Charlotte Fairlie by D E Stevenson

Charlotte Fairlie by DE Stevenson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Books of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

2)Penny Plain by O Douglas

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

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

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

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

3)My Antonia by Willa Cather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6)The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons

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

7)Little Boy Lost by Marganita Laski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9)Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Fair Miss Fortune’ by DE Stevenson

The Fair Miss Fortune by DE Stevenson

‘The Fair Miss Fortune’ is a light and entertaining read involving a host of lively characters, who tell their story against the backdrop of a quaint English village.

The story starts with the arrival of young Miss Jane Fortune to the small, sleepy village of Dingleford, replete with village green, one village shop which sells anything and everything, a postmaster who knows exactly what’s going on in every household and the village Inn, the Cat and Fiddle, where the locals catch up on the latest happenings.

Captain Charles Weatherby has also returned to the village on leave from his service in India and in the first chapter, we see him attending a housewarming party hosted by Mrs Prescott and her son Harold. Harold is a childhood friend and the people at the party are all people Charles has known since he was a child. Nevertheless, Charles feels intimated at the prospect of meeting so many people again after a long time and hovers on the doorstep listening to the sounds coming from indoors.

“The sound grew louder as he approached until it resembled the din which emanates from the monkey house at the Zoo, but Charles was well aware that it was neither bees nor monkeys but merely the Prescotts’ house-warming sherry-party in full swing.”

Charles is welcomed into the house by his childhood friend Harold Prestcott and in no time at all becomes a part of the humming conversation.

The Prescotts have sold their old Elizabethan cottage, Dingleford Cottage and have moved to a much more modern home due to the building of ‘The Road’ – a major arterial road connecting two large towns and cutting through southern parts of the village of Dingleford. The new owner of Dingleford Cottage – the young Miss Jane Fortune, hopes to set up a tea shop at the back of Dingleford Cottage and thus profit from the influx of traffic plying through ‘the Road’.

As happens in a small village, a newcomer incites a great deal of curiosity and one by one, the inhabitants of the village visit Miss Fortune. They find a very pretty young girl with fair hair and pleasant personality and she finds herself the centre of attention of many of the village bachelors – including Charles Weatherby and Harold Prescott.

The situation becomes quite muddled though when Jane Fortune’s twin sister arrives on the scene, pursued by an angry Frenchman. The story is indeed a comedy of errors and the tangle of mistaken identity makes for a diverting read.

Some of my favourite scenes from the book involve the mending of a cistern, a brawl at the Inn and scenes from a dance at the Golf Club.

This is definitely one of Stevenson’s lighter books. I loved the setting of the book and the witty writing. ‘The Fair Miss Fortune’ is a good comfort read when you are in the mood for something light and funny.

I was sent an e-book of ‘The Fair Miss Fortune’ by DE Stevenson for review by the publisher Dean Street Press but all opinions about the book are my own.

Christmas Book Advent Calendar : The Christmas Day Kitten by James Herriot

The Christmas Day Kitten by James Herriot

oday’s Christmas Book Advent Calendar features ‘The Christmas Day Kitten’ by James Herriot – a story about love and loss around Christmastime.

James Herriot’s writing is a particular comfort read of mine and his heartwarming tales around his busy veterinary practice in Yorkshire are the perfect cozy books to read around Christmas.

Last year, a friend on Instagram recommended ‘The Christmas Day Kitten’ by James Herriot as a lovely festive picture book. The reason that I like it so much is because it doesn’t read as a child’s tale but as a simple story told by Herriot with a focus on a message that is meaningful during this time of year. Complemented with detailed and beautiful drawings by the illustrator Ruth Brown, ‘The Christmas Day Kitten’ is a lovely addition to our library of Christmas books.

‘The Christmas Day Kitten’ is a story about Mrs Pickering, who lived in a beautiful sprawling Yorkshire farmhouse. The owner of three beautiful Basset hounds, James Herriot was often called to Mrs Pickering’s house to attend to her beloved dogs. When he visited he couldn’t help but notice a scrawny cat who stayed a little while by the fireside and often disappeared, shortly afterwards. When asked about her disappearance, Mrs Pickering remarked that ‘Debbie’ was a stray who came and went – where she exactly lived, nobody knew.

One Christmas morning, James Herriot was called most urgently to Mrs Pickering’s home to attend to the not the Basset hounds – but Debbie. This is the story of what happened to Debbie and the heartwarming present she left for Mrs Pickering that Christmas Day.

As always, Herriot’s stories have that twist that makes our eyes well up and our hearts feel full of emotion.

This is a wonderful little tale and the beautiful illustrations and simply penned lines are a beautiful gift to the reader. My favourite illustration from the book is that of Herriot driving through the snow filled streets of the deserted market square on Christmas morning. The hills are clad in deep swathes of snow and though the shops are closed, merry lights are twinkling in the shop windows.

Are you a James Herriot fan? If so, can we ever forget ‘Uncle James’s fabulous annual Christmas hamper, stuffed with all sorts of goodies from Fortnum and Mason?

Christmas Book Advent Calendar: Corduroy by Adrian Bell

Corduroy by Adrian Bell

The theme for today’s bookish advent is that of Christmas in a village in the heart of rural Suffolk. It describes a much simpler time, a time for sharing and enjoying the fruits of the land and fields for this farming community. The writing is from the first book in Adrian Bell’s memorable and heartwarming rural trilogy described here in ‘Corduroy’ and published by the independent publisher Slightly Foxed.

‘Corduroy’ published in 1920, is the first of Adrian Bell’s trilogy of memoirs, describing his life, adapting to farming life in rural Suffolk, from the perspective of a lifelong city-dweller. 

Bell, takes up residence on the large farmstead of a local family by name of Colville. The family live in the small farming village of Benfield and ‘Corduroy’ is a fascinating account of Bell’s year in the life, adapting to a completely new way of life. 

The day before Christmas was heralded by the quite gruesome act of killing and plucking the hundred or so turkeys that Mrs Colville had painstakingly reared in order to be sold to a London buyer. Bell describes the painstaking labour and trouble of rearing the birds in the several months prior to Christmas. From March to December, Mrs Colville’s days would be kept busy with these ministrations and I imagine formed a large part of her income.

Though Bell went home to his own family that particular Christmas, he describes many memorable Christmases spent in Benfield and the descriptions contained in Bell’s latest book published by Slightly Foxed – ‘A Countryman’s Winter Notebook’ is a collection of his writings for a column I Suffolk and Norfolk’s long-serving local newspaper – the ‘Eastern Daily Press’. 

Bell remembers Christmases of virgin snow with cottage and tower standing out from the pristine landscape. He remembers approaching the village over the pristine whiteness that had been briefly marked by the patterns of birds’ feet. 

But mostly he remembers that hive of activity, that gathering place of village souls, only second in busyness to the highly favoured Cock Inn – the village Post Office. 

Gifts flowed in and out – from Benfield to the world at large and it was not unusual to see rabbits and game tied, labelled and trussed up on the Post Office countertops. It seems to have been a simpler, less commercial time. A time of giving freely the fruits of land and labour, a time of being with neighbours, friends and family. On Boxing Day the bell ringers serenaded the village houses with chimes from hand bells and they were invited in for a drink to toast the New Year, favourable sun and shower. 

Christmas Book Advent Calendar: ‘Jill’s Gymkhana’ by Ruby Ferguson

Jill’s Gymkhana by Ruby Ferguson (illustration from Caney, A Stable for Jill).

The theme for today’s bookish advent is that of Christmas presents. What is Christmas Day without presents, especially for young children? I’m going to describe a few extracts from Ruby Ferguson’s marvellous children’s book – ‘Jill’s Gymkhana’ – the first in a long series of books about a horse mad heroine.

I think that we can agree, that for true bibliophiles, Christmas presents can be divided into the ones that have us jumping for joy (bookish presents) and presents that leave us a little less excited (non-bookish presents).

For horse-living Jill Crewe of Ruby Ferguson’s ‘Jill Books’, Christmas morning was filled with the anticipation of receiving ‘horsey gifts’.

Lying in bed on Christmas morning and lighting her bedside candle, Jill spied several interesting looking parcels on the table beside her bed.

The contained cards and Christmas money from her Godmother, a fountain pen from her Mother, a boring boarding school book from cousin Cecilia entitled ‘ The Madcap of the School’, a manicure set from one aunt, a set of handkerchiefs from another and a pair of yellow string gloves from her best friend Ann.

Jill immediately thought of a number of horsey things she could have bought instead of her Mother’s fountain pen but tried to quell these unworthy thoughts.

Later in the day Ann and a family friend called Martin come to visit and there is tea, iced buns and a proper Christmas cake. There’s a meaningful passage between Martin and Jill’s family over the exchange of expensive presents on Martin’s part. Martin argues that Jill and her Mother have done so much to make his Christmas time feel joyful with their company and he urges them to accept his gift in return.

But most of all I liked how Jill made her mum a big cup of tea in a favourite fluted green cup and saucer and presented her with the tea in bed on Christmas morning. I think that was extremely thoughtful!

At the end of the day, this is what Jill had to say about her first Christmas in Chatton,

“After getting all these wonderful presents, especially the horsy ones that I hadn’t expected, I think you will agree with me that it was a very nice Christmas.”

Christmas Book Advent Calendar : Penny Plain by O Douglas

Penny Plain

‘Penny Plain’ by O Douglas is one of my most favourite books by the Scottish writer O. Douglas or Anna Buchan, set in the lowland town of Priorsford, in the Scottish Borders. It tells the story of a poor and struggling young family- the Jardins – motherless and fatherless -looked after by their very young older sister Jean. There are two younger brothers, one at Oxford, one at school and an adopted brother of sorts, called the Mhor, and they all live in a delightfully quirky cottage called ’The Rigs’ whose slightly elevated front room resembles the prow of a ship that looks up to the hills.

A lively young socialite comes to live next door, befriends the family and creates quite a stir in the sleepy town of Priorsford. I adore the book because of its cozy descriptions of family life and home. Jean is an endearing heroine. There is a special chapter devoted to Christmas in Priorsford and I’m going to speak about it now.

The youngest member of the family, the Mhor, looked forward to Christmas as soon as Halloween was over. Jock the schoolgoing brother had drawn out a Christmas timetable, enlisting the main events of the day, spread out intentionally over the entirety of the day, in order to escape the disappointment and irritability of Christmas days of past, where present giving and enjoyment was over in the morning.
The timetable consisted thus :-

7.30. stockings

8.30. Breakfast

9. Postman

10-12. Deliver small presents to various friends

1. Luncheon at the Jowetts

4. Tea at home and present giving

5-9. Devoted to supper and variety entertainment

The descriptions of the variety entertainments were my favourite consisting of a series of plays put up by the boys, with the disastrous result of nearly setting fire to the hastily put together stage, while lighting the funeral pyre during Anthony’s oratory over Caesar.

Most memorable is Mrs McCosh’s (the house help’s) exclamation over proceedings –
“Ye wee devil, said Mrs McCosh, “ye micht hev had us a burned where we sat, and it Christmas too!”

Christmas Book Advent Calendar: ‘Someone at a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple

‘Someone at a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple

Today’s Christmas book theme is that of spending an idyllic family Christmas. Is there such a thing? Read on and see …

Many of us know and love Dorothy Whipple’s classic tale of scheming and the disintegration of a very happy family life in ‘Someone at a Distance’ but there is a very lovely chapter devoted to Christmas time which I’d like to talk about today.

This particular Christmastime has all the ingredients for a perfectly, perfect, cozy, intimate Christmas celebration. One should mention the family of course at this point – and who they consist of. The family consists of Avery and Ellen, their two children, Anne and Hugh. Invited to the feast are Avery’s mother and her French companion – a young girl called Louise. A close family friend and work associate of Avery’s, John Bennet, is the remaining link in the close knit family circle.

“Anne was busy decorating the house. Holly caught at every sleeve. Tinsel dripped. Lights were so draped with coloured paper that one could hardly read.”

The house is brilliantly bedecked in festive decoration, commandeered by the enthusiasm of young Anne. She also is in charge of making toffee and ice-cream, although her Mother despairs with the younger generation’s tendencies for using substitute ingredients (cornflour, sugar and margarine) instead of real cream.

Ellen has the task of preparing Christmas dinner for so many people all by herself, in the absence of helpful hands from her daily helps. The social change is hinted at in this telling line :-

“She laughed at herself for being surprised, still after all the social changes that people like Miss Beasley and Mrs Pretty, and now Miss Daley, should prefer to amuse themselves rather than help her.”

So Ellen is rushed off her feet.

Christmas morning is spent being woken up very early by excited children opening presents, in going to church. There are snowy fields and there’s a particularly lovely description of the church graveyard cherub’s heads being highlighted with the fresh fall of snow. The snow outside illuminates the interior of the church with a bright glow and village neighbours whisper good wishes to one another.

In the evening, house guests gather for Christmas dinner. John Bennet brings spooling gifts for Ellen.

Over delicious turkey, Ellen asks Louise how Christmas Day is celebrated in France and Louise replies that it is a feast of the Church and that English celebrations seem more Germanic in nature to her.

Carol singers arrive in the evening and Ellen telephones her family and some old, lonely friends in her selfless way.

John Bennet, sleeping in the spare bedroom, echoes everyone’s thoughts – could there be luckier person than Avery North, with his beautiful family life.

The Christmas chapter in ‘Someone at a Distance’ is idyllic in the extreme.

Christmas Book Advent Calendar : A Christmas Card by Paul Theroux

‘A Christmas Card by Paul Theroux’

This is the first in a series of my Christmas book advent Calendar, describing some especially festive moments of a few favourite books.

Today’s chosen book, has the theme of a spooky, eerie and magical Christmas.

‘A Christmas Card’ by Paul Theroux is a short Christmas novella set in the countryside of the east coast of the USA. Paul Theroux was himself born in Medford, Massachusetts and the snowy scenes and cold climate described in the book are indeed evocative of that part of the world during wintertime.

The story is told through the eyes of a young boy called Marcel. One year, Marcel’s father returns from working abroad in Asia and it is his idea to spend Christmas in the solitary country house, deep in the woods that the family has recently acquired. The small family consisting of Father, Mother, Marcel and his little brother Louis, set out early one winter morning from their warm apartment in the city, towards the wilderness of the woods along the coast. They drive all day and as evening and darkness approaches and they are stuck in a heavy snowstorm, Father realises that he is lost.

The family seek shelter for the night in an old, rambling looking mansion – what they presume to be a hotel and the owner, an old man in a crooked hat and black cape shows them the old treasures paintings in his house and the next morning just disappears.

He does, however, leave them a Christmas card on the mantelpiece that young Marcel believes has magical powers. The card provides them with magical bursts of light, guides them and has a will of its own …

As opposed to a cosy Christmas tale, ‘A Christmas Card’ by Paul Theroux is a bit of a spooky, eerie Christmas tale. If you enjoy a hint of magic and the supernatural during Christmas time, then this might be the ideal novella for you. The perfect length to read over an afternoon, with a mince pie and a hot chocolate to hand.

Let me know of your favourite books to read during Christmas.

‘The Love Child’ by Edith Olivier

‘The Love Child’ by Edith Olivier, British Library Women Writers Series

‘The Love Child’ by Edith Olivier is a fascinating novel, half steeped in reality, half steeped in fancy and flights of imagination that will captivate the reader from start to finish.

Published in 1927, this book is another product of the interwar years, a story centred around a lonely, single woman, a ‘surplus’ woman of the Great War- who is left quite, quite alone in the world after the death of her Mother.

The depth of Agatha Bodenham’s loneliness is so deep, she remembers an imaginary playfellow from her youth, a young girl called Clarissa and thinks about her constantly and the make-believe games they used to play. One night, Agatha dreams of Clarissa and the dream feels most real and offers Agatha some respite from her loneliness. But slowly and surely, Clarissa visits Agatha during the day time and little Clarissa gains more life-like qualities.

Worried about what the servants might think of the sudden appearance of this strange child, Agatha flees to live in a hotel in Brighton for a few months. There given the peace and solitude needed to live happily with Clarissa without scrutiny, the young girl turns slowly but surely into a girl with real flesh and bones and human characteristics, observable by fellow guests at the hotel.

On returning to her home, Agatha introduce Clarissa to the servants in her house as her adopted daughter, a young girl belonging to their extended family who has recently been orphaned. The servants and neighbours accept this fact without demur, pleased to find their mistress with a renewed interest in life.

Life is blissful for Agatha. She and Clarissa live a beautiful life, constantly in each other’s company, playing games and reading books and preoccupying themselves with all those activities that Agatha had been denied as a child herself.

And then one day, a neighbourhood policeman demands to know details of Clarissa’s parentage and threatens to take her away to the Workhouse if facts are not furnished. Agatha in her despair tells a lie and describes Clarissa as being her ‘love-child’ – a fact that embarrasses the policeman but succeeds in silencing him.

Clarissa is now secure in sight of the law, and no one can take her away from Agatha. But as Clarissa grows up and finds interests, pursuits and friends of her own, Agatha is thrown into a constant tumult of jealousy and frenzy and Clarissa’s existence is jeopardised once more.

‘The Love Child’ is one of those rare novels where realism mingles with fantasy and whimsy and the whole is rendered quite believable. What is most interesting to observe are the forms that Clarissa takes – how she waxes and wanes between imagination and real existence, how her life blood ebbs and flows in perfect harmony with Agatha’s most inner and tender emotions.

I enjoyed watching Clarissa’s gradual appearance in Agatha’s life. I was astounded at the way in which she achieved human form and was gradually recognised by others and it was interesting to watch the interplay between Clarissa and Agatha.

It was also very interesting to witness the fact that Agatha would rather heap ignominy and shame on herself by referring to Clarissa as her ‘love-child’, at a time when illegitimacy was severely shunned in society, rather than lose the child altogether. There is a gnawing sense of loving and wanting to be loved, a need to nurture that pervades the book and haunts the reader.

‘The Love Child’ may start out as a novel about loneliness but mostly it is a novel that centres on possessiveness – the idea of controlling and being consumed by a relationship, barring all outsiders. And Clarissa is undoubtably the projection of Agatha’s psyche, a person not to be shared by others.

What happens to Clarissa? Does Agatha have her happy ending? You will need to read the story for yourself to find out. The writing is very good, the storytelling compelling and original. A page turning novel that will keep you guessing right down to the last word.

I was sent this book as a review copy from the publisher but as usual, all opinions are my own.