I'm not going to write at length because my internet time is limited but I thought I'd just tell you that the book I finished a couple of days ago was wonderful. And what was it? It was EH Young's Chatterton Square, her final novel, published in 1947, 13 years after her previous one. I will tell you what was so great about it later!
Have you any idea how strange it is to read a crime novel in which members of your family appear as characters? But such has been my experience with two of Nicola Upson's novels, An Expert in Murder (2008 -- you can read my review of it here) -- and now the most recent one, Two For Sorrow.
This is actually the third in a series which I suspect will run and run. Nicola Upson has hit upon a smart idea, though not a wholly original one -- instead of inventing a detective, she has resurrected a real one, or rather a real writer of detective fiction. This is Josephine Tey, in my opinion one of the finest writers of crime novels in the mid-20th century. Confusingly, Josephine Tey was actually a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Mackintosh, a lady from Inverness who also wrote plays using the name Gordon Daviot. But that's by the by, really, as Upson wisely uses the name under which she is best known.
Like An Expert in Murder, this new novel is set in 1930s London. Josephine is staying at her club,The Cowdray, and and working on a new book. This one is to be a fictionalised account of two women, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters. Famous as the 'Finchley baby farmers', they were hanged in Holloway Prison in the early years of the century after being found guilty of murdering babies. Josephine is hoping for some help and advice from her old teacher, Celia Bannerman, who, before taking up teaching, had been a wardress in Holloway and had known Amelia Sach. Also helping and advising her is her friend, Detective Inspector Archie Penrose. But soon she and Archie have something rather closer to hand to be concerned with. A young woman, recently released from prison, is found horrifically murdered in the workroom of the costume makers' business where she has been working. And although initially this seems to be a quite separate matter from Josephine's research, links start to appear and it becomes clear that the past, far from being dead and buried, is making itself felt in powerful but mysterious ways.
Unfortunately I not only guessed the identity of the murderer, which in any case is revealed some way before the end, but also anticipated the twist which comes in the final pages. I do hate it when that happens. I'd love to say it didn't spoil my enjoyment but obviously it does, just a bit. However there is still a great deal to enjoy in this novel. The uncovering of the (true) facts of the Sach/Walters case and of baby farming in general is fascinating and chilling, and the research into prison conditions in the early twentieth century obviously meticulous. In addition, Josephine's social life mainly revolves around the theatre world of London's West End, and we meet numerous characters who are based on real people with only their names changed. So Josephine's actress friend Lydia is actually Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, and Gwen's lifetime partner Marda Vanne appears as the beautiful, troubled Marta. Indeed Marta's attempts to seduce Josephine include sending her pages of a journal which, as Nicola Upson reveals in the Afterword, are taken verbatim from a journal letter written by the real Marda Vanne to the real Josephine Tey. Goodness! And, as I said at the beginning, my own relatives also appear -- my mother, Sophie Harris, as Lettice Motley and my aunt Margaret Harris as Ronnie Motley. In real life, Motley was the name under which they worked as theatre designers at this period, and their workshop in St Martin's Lane is here described in detail and indeed becomes the scene of the first murder. Strange. I am eagerly awaiting my father's appearance in one of Nicola Upson's forthcoming novels. But all of that notwithstanding, I think she does a great job of mingling fact and fiction. A very enjoyable read.
Persephone books are beautiful. Well designed, on high quality paper, with exquisite endpapers, they look expensive and indeed they are, by my standards, as my most usual book buying goes on in charity shops or for 1p on Amazon. But we all deserve a treat from time to time, and when I saw a few weeks ago that Persephone had an offer of two for the price of one, I was off to the online catalogue like a shot. The real problem once you get there is what on earth to buy -- it's an embarrassment of riches as I think the French say. But in this case I knew pretty soon that I must try Dorothy Whipple. I've heard so many people praising her to the skies for so long that it seemed rather shameful not to have read her.
So now I have. And I really did enjoy this novel, which I think is said to be her best. But how can I explain to you why I liked it so much and why I thought it was so good (which sounds like the same thing but is not always)? First published in 1953, it's about an ordinary, though quite well-off, middle class family who live in the country. Their son is away on national service, their daughter at boarding school, though she longs to come home every holidays to be united with her beloved pony. Their father Avery, a handsome, charming man, goes to London every day by train to his publishing company and Ellen, their mother, is "that unfashionable creature, a happy housewife". Cynics will immediately be saying, well, that's not going to last, and of course it does not. Into the picture comes beautiful, cold, calculating, Louise, initially brought over from her French provincial home to help Ellen's mother-in-law with her French and act as her companion. And before she has time even to suspect anything is wrong, Ellen suddenly finds herself deserted -- Avery has allowed himself to be seduced and has run away with Louise.
If this sounds fairly mundane and predictable, all I can tell you is that somehow it is not. Whipple's narrative moves between the viewpoints of three characters, Ellen, Avery and Louise, and in doing so produces an interesting perspective. Naturally the reader's sympathy is drawn by Ellen's intense pain, but Ellen does not know what Avery is going through, and neither Avery nor Ellen have any idea of the machinations of Louise's complex and devious brain. So, though in its essence this is a story we have all heard many times, it is lifted out of ordinariness by Whipple's wonderful command of her characters and their feelings and interactions. The scenes in France, where Louise's rather humble bourgeois parents run a bookshop, are superbly done, and the picture of the deterioration of Ellen's relationship with her teenage daughter after Avery's defection is wonderfully perceptive and entirely believable.
I gather Dorothy Whipple is one of Persephone's two best selling authors (the other being Marghanita Laski) and I am not surprised now I have read her. I shall be after another one soon -- does anyone out there want to suggest which one I should go for next?
This remarkable painting, called A Man seated reading at a Table in a Lofty Roomwas painted in about 1630. It's in the National Gallery in London. Apparently it was originally attributed to Rembrandt, but now it's just listed as by 'A Follower of Rembrandt'. Wonderful, evocative composition.
Yes, by the time you are reading this I will be on my way to beautiful Kerala in south west India. I'll be gone for five weeks.
I'll be able to access the internet but my time on it will be limited, so you won't hear much from me for a while, though I've scheduled the odd post to pop up now and again, just so you don't forget me entirely.
I'm taking some books so no doubt I'll have things to say about them when I get back. Meanwhile have a great summer wherever you are and thanks for visiting and commenting -- I shall miss you all.
I am not much of a one for brand new books. There are exceptions, of course -- a new Sarah Waters, or the latest of Kate Atkinson's crime thrillers spring to mind, as these will be books I just have to read as soon as I can get hold of them. But my taste runs quite a bit towards older fiction, and I'm a great one for serendipity -- books that just happen to come my way by some means or other. So when, a couple of years ago, everyone was raving about this book, I didn't feel at all impelled to read it. Apart from anything else I thought the title sounded a bit cutesy, and feared the book would be whimsical and irritating. How wrong can anyone be?
I'm staying with a friend this week and this just happened to catch my eye on the bookshelf. I'm not short of reading matter, and in fact am halfway through Nicola Upson's latest Josephine Tey thriller, Two For Sorrow, of which no doubt you will hear from me soon. But I picked this up out of idle curiosity and once I'd started I simply couldn't stop. Of course it is a simply wonderful book. Set in 1946 and written in the form of letter (an epistolary novel, no less) it tells the story of Juliet Ashton, a moderately successful writer living in London, who starts corresponding with a rather ill-assorted group of people who live on the Channel island of Guernsey. Her curiosity is piqued when she learns that they formed their literary society to cover up the fact that they had just killed and roasted a pig, something absolutely forbidden by the German occupiers at the time. Soon letters are flying back and forth, and at last Juliet feels so involved in the lives of these new and unusual friends that she decides to visit the island. And her stay goes on and on...
I've seen this novel described as a comedy, which of course it is. But it is also a wholly serious and sometimes disturbing account of life on the islands, and in German prisoner of war camps, during WW2. I found many of these stories extremely moving. And some of the letters describing the reactions of the (rather unwillingly recruited) members of the literary society to the books they have been told to read actually brought tears to my eyes. Thoughtful, witty, quirky, warm-hearted, funny, sad, all at once -- if you haven't read it yet, I suggest you do so!