The Late Mrs Prioleau by Monica Tindall

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This fascinating book from Furrowed Middlebrow is many things, a family story, a mystery, a wartime novel, but most of all it is a portrait of a woman’s life. Told by Mrs. Prioleau’s daughter in law, another Mrs Prioleau, it is a largely dispassionate hunt for the details of a life which had a tremendous effect on those around her, especially her children. Reaching back into the late nineteenth century, the background of much of the novel is the displacement resulting from the Second World War, as people discover more about themselves and those they love. The narrator, Susan, has the style of a murder mystery writer who tries to cope with the tension and the damaged siblings of her husband, largely away at war. Her realisation of all the elements of a life she only observes when it is at an end provokes a parallel realisation from the reader that choices made can reverberate through the years.

The book opens at the funeral of a matriarch, as the eldest son, Austin, is distraught at his mother’s death. It becomes obvious that he is an obsessive character, left bereft by the loss of his mother who kept a stern watch over every element of his life. Susan becomes involved in trying to clear the house, move Austin on, at the gentle insistence of a doctor and family friend. She soon discovers that the older woman kept clothes and items not really consistent with her life as recalled by those around her. Austin makes scenes, is obsessed by his dogs, and generally continues to behave in an odd way. While Susan is told that he suffered shell shock in the First World War, his bizarre behaviour seems to reveal more questions than answers.

This is not a miserable book, as it is lightened by the burden of a parrot, and other odd incidents which surround a dysfunctional family. It becomes obvious, however, that both daughters of the family tried to get away from home as soon as possible, even if that meant that they made poor choices. The grandchildren are allowed an almost dangerous amount of freedom, but they appear essentially resilient. Susan’s own war work takes her to many places, and gives her opportunities to find out more about the family. I wanted a resolution to all this searching, and I was not disappointed by the revelations of the book.

This was sadly the only book published by Tindall, a carefully written story of lives consistent with difficult choices. I think it has a lot to say about women’s lot in the early twentieth century, and much of its background of the writer enduring life on the Home Front contributes to our understanding of women’s experience. The narrator is from New Zealand so she gives a largely dispassionate account of British life under trial. The thoughtful introduction written by Gillian Tindall portrays a writer with more talent than ambition, whose sole novel more than deserves this reprint by Dean Street Press. I was very pleased to get this copy of the book to review and recommend it as an unusual and touching novel.

I have quite a pile of review books to get my teeth into at the moment; more murder from Dean Street Press, some classics and some soon to be published titles from Legend Press, and Martin Edwards’ “The story of Classic crime in 100 Books”. I think that the latter might mean I spend more than a few pennies on classic crime novels myself…

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell, A Barsetshire classic

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This Angela Thirkell book is the last of the pre Second World War novels published by this author as it came out in 1939. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics in 2016, it is therefore available to all interested in the Barsetshire series of books, but this volume stands alone as a picture of a fairly select group of people. I enjoyed it for the picture of Mr. Jack Middleton, established in a country house with his long suffering wife, Catherine. He is the enjoyable character of the book, as his frustrations and self delusions stay just this side of driving those around him to despair. He enjoys the sound of his own voice, his perception of his position in local society, and his pronouncements on life. Even his dog, the patient Flora, puts up with his belief that she is devoted to his every wish, as she politely ignores his studied fictions.

Not that this book is devoted to Jack, as an entire series of romances and minor revelations occur without him realising as befits a Thirkell novel. They are essentially accidental, but take some disentangling before many of the characters are happy. Lillian Stoner, Jack’s widowed sister in law, brings her adult step children to stay in an adjoining cottage to Laverings for the summer. Dennis is a delicate musician, whose ill health has given cause for concern, but now he is full of the music he is composing for a ballet, a dream requiring funding. Daphne is a sturdy, determined girl, able to cope with the most difficult individuals, but curiously vulnerable in romantic situations. Lady Bond is one of the determined gentry that Thirkell excels in, keen to organise meetings to do the right thing. Lord Bond is far more uncertain, needing Daphne to achieve mastery over a piano key. The two male leads in the romance stakes are uncertain of many things, as Alister Cameron proceeds with caution, and C.W., the younger Bond, allows confusion to reign. Another situation remains far more delicate, and lingers in the background in in this otherwise robust book.

As always, there is a cast of minor characters, who provide the more realistic background to life in this rural area. They are the ones with real control, real wisdom of a sort, ranging from the expert Ed to the obliging postmistress. Some other characters feature in other Barsetshire books, one of my favourites being Mrs Tebben with her obsession about leftovers which extends to cards at one of the set pieces in the book, the Agricultural Show. Miss Starter is another obsessive, concerned about her diet and royal links, but with quiet insight into other people.

While not being one of the strongest novels in the series, this is another comfort read which speaks of another time, another place before the danger of war and the cynicism about certain characters which typifies the later books in some respects. A lovely summer read, this is a book of characters who remain in the mind and a simple reassuring story line. A comfortable book to both discover and re read.

I seem to be reading a lot of comfortable books at the moment, but fear not, I will soon be back to crime and mystery. I have just finished a fascinating book about a singular lady whose domination of her family is really disturbing. “The Late Mrs Prioleau” will be arriving soon!

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is a great book, a family favourite, and if only the ending section could be longer. If you have not yet read ‘The Nine Tailors’ you should, as quickly as possible. It has a suspicious death, mistaken identity, fascinating characters with super backstories, and bell ringing. So much bell ringing, it is a classic for those who have even the slightest interest in the subject. As a picture of interwar life in the fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, it is a detailed account of flooding and the problems of maintaining usable roads and fields. The characters really work as people, in all their failings and strengths, and the search for justice on several levels occupies many minds.

Sayers most famous character, Lord Peter Wimsey, is travelling in a snowy winter with his faithful manservant, Bunter. A mechanical failure leaves them searching for shelter, which they find with the Rector of the church in Fenchurch St. Paul. Despite his wife trying to calm him, the reverend gentleman is concerned with the attempt to ring a peal, which could be derailed by the absence of one of the regular ringers. Wimsey knows ringing and the obsession it can be, so takes a rope and there is much detail about the ringing of the peal. Wimsey also becomes involved in the village community, the traditional ringing of a solo bell for a death, and the loss of Lady Thorpe, whose family has been suffering after the theft of some emeralds some years before this tale. The crime has left other victims as those involved with the missing gems still live in the local area.  When a body is discovered Wimsey and Butler commence investigations, which involve tracking one person to France. It is an involved story, but so well told with many accurate church descriptions that Sayers’ specialist knowledge is displayed.

My favourite part of this novel is the section that I wish could be longer, as a flood hits the three Fenchurch villages. Without spoiling the suspense, the rector and wife organise the sanctuary of many people and their livestock in the church and rectory. During the two weeks of isolation the community comes together and Wimsey discovers some facts which solve the mystery.

This novel shows Sayers writing at the height of her powers, with her favoured Wimsey central to discovering what has really happened, and becoming a trustee for a determined young woman. Each character, however, is really well drawn in this book, even if they are not central to the story, and I get the impression that Sayers really enjoyed writing it. Despite the absence of Harriet, it remains my favourite Sayers novels, and the cold and wet weather setting is a refreshing read for hot weather!

(Image via Amazon)

Some of you may remember that one of my Christmas presents (apart from Selwyn the Vicarage Cat) was the Folio set of Sayers Wimsey novels as illustrated above. I set myself the challenge of reading all five books by the end of June. I am going to fail! I still have Gaudy Night, and remembering that I had to give up reading a paperback copy because it was awesomely long in an unwieldy  form I know that I will not read even this lovely edition in a few days…Still, I have really enjoyed reading these books and will be tackling G.N. as soon as possible!

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens is a popular author for those who enjoy mid twentieth century British Women writers, especially as many of her books were autobiographical. It is no wonder then, that Mariana was the second book published by Persephone, and reprinted in their “Classics” series. The date of original publication, 1940, may suggest war time novels, but much of this book is pre war, the story of a girl growing up and meeting the challenge of what seems like an intensely felt life. The beginning and end of this novel are set in the early part of the war, with all the heightened emotions and appreciation of danger, but this is essentially the story of a girl, a young woman, finding life and love.

The first element of the novel may strike a chord with anyone who spent childhood holidays in the same place, with the same people. “Mary” is the main character of these reminiscences; we see her experiencing childhood adventures and the first stirrings of romance with a relative, Denys, enjoying the predictable pleasures of childhood. An only child, she lives with her mother and actor uncle in a small London apartment and finds school challenging. This is no misery memoir as her decision to go to drama school is described in all possible detail, a very funny account of her struggles to conform to the idiosyncratic demands of the course, and the glorious final performance which distinguishes her career as a would be actress.

Throughout her life her mother is a permanent if fascinating character, allowing much experimentation in the face of her own romantic confusion and business endeavours. When Mary goes to Paris and gets engaged in a set piece of scenery and charm, her mother is accepting as always, being secretly perceptive to what her daughter actually wants from life. Marriage is seen as important, not just to be drifted into, even if it brings the potential for pain.

This is a gentle book about how women had choices in the interwar period that their mothers lacked. It is a funny and entertaining book, with characters who could be real, living in circumstances not all of their choosing, but making the best of things in this time.  The style is friendly, with no great melodrama but understandable emotions. I can recommend it for those who are keen on “middlebrow” novels, and I am glad that Persephone have kept this particular Dickens book in print.

I recently enjoyed rereading this book; for me it has become a comfort read, a novel that has many touching incidents. Heaven knows that we could all do with such a thing at the moment. I found one or two other Monica Dickens books on a forage in Barter Books; I am inspired to find out where they have been (double) shelved…

High Seas Murder by Peter Drax

This offering from Dean Street Press, sent to me for review, is essentially a very different Golden Age Detective Story. In the excellent introduction, Curtis Evans reveals that Drax wanted to write a ‘credible’ story, having decided that the existing detective novels did not stand up to close inspection. I believe he did a magnificent job. This book is so detailed, so realistic that it is possible to forget that there is a murder to consider. The characters, far from being the upper class set in country houses so loved by some murder mystery writers, are real people, often tired, scared, and broke. Despite the sub- title, there is no super star detective, just steady police work to sort out the events leading to a suspicious death.

The ‘High Seas’ of the title are experienced by a group of fishermen, all having their reasons for risking their lives to bring back a bumper haul of fish. Larry wants to get married, Dan wants to earn enough to run a chicken farm, Tubby wants to practise his zither, and Carl, the Captain, wants to justify his outlay on a new ship. A near impossible sea not only affects their chances of survival, but also a ship, Ivanhoe, that they discover. The victim of the novel is a real person, with thoughts and determination of his own. Everyone in this novel has a back story, even the seemingly minor characters, who inhabit the rooms, offices and pubs described in vivid detail.

This novel seemed a little challenging to start with as the technical detail of the fishing journey is so carefully written that I thought that it was just a sea themed book. When the chief characters reach land however, their progress and interaction with the locals of Gilboro’ feels so real, it’s difficult to convey how effective the writing is over a well sustained novel. The lawyers are slow to react, but suspicious of everyone, real characters in their actions. The police are not really proactive, but do their duty in an orderly manner. They do not rush around seeking answers, but do everything necessary.

It is always difficult to review a mystery novel without spoilers. This is a highly satisfying novel, full of real insight for those people who scratch a living, and have the normal curiosity about their neighbours and friends. The sea going details are so correct it could be a non-fiction book which reflects Drax’s career, but it is peopled by a cast rich in humanity. It is a tragedy that Drax was killed before writing many more novels, but the few others that he did complete and are newly republished by Dean Street Press look to be worth seeking out and enjoying.

As always, I have enjoyed this Dean Street Press book which I am grateful to have received for review. There are more to come!

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Furrowed Middlebrow – link to lists

If you follow Furrowed Middlebrow, you will have seen lots of details about the books brought out by Dean Street Press; brilliant reprints of books from the mid twentieth century that reflect so many things. My favourite is undoubtedly Bewildering Cares by Winifred Peck, a superb fictional tale of a Vicar’s wife in the Second World War. I have reviewed it on this blog under Winifred Peck on my Author list. There is also Frances Favell’s Chelsea Concerto  (also reviewed on this blog) which is an incredible account of wartime London; the people, the danger and the survival of the human spirit.

The wonderful Furrowed Middlebrow blog has been featuring lists of ‘Middlebrow’ books giving details, ranking and crucially details of books, listing publishers where in print (Hello Persephone!). In the event that lists, twentieth century books and the whole Middlebrow type of books appeal, why not look at the blog?






Hopefully that link will work for you! Otherwise, pop “Furrowed Middlebrow” into search.

Happy reading!

The Incredible Crime – A Cambridge Mystery by Lois Austen-Leigh

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I was so looking forward to this volume in the British Library Crime Classic series. Cambridge, mystery and a 1930s setting; collectively very tempting. A woman writer as well? It sounded so good, yet I am lukewarm about this novel. I liked the characters, the Cambridge setting was good, and there were some deliciously funny sections, but overall the effect was less than impressive.

This book starts with promise. A card game with some of the wives of Cambridge academics, and the memorable Prudence Pinsent, independent daughter of the Master of Prince’s College. Immediately I was baffled. Why was she casting criticism and indeed a book across the room when she was supposed to be playing cards? I suppose it allowed the author to introduce the idea of her colourful (!) language and independent spirit, but I think it is typical of the confusing nature of this book. It looks as if she is to be drawn into a mystery which affects a tight Cambridge circle, but then we travel to an obscure bit of the coast. We then hear all about smuggling, but that seems to tail off into a feudal description of a country estate. Prudence disappears for no good reason, only to appear in the midst of a description of fox hunting which would probably appeal to those interested in the finer points of such pursuits, but left me bewildered.

There are some great characters in this book. Mrs Skipwith deals with a delicate matter, and an ex MI5 person is caught out. I was impressed with the way each character was given a character, back story, lots of detail. Maybe that was the problem. This story moved around so much to accommodate these characters and the rather tenuous mystery. At least one of the characters seems to rejoice in several names, “Ben”, “Wellende” and “his Lordship.” I was confused by cousins and other family links which seemed fluid, at least. I was struggling to follow just who was who, let alone what they all allegedly did in this context.

The main character, Prudence, was alternately trying to solve the mystery and abandoning any interest in it; as her devotion to fox hunting seems vary with the day. A romance is woven in, but is ambiguous to say the least. Prudence is in some ways the main character of the novel, but she seems to disappear for sections, which makes her element of the book disjointed and inconsistent.

The main issue with this book is that it is inconsistent. At once it tries to be a Cambridge story, a country house mystery, a crime novel as well as a romance. It is terrific in parts, and possibly needed to be longer to tie up all these strands. It is a comprehensive period piece, as a collection of characters it succeeds, but the overall effect is confusing and not the satisfying read that I had anticipated.

There has been a bit of a gap since my previous post. An election got in the way, as did a conference on rebellion in the late eighteenth century. Add in some events at the Derby Book Festival, and you get the idea. I went to hear Sarah Perry talking about the Essex Serpent, which means that I now have a signed unread copy…Watch this space…

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel ….Again!

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How do you review a book that has been around for so long, been staged and on tv? I have recently reread this book for another project, and been overwhelmed by just how good it is, and how reluctant I was to finish it. My previous comments on it revolve largely around how long it took me to read it, how tricky it was to follow, and such like moans. It is still a long book, an undertaking to read, and requires a new mind set to appreciate the new view it offers of a time, place and people. Diana Athill wrote “I can’t think of anything since Middlemarch which so convincingly creates a world.” As Middlemarch is a favourite of mine for its creation of a time, place and people, I can completely understand what she means.

Wolf Hall is a book about Thomas Cromwell. It is told from his point of view, but not in the first person. This creates a narrative in which we see the world through Thomas’ eyes, be where he is, know something of what he knows, but we can also pull back and see him, asking questions of himself as he sorts out the lives of others. Thomas in this version is a ‘fixer’, the supreme pragmatist who does what has to be done to whoever needs sorting out. His memory is a blessing in this work, but a curse as he copes with the loss of his wife and daughters. The loss of his family haunts this book, as does his awareness of ghosts of the past, those who lived in a house before him, and Cardinal Wolsey’s enormous personality. He copes with the women of the court, Anne, Katherine, Mary and the others that serve them with caution and sometimes confusion, seeing them as another problem to solve as well as possible actors in his scenarios.  King Henry is sometimes a child to be placated, an impossible, querulous dictator. Cromwell has his measure in this book, but remains under no illusions that he must proceed with caution to avoid potentially fatal confrontations.

This is not a perfect book. It takes its time to get anywhere, and sometimes gets bogged down under the weight of its constant thinking, reaction and action, plotting and planning. Yet it is a human book in its diverse progress, the tangents and confusions that we can understand. Life in this period could be and often was short and brutal, and this book shows us how and why. Mantel has said that she was keen to look at the events of Henry’s reign through other eyes than the wives, the King himself, the minor functionaries of court. Thomas Cromwell was the supreme fixer of problems and situations. This book shows you how and why, as well as the human thought processes behind his survival and success in a dangerous time.

The project that I am wading through huge books for is a talk on the Reformation in fiction. The Reformation in the church of the early 1500s is not really a subject for direct fiction, so I have been reading things like Dissolution as well as Wolf Hall to try and get some of the aspects of the subject illustrated. I am ploughing through the immense “The Man on  a Donkey” by H.F.M. Prescott which makes Wolf Hall look like a short story! Many characters, some real, some fictional, are all heading to life changing events.  I am about a third into the copy I have, and it was really the first novel of three. Brilliantly written, but so long. So very, very long…

Jane Austen At Home by Lucy Worsley

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“The perfect marriage of author and subject” it declares on the cover of my proof copy of this book, and I think that it is in this instance correct. Worsley covers this subject so well, in such detail, in such a readable style, that it is looking like my book of the year. With chapter notes, an extensive bibliography and index, this book is such a thorough examination of the life and homes of Jane Austen it would cover all requirements for a biography short of degree level study, and even then it would form the beginning of in depth work. Yet it is an easy to read book, which made me want to carry on reading. Quite an achievement!

I am sure that Lucy Worsley had a lot of help in researching and producing this book, which she mentions in the Acknowledgements section. This is a long read, with observations on subjects allied to Jane’s actual life, such as the practice of sending fairly small babies away from the family to be nursed, examined. Even if you are not an enormous fan of Jane’s novels, this book is a remarkable resource on the life of an unmarried woman at this time, when she was truly dependant on family money with her only option to marry well. The fact that Jane did publish successful novels in her lifetime gave her some money, but sadly so little compared with the popularity of her work with millions of readers since. In some ways this is a sad book, but any sort of historical work has to deal with illness and death. She at least avoided the fate of many of her contemporaries; death in childbirth was a fact in her family, as well as illnesses that we would regard as minor today. There are many points of departure for the reader to find out more about, such as the writings of Fanny Burney who was a forerunner of Jane as novelist of women’s lives.

There has been at least one article alleging that parts of this book, theories concerning Jane have appeared in our publications. My view is that a relatively short life, restricted so much by the domestic, has been poured over in such detail by so many that there will be an overlap or common points whenever a work of this length and detail is attempted, especially for the non academic reader as well as the specialist.

This is a fine book, enjoyable and nicely challenging, enabling further study if required, detailing the whereabouts of artefacts and buildings today, as well as the sources for sections on the inheritance of Jane’s brothers and much more. In this book it is possible to discover exactly how much Jane, her sister and mother had to live on, as well as her probable feelings at having to leave the Rectory at her father’s retirement. This is not a book of the novels; the assumption is made that the reader will be familiar with those texts, but there is detail about where Jane was when they were written and something of their main themes.

In short, this is a very worthwhile book for anyone interested in the life of Jane Austen, but also valuable for someone requiring a more academic resource. It is worth buying or borrowing!

If you have access to iplayer, there is “Jane Austen: behind Closed Doors” in which Lucy Worsley visits most of the houses mentioned in this book. It was on BBC2 on Saturday 27th May, so has a little while left to be viewed on catch up. One friend said she had watched it twice already, I advised her to go and buy the book! I am so glad to have read it, thanks to the publisher for supplying the proof copy.