An Academic Question by Barbara Pym – a look at life among a University staff in the 1960s.

An Academic Question by Barbara Pym


Barbara Pym was a skilful and unique writer, but she had a period when her writing was not published. This book is largely a product of her fallow period, and was assembled from two versions. Nonetheless it has a unique charm and an unusual storyline in that the focus is on the wife of a young academic, who tells her story with a touching innocence and ideal of what her role is in a community of half known couples and individuals associated with a provincial university in the late 1960s. This is a lively book with many hallmarks of Pym’s earlier novels, with assumptions, naivety and general bewilderment about people and situations by a main female character. The details of clothes, the ambiguous relationships, the splendid character portraits are pure Pym, even the description of meals and receptions which the characters are obliged to attend echo so many to be found in the earlier novels. This novel may have largely been put together by  Hazel Holt, but fans of Pym’s work and many others. 


The novel is narrated by Caroline, a young graduate married to Alan. She has a four year old daughter, Kate, and a full time nanny, Inge. Her friends are mainly connected to the University, but represent a wide range of people. As the book opens he is talking to her friend Coco and his attractive mother Kitty. Coco runs a project at the University, and like his mother is obsessed with clothes and appearance. Kitty’s sister Dolly is very different; she owns a second hand book shop and is obsessed with hedgehogs. Their advice and conversation varies from the other people Caro comes into contact with who are connected to the university in other ways, librarians and their wives, the head of department Crispen and sundry women who see their roles as supporting their husbands, typing and sorting out their work, getting acknowledgement. One female academic is everything that Caro feels she is not, “able” and capable. Caro feels lost, without a purpose, and wonders if she should get a job working in the library which would boost her self confidence. Instead she volunteers to read to some of the residents of a local nursing home, including a Mr Stillingfleet who was on the mission field. When Alan gets ideas she feels uncomfortable, and she begins to get suspicious about his behaviour on several fronts. As the story progresses Caro gets more and more involved with the behaviour of the people around them, and there are several set pieces of events such as a memorial service. Her confusion leads into several discoveries, which has an effect on those in the small community.


I found this a light read but with some depth of characterisation and a great understanding of people. I particularly enjoyed the reappearance of characters from previous books and events which bear a strong resemblance to earlier ideas. This is a good read on many fronts, familiar and friendly, with the gentle humour of Pym’s best writing. It lacks some of the consistency of her other books, but its good humour and honest appreciation of the select people involved in this novel of academic life and the relationships therein is very enjoyable. Caro is a well written character and this is a very readable book, especially for those who know and appreciate Pym’s books.  



The Night Lawyer by Alex Churchill – Sophie, young barrister, faces the challenges of contemporary life


A thriller, an indictment of the British legal system and a story of a personal struggle, there is so much going on in this contemporary novel it draws the reader in and keeps her there! Sophie Angel is a young barrister with quite a reputation despite her relative inexperience. She is dedicated, involved and determined to do a good job for her clients as she is mainly involved in defence work. She has worked out how to get the most from the evidence, how to approach clients and enjoys appearing in court. Despite all this, she has her problems. Like many younger barristers she is not on a guaranteed income, and has to pick up smaller cases to ensure she has enough to pay her bills. That is why she is a “Night Lawyer”, sitting in a national newspaper office on one night a week checking the text of the newspaper for libel before it is published. She is married to Theo, a star of the barristers’ chambers, a recent QC who is building his practice. He has secrets, and dictates a lot of what they do as a couple and how she should improve her career. When she gets involved in a difficult case, she begins to struggle with doubts, especially as her past life as a small child in Russia is beginning to haunt her nightmares. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this engaging and complex novel with real depth. 


The book opens with a Prologue which details what Sophie feels as she sits alone in the newspaper office alone, overlooking London by night. She has been told of a young man who she met and rejected as someone she could defend in court, given her strong suspicion that he has admitted his guilt. He is reported to be looking for her, which she puts on one side as another worry. The action then reverts to three months earlier. As Sophie narrates her story, she puts in a lot of information about the contemporary life of a barrister, some of the rules, the clothes and traditions that have grown up over the years. She also points out the limitations and systematic problems in today’s legal system, with particular crimes receiving a lot of attention. As she struggles with her daily work, she becomes suspicious of her husband’s behaviour, which puts pressure on her work as well. When she meets another Russian emigre, she begins to realise that her relationship with her Russian father and her parents’ flight from the country are affecting her life.


This book has great depth and more as the real life problems of a young lawyer are exposed. While Sophie enjoys the tradition behind her job, the discrimination against women is still painful. This book is obviously written from a position of real knowledge and experience, and the construction of the multilayered plot is well handled. I found it engaging and gripping, as the tension builds up throughout the book, and simply could not put it down. This is a fiercely effective book of a woman’s contemporary experience written into fiction, and I really recommend it.     


One of the things I am enjoying at the moment is to review a real mixture of books – from brand new books to classics, via fairly recent books. It seems as though there will be a lot of new books coming out in September, part of the result of later publication delayed from the last few months. I can already see it will be a busy time. Are you looking forward to particular books coming out in the near future?

A Perfect Cornish Summer by Phillipa Ashley – Can Sam concentrate on a Festival in Porthmellow?

A Perfect Cornish Summer


Sam Lovell is a young woman who has an idea – to lift the profile of Porthmellow with a food festival. The small Cornish village is struggling to maintain the fishing and small businesses, and Sam was born and brought up in the lovely place which holds all of her memories, good and bad. This is a book filled with emotion which deals with lost love and a sense of betrayal against a yearly food festival which brings the community to life. There is also joy, humour and more as the personalities which liven up life in Porthmellow weigh in to make Sam’s life more exciting. This is a well written easy read which sums up some of the dilemmas faced by people in real life, as memories of past traumas threaten to upset any chance of reconciliation and more. It is not only Sam who needs a new start and a supportive community; Chole is a woman of secrets and few friends. The big event is the return of a television chef to the village, and it is not only his celebrity that causes problems; his return reawakens emotions for Sam that she had fought to come to terms with over years. This is the first book in a series featuring the very special village of Porthmellow, and it is a wonderful introduction to the life of people living in a community. 


The book begins with a prologue – Sam meeting some friends in 2008, including the older harbour master who bemoans the sight of the young people jumping into the sea for excitement. Sam has had her problems; following the untimely death of her mother she has been left to bring up her younger sister Zennor alone. She has begun a small business, Stargazy Pie, but it is a struggle to earn enough. Her older brother Ryan has left their lives under circumstances which she tries to forget, but it is partly to distract herself that she has the inspiration, along with her friends Drew and Troy, to begin a food and music festival. 


Eleven years later the festival has grown and now needs a group of people to run it. Chloe is an events organiser who has just moved to the village, but her enthusiasm is concealing an estrangement with her family and more. When their main attraction, a famous chef, cancels his involvement with the festival, Chloe contacts Gabe Mathias, a television chef who agrees to come and do cookery demonstrations. She thinks she has achieved a great deal, whereas Sam knows the local boy made good only too well. As the festival gets nearer, strange events seem to threaten, Sam has a difficult time, and Chloe has to take action. Can the festival go ahead, and will Sam be able to concentrate?


This is a deeply impressive book which looks at some people’s experiences in a sympathetic and realistic way. It flows well, looking at some of the emotions people in the community experience, and the decisions they must make. The festival organisation provokes strong feelings in the community, and Sam and her closest friends must sort out some tough challenges. I really enjoyed the sense of community in this book, and some of the events are quite moving. I am certainly keen to read more books in this series, and find out if this is indeed the perfect village in every season. 


With the situation currently in the UK, more people than ever are staying in Britain for holidays this year. I suppose that books like this can tempt people to want to visit certain parts of Britain, or more usefully give a flavour of lives in places that we only have ideas of, or bring back memories of past visits. I seem to have discovered quite a lot based in Cornwall, whereas I will actively seek out books depicting Northumberland. Are there books which are based in certain parts of Britain which you enjoy? Can authors truly manage to capture a sense of place for you as well as tell a good story? What do you think?



Jigsaw Island by Lynne McVernon – Can Annie find solutions for herself and so many others?


Annie seems to live in a beautiful part of Scotland, but there is trouble in paradise, a fact which is even more evident when she takes her son Jude to visit her brother on a Greek island. This is a novel about the difficulties of life that a woman can meet in a contemporary world, when determination to find a different way of life can lead to trouble. It is also a very powerful look at the way the arrival of refugees on Greek islands means that those who seek to help are always meeting enormous challenges. There is so much in this novel that it is quite breathtaking, as the author also manages to put in a mystery that reverberates across several years. Identity, family loyalty and the imperfections that affect realistic characters, this is a novel which is memorable for all the right reasons. It creates a strong impression of how the islands cope with an influx of people who have risked everything to travel on the sea, and gives glimpses into their fates. I found this an engaging book with high ambitions, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 


The book opens with Annie, a young woman, struggling with her thirteen year old son Jude. He is a mixed – race boy in a small Scottish coastal town as the author describes him, with quite a temper. Her desperation to cope with him leads her to bring forward a trip to see her brother Fraser on Symi, one of the Dodecanese Islands of Greece. He has connections there; to Clair who runs painting groups and spends the rest of her time helping some of the refugees who crowd onto the islands for much of the year, her daughter Jess who manages to get her own way most of the time, and owners of bars, hotels and others who make his life possible as he gets by as a bookkeeper. He also goes out as a volunteer on a boat which tries to help those who turn up in the local waters in makeshift craft. Annie and Fraser come from an unusual family, and the early part of the book goes back to the story of how Annie ran away to London as a teenager. The novel then goes on to the present day, as the desperate Annie turns up on the island with the truculent  Jude, hoping that the effects of the community will settle and give him a new focus. It soon seems as if they will both meet significant people, and will find new challenges, especially when the past seems to be catching up with everyone. 


The book cleverly combines some shocking tales within the main narrative, and reveals the vulnerability of people in many settings. There is attention to detail, especially in terms of clothing and setting, which really lefts the rest of the story off the page. The author also has a good ear for dialogue, as the various age groups and people are brought to life by their speech and small actions. This is particularly important as a mystery must be solved as a real threat emerges. I found it a good read, with a lot of depth and meaning. I recommend it to those interested in contemporary fiction which reveals real life in this country, as well as some of the reality of the reception of refugees on the islands of a country on the edge.  


I found this a fascinating book, partly because I have met some refugees locally, and attempted to teach them English. This book tells some of the stories of people who have risked so much to flee from certain countries, and includes an actual story of one man who had a complex and challenging route to Devon. Please do not be put off by some of the  themes of this book; there is some real humour and insight shown in the writing throughout the novel.

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart – Adventure for Lucy on a Greek island and more

This Rough Magic

A Greek island, a dolphin and mysterious sea based activities dominate this classic thriller by a skilled and dynamic writer of adventure narrated by a woman. In this particular book Lucy is a ‘resting’ actress who is spending time with her sister on a glorious island. There is sunshine, private beaches and more to fill days that ought to be idyllic, but a local tragedy makes her reassess a community that seems hidebound in charming tradition. This 1964 novel has much to offer in terms of narrative power, and the creation of some memorable characters. The most fascinating of these is Sir Julian Gale, with his conviction that the island was the basis of Shakespeare’s Tempest, and his irresistible attraction for Lucy, who sees herself as far away from his eminence as is possible. There is a dolphin, beautifully described and significant in unexpected ways. The real beauty of this book is in its description of the setting, of private beaches, sustained sunshine and sea currents. It brings to life an adventure with a strong climax and much more. As with other books by this author, the female characters are at the forefront of all the action.


The book opens with Lucy and her sister, Phyllida, relaxing in the sun on a beach. Phyllida has a wealthy and absent husband, and she explains to Lucy how they rent out the family house, Castello dei Fiori, to the famous actor, Sir Julian Gale, who had a breakdown following a family tragedy. Lucy is surprised to hear that the servants, Maria and her children Miranda and Spiro are connected to the great man. Godfrey Manning is a neighbour, and turns up at Phyllida’s house to break the news that the young man, Spiro, has drowned. From this tragedy springs other events, especially when Lucy discovers that someone is shooting at the tamed dolphin, much to her fury. She confronts Max Gale, the son of Sir Julian, whose preoccupation and secrecy makes her suspicious that more is actually going on than first appears. When Lucy witnesses the wonderful festival of Saint Spiridion, she becomes more involved in a way of life that is centuries old, and wishes to find out more about a family left bereaved. The subsequent events of this exciting book are full of secrets and lies, customs and revelations, and Stewart manages to maintain the tension to the very end. 


This is a book of adventure in a lovely setting. I particularly enjoyed Lucy’s conversation with Sir Julian about the Tempest and the secrets which underlie the entire book. Not being well travelled myself, I nevertheless got a firm idea of the setting, the roads, the darkness of the nights when much of the action takes place. The character of Lucy is of a determined, resourceful and brave woman, as she has to distract and react to considerable challenges. The local political situation gives an extra depth to the narrative. The locals are perhaps given a more minor role than they deserve, but one or two are crucial. This is an extremely engaging book which is truly difficult to put down once begun, an excellent read for sunny days, or to bring the sense of a beautiful island to grey days.   


I am really enjoying the Mary Stewart books I have discovered in the house, a little surprised how much if I am honest. In every book there comes a point where it is impossible to put it down, surely the sign of a truly engaging book. According to my blog list (above right on this post under “Mary Stewart”) this is the fourth of her books I have reviewed – so I am already beginning to wonder which is my favourite! Those of you who are the experts – which one would you pick?  

Herring in the Smoke by L.C. Tyler – a story of a man returned, biscuits and red herrings

Herring in the Smoke

Herring in the Smoke by L.C. Tyler


In this book, one of a series featuring Ethelred Tressler and his agent, Elsie Thirkettle, they have to decide whether Roger Norton Vane is in fact dead. The fact that they find it a difficult question is because he has just turned up at his own memorial service, twenty years after he disappeared without trace. Although this is the seventh book in this series of comedy mysteries, I am sure that it could be easily read as a stand alone book. Ethelred, sometime crime/historical /romantic author, has been given the job (and crucially the advance, possibly) to write a biography of the remarkable man that was, or is, a famous crime author who inspired fifteen series of “Gascoyne” a cult television series. The fact that he was personally obnoxious, and generally rude to everyone, means that Ethelred has a tough job finding anyone with a good word to say about the supposedly returned author with a big reputation. With his usual air of confusion, he is aided, abetted and generally bossed about by his literary agent Elsie, chocolate addict. This is a comedy mystery series that can be convoluted, unlikely and very funny. I have been really enjoying this series, and this latest episode is just as good. 


Ethelred is writing a biography of an author who disappeared twenty years ago while on holiday. The memorable man who turns up at the memorial service claims that he has been in Laos for that time, and has now decided to return to Britain to claim his accumulated royalties. He has very few living relatives, a sister in law and a niece, and an ex lover called Tim Macdonald who is the only person in Britain who was present when Roger disappeared. Cynthia, the niece, has theories about her uncle, and as his biographer Ethelred feels duty bound to discover more about the elusive Roger, especially as Elsie is pushing him to find out what is going on in order to cash in on the revelations. He therefore hunts out the fact that Roger went to Cordwainers school, an ancient private school for boys with something of a notorious reputation. There are some well known old boys who have strong views about Roger, while being anxious to stay out of any scandal. As Ethelred finds himself being offered an interesting selection of biscuits, Elsie is plotting – if only how to increase her consumption of chocolate without alerting the watchful Tuesday, her long suffering PA.


There is a lot to enjoy in this novel of red herrings, biscuits and secrets. It has some interesting points to make about discovering identity in an age when so much is on the internet and recorded on mobile phones, DNA tests and more. Ethelred is dragged along by circumstance and the ideas of other people as usual, while Elsie is as always convinced that her detective ability and personal charm will mean that she discovers the truth. There is even a cheeky reference to the other,  presumably preferable, biographers of a crime author. This is a very funny novel which I greatly enjoyed, and I recommend it to all those who enjoy a contemporary crime novel with no brutality and a lot of fun.    


The risk is, of course, when you read a book which is full of references to a particular food or drink it can make you really want some for yourself. The classic food scene is of course in the eighteenth century novel Tom Jones, or at least in the film version. My husband was probably not the only one who spent most of strict lockdown wanting a  frothy coffee, and my coffee machine was not really up to the job (not surprising really, as I no longer drink caffeine). What foods have books made you desperate to eat? Or has reading about food never enticed you to try and locate a specific thing?

The Truth in a Lie by Jan Turk Petrie – Contemporary relationships in all their complexity

The Truth in a Lie by Jan Turk Petrie


Contemporary relationships can be complex, and families have secrets which go back over many years. This subtle and intelligent book takes a situation that many of us can understand, the illness of a parent, a nightmare journey in appalling weather, and a desire to discover something of the past. Charlotte is a writer, keen to grasp at the truth and aware that she has had difficult relationships in the past. That is not only the obvious situation with Michael, but also with Duncan, her ex husband, and her mother. Her most worrying relationship is with Kate, her daughter, as she is aware that her own instability is having a marked effect on Kate’s studies. This is a remarkable book as the author is so good at the little details, the food and drink, the furniture of various rooms, even the quality of light. The dialogue is also convincing, as it effectively reveals much about the person speaking, their attitudes and their relationships. I have been fortunate enough to read two of Petrie’s other novels, both set in the mid twentieth century, and have admired her ability to create a sense of place and time. I am impressed that her skill at setting the place and sense of people has translated to a contemporary novel, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 


This book begins in London 2018, as Charlotte moves out of the house that she and Kate have shared with Michael. While it has been a relatively amicable break up, Charlotte is aware that she is walking away from a significant part of her life, and making a new start in a very different home. When Duncan turns up she is thrown, but not only by his arrival, as the call comes through from the hospital that her mother is very ill. The description of waiting in the hospital is so accurate, and what subsequently happens is so believable, that it makes the rest of the book really powerful. The way that relationships emerge, old secrets brought out and new perspectives are created shows that this is a  cleverly constructed narrative that has much to say about Charlotte’s relationship with her mother, who it appears has a more complex background than was first apparent. Charlotte feels that she needs to find out what went on, and the writer’s imagination means that she can more than hazard a guess at some of the pressures on the woman she remembers from growing up. Her own relationship with Kate is dominated by an urge to protect, to  allow her freedom. There are some surprises to come, but they are all totally realistic, and emerge from the rest of the narrative. 


I found this an engaging story with so many aspects of life that are realistic and well realised. The character of Charlotte is so realistic as she narrates her story, noticing the small things as well as the dramatic moments. This is a book that I feel accurately portrays the complexities of modern relationships and life, and I recommend it as a solid engaging read.    


As I said above, this is the third of Petrie’s books that I have read, and I must say that I am a fan! I wondered about a historical novelist turning to a contemporary story, but I found this book so compelling that I finished it in two sittings. I think that the author only finished this book during lockdown, so I am hoping that she is already coming up with a new idea!

The Sanctuary Murders by Susanna Gregory – Medieval Cambridge in uproar as Matthew and Michael must solve a mystery

The Sanctuary Murders: The Twenty Fourth Chronicle of Matthew ...

A novel of murder, conspiracy and a town at war with a university, this is the twenty fourth novel in a series set in medieval Cambridge. It features Matthew Bartholomew and his good friend Brother Michael, two men who have worked together over the years to maintain the peace in a town where the townspeople are suspicious of the University and vice versa. This is a lively story of the angry and frightened, and the unlikely comedy of many nuns, monks and a town full of fear of the French. I have read all of these books and enjoyed them, but I am convinced that it can be read as a standalone novel. Matthew is a gentle soul, but as physician and defender of the poor in the town he is sometimes exasperated by the antics of his fellow scholars and is determined to act. Michael is Master of Michaelhouse  and Senior Proctor of the University, in charge of ordering the behaviour of the scholars whose varied backgrounds and commitment to their studies make them at best an unpredictable number of young men. A large and permanently hungry man, Michael has a determination to maintain peace, but has also some ambitions. As always with this series I recommend this book of a mystery that has to be solved and physical threat as Michael and Matthew must once again act.


The opening of the book is set in Winchelsea, a small town which is the victim of a brutal raid by a party of French soldiers, in which many die. Cambridge is relatively nearby, and soon the town becomes full of rumours of a potential raid there. Some of the students are of foreign origin, many copy the language and fashions of the French, and some of the townspeople become convinced that the colleges and hotels are concealing dangerous men. There are also those in Cambridge who are jealous of Michael’s power and influence, and would like to seize both for themselves. When fire breaks out in the Spital, a place where the mentally troubled find sanctuary, Matthew and Michael rush there to help. Sadly they discover that a family has been murdered within the enclosure, and it becomes apparent that they and others were not ill, but in fact French refugees hiding in the sanctuary. Rumour and suspicion spread across Cambridge, and the picture is made more difficult by the fact that there are many nuns visiting the town for a sort of conference organised by Michael who need to be housed. Meanwhile in Michaelhouse there is much fuss around Clippesby, an eccentric but brilliant fellow whose work is causing a stir, especially as he claims to talk to the animals who live in the college, a situation which creates much humour. 


This is a book which cleverly creates the town of Cambridge with complete conviction and a lively story. The characters, both those who have featured in the other novels and those who are new in this book, come to life in the descriptions and dialogue which works so well and consistently throughout the novel. The research informs the text well, but Gregory is a sufficiently able writer not to show the depths of her knowledge. This book has a subtle message as to what happens when a crowd is frightened by refugees and other people, and how a drunken element can be terrifying. I recommend this book for its story, characters and plot and the entire series for its entertaining and engaging consistency.    


I am not sure if there is going to be another Matthew Bartholomew book, and after so many stories if I were to go back to the start it would be after a long time spent reading each book as it came out, so it would almost like beginning again.  Gregory also writes the Thomas Chaloner series, which of which there are fourteen novels, set in Restoration London. I have read some of these, and enjoyed them, but I prefer the Bartholomew ones. Either way, Gregory is a consistently good writer, and should appeal to many historical fiction fans. Have you read any of her books?


Clouds of Love and War by Rachel Billington – wartime freedom and dangers of flight

Clouds of Love and War (July 2020) / Books / Rachel Billington

Clouds of Love and War by Rachel Billington


Clouds play an important part in this beautifully written novel set in the early part of the Second World War. They are what conceals, comforts and challenges Eddie, pilot and determined young man who is at the centre of this brilliantly written book of love and war in which Billington looks at the human cost of a war that was fought over the fields of Britain. Clouds are also important to Eva, a solitary young woman who tries to set them down on paper, along with much else in her discoveries of life, love and much more. This mature and well constructed novel carries the reader to the heights of skies which tempt the most earthbound of characters up into the planes which are almost characters in their own right. She is interested in the colours and forms, falling into the distraction from a family life of separation. Older people sigh and remember another war and other losses, as the countryside and a particular paradise like house is shown in comparison with other places which show the evidence of bombs. 


This is an astonishingly engaging book which balances so well on the edge of lives observed with a sensitivity which shows more than research; this book shows an acute understanding of the contradictions which most people felt a lot of the time in this uniquely inclusive conflict. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this wonderful book of love and war.  


The book opens with a visit by Fred to his son’s college in Oxford. A veteran of the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, he knows that Eddie’s obsession with learning to fly in the skies he keeps gazing up at is going to mean that he will learn of battle in the near future, even if it is only March 1939. “They’re training you to be a killer” he says, but this a man who has searched for a philosophy of life in the wake of a War he needs to make sense of in some way. Eddie, however, is like an addict, such is his determination  to move around in a sky which seems so much his element.  Eva is a vision he encounters at a lunch party, who dominates his thoughts in a new way. Eva is also a creature of flesh and blood who is also isolated as an only child in a large house with an older distracted father can be, and she finds her expression in drawing and painting, capturing something of what and who she sees around her. Drawn together in brief moments, their contradictions and challenges run alongside a world of targets and people, hatred and love, and discovering something of a special sort of togetherness. 


This book is a superb testament to the challenges facing very young pilots in the Battle of Britain and beyond, dealing with difficult odds while discovering life and love. Eddie comes vividly to life in a book which captures the contradictions of a life of the freedom of the skies with the continual need to be aware of danger. Eva is also a convincing character as she considers the realities of love and loss which are not always as obvious as they seem. The other characters such as Sylvia add more than depth; they reflect the nature of faith and understanding not possessed by some of the other characters. This is a fully realised picture of a time, eighty years ago, when there was little certainly and many challenges. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in these times and the people who lived through them.    


This historical novel is about a fascinating period at a time only just in living memory. It is a strong tale of the actual men who fought as the few, and the delicate situation which they lived, almost on the edge of defeat. I seem to be encountering a lot of books about the Second World War at the moment – is it the recent V.E. celebration I wonder?

Threads of Life by Claire Hunter – A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle

Threads of LifeThreads of Life by Clare Hunter | Waterstones

Threads of Life by Claire Hunter


This is a “History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle” , or at least a history of the ways in which needlework has sustained, been a means of recording lives and making a protest. It makes a significant point, that as women have been the most likely to work with a needle and threat, those works of needlework that survive in a variety of places are the special history of female makers. Many pieces of work are fragile, unintended to last or temporary works, remembered as existing but not always treasured. This book records the impetus for embroidery, to beautify, to pass on traditions and to make a mark in the only available way. This book does not only dwell on the huge and important works of embroidery proudly displayed as evidence of wealth, but also on the few plaintive stitches made to record time on a piece of clothing, as well as the earliest use of sewing to join fabrics together and make rudimentary clothing. The author has a wide experience of sewing with a purpose herself, ranging from community projects to banners to mark historic events in the history of women’s lives. The writing does not always adopt a strictly chronological or indeed geographical approach, but instead has a personal and engaging style. I am so pleased to review this non fiction book. 


This book is so readable as it takes a discursive approach to the history it presents. It gives a reaction to the Bayeux Tapestry, one of the most significant pieces of embroidery or needlework in European history. As a political piece of work it has had great importance as a historical document, but it also has intrinsic value as revealing much about the circumstances in which it was made, the limitations of materials, and the possible additions made by the women who worked on the tapestry. She goes on to describe an important historical figure whose embroidery was much remarked on, Mary, Queen of Scots. It describes how she used her undoubted talents to attempt to enhance her Scottish royal apartments, then to fill her many hundreds of hours of captivity. The book goes on to remember women who spent time in captivity of many sorts, and how they sought to come to terms with it through sewing, however primitive or complex. 


The book speaks of marvellous survivals, from earlier centuries to Japanese Prisoner of War camps in the mid twentieth century, precious documents that may or may not be identifiable. As sewing for mental health is discussed in the background to many pieces, there is a nod to those men who were taught to sew after the trauma of the First World War, and the altar cloth that was found and was recently displayed in St Paul’s Cathedral. Sewing as a means of making a living is covered, though also the intense pressure on piece workers who had to risk their eyesight and more in hand finishing items of clothes. While girls were taught to make samplers which are now collectable, Hunter has some harsher words for the kits and patterns which restricted creativity and were intrinsically unsatisfactory.   

There are chapters on the international world of sewing, as stitches and patterns were important contributions to community life, and a vital way to pass on skills and memories to younger generations. Sewing as protest is covered as the author recalls the history of banners, especially in terms of unions and areas of women’s protest movements. Politics with a more local emphasis is also referred to, as community projects have played a vital role in sustaining and reinvigorating communities going through testing times.


As an admirer of embroidery and sewing generally rather than a practitioner, I can appreciate the inspiration and information that this book provides by its immensely readable style and enjoyable anecdotes which sit well against the historical elements. It is a skill which has reflected artistry for centuries, mainly by women, and therefore I feel that this book has an important and inspirational part to play in any analysis of women’s history, as well as being a fascinating read.  


An admission here – I struggle to thread a needle, but have made a quilt or two, with the assistance of a considerably more skilful daughter. This book has much to recommend it, even to those of us who frankly can’t sew, but would love to at some point. I have not seen much evidence of sewing projects over the last few months on social media, but I suppose that it is because those who sew are not surfing social media as much…