Sunday, April 27, 2014

Love in the time of Famine (with apologies to Mr. Marquez)

Castle Richmond, Anthony Trollope

I have been curious about Anthony Trollope's novels set in Ireland since reading in his autobiography, and in Victoria Glendinning's excellent biography, about the years he spent living and working in Ireland for the postal service, in the 1840s and 1850s.  I have read somewhere that the Irish-set novels are "frequently pedestrian," but I wanted to see for myself.  I thought they would be an interesting contrast to the published journals of Elizabeth Grant Smith, the "Highland Lady," which cover the years 1840-1856, almost the same time that Trollope was in Ireland (1841-1859).  From the introduction, I learned that Castle Richmond, set during the Famine in 1845-1846, was begun as Trollope was leaving Ireland for a new appointment in England.  He started the novel in 1859, but he set it aside to write Framley Parsonage, for the first issue of his friend William Thackeray's new Cornhill Magazine, because the editors didn't want an "Irish story." 

While Framley Parsonage was Trollope's biggest success to date, Castle Richmond received little attention and sold poorly when it was published in 1860.  The editor of my Oxford World Classics edition, Mary Hamer, suggests that its setting during the Famine made readers at the time uncomfortable, as did the ambiguous situation of Ireland itself.  But it is also just a strange story.  Really, in some ways it is typical Trollope, with three interweaving stories.  The first concerns Lady Clara Desmond, whose young brother the Earl is heir to a broken-down estate in County Cork, which her mother the Countess is holding together mainly by her will.  Two men love Clara, who is sixteen when the story opens: Owen Fitzgerald, with a small holding at Hap House; and his kinsman Herbert Fitzgerald, heir to a baronetcy and £14,000 a year, from his father's estate at Castle Richmond.  Clara's practical mother forces her daughter to reject Owen on the grounds of poverty, and eventually Clara accepts Herbert.  The Countess's great secret is that she has fallen deeply in love with Owen herself, and she hopes that her daughter's rejected suitor might turn to her instead. 

However, in the second major story line, Herbert's father Sir Thomas is under great stress, his health failing, under frequent visits from a mysterious man.  His wife Lady Fitzgerald suspects that the visitor may have something to do with her first marriage, to a scoundrel who deserted her almost immediately, and was reported to have later died in Paris.  Owen is the next heir in line after Herbert, and if he becomes Sir Owen, the wealth of Castle Richmond would make him an acceptable husband for Clara - in which case the Countess would unselfishly give him up.  Clara's young brother Patrick is rather in love with Owen as well.  An impressionable schoolboy, he spends his holidays from Eton with Owen.  In one emotional scene, he declares his love, at one point throwing himself on Owen's breast and bursting into tears.  Anyone looking for homoerotic subtext in Trollope should consider this book, where Owen and Patrick end up travelling the world together.

I found much of this emotional turmoil exhausting, particularly Owen's obsessive possessive love for Clara, which he keeps proclaiming.  When it seems that he might become the next heir to Castle Richmond, he repeatedly offers to trade it all for Clara herself, if Herbert will just give her back.  I did appreciate that Clara, Herbert and the author all make it clear that she is not up for trade, that she will decide for herself.  Balancing Owen's hopeless love is the Countess's. Trollope does not mock her feelings, but he repeats over and over that she was wrong for marrying for wealth and status.  In his view, she traded her youth and beauty to be a Countess, she made a bad bargain, and it is her own fault that she is now poor and alone.  I found her more sympathetic than I think her author did.

All of this emotional toil and trouble plays out against the true suffering and misery of the Famine, the third strand of the story.  The main characters are not personally affected by it, as members of the gentry and aristocracy.  Their rent revenues may fall, but they will not themselves starve.  Though the Castle Richmond family - Herbert, his mother and sisters - faces the loss of their home and their £14,000, they have other resources.  But outside their gates, all around them, people are suffering and dying.  Herbert and his agent, with the local clergymen, sit on the charitable boards working to save the population from starvation.  Clara Desmond and Herbert's sisters do what they can to help.  Trollope reports on this work in detail, and the scenes set among the Irish people seem more real than the emotionalism of the love stories.  Occasionally he reports some incident that he witnessed himself, which adds to the realism of these sections.  Though Trollope wrote so often about clergymen, he didn't often deal directly with faith.  Here he tries to explain the devastation of the Famine as the will of God, for his own purposes, which human beings cannot always understand, and to insist that God's mercy was still active even in the midst of so much human suffering.  It is a bit chilling to read in his "Conclusion" that in the end, the Famine was a good thing for Ireland, by thinning its population through emigration and death, and reforming its reliance on the potato and single-crop farming.

This was an interesting book, though I can't say I really enjoyed reading it.  Looking at the other "Irish" books, I see The Kellys and the O'Kellys described as a "light-hearted story," while his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran is "set in the violent Ireland of the 1830s."  I think I'll move the Macdermots further down the list, at least for now.

Monday, April 21, 2014

On the track of Fifth Columnists

N or M?  Agatha Christie

In discussing Agatha Christie's books, many people pick Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot as their favorite of her detectives.  I always put my vote in for Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who appear in four of her books (and some short stories).  I realized though that it has been quite a while since I actually read any of them, and I thought I'd better see if that was still true. It was probably the lingering effects of reading Jambusters that made me take this one off the shelves.

Tommy Beresford and Prudence (Tuppence) Cowley were introduced in the 1922 book, The Secret Adversary.  It is set in 1919, when both are looking for work after service in the Great War, Tommy in the army and Tuppence as a VAD.  N or M, published in 1941, is set in the early days of the Second World War.  Tommy and Tuppence are on the sidelines this time, both desperately wanting to do something for the war effort.  Their son Derek is flying bombers in the Air Force, their daughter Deborah doing hush-hush work somewhere in the north, yet they are considered too old to serve (in their 40s, mind you), though Tuppence is kindly encouraged to knit.  The frustrations of the older generation, and the rather patronizing attitude of the younger toward their aged parents, are also familiar themes in the war-time novels of Angela Thirkell.

One evening a non-descript young man named Grant arrives at their door, ostensibly to offer Tommy a desk job in Scotland.  But Grant has really come to enlist his help tracking Fifth Columnists in Leahampton, a seaside resort on the South Coast.  (I couldn't help thinking that this is DCS Foyle's territory, and they should really be consulting him and Sgt. Milner).  The catch, for Tommy, is that he has to go alone.  Tuppence isn't even to know of his assignment.  However, they have always been partners in detection, and she proves too smart for Tommy and the mysterious Mr. Grant.

Tommy is sent to Leahampton in place of another agent, whose recent death was not an accident. Farquhar was on the track of "N" and "M," code names for the top Nazi agents in Britain, the head of a chain of traitors that reaches even into the top military and the government itself.  With the German invasion looming, Grant's agency must locate and eliminate N and M.  The dying agent's last words point to "San Souci," a guest house in Leahampton, where Tommy and Tuppence take up residence, separately, under assumed names.  They then proceed to investigate their fellow boarders, who include Carl von Deinim, a research chemist and a refugee from the Nazis; the home's owner, Mrs. Perenna, who claims to be Spanish but looks and sounds Irish, and her rebellious daughter Sheila, often seen with von Deinim.

I have read quite a few mysteries from the period, featuring spies and disguises, secret codes, last-minute rescues and breathless escapes, threatened by traitors and sabotage from within.  They must have spoken to the deep anxieties of the times, as well as providing some welcome distraction, with traitors unmasked, bombs defused, invasion plans thwarted, the country saved.  This one feels a little over-the-top now, but it's still a diverting read, and less hyper-patriotic than some I have read.  It made me want to read The Secret Adversary again, and maybe Partners in Crime too.  That's one of the things I like best about Tommy and Tuppence: their partnership.  He's more the solid, steady type, she's more energetic and impulsive, but they work well together - even if they sometimes stumble onto the solution.  They may lack something in the "little grey cells" department, and they don't yet have the experience of Miss Marple, but together they manage to work things out in the end.  And they have fun doing it!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Women's work in winning the war

Jambusters, Julie Summers

I began seeing posts about this book I think even before it was published in 2013.  I knew it would take a while to get to the United States, and I didn't expect my libraries would have a copy.  So I had to wait not just for the U.S. publication, but then six months longer for it to become eligible for interlibrary loan.  Audrey's recent review came just as the right time to remind me, as the book was finally available.  And it was certainly worth the wait.  (Sadly, it came without the evocative cover.)

The Women's Institute has been in the background of some of my favorite books, including Angela Thirkell and The Provincial Lady.  But it's been just that - in the background, taken for granted, never explained.  So I found this book very informative not just on the WI's work in the Second World War, but on the organization as a whole.  I hadn't realized that it began in Canada, where the first branch formed in 1897.  The first WI branch in Britain came almost 20 years later, in 1915.  I had no idea that the WI exists only in rural areas, with a population of less than 4,000, and that it is dedicated to improving rural life, particularly for women.  I did know (from "Calendar Girls") that there is a national governing body, but I learned only from this book how highly organized the structure is, including the county levels.  It was also interesting to read that Scotland formed its own separate organization, so the National Federation of Women's Institutes comprises the English and Welsh branches.

While I found this book very informative on the WI in general, the focus of the book, as the subtitle states, is "The Story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War."  After an overview of the history of the WI, Ms. Summers focuses on the organization's main activities during the war.  These were often undertaken at the request of government agencies like the Ministry of Food, whose director Lord Woolton understood the power of a well-run and committed national organization with county and local branches.  According to Ms. Summers, the WI is best-known for its communal canning and jam-making, which not only preserved tons of fruit and other produce that would otherwise have gone to waste, but also added to the nation's food supplies as imports dwindled.  They did far more, however.  The women of the WI also coped with the floods of evacuees, especially in the first months of the war; planted gardens to increase food production (and then canned and preserved the harvests); knitted and sewed for the armed forces and refugees; and ran entertainments for themselves as well as for evacuees and soldiers stationed near-by.  I was particularly struck by the fact that not only was all this work was voluntary, but generally the women did not benefit from it.  After their heroic work canning or making jam, for example, all the production was turned over to be sold under the rationing program.  And above and beyond this, while the women were carrying on their own work in home and farm, under the difficult war-time conditions, not to mention housing evacuees, many branches were also raising separate funds for the Red Cross, or to provide ambulances for field service.

To tell this story, Julia Summers relied first on the records of the WI itself, housed in the archives of The Women's Library in London (a place I need to visit).  She also had access to the records of local branches, and to women who were members of the WI during the war (some in person and some via letters or diaries).  She quotes frequently from first-hand accounts, which bring her story to life as the women speak for themselves.  My only quibble is about her methodology: Ms. Summers did not document these quotations as she did the published works, in her end notes, nor are they listed in her bibliography.  It isn't always clear if she is quoting from interviews she conducted, oral histories, written reminiscences, or other sources.

I had begun to suspect that Ms. Summers has a personal connection to the WI even before I read that her maternal grandmother was a long-time member who helped found a local branch, often serving as an officer.  The author's admiration and respect for the WI is clear, and she makes a compelling case for the heroism of their service.  It was not glamorous work, knitting and canning and growing potatoes, but it was a crucial part of the war effort on the home-front and to victory in the end.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The rightful heir?

If I Were You, P.G. Wodehouse

When I go into a bookstore, there are certain names I automatically check for, starting with Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and Angela Thirkell.  P.G. Wodehouse is also on that list, and it was a pleasant surprise the other day to find a title I didn't recognize.  The blurb on the back sold me with the first line:
If I Were You is Wodehouse's comic variation on a favorite theme of Victorian melodrama - the changeling.  Did old Nannie Price really substitute her own child for the infant son of the late Lord and Lady Droitwich while they were away in India?  If so, Tony Droitwich is the heir, not to rolling acres and a stately pile, but to a barber's shop in London's West End.  With Socialist Syd Price determined to prove himself the new earl, and Tony's haughty relations determined that he shall not, the stage is set for an amusing battle, waged by a familiar Wodehousian cast of fat butlers, tough aunts, lively American girls and drawling dandies.
I should point out that there is actually only one of each from the above list (butler, aunt, girl and dandy).  The cast also includes Tony's uncle and former guardian, Sir Herbert, married to his aunt Lydia  (the Prices usually call him Sir Rerbert, which made me giggle every time, and sometimes picture Kermit the Frog).  There is also Tony's new fiancée Violet Waddington, heiress to a soup fortune.  She is one of those pillish young women you meet in Wodehouse, usually engaged to some hapless male, who you know are destined to grow up into termagant aunts.  Tony, on the other hand, is a gentleman and a good guy.  I figured he was going to get the happy ending he deserved, though I wasn't sure exactly how.

In a light-hearted way, this book is about Nature vs. Nurture.  Syd may be the heir to a hundred earls (or he may not be), but hairdressing is in his blood too. Tony's aunt and uncle want to deny him the title in favor of Tony, who may or may not be the rightful heir, but who fits their idea of an earl much better than the Cockney Syd.  Yet they don't seem as concerned about Tony himself as they do about having a proper Earl of Droitwich in place.

The reference in the backcover blurb to the stage being set for the cast is very appropriate.  The story could easily be adapted for the stage, and I wondered if in fact it had started as a script.  The cast is small, with a couple of walk-on roles.  The action is divided into three scenes, two of which take place in the drawing room at Langley End, Lord Droitwich's estate in Worcestershire, book-ending one set in Syd Price's barber shop near Hyde Park.  Langley End is described in glowing terms, nestled like Blandings Castle in its gardens and terraces, but unusually for Wodehouse (at least in the books I've read), the action is confined to the drawing-room, and to Syd's shop.  The characters move constantly in and out of the rooms, like actors exiting stage left and right.

This book was published in 1931, and for the first part of that year, Wodehouse was in Hollywood under contract as a screenwriter for MGM.  Maybe that explains why it reads rather like a script at times.  But however it was written, this is a fun book, and I really enjoyed it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Returning to Sarantium

Lord of Emperors, Guy Gavriel Kay

This is the sequel to Sailing to Sarantium, one of the best books I've read so far this year, which will certainly be on my "favorite books of 2014" list.  I had to wait until the end of the TBR Triple Dog Dare to read this one, and when I finally started it, it was with some mixed feelings.  In my experience, sequels don't always live up to the promise of the first book.  But my main concern was because, in the meantime, I read another of Guy Gavriel Kay's books, and I just loathed it, almost as much as I loved Sailing to Sarantium.  I hated the way that the female characters existed only in relation to the male characters, while the men became friends, enemies, partner, rivals, mentors, to each other, as well as to the women, in a rich web of relationships.  I counted only two conversations between female characters in the entire book, and one of those was about the heroes, thus failing the Bechdel test.  I was equally irritated in that book by the frequency with which Mr. Kay used false foreshadowing and misleading clues, to make us think for example that Character X had been killed, only to reveal five or ten pages later that it was really Character Y.  About the third time that happened, I began to find it annoying, and my annoyance increased with each new occurrence, until I just started leafing ahead to find out what had really happened.  I finished the book with gritted teeth and immediately gave my copy away.

Though I began this book with some trepidation, I was so happy to find it just as engrossing and entertaining as the first book - a worthy sequel.  It was wonderful to meet the characters again, six months later, to catch up with them and then see where the new story took them.  I admit, as I started to suspect where events were heading, I began to fear for two of my favorite characters.  I skipped  ahead at that point, because if Mr. Kay had killed them off, I think I might have given up on his books altogether (despite the two that are still on the TBR stacks).  Fortunately, they both were spared.  I also admit to my own inconsistency, though, because I don't quite believe in the happy endings that he gave them either.

But that is really my only quibble with the book.  I had noted in Sailing to Sarantium that the women characters lacked female friendship or support, but here they have found that, in relationships that sometimes cross social lines but feel authentic.  I think Mr. Kay is very good at creating strong female characters, intelligent, forceful, active women.  I know he is a major fan of Dorothy Dunnett's books, so I don't think he would mind the comparison if I say they remind me of Philippa Somerville, Gelis van Borselen, and Groa - not to mention Margaret Lennox and Queen Carlotta.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, which as in the first book concerns imperial politics, theology, liturgical art, and racing at the Hippodrome.  This book actually opens outside the Sarantine Empire, in the lands ruled by the King of Bassania, to the east and south of Sarantium (standing in for our world's Persian empire).  From there a doctor named Rustem travels north to the great city, ostensibly both to study and to teach, but also with a mission from his king.  Like Crispin, the master mosaicist of the first book, he soon makes new friends and new enemies, and in the process he becomes enmeshed in events whose effects will reach far beyond the city walls.

The subtitle of this book is "Book Two of the Sarantine Mosaic."  I think of these books as two halves of a story, and I'm sure that's how I will re-read them in the years to come.  At the same time, I can't help hoping that there are more pieces of the Mosaic to come.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A subversive Scottish heroine

Kirsteen, Margaret Oliphant

I have only read a few of Margaret Oliphant's ninety novels, the "Chronicles of Carlingford," for which she's probably best known, and The Curate in Charge. I've enjoyed them, particularly Miss Marjoribanks and The Perpetual Curate, though I found Salem Chapel a bit dreary. None of them prepared me for this story, though, with its independent and really subversive heroine.  It is also the first of her books that I've read to be set in her native Scotland, and it's thick with Highland Scots dialogue.

The subtitle of this book is "The Story of a Scotch Family Seventy Years Ago."  Published in 1890, it opens in 1814, just as the Napoleonic Wars are ending.  Kirsteen, the title character, a young woman of twenty, is the third of four daughters of the Laird of Drumcarro.  His small estate in Argyllshire is a constant reminder of how far the once-powerful Douglas family has fallen over the years, particularly since Culloden.  Neil Douglas is counting on his seven sons to rebuild the family's fortune, and with it their proper place in Scotland.  Everything he can wring from the estate goes to them.  As the story opens, the fifth, Robbie, is being sent out to India to join his brothers, while the two youngest wait their turns.  The daughters are left to themselves, and to the care of their mother, worn out with constant pregnancies and her martinet of a husband.  Drumcarro considers his daughters just a drag on the family's resources, costing him money that should go to the boys. His eldest daughter Anne escaped this neglect and her father's tyranny by eloping with a young doctor.  Her enraged father has cast her out of the family, forbidding anyone even to mention her name.  Finally his cousin Miss Eelen Douglas convinces him that his daughters must be introduced into society, if they are ever to find husbands who will take them off his hands.

Aunt Eelen, a comfortable spinster, escorts the two oldest girls, Mary and Kirsteen, to a ball in Glasgow. There Kirsteen meets a contemporary of her father's, John Campbell of Glendochart.  He is immediately drawn to the young woman and begins visiting Drumcarro regularly, though Kirsteen has no idea that he is courting her.  Her heart is already given to another, though secretly.  When her father informs her that she will marry Glendochart, threatening her with blows and beatings if she refuses, she is afraid she will be forced to yield.  Her only option is to leave home, to run away, even if it means being cast out in her turn.  She decides to go to London, to seek her fortune.

Her story is quite an adventure, as she walks across the moors to Glasgow, to catch the coach to London.  Arriving dazed and exhausted in the great city, larger than she could ever have imagined, she goes to the sister of the family's devoted housekeeper Marg'ret (whose small savings funded her flight).  Miss Jean is a successful dressmaker, who is at first reluctant to take a lady, one of the great Douglas family, into business.  But Kirsteen talks her way in, and she soon proves to have a gift for design.  As she settles in to her work and her new home, the story shifts back to Drumcarro, where her older sister Mary takes a leaf from Charlotte Collins in Pride and Prejudice.  The third sister, Jeanie, the beauty of the family, will have her own adventures, more along the lines of the Brontës than Jane Austen.

There is so much to enjoy in this book, starting with the heroine.  Kirsteen is young and naive, but also strong and quick to learn.  Like many of Margaret Oliphant's heroines, she has to care for the more feckless members of her family, starting with her afflicted mother.  But in contrast to her mother, she also has staunch role models in her Aunt Eelen, the local dressmaker Miss MacNab, her surrogate mother Marg'ret, and Miss Jean.  All are independent and self-reliant, none of them rich but each content in her own way. I love stories about dress-making businesses, second only to tea-shops.  I was reminded of "The House of Eliott," as well as Susanna's shop in Eva Ibbotson's Madensky Square.  I also enjoyed the Highland setting, though I was sometimes a bit puzzled by the dialogue, and Regency London as well.  I couldn't help imagining one of Georgette Heyer's characters driving up to Miss Jean's door, to order a new gown.  (The author, who was born in 1828, is rather dismissive of the fashions of 1814, though to my eyes they look more comfortable than the layered outfits of the 1890s.)

It is a shame that so few of Margaret Oliphant's books are still in print, though they are available as e-texts.  The introduction to this book mentions several other titles, and I think I'll look for The Ladies Lindores next.  It's about a family who suddenly inherits a fortune. Knowing Margaret Oliphant, I'm sure complications arise.