Elizabeth Goudge’s Magical ‘A City of Bells’

 

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A Cathedral town that seems to be straight out of a fairytale, memorable, endearing characters that stay in your mind forever, a quaint bookshop with a winsome bookseller, a romance at the heart of the story and a mysterious plot regarding the disappearance of a literary genius – ‘A City of Bells’ by Elizabeth Goudge is all this and much more. 

‘ A City of Bells’ is the third Goudge novel I’ve read (others being ‘A Bird in the Tree’ and ‘A Little White Horse’) and so far, is perhaps my favourite.

 

The Plot of ‘A City of Bells’

‘A City of Bells’ deals with the story of Jocelyn Irvin, a war veteran, who travels to his grandparent’s house in the fairytale Cathedral town of Torminster. He seeks calm and solace and he also seeks to escape a life of being tied down to a clerical job in an office in London, that has been approved by his parents. Quite by chance, Jocelyn is induced by friends and family, to take up residence in a quaint old house in Torminster and become a bookseller. Whilst there, he befriends a whole community of unique characters and endeavours to solve the riddle of the disappearance of the man who had inhabited the house before him – one Gabriel Ferranti. In the lost manuscript that Ferranti leaves behind him, Jocelyn with the help of his dear friend Felicity Summers, tries to piece together Ferranti’s work – a play – and thereby try to resurrect his genius. The question remains – where has Ferranti gone and more importantly, is he still alive?

 

The Setting

The setting of the story is the delightful town of Torminster. It is a Cathedral town and is supposedly modelled upon the city of Wells in England. The descriptions of the Cathedral town are delightful. There is a medieval feel to the place. The Cathedral Close, the Village Green, the Cathedral clock, the quaint bookshop with their vivid descriptions seem very real. The blue hills and the countryside loom up into the distance and form the perfect backdrop for the picturesque town.

There it was, Torminster, her home, the place that she loved as she would love no other place all her life long. There were the old roofs and chimneys and the church spires, the smoke lying over them like a mist, and there, towering up above the smoke, was the grey rock of the Cathedral with its three towers.

Delightful Characters in ‘A City of Bells’

One of the aspects of ‘A City of Bells’ that really appealed to me were the very well drawn characters. I think this is the great strength of Goudge’s writing – her ability to create beautiful and very lovable characters. From gentle, philosophical old Grandfather, cantankerous but lovable Grandmother, Jocelyn with his disability but his literary bent of mind, beautiful, exuberant Felicity Summers- the actress and last and best of all – the charming child Henrietta. To me, Henrietta’s charming character was the highlight of the book and I long to learn about her future in the sequels to the book.

 

Beautiful Nature Descriptions

Th beautiful nature descriptions in ‘A City of Bells’ is another reason why I enjoyed the book so much. Here is a description of a particularly memorable nature ramble.

“… the Tor woods in May were Paradise.

The primroses and violets were faded but the wood anemones were sprinkled over the dark earth like stars. Here and there a shaft of sunlight pierced through the new green leaves overhead and touched their whiteness to a shimmering silver, and sometimes a puff of wind made them all shiver and stir, as though they were bright points of light on water. That poised look, peculiar to them, as of something so frail that it might at any moment blow away, made them look away, made them look more like butterflies than flowers whose roots were in the earth.”

 

Favourite Quote in ‘A City of Bells’

“In my experience when people once begin to read they go on. They begin because they think they ought to and they go on because they must. They find it widens life. We’re all greedy for life, you know, and our short span of existence can’t give us all that we hunger for, the time is too short and our capacity not large enough. But in books we experience all life vicariously.”

~ Grandfather from ‘A City of Bells’

You will enjoy this book if you enjoy …

… the books of L.M Montgomery. The nature descriptions of Goudge do remind me a lot of Montgomery’s beautiful nature writing.

Also the quirks in Goudge’s characters, although quite slight, are very enjoyable to me and remind me slightly of Dodie Smith’s quirky character drawings in ‘I Capture the Castle’.

 

I read ‘A City of Bells’ with the Elizabeth Goudge Book Club on Instagram.

Fair Stood the Wind for France by H.E. Bates

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I am reviewing this book as part of the #1944club, 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.

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H E Bates is a war time work of fiction that deals with the story of a group of British airmen, who are compelled to make a forced landing in occupied France and have to take refuge in the home of a kind French family, who risk all they hold dear to help the men. In particular it is the beautiful story of the love and trust that grows between the injured head flight pilot and the daughter of the French family.

HE Bates’ ‘Darling Buds’ series is one that I read in my early teens and it has always been very dear to me. Apart from the obvious humour in the stories of the inimitable Larkin family, there is a beauty in Bates’ writing that brings out the best in all natural things. Moreover his writing has a sensual quality. With a keen eye for observing small details, one gets the idea, that here is a writer who knows how to live life to the lees and appreciates the small things.

The beautiful nature writing, descriptions of food, sensuality in describing human interactions and emotions is rendered just as beautifully in ‘Fair Stood the Wind France’. To add to that you have a moving love story and an epic struggle where the protagonists strive to find freedom.

The story starts with the British plane hovering over the French Alps during the night. There are some wonderful descriptions of the snow glistening on the mountains beneath the aircraft.

Sometimes the Alps lying below in the moonlight had the appearance of crisp folds of crumpled cloth. The glacial valleys were alternately shadowy and white as starch in the blank glare of the full moon; and then in the distances, in all directions, as far as it was possible to see, the high snow peaks were fluid and glistening as crests of misty water.

The man in charge of the aircraft, one John Franklin, feels a deep sense of responsibility for his crew of four sergeants, a responsibility that has grown over the year that they have flown together. It is the third summer of the War, tempers are rising, impatience is growing, a sense of uncertainty prevails.

When the engine of the aircraft fails, Franklin is forced to make an abrupt landing, in the dead of the night, in marshy terrain, in what they hope is Occupied France. I’m still confused why landing in this part of France was preferable.

Franklin seriously injures his arm during the impact of an abrupt landing. The crew take recourse to the medical help provided by a local French family. The family, consisting of a mill owner, his beautiful French daughter and aged mother provide the airmen with shelter at the risk of being shot and discovered.

Moreover, papers are procured for the British airmen- false papers that will take them across the border to unoccupied France and further to England. The path to safety is a long one and one that holds considerable risk. Even when the airmen reach the relative safety of unoccupied France, there is the risk from the French people themselves, who are impoverished and in need of food and money themselves.

The world that Bates paints is fraught with much strife, pain, suffering and uncertainty.

In fact this sense of uncertainty and helplessness pervades the entirety of the novel. From a year of publication perspective, the fact that the novel was published in 1944, when the outcome of the war effort was still uncertain, surely contributes to set the tone of the novel. Moreover, there is an overwhelming sense of sorrow, a deep sense of grief for the war and everything that it stands for, and the monstrous face of what it has turned the world and it’s people into.

He felt she was crying for something that he could never have understood without her and now did understand because of her. Deep and complete within himself, all these things were part of the same thing, and he knew that what she was crying for was the agony of all that was happening in the world.

’Fair Stood the Wind for France’ may  have become one of my most beloved wartime novels. The story is full of heartache and poignancy. I wonder how much of it was based on what Bates himself saw first hand, as a writer, commissioned by the RAF to write short stories?

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

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‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark tells of the rise and fall of an unconventional Edinburgh schoolteacher, Miss Jean Brodie and the strange love triangle she shares with two fellow schoolteachers.

The story is told by an omniscient narrator, in the present and in flash-forwards and hence, the pieces of the story are revealed in fragments. The mode of storytelling and the tension fraught in its format, makes it quick and compelling reading.

At various intervals in her career, Miss Jean Brodie handpicks a a select group of girls from her elite Edinburgh school, whom she trains in private. She educates them in her own particular modes of wisdom and she calls them the ‘créme de la créme’. Jean Brodie’s  specialised curriculum consists of information including but not limited to the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the  Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages of cleansing cream and witch hazel over soap, the meaning of the word ‘menarche’ and the interior decoration of the London house of the author A.A. Milne.

The six selected girls are famous for different things. Monica Douglas for mathematics, Rose Stanley for sex (or I suppose her suspected potential), Eunice Gardiner for gymnastics, Sandy Stranger for her enunciation, Jenny Gray for her grace, and Mary Macgregor for her silence.

Jean Brodie’s unconventional teaching methods are frowned upon by the school authorities, who are continually searching for reasons to dismiss her. It is only the Brodie set that are close enough to Jean Brodie, to be able to acquire incriminating evidence against her and thus betray her. There is one person among the set who betrays Jean Brodie, and the latter  spends her entire life brooding upon the identity of this betrayer. It is beyond her comprehension that someone out of the group of girls-  a group that she has given up the best years of her life and even sacrificed her love life for, should thus stab her in the back.

While the girls are being trained, they were also privy to the emotional and personal life of Jean Brody- a lady in her prime ( a term that is repeated and reinstated in the novel several times) and embroiled in a complex relationship with two scoolmasters – the singing teacher Gordon Lowther and the handsome, one-armed war veteran Teddy Lloyd.

The betrayer of Jean Brodie is someone who also gets involved in this love triangle, thus proving that often jealousy arising from love can overwhelm loyal and decent relationships.

The book is full of such unusual and challenging relationship dynamics. It is also a book about morals and ethics and politics. Jean Brodie in her ‘prime’ forsakes morals and chooses to sleep with the singing teacher, while all the time nurturing a deep, obsessive passion for the art teacher.

There is a displacement of love in the story, such that physical love is only shown to occur between individuals who do not care for one another. A cycle of retribution seems to occur so that Jean Brodie is ultimately punished for her seemingly unrelated action of sleeping with the singing teacher.

The humour in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is very dark and best described as black comedy. It’s hard for me to exactly pinpoint what the essence of the novel is about. To me it feels like a commentary on the rejection of all things conventional and a lesson on the havoc it may create.

A Vivid ‘Portrait of Elmbury’ by John Moore

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‘Portrait of Elmbury’ by John Moore is the recounting of the author’s life, in the small market town of Elmbury in the interwar years.

It seems that the name Elmbury is a fictitious name. In all probability the town of Elmbury is the author’s childhood hometown of Tewkesbury. The names of the characters that show up frequently in the narrative have also been changed to preserve anonymity. What cannot be disguised, however, is the author’s fondness for his hometown, its valleys and fields, its orchards and woods, its rivers and farms ,along with the assortment of distinguished and motley characters that lend Elmbury, a character all its very own.

We follow the author’s life chronologically, starting from the years 1913-1918, when he was a small child, to his boyhood: 1919-1924, his early working life as an auctioneer’s apprentice at his uncle’s office in Elmbury: 1924-1927, a period of returning to Elmbury after four years writing in London: 1931-1935 and lastly a description of the years leading up to the commencement of the Second World War.

The narrative is extremely dense. One needs to devote absolute concentration during reading lest one misses out a detail of an incident, a character or a description.

One fact emerges quite early on in the narrative and that is the fact that Elmbury is not that idyllic English country town bestowed with bucolic charm. This is no James Herriot style storytelling. We learn of the beauty of Elmbury but it is always coupled with the not so beautiful, the derelict and the ugly. And it rears its ugly face in the form of the disreputable ‘Double Alley’.

Indeed, even among Elmbury’s slums, Double Alley was something to be wondered at. Respectable women drew their skirts closer about them as they passed its nauseous opening; even the doctor and the priest were unwilling adventurers on the rare occasions when they were summoned to visit it; and policemen, who were more frequent visitors, took care to go in pairs when their duties took them there.

The author grows up in what he describes as the ‘loveliest house in Elmbury’, Tudor House, which is plump opposite to the entrance to the squalor of Double Alley. Through the window, the young author and his sibling witness the goings on that occur on the high street of Elmbury, the daily rituals of Elmbury residents and the Punch and Judy like theatrics of the Double Alley residents. We learn of the town scoundrels-Pistol, Bardolph and Nym; the Colonel who makes faces at them through the window and emerges later on in the narrative as one of the author’s dearest friends.

Even though, the author accentuates the dirt and filth of Elmbury, ever so often, we are treated to pictures of pastoral perfection. It is in these descriptions of nature where the author excels.

It was a perfect autumn evening. There was mist like blue smoke hanging about the little wood they called the Dogleg Spinney and down in the vale you could see streaks of whiter mist over the the river. The sun was setting in a mass of airy pink clouds like flying flamingos and the Abbey tower, catching the light, burned like a beacon. The chestnut trees in the churchyard, with brown and yellow leaves, were incandescent also. Sprawled around the Abbey, half in light and half in shadow, lay the lovely and haphazard town.

If I had one word of criticism about the narrative it is this that: I found the author distanced his own personal life tremendously from the text. We know scant details of his life: that his father was the mayor of the village, that he lost his father early on in life, that he joined his uncle’s office as an auctioneer, that he disliked certain aspects of his job especially auctioning off the belongings of poor farmers in debt, that he started writing books and left for London to be part of the fashionable writing set, that he returned to Elmbury, after those years in exile with a greater appreciation for the place.

Emotion seemed larger here, pleasures were keener, sorrows sharper, men’s laughter was more boisterous, jokes were funnier, the tragedy was more profound and the comedy more riotous, the huge fantasy of life was altogether more fantastic. London, for all its street lights, was a twilit world; Elmbury on a murky February evening, seemed as bright as a stage.

When the author does return to Elmbury, it is the time of the Great Depression and this time of hardship is felt as keenly in Elmbury as any other place in Britain. It can be witnessed in the long line of people standing outside the Labour Exchange, of the large number of people loitering without a purpose on street corners, in the abject expression in the faces of the villagers…

Then there is a period of ‘uneasy peace’, a lull before the great storm of the Second World War. The people of Elmbury, are called away- some to distant foreign fields to wage a bloody war and some like the author take to the skies in mortal combat.

For my part, I had determined that when war came-we no longer thought of it as ‘if’- I should fight it in the air; for I had just learned to fly a Moth, had discovered a brave new world of cirrus and cumulus, and was bemused by the strange beauty of the sky’s snowy regions, its unearthly continents of clouds.

 

Many of these people never return to the green verdant fields of Elmbury…

‘Portrait of Elmbury’ is, as the title suggests, a vivid and minutely detailed historical sketch of the market town as seen through the eyes of the author. What is very evident is the author’s great love for the place. I enjoyed it for a unique glimpse at a way of life that occupies a special place in the rural history of England.

I’m eager to read the second book in the trilogy- ‘Brensham Village’,  to see exactly where the story takes us.

 

I received a review copy of ‘Portrait of Elmbury’ from the kind people at Slightly Foxed but all opinions about this wonderful narrative are entirely my own.

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

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This review of Margaret  Kennedy’s ‘The Constant Nymph’ is in celebration of Margaret Kennedy Day, hosted by Jane from Beyond Eden Rock’s Blog.

The Constant Nymph is Kennedy’s most celebrated novel. Published after the First World War, in 1924, it was met with much critical acclaim. It is certainly a well written novel and the storyline is smooth without any stops and gaps. The subject matter is a little sensitive but quite intelligently written.

The story for the most part is set in Austria, in the Tyrolean Alps and I must say that the setting was one of my most favourite things about the book. It tells the story of the Sanger family. The father, the avant-grade composer Albert Sanger, is an unusual man. A gifted but not very successful English composer he has spent most of his life in exile, inhabiting various European towns and cities and simultaneously acquiring a large host of wives, mistresses and children.

Sanger, finally settles down in a remote chalet, high up in the Tyrolean Alps, in a location that can be accessed only by train, boat and a steep climb. Here, he lives with his slovenly mistress and seven children in a lively cohort frequently referred to as ‘Sanger’s circus’. Many of Sanger’s artistic friends, mostly bohemian in temperament, visit and stay with the family.

One of them is the talented composer Lewis Dodd, a young man who is a regular visitor and is so well loved by the family that he almost seems part of it. In particular Lewis and fourteen year old Teresa have a very close relationship. Teresa worships Lewis and Lewis is very tender and loving towards Teresa.

 She was guided by the constant simplicity of her young heart. He was himself the only man who could ever betray it and she had been his, had he known it, as long as she could remember. Her love was as natural and necessary to her as the breath she drew…

The family is considerably disturbed when Sanger quite suddenly dies. The orphaned children look towards their maternal relations for support and are sent to English boarding schools, much to their disgust. Prior to their dismissal, a maternal cousin, Florence visits them up on the alm. Beautiful, sophisticated and well educated, she beguiles Lewis and the two of them decide to marry after a quite short courtship. Teresa, heartbroken, watches as Lewis is swept off his feet.

In England, Florence and Lewis settle down to married life which Lewis quite quickly finds very stifling. He realizes the mistake that he has made and looks again to fifteen year old Teresa, for comfort. Constant in her love for him, Teresa must choose between the calling of her heart and her moral obligation towards her cousin.

One cannot but help draw mental comparisons between Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and Kennedy’s ‘The Constant Nymph’. I will not say more, but I do believe that Kennedy has dealt with a very sensitive topic with great skill.

I find the love triangle at the heart of the novel to be quite unique. The different people in the novel have quite unusual, unconventional relationship dynamics amongst themselves. Teresa’s love for Lewis can be likened to that of a teenage infatuation but what makes it unusual is that it remains quite strong and that it is equally reciprocated by Lewis.

 

Lewis and Florence have an unusual relationship as well. Lewis is mesmerized by Florence’s beauty and sophisticated demeanour and Florence is drawn to his passion and talent for music. Lewis holds great power over Florence and knows it all too well.

The story I think is quite modern. Nearly a century later, the bohemian lifestyle of the Sangers’ seems quite unconventional  to say the least.

There are frequent references to the importance of the need of formal education in a person’s life. Though Kennedy advocates it, she also shows us that it is not a requisite for forming a moral sense of right and wrong and steadfastness of character.

I find the title to be quite curious. When I look up the exact definition of nymph in the dictionary it refers to ‘a mythological spirit of nature imagined as a beautiful maiden inhabiting rivers, woods, or other locations’. As I ponder over the meaning I realize that the title is so very apt.

The beauty and spirit of this book lies in the Tyrolean chapters, where the children roamed free and uninhibited in the bosom of nature. Teresa, whilst described as being far from beautiful by Kennedy, is always described in the most loving terms by Lewis. Teresa’s constancy of heart can be witnessed at every step of the story, proving to us that this  blessed trait can be found in the very young too. It is a valuable lesson to be reminded of.

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Barchester Towers and a Spot of #Trolloping

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It all started with Barbara Pym.

You might ask: what relation does Barbara Pym have to Anthony Trollope? You would be right in asking the question.

A few years ago, I read Excellent Women by Pym and immediately fell in love with her style of writing. On discovering she had not written many books, the research scholar in me decided to find ‘Pym-esque’ authors.

The search uncovered Angela Thirkell- described by Alexander McCall Smith as:

“perhaps the most Pym-like of any twentieth-century author, after Barbara Pym herself, of course.”

The setting of Thirkell’s novels, in the rural setting of provincial England, a fictitious place called Barsetshire made me aware of that county’s close relation- the original Barchester of Trollope’s novels.

To put a long story short, I came to Anthony Trollope quite by accident and in a roundabout way but I am very glad that this happy accident occurred.

I purchased the whole gamut of books that comprise the Chronicles of Barchester series and announced my intentions on Bookstagram (Instagram for Book Lovers). I was met with an overwhelming enthusiasm from Bookstagram friends and the Trollope Club (Just a Bunch of Trollopes) was born and along with it much discussion and merriment. We have a hashtag (#trolloping) and are currently reading our third book, Dt Thorne in July 2016.

But now to Barchester Towers, the book, itself.

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Barchester Towers takes us back to the hallowed precincts of the cathedral town of Barchester a few years after where ‘The Warden’ left off.

The position of Warden at Hiram’s Hospital is still unoccupied, the Bishop of Barchester is on his deathbed and John Bold has left for his heavenly abode.

In short, these three facts set up the series of events that form the majority of the plot of Barchester Towers.

Even before the Bishop has expired, several people are plotting to steal the Bishopric for themselves, even the Bishop’s son-the Archdeacon, Dr Grantly.

The bishopric falls into the hands of a Dr Proudie: a man in good standing with men in high positions in the government and incidentally endowed with an amazon of a wife. Mrs Proudie not only holds the strings of her household in her able hands, she also has first say in all matters related to her husband’s affairs, much to the chagrin of the clergy in Barchester. To add insult to injury, Bishop Proudie’s obnoxious chaplain, Mr Slope, decides to subject his parishioners to a lengthy lecture on various religious matters during his first sermon.

The clergy of Barchester, particularly Archdeacon Grantly, are up in arms against Mr Slope and Bishop Proudie and their combined reforms. Several members of clergy are called back to their religious duties in Barchester. One of them. Dr Stanhope has to return from the idyllic shores of Lake Como to take up his duties in his parish. The Stanhope family and their contingent of exotic characters bring a touch of foreign excitement to the goings-on in Barchester, particularly Dr Stanhope’s married, crippled, seductive daughter who takes up the title of Signora. Her brother, the lazy, good for nothing but charming Bertie Stanhope is looking for an easy way to relieve his debts.

He sets his cap at Eleanor Bold, who has been widowed for over a year due to the untimely demise of John Bold who was introduced to us in The Warden. Eleanor has quite a substantial annual income and though she can live quite comfortably with her infant son and sister-in-law, this income unfortunately enables her to fall prey to several bachelors who are looking for an easy way to acquire money.

Two bachelors, Bertie Stanhope and the slippery Mr Slope woo her to achieve their own ends- financial gain. A third- A Mr Arabin, a clergyman placed newly in charge of the small parish of St Ewolds, a great favourite of Archdeacon Grantly and rival of Mr Slope is also added to the mix and we have the recipe for great entertainment and drama.

However, Barchester Towers is more than just an elaborate marriage plot. We are introduced to a large cast of captivating characters, each with their own very distinct characteristics. For me the highlight of the story was the introduction to the excellent host of characters.

Trollope uses a very unusual form of narrative whilst telling the story. Frequent authorial intrusion led to the disruption of the otherwise smooth narration. However, the dialogue between author and reader led to several instances of comedic comment from Trollope. He also frequently tried to manipulate the reader to adopt his way of thinking. I cannot think of any other novel where I have witnessed so many authorial asides and interjections.

Without giving too much away, we have a very satisfying conclusion to the story, leading me to agree with the author that

“There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.”

 

Backstabbing, politics, humour, romance, conversation and  Victorian social etiquette combine very effectively  in this most excellent of novels, Barchester Towers.

I wonder, what will come next in the saga?

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

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  • Excerpt: Three sisters marry three very different men. Lucy, the eldest is happily married to William. Charlotte, is besotted with Geoffrey who is a cruel, dominating husband and Vera, the beautiful youngest sister marries caring, wealthy Brian, whom she marries for  security. The story deals with the fact that choosing a life partner can have far-reaching consequences, and that this decision can dictate to a large extent a person’s individual happiness and the happiness of their families.
  • Title: They Were Sisters
  • Author: Dorothy Whipple
  • Published: 1943 New York MacMillan, later published by Persephone Books.
  • Location of the story: England, in the years preceding World War II.
  • Main Characters: Lucy (elder sister, married to William), Charlotte (married to Geoffrey), Vera (younger sister, married to Brian).

I was fortunate enough to read an old first edition that my local library managed to procure for me. This was an intense book with so much emotion that it became quite oppressive to read at times. Nevertheless, Whipple delivers such a compelling story line that despite my distress at reading about the most unkind characters and unfortunate circumstances, I was unable to put the book down.

At the beginning of the story we are introduced to the Field family. Mr. Field, a lawyer quite suddenly loses his wife to influenza and the responsibility of caring for the large family is transferred to the young shoulders of the eldest daughter of the family, Lucy. Lucy’s siblings include: Harry (the eldest), Aubrey, Jack, Charlotte and Vera. At the time of their mother’s death Charlotte and Vera are just thirteen and eleven years of age.

Lucy sacrifices her entire life to look after the family, a fact that goes largely unappreciated. Charlotte and Vera,love her, but rarely confide in Lucy, preferring to keep their closest secret to themselves. The younger sisters grow up to be beautiful young women, in particular Vera, who draws everyone’s attention the minute she steps into a room. Charlotte falls in love with a young man, Geoffrey Leigh, who delights in partying and playing the fool with her elder brothers. When Charlotte and Geoffrey decide to marry, Vera out of sheer boredom and a need for security marries the attentive,  wealthy, devoted Brian. With Harry and Aubrey emigrating to Canada, Charlotte married and Vera engaged Lucy meets and falls in love with William Moore, at a tennis party.

Soon after Vera’s marriage, Lucy is married herself and goes to live with William in a quaint cottage, in a sleepy village, surrounded by parks and woodland. Despite not having any children, Lucy and William lead a happy, quiet married life, and Lucy finds joy in reading books, taking long walks with her dog and helping the village folk with advice. She is however, very worried by the troubles her sister Charlotte faces in her marriage. Charlotte has three children with Geoffrey and their household is ruled and dominated by high-handed Geoffrey. He critically manages every minute detail of his household, children and wife. He is a manipulative, cruel person who realizes the misery he can produce on other human beings and delights in mentally torturing those around him.He delights in his domination over other human beings. Mostly, he uses devoted Charlotte as his target. In creating the abhorrent character of Geoffrey, Whipple brings to light aspects of domestic cruelty and dominance that may have been prevalent in certain pockets of society, at that time.

Geoffrey’s demeanour is interspersed with  behavioural lapses whereby, he tries to befriend his family again with random acts of kindness.

Geoffrey’s attitude is described in the book in great detail:

Geoffrey’s behaviour went in cycles. He made a violent scene and frightened his family off; he then had an attack and drew them all round him again. Then he was violently good-tempered and took them on a treat.

When I read the book myself, I had periods of anxiety, especially out of compassion for Charlotte. Charlotte, whose nerves are constantly on edge out of fear for Geoffrey’s attacks, takes to drink and anxiety reducing drugs, that slowly but surely, convert her into the shadow of a human being, she once was.

Whipple liken’s Charlotte to a fly described in one of Katherine Mansfield’s stories:

Katherine Mansfield wrote a tale about a fly upon which a man, over and over again, idly dropped a great blot of ink. Over and over again the fly struggled out, dried its wings, worked over itself, recovered, became eager to live, even cheerful, only to be covered by another blot. At last, the fly struggled no more; its resistance was broken. Charlotte was like that fly.

As Charlotte sinks further and further into depression and dormancy, Lucy on multiple occasions tries to save her sister, but to no avail. Charlotte has been reduced to a state where she no longer cares about anything, except that she wants to feel numb.

Watching Charlotte, Lucy was sad. She had loved Geoffrey with all her heart. Too much. “You shouldn’t love as much as that,” thought Lucy,”Its a bit abject. You should keep something of yourself.”

Unable to save her sister, Lucy does manage to create a safe environment for Charlotte’s youngest child, a girl by the name of Judith. Every summer, Easter or Christmas holiday, Judith is welcomed by her childless aunt and uncle and this act of care-giving provides Lucy, at least some comfort.

Charlotte’s plight is largely ignored by her younger sister Vera, whom she was very close to as a child. Vera is unimaginably beautiful, self absorbed and permanently bored with her own life. On one occasion she visits her sister Lucy’s small village for a short stay. The sisters get on to a public bus with the other village folk.

The bus was  a rattling contraption in which the passengers sat facing one another. Usually it was full of friendly talk and laughter but this morning when Vera got in, silence fell and remained. Such beauty was an embarrassment, as if everybody were put to shame somehow.

Even though aware of Charlotte’s state of household affairs, Vera fails to pay any attention to her plight. Vera, also ignores her devoted husband and two demanding daughters. After several years, Vera finds herself in dire financial circumstances due to a turn of events. Lucy is equally upset with the state of Vera’s personal life and that of her families but is again unable to help her sister. This is partly due to the fact that Vera is too headstrong take advice from her sister.

At two ends of the spectrum we witness two very different types of domestic cruelty. That of the dominance and manipulation of Charlotte by Geoffrey. Similarly, we find Vera grossly neglecting and ignoring her husband and daughters in a differential show of cruelty. Will there be any sort of retribution for these acts of cruelty? Will Lucy be able to help her sisters?

This is a frustrating story of sorts. It would be impossible to say anymore without giving away more of the story line. It s a harrowing tale and has affected me more than I can say. Whipple delivers a masterful plot and powerful cast of characters. She creates extraordinary drama and turbulence within the boundaries of everyday domestic occurrences.