Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Visitors, by Sally Beauman

This book is set mainly around the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, in the early 1920s. It is narrated by Lucy Fox-Payne, eleven years old when the story opens. She has come to Egypt in the winter of 1922, under the care of Miss Myrtle Mackenzie, still suffering the combined effects of a bout of typhoid fever and the loss of her mother to the same illness. Her father, a Fellow of Trinity College in Cambridge, never had much time for his daughter and is quite happy to ship her off with Miss Mackenzie.

Staying at the famed Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo, Lucy and Miss Mack meet the Winlocks, a family of Americans. Lucy makes friends with Frances Winlock, whose father Herbert is the director of excavations for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Miss Mack meanwhile bonds with Helen Winlock, Frances's mother. Through this family, she and Lucy meet other archaeologists, including Howard Carter. They also meet Lady Evelyn Herbert, daughter of Lord Carnarvon, who holds the permit that allows Carter to dig in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes. When the archaeologists move on to Luxor, Lucy and Miss Mack go with them.

The story moves back and forth in time. In the present-day, the elderly Lucy is visited by Dr. Ben Fong, an American working in London on a documentary about King Tutankhamun and the discovery of the tomb. She distrusts him from the first, but his visits stir up memories, and she begins to sort through old letters and photographs, as well as her memories. The story also moves back and forth between Egypt and England, as Lucy returns home to Cambridge. Later she visits the Carnarvons at Highclere Castle, while staying with two young friends she met in Egypt, Rose and Peter. Lucy and Miss Mack manage to return to Luxor for the 1922-1923 digging season, which is of course when Howard Carter finally makes his great discovery.

I spent much of the weekend completely caught up in this book, which has layer upon layer of plot elements. I was fascinated by the sections set in Egypt. I knew the basic outline of the history of the tomb, and I've seen three different exhibits of artifacts from it (someday I hope to see them in Egypt). Reading this, I felt like I was right in the middle of the events, though naturally Lucy and Miss Mack are mainly observers. I did stop to look up photos of the real-life characters and some of the artifacts. (Ms. Beauman includes a list of characters at the beginning, with the fictional ones noted, and a section at the end with details about the lives of the real people in later years.)

The sections set in England, both in the past and the present, were interesting in different ways. I liked the older Lucy and enjoyed learning how her life had unfolded. When she returns to Cambridge the first time, she discovers that her father has installed a governess for her. Nicola Dunshire, a graduate of Girton, is a self-proclaimed bluestocking who pushes her pupil hard, and not just in her studies. She and Lucy have the most complicated relationship, and I'm still puzzling over the nuances of it. Her father lives in his rooms at college, returning only on Sundays, and Lucy spends most of her time with Miss Dunshire. (I loathed him from the start, and he did nothing to change my mind - quite the opposite.)

I had only one quibble with this book. Lucy and Frances Winlock show a great talent for eavesdropping. They regularly fade into the background, behind sofas and so on, where they overhear all kinds of fascinating information. But various adults are also prone to confide in Lucy as soon as she sits down near them. I found it hard to believe that Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter in particular would talk so freely to a young girl that they hardly know. I understand it's a plot device to convey information that Lucy otherwise wouldn't have access to, but it felt clumsy.

This book was a birthday gift, from the friend who first introduced me to Elizabeth Peters's books. I had to keep reminding myself that Amelia and Emerson were not going to make an appearance in this one. (My sister reminded me that Emerson was at this point banned from excavating in the Valley of the Kings after picking fights with various officials.) There is a bibliography of books about Egypt and archaeology, some by the real-life people of this book, and I may be looking for some of those. I see Ms. Beauman has also written several other books. Any recommendations of which to read next? (Probably not the Rebecca sequel.)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Sisters, by Ada Cambridge

It took me three tries to read this 1904 novel, because the first chapter got the story off to such an ominous start. It introduces us to Guthrie Carey, a young sailor who "married Lily Harrison, simply because she was a poor, pretty, homeless little girl, who had to earn her living as a nondescript lady-help in hard situations, and never had a holiday." Two weeks after their marriage, he shipped out for a long voyage. When he returned almost a year later, he had a son. He prepares a cozy home for his family, and to give his wife a treat he arranges to travel there by boat, across the bay outside Melbourne. The couple are sitting happily cuddled together in the bow of the ship when a rogue wave hits, washing them overboard. Lily, who cannot swim, sinks and drowns, leaving Guthrie with their infant son.

All this happens in the first chapter. Now, Ada Cambridge began A Humble Enterprise with a tragic accident, and a much gorier one at that. But I had a feeling that this story was going to be a darker one, more like A Marked Man or Fidelis. This time, I made up my mind I was going to get past Lily and see where the story took me.

It is through his son Harry that Guthrie meets the sisters of the title, four daughters of Mr Pennycuick of Redford, a sheep station in the Western District. The second daughter, Deborah, is the belle of the district, and Guthrie promptly falls in love with her. Her older sister Mary, afflicted with a skin condition, has run the household since the death of their mother. She takes charge of Harry, making much of him - as women with an eye on the widower father tend to do. The third sister, Rose, is a quiet homebody, while the youngest, Francie, is a budding minx and hobbledehoya. The story shifts from Guthrie to follow the sisters through the next twenty years, particularly after their father's death leaves them almost penniless. (Guthrie turns up occasionally, between voyages.) I think Cambridge was using their stories to explore the limited choices available to women of their class. Each marries, but the only happy one shocks the other three, because that sister marries "beneath her." She has to keep apologizing that her husband is "only a draper," despite the fact that she lives in great comfort and on the best terms with her handsome husband (and their eleven children). Another sister is forced at a moment of great emotional crisis to marry a clergyman in full Mr Collins mode. Cambridge's comment on this marriage shocked me: it "meant a footing for her somewhere, and at the same time a means to commit suicide without violating the law." No wonder that on their wedding night she "shrank back from [the bedroom door] with a shriek." Cambridge wrote in A Humble Enterprise that a good marriage is "the nearest approach to happiness that has been discovered at present," while an "unlucky" marriage is a "living martyrdom." She certainly echoes that here.

I was drawn into the sisters' stories, curious to see how they would turn out. I was pretty sure that the "mésalliance" would be a success, but I had my doubts about choices the others made. I couldn't help comparing these sisters to those in The Three Miss Kings. The Pennycuicks are much richer and grander, at least while their father is alive. They don't have the closeness of the King sisters, nor their cheerful ingenuity. Both stories have an element of a fairy tale, with a generous godparent, but the Pennycuicks don't get as much joy out of theirs. In the end, I thought this book was interesting, but it didn't draw me like The Three Miss Kings or A Humble Enterprise.

One last note: another reason I struggled with this book is the weird formatting of the copy I read. It is a modern reprint by Kessinger Publishing, in an odd size (9x7 inches, which feels almost square). It is very poorly edited, with different characters' speeches running together in paragraphs, and it has LOTS of ODD capitalization (perhaps italics in the original). If I am tempted to re-read this book, I think I'll look for an e-version.

N.B. This fills another year in my Mid-Century of Books.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Book serendipity

I had planned to write a post this evening about a book I've actually read, but instead I have to share some books that I found today, serendipitously. (The spell-check thinks that isn't a word; if not, it should be.) I enjoy tracking books down on-line, and there is a particular joy in finding an elusive title. Then there are the books that turn up when I least expect them, often the unusual ones - and frequently completely new to me.

The first, on the left, came from a charity shop where I will soon be volunteering. I went to a lunch for new recruits today, and according to the people at my table, the book section needs workers. I have to circulate through the different areas at first, to get a sense of the operations, but I'll be putting my name in for the book section. After the lunch I had my first real browse through the shop, and there in the book section I found Give the Lady What She Wants, a history of Marshall Field and Company, the iconic Chicago department store. This is where Emily Kimbrough worked, and the book even has a picture of the Charley who guided shoppers Through Charley's Door. I might not have bought it just for that, or for the mentions of Kimbrough and Cornelia Otis Skinner, but the jacket copy promises "the story of Woman's Century in which females won their right to buy, dress and live as they chose..." and "the rise of militant Feminism, paced by the marching Bloomer girls." I'm curious, I admit, to see how the two male authors define "militant Feminism" in a book written in 1952. I will say, the pictures are fascinating, particularly of women's clothes (I haven't found the Bloomer costumes yet).

Later, just to kill a few minutes, I stopped in at Half-Price Books. First, in the "old and interesting section," I found The One I Knew Best of All, an autobiography by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It's a lovely hardback from 1895, in a green binding with gold decorations on the front cover and spine. She wrote in the Preface,
I should feel a serious delicacy in presenting to the world a sketch so autobiographical as this if I did not feel myself absolved from any charge of the bad taste of personality by the fact that I believe I might fairly entitle it "The Story of any Child with an Imagination."
Next, in the general fiction section, I passed right by a small grey book before my mind registered it as a Persephone. And not just any title, but Dorothy Whipple's High Wages, the book of hers I've been anxious to read next. (I talked myself out of a visit to the Persephone site to order it just three days ago.) It is in perfect condition and even has the bookmark. I will continue to order directly from Persephone, because I want to support their work, but I can't pass one up one of their books for a good price and no international shipping costs.

Finally, in the travel section, I saw Jerome K. Jerome's name on a title I didn't recognize: Diary of a Pilgrimage. Published in 1891, it is an account of a trip to Oberammergau to see the Passion Play.  I think Germany brings out the best (or the worst) in Jerome, and I'm really looking forward to reading this.  Since I was going to break the TBR Dare anyway, this might be the perfect book for Easter time.

I was going to break it with Emily Eden, but there has been a slight delay in that plan. Despite what many booksellers apparently believe, her book Up the Country is not Volume II of her Letters from India. Thinking that I had already read the second set of letters, I only bought Volume I of the Letters. Now I've realized my mistake and I'm waiting on a copy of Volume II, before I start Volume I.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ending the TBR dare a little Early - due to the letter E

As James has just reminded us, there are only eleven days left in the TBR Triple Dog Dare. I know I could make it to April 1st, but I don't think I will. There are two reasons for this. The first is the long Easter weekend. While I'll be spending extra time at church, I'll also have extra time for reading, and it feels like a good time to get to some of the new books.

One book in particular, by Emily Eden. I mentioned before that ABE Books finally found me a copy of Miss Eden's Letters, edited by a great-niece and published in 1919. I had downloaded an e-version some time ago and read about two-thirds of it. I stopped at the point in 1835 where Miss Eden was preparing to go to India with her brother, Lord Auckland, the newly-appointed Governor-General. I've read her book Up the Country, a collection of letters written from India between 1837 and 1840. I have since learned that two additional books of her letters from India were published soon after her death. I've re-read Miss Eden's Letters up to 1835, but because I like my stories in chronological order, I've set them aside to read the Letters from India. Volume I (a modern reprint) arrived last week. As soon as I finish the book I'm currently reading (from the TBR shelves), I think I will be back with Miss Eden.

I really enjoy her letters, which remind me of Jane Austen's. Like Austen, she was part of a large, clever, close and funny family. Unlike Austen's, though, they were nobility, an old Whig political family. Emily's father, the first Lord Auckland, was a diplomat who served as Ambassador to France, Spain and Holland. She moved in the highest social and political circles. She and her unmarried sister Fanny acted as hostesses for their bachelor brother, with whom they lived. Like Austen, she came to value her "life of single blessedness," particularly as her sisters and women friends produced child after child. "Six small Intellects constantly on the march, and [sister] Mary, of course, is hatching a seventh child," she wrote in 1827 (another sister gave birth to seventeen).

I'll write more about this book later, when I've finished it, but I have to share this Austen-esque paragraph from an 1815 letter to her brother George, Lord Auckland:
There is to be a meeting of all the Sunday Schools in the district next week at Bromley, and a collection, and a collation. We mean to eat up the collation, and give all our old clipped sixpences to the collection, which we think is a plan you would approve if you were here.
And this one, to her oldest sister Lady Buckinghamshire in 1817, could have come straight out of Jane Austen's juvenalia:
My dearest Sister, the reason I am in such a state of ignorance about the letter is, that Mama and Louisa went to meet them on their way to London; that we were behind them in the poney-cart; and George behind us in the grig. We all fell in with each other and the letters in the middle of Penge Common, where we each took what belonged to us. I met immediately with the dreadful intelligence that you were going actually to take May Place, and on our recommendation, which dreadful intelligence I communicated to George, who immediately fainted away, and was driven off by his servant. I fainted away, and was driven off by Mary, and Mama and Louisa went on in hysterics to London.
The later letters are less light-hearted, but always interesting. I am looking forward to reading in Letters from India about the long voyage out, and her first impressions of the country.

I've done pretty well with the Dare as it is. I've cleared off 53 books, and half of two more. I've added another 35 to the shelves though, which only gives me a net gain of 18 (plus two pending). In addition to Miss Eden's letters, I'm looking forward to reading more Willa Cather, Patricia Wentworth, Margery Sharp, and N.K. Jemisin. I am also anxious to get to Shilpi Somaya Gowda's new book, The Golden Son.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Growing Older with Jane Austen, by Maggie Lane

 I love this cover!

The reviews in JASNA News, the newsletter of the Jane Austen Society of North America, tempt me with every issue. That's where I discovered this. I had already read two of Maggie Lane's books, Jane Austen and Food and Jane Austen and Names, both of which I found very interesting and informative (particularly the book on food). I also have her Jane Austen's England on the TBR shelves.

As you would guess from the title, this book is an exploration of age and aging in Austen's work. It draws on her letters as well as her novels, the juvenalia, Lady Susan, and the unfinished works (The Watsons and Sanditon). Maggie Lane also incorporates the real-life experiences of Austen, her family and friends. As she writes in the Introduction,
    Unlike her parents and six of her seven siblings, who all lived into their seventies, eighties or even, in one case, nineties, Jane Austen did not see old age. She was just forty-one when she died, in the very prime of her writing life. But she did share, with everyone who outlives youth itself, the experience of growing older. Jane Austen at forty was a different woman from Jane Austen at twenty.
    Like any thinking person, she was aware of the changes in herself wrought by time. . . 
There are chapters on "The Loss of Youth and Beauty," "Old Wives" and "Old Maids," "Four Dowager Despots," and "The Dangerous Indulgence of Illness." Maggie Lane points out that Austen's main characters are young, but each book has a large supporting cast of people in different phases of their lives. Much of her discussion focuses on these characters. I had not appreciated before how
With the lightest of touches, Jane Austen grounds her characters in the age range they inhabit. Small details of clothes, hair or deportment, or more frequently and consistently of speech, outlook and habit, help us perceive her older characters to be middle-aged or elderly. We experience them as older people, acting and speaking in ways that distinguish them - yet without exaggerated effect - from the youthful cohort whose foils they are. In fact, from infancy to senescence, her characters act in age, while not sacrificing individuality.
I knew that Jane Austen with her many nieces and nephews appreciated the importance of aunts, but I had not realized how few grandparents there are in her books. She never knew her own, and none of her heroines has one. Jane Fairfax of Emma is the only major character to have a grandparent, in Mrs. Bates - and an inactive one, "a very old lady, almost past every thing but tea and quadrille." So Austen's heroines lack any guidance from that earlier generation, as do the parents of the heroines (some of whom stand in need of help and advice themselves, like Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility).

I found the last chapter, "Nothing to Do but to Die," very interesting. Again, I had not considered how few deaths occur in Austen's novels (there are more, and comic ones, in the juvenalia). "Death is never gratuitous in Austen," Lane writes; "it always has some function to perform in terms of plot or character." Mrs. Churchill's death in Emma, the only one to take place in the course of the story, frees Frank Churchill to marry Jane Fairfax. Mrs. Tilney's off-stage death in Northanger Abbey is the only one described in any detail, and hearing the story from Henry Tilney has a huge impact on Catherine Morland and on their relationship. In this chapter Maggie Lane also considers the deaths in Austen's own family, including her own. In a short "Conclusion," Lane asks what Austen's life would have been like had she not died so young. "Professionally, she would surely have grown in both output and reputation. . . Did she have a Cranford in her? Or a 'Condition of England' novel?" How I wish we could know.

Reading this has moved Jane Austen's England up my reading list. And from the bibliography I had a couple of other titles in mind, Jane Austen's Family through Five Generations (Maggie Lane) and Jane Austen and the Body (John Wilshire).

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Liffey Lane, by Maura Laverty

This 1947 novel, published in the UK as Lift Up Your Gates, is set in the slums of Dublin. Fourteen-year-old Chrissie Byrne lives in a one-room flat with her mother and her brother Lar. Her small cousin Kevin, the illegitimate child of her aunt Phil, used to live with them, but now he has a place at a nearby industrial school. When we meet Chrissie, she is sitting on a bench in St. Stephen's Green, waiting to collect the papers she delivers each evening to the small houses and cottages on the "good" side of Liffey Lane. They are across the lane from the tenement where the Byrnes live, which is due to be demolished in a few weeks.

Chrissie is in no hurry to collect the papers and head home, because she is in trouble. She has sold something that doesn't belong to her, to buy a treat for Kevin when she visits him at school. And even worse, what she has taken belongs to the convent that gives her family and many others a hot "Penny Dinner" every day, making sure they have enough to eat. Sister Martha, who oversees the kitchen where the food is cooked and distributed, lent Chrissie a nice little tin, to carry the daily stew home. But after her brother Lar, addicted to gambling, took the money she had saved, Chrissie is desperate to bring Kevin the cake roll she promised.

We follow Chrissie as she moves through her evening round, sick with the guilt and shame of her theft. We meet her customers and learn something of their lives, and we also learn more about Chrissie and her family, as well as their neighbors on the "wrong" side of the street. I was worried about where Chrissie's story might take her - not realizing that there are several different stories winding through hers. Her story comes to an end, one that I think is a happy one, but several of theirs are left open, unresolved, and I have been thinking about how they might turn out.

At first this story seemed very far from the small town of Ballyderrig, the setting of her best-known book Never No More (and a later book, Touched by the Thorn). Laverty puts her readers right in the middle of the poverty, the dirt, the smells of the Liffey Lane tenements. Food and decent clothing are scarce, and illness common particularly among the children. But there is also kindness and decency, neighbors looking out for each other, a community very different from that of the small Irish town, but still bound together. But this community is being scattered as the tenements are torn down, forcing the residents to find other homes. Chrissie moves through this world, and the more privileged one on the "right" side of the street, centered in her love for Kevin, whom she helped raise from a baby, and in her simple faith. She also has a true friend in Sister Martha, who makes time to listen and to help when she can.

I thought there was also a familiar Laverty touch in the chapter where one of Chrissie's customers makes an apple tart, with all of the loving attention to the details of Gran in Never No More. (I need to look for a copy of Laverty's iconic book on Irish cooking.) Another of Chrissie's customers is a writer, struggling with a story that compels him. I wondered if he was speaking for his author, when he thought about his work.
He continued to write, refusing to interrupt the rare lovely harmony which existed between his pen and his vision, fearing to move lest the harmony should shatter in discord. He was too appreciative of what had been given to him this evening to take any risk of spoiling it. Such harmony came so seldom. But when it came, how generously it made up for everything! One hour of it, and he forgot the torture of all those arid days when he sat dry-souled and futile and thwarted, deserted by the vision, sickened by the tastelessness of the words that came to him. One hour like this, and he recanted all the bitter protests his heart had ever uttered against the slavery into which a man delivered himself when he obeyed the urge to create.
This was Maura Laverty's last novel. I wonder if the vision deserted her. I hope not - I wish there were more of her books to discover. But I'm grateful for the four that she did write. I know I'll be reading and re-reading them many times in the years to come.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Now and Then, by Emily Kimbrough, and which books of hers I think you should read (and which avoid)

This 1971 book is I think the last that Emily Kimbrough wrote - or at least it's the last that I have collected. It is a memoir, a series of remembrances, not one of her travel books. She began with stories about her twin daughters and then went on to write about events in her own childhood and adolescence. I enjoyed reading them, seeing how they fit into what I already knew of her life, particularly from her first autobiographical book, How Dear to My Heart. There is a chapter about the birth of her younger brother, which plays a part in the earlier book, but here we see it from another angle and learn a family secret, one I found genuinely touching (and a little eerie). I enjoyed meeting Emily's parents again, as well as her stepmother Achsah (first met in Through Charley's Door, she was apparently still alive at the time this book was written). There is a brief cameo by Cornelia Otis Skinner - and a cosy tête-a-tête dinner with Katharine Cornell to boot. I was also interested in a chapter detailing a family trip to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. During their stay in the city, Emily spent most of her time with a theater troupe rehearsing a series of Greek plays, eventually earning a place in the Chorus. (I learned a lot more about the fair itself from Laura Ingalls Wilder, who stayed with her daughter Rose for the exhibition; her letters home to Almanzo were published in West From Home.)

So I will put this book on the "keeper" list. Not the "you have to have this book" list - see below. Now, just for my own entertainment, I'm going to rank the other books of hers that I have read.

In the "You have to have this book" category, there is only one: Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, written with Cornelia Otis Skinner. Seriously, everyone should have a copy of this book.

In my "Really good - worth looking for" category, I would put most of her memoirs:
  • How Dear to My Heart - life as a child in Muncie, Indiana, before the Great War
  • Through Charley's Door - entering the working world in the 1920s
  • ....It Gives Me Great Pleasure - her career as a speaker, touring small-town America in the 1940s
  •  We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood - this one about traveling to Hollywood with Cornelia Otis Skinner to write a screenplay of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay just squeaks in. She tries too hard to be funny in the beginning, but it gets better once they arrive in California and set to work. 
  • Now and Then

The best of the travelogues:

A bit "meh" but readable and mildly amusing in spots:
  • Forty Plus and Fancy Free - a driving tour of Italy and a trip to London for Queen Elizabeth's Coronation
  • Time Enough - a canal-boat trip in Ireland

Don't bother:
  • The Innocents from Indiana - a memoir of her family's move to Chicago when she was eleven (I was really disappointed in this one)
  • Floating Island - a canal-boat trip in France (despite Cornelia Otis Skinner being one of the party)
  • And a Right Good Crew - a canal-boat trip in Great Britain
  • Forever Old, Forever New - a return to Greece

Avoid like the proverbial plague: So Near and Yet So Far - a tour of Louisiana (I'm not even sure why I still own a copy of this)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A double dose of Miss Silver

I've been trying to ration my reading of Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries, partly because I don't have that many left to read, and partly because it would be so easy to binge on them. I gave into temptation recently and read two, though not in a row. They were both published in 1955, which I only realized as I was writing this. I've been a little dubious about the later books in this long series, but I found these two very entertaining.

The first was Vanishing Point. I remember Vicki (skiourophile/bibliolathas) saying that she enjoyed this one. Here is the blurb from my later Coronet edition, which has I think a great cover:

    Hazel Green was as quiet a place as you could imagine. Nothing ever happened there except polite afternoon tea-parties spiced with village gossip. But suddenly something rather strange did happen. Maggie Bell went out one evening for a breath of air - and never came back.
    Was her disappearance linked to security leaks at the nearby Air Ministry experimental station? Miss Silver is called to clear up the mystery. Just in time for the next disappearance...
She is called in by the police, to be exact. I think this is the first of her adventures to involve espionage! And Miss Silver goes to work on the case while knitting a hood and scarf in cherry wool for her great-nice Josephine, and she has time to start a twin set and then a pair of leggings for the child as well.

What amused me most about this book involves the central characters. Rosamond and Jenny Maxwell live with their cousin Lydia Crewe. Jenny was badly injured in a car accident, and she needed somewhere quiet to recuperate. Rosamond, who cares for her, is also working herself to the bone for Cousin Lydia in return for their keep. Jenny at twelve is bright and precocious, with dreams of being a writer. She has in fact sent some of her work to a publishing firm. One of their agents, Craig Lester, comes to Crewe House to meet her. He gives Jenny some advice about the writing life, and I presume he is speaking for his author here. Jenny chatters to him about her own favorite authors, particularly Gloria Gilmore and Mavis la Rue. Lester and Rosamond are rather scathing about their books, with titles like Passionate Heart and A Sister's Sacrifice. Lester advises Rosamond to "see that she has the right things to read - don't let her fritter away her taste on trash." He recommends a solid diet of Victorian novelists to "Stop the rubbish." I couldn't help but be amused at this attitude from an author whose books inevitably feature an angry young man who must rescue a beautiful young woman in danger (did I mention Craig Lester's temper?). But then Miss Wentworth's books are far from rubbish.

The second book was Poison in the Pen (a Christmas present from my friend Nancy, who noticed I was collecting Miss Silver books). Here is the back-cover blurb from the Harper edition I read:
    When a mysterious suicide follows an outbreak of poison pen letters in the quiet village of Tilling Green, Detective Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard dispatches Miss Silver to investigate. Disguised as a vacationer, the retired governess stays with Renie Walsh, the town gossip, and learns of the marital and financial difficulties among the Reptons at the Manor House as well as all the petty details of life among the other village inhabitants.
    It soon becomes apparent to Miss Silver that the suicide was murder...
Here again it is Scotland Yard that calls Miss Silver in. I thought this was a nicely twisted mystery, and I admit that Wentworth neatly pulled the proverbial wool over my eyes. I never saw the final twist coming. What particularly caught my attention in this book however is that it features a crazy cat man. James Barton, the village recluse and misanthrope, lives in Gale's Cottage with his seven tabby cats, all with Biblical names starting with "A" (Achan, Abijah, Abimelech and so on). Every night they join Barton in his rambles around the village, but neither he nor they are seen during the day.

Tilling Green is in the county of Ledshire, whose Chief Constable, Randal March, was once a pupil of Miss Silver's. I have met him in other books, but I haven't been keeping track of which ones. I think that his wife might have been involved in one of Miss Silver's cases as well. I am starting to think that Ledshire is rather like Midsomer County, at least in its homicide rate.

Oh, and in this book, Miss Silver is knitting a red-wool cardigan, a Christmas present for her niece Ethel, Josephine's mother. Hopefully the reds will look well together!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Jane and Her Gentlemen, by Audrey Hawkridge

The subtitle of this book, published in 2000, is "Jane Austen and the Men in Her Life and Novels." Audrey Hawkridge has held one of my dream jobs, working for the Jane Austen Memorial Trust at Jane Austen's House in Chawton. Visiting the House was by far the highlight of my last trip to Great Britain. I have never moved so slowly through a museum - I wanted to see absolutely everything. (I may have even touched a couple of things, accidentally of course.)

This joins my extensive collection of "Jane Austen and..." books (the clergy, marriage, food, crime, and so on). I see that Ms. Hawkridge has also written Jane Austen and Hampshire, which I expect will be added to the collection at some point.

Ms. Hawkridge begins with a brief biography of Jane Austen. She then looks at the men in Austen's family, her father and brothers, as well as her nephew and first biographer, James Edward Austen-Leigh (the son of her oldest brother James). Next she covers the fictional men in Austen's novels, suggesting possible links to her family. Austen's naval brother Frank, for example, rejected the idea that Captain Wentworth of Persuasion was based on him, but admitted that "the description of [Captain Harville's] domestic habits, tastes, and occupations have a considerable resemblance to mine." I remember Austen mentioned in one of her letters that Frank made fringe for the drawing-room curtains of the house they were sharing in Southampton. The final section covers Austen's romantic interests, starting of course with Tom Lefroy, whose family removed him from a promising flirtation because he could not marry the daughter of a country rector with no money of her own. Ms. Hawkridge argues that Austen chose to remain single, rejecting at least one offer of marriage, and settled contentedly into life as a spinster. She also suggests that Mr Knightley of Emma is the best match for Austen herself - dismissing Edmund Bertram, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon as unheroic and anaemic. (That may be true of the book's Col. Brandon, but not of Alan Rickman's smouldering Colonel.)

I enjoyed looking at Jane Austen's life and works from this angle, and it made me wish for a companion book on the women in her life. I find Austen's mother fascinating, with her quick wit, her hypochondria, and her pride in the family nose. I'm equally interested in the Austen women's friendship with the Lloyd sisters, particularly Martha, who came to live with them at Chawton. Her sister Mary, James Austen's second wife, was apparently sometimes difficult to get along with, though all kindness in Jane's final illness. I appreciated Ms. Hawkridge's point that Jane (and Cassandra) spent a lot of time and energy on their brothers' concerns, including helping with their families. I had not realized how much Austen wrote about their health problems in her letters, which say very little about her own. (Her brother Edward seems to have inherited their mother's tendency to hypochondria.)