Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries: A Virago Modern Classic

An early Thirkell, and typically light and gentle, Wild Strawberries is more of a comedy and character introduction than many of the later novels. This is a book which introduces characters such as Lady Emily, who is remembered with affection throughout all of the Barsetshire Chronicles. It also introduces the charming and feckless David, the gentle Agnes who achieves much, but almost unseen, and the first sighting of Clarissa and the other children who grow up to wreak havoc in the later books. The book is not only introductory as many of the characters have their own moment before they become background to later stories.

This book, like Thirkell’s other early novels, takes place in a long summer of peace before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1934 the emerging BBC is offering employment to women graduates, while many girls are limited to naïve assumptions about love and marriage. Not that such girls cannot hold their own socially when lunches, parties and other events decide true affections. Lady Emily is a high maintenance lady in that she has much “portable property”, being glasses, scarves, art supplies and so on. She also delights in meddling in every arrangement, creating confusion in a gentle way. She accidentally arranges for the boring Mr Holt to visit to everyone’s inconvenience, but Agnes’ child fixation soon agitates him beyond measure. Mary experiences a crush on David, John emerges from his great loss, and Martin is a teenager quickly distracted by new ideas. The French family who come as paying guests to the Vicarage are a beautifully drawn family of recognisable individuals, including the boastful Madam Boulle.

This could be seen as a trivial book of small events and delicate romance. It is a comedy of manners of a long lost age, when servants were not a problem but had their individual quirks and traditions. There are lovely set pieces of a church service nearly wrecked by Lady Emily’s interventions, all well intentioned, the concert which bewilders Mary but is a tried and tested formula, and the celebration of Martin’s birthday which echoes a party held to mark his father’s coming of age before his wartime death. This book lacks the strong stories of the later books, especially the wartime novels, and some of the sadness and loss which typify them. In some ways it is an introduction to the Barsetshire Chronicles set in a blissful summer, before the sharp class distinctions and anti – foreigner language creeps in, but others may find it too light. In the context of all of Thirkell’s books it is indeed a lightweight read, but its reissue in the Virago Modern Classics series in 2012 has made it more available and a favourite re read mentioned very favourably in contemporary novels such as Peck’s “Bewildering Cares”. High recommendation indeed!

I am working my way through the Angela Thirkell books that can be easily found as a result of the VMC reprints of the last few years. I am not sure if they will bring any more out, so I am still collecting the original books where I can find them! Hay on Wye was an obvious hunting ground, and I found “The Old Bank House ” at Elizabeth Gaskell’s house. Hooray for accessible historic buildings!

The Brazilian by Rosie Millard – a very different book!

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This is a romantic comedy for the slightly older person. There is a little romance in terms of people revaluating their priorities, or discovering new ones, and there is the comedy of the making of a reality celebrity programme with people who do not even recognise themselves as stars of tv. It is a confusion of motives, attraction and people’s dreams being upset. In short, not a great literary treat, but an interesting book about what people truly want from a short time in their lives set in a holiday resort. It is a short, quick read, which has a lot of entertainment value.

Jane is a dissatisfied woman who devotes herself to maintaining the body beautiful. She is in a financially secure marriage but has had her flings, has a husband who has had his own scandal, and a son with whom she is bored. For a change of background to her life of few friends and lack of interests, she organises a holiday in Ibiza which is not really that family orientated as she is taking a nanny for George, Belle, who works out how to meet up with her boyfriend, Jas. This beginning of a farce is confused by the filming of a downmarket celebrity show with a tired format in the same part of Ibiza which features neighbours fixated on money to be won. Even the producer of the programmes longs to be somewhere else, filming gritty genuine reality. With inane activities, misunderstandings and Jane’s ambition to get into the tv shows, a competition emerges which is less about surviving the voting and more about creating a fiction of what people truly want from life.

This is a light read, with moments of genuine humour as George, the small son, manages adventure and Belle realizes that a great nightlife is exhausting. Gemma, a slight celebrity emerges as genuinely attached to her unlikely compatriots in adversity and becomes more interesting as she undertakes the reality of ‘reality’ filming. Yes, there is innuendo and ‘sexual content’ but it unsubtle and a cursory theme to a book which is trying to have broad appeal, and probably tries a little too hard. The dynamics of interconnected relationships over a short period of time in a confined space is far more interesting.

If you want a book to read in one sitting which has enough entertainment value to maintain interest and offer some insight into life in the comfortably off British abroad, this will fulfill requirements. It is a jolly read where there is no real peril, no one gets really hurt, and life is a holiday that does not really meet expectations. I found it a different book to review from a copy supplied by Legend Press, who have an admirably mixed list!


Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession – Six Tudor Queens by Alison Weir

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This is a fictional account, written by historian Alison Weir, of the life of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. I found it a curiously distant book, which was no doubt well researched but did not show as much understanding as is usual in an historical novel. This may have been the result of the narrative being in the third person, or simply because much of this story has been written about in so many novels. It is a solid novel, with many well researched points of interest and telling detail.

The novel opens with an account of Anne’s early life in the courts of Europe. Here she encounters some very singular women for the time who are educated and determined to make their mark in political affairs. It may be that the dialogue here sounds somewhat stilted as they discuss their ideas. Either way, the message is clear; Anne was determined to make a difference in the politics of the day. Her early encounter with the young Henry is not propitious, and it becomes evident in this world that men still hold sway as Mary, her elder sister is attacked by powerful men.

On her return to England the story of the ambitious Boleyn family is repeated as Anne’s attractions begin to be noticed in aristocratic and royal circles. Cardinal Wolsey becomes an enemy, Cromwell succeeds him in managing the king’s affairs in every respect. Henry becomes interested but Anne has learnt that being a royal mistress is not well rewarded, so she persuades Henry that he will have her only as a mistress in the chivalric sense. The forces of reform and the desire for a new marriage mean that Cromwell and Henry with others combine forces to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. He does not only desire Anne as a woman but as a mother of a male heir which he desperately needs to avoid civil war. So begins a period of years in which Anne is given honour and gifts, but cannot become queen in the face of international opposition.

Those who know something of the story may find nothing new here, as Anne emerges as ambitious, ill – advised and not particularly in love with the King. It is necessary to remember that while she appreciated the enormous leap from commoner to queen she was undertaking, she did not associate it with the extreme danger she was running. Weir does not really give the reader a strong guide as to her motivation and her comments on religious reform sound a little formulaic. I think that other writers have tackled the question of the understanding of Henry’s queens with more empathy in their novels of the period. Ironically I felt it was only in the ending of the story that Anne emerges as a real, frightened person, concerned for some of her family as well as her own fate.

Overall this is a solid account of Anne’s life which is well constructed and deals with the characters around her well. It is an interesting read which sustained my interest, but I felt that it was more of a historian’s account than that of a novelist. The section on Anne’s early life makes it very informative, but the style lacks some warmth. I felt that Weir’s sympathies lay with Katherine in the first book of this series, and while her research is impeccable there is a certain lack of feeling for Anne, for a short time a Tudor Queen.

I actually heard Alison Weir talk about this book and the whole subject of Anne Boleyn at Derby Book Festival. She definitely knows her stuff! She had a huge collection of images relating to Anne’s popularity as almost a cult figure, and she dispatched lots of audience questions with speed and accuracy. It was an amazing evening.

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell

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This is an early Thirkell novel (1939), and introduces several characters to the Barsetshire Chronicles. It also reflects a balmy pre war time of peaceful pursuits, gentle romances and ladies with companions, mourning clothes and investments. The Brandon family, headed by a widow whose effortless conquest of all the males around her is a favourite of Thirkell’s; but here it is managed that no hearts are broken and others are grateful, even if unconsciously, for her matchmaking efforts. There is a Will, cameos of such favourite characters as the Morlands, and overall such a delightful late summer atmosphere of late summer calm and sunshine that it is a worthy addition to the series, but would work as a stand alone novel.

Lavinia Brandon has long come to terms with being a widow, with two grown up children, Francis and Delia, and a small but devoted domestic staff. Her comfortable income is watched over by the devoted but bombastic Sir Edmund, and she is on excellent terms with her neighbours including Mr Miller, the local Vicar. Her gentle idyll is disturbed by a summons to her late husband’s aunt, Miss Brandon, and meets the efficient but frustrated companion, Miss Morris. She and her offspring meet Hilary Grant, a young man who is instantly smitten by the older woman’s charms. His mother is an intruding character who spends her life in Italy, and is a never ending source of embarrassment to him. As it becomes obvious that Miss Brandon is dying, subtle guesses are made as to who is to benefit from her will, and to their credit no one wants to inherit her large decaying house. Much confusion and cross purposes emerge as everyone grows a little older and perhaps wiser as to their feelings and potential relationships.

The plot of this novel is slight, yet effective, and its chief delight is the characters. My favourite is Delia, constantly pursued by Nurse for clothes fittings, fascinated by injury and illness as an observer, still young enough to be innocent in her friendship emerging over stolen fruit from the garden. Francis is an amusing young man, devoted to his mother and completely aware of her little tricks of attraction for the love struck men who surround her. Aunt Sissie is a formidable character who actually understands more than she is credited with, and deals with unwanted visitors easily. I particularly enjoyed the account of the Village fete, with Lavinia’s vagueness being familiar to fans of the other novels, and the efficiency of Miss Morris contrasting with the Vicar’s confusion.  There are also scenes where some books are nearly read aloud, but are continually diverted.

This book is of its time, an entertaining novel of family and friends unaware of impending war and shortages, diverting the reader’s interest down comforting paths of middle class concerns without peril. There is a certain element of snobbishness about the descriptions of the servants and their feuds, but no one is ever despised or insulted. The description of a poor family is a little patronising, but good is always is always intended. As with all Thirkell’s novels, there are weaker moments, but overall it is a splendidly comfortable, sunny read from a lost or even imagined era.

This is one of the easiest Thirkell’s to locate, as Virago reprinted it in their Modern Classics series in 2014. I have probably read it three times?!? While getting ready to teach in Derby library the other day I spotted a copy of “Love at All Ages”, a late Thirkell and one of the last novels I have not read! I am trying to remedy this, and am already getting annoyed with George Knox…

The Chapel at the End of the World by Kirsten McKenzie

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On the face of it, this book would seem to have a limited potential audience as the Chapel mentioned is a tiny building on Orkney. Having said that, the themes in this book are much more international and timeless. It is the story of men and women at war, prisoners on an island, and betrayal of friends. The decoration of a special building takes on a mystical purpose as prisoners see the face of those they love and fear in the face of an otherwise beautiful Madonna.

The story opens with Rosa and Emilo being welcomed back to Orkney to celebrate the survival of the Chapel constructed by Emilo and other Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s. They were engaged when Emilo entered the Italian army and was almost immediately captured and sent to a bleak camp on an island which felt like the edge of the world, such was the weather and isolation. While he treasures letters and pictures from Italy, he increasingly struggles to believe he will ever return. His friend Bertolo, also a prisoner, feels more isolated and with less purpose as his family in Italy struggle. Rosa has her own problems, as the invading Germans turn from allies to oppressors in her native town. Her wartime experience is too much linked to the forces of resistance for safety, and ironically the non-combatants who did not join the army are in more danger. Sliding loyalties and daily challenges mean that her war experience feels more brutal even though she is in her home with family.

This is a well written novel which deserves a good readership. It achieves much in its mainly parallel narrative and covers the fears of an effectively occupied country as well as the isolation of a sparsely peopled island. There is much about the struggle of maintaining life and morale in a place where food is short and materials to beautify a chapel nearly non-existent. Anyone who visits the chapel today marvels at the location and the sheer effort of transforming very basic buildings into a holy, beautiful place.  The idea of the ingenuity of the decoration from discarded metal and homemade paint is very impressive, even if the real artists are not mentioned. Rosa’s survival is assured throughout, but her silent suffering mirrors the experience of many civilians in the face of total war. McKenzie has a light touch which does not increase the realistic events to high drama; this makes them in a way more readable.

As someone who has visited the chapel on several occasions and found it a very moving tribute to the prisoners, this is a memorable book which I would recommend as an understated but truthful account of a place, and a world, at war.

I discovered this book at the wonderful Orkney library during the early part of our holiday. Northernvicar made a special journey to the house at Skara Brae to get me a copy to bring back, published by John Murray, so thank you very much to him. I may put up an extra post with some pictures from our Orkney odyssey,  but in the meantime you can read http://www.northernvicar.co.uk for many photos of the Italian Chapel itself.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

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(A Photo from the Trollope Society of the late, great Alan Rickman as the odious Obadiah Slope, Chaplain in the BBC version of the Barsetshire Chronicles)

If you liked Trollope’s “The Warden” you will love “Barchester Towers”. It would be wise to read “The Warden” first as the characters and setting are depicted only a little while later. Barchester Towers is a far more sophisticated book, with many more characters of significance and intertwining story lines. Instead of the issue of the amount paid to Mr Harding, lines of battle emerge between the clergy and their supporters, and true characters emerge.

Mr Harding has resigned and moved from Hiram’s Hospital, Eleanor married and lost John Bold, but has his son also called John. Otherwise life has continued, except that the Bishop is dying. The exact time of death is vital to his son who has hopes of the bishopric. Without spoiling the novel, Bishop Proudie arrives in Barchester, with the soon to be infamous Mrs Proudie and his chaplain, Mr Obadiah Slope. They represent everything that is contrary to the established Cathedral clergy, in music, practice and the importance of the Sabbath. When it becomes known that Eleanor Bold is a rich widow, more than one man decides that he should woo her. The picture is further confused, interestingly for the reader, by the Stanhope family returning to the Cathedral close. Undoubtedly my favourite character in the novel is Signora Madeline, younger daughter of the Stanhopes, who is a supreme operator from her elegant sofa. Altogether this is a fascinating novel, a comedy of church politics, with all the joys of quarrels and small wars.

This is a complicated tale of greed and family needs, with the aptly named Quiverful family, vested interests and traditions clashing ever so politely but effectively. Stylistically Trollope is always in control, and it is in the first quarter of the book he announces that the reader need not be concerned with the possibility of one undesirable marriage taking place. This is an author confident that he will not spoil the reader’s enjoyment with a premature reassurance; he knows that he has enough material to maintain the reader’s interest without increasing the tension. Indeed, tension is not something running through this book; it is an enjoyable read with realistic characters for the time who enjoy situations where there is no real peril. Mrs Proudie is the ultimate power behind the throne, whose own opinions and actions are commonly known to dominate those of her weak willed husband. All of the women in this novel are fully realised characters whose choices and actions have far more influence than any of the men around them appreciate. I think that this is what sets Trollope apart from Dickens, whose women do have their limitations. Trollope revels in setting up a community where men appear to have the power and influence, but who are really driven to action by the women around them. He manages to accomplish much in this novel without padding or great length, and together with “The Warden” it is deservedly one of the undervalued greats of Victorian literature.

So do try and read these books; as classics they are available electronically either for free or very few pennies and hard copies frequently appear secondhand. I will return with some newer books, though as I am due to investigate Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Manchester shortly, who knows?


The Warden by Anthony Trollope – A simple classic

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As literary classics go, this is a remarkably short book. It is not complicated, and the issue it covers seems to be a minor, parochial problem. In Trollope’s hands the problem is explored from a variety of viewpoints, each embodied by a memorable, well realised character. The setting, a cathedral and those who live and work there or nearby, is such an enclosed community that a murder mystery would have worked well, but happily this is a classic novel with no death or high tragedy. Its simplicity is a little deceptive, as its controversy is important; ought someone to be paid a large amount for not a lot of work because he is favoured by the patron?

The reverend Septimus Harding is the Warden of a small almshouse for twelve old men, Hiram’s Hospital in Barchester. For the very small duties of keeping an eye on these pensioners of an ancient will, he gets the generous stipend (in the mid nineteenth century) of £800 per year. He also lives in a beautiful house and a lovely garden with his daughter, Eleanor, who is in turn very fond of  young doctor, John Bold. Mr Harding’s other daughter, Susan, is married to the archdeacon, Dr. Grantly, whose father, the Bishop, is Mr Harding’s friend and appointed him as Warden. So, this is a tiny community which is rocked when John Bold is inspired to take legal action to question Mr Harding’s right to the money he is paid. The value of the land which the money comes from has increased greatly; Bold and his friend Tom Towers believe that the increase should not be paid over to the incumbent. By the time “The Jupiter” (based on “The Times”) publish a strong condemnation the battle lines are drawn and Mr Harding feels overwhelmed.

This is a simple story but elegantly told. The characters are frustrating and determined, behaving predictably and seemingly irrationally in turn. It does seem real, as the people of the novel move in their small, interconnected circle. It is a story of semi rural life thrown into a national spotlight when lives are changed, but not lost. It is a gentle classic, and an important start to a series of Barsetshire novels. Some of the issues are still familiar to us today, and the demands of some of the residents of the hospital so well expressed that their voices seem more modern than Trollope ever intended. The characters are mainly consistent, and are a valuable introduction to those who will people a world created by Trollope which is still fascinating today.

This is the first post resulting from today’s book group which looked at “The Warden” and “Barchester Towers”. Quite a task you may think, but we didn’t meet in July so we had two months to read them. A surprisingly large number had read both! I have read both often before, so enjoyed watching the BBC version from several years ago. If you haven’t got the dvd, it is apparently easy to find on you tube. An excellent way to spend a few hours!

The Whitstable Pearl Mystery by Julie Wassmer

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Occasionally I enjoy reading a book that will probably never be described as a classic, but is a really enjoyable light read, especially for the holiday season. This contemporary murder mystery is a loving evocation of the life and times of Whitstable, particularly at Oyster Festival time. I do not know Whitstable at all, being in the Midlands, but I feel I have learnt something of coastal towns, grateful for yet challenged by the yearly onslaught of visitors.

Pearl is a single mother whose beloved son, Charlie, for whom she has sacrificed a promising career in the Police, is now at Canterbury University. His relationship with his new girlfriend Tizzy adds to her feeling that she must find new activities to fill the gap his absence has caused. Pearl (yes, the name is one of the deliberate bits of humour that run throughout this book) already runs a successful oyster based café with her memorable and loveable mother, Dolly. Dolly has a ripe sense of humour and an extravagant love of life.

Polly, missing her police career, has set up a detective agency which is not exactly bringing in a huge clientele. Her first prospective client is an unattractive man, but everything is put into perspective when she discovers a body. Death in suspicious circumstances is followed by investigations both official and unofficial, as a friend’s background becomes convoluted and emotionally complex. Pearl finds herself becoming attracted by Chief Inspector Mike McGuire whose own grief is affecting his judgement and impartiality.  Other characters may or may not be significant to the mystery, but the lonely Ruby and the suspicious rich visitors begin to confuse the pictures being built up by Pearl and the reluctantly involved Mike.

There are lots of lovely pictures of the community in a small town, challenged by a mysterious death. All is not doom and gloom in this book, as Dolly creates confusion with her unusual dance classes and other high jinks. This is not a great literary book, and in particular there are inconsistencies of character and unlikely coincidence which make the outcome of the mysteries frustrating. Also, I found Pearl’s involvement a little unrealistic, given that her detective experience would have been limited.

This is an enjoyable read, which maintained my interest despite its unevenness. I am looking forward to reading the other two paperbacks I have tracked down, and hope to find out more about Whitstable and its inhabitants.

Meanwhile life in the Midlands continues busy as ever. A recent birthday for Northernvicar meant a huge treat for over sixty people on a steam hauled train followed by a fish and chip meal and party. No oysters though!

Who Killed Charmain Karslake? by Annie Haynes – A real Crime Classic

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Another Dean Street Press find, reprinted as a classic murder mystery. I was glad to get a review copy of this model murder mystery, with all the great ingredients; a great house, a murder, a house party and observant servants. Add in a local investigation in a village full of vividly described characters, the glamour of theatrical life, all investigated by some solid, reliable types, and all the classic crime boxes are truly ticked.

The book starts with a ball at a country house. The family are naturally present at a dance in honour of a younger brother’s marriage, and as Sir Arthur Penn-Moreton observes, the aftermath is a “beastly mess”. Just how messy soon emerges as the body of Charmain Karslake is discovered in her room, an American actress who accepted an invitation much to everyone’s surprise as she had no apparent links to the house or the surrounding village. The investigations of Inspector Stoddart and his trusty deputy, Harbord, range throughout the perfect village in the shadow of the great house, yet also take them to London and some well worded advertisements. Haynes acknowledges some real life crimes as the trusty pair track down the deceptions and hidden identities involved in this solid stories.

This 1929 novel appears as one of Haynes later mystery novels, and it is an assured performance that probably inspired many other authors in the Detection club which was formed shortly after her death. She manages to combine all the elements of this Golden Age mystery with some very well delineated characters, ranging from the village sweet shop owner to a monocle wearing gentleman. The clues, including a cursed jewel, shoes and scraps of paper could have come out of the Cludeo set, yet Haynes invests them with solemn significance. I also liked her indignant American, who finds the slow proceedings of British justice frustrating and lets everyone know repeatedly.

Altogether this is a well written and consistent mystery, setting the bar high for all those mysteries which were to follow. Many motives and theories are aired by the detectives and others, many of which bear convincing arguments as solutions to this deviously plotted mystery. It represents a world that possibly never was, but it never allows nostalgia to overwhelm its characters, including a time worn actress, full of her deception that she is still a star. This novel was called in its first publication “an uncommonly well- told murder tale” and so it remains today, a classic crime in a memorable setting with some splendidly written characters.


She Be Damned- A Heloise Chancey Mystery by M.J.Tjia

This is such a good historical mystery that it deprived me of sleep. I was so keen to find out what happened that I kept reading. There are not many books that do that. So be warned about She be Damned. It is not a book for the easily shocked. Heloise, the first person narrator for nearly all of the book, is a courtesan in Victorian London. She is not a kept woman in the normal sense, as she has fought for and gained her independence from any single man, she has investments, property and a household who support her, and she has bought her own clothes, lovingly described.

The novel returns Heloise to her past of brothels and worse, when she is asked to find a young pregnant girl. The particular urgency in the case is because young women are falling victim to a vicious murderer, and Eleanor Carter is considered a potential victim. So Heloise must virtually leave no stone unturned in her hunt for the girl, her pursuit of the true killer, and eventually her own maid must be saved.

This is a short novel in which not a word is wasted, yet the author conveys a vivid sense of place, time and character.  Tjia conveys interesting facets of characters of everyone including a street boy and an aristocrat, yet does not need to dwell on descriptive padding which keeps the action of the novel moving sufficiently fast to maintain interest. So when things go wrong and challenges arise, which they do in glorious gory detail, the reader is further drawn into the book. Heloise visits the mortuary and doctors as well as the sort of house she remembers working in all too well. This book has gory details and sexual frankness, so it is more than a little shocking.

This is also a book which implies much criticism of the limited choices women had at the time; to work on the streets or starvation. It shows how even girls from relatively wealthy backgrounds could quickly become desperate, homeless and on the streets in all senses. The differences between the wealthy and the poor is also highlighted as a street boy scavenges for scraps and an aristocrat takes Heloise to the opera. Finally the persecution by the police and bystanders of Heloise’s maid shows entrenched prejudice which quickly becomes dangerous.

Altogether this is a gripping book with twists and turns aplenty; engaging characters and red herrings. I really enjoyed reading this book and would be keen to read another book by this skilful and confident writer.


As you see, is the first stop on the blog tour! I was really grateful to receive an advance copy of this book, even if it did disturb my slumbers in the best way….