The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell – a wonderful 1938 novel of life and crime republished in the British Library Crime Classics series

The Port of London Murders (British Library Crime Classics):  Josephine Bell, Martin Edwards: 9780712353618: Books

The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

In the 1930s the Port of London on the busy Thames brought together many people. The socialite with a dubious addiction, the very poor, those making a living from the vessels which moved around the area. In this 1938 novel, now republished in the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, the plot is satisfyingly twisty, the setting three dimensional in its sight, smell and texture and the characters remarkable. As conscientious police officers, overworked doctors and people from across the social spectrum become involved in the hunt for mysterious cargo, the fog swirls around the river and its environs. This is a murder mystery which is resolutely set in a place far away from a country house; instead it features condemned housing which holds too many people and glimpses into the world of the bored women who had more money. If, as Martin Edwards points out in his informative introduction, “For a present-day reader, an important aspect of the appeal of vintage crime novels is that they are fascinating social documents”, this novel offers a rare insight into a world not often captured in such detail by Golden Age Crime writers. Part of its authenticity comes from the fact that its author was herself a practicing doctor in London, and apparently she spent time with the River Police, acquainting herself with their tasks and capacity. The outcome is a solid novel of the busy Port area, much of which was to be attacked in the coming conflict, with a suitably complex mystery involving murder and hidden consignments of a product which affects lives. It is an excellent read, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this deeply realistic book.  

The novel begins with the delayed arrival of a ship, the San Angelo, news of which provokes different reactions among the various people who have been eagerly awaiting it. A social gathering in the home of a bored woman takes on a strange tone as she is obviously dissatisfied with her situation. Meanwhile the bustle and activity of the river is mainly stilled on a Sunday, and Harry Reed is enjoying the sunshine on a small beach revealed by the tide. As children wade out into the water, Harry’s attention is taken by a boy, evidently being pursued by his older sister. When the boy, Leslie, gets caught up in the wake of a tug, Harry takes his small boat out to try and rescue the child and his sister, who is making every effort to get to him. Eventually all three are rescued by the capable Sergeant Adams. The adventure makes Leslie into an avid fan of the River Police, and his determination to earn another trip on the launch means that he will keep vigil on the river for strange debris. Meanwhile June, his sister, meets Harry, and a relationship of sorts is established. In a nearby street a group of neighbours in condemned housing have cause to consult the local doctor, which allows the author space to recount the sort of work load he faced, including the original dialects of the people scraping survival along the river. A mysterious death provokes a minor police investigation, with major implications for those involved.

This is a powerful mystery, well written and plotted, with clues carefully revealed without fanfare. Though lacking a named investigator, this allows various discoveries to be made alongside the reader, as various strands of wrongdoing emerge. I found it a most enjoyable read, a truly sophisticated mystery, and another real treat from a Golden Age of Crime.  

“watery through the gaps” by Emma Blas – poetry of the elemental

Watery through the gaps – poetry by Emma Blas

The first extraordinary thing to note in this special book of poetry by a poet living in Spain is her absolute commitment to avoiding the use of capital letters. Thus is every word through out this volume of poems given equal value and weight, the beginning is not emphasized, though each piece is neatly stopped. It explores the “depths of emotions” to be found in the elements of the edge between water and land, but also the bodies not only of human beings but creatures of the land. It seeks to convey to the reader the flow of life in those watery zones that we are all familiar with, the tidal, the movement and contrasting solidity of sand, the movement through and alongside the body. It seeks to paint pictures of the solid and the liquid, the way they change and evolve, the variation between bodies and how they move. This is a book of poetry of the elemental, the basic, sometimes elegant, sometimes deliberately shocking. It is both intensely personal and yet also for everyone and everything, holding that contradictory balance in tension. It looks at, according to the author’s own words, the “crossing points between the physical, psychological and imagined states of life” in poetry, a high aspiration for a book which is difficult to define and describe. I was intrigued to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book.

“salivate” is a poem which runs through with one of the significant motifs of the writing, The tongue. Here it is described in terms of the tongue of dogs, or cats, wet, or dry. “your tongue will be wet until you forget what it is to taste life” the poem asserts. In contrast, in “too big to swallow”  the first line observes “I have a fat tongue swelling with a force, until it fills my mouth”. The piece “all those little big things” observes “it is said to be the strongest muscle in the body”. It is an element that genuinely struck me as I read through the poems, aware of the watery theme but also of the more mundane words that linger in the mind and memory.

The use of unusual words, such as “waterrise” stops and challenges thoughts, as this collection goes far beyond descriptions of land and sea, water and air. “the flag-less pole” looks at a flag pole bereft of a flag, or the noise that it would create, yet it is still worthy of watching, of listening “to your song with the sea”.

It is difficult to convey the senses, themes and subjects contained and conveyed by this collection of poems with their diverse references, words and images. The overall impression is of a skillful arrangement of ideas which challenges and confronts, remembers and awakens new interest in the both mundane, and things on the edge of understanding. Most pieces are intense, all are impressive, and all will linger in the mind and memory of anyone encountering this special book.   

The Women Who Ran Away by Sheila O’Flanagan – the paperback publication of a novel of two women finding clues for life

The Women Who Ran Away by Sheila O’Flanagan 

An idyllic literary tour of France and Spain sounds a most attractive idea for a holiday, staying in beautiful hotels, exploring small towns and cities, eating fabulous food, all sounds wonderful. However, the two women who undertake this journey in this lovely book from Sheila O’Flanagan’s  are both traumatised and searching for a new perspective to be able to cope with their recent respective pasts. Deira has been in a relationship with Gavin for thirteen years, coped with various challenges, and now feels betrayed. Grace is an older woman whose strong willed husband is dead, but she still has many questions and regrets about the man who controlled most of her adult life. Meeting by accident or fate, thrown together on this unusual journey by unique circumstances, this is a book which explores more than beautiful scenery in their search for new lives, or at least a way of coping with their present ones. This dynamic book looks at the cost of love and relationships for women in contemporary Ireland, and the strength of new friendship in coping with the challenges that women face. I found this a remarkable and wholly enjoyable read, full of genuine insight, beautiful descriptive writing and a powerful picture of women who have regrets. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel. 

The book opens with Deira acquiring a convertible and very desirable car from her ex partner’s car parking space. They had booked a trip with it from Dublin by ferry to France. Deira decides that although they have split up, she still wants to fulfil her ambition of driving around Paris in an open top car. She is angry with Gavin for more than just breaking up with her in finding a younger woman; she now feels her chances of becoming a mother slipping from her. She accidentally meets Grace, an older woman of serene beauty who gives the impression of coping brilliantly with life. However, after a small accident and no longer being able to drive the disputed car, Deira discovers that Ken, Grace’s late husband, has left her a series of puzzles on his laptop relating to the hotel rooms he has booked for her to stay across France. It emerges that Ken had been one of Deira’s literature lecturers at University, and she helps Grace to solve the mainly author related clues on a treasure hunt. As they travel together they reveal their individual traumas to each other; Deira’s sense of betrayal, Grace’s realisation of how Ken had dominated her life and always assumed that she would cope. They both have their points of despair, but in each other they begin to discover a mutual support in their journey through beautiful countryside. 

This is a genuinely lovely read in which the setting shimmers with sunshine and comfort, but is shadowed by the emotions that both women struggle to come to terms with as they share some times and also separately consider their lives. It shows how women can give up their independence and their chance to live their own fulfilling lives. It shows how women, people, can go through truly difficult times, as Grace says “And you look back and and say, that was a terrible week, or month or year.But you’ve got to remember that it’s only a tiny amount of your whole life.”. I enjoyed this read of what feels like real life in some respects, when ironic events can bring home what we have, and what we have achieved. I thoroughly recommend this book for its wonderful writing, its insight into the questions many people, certainly women, ask, and its sense of momentum as the two women travel hopefully.     

A Mother Forever by Elaine Everest – in the early twentieth century, will resilience and love be enough for Ruby to survive?

A Mother Forever: Everest, Elaine: 9781529015997: Books

A Mother Forever by Elaine Everest

Ruby is a strong woman in the first half of the twentieth century. From 1905, as she struggles to make a life for her young son George and the baby she is expecting, she is not much helped by her feckless husband Eddie, who has changed since their marriage. A complaining and unhelpful mother is little support as she moves into a new home, the house of her dreams. When a crisis happens, it throws up just how alone she is, until she is rescued by a kindly neighbour, Stella. This powerful and realistic novel from Elaine Everest is a sort of prequel to her much loved “The Woolworths Girls” series, telling the story of Ruby, the matriarch who welcomes all those in need. It is not necessary to have read the series to enjoy this book; the beauty of this novel is definitely lies in its skill in setting up some of the characters that will reappear later. In a flowing story that takes in apparent betrayal, loss and the struggles of life in the First World War, as well as the strength of friendship, love and hope, Everest tells a memorable story of the significance of a mother’s love, resilience and determination in the face of overwhelming pressure. The characters are well rounded and have real depth, from a small boy who is much loved to Frank, steadfast and complex, and Ruby herself, who grows throughout the novel while retaining her basic strength and much more. I enjoyed this book so much and was delighted to have the opportunity to read and review it.

As the book opens Ruby is struggling to move all her family’s possessions into a new house, after a long period of trying to manage in cramped and poor rented rooms. Her husband Eddie works as and when, and the lack of money for rent has seen them move on until she has lost every opportunity to work herself. When the chance of an actual house comes along, she is frustrated not to be able to see it first, but knows that she will fight to make a real home for her son, five year old George, and the baby she is carrying. Soon disaster strikes, and her mother and husband are unhelpful. Fortunately she is rescued by Stella, and soon comes close to a woman who supports her in so many ways. As she regains her strength, she takes a job which she hopes will help to guarantee the money for rent which the frequently absent Eddie either fails to provide or is inadequate. A terrible day means that everything seems in danger of disappearing, and she has to fall back on friends and sisters who feel that she has made wrong choices. As a War approaches, her friend Stella’s sons and others feel the pull of volunteering to fight, and even the peaceful Frank comes under pressure. How will Stella cope, and can Ruby retain the fragile hope she has for the future?

This book is a remarkably powerful testimony to the gentle power of friendship and the strains that can be placed on relationships by overwhelming loss and the fear of betrayal. I have enjoyed Everest’s books set during the Second World War; this book captures well he anguish caused by a war mainly fought in France but which affected so many people. The element of work in munitions conveys the effort made by so many women to help, and the real dangers that they faced even after November 1918, with a touching memorial to those who died in a 1924 disaster. I recommend this novel to all who enjoy a female led story and vivid characters who come to personify the struggles of women in the first part of the twentieth century.

Bound by Vanda Symon – Sam Shephard tackles crime in New Zealand with her usual headstrong instincts

Bound by Vanda Symon

Sam Shephard is a detective in the beautiful city of Dunedin in New Zealand. Beautiful, that is, unless you count the nasty endeavours of certain criminals who want to exploit the city and area with dubious substances and women who have few choices. Sam works in a police department where there are long memories for all of past crimes and present suspicions, so when a vicious home invasion takes place and a man lies dead, Sam must follow her instincts to unravel the truth, however unpalatable that may be. Already up against an imminent family tragedy, she must tackle (sometimes literally) those she encounters who are intent on hiding all sorts of truth. The fourth in a lively series of incredible and well written adventures, this book can easily be enjoyed as a standalone tale of a young woman police officer with an impressive instinct for people and many abilities, not least in terms of self defence. Written with a lively sense of humour as Sam describes everything in her own words, this is a “police procedural” that is compelling and human, a real page turner in all senses. The characters, even seemingly minor in the great scheme of things, leap from the page, while the settings stretch from the beautiful houses of the wealthy to the less salubrious areas of an intriguing city. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the fiercely independent Sam and her friends and family, and to review this amazing book.

The Prologue to this book reveals a nightmare. A woman sits bound to a chair, staring at the body of her husband John, messily dead at her feet. Determined to stay alive for her son, fear and pain overwhelms her. When Sam arrives on the scene later, being the female officer present she is the one to interview Jill Henderson in a long night, featuring the presence of her traumatized son Declan. Contact with her colleagues, apart from her lover Paul, is dominated by the angry and opinionated DI Johns her boss, of whom she says “For whatever reason, he had it in for me, and nothing was going to change that”. The other person of significance, Detective Malcolm Smith, nurses the physical and mental scars of an encounter with a couple of the leading criminals in the area, in which another officer died. As the investigation proceeds, Sam is typically given the least likable jobs, such as searching for the source of cheap masks used in the raid. While the suspects seem to be obvious, Sam’s questioning of many of those involved in the secretive John’s life begins to make her wonder if the answers are a little more complex. Meanwhile, her father is seriously ill, her family are gathering around, and her mother seems to despair of her. As her relationship with Paul continues, her friend Maggie makes an observation that could change everything.

The characters in this novel are so well drawn as to be immediately multi dimensional, as their appearance, actions and gestures are brilliantly described. Sam herself leaps from the page, fully realized as a woman with determination and drive, as well as a touching concern for even those who seem to dislike her. The pace of this novel is well constructed, with human punctuation of eating unhealthy food at odd times and realistic conversations with people of all kinds. There is sufficient action to maintain the excitement throughout this novel, and I found the writing clever without the weight of extra description. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend it to anyone who appreciates a lively detective novel with an excellent lead character.  

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry – Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen – a readable story of a three cornered relationship

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

The power of writing, in particular letters, is at the heart of this very readable book. The author’s maternal grandfather, Humphry House, had a long term and variable relationship with the well known writer, Elizabeth Bowen. They communicated by letters which conveyed a sense of the time and place, as the 1920s moved through the challenging 1930s and the Second World War. The “Shadowy Third” person for at least part of the time was Madeline, Humphry’s wife and the only character who the author met. There are photographs of the people involved, the places where events took place, a terrific sense of the time when the relationships involved changed. Far more than a biography, this sensitive and well written book conveys the light and shades of very real people, as the author has deployed the letters that she found from all three parties and some friends to convey the confusion, disappointment and other emotions at the time. Parry has made much of a chance discovery of a unique set of letters written by both Elizabeth and Humphry to create a book which looks at their relationship in the context of what else was going on in their lives at the time. I found it so easy to read with a style which is easy to follow. Elizabeth’s fame as a writer is probably in the ascendant  at the moment with an increased interest in women writers of the mid twentieth century, as well as life on the Home Front during the Second World War. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual and fascinating book.

The book opens with Parry discovering then taking possession of a set of letters between Elizabeth and Humphrey written during their relationship. Realising their importance, she seeks to put them in context of the other things happening to the couple. She points out that Humphry had to support himself by some form of paid work, whereas Elizabeth had family property in the form of Bowen’s Court in Ireland. She also married Alan Cameron “to allow herself a degree of flexibility” , though apparently the marriage was not consummated. Elizabeth was determined to be a writer, eager to gain experiences to give depth to her stories of contemporary relationships. Meeting Humphry in Oxford was a memorable event in many respects, as it would lead to a connection that survived a rather uncertain courtship with Madeline, affected by that young woman’s desire for independence and travel. 

Parry visits the places that were important to those concerned with the affairs, helped by the records of Elizabeth’s whereabouts, confirmed by her letters and other writings, and indeed the blue plaques which have been appearing on her homes. Parry’s knowledge of Humphry and Madeline’s progress based on family memories and photographs makes this a unique record of their lives as they intersected with Elizabeth. This was a time when Elizabeth spent the summer months in Bowen’s Court, inviting Humphry among others, including some well known names. Their relationship was not straightforward, as Humphry struggled to make a living, spending time considering the priesthood, then being disappointed in his hopes for academic posts. Elizabeth was changeable, secretive and more, as it appears from their correspondence that their relationship was the first time she had been truly intimate with a man. The other person in the triangle, Madeline, was not Humphry’s only other female interest, as there is evidence of a broken engagement and a curious eventual wedding. Humphry was surprised when she became pregnant relatively soon after the wedding, assuming that she had been making arrangements. During her second pregnancy with Parry’s mother Helen, he goes to India to work, where Elizabeth writes to him crossly demanding local descriptions. Although by this time their relationship was virtually over, she was still a powerful correspondent. 

This book has many strengths, including the clever use of photographs taken by the author of today’s views of relevant places. She is able to give texture to her account of significant events and times in Elizabeth’s life with her family’s perspective, and also proves her academic rigour by notes of sources. She also includes a “Select Bibliography listing publications by Elizabeth and Humphry among others. Despite this scholarly approach, this is a very readable book which I genuinely enjoyed, and I recommend it to Elizabeth’s many readers and those interested in her history in the build up to the Second World War.     

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore – the quietness of a woman’s double life in the 1930s

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore

Minnie Gray wants to do more than marry and have babies, as expected of her in 1928. This is a novel of a young woman who gets involved in situations she doesn’t understand, in order to please a mysterious spymaster. Written with a sense of tension in a time of political uncertainty, Minnie’s story was inspired by the real life Olga Gray who was recruited as an MI5 infiltration agent. Like her, Minnie is connected to MI5 by Maxwell, and it is that which keeps her going through the tedium and danger of working among Communist Party members. A quietly written novel of a young woman trying to make the most of her life, clinging on the edge of what she thinks is important, with an awareness  of the tedium of a young woman’s life, this is a compelling tale well told. It has little to do with the glamour and excitement of a more usual spy story, and in a neat twist has her rejecting a film version of espionage, describing instead the loneliness of a young woman who cannot reveal to anyone the true nature of her work. Full of the small details of life in  early 1930s London, this novel is eloquent in describing Minnie’s quiet, efficient life which has a continuous element of danger,as she knows of the possible outcome of discovery. “A beautiful spy” is the somewhat ironic refrain that follows Minnie throughout this well written novel, as she feels more of a grey background figure, discreet, useful, and quietly used to the excitement of an impossible challenge. I found this a fascinating read, a beautifully executed theme, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

The novel opens with Minnie attending a Conservative garden party in her home town. Helping her widowed mother from habit rather than political conviction, she is overwhelmed with the dullness of her life, and the expectation that she will marry well and be content with her lot. Intrigued by a mysterious woman, the vague promise of a more interesting employment attracts her, but seems to disappear quickly. It is over three years later, in November 1931, that she is invited to meet a mysterious Captain King in London. Not that she has moved on much in the intervening period, and she is not convinced by his offer of part time ‘work’ infiltrating the Communist Party, as long as she can find herself somewhere to live and another part time job. She shows enterprise and efficiency by calmly finding herself work and a flat, and gradually becomes a trusted organiser of offices and systems for the devoted but disorganised members of a Party attracted by the ideals and systems of Russia. Not that she is persuaded by patriotism or dedication, rather the regular meeting with the elusive Max, who praises her progress and urges her to further efforts. Even though his own life seems troubled, and she is somewhat tempted by a conventional life with the unexciting Raymond, she continues to try to impress Max, despite a continuing cost.

This novel narrates from the point of view of a bewildered young woman who rapidly learns the absolute discretion required of her double life, and has to meet challenges with little support. Hore quietly describes a life of small incidents, little details and the sort of self effacing efficiency that makes Minnie an effective operative.It also conveys the sense of loneliness necessitated by her secrecy from her family and few friends of her true actions. This is a book which is carefully written, yet stylishly describes the probable true demands on the quiet but effective agents of a silent conflict, and I thoroughly recommend it as the story of a woman spy in the build up to the Second World War. 

Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson – one woman’s wartime experiences in an eccentric, often funny, realistic account from Furrowed Middlebrow

Spam Tomorrow: Anderson, Verily: 9781913054212: Books

Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson

Spam, that wartime standby, might not be the first choice to name a novel, but this is an eccentric novel of life for one woman and eventually her family in the Second World War. Full of eccentric humour, this book first appeared in 1956, but has more recently been republished by the excellent Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow series. Verily Anderson was a prolific writer who kept a diary from childhood, and this book has therefore got all the immediacy of recording events as they happened. Far from a romantic stiff upper lip atmosphere, this book is full of incidents of muddle and confusion, ranging from trying to arrange an instant wedding, through being over treated by enthusiastic volunteers, to the difficulty of getting three tiny children downstairs during a suspected air raid. Full of memorable characters ranging from dodgy lodgers to offhand but secretly thrilled grandmothers, this is wartime life taken at speed. There are points of fear, mainly during serious illness and persistent bombing, but also moments of gentle humour, such as dealing with an ex- Windmill dancer turned drunken Nanny. With a loving but sometimes bewildered husband, Donald, and small children to contend with, this is an all too true story of frequent house moves, illness under fire and the small challenges of living in wartime. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read this brilliant book, left breathless by its pace, and fascinated by one woman’s ability to not only cope with humour, but also record it with such flair.

The book begins with Verily taking a phone call from Donald, her boyfriend, asking for her ring size. Sending a telegram in response “P DARLING STOP YOUR ADORING V” alerts the army Captain she is driving to possible fifth columnist activity. She had joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (F.A.N.Y.S) at the first opportunity to be part of the war, but the complications of a swift wedding means that she leaves suddenly, which was possibly a good thing in the light of her previous arrest for a misunderstanding in the house of a family friend. She comes from a large family, some of whom do not return from service, and there is a very real fear of invasion, which leads to her mother burying sardines. A bout of German measles finds her confined in an infection hospital, being visited by an alderman friend in a “sparkling  Rolls Royce”. It is these little phrases that lighten what could be tragic, such as her tears “falling into a fire bucket”. After a traumatic birth she does not feel fear as much as disappointment that she was not sitting up in bed with a baby in an artfully arranged nightgown. Having a small child who was apparently excited by air raids was unhelpful, so she must find a house at a safe distance, and deal with a financial crisis that had her taking some unusual holidaymakers with varying success.

This book represents an excellent slice of social history, as a woman tries to contend with everything thrown at her and her family. As people arrive in her life she describes them in a few but effective words, reflecting the transitory nature of wartime life and her enormous skill at capturing characters. I truly enjoyed this book, partly for its honest descriptions of life, but also the realistic humour that is never laboured, but completely natural. I would love to read more of her writing and would thoroughly recommend this wonderful read of life for a woman in the most unsettling of circumstances.

Charlotte by Helen Moffett – A character arises from the classic Pride and Prejudice in this fascinating novel

Charlotte: The perfect gift for any Austen fan (21st Century Jane Austen): Moffett, Helen: 9781838770754: Books

Charlotte by Helen Moffett

The character of Charlotte Lucas in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is perhaps a minor one; the young woman who marries the challenging Mr Collins in order to secure her future. In this book Helen Moffett breathes life into a woman who seemed to be willing to settle. It accomplishes a lot as a novel, as it is set at first in 1811, several years after the event’s described in Austen’s classic, but goes back in time to reveal how Charlotte felt about accepting that she cannot wait for a better offer, and also follows Charlotte as she copes with tragedy and makes a new friend, before a momentous visit to a special house. It is vividly written, describing the feelings and emotions that Charlotte experiences over a substantial length of time. This novel introduces new characters, but significantly also new previously unsuspected aspects of well-established characters of the original novel.

Written in the same spirit as Jo Baker’s “Longbourn”, this is more than a continuation novel as it gives another dimension to the original classic, conveying much about minor characters and giving them real presence.  The research into such things as herbal “cures”, the life of a careful housewife in the early nineteenth century and the music of the time is immense, yet never interrupts the flow of the narrative. My edition of the book includes suggestions for further reading and Book Club questions, and this would be an interesting selection for group reading. A sensitive and powerful book, it works hard to give a sense of what really happened with Charlotte Collins, nee Lucas, and the family and friends that she created.

The book begins with a tragedy which affects Charlotte deeply. Not only a death of a family member, but also a reminder that the legal position of women can be threatened by so many aspects of life. As Charlotte fights off despair she finds an unexpected ally at Rosings, who has some understanding of her fears for the future. She thinks back to the events surrounding her marriage to Mr Collins, and how she coped with her marriage and assuming her responsibilities as mistress of a rural vicarage. The detail of picking and preserving produce, of her responsibilities to other people, her love for her children is all described in a way not to slow the story but give it real depth. An invitation to visit Mrs Darcy opens up a whole new world to Charlotte, as well as bringing back memories of their life long friendship. As beautiful gardens, music and more give some respite to her upset life, she discovers new emotions and interests that will affect so much. Moffett conveys this time with real skill and passion, a real feeling for a famous house and estate. By including short passages about the progress of other characters from Pride and Prejudice, this book continues the original novel in a respectful way and expands on the events that are so well known, such as the restrictions placed on Kitty Bennet. Letters received from Rosings keep Charlotte informed of other events of a somewhat surprising nature.

This is a thoughtful book which deserves to attract a lot of readers. As a reader of Austen continuation novels, this a special one which would also stand as an independent female led book of historical fiction. The progress of a woman frequently dismissed as someone willing to settle for a dislikable character emerges as a wonderful character for a realistic book of a woman’s experiences of life in the early nineteenth century, and is much more than a tribute to a well loved classic novel.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell Revisited – The Real “Blitz Spirit”?

A Chelsea Concerto: Faviell, Frances: 9781911413776: Books
Image result for a chelsea concerto

Following last night’s Documentary “Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley” which I really recommend if you can watch it on catch-up (BBC 1), I thought I would repost one of my older reviews.One of the real life “characters” who featured in the programme was Frances Faviell, who became volunteer auxiliary nurse and had some memorable experiences. At the end they briefly showed the account of the Blitz which she wrote – “A Chelsea Concerto” as well as another four novels.

  I was approached to review the book in 2016, as it had just been reprinted by Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow series. I really found it an amazing book, so different from the other accounts of the Blitz in London that I have read.

Firstly, despite the fact that this book was written several years after the events described, this does not read like a novel. The Narrator records her own experiences in the order they happened, in all the confusion and muddle of a developing situation. This gives an immediacy to the text and an importance to such little things as the French design of a tin hat as well as the death of a friend that it usually found in a diary. That is not to say that the book is lacking characters; the obsessions of tragic Ruth and the solid dependable Mrs. Feetch are only two of the people who come to life in this book. The fear of destruction written about so movingly in the first part of the book is in contrast with the writer’s apparent optimism for much of the book’s progress, but it is never far away as every building becomes a target. Churches, hospitals and of course homes are destroyed, and the sense of helplessness as the water supply is cut off and help cannot get through is very vivid. One of the events shown in the television programme is brilliantly described in the book, a haunting experience.There are nightmare images that Favell witnessed and experiences that she endured which make this a grim read in places; this is not fiction in any sense, but distilled horror of war.

Having said this, this can be a funny and endearing book as Favell also recounts her experiences with the local characters, like old soldiers determined to help even though they are in their eighties, and a patient travelling in an ambulance who  is greatly comforted by a detailed account of the scenery going past, only to discover that the speaker could not actually see out of the window. There are shards of hope and love even if life is brief and troubled. Favell’s voluntary work meant that she effectively looked after a group of Flemish refugees, who are described as real individuals, real people who argue and fight, but who also stand together in their suffering. “The Giant” is described as a real man, trapped by his temper as well as forces beyond his control.  I was also struck by the reality of Catherine whose life story is tragic, yet she battles on with the support of Frances and others.

This book is an illustration of the fact that numbers of dead and injured mean little to the reader compared with the stories of real people, real lives and loves. Yes, much of this book is sad, but the survival of the human spirit makes the story of the blitz in London and in many other cities throughout this country feel very real. As someone who has read quite widely in the fact and fiction of this period, I really appreciated the opportunity to read this otherwise rare book,which really brings to life one woman’s life during one of the most challenging times in British history. The documentary was very powerful; it shows that history is “Inherently messy”, and we have to depend on first hand accounts to help us to sort it out,if we ever can. This is a stunning and remarkable book, which I recommend to everyone interested in this part of social history, especially in London.