Saturday, March 29, 2014

A woman soldier and a nurse, though probably not a spy

Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy, Sarah Emma Edmonds

I first learned about Sarah Emma Edmonds from a book about women soldiers in the Civil War, They Fought Like Demons.  When I saw this on the shelves at Half Price Books, the title caught my eye, and then the author's name.  Sarah Edmonds enlisted in the Union Army in May of 1861.  As "Franklin Thompson," she served in the 2nd Michigan regiment for two years, much of the time as a hospital nurse or orderly.  In 1863 she deserted, resumed dressing as a woman, and spent the rest of the war working as a nurse in army hospitals.  After the war, she married and had several children.  Twenty-one years later, like many aging veterans she applied for a military pension, for which she had to document her service as "Franklin Thompson."  Before she could receive the pension, the charge of desertion had to be expunged from her record, which wasn't difficult, since if she had been outed as a woman while serving, she would have been immediately discharged.  The military records of her service and of the pension granted her prove that Edmonds, a woman, served as a soldier in the war.  That much is clear.  The memoir she wrote about her service rests on that fact, but she seems to have taken some liberties with the details of what exactly that service entailed.

Sarah Edmonds first published her memoir in 1864, under the title Unsexed: or, The Female Soldier.  It was reprinted in 1865, by a new publisher, as Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.  The annotated edition I read was published by Northern Illinois University Press in 1999.  The editor, Elizabeth Leonard, does not discuss why the title to the present edition was changed yet again, not just with the addition of "Soldier" to the title, but also with the subtitle, "A Woman's Adventures in the Union Army."  I am sure it was to highlight what made those adventures ground-breaking.  Lots of women served as nurses, many served as spies.  While other women served as soldiers, none is as well-documented as Edmonds, and only one other (a Confederate woman soldier) wrote a memoir about that service.

Changing the title to emphasize Edmonds' role as soldier highlights an ambiguity in the book: nowhere in it did Edmonds state that she was a soldier.  She was incredibly coy about it. According to the introduction, Edmonds left her home in New Brunswick to come to the United States, probably in 1859, and probably already presenting herself as a male.  Her readers wouldn't have known that, so when she talked about feeling the call to serve her adopted county in its hour of need, and being "employed by the government" as a "FIELD NURSE," they would have assumed it was as a woman, not a newly-enlisted volunteer soldier.  At this time, though, all army nurses were male soldiers.  In answering the call to serve, she wrote, "I could only thank God that I was free to go forward and work, and was not obliged to stay at home and weep."  Maybe her readers took it for granted that she was "free" because she was unmarried, with no family ties.  They couldn't have guessed that her freedom was based on her male persona.

In telling stories about her spying missions, Edmonds mentioned that she wore male civilian clothes when she snuck through the Confederate lines to gather information. She just didn't mention that she took off "Private Thompson's" Federal uniform to do so.  At one point "Thompson" disguised "himself" in women's clothes, so à la "Victor/Victoria," we have a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.

Watching these convolutions was fascinating.  They carried me through some of the less entertaining parts of the book.  Edmonds wrote in the first chapter that she came to America because she wanted to be a foreign missionary (I don't think she meant it was to evangelize godless Americans, but maybe so).  That should have prepared me for the piety that permeates this book.  The pages are filled with prayers and poems and portions of sermons.  There are frequent stories of camp meetings, conversions, and soldiers dying holy deaths.  These are interspersed with gruesome accounts of the battles that brought the soldiers to the hospitals, and the primitive medical care that could not save them (and may have killed some of them).

One soldier's death highlights the tensions in Edmonds' story.  After the battle of Antietam, in September of 1862, Edmonds was crossing the field, searching for the wounded among the dead, when she "was attracted by the pale, sweet face of youthful soldier who was wounded in the neck."  The soldier confided to Edmonds that she was a woman, an orphan who had enlisted with her brother, killed earlier that day.  Edmonds called a chaplain, and then stayed with her until she died, and helped with her burial, to keep her secret safe.  I wonder if it would have comforted that unknown soldier, to know there was a woman comrade by her.  Edmonds chose not to tell her.

Edmonds wrote that the nursing work was a terrible strain, which I can imagine it was.  As she told it, she learned that the army "Secret Service" had an opening for a spy, and she volunteered.  Part of the interview included a phrenological exam, which showed that her "organs of secretiveness, combativeness, etc., were largely developed," which qualified her for the job (though the exam apparently missed the fact that the head in question was a woman's).  Even before I read the editor's note that Edmonds' service as a spy has been called into question, I had begun to have my doubts.  The first assignment she recounted was to dress as a (male) contraband, an escaped slave, to cross to Confederate lines.  In her account, on the Confederate side she was pressed into a work gang, before she was given a rifle and sent out alone on picket duty, which allowed her to escape back to the Union lines.  No Confederate would have given an African American a gun in the first place, let alone allowed him out of his sight with it.  In another adventure, while she was trying to buy food for the hospitals, a Confederate woman shot at her.  Edmonds returned fire, deliberately aiming at the woman's hand.  She immediately treated the wound, converted the rebel from the Confederate cause, and escorted her new friend "Alice" to the Union lines, where she became a devoted nurse herself.  However fanciful, her adventures are definitely entertaining.

Of course, writing about her exploits in disguise as a contraband, Edmonds used the broadest "Gone With the Wind" dialect, both for herself in character and for all the African Americans she encountered (usually referring to them as "darkies," which is at least slightly less offensive to modern readers than the n-word).  But they are not the only characters spouting stage dialect.  Edmonds later impersonated an Irish pedlar woman (in another bit of cross-cross-dressing), with the worst "Faith and begorrah" Oirish accent I think I've ever read.  In the course of that adventure, she met an H'inglishman, who h'only wished 'e was h'at 'ome with 'is family, far from Jeff Davis.  There is also a "Dutchman," as 19th-century America labeled Germans, who sounded just like Professor Bhaer in Little Women.

Though I rolled my eyes frequently reading this, it is still a fascinating book.  Despite the probably fictionalized elements, it is an eye-witness account of the Civil War, from a unique perspective.  Edmonds included a lot of information about hospitals and nursing care, as well as the daily lives of soldiers in camp and on the march.  She was present at many major battles, including the surrender of Vicksburg in 1863.  She analyzed the officers she served under or met, including Generals George McClellan and Ulysses Grant, both of whom she admired greatly.  And there is a genuine poignancy in her accounts of the young soldiers, suffering and dying for a cause they believed in, far from their families.  Parents often traveled to the battlefields to help care for their sons, but many arrived too late.  I think it's to Edmonds' credit that she dedicated not just her book, but the proceeds from it, "To the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the Army of the Potomac," among whom she served.

What really floored me was to learn that Sarah Edmonds and her husband, a fellow Canadian, ended up right here in Houston, in the 1890s.  Here Edmonds was inducted into the Grand Army of the Republic, the premier Civil War veterans' organization, and she was inducted as a woman.  She died near Houston in 1898, and the GAR later had her buried with full military honors here in the city.  I plan to visit her grave as soon as I can.

N.B. As I mentioned above, the publication history of Edmonds' memoir is convoluted.  The 1865 version reprinted the text of the 1864 original with no changes except to the title.  The 1999 edition I read reprinted the 1865 version, again with no changes except to the title.  I am using the 1865 date for the "Mid-Century of Books" challenge.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I'm glad I read this book

Pollyanna, Eleanor H. Porter

I heard the term "Pollyanna" growing up, sometimes in reference to my mother, but I never knew its origin.  I came across the 2003 TV version during an infatuation with the actor Aden Gillett (after binge-watching all three series of "The House of Eliott").  That was my introduction to the story, but I didn't know it was based on a book until I came across a copy on the library sale shelves.  That's also when I discovered that the story is actually set not in England, but in Vermont.  I've had it on my "Mid-Century of Books" list, and then a recent review by Melanie at The Indextrious Reader (and comments from Vicki) moved it up the list.  I came home yesterday on a cold rainy evening, after a frustrating afternoon at work and a horrendous commute, and all I wanted was a cup of tea, a hot bath, and a comforting book.  Pollyanna fit the bill perfectly. And I was glad that I hadn't read it earlier.

I remembered something of the plot from the TV version.  The orphaned Pollyanna is sent to live with her only surviving relative, her mother's sister Polly, who accepts her much like Marilla Cuthbert did Anne Shirley - from a sense of duty, at heart unwillingly.  There is no Matthew to welcome her, but Pollyanna makes friends wherever she goes, starting with Nancy, the young maid of all work.  Pollyanna goes everywhere, and everyone she meets is invited to play "the glad game," of finding something to be glad about no matter what the circumstances.  Pollyanna and her widowed father, a minister poor as the proverbial church mice, began playing the game one day when the regular missionary barrel arrived (which reminded me of Polly's family, in An Old-Fashioned Girl, unpacking theirs, and the Little House family theirs).  Pollyanna had been praying for a doll, her father had even requested one for her, and naturally she was disappointed when her father fished out a little pair of crutches instead (I'd like to think some Ladies' Aid societies re-thought their donation policies after reading this).  Anyway, Pollyanna's father tried to distract and comfort her with the idea that at least she could be glad that she didn't need the crutches!  And that was the start of the game. As she tells Nancy,
"I was playing the game - but that's one of the times I just did it without thinking, I reckon.  You see, you do, lots of times; you get so used to it - looking for something to be glad about, you know.  And most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it."
Maybe, Nancy replies, "with open doubt."  But she is soon playing the game too, along with the crotchety invalid Mrs. Snow.  Pollyanna also befriends the town's miserly recluse, John Pendleton, though he is too cranky really to play the game.  Aunt Polly isn't playing either, because she doesn't know about the game - though she gives her niece lots of scope for practicing, starting with the hot bare attic room she assigns to her.

In the wrong hands, this could have been an awful book, one of those treacly pious morality manuals for producing saintly children (often by sending them to heaven early).  But while Eleanor Porter has moral lessons to impart, she weaves them into an entertaining story with interesting characters, many of whom need some kind of lesson, including the adults.  Pollyanna is energetic and exuberant, and I found her foot-in-mouth tendencies really entertaining.  She is a chatterbox, with a fund of slyly funny stories about the Ladies' Aid Society in her old home-town, who helped care for her after her parents' deaths.  But they come off better than the Ladies' Aid Society in Beldingsville, who would rather give to the foreign missions, with their contributions published in an annual report, than help a small orphan boy that Pollyanna finds by the side of the road (not in a basket - Jimmy is willing to work for his keep).

That sort of sharp-eyed social commentary, with the Vermont setting, reminded me of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's books.  And Pollyanna's friendship with John Pendleton reminded me of another wealthy man with an interest in orphans, Jervis Pendleton of Daddy-Long-Legs.  I took it off the shelf this morning to check something on "Master Jervie," and almost broke the Triple-Dog-Dare to re-read it then and there.

My copy of Pollyanna is a 1947 reprint (with rough paper that is browning and crumbling).  It was a gift to Margaret, from "Daddy and Mother,"  On the cover, the title is followed by the words "Trade Mark," as is another phrase, "The Glad Book."  I see from the back cover that there is a series of "Pollyanna" books, only the second of which was written by Eleanor Porter before her death in 1920, Pollyanna Grows Up (1915).  The titles of the others, the "Glad Books" (all Trade Marked), fill me with dread: Pollyanna of the Orange Blossoms, Pollyanna's Jewels, Pollyanna's Western Adventure [my eye started twitching], Pollyanna in Hollywood [shudder], Pollyanna's Castle in Mexico [a distinct tremor], and finally, Pollyanna's Golden Horseshoe. Not to judge a book by its title, but I don't think you could pay me to read them.  Maybe these books explain why calling someone a "Pollyanna" is not a compliment.

Today was another miserable day at work, and I did find myself trying to play the game.  The best I could come up with was, "Well, I'm glad it's 4.30 and I can go home."  Maybe I'll get better with practice.  And maybe I'll look for Pollyanna Grows Up.  It involves a trip to Europe, and a mysterious "Jamie."  Has anyone else read it?

N.B. Pollyanna was originally published in 1912 as a serial, in The Christian Herald - an interesting choice, since despite the two ministers and those Ladies' Aiders, it isn't what I'd consider a real church story.  It was published in book form in 1913, so I'm using that date for my list.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Finding a place in Italy

A Small Place in Italy, Eric Newby

Eric Newby's books were one of my favorite discoveries in 2012 (and from my own TBR shelves to boot).  That year I read several accounts of his adventures, usually with his wife and long-suffering travel partner Wanda.  And then last year I completely neglected them, though I still had some of his books unread.  I was hunting around the TBR shelves the other day, unable at first to settle on anything, when I chose this one pretty much at random.  I'm glad I did, it did felt like meeting old friends again.

The opening chapter gives a quick overview of Eric Newby's experiences in Italy in World War II, where he was first a prisoner of war and then, after escaping, on the run for four months (a story told in greater detail in his book Love and War in the Apennines). His future wife Wanda was among those who helped him, as did the country people in the hills of the Parma region.  He and Wanda returned often to Italy, to visit his rescuers as well as her family in Slovenia (in a region annexed to Italy in the early 20th century).  They had always hoped to buy a house in Italy.  In 1967, they finally decided to do it, spurred in part by rising real estate prices.  They wanted to live in the north, along the Apennines, and the house they finally found was in northern Tuscany, near the Ligurian Coast (the handy map in the front of this book was helpful and instructive).  At the time, Newby was the travel editor of the Observer, so they could only visit during his holidays, generally in the spring and autumn.

Writing almost thirty years later, in 1994, Newby details the complicated process of buying a small two-story farmhouse, I Castagni (The Chestnuts), near a small village called Fosdinovo.  The house needed major repairs and upgrades, including adding a bathroom.  I thought that this was going to be the story of the house, and in fact I kept thinking that the title was "A Small House in Italy."  Though Newby devotes several chapters to the work done on the house, he is as always more interested in people, starting with their new neighbors, and in exploring their corner of Italy.  The Newbys are the first foreigners to settle in the area (Wanda likes to remind people that she grew up in Italy), and they are warmly welcomed.  They go everywhere they are invited, from the first day.  Arriving on Good Friday, they join the traditional procession through the village streets, ending with services in the parish church.  Each year they also join neighbors in the vendemmia, the harvesting of grapes for wine, in days of hard work in the autumn heat.

Newby makes frequent references to his war-time adventures, comparing and contrasting the lives of the local residents with what he experienced living among them in 1943-1944.  He finds some surprising overlaps, but over the twenty-five years that the Newbys own their house, they see more and more changes in the traditional ways.  The country-side becomes increasingly urbanized, with people moving out from the cities and with more outsiders like the Newbys themselves setting in Italy.

As usual Newby describes the food of the region in some detail.  He seems to have thought his readers would be unfamiliar with the basic dishes (though he cites Elizabeth David's Italian Food, published in 1963).  He takes care to explain what pesto is, as well as bruschetta and pecorino cheese (reading this did make me hungry).  He also discourses at some length on mushrooms, which grow wild in the forests around the area, the collecting of them and the cooking of them.  Local residents had to move quickly to stay ahead of professional funghi seekers from the cities, who often raided the best spots.

This was a quieter book than some of his others that I have read, though it does include an account of a tramp along the crinale, the main ridge of the Apennines, which sounded absolutely miserable (cold buffeting winds and rain blowing along alpine heights).  I enjoyed learning about the region as well as the neighborhood of I Castagni, and watching Eric and Wanda Newby find their place in it.  Like them, I was sorry to say good-bye, when they finally decided they had to sell the house.  I hope the people who live there now enjoy it as much as the Newbys did.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fräulein Schmidt's letters

Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther, Elizabeth von Arnim

I am not quite sure what to say about this book.  As I was reading it, I found my opinion of it, and feelings about it, changing constantly. Elizabeth von Arnim's stories never seem to go in the direction I expect, which can make for an unsettling reading experience.  This wasn't as difficult a book for me as The Pastor's Wife, but days later I am still looking it and thinking, "Hmmmm...."  This post is an attempt to figure out why.  There may be some mild spoilers, for those who haven't read the book.

Published in 1907, this is an epistolary novel, a genre I love.  It consists of letters written by Rose-Marie Schmidt, a young woman of twenty-five living in Jena, a small country town near Berlin.  In the first letter we learn that she has just become engaged to Roger Anstruther, a young Englishman who has been boarding with her family for the past year while studying German.  His declaration and proposal, and her acceptance, were hastily given and received, almost as he was on his way out the door, returning home to England.  Rose-Marie sends her first ecstatic love letter following after him, full of things she had no time to say.

Rose-Marie's love and hopes pour out in frequent letters to Roger, and she is constantly expecting to hear from him, calculating how long it will take letters to reach her from England.  When his begin to arrive, they quickly begin to suggest that he is having second thoughts, and that it is "out of sight, out of mind" with him.  I appreciated Elizabeth von Arnim's skill in building up a picture of Roger solely through Rose-Marie's letters.  He plays such a major part in the story without ever appearing even once, or speaking a word - and yet his character and his personality come through so clearly.  He is obviously the vacillating type, for whom the grass is always greener over the proverbial fence.  Rose-Marie, clinging to her love, trusting her beloved, doesn't see this - or perhaps refuses to.  It was painful to read her letters, knowing what coming, watching her increasing desperation at his silence.  But no sooner does Roger break the engagement, in favor of a rich and well-connected young English girl, a favorite of his father's, than he begins to pine for Rose-Marie again, and to pursue her by letter.  She, slowly recovering from heart-break, answers his letters briefly and reluctantly at first.  As she warms to writing again, she insists it is as a friend only, almost a sister.  She warns him off constantly from any expression of sentiment or emotion, but he doesn't seem to understand how serious she is.  Like Lily Dale, she will not accept love again from someone who proved unworthy of her trust.

That determination, her strength of mind, is part of what makes Rose-Marie such a wonderful heroine.  Other than a few bitter asides, she does not complain to Roger about his caddish behavior.  She simply sets about rebuilding her life.  I admired her for that (while thinking of a few things I'd like to say to Roger myself).  She is a bibliophile, and poetry becomes a solace for her.  She is bright and inquisitive, and somewhere in her small-town life she has learned to think for herself.  Endlessly curious about the world around her, she writes about her neighbors and people she meets, books she is reading, the challenges of housekeeping, what she sees on her walks in the countryside around Jena.  She philosophizes frequently (sometimes at great length) on the big questions of life: love, faith, the role of education, women's place in society.

Part of Rose-Marie's initial joy in her engagement is at the prospect of escaping from small-town provincial life, and from her step-mother Emilie, who brought necessary income but not much happiness to her new home.  Rose-Marie's father has no profession and no money of his own, other than the fees he collects for tutoring.  Known as "the Professor," he is a student of Goethe, a religious free-thinker who scandalizes his conventionally pious neighbors.  He is also a rather unworldly man, writing long books that fail to find a publisher.  The father and daughter have a warm, loving relationship, with shared interests in poetry, and shared jokes.  I can imagine that Emilie must often feel a bit left out, and Rose-Marie recognizes at one point that she has not always been kind to her step-mother, resolving to do better.  The Professor reminded me a bit of Mr. March in Little Women, with Rose-Marie something like Meg and Jo.  I think this is the happiest father-daughter relationship that I have come across in von Arnim's books.

Rose-Marie writes frequently about the beauty of the country-side around Jena, where she loves to ramble (and where she also finds solace for her heart-break).  Her letters also discuss the details of house-keeping on a small budget (including an amusing attempt to become vegetarians, even vegans).  I was fascinated to learn from the introduction to my Virago edition that Elizabeth von Arnim did some personal research for this book, in a small town like Jena, where she disguised herself as an English governess on holiday, boarding with a local family and doing housework in exchange for German lessons.  In a version of "Victor/Victoria," we have an English woman pretending to be a German woman pretending to be an English woman.  I wonder if her employers ever discovered the deception..

Writing as the German "Elizabeth," the English von Arnim frequently skewered the people of her adopted and native countries, particularly the men, in her books.  She was writing with inside knowledge of both, though few of her readers at the time would have known that.  (In fact, Rose-Marie herself is half-English, though she apparently learned little of England from her mother.)  Here Roger is presented as immature, indecisive and completely self-absorbed.  We also get Joey Collins, his successor in the Schmidt household, who is equally immature, interested only in sports.  And while on the German side we have the Professor, we also get his brother, a Berlin banker, another Man of Wrath who snubs his wife and daughters at every turn, as well as his lackadaisical brother; whose own comfort must come before everything else.  And through Rose-Marie's letters von Arnim paints a very unflattering portrait of provincial German life, where the riches of Sunday dinner are contrasted with the cold emptiness of Sunday services, where the women's constant "Kaffee-Klatches" consist mainly of gossip about whichever neighbors aren't present that day.

Teresa just posted about deceptive back cover blurbs, and whoever wrote this one for Virago is equally guilty:
This enchanting story tells of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther.  A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor.  To their home comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love.  But the course of true love does not run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. We watch the ebb and flow of love between two very different people and see the witty and wonderful Rose-Marie get exactly what she wants.
Reading this, one would never know that the story starts after Roger has left Jena.  It's not as if we get to see them fall in love, we only learn about that in retrospect, from Rose-Marie's letters.  And that last sentence is completely misleading.  I find the ending rather bleak, and very ambiguous (like others of von Arnim's stories).  There is a hint that she may follow in her creator's footsteps, and become a writer.  I wonder if Elizabeth von Arnim ever thought about the later lives of her characters.  Jane Austen used to tell her family little snippets, like Kitty Bennet marrying a clergyman with a living near Pemberley.  I wish more authors did that.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A troubling story of war

Most Secret, Nevil Shute

Reading Alex's lovely review of A Town Like Alice made me want to take it straight off the shelf again, though I can almost recite parts of it from memory.  But sticking to the Triple Dog Dare, instead I chose one of the three Nevil Shute novels that I've had unread for far too long.  It is the proverbial icing on the cake that all three also qualify for the Mid-Century of Books challenge.

I chose Most Secret because like Mariana, the Monica Dickens novel I had just finished, it is set in the Second World War.  The two stories could not be more different, however.  In Dickens' novel, the war is really just a framing device for the story that she want to tell.  Shute's, on the other hand, is an account of espionage and sabotage carried out against the Nazi forces in occupied France, centered in Brittany.

Nevil Shute's stories often begin with someone explaining how he became involved in the events he is about to recount.  Here, it is Commander Martin of the Navy, who works under the Vice-Admiral for Channel Operations:
So much happened in the two years that I spent in the Admiralty, I had a finger in so many pies, that I have found it difficult to say exactly when it was that this thing began. From my engagement diary it seems to have been about the middle of July in 1941, and I should say it began with a telephone call from McNeil.
I find these narrators, like Anthony Trollope's, immediately engaging, drawing me into the story from the first page.  Like Trollope, I think Shute has a distinctive narrative voice, instantly recognizable.  Sometimes the narrators speaking are just themselves framing devices, recounting a story that they have heard.  In other books, like this one and A Town Like Alice, they play important parts in the events, though the narration may shift away from them to follow other people.  Shute is very good at weaving together the first person accounts with those the narrators hear later, or piece together from other sources.

This story begins with Brigadier McNeil bringing a proposal from the Army to the Navy: a joint operation to use a Breton fishing vessel, brought over by refugees, for reconnaissance and covert action.  The proposal comes originally from three officers, led by Charles Simon, himself recently escaped from France.  The son of an English father and a French mother, he was educated in England but lived most of his life in France, which makes him an ideal agent.  With his admiral's agreement, Martin begins working with McNeil and Simon on their plans of attack.

This is a great action story, with daring raids and breathless escapes.  There is quite a bit of technical detail, a Shute hallmark, here about boats and weapons, which I tend to skate over.  Yet this is also a very bleak book.  According to the website for the Nevil Shute Foundation, it was written in 1942, shortly after the events it recounts, but it was published only in 1945.  I wonder, did it come too close to actual events to be published earlier?  After all, Nevil Shute spent the war years working on secret weapons for the British war effort.  Here, his story deals with the miseries and cruelties of the Nazis in occupied France, and the sometimes violent reactions of the population, particularly in Brittany.  At the same time, the weapons that Charles Simon and his company are preparing against the Nazis are equally violent, even cruel.  The question arises more than once: Do the ends justify the means?  For some, the answer is a given, an obvious yes when faced with the evils of the Nazi regime.  Others, like Martin, struggle more with the question, but in the end, despite some misgivings, they come to the same conclusion.

This is also a story of courage, of the heroism that people can rise to in the worst of circumstances.  It is there in Simon and his crew, and in the Bretons who help them whenever they can.  That seems to be a theme that runs through Nevil Shute's books.  He writes of ordinary people, with human flaws and weaknesses, caught up in extraordinary events.  They respond in heroic ways but see themselves as only doing their job, doing what they must, stepping up because someone has to.  They don't see themselves as heroes, or even anything special, but we do.  With this story, though, I found myself uncomfortable with the means, and the motives, for some of the action, which made characters more ambiguous, less easily defined.

The author's note mentions Shute's war-time work, and that reminded me that I've been meaning to read his autobiography, Slide Rule.  I've added it to my reading list, along with a re-read of A Town Like Alice and maybe some other old favorites, like Trustee from the Toolroom and The Far Country.  I also have a couple of his books, Beyond the Black Stump and The Rainbow and the Rose, which I read many years ago but now have no memory of, so I look forward to rediscovering those as well.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

An impressive first novel

Mariana, Monica Dickens

Since I was introduced to Monica Dickens last year, I've been reading her books all out of order.  I started with her first book, the lightly-fictionalized One Pair of Hands, and then went on to read her autobiography, An Open Life, published 40 years later (which I loved, it was one of my favorite books of the year).  In the autobiography, she discusses how she wove elements from her own life into her fiction, and I tend to recognize them as I'm reading the novels.  Mariana seems the most autobiographical of those I've read so far.  That isn't a complaint at all - I enjoyed this book very much, and in fact part of the fun for me was spotting the parallels.  I don't think she simply re-hashed her own life, as much as she built upon it, or drew from it, for her stories.

When I started this book, I had a vague idea it was about a woman living on her own, while her husband is off fighting in World War II.  I skipped the introduction to my beautiful Persephone edition, to avoid spoilers.  So I was surprised when it turned out to be a story told in retrospect.  Dickens sets it up beautifully: a young wife, Mary, who has just learned from a wireless broadcast that her husband's ship has struck a mine and sunk.  Some of the officers and crew were rescued, others were lost.  She immediately tries to call a friend in London, to get more information, but the lines are down in a storm.  She is stuck in her isolated cottage until morning, when she can catch a bus into the village, and telephone from there.  But first there is the long night to endure, alone except for her dog.
She would not let herself think of that, not of the future.  The past, the certain past, was the thing to hold on to.  It was safer to look back than forward.  While she lay and waited, watching the vague, agitated shape of the curtain at the mercy of the half-open window, hearing the wind and rain, and the barking of the foolish dog across the marsh, she thought of the things that had gone, the years that had led up to this evening - the crisis of her life.  All the trivial, momentous, exciting, everyday things that had gone to make the girl who lay in the linen-scented darkness waiting to hear whether her husband were alive or dead.
I did want to avoid spoilers, but at one point I gave in and read the last couple of pages, to learn the fate of her husband. As usual since I was missing crucial pieces of information that came later, the ending made no sense to me.  When I read the introduction, after finishing the book, it was only then that I learned why the book is called Mariana when the main character is Mary: it's the title of a Tennyson poem that Mary recites at one point. (I should look it up - I know almost nothing of his poetry.)

I have to admit, I found Mary's retrospective story so interesting and entertaining that for large chunks of the book I forgot that young woman lying there waiting, not to mention her possibly-dead husband.  It's a story of growing up in England between the wars.  Mary lives with her mother Lily, widowed in the Great War, and her mother's brother Geoffrey, an actor who specializes in footling young men.  Lily "gratefully refused" an allowance from her late husband's family, working to support the family, accepting help from Geoffrey when he has a part.  She does though accept invitations and gifts for Mary from the family, particularly the annual summer holiday at their country home, Charbury.  This is Monica Dickens' beloved Chilworthy, where she like Mary spent regular holidays. As she wrote in her autobiography, "Chilworthy, still very clear in the memory of all the senses, appeared in my first two books, and seems to have crept through cracks in many of the others."  So much of it is there in Charbury, including the "snake-buckle belt" that Mary wears with her boy's shorts, and the invalid grandmother with her wicker chair.  Like Dickens and her cousins, Mary and hers visit Granny every night at bedtime, when she gives them each a chocolate - a ritual never to be missed.

Also like her creator, Mary has a bumpy time at school (though unlike Dickens she avoids being expelled).  Like her, she struggles with her weight (which in Dickens turned out to be a thyroid issue).  When Mary leaves school, she is rather at loose ends, and again like the author, she talks her mother into letting her enroll in drama school.  It doesn't sound like much of a school, but then Mary isn't much of an actress, and she does manage to get herself expelled, in a much funnier way than her creator did.  Fortunately, her mother is just as understanding as Dickens' parents were (not to mention relieved).  Mary is then sent to Paris, to study dress design (where Dickens studied cooking).  But in the biggest difference between author and character, Mary doesn't want to work, she doesn't have any ambition or interest.  She sees her future in marriage and children.  She works in her mother's dress shop, but she is really only marking time.  Monica Dickens returned from Paris to a presentation at Court and the typical life of a debutante, but she found it unsatisfying and aimless. She wanted something to do, and she found a vocation first in working as a cook, and then in writing about it.

I really enjoyed this book, which I think is pretty impressive for a first novel.  I liked Mary from the start, and her capable, loving, flirtatious, voluble mother as well.  Their lives may be quiet ones, but I enjoyed following them through the years as Mary grows up, and learning about all those "trivial, momentous, exciting, everyday things," in a world that was vanishing in the war.  As she is reminded more than once, "All one could do was to get on with the one job that nobody else could do, the job of being oneself."

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A question of identity

The China Governess, Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham wrote the first of her novels with Albert Campion (as a secondary character) in 1929, and the last was finished by her husband after her death, in 1968.  As you might expect, there is quite a variety in the stories over almost 40 years, and I am sure that readers have their favorites.  I admit, I have been pleasantly surprised by how good her last books have been, both Tether's End from 1958, and this one, from 1962.  That isn't always the case with long series of books, particularly those written over so many years.

The story opens with a strange and violent break-in at a new housing development in Turk Street, once called "the wickedest street in London" and still recovering from the devastation of the Blitz.  No one can imagine why the elderly residents, with their quiet lodger, were targeted, but more questions arise when the lodger suddenly disappears. The story then shifts to Timothy Kinnit.  The heir to a respected firm of antique dealers, he is taking his fiancée Julia Laurell down to the family's country home, to entrust her to his old nurse, Mrs. Broome.  Julia's father, a wealthy industrialist, has put their engagement on hold.  While everyone knows that Timothy was adopted by the Kinnits as a baby, it was always assumed that he was a son of the family, if an illegitimate one.  But gossip about the engagement has made people question whether that is actually the case.  It may be an impossible question to answer, because Timothy arrived at their home in a flood of refugees from the East End, in the first days of the war.  In the confusion, no one remembered who brought him, and after the war, when the Kinnits tried to trace him, they found that bombs had destroyed most of the records in that area of London.  The head of the family, Eustace Kinnit, simply adopted him, and he was accepted into the family.  But his potential father-in-law wants to know more, and now Timothy himself does too.

The Kinnits have hired a detective firm, the same firm that could find nothing back in the 1940s.  The Laurells on the other hand turn to Albert Campion.  Julia returns to London, refusing to sit quietly in the country and wait, ignoring her father's orders that she have nothing to do with Timothy while the investigation proceeds.  Insisting that it doesn't matter where Timothy came from, she loves him and will marry him just the same, she still tries to take a hand in the investigation.  Timothy, however, is haunted by what might lie in his past, especially when the trail seems to lead back to the slums of Turk Street.

I really enjoyed this book, which combines a psychological mystery about identity and inheritance with more traditional elements.  The story turns in surprising way, before Allingham ties it together so very neatly in the end.  There is a death that the Kinnits insist is from natural causes, but despite their haste to get the body buried, rumors of Timothy's involvement start to circulate as well.  The older Kinnits are particularly sensitive to rumors about murder, because in the 1840s the family's governess was accused of murdering her lover; though she was acquitted, she later committed suicide.  Campion's friend Superintendent Charlie Luke is drawn into the investigations, and he and Timothy's old nurse Mrs. Broome are such vivid characters that they tend to take over the story whenever they appear.  Campion, as he often does, fades into the background, while watching and listening to everything, picking up clues in the process that others overlook.  I was very happy to meet another old friend, the Cockney ex-burglar Magersfontein Lugg, once Campion's manservant, who still keeps up the old flat in Bottle Street.  I also enjoyed the historical aspect of the mystery, and I'm sure that Allingham drew on her own experiences dealing with war-time refugees, which she wrote about in The Oaken Heart.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A game of murder

Murder at Madingley Grange, Caroline Graham

After spending a week in 14th-century Norway with Kristin Lavransdatter, I was craving something frivolous and funny.  This light-hearted story certainly fit the bill.  I know Caroline Graham primarily from the "Midsomer Murders" TV series based on her books.  This is a stand-alone, however, with no connection to DCI Barnaby.

The story opens at Madingley Grange, "Four stories of vermilion brick luxuriously barnacled with pepper-pot turrets and gargoyles and embellished with balconies, moldings, lintels, architraves and the thousand other ills that nineteenth-century Strawberry Hill Gothic is heir to."  Simon Hannford and his stepsister Laurie are staying there, house-sitting for their formidable Aunt Maude while she is off on a two-months' cruise.  Perpetually short of cash, Simon has the brilliant idea of putting on a 1930s-themed "murder weekend" at the Grange, charging £250 per head.  Laurie initially refuses, on the grounds that Aunt Maude would never approve, but Simon finally talks her into it.

At this point, I decided that Caroline Graham must be a fan of P.G. Wodehouse, because the set-up immediately reminded me of Stanley Ukridge, who develops a similar scheme while house-sitting for his formidable Aunt Julia (with disastrous results).  I wasn't in the least surprised when the butler and maid Simon hires turn out to be impostors, on the lookout for whatever loot they can grab (Blandings Castle in particular is always infested with impostors).  Simon is so caught up in his greedy schemes that he notices nothing odd about the pair, nor of course does he bother to check their references.  He is also oblivious to how much work the weekend actually entails, most of it falling on Laurie, especially with the untrained "help" he has provided.  I took to Laurie straight away, just as I found Simon irritating from the start.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, Simon collects nine guests from the railway station and drives them out to the Grange.  The group includes a mother and daughter, a family group with an elderly mother, two single men, and a married couple, Derek and Rosemary Gregory.  Derek is a Sherlock Holmes fanatic, complete with deerstalker and pipe, who lectures everyone incessantly on crime fiction.  Fully prepared to play the great detective, he is quite put out to draw the victim's part.  Of course no one knows who drew the murderer's card.  But when Derek is found the next day, lying in a pool of blood on the conservatory floor, suddenly murder is no longer a game.  And when the remaining guests discover that the phone lines have been cut, and the only car has been disabled, panic begins to set in.  (The lack of cell phones is really the only clue I noticed that this book was originally published in 1990.)

This is a very clever story, and a very funny one at times.  A couple of the plot twists took me completely by surprise, and I am still wondering about the ending.  I have to say, I hope that Simon takes the fall!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A saga of 14th-century Norway

The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, by Sigrid Undset
    The Wreath  (1920)
    The Wife  (1921)
    The Cross  (1922)

I remember reading about this trilogy of novels on someone's blog - I just can't remember whose.  But the review really caught my interest, and when I was in Barnes & Noble one day (looking for Mark Twain actually), I just slid along the shelves to the "U" section.  There I found a Penguin omnibus edition of all three novels, a chunk of a book at 1130 pages.  After some hesitation, thinking I might do better with three separate and smaller books, I bought it.  I'm glad I did, because after I finished The Wreath, I turned over a couple of intervening pages to start the next, The Wife; and when I came to the last page of that, I carried straight on to the last, The Cross.  The three books really tell a single story, the life of Kristin Lavransdatter.

The Wreath opens in 1306, when Kristin is four years old, her parents' only surviving child.  Her mother Ragnfrid has just inherited a manor up in the central mountains of Norway, and she moves with her parents to a small rural village of hard-working people.  Her father Lavrans works right alongside his tenants and servants, as does her mother, building up their property, and with it the family's wealth and position.  Kristin is especially close to her father, whose constant and open affection balances out her mother's distance and coldness.  Ragnfrid still mourns the three sons she lost, taking refuge in faith and the Church.

The first book follows Kristin as she grows up to young womanhood.  At 14, her parents arrange her betrothal to Simon Andresson, whose family has property in the area.  She is content if not thrilled with the match, but she is happy to postpone marriage with a year at a convent near Oslo, a 14th-century version of a finishing school.  As one of the lay students, Kristin has a little more freedom than the future nuns.  During an outing from the convent, she meets under the most romantic circumstances a handsome man in silver spurs, who introduces himself as Erland Nikulausson.  He immediately begins to pursue Kristin, who is soon deep in love, willing to risk everything for him and able to deny him nothing.  Nothing can shake her faith in him, even the news that he has been excommunicated and banished for adultery, in a long-term relationship that has produced two children.  He swears that he will marry her, but they both know how difficult it will be to break the match with Simon and win her parents' consent. Though Simon generously agrees to end their betrothal, her parents initially refuse.  By the time they are finally wed, more than a year later, Kristin is pregnant with Erland's child, which she manages to conceal from everyone.

The Wife opens immediately after the wedding, as Erland takes Kristin home to his estate near Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim).  It is the story of Kristin's marriage, and there is no "happily ever after."  Kristin is constantly pregnant, eventually bearing seven sons.  She tries to hold the estate together, but she can't build the kind of partnership that her parents have.  Erland has no interest in the details of managing his property, he resents the demands of his children, he spends money too freely, and he jumps at any chance of adventure, such as building ships to patrol the northern coasts.  Eventually he will be appointed the royal sheriff of the region, which keeps him from home for long periods.  Kristin, at home with their growing family, often unwell and overworked, resents his unsteadiness and broods over the wrongs he did in leading her astray (though she was a willing, even eager participant).  Their relationship is volatile, to say the least, but their reunions are usually passionate, leading to yet another pregnancy (and more recriminations).  And then suddenly everything they have is threatened, when Erland is accused of treason, of plotting to bring in the King's half-brother to take the throne of Norway.  In defending him and pleading his cause, Kristin feels a new love and appreciation for her husband, and the bond between them grows stronger.

Unfortunately, that doesn't last long.  In the final volume, The Cross, they have settled on the estate of Kristin's parents, which she has now inherited, since Erland has forfeited his own lands.  He still refuses to take any interest in the work needed to run the property and sustain their family.  Kristin frets constantly over the futures of her seven growing sons, since the estate cannot support all of them.  Like their father, they show little concern, preferring to hunt and play with him, which drives their mother nearly frantic at times.  Each of them must find his own way, and Kristin has to let them go, which teaches her what her parents must have felt as they watched her make her choices and live with the consequences.

I can't say I know much about medieval Norway, but I think Sigrid Undset created a fascinating window into that world.  The family manor of Jorundgaard, and its village of Sill, feel like real places, communities of people.  I learned about daily life, clothes and food, customs, celebrations, work, but it never felt forced or that the author was simply showing off her research. These details are woven into the story of the people.  The writing flows, it isn't self-consciously historical, though of course I was reading a modern translation (and a prize-winning one at that, by Tiina Nunnally).  According to the translator's note, older versions use more archaic language, but that doesn't reflect "Undset's beautifully clear prose."  I think Undset also did an excellent job in portraying the place of faith and the Church in people's lives at the time, revolving around the fasts and feasts of the Church year.  Devotion to the saints was so central, but older pagan practices and beliefs were never far below the surface of everyday life.  I was interested to read in the author's note that Undset became a Roman Catholic two years after she published the last book in the trilogy.

Sigrid Undset knows how to tell a story, with action, drama and suspense, and she kept me reading along, wanting to know what happens next.  But oh goodness, this is a bleak story.  Kristin is a strong character, she freely chooses Erland with a passionate love, and she fights for her marriage. But from the time of their wedding, so long in coming, it seems that she can be happy neither with Erland nor away from him.  And since she knew the worst about him going in, and still chose him, I felt it was unfair to keep blaming him for everything and raking up old grievances.  It was a relief when the story would follow Erland, or Kristin's father, or some of the other characters for a chapter or two, though none of their stories can exactly be called happy either.  And all of this takes place amidst the struggles of daily life, in a harsh world with sudden illness, accidents, crop failures, and political unrest.

These were not the easiest books to read, and despite the strong plot and the intriguing characters, I nearly gave up a couple of times, particularly after the death of one character in the middle of the third book, which I thought a bad omen for the rest of the story.  Still, I am glad to have read them, and I can see why they are considered modern classics.