Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck

One of my favourite publishers at the moment is Dean Street Press. It’s partly because they send me review copies of some brilliant books, but mainly it’s because they are reprinting some amazing 20th Century novels. The second list of the Furrowed Middlebrow books are becoming available about now, and there are some really tempting titles there, including some by women written during the Second World War. See  for all the details.

The book I am l am reviewing today is one of Dean Street Press’ Murder Mystery series. Arrest the Bishop?  by Winifred Peck.

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As a great fan of Golden Age Mysteries, and a new follower of Winifred Peck, this book was a very attractive edition in Dean Street Press’ collection. I was not disappointed in any way. It combines a closed community murder mystery with some memorable characters, as well as some clever twists throughout.

The setting is a large, ruinous Bishop’s Palace. Despite the expenditure of some private money on furnishing and alteration, the building is still rambling and capable of holding many secrets. Many of the people staying in the house are clergy, or soon to be ordained. The Bishop’s family is also in residence; the elder daughter is a famous or infamous beauty, the younger a much more likable character. The Bishop’s wife is a busy lady, full of unease about her family and the household which includes a very ill old retainer. As Christmas approaches, the weather worsens and there is a most unwelcome arrival. The Reverend Ulder is not only a deeply unpleasant individual but has a record of near blackmail of various church officials. When he is taken ill he is grudgingly given a bed, but when he is discovered dead there must be great investigations of motives and the whereabouts of the many people who had a reason to hate him.

The festive season and the bad weather mean that the community becomes enclosed as much beloved by the Golden Age detection writers. Similarly, the police prove to be inept and the investigation has to be largely undertaken by Dick, an ordinand with some wartime experience of police work. Interviews and searches take place in a crumbling and neglected building, and many of the suspects seem to have good reasons to want Ulder dead. Some answers have to be sought further afield, but most of the novel takes place in an enclosed atmosphere which works very effectively. As a Bishop’s daughter herself, Peck gets all the ecclesiastical facts right, and makes several acute observations about the beliefs and struggles of older men who feel their lives’ work being questioned. That is not to say that this is a church based book of limited interest to most; it is a skilful detective tale of motive and method which twists and turns.

I enjoyed this book for its atmospheric writing, understanding of human nature and detailed handling of the subject. The murder victim is a generally hated character whose death is explicable, the romantic strands of the novel are happily resolved, and overall it is a great read for anyone who appreciates a good Golden Age Detection novel. Most of the characters are complex and believable, and the urge to confess to old bad deeds links many of them together. I found them memorable, and no one brushes the questions away as often happens in less well written books (or tv scripts!). There are some elements which are not as enjoyable, but it is a cleverly written novel of its time which is an interesting, challenging read, especially for Peck’s many fans. Thank you, Dean Street Press, for rediscovering this most enjoyable book.


August Folly by Angela Thirkell

When life gets trying, or when the weather is simply awful, it’s always good to have a comfortable book to fall back on. If it introduces characters that later reappear in favourite books and is set in a long hot summer, even better. As you may have realised by now, I collect and love Angela Thirkell novels, and August Folly is one I have recently reread.

August Folly: A Virago Modern Classic (Virago Modern Classics Book 45) by [Thirkell, Angela]

This is a pre war novel from Thirkell that was happily reprinted by Virago in 2014, making it easily available for a twenty first century reader. It forms an early instalment of the Barsetshire Chronicles, Thirkell’s sort of series of books describing the lives and loves of several families and institutions in the fictional county which takes in a large chunk of the mid twentieth century. In this volume attention is given to the Tebben family, with a rare insight (for Thirkell) into the married life of a successful female academic. Sadly, she is portrayed as over managing and fussy, but this book also includes a portrait of Betty, about to go to Oxford and keen to discover all she can about her chosen subject, saving the day at a later point. Richard is a recent graduate, lacking in self-confidence, who discovers the divine Mrs Rachel Dean, mother to many children. He falls hopelessly in love, writing poems and hoping for the merest glimpse of his heroine. There is youth,  romance and adventures of a donkey, a cat and a bull, all against the background of a play being put on in a barn.

This is not the strongest in the series of novels, but an enjoyable self-contained tale of country life which progresses predictably to its peaceful ending. There are no great character studies, no great crisis, and yet it rolls along so well, so amusingly that it is a pleasure to read. The characters are funny and well developed, each capable of being frustrating and interesting, more than one dimensional with even the most apparently confident having moments of self-doubt. Even the great drama of the life saving is really far more instinctive and funny than it is later reported.

This is not the sharpest, strongest novel in the series, but it equally does not include the snobbery and other negative elements of some of the later books. I enjoyed this gentle, unchallenging tale and found it a great comfort read of insight and fun set in a peaceful summer.  It is not a substantial read, but a reassuringly paced novel of characters enjoying romance, food and amateur dramatics.

The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell

Another post, another Barsetshire Chronicle from Angela Thirkell. In the face of many wonderful books to read, and new authors to discover, her restful yet insightful characters have drawn me back again. Yet, I think that this book would be a good starting point for anyone curious about her books which describe mid twentieth century life so well.

Image result for the headmistress thirkell I love Angela Thirkell’s books and have avidly collected them for years. This reprint by Virago is more than welcome as it is difficult to get hold of this book, despite it sitting in the middle of Thirkell’s Barsetshire series and it being one of the best for characterisation. Finally getting my hands on this British reprint is great; I have really enjoyed reading it.

This novel is set in the “latter years of the Second World War” and was originally published in 1944. Thus it was actually written when the end of the war could not be foreseen by the vast majority of people either in the army or on the Home Front. The probability of invasion had receded, but those in the armed forces were still liable to be sent on missions from which they would not return, be moved to parts of “The Front” which were notoriously dangerous, and those living and working in big cities, especially London, were never considered to be truly safe. Those with family or friends in uniform such as Mrs Belton had much to be concerned about as well as the financial, social and daily concerns of village life. Much of the War concerns run in the background of this novel, but it resurfaces at times when grown up children reappear on leave with their effects on parents and admirers of the community.

The Headmistress of the title is Miss Sparling, a perfect headmistress according to those who invite her to social events, a perfect scholar to those interested in such things, and the moving force behind the establishment of a Girls’ School in Harefield Park. We learn little about how she feels compared to Mrs Belton, whose old home was the Park. There are many set pieces about tea parties, dinners and the challenges of blackouts, and there are the usual Thirkell descriptions of romantically obsessed servants, land squabbles and unfortunate portraits of non specific Europeans, who never get a good press in Barsetshire.

I found the descriptions of some of the women disappointing, as the female doctor is roundly condemned for just about everything by everyone, some clothes are despaired of, and Elsa, otherwise a successful and responsible woman in her war work, is seen as impossible for her behaviour towards her fiancé. Another headmistress is socially criticised, even though I cannot remember a particular crime on her part elsewhere in the Barsetshire chronicles, but she does form a contrast against the perfect Miss S. The schoolgirls are well described, especially the outings, drama and skating which are very funny pictures. Heather Adams is the girl most focused on, but this is a real person, unflattered but understood. Mrs Belton is especially well described in all her realistic family and social concerns. Mrs Updike is a favourite character as her frequent household accidents punctuate and lighten the mood throughout the novel.

Stylistically we can enjoy small events well described, with memorable characters rather than big storylines. There are asides to the knowing reader, and references to characters found elsewhere in the other novels. This novel represents Thirkell writing at the top of her form, and she has so many characters and situations in her Barsetshire set that she can afford to explore a group nonetheless tied to others. I think that this book is a worthy entry in the chronicles of people, place and time, but works well as a separate novel of 1940s life of interest to many readers.


Old Friends and New Fancies – the original sequel to Pride and Prejudice by Sybil Brinton

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When I got to Cambridge recently I made a beeline for Heffers, now part of the Blackwells group, and had a good look at the fiction section for unexpected treasures. In fact I was so long in the bookshop Northernvicar got round quite a few college chapels… It was worth it if only for this book. I had seen Hesprus Press reprints before. Why had I not seen this?

There are many sequels to Pride and Prejudice. Some are a lot better than others. Many come from America, which is interesting, but does lead to some mistakes where characters cover enormous distances very quickly which have only ever been seen on a map. This book not only continues the story of the characters from Pride and Prejudice, but also the other five Austen novels. It is a fascinating game of spot the character, and this novel was also written over a hundred years ago, in 1914. Hesperus Press have reprinted a gem here, and I am only sorry it’s taken me a while to find it.

The novel is mainly concerned with the progress of Georgina Darcy, sister of Fitzwilliam, who of course has a small but significant role in the original story. This is not a loving continuance of the Lizzy – Darcy marriage as many sequels are; instead we read of the difficulties of a shy young woman whose journeys around the country feature the ups and downs of love recognised and unrecognised. Kitty reappears, even if the other sisters are dismissed, and it is a strength of this novel that all the characters continue to be as flirtatious, serious, considerate or whatever they were in the original novel.

The other great strength is the cunning and clever ways characters are brought in from the other novels. There is Mary Crawford, still difficult to understand, William Price, still an attractive sailor, Mrs Knightly attempting to match make, and Mrs Jennings making unhelpful comments. Bath and its social scene is recreated, and sailors and their difficult lives discussed. A tricky thing is keeping up with the references which pile in even when the narrative is strongly proceeding; as a result of the successful romances in the novels many women have changed their names. As a result there is great pleasure in spotting the novel and characters mentioned, especially when they are behaving in a way that Austen originally envisaged. Lady Catherine is still imperious and impossible to deal with for any but the bravest.

Looked at from a distance, the story is quite slight and there are no earth shattering events, as every Austen reader will appreciate. As in many Regency set novels, certainly from Heyer onwards, there is a chase across the country lest the fortunes of the heroine and hero be left in sad disarray. It is a densely written book in which Brinton juggles many characters to include so many favourites, but it flows well and is in no way a labourious read. The style may appear dated and is far more eventful than the Austen originals, but it should be regarded as a great achievement in that it sets out to cover so much ground and largely succeeds. There are many characters, all with their speeches faithfully written, who appear in many locations. There is even an amateur theatricals production which makes it to performance!

Altogether this is a good book which every Austen fan would enjoy reading and puzzling out.  Do try and get hold of a copy!

How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

Many years ago I removed a set of books from a classroom in a village school. It concerned a pretty little girl whose entire life was contained in her pretty little cottage with her only friends being those who delivered things to her house, just because she used a wheelchair. Even in the last century I thought it gave an incredibly negative view of the life of a disabled person, and little hope for any child who was told that they were different. My daughter (who does use a wheelchair) spends much of her time overturning expectations as she is a newly qualified doctor, and I am proud that she has risen above such negative messages. It’s a good job that she did not become keen on one of my favourite books as a child, What Katy Did  by Susan Coolidge. Its message about a girl who falls from a swing is criticized roundly in one of my more recent favourite books, How to be a Heroine   by Samantha Ellis.Image result for How be a heroine ellis

In a way, this book of literary autobiography is the sort of book that many of us could have written. It goes through books, novels, which have been significant in the life of the playwright, Samantha Ellis. Its subtitle, “Or what I’ve learned from reading too much” rings a bell with many of us, as we have endured comments about our heavy reading habit since childhood. This is, however, a book of autobiography which is honest and moving in recalling a childhood in a family of Iraqi-Jewish refugees in London. This is in no way a miserable book as each novel is devoured by a girl seeking a way of living amidst a family keen to encourage a normal life of marriage and family. Instead it is a funny book with a realistic and sometimes frank view of love, life and literary role models.

The first book, or story, the Little Mermaid, causes the realisation that the heroine is willing to give up so much for the chance to win the love of the prince that its sadness is not in the original ending of the tale, but in the suffering that she endures. Anne of Green Gables has enormous dreams and a desire to write that transforms her life as well as those around her, but eventually gives up writing for domestic reality. Ellis asks about the role models that these heroines present, even though they are undoubtedly inspiring and entertaining. Lizzy Bennet gives more hope, while Scarlett O’Hara becomes a role model in for what she does not do, and say, as Ellis realises that she loves and acts on many levels.

I think that why enjoyed this book so much is that it follows my own favourite book list and discoveries that Flora Post, of Cold Comfort Farm is a funny book about those who want to solve people’s lives, and there are female characters who work together to change what is happening. Some readers may be shocked by the behaviour of some of the characters and novels which she chooses, many of which would not appear on any great literature list.

I particularly enjoyed Ellis’ discoveries about Sylvia Plath’s time at Cambridge, and her honest account of her time at the University. The real battle is between Cathy Earnshaw and Jane Eyre, in terms of wild romance versus the acknowledgement that real romance may be quieter, even if still complicated.  Every book mentioned is referenced at the end in notes so it is easy to plug any gaps in your own reading. The general sense is that for a book obsessive, novels are not just entertainment but can be valuable insights into life and what it really means to be human.