. A bit like a pick and mix – one story here, one story there, a title that catches my fancy next. Unsurprisingly, I dived straight into EM Delafield’s ‘General Impressions of a Christmas Shopping Centre’ first, because I’m a huge Provincial Lady fan. The excerpt is Delafield at her anecdotal best – but I would have loved something more substantial from her. 

The rest of the stories were lovely too. I laughed at The Christmas Pageant by Barbara Robinson. I thought Ticket for a Carol Concert was wonderfully crafted. Christmas Bread was poignant and full of sentiment. Snow by Olive Wadsley was dreamy and intimate and beautifully romantic. Elizabeth von Arnim’s Christmas story set in Bavaria had the effect of transporting you to a winter wonderland, celebrating German traditions of Christmastimes of yore. A favourite was The Little Christmas Tree by Stella Gibbons. The descriptions of the tiny Christmas tree really caught my attention. Richmal Crompton penned such a clever, short, memorable story that made me smile at the end.

‘Snow’ by Olive Wadsley is a lovely ode to the romance of Yuletide. Set in a country house with a select gathering of friends and family at Christmas, a young couple, Viola and John, who are not apparently suited but who find themselves increasingly drawn to one another, expectantly look for a resolution to their burgeoning love on Christmas Day. Enter an old flame of Violas and implicatory footsteps in the snow and young love is very much threatened. There is a beautiful lyrical and tender atmosphere to this story and beautifully brings out the hopefulness and romance of the festive season. 

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ by Kate Nivison tells of the nighttime wanderings of a small mouse residing in a small household. The mother is snoozing in an armchair in the living room in front of the Christmas tree, waiting for quietness to fall on her house in order to fill her children’s stockings. She is eating a misshapen mince pie and boozy warm milk, presumably left out for Santa. The story exudes a sense of the 1980’s in its ambience – making it feel very much like a Christmas from my childhood.

I should mention that I like reading cosy stories for Christmas. ‘The Turkey Season’ by Alice Munro – didn’t fit that description – at least not for me – so I chose to skip that particular one. 

I don’t think it’s possible for a short story anthology to tick all the boxes – especially when a wide range of authors are selected. But I must say – ‘Stories for Christmas and the festive season’ by the British Library, really did that for me. This book was the highlight of Christmas reading season 2022 and I’m sure I’ll be reaching for it, during many Christmases in future. 

A story by Cornelia Otis Skinner even featured the very festive topic of skating.

War Among Ladies by Eleanor Scott

War Among Ladies by Eleanor Scott and published in the British Library Women Writers Series

‘War Among Ladies’ by Eleanor Scott is the story of the vicious internal politics prevalent in a small girls’ school in the Midlands, a school on the brink of closing down due to poor academic performance. The book is not, yet another retelling of high spirited schoolgirl antics, troubled exchanges on the lacrosse field or ill-fated midnight feasts. Rather, the book focuses on the dire dilemmas facing the ladies in the school staff rooms. Moreover, the book aims to highlight some of the major problems facing the school education system of the 1920’s and the hardships faced by a generation of older women, beaten by such a system, leaving them penniless, uncared for and unwanted in the bleak, comfortless stretch of old age.

The story is set at Besley High School – a small school for girls in the Midlands. Several members of the faculty are quite older in age, in fact slowly approaching that halcyon period known as retirement. These women, of which there are quite a few at Besley, have everything to lose in the final stretch of their teaching career. They are women who have paid money in to a fund that will provide them benefits upon retirement, they have just a few years to work until they reach sixty, but if they lose their jobs before attaining that age, they have everything to lose and will forfeit their hard earned pension and pension fund savings. Towards the end of their careers they are paid at the maximum pay scale, making recruitment by another school difficult if they lose their jobs, they are rather inflexible in their ways, often adopting teaching methods that are out of favour, sometimes they cannot adapt to the new methods of examination and they are reluctant to change their ways. Some of them do not have private means of their own or substantial savings and it is these women who are often on the brink of nervous collapse, women who lose their sleep in fear of losing the means to live a dignified life in old age.

Such is Miss Cullen. Old and weatherbeaten. Counting the days till she reaches sixty. Praying that the unruly girls in her class will heed her. Each day is a misery. Sometimes it is too much to endure and Miss Cullen, feels she is too unwell to take up her French teaching duties for the day. And then there is the matter of the terrible results of the girls in their French exams that year. So bad that many of them fail the subject and therefore, fail overall. For to fail in one subject means that a girl fails the entire exam and brings shame to her school. Such a girl might gain distinction in other subjects. But this is if no use, if she fails in another.

When the school’s academic performance, particularly in French, turns from bad to worse, several members of the staff feel that they must take matters into their own hands in order to save their own skins. Naturally all eyes are fixed on incompetent Miss Cullen and a fair amount of finger pointing ensues.

Miss Cullen, realizes all too well, her perilous situation and she strives to save herself by whatever means she has to hand. Miss Cullen has one redeeming virtue, however, and that is her conscience. There is one rather telling chapter, where Miss Cullen has an internal dialogue with herself about her moral quandary. She stacks up all the pros and cons of resigning from her job. There are many reasons for her to resign – her inability to maintain discipline, inability to teach according to the present day standards, and lack of competency to prepare the students for examinations- being some of them. But quite pitifully, the only reason that Miss Cullen cannot listen to the dictates of her own conscience, is because of her financial dependency on her pension. She simply cannot afford to resign.

To contrast with Miss Cullen, there is a young, fresh-faced new teacher who has been added to the teaching staff at Besley – Miss Viola Kennedy. Totally innocent of the workings of the school system, she befriends Miss Cullen, when no one else will have anything to do with her, mostly because she feels sorry for her. And in this action, she commits an error because the rest of the faculty are determined to place her in the path of trouble. However, Miss Kennedy has youth and beauty on her side and if she does lose her job, it does not mean that it is the end of the world for her.

The title of the story is particularly interesting, especially when considering the time during which the book is set. In the late 1920’s the world was still reeling and recovering from the effects of the Great War. It was the men who played a more active role on the war field, in that cruel war that lead to the loss of so many lives. However, a whole generation of surplus women were still suffering from the aftermath of that war. People were having to adjust to a post-war life of economic hardship. The ‘War’ in ‘War Among Ladies’ is thus inextricably intertwined with the Great War that preceeded it.

‘War Among Ladies’ is filled with twists and turns, ugly politics, scheming and so much drama. It is quite a page turner of a novel, written very well and with great sympathy for the central character of Miss Cullen.

War Among Ladies, one feels, is a rather scathing social commentary. It may be alright, to become preoccupied in the game of pointing fingers at one or another individual in this story, but the problem is more far reaching than that. If one must point the finger, should the finger pointing be restricted to certain individuals or to the social system that helped perpetrate such finger pointing? It is quite a serious point to be pondered.

Many thanks to the British Library for sending me a review copy of ‘War Among Ladies’. All opinions are my own.

Over to Candleford and Candleford Green by Flora Thompson

Over to Candleford and Candleford Green

‘Over to Candleford’ and ‘Candleford Green’ form the second and third part of the semi-autobiographical account of Flora Thompson’s early experiences in rural Oxfordshire, of which ‘Lark Rise’ is the first. These later installments speak of her childhood and formative years in the rural hamlet of Lark Rise, her first exposure of town life in the neighbouring market town of Candleford and the years spent working as postmistress’s assistant in the small village of Candleford Green.

‘Over to Candleford’, picks up the narrative in the last decade of the glorious Victorian era, a time of great contentment even amongst the hamlet’s poor people, and relative peace, a time when war seemed like a long forgotten thing to be read of, only in history books. It was a time of great change too – a time for new discoveries and inventions and industrial development. New modes of transport were being introduced – the advent of railways and even the penny farthing bicycle. Life in Lark Rise seemed relatively insulated ,however, but that of the nearby market towns were slowly changing and it is towards these places that Flora Thompson directs our gaze in her later books.

‘Over to Candleford’ starts with some degree of restlessness. Curiously enough, we discover that it is this characteristic of mental restlessness that guides the course of Flora Thompson’s future life. In this second book, Flora Thompson through the eyes of Laura, shows us that Laura is no longer a small child, confined to myopically observing the details of the small hamlet in which she spent her early years – a hamlet she described most lovingly and evocatively in her first book – ‘Lark Rise’. The child’s eye moves outwardly, no longer restricted to the fertile, flat farmlands surrounding her cottage home – but more curiously towards the nearby market town. Candleford, was a mere eight miles away but in those days of horses and carts and limited conveyance, a seeming world away from home. In those days a woman might travel six to seven miles, several hours, to purchase small sundry items to add a bit of meaty variety to a Sunday meal, or a small daily necessity like a packet of tea, or reel of cotton.

Over to Candleford’s chapters are devoted to a variety of topics – the social structure of the inhabitants of Lark Rise in the late Victorian period along with lyrical descriptions of its rural beauty. The chapter ‘Once Upon a Time’ describes Laura’s mother’s gift for storytelling. Another chapter is a character study of Mrs Herring – the Timms’ crusty old landlady with a tendency to hoard everything from old clothes, empty picture frames, copper preserving pans and even out-of-fashion steel, crinoline hoops in the secret storage space under the generous eaves of the cottage. But there is definitely a sense of excitement in the chapter where Laura’s father hires a pony and spring cart, one fine Sunday in summer, and takes the whole family to visit relations in Candleford. Here we are introduced to kindly Aunt Ann, bookish Uncle Tom and their children, a family that Laura would grow quite close to. In fact, Uncle Tom owned a large library of books and the moments that he and Laura would spend reading books in the summer holidays, (books like Cranford) whilst he worked in his shoe shop are really quite special. The visit to Candleford would mark the end of Laura’s childhood and soon after Laura was released to a world of school with all its challenges. But the reader can gauge by the vivid descriptions of Candleford, that young Laura was quite dazzled with the toy shops, glittering jewellers, sweet shops and even the grocers with all his wares on display – the whole salmon reposing on beds of green reeds, keeping cool with pieces of ice in the month of August.

At the end of the book, Laura leaves school and has a decision to make regarding her future work and direction in life. Lacking the nurturing instinct, Laura’s mother realises her daughter is not suitable for work in nursing. When a position as postmistress’s assistant comes up in the small village of Candleford Green, on the outskirts of Candleford, Laura’s mother does not hesitate to send her daughter to Postmistress Dorcas Lane’s care – Dorcas consequently being an old family friend.

Laura breaks into the silence of Candleford Green, one sleepy afternoon, when nothing is stirring except for the lone village donkey, grazing on the Green. A flock of geese flounce towards the spring-cart that Laura’s father drives, filled with curiosity. Everyone is either preoccupied with work, further afield, or are in repose. The descriptions of Candleford Green, it’s peacefulness and quietude are about as perfect a description of a Victorian village that I have ever encountered. Candleford Green was a small village, distinct from Candleford but would later merge with the country town, to be reincarnated as its suburb. The village was marked by its central Green, with its wide spreading oak, white painted seats for rest, the lone church spire piercing the leafy trees and its cluster of shops and cottages. The farther, sparser side of the Green was occupied by the Post Office, Dorcas Lane’s long, low white-washed house and the blacksmith’s forge, also under the charge of Miss Lane.

Working hours for Laura at the Post Office consisted of sorting the seven o’clock morning mail and ended at night. There was no half day off and even Sunday was partly working, with a morning delivery of letters and outward mail for Sunday evenings. Though Laura learns a lot about post office work, even mastering the shiny new telegraph instrument with brass trio and white dials, one senses a feeling of longing for the outdoors and country scenery of her home. There is a visit to her home after many weeks and a conversation with her Mother that is filled with a feeling of wistfulness for her family. One gains a feeling that she is being overworked and hence it is not surprising that at the end of the book, Laura seeks work elsewhere.

However, life spent in Miss Lane’s house was not without its comforts and charms. There was a plentiful table, the comfort of a weekly hot bath in Miss Lane’s warm and toasty bath house, previously a brew house. A copper hip bath was filled to the brim with plentiful hot water, boiled over a hot fire, lighted at the end of the day by the smith apprentice and transported by hose pipe to the bath house. Laura was to remember the warmth and comfort of those toasty baths in future, when times were harder.

Candleford Green was in essence a small village and like all small villages, the village people knew about one another and of each other’s affairs intimately. The community consisted of shopkeepers, the doctor and clergy, gentlemen and women of independent, if reduced means, artisans and labourers, the schoolmaster, the squires of the surrounding country houses and their huge army of servants. They all trickled into one community and in a way, the Post Office, was the centre of it all. It was quite natural for the postmistress to know everyone and of their affairs. Laura describes the village doctor, frequently called in the middle of the night on his night bell, having to leap into his horse to visit outlying farms, some even 10 miles distant. Despite his initial annoyance, the doctor had a compelling sense of duty and was much loved and respected in the community. The Vicar, Mr Coulsdon was generous too, and the descriptions of the free soup made twice a week in the huge vicarage coppers sound very appetising.

“…rich and thick with pearl barley and lean beef gobbets and golden carrot rings and fat little dumplings…”

For the bibliophile, Laura’s descriptions of the books she encountered and loved are particularly interesting. Laura describes the joy of taking a library ticket at the Mechanic’s Institute in Candleford and enjoying the works of Dickens, the Waverley novels, Barchester Towers and Pride and Prejudice, sparking a life long love for the books of Trollope and Austen.

Everything is most keenly observed, both the characters, and the descriptions of the pastimes and occupations of the people in Laura’s life. But Flora Thompson’s writing excels in her descriptions of nature and the outdoors, something that is beautifully written about on the walks that Laura took, on the daily postal delivery rounds – a responsibility given to her, after some time at the Post Office.

“Her path as postwoman led over much pastureland and she often returned with her shoes powdered yellow with buttercup pollen. The copses were full of bluebells and there were kingcups and forget-me-nots by the margins of the brooks and cowslips and pale purple milkmaids in the water-meadows. Laura seldom returned from her round without more flowers in her hand then she knew what to do with. Her bedroom looked and smelled like a garden…”

Like all the best memoirs, Flora Thompson’s – Lark Rise to Candleford’ trilogy makes one curious to know more about the author. The twists and turns of their future path. Their life, their loves, the decisions they made, the joy and sadness they felt. And this wonderful trilogy poised at a rather crucial juncture in Laura’s life, when she was very young and the rest of her life was spread before her, leaves the reader’s appetite particularly unwhetted. There is another instalment of Laura’s life I believe, and I will most certainly be reaching out for it in future.

‘Over to Candleford and Candleford Green’ was a kind gift from the publisher, Slightly Foxed, but as always all opinions are my very own.

Clothes-Peg by Susan Scarlett

Clothes-Peg by Susan Scarlett

‘Clothes-Peg’ by Susan Scarlett is a Cinderella story of sorts about a young and innocent woman from a close knit but poor family, who falls in love with a wealthy Lord. The story is set in pre-war London in the atmosphere surrounding a popular fashion house, in London’s plush Mayfair neighbourhood. Family values, fashion, snobbery and period details abound in this nove, published in 1939.

‘Clothes-Peg’ by Susan Scarlett is part of a new series, to be released shortly by Dean Street Press, and is one of twelve much desired Susan Scarlett titles that had long been out of print. Many thanks to Dean Street Press for my advanced e book copy.

Susan Scarlett is the pen name of Noel Streatfeild and she wrote a collection of cosy, romantic novels that have quite a different appeal to her more serious novels for adults published under the name of Streatfeild.

It was a joy to finally be able to read a Scarlett novel. ‘Clothes-Peg’ is the first novel to be published under that name in 1939. The book is set in pre-war London and more particularly describes the life and times of several young girls, working in an acclaimed fashion house in Hanover Square of Mayfair. The clientele are rich and entitled but the young, attractive girls who serve as models in such establishments are hard up for money and are eager to earn any stray penny that makes it their way, by fair play or foul.

The story is centered around a family of modest means, the Browns, who live very far away from the glitz and glamour of Mayfair. The eldest daughter of the family, Annabel, upon leaving school, finds a job as a seamstress at Bertna’s. Whilst she is working there, shop owner, Tania Petoff tries her out as a shop model and she catches the attention of rich Lord David de Bett, who visits the establishment with soon to be fiancee, the Honourable Octavia Glaye. Fresh faced and innocent Annabel, makes David have second thoughts about his life choices and there ensues a story with a number of misunderstandings, wrong twists and turns.

At the heart of the story are the Browns – a loving, very close-knit family who have their share of troubles, are not over endowed with riches, but who know how to pull together in fair weather and foul. Streatfeild, writing under the pen name of Susan Scarlett, surely knows how to emphasize the importance of strong family values and the poverty of the Browns is often compared with the more, glitzy, racy lifestyle of the rich and famous in London, but sometimes to the detriment of the richer class. It’s certainly a book that examines the difference in class that existed at the time, along with inspection of morals and attitudes.

Let me describe the Brown family to you. Father George is hardworking and has worked in hardware for the longest time. Mother Ethel is outwardly always cheerful, putting a brave face on everything and putting away the pennies for the next family emergency. Annabel the eldest daughter cares about the needs and wants of her family but for the first time is discovering the outside world with all its wicked ways. There’s a brother and a very spoilt little sister who gets into trouble for shoplifting and they all live in a modest house with a small back garden. The family have their own routines and rituals and this aspect of their life is rendered in great detail. It reminded me a little of the family life described in RC Sherriff’s ‘The Fortnight in September’.

I personally loved little details of the Brown’s cosy family life. There were plenty of domestic details to be enjoyed : descriptions of the house, routines, family customs, gardening endeavours, the joy of family meals. The family have their share of troubles and that is described too. Mostly though, Streatfeild describes clothes in books so well. The details regarding garments worn in the fashion house are so well done and worthy of praise.

The book is a walk into the London of yesteryear with all its delectable period details. I’ve often felt while reading the book that it would make a lovely black and white movie and these books penned under the name of Susan Scarlett certainly have a cinematic appeal. There is a Cinderella like quality to this book that I glimpsed and enjoyed. I read this book when I was going through a very stressful time and it really helped me forget about my troubles for a while. Highly recommend, for that cosy, romantic, escapist read.

Many thanks to Dean Street Press for the gift of the ebook of Clothes-Peg

An Ode to my Father

My Father was always the most difficult person to please when picking a book for him to read, from my personal library. This particular book was too descriptive, that book was too slow, another book had no plot or complicated language … and so every few weeks, a huge pile of unread books would be returned to me with a disappointed face. This would annoy me, no end.

And yet, there was one author who never failed to please my Dad; someone he would always read with pleasure … and that author was the Queen of Crime, the unparalleled genius that was Dame Agatha Christie. Every birthday and Christmas he was sure to be given one of these beautiful hardcover Christie classics and over the years – he had assembled quite a nice collection. Dad didn’t read a lot, but during lockdown and in later days, they were a huge source of comfort for him.

It seems strange to write about my Father in the past tense and somewhat naively, I had lead 46 years of my life believing that it was something I would not have to do … at least not in the near future.

The past two years had taken a toll on his health. First there was Covid and the following year, we found out that he had a malignant tumour in his throat and would need emergency surgery to remove it. The fight with cancer was long and hard. But he made a good recovery after several months, although he did lose his ability to speak. Ironically my Dad was an ear, nose and throat surgeon and had attended to numerous laryngectomy patients himself, throughout his long medical career.

Even though he lost his voice, my Dad never lost his ability to smile. I would often ask my Mum if he seemed sad and depressed and that wasn’t the case. He kept his days busy with a new found passion for gardening, cooking, reading and watching cricket.

He was the most uplifting and positive person in my life.

As a doctor, he would instil this positive spirit in the care he gave his patients. He took care of the poorest of the poor, sometimes visiting ailing people in slums and back alleys, even though they didn’t have the money for medical treatment.

My father was the life and soul of any party. My parents had an arranged marriage in India whilst my Dad was an NHS doctor in the UK. My mum went to England as a newly married wife to my Dad’s bachelor accommodation in Maidstone, Kent. She said, the entirety of his household possessions consisted of a large box of brightly colored felt pens and poster paper on which my Dad would announce news of hospital parties. In subsequent months, my parent’s landlady told my Mother thankfully that the doctor had calmed down a bit since getting married.

Last month, we had to rush him to the hospital in the middle of the night because he lost consciousness and his ability to move his left hand side. It was a scary time and despite the subsequent operation and days in the ICU I always believed that my Dad would rise again, like a phoenix from the ashes, as he had always done before that. We visited his bedside, day after day, willing him to open his eyes and gain consciousness. We talked to him about all the types of food he loved (he was a huge food lover) and I played him his favourite songs, day after day, but he decided to sleep on.

In the day’s following his cremation, I have an inexplicable feeling of surprise and wonder. As I walk the streets of our city, going about my daily life and mundane routines, I look all around me for the man who suddenly disappeared into the ether.

Is life truly this fragile and ephemeral?

Where has my father gone?

In the absence of any religious beliefs it is personally hard to reconcile oneself to the death of a loved one and their strange and mysterious disappearance.

I feel sad and cling on to the books he gave me, with his name written on the title page, the smiley pictures of him, the sound of his laugh in videos and the joy for living in his eyes. My father would not want me to be sad, I know for too long, because he was not a person to brood over things himself

And so, I’ll look for him in the world around me, the beautiful scent of the flowers that he loved, the trees that he would always be able to name, the taste of his best loved dishes, the sound of his favourite songs …

I noticed a beautiful spotted black and white butterfly the other day, weaving itself amongst the trees and the pink bougainvillea. I followed its motion and it flitted onward and made me look upward, towards the light in the blue monsoon sky. For me, my Dad lives on in all the beautiful things around me, he lives on in me as I write these words, and in Meli’s lilting voice, that she inherited from him, as she sings the songs of the seasons that have passed and which will recur in an ever moving cycle of life into the future …

It is some consolation …

Five Farthings by Monica Redlich

Five Farthings by Monica Redlich

‘Five Farthings’ is a family story about a family of five – the Farthings – who uproot themselves from rural Sussex to the heart of London, just before World War 2. The reason for the upheaval is the poor health of Mr Farthing who requires prolonged hospital care for his medical condition. With no one to support the family of five, Mrs Farthing accepts a job at a London departmental store. It is left to the eldest child, seventeen year old Vivien to take care of the family and undertake the housekeeping but first of all thefamily must find a suitable place to stay.

One day, Vivien and her teenage brother John come across a suite of rooms in an old building in Central London, very close to St Paul’s Cathedral. The sitting room commands a most wonderful bird’s eye view over St Paul’s and the other rooms are adequate too, to suit the family’s needs. The downstairs neighbour’s are warm and welcoming and the family moves happily into their new rented quarters. A few chapters are devoted to domestic details of settling in to the new house and those readers like myself who appreciate this type of story, will really enjoy it. Vivien, being new to cooking undergoes a few trials and errors but gradually the family settles into a daily rhythm. The descriptions of her first culinary experiments are quite interesting.

” … roast meat with roast or boiled potatoes, and cabbage or carrots or some other vegetable which was not too hard to cook. For sweets she made jelly out of a packet,or bought some ice cream, or gave them stewed or fresh fruit with cream, or simply something out of a tin. It was all quite eatable, except perhaps for her gravies …”

When she has some spare time on her hands, Vivien visits many of the churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren. She is fascinated by their history and design and she spends many days happily finding the many Wren churches dotted about London. One day, whilst she is visiting one such church she befriends another fellow Wren enthusiast, a middle aged man called Walter Blueley who works at a publishing house that is right next door to their flat. Vivien, with her secret personal writing aspirations becomes closely involved with the publishing company and finds her first job there, reading through various manuscripts and providing her unvarnished opinion about them. The company has a young and an old partner and it is with the young partner, Tim Broadstreet, that Vivien forges a close relationship. There’s an aspect of mystery and intrigue in the novel too regarding leakage of publishing house secrets but to my mind this is not the strongest plot point and though this aspect adds interest to the novel, the book is more about family, London, architecture, book publishing, young love and finding one’ s feet in the midst of crisis.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the flat the family lived in and its view over St Paul’s. Sir Christopher Wren played a large part in the story – certainly his architecture and the buildings he designed are variously described and admired throughout the book.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Monica Redlich’s ‘Five Farthings’ is so good. London is vividly described and domestic details of family life have a comforting appeal. I can picture an old fashioned black and white cinema being made from the story with the cinematic climax, a host of endearing characters and plenty of period detail. Monica Redlich hasn’t written many novels but I’m curious and eager to read more of her other elusive titles.

Readers who enjoy the domestic details of Gwendoline Courtney, and family stories like Noel Streatfeild’s ‘The Bell Family’ (also set in London about an impoverished family) will appreciate this book.

Lorna Hill’s Vicarage Children Trilogy

Lorna Hill’s Vicarage Children trilogy

I spent the best part of the month of May reading Lorna Hill’s ‘Vicarage Children’ trilogy and it was the best way to spend my birthday month, enjoying the simple beauty of these books.

This trilogy was written towards the end of Lorna Hill’s writing career, and sadly never extended beyond the three books. From the way the children in the story, barely age throughout the course of the three books and the way that the story remains incomplete, to my mind at least, one feels that Hill, perhaps meant this to be a long-drawn saga, which never materialised. I’m a little sad. I wanted to stay with these characters for so much longer.

The order of reading the trilogy, reissued by Girls Gone By Publishers, is ‘The Vicarage Children’, ‘More About Mandy’ and ‘The Vicarage Children in Skye’. I’ve had my eye on this series, mostly due to the latter title. I love books that convey a strong sense of place and the book set in Skye, does indeed, read as a wonderful travelogue.

‘The Vicarage Children’ is about a family of six, the Kings, who live in an ancient, tumbledown Vicarage, Staneshaw Vicarage, in rural Northumberland, very near the remains of Hadrian’s Wall. The Vicarage is in fact made from old Roman stones that formed the ancient Roman fort of Agricolanium.

The four children in the story are sixteen year old Ally, Mandy – 13, 12 year old Michael and Christopher who is 1 and a half and nick-named Binny, due to his tendency to eat everything up, much like a dustbin.

“Proper little dust-bin, that baby!” said Mrs. Golightly.

The story is told from Mandy’s perspective and we learn of the straitened circumstances of the family living at the Vicarage, how they rely on church funding to sponsor the children’s education – especially Ally’s schooling at an elite boarding school. Mandy and Michael go to a day school in Newcastle – a school which supports children of poor clergy at reduced fees. Going to school involves a lengthy bus journey everyday. Sometimes, in winter, when it snows for days on end, the children are housebound and can’t attend school for long stretches. It is a down to earth and simple life, but there is the beauty of the surrounding countryside at the children’s doorstep and this beauty seeps through the pages.

According to Mandy, Ally is the beautiful one in the family, a ‘fairy-tale princess’, who resembles the childrens’ mother, Michael and Mandy take after their father. Mandy thinks of herself as plain and Binny is the adorable, chubby little baby with dimples and fair curls, lisping all the time. The children’s individual personalities form a key part of the books. We learn that Ally is rather self-centred and only cares about her looks and her clothes with little consideration for their family’s financial difficulties. Mandy is the considerate, caring one, who looks after her baby brother and wants to become a writer. Michael is mad about archaeology and often spends weekends digging away with fellow enthusiasts.

The first two books deal with the children’s life in the Vicarage, their school life and Ally’s struggles with growing up. There’s also Ben, the squire’s son, who is in love with Ally, although Ally has eyes only for another well-to-do rich boy, who is the brother of a school friend. Ben’s relationship with the two sisters is an interesting plot point. We see the transformation in Ben’s understanding about the personality of the two sisters – his slow appreciation for Mandy’s selflessness. Some of my favourite books deal with the topic of coming of age, and this trilogy is certainly a lovely example of this type of writing.

The first two books cover the course of two consecutive years in the life of the family and the first book has seasonal chapters devoted to the Easter Holidays, a Garden Fete, Christmas and Ally’s First Ball on Bonfire Night. The second book sees Ally studying at a Commercial School and finding her first job and then living on her own in Newcastle, with considerable hurdles due to her inexperience. Not an awful lot happens in the books, the characters are busy leading quite an ordinary life, just like normal people but Lorna Hill’s gift lies in her ability to make us care for her characters. I was never bored of reading about the children.

The third book, ‘The Vicarage Children in Skye’ is a departure from the previous two books in style, because it reads quite like a travelogue. I enjoyed this book immensely and especially the details of the car journey, winding it’s slow course from Newcastle to Glasgow via Gretna Green, and thereon through the Highlands and by ferry to Skye. I tracked all the places mentioned on Google Maps and often looked at picturesque locations described by Hill. It almost felt like taking a holiday! The stark beauty of the Cuillin Hills, the deep lochs and heady views, the simplicity and friendly nature of the locals, all contributed to what I thought was an endearing book. I’d definitely recommend it to readers who enjoy books with a strong sense of place.

The books abruptly finish with this particular instalment. One can’t help but wonder wistfully about Mandy’s future, because she is most certainly the heart and soul of these books. Why do book series with promise have to abruptly end? Nevertheless, have I tempted you to find the Vicarage Children trilogy?

‘Lark Rise’ by Flora Thompson

‘Lark Rise’ by Flora Thompson

‘Lark Rise’ is Flora Thompson’s personal account of growing up in a small rural community in Oxfordshire in the late Victorian period.

Flora is ‘Laura’ in the retelling and with a keen eye for observing nature and beauty, Flora Thompson renders an exacting yet not too sentimental picture of what life was like for the rural poor. Struggling to make ends meet, yet happy in enjoying the simple pleasures of life, ‘Lark Rise’ is an intimate and detailed social history of life in those times.

The exact time of the retelling is the 1880’s and most of the stories are related to that particular decade, coinciding with the first formative years of Laura and her younger brother Edmund’s life. Seen through child Laura’s keen lense, yet told with adult sensibilities ‘Lark Rise’ paints an astonishing plethora of pictures of village life, bridging the gap from childbirth to death, inclusive of high days and holidays, religion, schooling, social life, care of the elderly and so much more. There are even descriptions of the lavish care of the family pig – an exceedingly important figure in village life.

Historically, one of the most important aspects of this story is the fact that the story is told during a time which was going through immense change in the shape of industrial and technological development. This would not only affect the methods of farming but have a great impact on food production, favouring shop bought over home made and home grown. Railways had shrunk the size of the country. People from places a mere 5 miles away were no longer thought of as ‘furriners’. Despite the developments, there is almost a feeling of sadness as the storyteller closes the curtain on an era long gone and not to be recovered.

Two chapters of the book are dedicated to describing songs sung by the village folk and games favoured by their children. ‘Country Playtime’ describes time honoured games like ‘Oranges and Lemons’, ‘London Bridge’, ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’ and also lesser known ones that adopted a fair share of storytelling and role playing like ‘Here Come Three Tinkers’. There were supposedly so many known games and rhymes to be played, all passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, that children could play for hours on end without fear of repetition.

As a bibliophile the fact that Laura takes so much pleasure from reading is very enjoyable. I took careful note of some of the books that graced Laura’s bookshelves. Apart from her Mother’s Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress they included Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Gulliver’s Travels, The Daisy Chain and Mrs Molesworth’s Cuckoo Clock and Carrots.

One of my favourite chapters was the one dedicated to May Day celebrations. Since I read this chapter at the beginning of May, the reading felt very seasonal and greatly added to my enjoyment. The chapter started out with the statement that the celebrations surrounding May Day were the most cherished by the village children. Curious to learn why May Day celebrations superseded Christmas in enjoyment, I read on … What followed was a description of a most beautiful and flower filled day of merriment, where a large May garland of flowers, prepared mostly by the children and encrusted with gathered violets, cowslips, wallflowers, oxlips, sweetbriar and more, was carried ceremoniously accompanied by a flower bedecked May Queen, replete with a regal daisy crown. The procession along with a whole bevy of beribboned and pinafored girls in light coloured frocks and boys in bright ribbons and sashes would travel from the Rectory, to the Squire’s house, and thereon to the farmhouses and cottages dotted across the local parish. There would be May songs rejoicing in the beauty of Spring and the tinkling of coins in the money box at the end of each recital was customary.

Another major celebration surrounded Harvest Time. After the last sheaf of corn was collected, the farm workers would be invited to a glorious harvest home dinner at the farmer’s house. Hams were boiled, plum puddings stacked, eighteen gallon casks were tapped, and plum loaves baked in a truly Dickensian feast. In retrospect, it seems fitting that the most celebrated festivals for Lark Rise villagers, were those related to that of the land and its bounty.

Of course I am just skimming the surface in this review. Flora Thompson’s ‘Lark Rise’ is wonderfully descriptive and one might say, illuminating. A carefully scripted paragraph inserted here and there amidst the pages can astonish the reader with nature descriptions of searing beauty.

“Against the billowing gold of the fields the hedges stood dark, solid and dew-sleeked; dewdrops beaded the gossamer webs, and the children’s feet left long, dark trails on the dewy turf. There were night scents of wheat-straw and flowers and moist earth on the air and the sky fleeced with pink clouds.”

If you have wondered what it must have been like to live a few centuries ago, then this is a good book to pick up. It is a beautiful place to be transported to and though the last page of the book brought tears to my eyes, I will leave it to you, to find out why.

I received a review copy of ‘Lark Rise’ by Flora Thompson from Slightly Foxed but all opinions are my own.

Charlotte Fairlie by D E Stevenson

Charlotte Fairlie by DE Stevenson

This book review of ‘Charlotte Fairlie’ by D E Stevenson is for the #1954Club hosted by Simon David Thomas from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

It was wonderful escaping into the romantic world of Charlotte Fairlie this week. Although some of the characters had quite noticeable flaws and the plot was somewhat predictable I couldn’t help just revelling in the cosy atmosphere of this novel. I’m glad the #1954Club gave me the perfect excuse to do so. Please check out Simon and Karen’s wonderful blogs for more book reviews by book bloggers who read a variety of books this week that were published in 1954.

Charlotte Fairlie is a young and lonely headmistress of a respected Girls’ Boarding School in rural England. Although the position is most coveted, young Charlotte finds herself quite distanced from friends and family. The other teachers view her from a position of respect and as an authoritative figure – although Charlotte certainly seems to navigate her administrative activities calmly and without being too overbearing. There is one particular teacher though, who bears a grudge upon Charlotte – and that is a senior mistress called Miss Pinkerton. Due to her seniority, Miss Pinkerton had hoped to secure the position of headmistress of Saint Elizabeth’s – but the members of the Board favoured the young, freshly graduated Charlotte Fairlie instead, an ex-student of Saint Elizabeth’s, an Oxford scholar and expert in modern languages.

As the story unfolds, we learn about Charlotte’s family history. Having lost her mother at an early age, Charlotte and her father shared a very close bond until her wicked stepmother arrived on the scene and sent her to boarding school, never to see her father again. Having no close family except an old aunt and a maternal uncle to look after her, Charlotte’s familial life and a lack of close connections – paints a rather lonely and bleak picture.

A new girl arrives at Saint Elizabeth – a Scottish girl called Tessa MacRynne. She is the daughter of a well known Scottish land owner – a man who in fact owns an entire Scottish island called Targ and lives in isolation with a whole group of people who revere him as the head of their clan. Tessa’s Mother, an American deposits her daughter with Charlotte and soon afterwards, Tessa receive news from her Mother, that she has left her husband and plans to sail back to the States to live with her own parents. Distraught with the news, Tessa tries to run away and go back to her Father in Targ. Charlotte discovers the child trying to escape and convinces her to come back to school and thus suppresses any kind of scandal. In doing so, Charlotte forms a close connection with the lonely Tessa MacRynne.

Tessa also makes friends with another motherless girl, Dione or Donny Eastwood, whose family lives in the town near school. Dione and her two brothers visit home on Sundays, where they meet their overbearing and verbally abusive Father – Professor Eastwood.

Donny and her two brothers and Charlotte are both invited to spend their summer holidays at Targ with Tessa and her Father – Rory MacRynne.

The part of the novel that is set on Targ is my favourite. The history and the people of Targ and the old house with modern conveniences where the guests stay with the MacRynnes is wonderfully described. There are some interesting old maiden aunts and people in the village who are also very interesting characters. Tessa’s Father and Charlotte immediately have a connection – but I won’t reveal anymore about that aspect of the story.

One of the underlying themes in the novel that frequently cropped up in the novel was the lack of a stable, loving and secure home environment and it’s detrimental effects on children. Several of the central characters in the novel grew up with the lack of a mother figure and in certain cases, a harsh or indifferent father figure. If I had to make a criticism about the novel, it would be that I don’t think that the unpleasant characters in the book seemed to be real life, fleshed out characters. In certain aspects they seemed to be too evil and malignant. I think DE Stevenson portrays likeable characters particularly wel though.

One of my favourite things about the novel, aside from the descriptions of home life in Targ, were the couple of chapters set during Christmas in a remote English village. Devoid of the usual merriment, it depicted a Christmas spent rather quietly and with a great deal of contemplation – and I enjoyed reading about this. There is also a brief interlude spent in Copenhagen. DE Stevenson writes about place particularly well.

A big thank you to Simon and Karen for prompting me to pick up this book. If you fancy a trip to a lovely Scottish isle with a handsome and rugged clan chieftain, then do pick up this book. I’ll definitely be re reading this book in future.

Thanks to Dean Street Press for sending me an e-book of ‘Charlotte Fairlie’ from the Furrowed Middlebrow Series for review purposes. All impressions are my own.

Best Books of 2021

2021 was a year of fantastic reading for me and the following books bear testament to that fact. Favourite books came from Slightly Foxed, Persephone Books, Dean Street Press and the British Library among others. A special mention goes to O Douglas who is perhaps my favourite comfort author.

1)Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee (press copy from Slightly Foxed)

Laurie Lee’s wonderful evocation of his childhood, in a small Cotswold village in ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a memorable read.

The memoir is a heady and wholly immersive walk down memory lane. Each recapitulation is so vivid that it really set’s the reader’s imagination ablaze with imagery. The prose is packed with descriptors that really bring to life every sensory detail.

One by one the people, places and incidents of his childhood are recounted but in a way, that immerses us in the landscape- to witness the peculiar activities of the elderly old ladies who are their close neighbours (Granny Trill and Granny Wallon), to hear and feel the rush of rain, clap of thunder of a great storm that practically submerges their low lying cottage, and to breathe in and taste the heady flavour of cider from the bounty of apples from the valley.

I really enjoyed this fleeting glimpse into a time and way of life that has long since disappeared.

2)Penny Plain by O Douglas

A book that enveloped me in the tightest, sweetest, coziest hug in February was ‘Penny Plain’ by the Scottish author O Douglas.

I know, this book will become a lifelong favourite to return to when I’m in need of a little bit of comfort.

Penny Plain is about the life of the poor Jardine family. Jean, the eldest sister helps to bring up her two younger brothers and step brother on a paltry annual income. They live in a lovely rented cottage called The Rigs in the small town of Priorsford in the Scottish Borders. The lives of the Jardine family is set in a tumult when Lady Pamela, a woman seeking sanctuary from her frivolous life in London and a boring lover comes to take lodgings next door. An unlikely visit from an old man in London, also brings a tremendous sea-change in the Jardine’s life.

It’s all very interesting, particularly the details of everyday life, the lovely characters and the small town drama. I can’t tell you more – because that would be giving plot details away.
Though it’s quite hard to find O Douglas books there are several of her e-books available at this time. They are well worth reading if you enjoy cozy, books with domestic detail.

3)My Antonia by Willa Cather

‘My Antonia’ dwells on the immigrant experience of a family from Bohemia, who settle in the bleak American Midwest. The focus is on the eldest girl of the family – Antonia, the muse and love of the storyteller.

Often, quite grim the novel lays bare the hardship and struggles of the family totally out of depth, farming the unruly, unyielding land. The hardship of the long, bleak and brutal winters take a toll on the family, particularly their first winter, when they are mentally and physically unprepared.

The novel then, goes on to charter Antonia’s development as a woman – on a path of self-learning where there are no safety-nets when mistakes are made.
Often inspiring, this is a book that tugs on the heart strings. It is sometimes quite hard to read, but the prose is beautiful and the story, ultimately uplifting.
Having lived and worked in America as an immigrant myself, I could identify with the feeling of isolation and unfamiliarity experienced by a ‘foreigner’ in a new environment. It is a brave and life-changing experience.

4)Apricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson (e book review copy from Dean Street Press)

One of the nicest, nicest books I’ve read in a while was ‘Apricot Sky’ by Ruby Ferguson. Long out of print, this sublime ode to Scotland has been reissued by Dean Street Press.

Fans of ‘Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary’ will delight in this book set on the west coast of Scotland over the course of a summer after the end of WW2.
‘Apricot Sky’ by Ruby Ferguson describes the family life of a multi-generational Scottish family, who live on the west coast of Scotland, just over the water from Skye. The story encompasses a beautiful summer, a summer that will culminate in the marriage of the second daughter of the family, a girl called Raine, who will marry a local Scotsman called Ian.
More than having a strong overarching plot, this book is a collection of beautiful moments – moments that celebrate the beauty of Scotland and the Scottish way of life.
If you enjoy character driven books and are looking for that perfect slow summer read – then please do pick this up.

5)Mamma by Diana Tutton (press copy from the British Library)

‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton is the story of the relationship between a 41year old widow, Joanna Malling and a married man, six years her junior. The relationship is complicated by the fact that the young man is her son-in-law, the husband of her most beloved daughter.

‘Mamma’ deals with quite a taboo topic – a relationship between two people, who though not related by blood are related to one another by that of close affinity. The common link in this case is a most beloved daughter/ wife. This is quite an unusual and brave topic to deal with and I must say that Tutton navigates the difficult topic with great sensibility. This is not a premeditated story of lust and want. It is a story of the mutual attraction of two people who find they are on the same intellectual plane. From this, is derived a need for greater intimacy.

The relationship that develops between mother in law and son in law is not at all pre meditated. It very slowly and naturally develops as a result of living at close quarters and the genuine meeting of intelligent minds. In this way, the development of plot isn’t nauseating although it can make for quite uncomfortable reading at times. There is a strong degree of sexual tension in the novel as well.

Ultimately, it is a story about protracted loneliness, the loneliness that a widow might experience when she has been bereft of intimacy and companionship for the majority of her adult life. I thought it was a most thought provoking and brave novel.

6)The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons

‘The Swiss Summer’ is set in the Grindelwald-Interlaken region of the Swiss Oberland, famed for its proximity to the giant peaks of the ethereal Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger. The story begins in the aftermath of the Second World War. The story is told through the eyes of a forty year old married woman called Lucy Cottrell. Lucy is tired of her busy life in London as the wife of an insurance agent, with its rush of social events and people. So when, a chance encounter with Lady Dalgleish, a woman owning a Swiss Chalet opens up an opportunity to spend a few weeks in this idyllic spot, Lucy jumps at the opportunity. The main reason for her visit is to act as an assistant to Freda Blandish, Lady Dalgleish’s companion, to catalogue Lady Dalgleish’s husband’s vast library of books and artifacts. However, what starts off as a secluded blissful holiday is converted to an uproarious holiday lodge with a crew of weird and wonderful characters.
Though the loss of complete peace and quiet is a loss for Lucy, the people who stay at the Chalet Alpenrose form close bonds and forge friendships that will last them a lifetime. The book discusses issues such as childlessness, parenting, the breaking up of class structure in Britain in the aftermath of WW2, class sensibility and the way the British tourist was viewed by native Europeans, first love and the ideal of marrying for love versus money. It’s a lovely book – but to my mind – the wonderful sense of place in ‘Swiss Summer’ was the highlight of the book.

7)Little Boy Lost by Marganita Laski

Another of my best books for 2021 is Marghanita Laski’s poignant and soul searching novel ‘Little Boy Lost’ published by Persephone Books.

Once in a while, there comes a book that is so much more than the series of events it retells. Some stories have the power to evoke major existential questions, deal with emotions so raw and that lie so heavy on the heart, that the novel becomes deeply psychological and grapples with the character’s inner conundrums and dilemmas, inviting the reader to take part in the discussion. ‘Little Boy Lost’ is just such a book.

Without giving too much of the plot away – the book is about Hilary’s quest to find his young son, lost in the chaos and confusion and mass destruction of the Second World War in Paris.

Set in post-war France, in Paris and an obscure provincial town blaster beyond recognition in northern France, ‘Little Boy Lost’ is also a depiction of the mass destruction that ravaged France and what it was like to live in France at such a time. The images that Laski evokes are haunting to say the least.

‘Little Boy Lost’ is a book about ideals, about personal freedom and the search for happiness. It also explores the instinctual ability to recognise oneself in one’s children. Fraught with many moral dilemmas, this is a masterful book that will have you entranced, from start to finish.
Highly highly recommend.

8)The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor (press copy from Persephone Books)

I recently finished reading FM Mayor’s classic novel – ‘The Rector’s Daughter’, to be published by Persephone Books.

It was – poignant read that took me a few days to mentally recover from reading about poor Mary’s life. Recover from reading about the depths and constancy of her love, devotion and emotions. Her deep-rooted devotion to her Father and the man that she loved with her heart and soul.

‘The Rector’s Daughter’ is Mary’s story. The story of how she unexpectedly found love at the age of thirty-five, bringing hope and joy into her very quiet and uneventful existence. A love that she, unlike many single women of her acquaintance – longed for with her heart and soul.

To tell you more would provide you with spoilers. ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ moved me. I felt for Mary, just as much as I felt for Jane in Jane Eyre. Though Mary, as stated in the novel, didn’t want to be pitied, her story and the way life treated her – demanded for a great deal of pity.

Deemed a classic, and for good reason – I was completely moved by ‘The Rector’s Daughter’.

9)Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

‘Strong Poison’ by Dorothy L Sayers is a fast paced crime novel that opens with us witnessing novelist Miss Harriet Vane standing on trial for the murder of her ex-lover, a man called Phillip Boyes. Phillip Boyes died from suspected arsenic poisoning and since Harriet Vane was found to have purchased quantities of arsenic on various occasions for supposed research purposes and given her turbulent relationship with the deceased, it seems probable that she will be found guilty.
It remains for our dapper hero, war veteran Lord Peter Wimsey to try and save Harriet from impending doom.
The excellent plot, the fast paced nature of the story telling but mostly the wonderful sparkling dialogue and chemistry between Vane and Wimsey – are what made this book a wonderful read in my opinion.

10)Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare (press copy from Slightly Foxed)

I was completely immersed in George Clare’s memoir ‘Last Waltz in Vienna’ published by Slightly Foxed.

The book is a personal account of what it was like to be Jewish, living in Vienna during the Victorian age through to the Edwardian age and the First and Second World Wars. George Clare describes the history and life of his ancestors including the most quotidian detail, making this a most real and absorbing narrative. Through his eyes we witness some of the political details of living in the eye of the storm during such a turbulent time.

Why the attention to so much detail? As Clare explains towards the start of the narrative :
“We cannot identify with millions, we can only identify with single human beings. That is one reason why this book is not about the defenceless millions who were murdered by Hitler’s holocaust and who, because of their numbers, must remain strange, shadowy, unreal, but tells the story of only a few men and women who were my ancestors.”

George Clare’s memoir is such a sad, poignant read but so important in trying to learn about the diabolical atrocities of the war.