Look Back With Love by Dodie Smith

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‘Look Back With Love’ is the author Dodie Smith’s childhood chronicle of an Edwardian upbringing in the city of Manchester.

Young Dodie Smith lost her father when she was an infant and was brought up by her mother and a doting household of maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles. Her rather precocious nature was precipitated by her being the only child in a large family of adults.

We track Dodie’s childhood from a young age to the onset of her teenage years, when her mother married a long-time fiancee and moved to London. The decade that Dodie Smith recounts is filled with the most delightful details of how the Furber family (Dodie’s mother’s family name) lived.

It was by no means a privileged existence, but there was no dearth of merriment and entertainment to be had in the Furber household. The first house where they lived and which Dodie could remember perfectly, Kingston House, is described as

…a house with four sitting-rooms and three pianos.

It was located near Old Trafford, then a Manchester suburb. The main inhabitants of the household were Dodie’s grandparents, her uncles Harold, Arthur and Eddie; her aunts Madge and Bertha and Dodie and her mother.The house and rooms are described with delightful detail. One can tell that here lies a household who take great pleasure in making a house their home despite not being blessed by wealth. The description of the kitchen delighted me. It reminded me ever so slightly of Cassandra’s nighttime baths in the kitchen in ‘I Capture the Castle’.

Next to the morning-room was the very large kitchen, with two tall dressers, a long row of iron bells, and a vast kitchen range with a glowing fire in front of which, in our early days at Kingston House, I had my nightly bath. Above me hung the family washing, on a wooden rock that could be pulled up to the ceiling.

In fact most of the characters in Dodie’s family are so distinctive and quirky they might have jumped off the pages of one of her books. Her mother Ella, was petite with a penchant for delicate, elegant dresses. Not well-educated she was well read and enjoyed Hardy, the Brontes and Rider Haggard among others. Her grandmother played the piano beautifully and her eldest Uncle Harold was a brilliant amateur theatre actor. Her Uncle Arthur had a weakness for patent medicine, claimed to have a weak digestion and thrived on toasted cheese. Dodie’s Aunt Bertha was also an eccentric character who could not tell her left hand from her right unless she hopped, and who insisted that if she were left alone for more than three hours her teeth went soft!

The family had known prosperous times until Dodie’s grandfather, the secretary of a large chemical firm lost his job when the company was run to the ground. He then embarked on a number of jobs and was not successful at either of them. He tried his hand at farming, running a public house, a shop and several other projects that were never mentioned in the house. Once the uncles started working, things came to an even keel although from the descriptions provided there was never an excess of money and the family made the best of what they had.

The family were very good at creating diversions and entertainment for themselves. One of their favourite places to visit on the weekend was Old Trafford Botanical Gardens.

To wear a white muslin dress and bonnet and my best white doe-skin shoes, and to wander hand-in-hand with two straw-hatted uncles over the sunlit lawns, while the band played Valse Bleu, was the essence of high holiday.

Those Edwardian days were the kind where a stray sixpence found by Dodie and her friend in the  Gardens would yield four ounces of sweets for a penny and a luxurious cab ride home for the young pair for three pence.

Other sources of entertainment included musical soirees at home, where members of the family would sing, play musical instruments or recite. The family were also avid theatre goers and Uncle Harold’s involvement with amateur dramatics would pave the path to Dodie’s future career aspirations on the stage.

The book is peppered with very funny anecdotes like the case of one of Dodie’s classmates being an avid ink drinker and Dodie’s candid comments about her mother’s changing fiancees. But underneath the gaiety and merriment, the author reveals her personal childhood angst.

I had a happy childhood but I was not a happy child, and I was aware of this from a very early age.

Perhaps the traces of her unhappiness rooted from her heightened sensitivity which would later lend to her creativity as a writer and artist. Her increased levels of empathy made it impossible for her to accept the suffering of living animals and creatures. She was never even able to kill the most rampant mosquito. She was also filled with a great degree of introspection and moral consciousness which also contributed to her unhappiness.

If you like me, loved reading Dodie Smith’s classic novel ‘I Capture the Castle’ you will realize, upon reading this memoir that Cassandra is to some extent Dodie Smith. They feel one and the same. Besides providing a detailed historical description of life and times in the Edwardian age, this bookish memoir is an intimate glance at the person who created a veritable body of literature. The anecdotes are splendid and unique. I cannot recommend this memoir enough and I hope to read later episodes in her life history.

I received a review copy of ‘Look Back With Love’ from Slightly Foxed, but as always all opinions are my very own.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

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Excerpt: A Month in the Country by JL Carr is the story of war veteran Tom Birkin and the unforgettable summer he spends in the country uncovering and restoring a medieval wall mural inside an old country church. It is a journey of discovery for Tom Birkin, both in regards to his work and rediscovery of self after the trauma and ravages of his war experiences.

When Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War steps off the train and sets foot in the small village of Oxgoodby in the English countryside on a dark night, little does he know of the masterpiece that awaits him in a little, old forgotten church, far away from the city and the eyes of the art experts of the world. Tom is just grateful to land a job, his first one after the War. He has been wounded, both physically and mentally from the War, and it is his hope that given time, he will be able to recover from it. The twitch that encumbers the left side of his face is a tell-tale sign of his past but what his face does not reveal is the disillusionment, the sense of futility that he feels regarding his part in the war.

Unceremoniously he is invited to sleep in the belfry of the church he is restoring. The Vicar, who has commissioned him, is a cold man who discusses the terms of the contract in exacting terms.

When Tom wakes up in the belfry the next morning he is surrounded by the immense beauty of the Yorkshire countryside captured at the height of summer. The countryside, the village people who slowly impinge upon his solitary life help Tom to slowly recover from the ravages of his past. In the Vicar’s wife, Tom discovers a lonely spirit. A lovely woman who seems trapped in a terribly lifeless marriage and who Tom secretly forms an attachment for.

As Tom toils, day after day to restore the mural to its former beauty and eminence, so too does Tom’s heart undergo a restoration of sorts.

The language of the book is not the most fluid but the writing conveys the immense beauty of the time spent in the country and the experiences had there. It is a book that has left a lasting impression on me, long after I have set it down.

This is a beautiful and meaningful summer read.

Bleak House is Not a Bleak Novel

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“LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”

Thus starts the novel of epic proportions named ‘Bleak House’.

The opening paragraph of Bleak House grabbed my attention from the very onset of reading the book. It is truly memorable.

G. K. Chesterton wrote of the introduction of Bleak House that

‘Dickens’s openings are almost always good; but the opening of Bleak House is good in a quite new and striking sense’.

Notice how fragmented the sentences are.

The opening is in fact a one word sentence. The fragmented dialogue, in my opinion, give a sense of frenetic activity. Combined with the present tense that it is written in, there is a sense of unrest, tension and suspense- one feels anything could happen at any time.

And the dull, smokey, dusty, foggy picture of London thus presented, serves almost as a metaphor for the state of Victorian society – in dire need of social reform.

It is the perfect way to introduce the reader to the frustration the author feels regarding the cumbersome judicial system which is one of the themes at the heart of this great novel.

‘Bleak House’ is the story of a legal case called ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ which has gone down in the annals of history, for being one of the most long-standing legal battles in British judicial history. Several people’s financial fates are entangled in the trappings of the legal battle. Of them, we are introduced to Mr. John Jarndyce, owner of Bleak House and his wards, Richard and Ada. There are other beneficiaries but despite the different age, social backgrounds and diversity of the persons involved, they all share one thing in common: the feeling that their lives are in a permanent state of unrest. There is a lack of settlement and finality. There is a hope that an outcome will soon be reached in the case and an expectation that life will vastly improve when that occurs. But in the meantime life is exceedingly hard to bear. There is bitterness and resentment.

When middle aged John Jarndyce, offers his wards Richard and Ada a home under his own roof, he extends the same gesture to young Esther Summerson, a young orphaned girl, who knows nothing about her parents, her past or the reason that she should be so favoured by Mr John Jarndyce. Esther’s personal history is a mystery but it is known to her, that the circumstances of her birth are tinged with shame. Esther is brought to Bleak House as Ada’s companion and is soon entrusted with the housekeeping duties of Bleak House. She has a sweet, kind temperament and it is through her eyes that we are told part of the story.

Bleak House is considered by many to be Dickens’ masterpiece. For one, the narrative technique is extraordinary. In Bleak House we observe Dickens using two different types of narrative.

The first is the omniscient narrator who is impersonally telling the story in the third person. The second is the first person narrative via the character of Esther.

Whilst reading the story I immediately felt I was drawn intimately into the story in the ‘Esther chapters’. The tone of the young girl is fresh and innocent although meek and considerably self-deprecating. This contrasts sharply with the satirical rather jaded tone of the omniscient narrator.

In providing this vivid contrast in narrative and the tense in which the story is told (present tense for the omniscient narrator, past tense for Esther) we are alternately pulled in and out of the narrative.

The use of the omniscient narrator broadens the scope of the novel, however. There are certain situations that Esther cannot be part of although we do see the narratives intersecting in certain parts of the novel.

There is another story running in parallel to the ongoings at Bleak House and introduced to the reader by the omniscient narrator. This is the story of Lady Dedlock, an aristocratic, middle aged lady and wife of Sir. Leicester Dedlock, Baronet. We learn that she is sad, exceedingly bored with life, excessively privileged but she has a secret to hide and that secret is known to the family lawyer, Mr Tulkinghorn.

There are other remarkable characters: the ‘childlike’ Mr Skimpole, the mercenary Mr. Smallweed, down on his luck George Rouncewell, conniving Mr Tulkinghorn, annoying Mr Guppy , charitable but short-sighted Mrs Jellyby and more. What amazed me was how Dickens was able to bring all the loose threads of these seemingly unrelated narratives and weave a cohesive tapestry of a cogent story.

It is impossible to do a book of Bleak Houses’s stature true justice through a book review. Nevertheless, I will strive to list some of the reasons why this book mattered so much to me.

1. Spontaneous combustion 💥(need I say more?).

2. A detailed historical glimpse of Victorian London.

“Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.”

3. A social commentary on the poor and their pitiful state.

“I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another, how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.”

4. A seething description of the havoc that legal proceedings can have on the life of common man.

“The lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared from the face of the earth. It’s about a will and the trusts under a will — or it was once. It’s about nothing but costs now. We are always appearing, and disappearing, and swearing, and interrogating, and filing, and cross-filing, and arguing, and sealing, and motioning, and referring, and reporting, and revolving about the Lord Chancellor and all his satellites, and equitably waltzing ourselves off to dusty death, about costs. That’s the great question. All the rest, by some extraordinary means, has melted away.”

5. The emphasis on relationships, particularly the love between children and parents.

6. Wicked satire.

7. Excellent characters that seem real enough and relevant, even today.

8. Beautiful descriptive writing.

“I found every breath of air, and every scent, and every flower and leaf and blade of grass and every passing cloud, and everything in nature, more beautiful and wonderful to me than I had ever found it yet. This was my first gain from my illness. How little I had lost, when the wide world was so full of delight for me.”

9. Superlative narrative structure and plot construction

10. Aspects of a murder mystery story that I think Agatha Christie would have approved of.

I spent an entire month reading the 1000 or more pages of Bleak House. It was time very well spent. Could the novel have done with some editing? Perhaps. But then again, it wouldn’t be the same. The ending of Bleak House is satisfying. All the loose ends of the plot are perfectly tied and Dickens, realistically doesn’t provide happiness to all the outcomes. Bleak House is not a bleak novel. It is a beautiful social commentary and the narrator, Esther Summerson is one of the sweetest people to grace the pages of Victorian fiction.

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Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

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‘Someone At a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple is the story of a young French girl called Louise Lanier. Born of hard-working, simple parents who have worked happily all their lives as small booksellers in the small French town of Amigny, they have never climbed high in the social ladder, much to the chagrin of their aspiring daughter. Based on this lack of pedigree, Louise is jilted by her secret, longtime sweetheart: the son of the town squire who decides to marry a woman from a reputed family instead. Broken-hearted, but refusing to show it, Louise escapes to England to serve as a companion to a wealthy, old lady called Mrs. North.

Mrs. North lives near to her son Avery, a prosperous publisher and his family, consisting of his wife Ellen, daughter Anne and son Hugh.

Avery North and his family have the perfect life. He is a devoted father. He is admired and respected in his publishing firm. He and his wife Ellen have a trusting, committed relationship. And then all of a sudden cool, calculated and beautiful Louise steps into their lives…

Louise needs to preoccupy her mind and at first is unsure of how to engage herself. Finding nothing better to do, she takes charge of old Mrs. North’s dressing, paying attention to every little detail of adornment. Mrs. North is charmed with the attention that the young French girl pays her and grows to care and depend on her.

Mrs. North gifts the French girl a diamond ring upon her return to France. But even Louise is surprised when Mrs. North leaves a considerable amount of money to Louise in her will.

Louise returns to England to claim the bequest for herself. Unwillingly, Avery and Ellen North let her into their perfect home but Louise shows no signs of leaving. She is jealous of the Norths’ happiness, of the love they share in their small family and she is determined to ruin it.

When Ellen discovers the affair that is going on in the very same house that she lives in, she is shell shocked. It seems impossible to her that her devoted, loving husband could forsake all that he holds dear, to be with a callous, cruel young woman.

In her moment of strife she looks towards religion but can find no comfort.

“All those books, all those prayers and she had got nothing from them. When everything went well for her she had been able to pray, she couldn’t now. There was such urgency in her present situation that until the pressure was removed she couldn’t think about God. She hadn’t the patience to pray. It was a shock to her. Surely God was for these times?”

Avery does not return to her. Ellen regards his desertion as a sign of his love for Louise but nothing could be further from the truth. He despises Louise and takes to drink to drown his sorrows and to forget that he has lost everything that he holds dear.

He marries Louise out of his need to cling to someone and Louise holds onto him for financial gain.

Ultimately it is a situation where no-one is happy. Is there retribution for Louise? Are Avery and Ellen able to reconcile their differences? I will leave you to find out.

The book is a story about adultery. It is a story about a husband’s weakness, a wife’s short-sightedness and a young, ambitious girl’s yearning to rise up from her provincial upbringing and to destroy the happiness of others. But the book is more than the sum total of these individual parts and the title reveals this.

The title ‘Someone At a Distance’ is a curious one. It is only towards the latter part of the novel that the significance of the title emerges and one realizes it has been used with much thought.

The title deals with the idea that a person’s negative actions and thoughts can have a far-reaching consequence on the lives of people far removed from them. It is like a ripple effect. A strong undercurrent of ill-will may wreak havoc on the hitherto peaceful lives of people on distant shores. Such is the inter-connectedness of the world and its people.

This is a beautiful book. I read it in one breath. It was virtually unputdownable. Whipple’s storytelling is superlative. The psychological tension she develops in taut situations can be felt acutely. When Ellen grieves in the aftermath of her husband’s desertion, which has been dealt to her out of no wrong-doing of her own, we grieve along with her. We feel and comprehend her every emotion. We sympathize with her and we yearn for her strength and salvation. On the opposite side of the spectrum we despise Louise’s every movement and intention. And we hope and pray for some kind of justice. Whipple manipulates our emotional well-being, during the reading of the novel to good effect and delivers yet another stellar story.

 

January, 2016 Wrap Up

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Here is a round up of book related favourites for the month of January, 2016. For a glimpse into December, 2015’s Bookish Favourites please see here.

1. Books

 I read a total of seven books in January. I read mostly from the modern classics genre and successfully ticked off two titles from my list of 12 New Authors I Would Like to Read in 2016 (that made me feel very good!). I enjoyed all these books so much, especially The Diary of A Provincial Lady and A Month in the Country.

1) Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

I realised I posted about this book in December but didn’t manage to finish it till January. I reviewed this book as part of Margery Sharp Day hosted by Jane from the lovely blog Beyond Eden Rock.

Britannia Mews is a book that describes the life and times of the central character of Adelaide Culver, a child of privileged circumstances, living in one of the row of houses along London’s Albion Place. Adjacent to Albion Place, stands Britannia Mews, once a stable, housing the horses used by the genteel folk living in Albion Place but now reduced to a slum at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Set in the late nineteenth century, Victorian London is portrayed at the intersection of where the rich meet the poor.  Adelaide Culver, marries her struggling art tutor and thereby goes to live in the slums of Britannia Mews. This is the story of what happens to a girl who has bravely broken away from the family shelter into a life of domestic strife and hardship. I enjoyed Margery Sharp’s excellent writing, descriptive and laced with subtle wit and wisdom. For a full review please see here.

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2) Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the story of twenty-one year old Sophia, during the time when she was married to Charles Fairclough. The story is in its entirety, a first person narrative and tells of the harrowing poverty, the ups and downs of the young couple, in a time during which Charles refuses to take any financial responsibility for his household, using his need to practice his art as an excuse to shirk his duties. This was an exceptional book! For a full review please see here.

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3) A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith

A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith is the story of the relationship between two families: those of May and June, two sisters, who marry two brothers, George and Robert. When May and George decide to relocate to the countryside for a few years, on a landed estate with a small cottage, it seems the most natural thing for June and Robert to leave their father’s house and set up home in the cottage on May and George’s leased estate. Robert, a skilled but lesser known writer plans on writing his magnum opus in the idyllic surrounds of the cottage. June is happy to be carefree and close to her sister. Robert and George’s father, Baggy, comes to stay with George’s family. May and June’s delightful mother, Fran, decides to stay with her two daughters for a while. The children in the family come upto the property on weekends, from London or the boarding schools they go to and a good time is had by all in the family. Then the close proximity leads to unforeseen events…

For a full review please see here.

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4) A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr is the story of war veteran Tom Birkin and the unforgettable summer he spends in the country, uncovering and restoring a medieval wall mural inside an old country church. It is a journey of discovery for Tom Birkin, both in regards to his work and rediscovery of self after the trauma and ravages of his war experiences. This was a charming, poignant novel. I felt that the narrative was a little uneven, which made it a bit of a slower read, but on the whole the story was so wonderful and evocative that I can’t help but look back upon it, with starlight in my eyes.

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5) The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield

This was my favourite book this month and it really made laugh. The diary entries are so self deprecatory and certain incidents so cringe-worthy, they make great reading.

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I am #currentlyreading (tagged by Jessica @bookreveries) EM Delafield's classic novel 'The Diary of a Provincial Lady' first published in 1930 and wondering why it took me so long to read this little gem. A domestic diary of a Devon housewife full of self-deprecatory hilarious anecdotes, it is definitely a laugh a minute. The following is an encounter between the diary writer and neighboring Lady Boxe. ~ "Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls… Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but I think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: 'Oh, Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?" #theyearinbooks

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6) Mystery at Saint-Hilaire by Priscilla Hagon (Mabel Esther Allan)

I don’t remember how I came upon this book or the author but I was lucky enough to find a copy at my library. I’m glad I did. It read exactly like a grown-up Enid Blyton book so if you are a Blyton fan, this is a book for you.

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Mystery at Saint-Hilaire' (1968) (also known as 'Castle of Fear') by Priscilla Hagon (a pseudonym for Mabel Esther Allan) is a perfect example of a book fitting into the #followmetobookland tag. It's a work of fiction that is set along France's Brittany Coast, where the people speak the Breton tongue (with Celtic origins) rather than the native French. It's hard to categorize the writing: to me it felt more like an Enid Blyton book for grown-ups with a faint whiff of a romance story. The penmanship is not terribly sophisticated but it fits into the old-world, charming, writing style that I enjoy. The story centres around a young British girl called Gwenda, who spends a summer working in a British bookshop in Paris. Whilst perusing some books that have been recently returned from an address in Brittany, Gwenda discovers a note, tucked into the pages. The note is written by another English girl called Sarah, writing to her brother, and she claims that her life is in danger. She speaks of sinister goings on and the death of a fisherman near the Chateau of Saint-Hilaire. Gwenda feels compelled to investigate further and finds herself journeying to an unknown medieval castle, located in the middle of the sea, off the coast of Brittany, to unearth the letter's mystery, only to find herself in the midst of romance and grave danger. An indulgent read, 'Mystery at Saint-Hilaire' is a fabulous foray into the romance of yesteryear. ~ Last night, I stayed up late and finished of this 'adult Enid Blyton' novel accompanied by a square or two of chocolate. I think Enid would have approved. Happy Friday friends. What plans for the weekend? //ps: can we also admire my lilies(?) soooo voluptuous !!

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7) Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

This was another favourite book this month. Quite funny, with several quotable, witty, one liners, this tells of a day in the life of staid, middle aged Miss Pettigrew. It is a day of astonishing unexpected events that transform Miss Pettigrew’s mind and outlook on life for ever.

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2. Movies and Audiobooks

The only movie I watched this month was the BBC adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (screenplay by David Nicholls) and it was soooo good! It really made me want to pick up the book and read it. I listened to the BBC full cast adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery. I do enjoy these full cast dramatizations: it almost feels like going to the theatre.

3. Miscellany

I bought so many books this month. Most of them were bought with Christmas money or were gifts to myself to revive my dwindling library. I hope to enjoy and read them over the next couple of years. Here is a picture of the books!

I hope you all had a great month of reading. I have several library books to get through in February which I am excited to share. Do have a great month!

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

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This review is written in celebration of Margery Sharp’s birthday on January 25th, 2016. I would like to thank Jane from Beyond Eden Rock for encouraging us to celebrate the life and works of a wonderful author, most of whose works remain difficult to find.

‘Britannia Mews’ is a book that describes the life and times of the central character of Adelaide Culver, a child of privileged circumstances, living in one of the row of houses along London’s Albion Place. Adjacent to Albion Place, stands Britannia Mews, once a stable, housing the horses used by the genteel folk living in Albion Place but now reduced to a slum at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Adelaide falls in love with her art teacher and aspiring artist, Henry Lambert and throwing all caution to the winds, elopes with him, to live a life of severely reduced circumstances and drudgery in a small house in Britannia Mews. In the beginning, Adelaide is happy with her new found independence, the novelty of keeping her tiny house spick and span and the belief that Henry will make a name for himself in art circles.  Slowly, however, she is resigned to the fact that Henry is a drunk, with no ambition in life and has married her for no reason other than a desire to get by on Adelaide’s annual income.

When Henry Lambert falls to his death from the steps of his Mews house due to accidental circumstances, Adelaide believes she has been released from the prison that she has created for herself in Britannia Mews. She longs to go back to her parental house in the countryside. However, a devious neighbor has witnessed the slight push that Adelaide gave her husband that accidentally led to his death. This results in blackmail: the neighbour forces Adelaide to pay her ten shillings a week and compels her to stay on in the Mews.

Then as time passes on and Adelaide’s life seems very bleak she discovers real love in the most unexpected way. The strength of this attachment (with a man named Gilbert) gives her the strength to forsake everything and everyone else in her life. Adelaide and Gilbert create a Puppet Theatre in the Mew’s stables and this eventually leads to the upliftment of Britannia Mews and several of its residents. The birth of the famous Puppet Theatre leads to the gentrification of Britannia Mews. Adelaide’s success leads to great empowerment; Adelaide is envisioned as a strong inspiring woman by subsequent generations. The Theatre brings employment to several individuals and much needed entertainment to innumerable people, especially during the dark, dreary times of the Second World War. The story is brought full circle when Adelaide inspires her niece to forsake her life of comfort and luxury in rural suburbia and live a life of artistic endeavor and adventure in running the Puppet Theatre in Britannia Mews.

Set in the late nineteenth century and leading into the years spanning the Second World War, Britannia Mews is a story spanning several generations and several important world events.

The attitudes and affectations of Victorian London are very much at variance with those of subsequent times and these are highlighted in the different characters of the story.

The book focuses on the intersection of where the rich meet the poor, the difference in living conditions of the two factions, the snobbery of the upper class, the raucousness of the underbelly of London society and the dissolution of these classes with the onset of the Second World War.

Women are portrayed in strong, influential roles. They marry to please themselves, not to gratify society. Convention is severely flouted in the book ‘Britannia Mews’.

It is an astonishing novel on many levels and depicts a slice of English history that is multifaceted and rich in detail. I’ve enjoyed reading a Margery Sharp novel that is a little different from the other books I have read, but quite, quite lovely!

Martha, Eric and George by Margery Sharp

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This review is written in celebration of Margery Sharp’s birthday on January 25th, 2016. I would like to thank Jane from Beyond Eden Rock for encouraging us to celebrate the life and works of a wonderful author, most of whose works remain difficult to find.

‘Martha, Eric and George’ is the third book in the Martha trilogy written by Margery Sharp. For reviews of the first two book in the series, please see here and here.

If ‘The Eye of Love’ was a lively entree into this delightful trilogy, ‘Martha in Paris’ was a deliciously light and entertaining prelude to the substantial finale of the drama- ‘Martha, Eric and George’, surrounding the central character of Martha.

The child Martha, her stolid personality, her large appetite, her obsession with drawing and sketching, even in the most trying circumstances amuses us in the book ‘The Eye of Love’.

In ‘Martha in Paris’ Martha due to her benefactor, Mr Joyce’s encouragement, accepts an opportunity to study art under a master-class artist in Paris. In Paris, she meets Eric, an English bank employee, and the two embark on a relationship of sorts, brought about under the most peculiar circumstances!

Martha’s plans to seriously continue her artistic studies are seriously thwarted, however, when she discovers that she is carrying Eric’s child. ‘Martha in Paris’, memorably concludes when Martha deposits her newborn son (unknown to Eric) on the doorstep of Eric’s Parisian apartment.

‘Martha, Eric and George’ starts when the baby is discovered by Madame Leclerc, the concierge of the apartment buildings that Eric and his mother reside in. In all her thirty years of being concierge at the building, this incident, perhaps, tops it all.

…she hadn’t meant to be defrauded of the most exciting incident in all her thirty years as concierge. There had once been a suicide on the Fifth, a burglary on the Third; in each case Madame Leclerc gave evidence, for so respectable a house it wasn’t bad, but neither episode could touch, for drama and human interest, the act of placing within the arms of a serious young man his illegitimate offspring.

Eric is astonished to discover that he is a father.

His single pertinent thought was still classic. “Oh God,” thought Eric Taylor,”why did this happen to me?”

Bewildered, Eric unburdens his offspring into his Mother’s arms, who is delighted to find that she is a grandmother.

Meanwhile, Martha escapes to England and starts practicing her art in earnest. In the next ten years she develops a reputation as a formidable artist. She does not think of her son during this time. Eric, is unable to track down Martha due to lack of a forwarding address. When an opportunity to exhibit her work in Paris arises, ten years later, she is  reminded that somewhere in Paris, she has a son.

There is a remarkable section in the book that describes the meeting of Martha, Eric and George in a Parisian coffee shop. One can only imagine the repercussions of such a meeting. One would imagine a mother to be visibly moved upon meeting her son, perhaps her heart might be softened upon seeing her offspring… one can never be sure, especially with Margery Sharp’s excellent storytelling.

Without giving too much away, I will leave it to you to find out what happens next…

Eric, Martha and George deals with several feminist issues: those of a woman or mother’s expected role in society. Indeed, it challenges those societal norms. We are encouraged to think sometimes, why should a man too, not be expected to play a nurturing role, outside that of merely supplying monetary sustenance to a child?

This is a clever book. One which kept me and keeps me thinking about it.