‘The Rector’s Daughter’ by F.M. Mayor

‘The Rector’s Daughter’ by F.M. Mayor

‘The Rector’s Daughter – A Classic Story About Love and Loss

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

It was such a poignant read that it is taking 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 about Mary Jocelyn’s life. She is, as stated in the title of the novel – the current Rector of Dedmayne’s daughter. Dedmayne, a rural backwater in the eastern counties of England, is a place where nothing much ever happens. The Rector, is a stern, scholarly, authoritative figure – often appearing to live for only himself, with little care to the emotional needs and wants of his middle aged daughter. The house is a solitary one. In it reside the old Rector and his daughter Mary and an invalid sister – Ruth, whom Mary nurses with great devotion. The grown up sons have all flown far from the family nest – trying to flee from the pervading sense of academia and religiosity that the Rector emanates. It is left to Mary to look after her feeble needy sister and her stern father – and she does these things with all her heart. Nevertheless, there are times when Mary longs for love and children and a home and life of her own. She experiences moments of resentment – when she realises she has not been given the freedom to seek out a life partner and lead a life outside of the Rectory.

Mary is thirty five years old when she meets the love of her life – a scholarly man, similar in this aspect to her Father – a man called Robert Herbert who becomes a close friend of the family. With Robert, Mary discovers an intelligent mind, a passion for reading and their friendship gradually develops into a very deep love – which consumes Mary in ways, she had not thought previously possible. As with all other things in life, Mary loves Robert passionately and in her mind contemplates a life with him, filled with love and light and family. But what happens to Mary is a fate too cruel to behold and as a reader we share Mary’s feelings of dismay and disappointment.

Apart from the central plot, there were many details of the story that I enjoyed. Most of all the descriptions of the quiet life that Mary led – not completely devoid of pleasure. The books she read and her enjoyment of the passing of the seasons. There’s a particular paragraph that describes the books Mary enjoyed :

“Mary liked the long Dedmayne winter evenings. In October, as regularly as the leaves fell, she began the winter habit of reading her favourite novels for an hour before dinner, finding in Trollope, Miss Yonge, Miss Austen, and Mrs Gaskell friends so dear and familiar that they peopled her loneliness.”

Mary had a firm, lifelong friendship with her childhood friend Dora – a spinster like herself and it was Dora who visited Mary, especially in times of need and loneliness. Interspersed throughout the novel are descriptions of the small pleasures in living in the countryside and the appreciation of nature and the turning of the seasons.

“A robin flew up to greet them; a toad crawled forth and squatted on the path, turning his bright eyes to Mary while she talked to him… Mary and Dora stopped to look through the gap in the hedge at the view beyond, quiet, domestic, English scenery – a pond, meadows, and elm trees. These are the solace of the lonely in the country.”

The reason why I think that the narrative of ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ is so powerful is perhaps due to the fact that the reader deeply sympathises with poor Mary’s plight. To discuss her life and plight would reveal too many aspects of the plot – so it is difficult to discuss in great detail.

The feeling of pity for Mary is completely overpowering. Even though Mary never complained of her lot in life and never demanded pity. This characteristic of Mary’s personality, for me, added greatly to the poignancy of the book.

I will end with these lines :

“Such was Mary’s life. As the years passed on, the invalid’s room became more and more her world. Sometimes she felt the neighbourhood, the village, even her father, becoming like shadows. In the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.”

Persephone Books kindly sent me a press copy of ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ for review, but as always, all opinions are my own.

The Bookshop on the Quay by Patricia Lynch

Bookshop on the Quay by Patricia Lynch

The Bookshop on the Quay’ by Patricia Lynch was a book find that I picked up serendipitously at a used book fair a couple of years ago. 

I was immediately drawn to the title – who can resist a book with ‘Bookshop’ in its title and it’s beautiful, atmospheric cover design. 

‘The Bookshop on the Quay’ certainly didn’t disappoint. The story is set in Dublin, Ireland in the 1950’s. The tale opens in the living room of the ‘Four Masters Bookshop’ situated on Ormond Quay in Dublin. It is a dark and cold autumn evening, the kind of evening that makes you thankful to be indoors, beside a cracking fire, in a cozy living room. Inside the living room are the bookseller – Eugene O’Clery, his wide, two children – son Patrick and nine year old Bridgie, a cat called Mog and Bridgie’s beloved rag doll called Migeen. The Widow Flanagan, housekeeper to the O’Clery’s presided over the evening meal and the O’Clery’s are eating their meal, some of them with books propped up against milk jugs – enjoying the treasure of books in their bookshop. 

There is a cruel east wind blowing in from Dublin Bay and Bridgie who is looking out of the window, spies a forlorn, waif-like young boy who is staring at a copy of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ that is displayed in the bookshop window. The young boy is Shane Madden, who has embarked on a trail of discovery, all the way from Ballylicky, near the Cork Road. The O’Clery’s find out that the orphan boy is searching for his beloved Uncle Tim, a drover, who Shane has reason to believe has visited Dublin recently. 

The kind O’Clery’s feel sorry for the young boy, so alone in the world and offer him a warm meal and a place to stay for the night. They learn about his fondness for books – in particular ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, which Uncle Tim had once given Shane as a present. 

There are various trails that point in the direction of Uncle Tim but many of them lead to disappointment. Whilst Shane is looking for his Uncle, the O’Clery’s decide to give Shane a job as shop boy in their bookshop – a job that Shane loves and cherishes. Despite the tribulations Shane faces in looking for his Uncle, he finds new purpose to his life and finds great satisfaction and happiness with the O’Clerys. 

This is a lovely book filled with examples of genuine human kindness. The O’Clery’s are the loveliest people. They are a good example that bookish people are often the most empathetic. 

Some of the things I loved about this book :-

Firstly, the setting. One developed a sense of the Dublin streets and the people, how they lived and worked in the big city. Another thing I absolutely loved was the sense of Autumn that pervaded the book. Especially the opening scene, where the family are gathered cozily together inside against the cruel Autumn wind – is especially evocative. There’s a particular chapter dedicated to Halloween and how the neighbourhood children dress up and celebrate the festival. 

Mrs O’Clery was a favourite character. One got a sense that she was a trifle absentminded and forever reading her book and knitting and perhaps not paying attention to domestic details. Mr O’Clery wit his penchant for buying old, vintage books and not having the heart to sell them or part with them- was another very lovable and funny character. I could identify with this trait of his. 

‘Bookshop on the Quay’ was a fantastic, atmospheric, bookish read. A perfect book for Autumn too. I hope you can find a copy of this elusive, forgotten Puffin Classic, which I think should be better known. 

Still Life by Richard Cobb

Still Life by Richard Cobb

*My experience of reading Richard Cobb’s ‘Still Life’ published by @foxedquarterly *

Historian Richard Cobb’s memoir about growing up in Tunbridge Wells in the 1920’s and ‘30’s and thereafter feels very much like a miniaturist painting – only transmuted to book form. 

For as the dextrous miniaturist painter adds infinitesmal detail to his work of art, so too has the author added layer upon layer of minute detail of his retelling of childhood.

As a reader, this has a few challenges. Some of the details might seem excessive at first or unnecessary, but in retrospect it is those details that render the painting or work so full of depth and it can ultimately feel quite rewarding. Cobb doesn’t write solely about important noteworthy people and events. His pen sweeps in every aspect of every person and place that his young person encountered, in the most quotidian detail. Mostly, as a young and sensitive boy he seeks reassurance in the continuity of things. Be that the presence of a town person walking on the common, or of the presence and unchanging aspect of Tunbridge Wells itself. 

Cobb’s family moved to Tunbridge Wells when he was four i.e in 1921. His family consisted of his father an ex serviceman in the Sudan Civil Service, his mother, with a penchant for playing bridge at the Ladies’ Bridge Club and his elder sister. 

Though Cobb’s mother seems to have a slightly snobbish character, enjoying her Club activities and being sensible of her middle class friends there, there was an absence of such class related sensibilities in Cobb’s personal narrative. This is why, we learn about all types of people who lived in Tunbridge Wells. Cobb leaves no-one out. No person is too lowly, no incident is too ordinary to prevent it being mentioned. 

In the early chapters, Cobb with the thoroughness of the historian goes into great depth regarding the geographical approach to Tunbridge Wells. Don’t be deterred by the minute details however, the later chapters relate incidents related to his mother and father, his assortment of relatives, some of them quite unusual – residing in Tunbridge Wells, how the Second World War affected (it didn’t affect) the towns people and more. 

An interesting chapter was that describing the Limbury-Buses – relations of the Cobb’s – who lead an extraordinarily insulated life, even during the war, not allowing any of their daily routines to be upset or any outside news to penetrate to the interior of the house.

I came away knowing about a place that I had never known before. I felt that perhaps I knew Royal Tunbridge Wells better than many places I had actually been before. Now that’s quite a feat of writing for you. 

I’d however, recommend this book for the reader who has an interest in small, exacting details. If you delight in the minutiae of a place and it’s people – then this memoir is for you. 

I was sent this book as a press copy from the folks at Slightly Foxed but all impressions are entirely my own.

‘Little Boy Lost’ by Marghanita Laski

‘Little Boy Lost’ by Marghanita Laski

It’s hard to pen this review without revealing certain details of its plot. The following review may contain some spoilers. If this may affect your future enjoyment of the book – I would come back to my review after reading the book. 

Late last night I finished 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. 

Before the Second World War, English poet and writer Hilary Wainwright meets Lisa, a Polish girl who becomes the love of his life. Subsequent to their marriage, World War 2 strikes and the pair are torn apart – each to their own war related undercover activities. Hilary works as a British agent and Lisa is involved with the Resistance in Paris.

Lisa gives birth to a child, a son who Hilary manages to see for one day – the day after he is born and the very day before the Germans occupy Paris. And then Lisa’s ruse is discovered, the child is smuggled away to a friend for safety and the chaos of war ensues. 

In the enfolding terror and panic surrounding the War, Hilary’s small family is torn apart. He hears from Lisa, one last time. In her letter she fears for her safety and that of her child and pleads to Hilary, to come and rescue the child, keep him safe, in the event of something happening to her. And then the inevitable happens… Lisa is discovered. 

On Christmas Day 1943, Hilary is alone in London celebrating Christmas with his Mother and sister. A Frenchman, a friend of Lisa’s turns up on his doorstep and tells him that his son has disappeared without trace. 

“It was only then that Hilary fully realised that his son was lost. Since Lisa’s death he had ceaselessly dreamed that he would one day find happiness with a child who was not yet an imagined person but only a surviving symbol of his and Lisa’s love.”

‘Little Boy Lost’ charters Hilary’s rocky road to searching for his lost son, three years after he goes missing. There are certain tenuous clues, a possible candidate- a little boy who might be his son. But the trail is very difficult to trace, the child is merely a five year old with little or no memory of his past life, having been separated from his mother at the age of two.

However, Hilary is struck with the moral dilemma of not wanting to open himself up to vulnerability, of loving and losing again … And though many points favour the fact that young Jean (the orphanage boy in question) may be his son, there is no instant recognition, no facts that absolutely determine that the boy is his, at least to Hilary’s doubtful mind. 

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.

“This street curved away so that only its beginning could be seen from the square. He rounded the curve, and then found a wilderness of desolation. Save for a roofless church higher for the contrast of emptiness, there was not a building standing for half a mile in every direction. Red bricks and grey bricks, roof tiles and stucco, reinforced concrete spouting thick rusty wires, all lay huddled in destruction. Nothing seemed to have been cleared away save what was necessary to allow a few tracks to pass through, it was ruin more complete and desolate than Hilary had ever seen.”

‘Little Boy Lost’ is a book about ideals, about personal freedom and the search for happiness. It is a book tinged with poignancy but there are glimmers of hope tucked away in its pages. The innocence of the young child, his pleasure in simple pleasures and objects and his happiness in experiencing them – is joyful. 

I loved this book so much. From start to finish it was perfectly penned. And the ending still gives me the shivers …

The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons: A Summer Holiday to Switzerland

‘The Swiss Summer’ by Stella Gibbons

‘The Swiss Summer’ by Stella Gibbons was just one of the books reissued by Dean Street Press recently, as part of the Furrowed Middlebrow Collective. 

In the absence of any real summer holidays this summer, buying a copy of ‘The Swiss Summer’ seemed the best ticket to booking a summer holiday of armchair travel to a favourite country, in the heart of the Swiss Alps.

This summer holiday in Switzerland did not disappoint – let me tell you that in advance.

‘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.

From the moment that Lucy views the ethereal vision of the silvery peak of the mountain Silberhorn, from her bedroom window she is mesmerised and she subsequently takes us along on her many many walks and trips to the surrounding countryside. Sometimes, it reads better than a tourist guide book. Here are actual locations and tourist spots to be read about and savoured. And they are written in the masterful storytelling style of Stella Gibbons. 

“For a long time she stared up into the clouds, and presently it seemed to her that at one point the grey was changing colour… And while she watched, with eyes refusing to believe in so much beauty granted to this world, the clouds as fleetingly began to drift across it again and it went in and was hidden. It was the Silberhorn.”

Many more trips to the peak of the Jungfrau, a trip to a mountain ridge named the Harder, rising high above the river Aare via funicular railway, to a ridge of the Augustmatthorn where wild ibex abound, a visit to the Aare Gorge, multiple trips into Interlaken and so much more – ‘The Swiss Summer’ has a wealth of opportunities for virtual travel. 

Perhaps, I will take this book out each summer and take a little virtual trip to the Oberland. This is a book to treasure and read again and again. 

‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton

Mamma by Diana Tutton

‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton is the story of the relationship between a 41 year 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. 

Joanna Malling was tragically left a widow at the age of 21, when her husband succumbed to a deadly bout of pneumonia. Left with a young baby daughter called Elizabeth or ‘Libby’, Joanna, though overcome with loss and grief was able to carve out a life for herself and her daughter. 

It is at the age of 41, when we meet Joanna Malling again. Libby has grown into a young woman and is staying with her friends the Mortimers. The Mortimers have a daughter, Janet, who is Libby’s close friend and confidante. One day Libby writes to Joanna to tell her that she is engaged to be married. The relationship between mother and daughter is quite a strong one, which is apparent because of the dismay and sense of loss that Joanna experiences on discovering the news. Newly relocated to a Victorian house in the small suburban town of Tadwych, Joanna awaits the arrival of her daughter over the weekend, to learn further news about her daughter’s engagement. 

Joanna learns that Libby’s fiancée is a 35 year old decorated soldier in the army, much older than Libby, in fact closer in age to her mother than Libby herself. 

When Joanna first meets her future son-in-law for the first time,there is a certain degree of awkwardness between the two of them. Although both of them try to forge a feeling of friendship for the sake of Libby, it is rather forced. 

After their marriage, Libby and her husband take up temporary furnished rooms in London, anticipating news of Steven’s foreign posting. Young and naive, Libby spends her days dreaming of exotic foreign idylls and impossibly romantic scenarios in which she reigns supreme with Steven. Her bubble is burst, when Steven contracts a nasty bout of pleurisy and has to be admitted to hospital. Extremely upset, Libby stays with her friends, the Mortimers and promises of evening parties, the planning of evening attire, good food and stimulating company quickly assuage Libby’s troubles and please her slightly snobbish sensibilities. 

Joanna is seized with terror that the fate that struck her at a young age, that is the death of her husband, will similarly strike a blow to Libby. Luckily, however, Stephen recovers and spends time recovering at the Mortimer’s house in London. 

When news of his next posting reaches the young couple, Libby is particularly disappointed to find that rather than be posted abroad, the posting is to Tadwych, the small suburban town where her mother resides. However, after a while Libby is comforted with the thought that she would be near her mother. 

Despite strenuous effort, Joanna is unable to find suitable housing for the young couple and suggests that they move into her house and that she find rooms for herself. Libby and Steven protest and an understanding is reached where the young couple agree to a separate sitting room, so as to allow the young couple their own freedom and much needed space.

However, the three people confined to one house develop routines and rituals to occupy their time during the evenings. They often find themselves solving the crossword together, talking and gradually discussing books and poetry. Steven and Joanna discover they have much in common intellectually – a meeting of two minds- a rare thing for Joanna – who had not shared this facility with even her husband. One thing leads to another and suddenly Steven and Joanna find themselves in a situation too close for comfort. It is during this time – that sometimes Steven drops the use of his adopted name for his mother in law – ‘Mamma’ and uses Joanna instead. But although there is an increasing awareness and realisation of this mutual attraction for one another, Joanna and Steven share a great love for Libby and they must choose between hurting Libby or sublimating their romance. It is a hard decision to make, but it must be made. 

Tutton cleverly juxtaposes Libby’s immaturity, preoccupation with self, hint of snobbishness and her naive belief that she can change the world, including the appearance and manners of her husband against Joanna’s maturity, wisdom, superior taste, intellect and wider reading. Though Libby has youth on her side, Joanna also has her charms but they are mostly of her mind. 

…Libby said: “Go on talking about poetry, you two. I like listening to my clever relatives.”

‘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. 

Joanna imagines what Steven’s hair would feel like to touch in her wildest imaginings. This is a woman who has been robbed of sexual intimacy for the majority of her adult life. Yet, towards the end, Joanna feels that she would be satisfied if only Steven would admit to her – that he loves her too. This knowledge would fuel the rest of her lonely, solitary life. 

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, ‘Mamma’ 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. At the end of the story, do we feel sympathy for Joanna or not? … I will leave the reader to find that out.

I received an ARC of ‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton from British Library Publishing but all opinions are my own. 

Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer by Molly Clavering

Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer’ by Molly Clavering

‘Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer’ by Molly Clavering is the story of one particular summer in Mrs Lorimer’s life, in a small village, set in the Scottish Borders. 

Mrs Lorimer and her husband, Colonel Lorimer, a retired army soldier, try to live a quiet life in their small Scottish village. They have a modest circle of acquaintances, reliable domestic help in the home, a close circle of friends and participate, whenever feasible in the main village activities. 

Lucy Lorimer is a writer of fictional stories and try as she might to write peacefully in her study at her home, there’s always something that needs her attention. The beginning of the story finds her wishing for a larger family home – so that she might host her rather large family of grown up children and grand children under one roof during the summer. There’s a particular property in the village that has Lucy’s attention but that has been bought by some Glaswegians, which she discovers to her dismay, when her maid informs her one morning, early on in the summer. 

“The Legion meetings get all the news that’s going. They just sit there and blather like a lot of old sweetie-wives. It’s a stranger that’s bought Harperslea, a widower with a daughter. Better drink yer tea before it gets cold.”

Lucy Lorimer’s fellow writer friend and neighbour, Grace or ‘Grey’ Douglas comes to the rescue, however, and agrees to host some of the family members at her nearby cottage. All is well and Lucy looks forward to some quality time spent with her family but rather than being the quiet summer that Lucy had hoped for, the children bring along their own troubles and Lucy and her husband must come to the rescue. An old flame from Lucy’s past also resurfaces and Lucy also finds this perturbing to her equilibrium. 

This was my first time reading Molly Clavering and I really enjoyed this slow-paced, humorous read. This is a character driven story and the characters are very well drawn. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the knowledge that the main two characters in the book – Lucy and Grey- are based on the characters of the author DE Stevenson and Molly Clavering herself. Both were neighbours and mutually admired each other’s writing. Whenever I read about Lucy Lorimer, in my mind – she was DE Stevenson. I am such a big fan of Stevenson’s writing and so this book made such an interesting read for me. Whilst I was reading Lucy Lorimer, DE Stevenson and Mrs Tim became one and the same although this might not be wholly accurate. 

I found myself flagging a number of quotes that I found amusing. Phrases and witty dialogue. Lucy remarks to her husband one day about returning a book to a neighbour :-

“It’s that book she lent me weeks ago, of very dull reminiscences, and I have read as much of it as I can bear. Why will people insist on lending me books? They are never the ones I want to read.”

In another instance, Grey Douglas remarks about her unmarried status, that of being an old maid. 

“Once you get over the shame of being an old maid, there is something to be said for single blessedness.”

To this, Lucy Lorimer remarks that Grey can hardly be categorised as an old maid when she has had marriage proposals. To which Grey responds :

“…one can hardly go about wearing a placard with ‘I’ve had a proposal but I didn’t choose to accept it’ printed on it.”

One of the most humorous characters was that of Colonel Lorimer – whom Clavering turned into a domestic god. His love for his dog, low level tolerance for interfering neighbours, obsession with looking into the quality and washing expedience of the household linens by the local laundrette and many other things made me chuckle. The couples in the book also had varying and interesting relationships. The arrival of new neighbours – in the form of the unfortunately named ‘Smellies’ added interest to the story.

Mostly I enjoyed the description of walks, garden fetes, casual dinners, shopping trips into town and other mild activities. In ways it reminded me of O Douglas’ style – particularly that of ‘Penny Plain’. 

What added real value to the story were often the deep and philosophical observations of Molly Clavering. 

Though a quiet book and not a brilliant book by any means, Molly Clavering’s story had my heart. I am so looking forward to reading more of her gentle stories.

This e-book was an advance press copy from Dean Street Press but all opinions about the book are my own.

‘Apricot Sky’ by Ruby Ferguson

‘Apricot Sky’ by Ruby Ferguson

‘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 be marrying a local Scotsman called Ian. 

Rather than being a book that has an overarching plot, this book is more a celebration of some perfectly crafted sublime moments, moments that celebrate Scotland and the Scottish way of life.

The time of the story is post-World War 2. In fact the eldest daughter Cleo, is returning to Scotland after working in America for three years. The close-knit family, especially Cleo and Raine’s mother, Mrs McAlvey are longing to welcome the absentee daughter back into the family fold at Kilchro House. The family have lost two of their sons in the war and three orphaned grandchildren have hence, made their home with their grandparents. Another son James, lives in a neighbouring Scottish village with his slightly neurotic wife but is mostly self absorbed in his own life. 

With the summer left to plan Raine’s wedding, Mrs MacAlvey is looking forward to having her family around her and also entertaining family friends at Kilchro House.

Cleo, the eldest daughter has missed her home so much and has felt herself to be almost in exile over the past three years. Dreaming of all things related to her Scottish home and life, it is a relief for her to be at last back in Scotland. She is however, quite surprised to find her sister engaged and that too, to a man who is the brother of the love of her life. Raine is in fact engaged to Ian but it is his brother Neil, who holds Cleo’s affections and she has kept this fact secret, her entire life. Neil Garvine is the eldest Garvine brother and is in fact the ‘laird’ of Larrich – the Garvine property. Farmers for many generations, although the Garvine property is extensive the house is rather tumbledown and in preparation for the new bride’s arrival, undergoes a major renovation over the summer.

‘Apricot Sky’ is one of those wonderful books that is quite devoid of plot but the characters are so interesting and the writing so descriptive and resonant of time and place – that it propels the story forward and never loses its appeal.

I was so interested in the characters, their varying moods and motivations. Their daily activities – from fly fishing, to sailing, gardening, hosting a garden party, visiting friends and relatives, going on a day trip to the Isle of Skye, sailing, picnicking or discussing home improvements. It reminded me so much of an O Douglas novel – which from me is one of the greatest compliments – as I do love the style of Douglas. 

A great deal of the book is quite introspective in that we are privy to Cleo’s inner musings and insecurities. She is a little unsure of her place in the world and always eager to please, is afraid of not being liked. This frequently gets in the way of her ability to talk naturally with Neil, whom she is particularly eager to impress. 

“They might be critical. They must like her. It was one of the defects of her character that she was so dependent on the good opinion of others. Cleo MacAlvey could think of no worse desolation than that those she liked should not like her.”

Cleo also is revealed to be a person incapable of hurting other people’s feelings, even for her own advantage, and therefore supposed to ‘consequently … never go far in life.’ 

In this way, Ruby Ferguson immediately ensures that as an object for Neil Garvine’s affections – Cleo is the underdog and therefore, she secures our sympathy. 

Another very interesting character is that of Cleo’s mother – Mrs MacAlvey. The typical matriarch – thriving from the energy derived from having a busy home – with family and friends – children and grandchildren – perhaps this is her means of keeping loneliness and tragedy at bay. There is post war rationing, but this does not seem to impede the MacAlvey sense of enjoyment of life. 

Perhaps for me, the nicest thing about reading ‘Apricot Sky’ for me, was the beautiful sense of contentment and hope that the book gave me. Despite having gone through great tragedy and loss, upheaval and displacement, the joy of heart and home, family ties and the joy of homecoming are very much evident. Another lovely ode to Scotland, Ruby Ferguson displays her love for her country in ‘Apricot Sky’. 

“Highland skies and seas are noted for their opalescent colours, and this particular sky and sea had everything in the way of changing shades …” 

Similarly, in redecorating the family homestead at Larrich, Cleo and Raine discover a small damp sitting room framing a magnificent view. Raine views the mould and fungus in the damp room and shudders but Cleo with great foresight sees the promise in the house and the prospect of the view. She decides on a yellow room with fresh linens – not a buttercup yellow but an elusive shade of yellow that her sister and she describe in the following passage. 

“Spare me buttercups. I’d want that heavenly boiled gold colour you see in the sky when the sun has just gone down. What would you call it?” 

“Apricot?” Suggested Cleo.

“That’s it. Tinned apricot. We’ll have a tinned apricot sitting-room looking out at a heavenly apricot sky.”

It is this love for the natural landscape of Scotland that emanates through the novel and makes it such a joy to read. Do bring a glimpse of this ‘Apricot Sky’ into your life and enjoy it for all its worth. 

The e-book for ‘Apricot Sky’ was a Press copy from Dean Street Press but all impressions of this book are completely my own. 

‘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.