‘Random Commentary’ by Dorothy Whipple

Random Commentary by Dorothy Whipple

‘Random Commentary’ by Dorothy Whipple and published by @persephonebooks is a series of extracts from Whipple’s personal diaries, spanning the period 1925-1945 and this encompassing a major swathe of her active writing life. During this particular period she wrote six novels, one autobiographical novel about her childhood and several short stories. 

The excerpts were handpicked by Whipple herself in 1965. They were a series of entries from personal diaries that Whipple deemed important and that she typed out herself. The lack of chronological information makes these entries slightly difficult to follow with regards to exact dates but the Publisher’s Note at the beginning of the book, makes reference to Whipple’s bibliography during this period and the reader can roughly gauge the time regarding which the writer refers to. Overall, this chronological information omission does not take away from the reader’s enjoyment of reading the diary. 

Information about book writing, correspondence with publishers, literary events merge seamlessly with more domestic concerns – the dusting, the cooking, the ups and downs of finding and keeping domestic help. In this way one can really form an idea of the real life of this very down to earth woman who had to fit in time for her writing in between her domestic duties. 

“I am up in the attic to work at 11.15, after having dusted, swept, cooked and tidied wildly. I am cross not to have time for my writing, and cross because I must take the car to be oiled and greased, cross to have to go to the Nursing Home to see M.E, to go to the office to see Miss G.”

Living with her husband Henry, an educational administrator, Dorothy Whipple often accompanied her husband on his travels for conferences. One can glean that Whipple gained immense enjoyment from a change of scenery, acutely observing the people and places around her, noting down their habits and idiosyncrasies – gathering food for her writing. On one particular occasion, Whipple visits a popular London restaurant and the group of people at an adjacent table become the heart and soul of her next short story. 

“London. We went to Bertorelli’s… The other girl was a complete contrast to Alice, a full-blown rose indeed, with peroxided curls and wet lips and a generous bosom displayed in a tight emerald green dress. She called her young man ‘darling’ and ate the middle of his bread … I wrote this as a short story: A Lovely Time.

What I found most valuable about reading ‘Random Commentary’ was the intimate knowledge of the writing process of each of Whipple’s books, her thoughts and often despair in penning her stories, her internal struggles, the ever-present feeling of doubt and dubiousness at the worthiness of a manuscript for publication – the feeling of hope and anticipation accompanying the postage of a manuscript to the publisher – the euphoria of a publisher’s acceptance, positive response and also the heart ache over rejection. All these feelings are beautifully conveyed with the reader making us sympathetic to the creative angst of the writer. 

Fortunately for Whipple she enjoyed immense popularity as a writer while she was living. Many of her books were the ‘Choice of the Book Club’ or on best seller lists. Critics were very kind. JB Priestley, a close friend was a great cheerleader and Whipple enjoyed good relationships with most of her publishers. Her books were translated into different languages, and often the American rights to her books were much sought after. 

They Knew Mr. Knight reaches 10,000 mark, and heads list of bestsellers in John O’London. It is also among the bestsellers in the Autumn number of ‘The Author’. It is listed among the best-sellers in The Times.”

Insights into literary parties and meeting notable writers of the time there, are also most interesting to the reader. Names are dropped most casually and provide a great thrill. At a party given by publisher Jock Murray to celebrate the publisher’s marriage and publication of ‘The Priory’, 

The first person that Whipple sees is George Bernard Shaw, ‘pink and white face almost lost in snow white whiskers’. At another party she encounters Dorothy L. Sayers. It must have been an incredible time to have been part of the greater literary scene. E. M. Delafield, such a favourite author of mine, is mentioned to have praised ‘The Priory’ in ‘Provincial Lady in Wartime’. If you are, like me, an avid fan of the literature and authors of the interwar period, then ‘Random Commentary’ will provide you with infinite nuggets of joy – in the shape of literary figures, encounters with them and discourse with notable publishers. 

From her diaries, it is quite evident that Whipple enjoyed close relationships with family. She had a very strong, loving relationship with her husband Henry and they seem to have led a very contented life with their beloved dog, in between their two homes in Nottingham and in the country at Newstead. Whipple’s Mother and brothers crop up frequently on the pages of ‘Random Commentary’ – as does her sister. Whipple worshipped her  sister’s daughter Griselda and her name is frequently mentioned in her diaries.

During the course of these diaries the Second World War raged and the build up, anxiety and dread about impending war is very much evident to the reader. Whipple describes her inability to write in the face of the War. 

“I can’t write. Fiction seems so trivial. Fact is too terrible.”

Despite this, Whipple did indeed plow on with her, to my mind, most dramatic and angst-filled novel ‘’They Were Sisters’. One can’t help but feel that some of the angst, tragedy and frustration of the War are transmitted to its pages, so that a heightened sense of calamity is felt when reading this story. 

There’s lots to read and re-read and dissect amongst the pages of ‘Random Commentary’. Whipple lived a life rich in experience and the interest and curiosity she felt about people, their moods and motivations inundate her fiction, as well as this most interesting of personal diaries. Definitely, a must-read for any ardent Whipple fan. 

I received this Press copy of ‘Random Commentary’ as a gift from Persephone Books but as always, all opinions are my own.

Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson – #1936club

Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson

I am reviewing this book as part of the #1936club, initiated by Simon David Thomas of ‘Stuck in a Book’and Karen of ‘Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling’.

To take a look at other books published in the same year, reviewed by other bloggers, please take a look at the round up posts that should be up on the previously mentioned blogs. This is a really lovely way to learn more about themes that may have been a common focus at a particular time in history. 

In ‘Miss Buncle’s Book’ – the first in the series – a thirty-something, unmarried woman, by force of circumstance has to take to writing to support herself when her dividends don’t bring in as much income as expected.

As the woman, Barbara Buncle, has NO imagination whatsoever, she writes from experience, portraying events and characters from the English village she lives in.

Her books are a massive success and all is well … until… several people in her village recognise themselves as characters in the book and are angry that they have not been portrayed in the most favourable light. And there is a hunt on to unearth the identity of the mystery novel writer.

The writing is wonderful, the characters are brilliant. What more can I say? If you need a nice light read this summer, you will definitely enjoy this one.

However, the pick of my reading for the #1936club is ‘Miss Buncle Married’ – so let’s focus on this sequel.

In ‘Miss Buncle Married’ – Barbara and her husband find themselves in the strange predicament of being so involved in the social life of the community in their little corner of Hampstead, that they hardly have an evening to call their own, to enjoy each other’s company. An endless string of bridge evenings and listless suppers fill up their social calendar. When both Barbara and her husband discover that neither of them enjoy these social soirées they realise that the only way to extricate themselves from this entanglement is to move to a quiet neighbourhood, preferably in the country. As Barbara’s husband describes the perfect house nestled in the countryside, a vision befalls Barbara’s eyes and she  feels she cannot rest until she has found their paradise. 

So ensues several months of house hunting in the surrounding countryside. One day, almost upon the point of giving up, Barbara stumbles upon the perfect house, dilapidated but with fine features, having a beautiful garden in a  sleepy old Elizabethan town called Wandlebury. However, at the lawyer and house agent’s office involved with showing the house to Barbara, one of the lawyers mistakes Barbara for someone else, residing in the village of Wandlebury and makes her privy to that person’s last will and deed. The lawyer is mortified when he discovers his mistake and Barbara must keep her knowledge a secret even though all sorts of complications ensue regarding the terms of the will. To make matters worse, Barbara is struck with another urge to write about the people and places of Wandlebury. Will Barbara and her husband need to uproot themselves from Wandlebury and a chance of living their best life, once again in order to flee the wrath of their neighbours?

The Miss Buncle books are brilliant light-hearted comfort reads. The second book in the series fell under a similar formula to the first one with a few differences. There was a twist in the tale with the addition of the will. We are introduced to some new and endearing characters – especially Sam and new neighbour and horse enthusiast Jerry. An artist family who live just next door are also food for inspiration for Barbara – supplying character inspiration and memorable quotes.

Though I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Miss Buncle’s Book – there were some particular elements and themes to enjoy in the sequel.  The descriptions of Archway House in Wandlebury, which Barbara and her husband decide to renovate are lovely. A quiet, witty, playful story, a handful of interesting and varying characters who live in an English village, romantic entanglements, funny, cringeworthy situations regarding missing trousers – these are all things to love in the book. Barbara’s gradual character development both as a writer and as a more mature person are also points to be noticed. 

It’s also interesting to note that even though we are on the cusp of the Second World War, money of the tremours of the impending war penetrate the calm environs of a Wandlebury. There are severally references to Barbara’s husband’s active service during the Great War, however, and several grumblings about the lack of initiative of the then, present generation of young men, namely the nephew of Barbara’s husband, Sam.

The end of Miss Buncle Married made me eager to pick up the next book in the series. Now that, is surely the sign of a good book. 

Many thanks to Simon and Karen for hosting this book club. Do check out their blogs for other book reviews written during 1936.

‘The Bell Family’ by Noel Streatfeild

‘The Bell Family’ by Noel Streatfeild

The Bell Family

‘The Bell Family’ is the account of the lives of the Bell Family, in the heart of south-east London after World War 2. Their father is the Reverend of St Mark’s and the family, though a happy one, are rather short of money. Though they have food to eat, a roof over their heads, and help in the house from lovely Mrs Gage, Mother doesn’t have the money for a new dress and must wear Aunt Rose’s cast-offs, Jane, the eldest daughter, who is a promising dancer can’t apply for a place at Sadler’s Well School and Paul, the eldest son, must contemplate giving up his dream career of becoming a doctor in order to secure a more lucrative position in Grandfather’s booming business.

The family, as a whole manage quite well but it is particularly when they are pitted against their rich relatives, some of whom take pleasure in flaunting their wealth, that they feel despondent about their lot in life.

The children’s father, Reverend Alexander Bell, once exceedingly displeased his father by taking up orders with the Church, rather than engage himself in the family business. Grandfather’s wrath was so searing that he vowed that as long as he lived, his son, Alex Bell would not get a penny from him. The result is the story of the Bell Family. Though they have chosen to live their life on their own terms

Central Theme of ‘The Bell Family’

Though I would say that the central theme of the book is money, social circumstance and the dearth of opportunity created by a lack of money, the book is so much more than that. The book shows us that a lack of money can never take away true talent from a person, that hard work and perseverance can bring rewards and that being poor sometimes renders a need for innovation and enterpreneurship – a quality in which the Bell children were certainly not lacking.

Outspoken ‘Miss Virginia Bell’

Mostly, I adored the characters in this novel, particularly that of outspoken and plucky Ginnie, the younger daughter or ‘Miss Virginia Bell’, as she frequently referred to herself as, in the course of this novel. She had so much character, determination and a tendency of getting herself into the worst scrapes. She also spoke out volubly in the face of injustice, particularly when she could not tolerate the affected manners of her rich relations. I especially loved how her parents dealt with her tempestuous nature – choosing not to suppress it but guiding her wilfulness, to become a more controlled version of herself.

Best Parts of the Book

Some of the best parts in the novel were memorable outbursts and speeches from Ginnie – particularly a birthday party outburst at the ballet and an impromptu speech delivered on stage to her Aunt Rose (a chief guest), in front of the entire school. Also particularly funny were her attempts to raise money for the thwarted annual family holiday – by busking on a street corner and being accidentally discovered by her shocked father.

Dreamy Nostalgia by the Kentish Seaside

The book ends with a beautiful holiday by the Kentish seaside. The story captures a wonderful glimpse of ordinary life in London, a social history of its time, and the characters, writing and events are so memorable that I was quite sad to say goodbye to the dear Bell Family at the end of the book. Recommended reading for children and adults alike. 

‘Penny Plain’ and ‘Priorsford’ by O Dougas – A Cozy Visit to the Scottish Borders

‘Penny Plain’ and ’Priorsford’ by O Douglas

‘Penny Plain’ by O Douglas – A Very Cozy Scottish Book

‘Penny Plain’ by O Douglas was published in 1920 and is the story of the young and poor Jardine family, who live in a quaint cottage in the lowland town of Priorsford, in the Scottish Borders. Jean Jardine, the eldest member of the family is in her early twenties and from a very young age, after the demise of both her parents, was given the charge of looking after her younger brothers. They are – David (off to Oxford), Jock (a fourteen year old) and Gervase Taunton – a small step brother. 

For Jean, life is full of the niggling worries of having to scrimp and save, to do without and to make ends meet. They live in a delightful and unusual Scottish cottage called ‘The Rigs’ with a front room shaped like the prow of a ship and slightly elevated, so it almost looked high to the hills in the distance. 

Jean and her family love The Rigs so much that they live in constant fear of their landlord demanding to turn them out and asking them to look for alternative lodging. 

Despite her cares, Jean has a magnetic personality, concerned about the needs of her elderly neighbours, taking part in town activities, making calls and enjoying the small joys of life. 

The town of Priorsford is astir, however, when a certain Lady Pamela comes to stay as a paying guest in the lodgings of old Bella Bathgate – the Jardine’s next door neighbour. Lady Pamela comes to Priorsford to escape the frivolity of social life in London and a boring, middle aged lover. 

Lady Pamela delights in the simple yet satisfying life in small town Priorsford. She befriends all of Priorsford residents – many of them frail, retired and elderly. Some of them even grieving the loss of beloved family members in the aftermath of the War. Most of all, Pamela becomes part of the Jardine family and her interest and love for Priorsford becomes infectious and spreads to other members of her immediate family who come to visit. 

In a turn of events, Jean shows great kindness to a complete stranger, a mysterious old man who turns up at their doorstep and as a result – their lives undergo an immense sea change as a result of her good deed. 

‘Penny Plain’ has romantic entanglements and love interests like all the best stories. There’s also an opportunity to get to know the town’s busybody – the incorrigible Mrs Duff-Whaley, who has her finger in every village pie – be it amateur dramatics, tea parties, dinners or fundraisers.

Without giving too much way, the plot of ‘Penny Plain’ is a fairy tale. Though the plot, in my opinion is not central to the novel, the strength of this novel and of O Douglas’ writing is her ability to create realistic, believable, ordinary characters – replete with good characteristics and flaws. O Douglas also excels in weaving a compelling story around the inhabitants of a small community- it is an interesting sketch of a few families and their day to day concerns – typical of Jane Austen’s style. As the reader, we become involved in not only the concerns of the Jardine family but Priorsford at large. The book touches on subjects like wealth, fellow feeling, taking an interest in one’s neighbours joys as well as sorrows and learning to valiantly cope with life’s tragedies.

To me, reading ‘Penny Plain’ was the greatest comfort. I jumped straight into its sequel ‘Priorsford’ set ten years after the previous story. I can’t talk about it here because that would mean spoilers. It’s set over an entire winter in Jean’s life and I found reading it extremely satisfying. I’ll be returning to this pair of book soon in the future because I did love reading them. Jean seemed to have the perfect personality along with her share of human frailties and a zest for life and living. Do try and find these books of you can, in a used bookstore or as an e book, especially if you love old, cozy fireside stories.

‘Carrie’s War’ by Nina Bawden

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

‘Carrie’s War’ is the story of a young evacuee’s personal struggles

‘Carrie’s War’ by Nina Bawden is a story about a young girl’s personal struggles, adjusting to a strange new life as an evacuee in the home of Welsh family during World War 2. The book is an evocative picture of life on the home front, especially the stirring account of transplantation of so many young British school children, at a very young and impressionable age. 

The Setting of Carrie’s War

Life for young Carrie Willow and her younger brother Nick, undergoes an enormous upheaval when they are put upon a train in the company of a trainload of London evacuees, a group of young children in the company of their schoolteacher, towards an unknown destination in the heart of Wales, far away from the scare of sudden wartime bombing. 

They arrive in a sleepy Welsh coal-mining village and are billeted to the home of a curmudgeonly Welsh shopkeeper, who lives with his spinster younger sister – Auntie Lou to the children. Mr Evans is extremely controlling and miserly. The children must creep about the house and they are not allowed to even use the upstairs bathroom during the daytime, in fear of trampling on and spoiling the carpeted staircase. An outdoor lavatory, at the end of the garden must do the job, even in cold weather. Homelife is extremely oppressive and I think, would have been intolerable, if not for the love shown by tender hearted Auntie Lou, who is scared of her brother.

The children visit Mr Evan’s elder sister’s home- Druid’s Bottom- a mysterious, secretive place, magically located in a secluded grove by the train tracks. 

Mr Evan’s elder sister, Dilys Gotobed, is a widow, confined to her bed and looked after by a woman called Hepzibah Green. Hepzibah Green is not only a caregiver and housekeeper, she also takes care of the Gotobed’s nephew – a young boy with a disability – Johnny Gotobed. Hepzibah envelopes Druid’s Bottom with such an air of warmth and comfort, that it is a joy for the children to visit there. There is always the promise of good home cooked food, a roaring fire and a friendly face telling all sorts of mystical tales at Druid’s Bottom. 

Some of these mystical tales are fraught with terrible curses and tales of superstition that haunt Druid’s Bottom. 

Carrie in particular feels that it is her calling to heal the rift between Mr Evan’s and his elderly sister and in trying to do so – she does something that will haunt her for the rest of her life. 

When Carrie revisits the sleepy old mining town many years later with her own children, will she able to forgive herself and be able to reconstrue events that happened many many years ago?

‘Carrie’s War’ was a good book, well written with an interesting plot but for me the point of main interest was the event of the evacuee children being sent to far flung corners of the country to escape the threat of bombs. As a parent it seems rather a hard pill to swallow, to resign oneself to being separated from one’s children to strangers – and what struck me as extraordinary was the calm with which Carrie’s mother let go of her children. However, we are well aware given the events of the past year, of how extreme events can lead to extraordinary decisions and modes of living life. From my perspective, it seems an unacceptable form of separation in the here and now, but perhaps being a Londoner with the threat of the Blitz hovering over my head, I would have convinced myself to put my little children on a train to the far reaches of the country. One can only hope that a person like Mr Evans would not have been the caregiver at the end of the line. 

Carrie’s War is a book well worth reading. The characters, sometimes larger than life are well crafted. There is an absorbing plot. The social and period details and the time and place of the novel are well done and there are pockets of coziness, warmth and so many descriptions of good food to lift one’s mood. 

Ultimately it is the tale of Carrie’s personal struggles, in a new environment and hostile territory that make this book so compelling to read. 

Best Books of 2020

Top Books of 2020
Top books of 2020

A month or so late, but here nevertheless, are my best books of 2020. It’s been hard to narrow down my top books of 2020 and I’ve chosen them based on how much I enjoyed and will choose to re-read them over any other form of merit. Do let me know if you enjoy any of these books yourself.

Here in no particular order are:

My Top 10 Books of 2020

 1)Business as Usual by Jane Oliver

‘Business as Usual’, is told in the epistolary format from the point of view of a shopgirl working in the Book department of a major London departmental store (modelled after Selfridges). Due to her use of initiative, education and common sense the young shop girl rises through the ranks of the store, much to the wrath of her peers and delight of the reader.

The book is set in the time of the Great Depression and is told in a witty, charming style. The book reminded me a little of my favourite Diary of a Provincial Lady and Mrs Tim’s Diaries. This is just a lovely, lovely book. So endearing and just what I needed during this year. A lovely publication from Handheld Press.

2)The Proper Place by O Douglas

What an astonishingly beautiful book and one that is relatively unknown!

‘The Proper Place’ by O Douglas was a soft, soothing book, full of romance and the appreciation of everyday life and things. 

A landed aristocratic family are rooted from their family homestead and are transplanted to a small house overlooking the sea in a Scottish seaside town. The village has lots of ordinary people and this is the story of the new friendships made and comforts drawn from kindness and fellow feeling. The protagonist of the book, young Nicole has an optimistic, sunny and kind personality. She befriends each and everyone of the village residents. This almost feels like a small Jane Austen novel. The formula of a small village and a handful of characters applies here.

This is a sunny, warming and moving read.

3)Vittoria Cottage by DE Stevenson

‘Vittoria Cottage’ by DE Stevenson was such a joy to read. The book was the first in the Dering trilogy.

Vittoria Cottage tells the story of widowed Caroline. She leads a simple but contented life in the Scottish Countryside. She has two daughters and a son who works abroad.

It would seem she has everything in life but love. A newcomer, a man called Robert comes to stay at their quiet Scottish village and his past is shrouded in mystery. Slowly Caroline  learns that she is not as contented as she thought she was with her quiet life.

The descriptions of Caroline’s life, home and garden and her love of finding joy in the small things were my favourite things about the novel. 

4)Fell Farm Campers by Marjorie Lloyd

This book reminded me somewhat of an Austen novel. A few people in a small village and a few probable couples. What it does lack is Austen’s sparkling dialogue. I found Stevenson’s style of writing to be more mellow in this book (as compared to Miss Buncle and Mrs Tim). But I don’t mind this mellow style of writing with a lack of  intricate plot either.

I fell in love with this little book set in the Lake District. The stories are a little reminiscent of the Arthur Ransome stories in that the location is similar. The children here have land adventures rather than adventures in sailing. This reminded me a little of Swallowdale and Pigeon Post in this respect. A group of children who are all part of one family – two sets of twins and a singleton, take advantage of their holiday time and camp near Fell Farm, rigging tents, cooking meals and enjoying countryside activities like races and hiking. One of the chapters describes a long hike across Bowfell and Langdale Pikes. One of the children is a bird enthusiast. The adventures are simple and describe the terrain using the actual names in great detail. A great treat to read for someone who is wanting more Arthur Ransome like adventures!

5)Miss Mole by EH Young

Miss Mole is a middle aged woman, a bit down on her luck and finding herself out of a job, all of a sudden. She accepts a job as a housekeeper/governess to a vicar’s family – the vicar being a widower. There are two girls and one boy under Miss Mole’s care and they all have troubles of their own. As Miss Mole tries to solve the troubles of the young family we learn more and more about Miss Mole herself, a few of her prospective love interests and a few surprising things about her past.

At once, this book is a funny yet tragic novel. It lays bare all of Miss Mole’s insecurities, her losses and the reason behind her leading such a sorry life. 

Miss Mole is a quirky character in the style of the Provincial Lady, the protagonist in The Lark, Cassandra in I Capture the Castle, Mrs Tim and a host of other lovable characters.

Slightly humorous, slightly quirky, slightly Mary Poppins- ish, and very sad – this is a wonderful, wonderful novel.

6)Nella Last’s War by Nella Last

I’ve read ‘Nella Last’s War’ (edited by Broad and Fleming) during July and can’t tell you how much I loved reading it. I read a lot of WW2 diaries but this one struck me as being very special.

Perhaps the reason was that the lady behind the diary, struck me as extremely vulnerable, stating quite clearly her hopes and fears, worries and ambitions.

She also struck me as a very down to earth woman, a woman who appreciated the little things in life. One of her most favourite things was to visit Lake Coniston every Sunday and enjoy the peacefulness there. She was extremely resourceful, working tirelessly at the Woman’s Voluntary Service, the canteen and a Red Cross Shop. She was also very thrifty – making the best of wartime rationing. Her pride and joy were her two sons – one of whom was in active service. 

Nella Last was incredibly prolific as a writer. She wrote these diaries as part of the government’s Mass Observation project. Her diaries are one of the most detailed and useful to this day. She talks about a gamut of social issues, she talks about her pets, War shelters, sex and her difficult relationship with her husband. I find the editing in this edition to be wonderful – full of useful foot notes about political events in the war.

Highly recommend as one of the best WW2 diaries I have read.

7) Drawn from Memory by EH Shepard

Drawn from Memory’ features a year in the life of eight year old EH Shepard (famous illustrator of the Winnie the Pooh books among others) – a halcyon age in a terraced house in London with his siblings and loving parents. Shepard spent his spare time riding his wooden horse with wheels – ‘Septimus’ on the flagstone path in front of their house and observing the buzz of London life around him. It was the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the festivities are wonderfully captured, both in Shepard’s words and images. A holiday at a Kentish farm, descriptions of Christmas celebrations at home, school life and much more make this book particularly delightful. It is a charming period piece, bringing to life Victorian traditions and customs, made particularly poignant by the knowledge that Shepard would soon lose his beloved mother. On each and every page, there are glorious illustrations which bring Shepard’s musings to life. 

8) O, The Brave Music by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (Best Fiction Book of 2020)

Probably my most favourite book of the year goes to ‘O, The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith. 

O The Brave Music’ is a coming of age novel about a young child who experiences a number of losses, early on in her life. Despite the extraordinary and quite oppressive  circumstances of her childhood, this is a joyous novel which is rooted in the firm and deeply devotional love for a boy, five years her senior. A have a more in depth review here.

9) Sally’s Family by Gwendoline Courtney

Gwendoline Courtney was a new author to me, discovered partly from my interest in the Girls Gone By Publishing backlist and partly from reviews from several enthusiastic Bookstagrammers.

It’s a story about a family of young children, orphaned and separated during the War, who are brought together by their eldest sister, who takes care of them in a house in an English village. The reason I had wanted to read this – is special Christmas chapter. In fact one of the earlier vintage editions of this book had a gorgeous Christmassy cover.

A really heartwarming, cozy family story, extolling the values of compassion, care, hard work, family and much more. 

10) Black Hunting Whip by Monica Edwards

Another discovery from the GGBP backlist and a fantastic read for me was Monica Edward’s ‘Black Hunting Whip’. 

My last read of 2020 was Monica Edward’s ‘Black Hunting Whip’. I’d been searching for this title for a few years and my brother sent it to me as a Christmas present. It is set around Christmastime which makes it an appropriate read too! 

It turned out to be one of my favourite books of the year. Cozy, charming, part mystery, part countryside book with lots of animals I just loved the writing and fell in love with the characters. If you are interested in reading a major spoiler free review – you can read more here.

‘Cider With Rosie’ by Laurie Lee

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

The book starts in the wake of the First World War. Lee was at the time just a small boy of three. There is a quite mesmerising description of Lee being handed down from the cart that brought them to their crumbling Cotswold cottage, and him standing in the grass in a field in front of his house – grass so tall in the month of June that it towered over his head – ‘each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight’. 

Each recapitulation is so vivid that it really set’s the reader’s imagination ablaze with heady imagery. The prose is packed with descriptors that really bring to life every sensory detail. Laurie Lee takes us down memory lane. 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. 

It is not an entirely bucolic evocation of a perfect childhood. There are plenty of disturbing stories of village incidents, criminal activities, death, poverty and decay. Some of them are harrowing to say the least. But I would say, that one takes away a rather sunny, if realistic, snapshot on the whole, of childhood in the Cotswold village. 

Some of the people we meet in ‘Cider With Rosie’ seem larger than life. Granny Trill and Granny Wallon are the family’s neighbours – and Laurie Lee certainly conjures them up as having slightly spooky, witch-like characteristics – Granny Wallon distilling fine wines from the wild growth of the surrounding fields and hedges – cowslips, dandelions, elderflower and more. Granny Trill on the other hand followed a weird and wonderful primitive schedule – breakfasting at the crack of dawn and going to bed at 5 pm. Granny Trill also told weird and wonderful stories and took snuff out of a snuff box that the boys surreptitiously stole. 

Lee’s Mother was an extraordinary, slightly eccentric woman who took care of her husband’s children from her first marriage and those of her own marriage, singlehandedly. It is true that there were a number of older step sisters who took care of the young brood- of which Laurie Lee or ‘Loll’ as he was affectionately called was one. Their Father left the family and never came back. Their Mother, started life as a housemaid and served the gentry for several years in various country houses before accepting a position as a housekeeper to their Father’s household. She frequently recalled the fine details of the serving dishes, silverware, food and customs of the gentry. She later retained this affection for beautiful things and would often haunt auctions and sales for bargain treasures, which would grace their ramshackle Cotswold cottage – strewn with arts and artefacts, plants and flowers . Always short of money, the children would be sent to their neighbours for a bit of salt or some spare change to make ends meet. 

Lee’s Mother had a keen eye for beauty, a love for poetry, music and nature. She was a true romantic and spent her entire life waiting for her husband to come back to her. 

The chapter describing the tradition of carol singing by the young boys of the village is a classic extract, gracing many of the best Christmas anthologies. I was delighted to read it within the context of Lee’s memoir. Just as memorable, is the description of summer, the harvesting of apples, the making of cider, the long walks and picnics through the valley. The change of seasons and the beauty that accompanies them are described evocatively in the book. 

There are many other intimate moments, too numerous to describe in this review that make this book very special. The people, sense of place and incidents are remarkable but the whole is lifted to another plane of excellence by Laurie Lee’s exceptional gift for prose – poetic and uplifting. ‘Cider With Rosie’ is a little gem of a book – to be re read ever so often – to glean new and wondrous details. 

My edition of ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a press copy from Slightly Foxed but all opinions are my own.

‘Rhododendron Pie’ by Margery Sharp

‘Rhododendron Pie’ is the story of young Ann Laventie, the youngest child in the artistic and well to do Laventie family, who does not fit the artistic mould of the rest of the family. The book addresses her internal struggles of whether or not to break off from the family ideal or to embrace a life and attitude, more fitting with her disposition. 

The Laventie family are outsiders in the small and sleepy village on the Sussex Downs, where the family and is predecessors have lived for many years. There is a touch of snobbery in this dissociation, in that the family choose to separate themselves from the village folk and see themselves as a class apart from everyone else. Hence, friendly fellow feeling with neighbours has never really been advocated – rather artistic people from London circles and beyond inhabit ‘Whitenights’ – the Laventie home – and provide intellectual succour to its inhabitants.

There are three Laventie children. Elizabeth, the eldest (25 at the beginning of the story) is a literary critic, Dick the middle child, a sculptor, and Ann – the youngest Laventie child (aged 20 in the story) has no evident talent – except for a deep appreciation of life and what makes life more interesting.

When the children were young, they struck upon a tradition of having a pie filled with flowers for their respective birthdays. The idea was Elizabeth’s but it soon spread to Dick and in turn to Ann. Dick’s Pie had heliotropes and it fell to Ann’s lot to have rhododendron pie for her birthday.

Although the other two children thrilled at the sensation and whimsy of having inedible flowers in their birthday pies, Ann fought hard to suppress her feeling of disappointment in the contents of her pie – she wanted nothing more than cloves and the sweetness of apples to savour and enjoy. 

When the story starts in earnest, the children are all grown up and are ready to spread their wings into the world. Elizabeth flourishes as a literary critic and takes up a flat in London to mix with the literary set. Dick is a sculptor having many female admirers and Ann befriends Gilbert Croy, a up and coming film maker who stays at Whitenights for months on end – ‘for inspiration’. 

One should mention the children’s mother. She is a quiet industrious woman who is sadly disabled. Unknowingly to the family and the whole world, she is the one who looks into the smooth running of the Laventie household, the hundred and one tedious domestic details that create such an appealing atmosphere at Whitenights. Without her ministrations the Laventie’s would not enjoy the comforts of the home and feel inspired to be so creative. 

Ann is the only member of the Laventie family who has a close friendship with other people in the village. Since childhood she has a close friendship with the members of the Gayford clan. Elizabeth and Dick turn down their noses at their company but Ann rather enjoys spending time with the friendly and homely family, particularly John Gayford who is clearly besotted with Ann.

Things come to a head when Ann must decide whether or not she must embrace a bohemian, artistic attitude to life or follow her heart and enjoy life in the style she see’s fit. 

I really enjoyed this novel and I thought it was a remarkably well constructed debut novel for Margery Sharp. Apart from the writing, and touches of whimsy that we expect from Margery Sharp, I thought Sharp developed quite a succinct theme for her book. I particularly enjoyed how we saw the beauty of the world and the simple enjoyment Ann gleaned from everyday life – be that in the appreciation of nature, the home, simple pastimes or time spent with friends and family. Ann didn’t have the quirky charm of Cluny Brown or the whimsical appeal of Martha – but she was a finely created Sharp protagonist.

There’s an incident in the book where Ann disappears into a secret spot of hers on a window seat in the attic with a large puzzle and two bananas. This is the way that Ann likes to spend time by herself. There’s a description of how Ann likes to approach doing a puzzle that for some reason just really appealed to me – perhaps because I like doing puzzles in the same way. Sometimes the smallest of cozy ordinary details about living – really add enjoyment to the book. Similarly, Ann spends time on the Sussex Downs with John, or an afternoon at a seaside town or in a London with friends – ans I found all these descriptions very enjoyable.

I look forward to reading the other Furrowed Middlebrow- Margery Sharp releases soon. 

I received an e book Press copy of ‘Rhododendron Pie’ from Dean Street Press but all opinions about the book are my own. 

Black Hunting Whip by Monica Edwards

I’ve been collecting Monica Edward’s books for a few years now. I hit upon a stack of Armada paperbacks at a used book sale one year and didn’t realise till much later what a treasure they were. 

When I wanted to start reading the books, I researched the book titles and found there were two main series – The Punchbowl Farm series and the Romney Marsh books. I also understood that there was a degree of crossover between the two series – with characters from one series being found to crop up in the other. 

So I looked for the first title in the Punchbowl Farm series – and found that ‘Black Hunting Whip’ was a good place to start, with ‘No Mistaking Corker’ being a prequel to the series set on Punchbowl Farm. I also found out from many sources that ‘Black Hunting Whip’ was a good book to read at Christmastime, being set in and around that season. I’ve been searching for a fair few years for ‘Black Hunting Whip’ and this year my brother was able to send me a copy published by Girls Gone By Publishers for Christmas. It arrived just after Christmas of 2020 and the days in between Christmas and New Year were pleasantly spent reading this little gem.

‘Black Hunting Whip’ is a children’s story set in the location of a farm, nestled deep in a Surrey valley. Surrounded by apple orchards and built of quarry stone, the foundations of Punchbowl Farm harked back to Tudor times. On a whim, after bidding the final price at an auction, Mrs Thornton finds herself the owner of this derelict farmhouse, with its surrounding fields and meadows. The entire family, Mother, Father and four children relocate to the English countryside, to this very old farmhouse and overgrown land. 

While digging the old foundations of the house for artefacts, the eldest boy Dion comes across a notebook, telling the tale of a young boy of his age, whose dream it was to wield his black hunting whip, a present from his deceased father and ride to victory at the local Guildford Show. Dion is determined to find the ancient hunting whip which is buried at a specific location on the farm. It’s a treasure hunt of sorts. Part history, part mystery and there are many clues along the way. 

The story is also about how the family adjust to living in a rundown farmhouse with no conveniences like running water or electricity. The book written after WW2 has many period details which are charming, details of village life that are interesting. There are of course horses and then cows and other farm animals. All the children love to ride and so there are smaller stories related to the care and well-being of the animals. The book is set around Christmas time – so that too is lovely to read. Preparations for Christmas, details of Christmas presents and food eaten are enjoyable.

This book is so much more than a pony book. Horses play a smaller part in this particular book. The main plot centres around the black hunting whip and its history and the quest to find it. Family, animals, nature all play a part in making this such a good read. The characters are well fleshed out and I believe many of the incidents are based on real life events that occurred in Monica Edward’s own life although things have been modified. She did indeed purchase a farm, similar in description to Punchbowl Farm.

The illustrations were particularly charming. The picture of Punchbowl farm nestled down in its valley helped me to visualise the beauty of the location. Fireside, candlelit pictures of the entire family sitting down to their meal were endearing. There was one particular illustration that depicts the funny incident of the children trying to spy in the upstair’s bedroom of a neighbour of theirs (I promise you there’s a reason for this) by climbing atop a horse and then the shoulders of a sibling – and then being caught in the act by a village person! I like the character of Mother and that of Dion and Lindsey. Most of all I liked the feeling of family closeness. 

I look forward to reading more books in this series and by Monica Edwards. Let’s hope I find the next book in the series sooner! Thank goodness I

‘O The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith

‘O The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith is a coming of age novel about a young child who experiences a number of losses, early on in her life. Despite the extraordinary and quite oppressive  circumstances of her childhood, this is a joyous novel which is rooted in the firm and deeply devotional love that she feels for a boy, five years older than her.

I wanted to write about this novel a day or two after I finished. I always find that it is hard to talk objectively about a novel that you strongly connect with, leaving you tongue-tied in instances. I become so involved with the characters and the story that it is difficult for me to talk about the novel constructively and I don’t want to merely gush about how much I adored the novel. However, I will try to put down my thoughts on paper…

The story of her life is told to us by Ruan Ashley in retrospect and she tells her tale in quite a sentimental, emotional voice. Although she relates the events of her life starting from the time when she was seven years old there are instances in which she jumps forward and reveals which turn her life takes in the future. For instance, quite early on in the novel, Ruan reveals the story of how she first met the love of her life. Rather than take away the surprise element of the story, I found these revelations to quite build up the emotional tension in the novel.

Sylvia and Ruan are the daughters of a non-conformist minister. They have an infant brother who has some kind of disability – we are not told about this clearly – but baby Clem cannot talk or walk like other children his age. The children’s mother is a beautiful woman, a skilled equestrian from a wealthy, landed family. However, by picking up the mantle of being a minister’s wife, in a run-down Manse, which is part of an impoverished neighbourhood. She misses the comfort, affluence and leisure of her previous life and after a few years her love for her husband is dimmed by a life of perpetual denial and hardship. The marital discord between the couple is quite evident, forming an uncomfortable shadow over the family.

Sylvia, the older daughter is beautiful like her mother and her only ambition in life is to marry a rich man and have many children. Ruan, only wants to read and write books and to spend time with her one true love – a boy called David.

David, an orphan, is the ward of a wealthy businessman and they live in a modern house on the extremities of town that is on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. A large part of Ruan’s childhood is spent in David’s home under the care of his older step-sister, especially during holidays. For Ruan, David’s house becomes a second home. They roam freely on the wild Yorkshire moors, make friends with the local village folk and it is here that David and Ruan forge their strong bond of friendship. The love that Ruan feels for David is one of great devotion and it is this love that lends her strength despite all the debacles that life places in her path. For life does present tremendous sorrow to Ruan and it is her love that is her salvation.

It’s quite hard to discuss this novel without giving away too many spoilers so I’ll refrain from revealing too much about the plot twists. 

‘O The Brave Music’ is a coming of age novel and the novel has been compared to ‘I Capture the Castle’ and ‘Guard Your Daughters’ by Simon David Thomas who is also series consultant for this excellent series. Certainly all the young female narrators in these three books have strong personalities, all of them with quite original voices and a way of very candidly expressing emotion, which is quite endearing. However, I would say that the feeling of melancholy pervading ‘O The Brave Music’ was quite deep – sometimes I was reminded of the hardships of Jane Eyre. Some of the descriptions of the Yorkshire moors was certainly reminiscent of ‘Wuthering Heights’, along with its pent-up passions. Another theme of the novel was that of loss and abandonment and it was particularly hard to see Ruan cope with these emotions so bravely during her young life.

Another emotion that is described most evocatively is that of Ruan wanting something very badly in life and then delaying the gratification of fulfilling her wish. She consoles herself with the thought that prolonging the realisation of certain dreams at least allows her to dream of them and hold on to them, rather than have them destroyed by unavoidable circumstances. These tender moments of philosophy that touch this book make it ever so special.

The topic of childhood love was dealt with great sensitivity in the book too. At no point in the novel do we feel that the love between David and Ruan is inappropriate. This is often quite a tricky topic for authors to address and Smith manages to convey the feeling of great love without any sexual undertones in her story.

I particularly enjoyed Ruan’s rather feminist character. Born at a time when marrying well was considered an achievement for women, Ruan is cast in a very different mould. Here is a heroine who cuts her hair short, wears boyish clothes and wants to educate her mind with books. I’ve always enjoyed bookish references within books. The multitude of books that Ruan received and collected was another lovely little detail of this novel. 

At the heart of the story, ‘O The Brave Music’ is a story about love. Ruan’s great love for certain members of her family, David, her books and the Yorkshire moors. But I think it  is quite an original love story and one I will remember for many days. Dorothy Evelyn Smith mingles intricate  social detail along with domestic detail and weaves an elaborate and often heart wrenching story. This will probably be my most favourite novel of the year and I’m still struggling to articulate why. Perhaps the best and most emotional novels do that to us. 

‘O The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith was a gift from British Library Publishing and is part of the British Library Women Writers series, directed at shining a light on works of female writers that were popular in their time. As always, all opinions expressed about the book are my own.