Take Courage – Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis. A stunning read.

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This is a remarkable book, which anyone who is interested in the Bronte family, especially Anne, would do well to read. Not a biography, not a set of notes on her two novels or poetry, but in the style of Ellis’ other book “How to be a Heroine”, a personal reaction to Anne’s work and life. This is a book of how a lot of Bronte fans and those who only have a knowledge of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have ignored Anne and her writing; Ellis successfully argues that  ‘the other Bronte’ is more than worthy of attention, and indeed may have been the most radical of the sisters.

In some respects the theme of this book is regret. Regret that Anne was not more regarded during her lifetime, regret that her attempts to write in support of governess and women generally did not meet with more understanding, and the most obvious regret that this immensely talented writer died so young. Ten chapters that are engagingly written about eight people that Anne was close to, one about her first creation and the final, tenth chapter, movingly entitled “Anne, or how to take courage”. This book does not work its way through Anne’s life chronologically but looks at her influences and two great novels, “Agnes Grey” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”. Each member of her family provides the basis of a reflection on Anne, even the opening chapter, Maria, the mother that she never really knew.  Here is the difficult Emily, whose single novel overturned so many preconceptions about women writers and Branwell, the ambitious but ultimately self – destroying brother.  The always tricky relationship with Charlotte is examined, as she seeks to gain publication of their novels. The many biographies of the Bronte sisters tend to downplay Anne’s writing compared with the other two women, and Ellis does her best, by examining every scrap of writing and surviving article of Anne’s, to argue that she was just as able a writer, and of great significance in literary terms. Ellis points out that as “Agnes Grey” was actually published slightly after “Jane Eyre”, critics thought that Anne’s novel was a pale copy of Charlotte’s, when it was in fact written before. Furthermore, it was Anne who had worked for years as a governess and had the experience to write a book detailing the life of a governess who finds love after many trials.

This book succeeds because Ellis spares no effort to show how radical Anne’s writing was in a time when women in marriage were open to abuse of every kind. Their money was legally taken from them, they had no legal rights to leave their husband or care for their own children. Helen Huntingdon is a stunning creation whose drunken, abusive and unfaithful husband drives her away so that she must become a stranger to all and hide herself and her son in Wildfell Hall. She is in fear of her husband who pursues her, but places her trust in another, Gilbert. This book is a vivid protest against the lot of women and the redemption of the individual. It is so ahead of its time that there are elements which still shock today, as Ellis recounts the BBC’s version and its impact.

If you are fascinated by the Brontes this is a superb read, as so much is challenged and set in context. It is deeply personal, as Ellis recounts her reaction to every scrap of information she uncovers, and every place that she can discover that was important to Anne. This is not a fan piece, and fervent admirers of Charlotte may be exasperated by some of Ellis’ assertions. It is a fascinating book, and it is recommended as immensely readable.

As you see, I have not gone down the route of picking out my favourite books of the year at this stage, but I have had a spate of finishing some great books in the last few weeks. Maybe it’s the fact I finished all my M.A. assessments in good time! As you have may have noticed, I have been getting a little help with my blog set up, especially my new logo featuring Selwyn the cat. Thanks Harry and Sarah!


Murder on Christmas Eve – Classic mysteries for the Festive Season and short concentration spans!

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This is one of those books that, despite the title, can be read at any point over the festive season as the stories are not completely linked to any one day. Edited by Cecily Gayford, they are winter tales where the weather is more significant than festivities. These are gentle mysteries that do not always feature a murder; where they do they are not gory tales or frightening thrillers, just elegant or funny mysteries, showing the best of their various authors talents. Such authors as Ellis Peters, Ian Rankin, and Val McDermid are at their best here, with representative little stories of deception, loyalty and desperation, all in keeping with their full novels.

This collection works so well because the mix of authors and stories mean that there is always something to draw the reader in, and often provide a satisfying collection. While Rebus ponders at a Dickens inspired party, McDermid looks at the loyalty of spouses. The classic writers such as John Dickson Carr present an impossible murder, and Margery Allingham’s Mr Campion gets a Christmas mystery. My favourite is the ‘detective’ cat that Ellis Peters depicts behaving in a very convincing way to help solve a nasty murder. Another gem is a very funny missing manuscript tale, a parody of hardened detectives with a hint of adult humour.

As with any collection of stories by different authors, some stories appeal more than others. The quality of all these stories is high, and they are classics of their various types. This is an ideal book for gentle consumption in those days when a full mystery novel seems too much, but puzzles still beckon. Not just for Christmas, but for the winter season.

This is certainly an easier and quicker read than the enormous book that Northernvicar was sent out for as part of my Christmas present (he collects railway dvds of an incredibly obscure nature, so all is fair). “Deadlier” is a collection of one hundred of the best crime stories written by women, edited by Sophie Hannah. I think I may have to review it before I have read all 100, but those I have found so far are classics. It should keep me quiet for a while…

Murder on Sea – A Whitstable Pearl Mystery by Julie Wassmer

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This modern mystery of murder and motives set in the coastal town of Whitstable features, as with the first in the series, Pearl Nolan. It is a success not because of brilliant plotting but because of the sense of community in which the crimes are committed. Whitstable is a town transformed by summer visitors, but in the winter season in which this book is set the populace is dominated by a variety of characters, all significant to the plot. There is more than one murder, but the police are low key, and there seems to be no interest from the press or media generally. This dangerous situation is a well worked out mystery, featuring rather engaging characters and some interesting observations on small town life. Set during the build up to Christmas, the small preoccupations of present buying and meal preparations sit rather oddly with the suspicion of death from unnatural causes.

Pearl is woman with a successful small restaurant and catering business who is well known in the community for her charitable and social efforts. She has also opened a detective agency, but seems strangely reluctant to do any actual detecting, even when presented with a ‘case’ by more than one recipient of poison pen cards. Pearl continues to fulfil her rounds of visiting her accountant, the elegant Diana, dealing with the new guest staying with her mother, and doing last minute present buying for her absent son, Charlie. In all her activities and especially the investigation of unfortunate deaths, she is shadowed and sometimes accompanied by the sad and fairly attractive senior policeman, Mike McGuire. He seems strangely uninvolved in the actual work of detection, much of which seems to end up with the unqualified Pearl and her extensive local knowledge. Pearl’s mother, the eccentric Dolly, is less of a dominant force in this book, and it does lack some of the colour of the first in the series.

This book achieves an interesting blend of depicting a small town life, a tentative romance and a non violent series of murders. It forms an interesting picture of life in a community where people know each other, and they behave like real characters. There are comic interludes, especially when Pearl ends up going to a beautician for eyebrow work, which becomes something of a running joke. I enjoy the leisurely unpacking of situations, the self -doubt that Pearl shows as she wonder about taking on the hunt for a killer, the familiar practices of a community in the Christmas season.  This is not a gory, bloody contemporary novel, but a gentle cosy mystery more in the style of Miss Marple than many modern mysteries or thrillers. It is unlikely in many respects, but this is probably one of its strengths as its fairly slow tempo gives a relaxing read, with red herrings, motives abounding, and most of all Whitstable in all seasons.

So we are enjoying that limbo between Christmas and New Year where some people are working, including NHS staff and some Vicars, whereas others are a little confused as to what to do next, with regular activities are resting. Today I went to see “A Matter of Life and Death” at a small cinema which was showing it on the big screen, together with a short but interesting talk about films of the 1930s and 1940s. As it is undoubtedly one of my favourite films, a good time was had!

An English Murder by Cyril Hare – A Winter Mystery

Another Christmas murder mystery, but this one is well written and could well be read at any time when the weather is cold and unpredictable. It has some standard elements; an ill assorted house party is stranded in a manor house with no contact with the outside world. Not just snow, but rushing flood water and the telephone being cut off leads to the sense of claustrophobia as the inhabitants of the house realise that there is a murderer in their midst. Being reprinted in 2017, its original setting in 1951 is of a country with politics still recovering from a war against fascism, a system of taxation that threatens the very existence of country estates and a class system still dominated by family tradition.

The book opens with an account of a scholarly old man, working in a freezing cold muniment, or family record room, in Warbeck Hall. Dr Wenceslaus Bottwink, an eminent scholar of history, is trying to make sense of ancient documents which trace the Warbeck family’s involvement in British history. Briggs the butler brings tea and the news that the next few days, being Christmas, bring visitors including an important politician, Sir Julius. Dr Bottwink is assured that he may stay, and he provides a vital role in observing the activities and attitudes of those new arrivals who come together to mark the final Christmas in the house. Lord Warbeck is very ill and it is felt unlikely that he will survive for much longer. His son and heir, Robert, is a dedicated leader of a fascist group in London, and soon proves to be a disruptive character and offensive to all. Camilla is a childhood friend, saddened and disappointed by the change in Robert, and Mrs Carstairs is an ambitious woman, always keen to promote her absent husband’s cause. Other characters emerge who add to the confusion when a poisoning occurs, and suspicions surface.

The construction of the plot and the description of a family house in decline are carefully built up throughout the novel. In keeping with a Golden Age mystery there is no violence or gore in murder, and the motives are not obvious, but clever. The sad thing about this book is the ‘anti-foreigner’ sections which show that despite the revelations of wartime Britain and Europe dominated by Holocaust and refugees, the feeling against those seen to be outsiders was still strong. Possibly Hare is using this book to criticise and show how destructive those attitudes were. There are traditions and expectations which show the pressures on individuals which go beyond their own ambitions and desires, but this book also deals with the details that give a full picture of suspicion and purpose. The weather is a minor character in this book, as is the large unheated house, and the atmosphere is chilly in every sense. This is a satisfying mystery with an intricate plot, well observed and minutely written, and ideal for a cold winter’s evening read.

So lots of Christmas mysteries around, and I have not even managed to get to the British Library Crime Classics’ contribution yet (though I have previously reviewed “Crimson Snow” link here : https://northernreader.wordpress.com/2016/12/21/crimson-snow-a-b…ic-for-christmas/ ‎  ).

Whatever you are doing, working (like Northernvicar and DoctorDaughter), coping with family, or having quiet few days, have an excellent time with much reading! I’ll still be reading, and possibly posting. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year !!

Murder in Advent by David Williams

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This edition of a 1985 book was brought out in time for Christmas in 2016, but despite the title it is not really a Christmas book. It is, however, a well written mystery set in a Cathedral town, with plenty of understanding of not only the Cathedral staff and families, but also local families who are often living strange lives. It is midwinter, the weather of necessity to the plot is freezing, and dark deeds are definitely afoot.

The senior Cathedral clergy and one or two external people are divided over the important decision whether to sell a copy of the Magna Carta. This is a fictional cathedral in a fictional town of Litchester, but having special knowledge of Cathedral politics, I can say there is definitely some familiar elements here. The novel opens with a collector of artefacts in America, then swings to a service of evensong in the Cathedral. This is not a general description of heavenly singing and clergy confidence; each clergyman (no women priests yet!) has his idiosyncrasies in part revealed by their contribution to the service. Despite the largely benign leadership of the Dean, blind but more than able to contribute to the sorting out of the situation, petty jealousies and ambitions abound.  Mark Treasure is a banker in London, but apparently is one of Williams’ characters who gets involved in solving mysteries through several novels. For arcane reasons he is drawn into the dispute, which soon becomes a murder mystery as an aged verger is found dead in a damaged library. Local history is consulted, a remarkable family is discovered, and no one is quite safe as shots are heard and further death happens.

The main strength of this book, in addition to its strong mystery, is its characters and their relationships. The clergy wives comment and decide what is really going on; the archivist has her eye on a certain clergyman, and they swop alibis and drop dark hints about what is happening around them. Mark Treasure investigates with the help of a farm agent, and discovers near gothic goings on at a family farm. There are confusing elements to this book, and it certainly is not a smoothly defined mystery, but it evokes cleverly the sense of an enclosed community whose day to day life is discussed and dissected by its members.  For a relatively recent novel it has some of the hallmarks of a golden age mystery, including a limited number of suspects and motives which are not just personal gain. The role of the police is limited, but a little help is given to prompt significant course of action.

This is a good book to read at virtually any time of the year, and I would recommend it to those who enjoy non-violent, character led mysteries in a solidly British setting.

There are some good Christmas books out there, including collections of short stories with a festive theme. Some stories appear in more than one book! I am enjoying “Murder on Christmas Eve” from Profile books, but have recognised one story so far. “An English Murder” by Cyril Hare is so good so far, with a well drawn series of characters in a snowy house. Oh, and just to mention of “Murder on Sea”  by Julie Wassmer, being a lot more modern in every respect!

Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love by James Runcie – The Grantchester Mysteries

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This is number six in a long running series concerning the Reverend Sidney Chambers, ex Vicar of Grantchester, current Archdeacon in Ely. These are the books on which the television series “Grantchester” is loosely based; the television programmes have stayed in the 1950s whereas this book opens 1971. Sidney is a priest in this book, married to Hildegard, father to Anna, full time clergy in the Cathedral, part time detective with Geordie on seemingly a semi – official basis. This is not the tortured, tempestuous story as the television would have it; this Sidney Chambers is given to much introspective musing on his life, the universe and everything. This is the sixth volume I have read in the series, but I am sorry to say I did not enjoy it more than the others. I believe it is because it tries to do so much; mystery setting up and solving, social history, and a picture of working clergy. I realise that I have read them so they do attract me on some level, but they are, sadly quite boring and sanctimonious.

In this book a body is found as is fairly predictable in Chambers’ daily round. Clergy are still summoned to the dying, but generally they are not so prone to finding the murdered or tragically dead in East Anglia. Before the mystery is solved (more by accident than design) the reader is presented with views on alternative lifestyles.  There is a confusing section on a painting which seems to serve only as an examination of Amanda being ill fated (this is not the human Amanda that appeared on our screens, but a strange creature of contradictions) and a genuine mystery involving a missing book, heavily disguised a by just too much information of seemingly arcane nature about the enthronement of Archbishops. While I respect the amount of research that goes into these books, as well as the experience of growing up in a Vicarage / bishop’s palace, I just feel that Runcie tries a bit too hard, and the book is just a bit overwritten. There are sections where we do see Chambers as a man, in confusion and grief, and I think that this is the book’s strength, rather than trying to depict him as an amateur detective. The story of a clergyman in the second half of the twentieth century is interesting enough, without the feats of detection thrown in for dramatic purposes.

This is not a negative review in that there is much to interest in this book; I just feel that Runcie tries to write too many mysteries in a book which distracts from a genuinely good novel about people.

Yes, being married to Northernvicar does give me an insight into clergy households! This is why I find these books disappointing; I so much wanted to like them! Still, plenty of festive reading about, so must try to finish another entire book…

Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell

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This is a book of Short stories by the writer of the Barsetshire Chronicles which mainly appeared in British magazines between 1928 and 1942. Despite the title, it is more winter than Christmas based: for a book solidly set at that season the original “High Rising” would be the book to seek out. This book was issued by Virago in 1913, and is more of a light entertainment than a book which seriously carries on the Barsetshire series. There is no reason to suppose that Thirkell ever envisioned producing a book of short stories, certainly not with this title, and so the quality and subject matter is variable.

The eight stories in this book include four concerning the main characters to be found in “High Rising”; Laura Morland and her youngest son Tony. Anyone who has read the early Barsetshire novels will recognise this memorable schoolboy as his non stop talking and obsessions with trains big and small linger in the mind. When combined with the loquacious George Knox Laura is not the only one who feels overwhelmed; I particularly like Dr. Ford who is the only one who can deal with him effectively. In these stories there is a trip to a pantomime, Valentine blues and a riding lesson as Tony proclaims his abilities, but accepts his limitations in his skills. I really enjoyed “A Nice Day in Town” which tells the story of Laura’s journey to London in search of things in short supply due to wartime rationing. Those who enjoyed Diary of a Provincial Lady will find echoes of the exasperation with shops and transport; it is only sad that it is only a short story.

The other stories vary in quality. There is a Victorian story of a children’s Christmas which is a little weak even if it is familiar territory to readers of “Three Houses”, Thirkell’s own account of her childhood. “The Private View” is an odd little story unanchored Thirkell’s other writing. The best is undoubtedly is “Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out”, an essay in which various of his plays are discussed in the light of the parties and dinner parties which looked at with a humorous eye did not go well. Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, King Claudius in Hamlet, Macbeth and other hosts are seen as poor party givers, and Shakespeare hopelessly lost in etiquette terms. It is very funny writing, Thirkell at her best, and in some ways the best in the book.

In some ways this is a book for Thirkell collectors, and as far as I know this is a collection unavailable in any other format except Virago’s edition. For anyone who does not know Thirkell’s novels this book would be a good start and may get you hooked on her quirky, funny and generally excellent characters. I recommend you track it down!

You too may be disappearing under a pile of Christmas books at the moment; I seem to have acquired a bumper crop of Christmas murder mysteries! At least I have finished all my M.A. assessment work for this term and we do not start again until the end of January, always provided I passed all four written pieces as well as submitting them early….So, reading may well be the order of the day once more.  At least as much as I can with a Vicarage Christmas!

300 and not out! Bess of Hardwick by Mary S. Lovell reviewed by Northernvicar

Mary S. Lovell, Bess of Hardwick; First Lady of Chatsworth, Little, Brown, 2005

Julie has asked me to write a guest blog for number 300. It seems only right that, since I am married to a wonderful Derbyshire lady, to write a blog about another one.

Bess was born in 1527, at the small manor farmhouse at Hardwick. Lovell gives a good picture of what was life in that period of English history, not just the interplay of royalty and politics, but the sheer struggle for survival of any young child. She was sent to the Zouche family of Codnor Castle for her training as a lady in waiting. She met Robert, a close relative, and they were married at the age of 15. He died a year later. Lovell has done her research. We have the account of a seventeenth century antiquarian of her marriage to Robert, and she does a good job of explaining the financial transactions involved.

In 1547 Bess married William Cavendish, from Chatsworth, and the Treasurer of the King’s Chamber. Lovell takes us right into the court of the boy king Edward VI. The newly married couple purchased themselves a “great bed” – “with savines [raspberries] and woodbines [honeysuckle] fringed with gold, silver and black silk”. Their first child was born ten months after their wedding day. The couple are involved in the plans to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne, and retire quietly to Chatsworth when that plan fails. Yet, such is William’s political skill, that Queen Mary became Godmother to their third child, Charles.

William died after 10 years, and Bess married another William, William St Loe. He sounds a fascinating man, and they made an amazing couple. They obviously loved each other, were attracted to each other and, once again, she married well. When he died in 1565 she was left a very wealthy widow. His children were not happy, and much of the rest of Bess’s life was lived in disputation with them – it is quite a sad picture.

In 1568 Bess married George Talbot. Life became difficult when Queen Elizabeth charged them with the guarding of Mary Queen of Scots. For several years they progressed round different castles and what we would call stately homes, but the pressure (both emotional and financial) of caring for the Queen took its toll on their marriage. George died in 1590 and is buried in Sheffield Cathedral – there are some photos on my blog.

Bess lived for another 18 years, and died at Hardwick Hall in 1608, aged 81. Julie and I need a proper explore of both Hardwick Hall (National Trust) and Chatsworth House. She is buried at Derby Cathedral. I need to write that Cathedral up for my blog – but here are two photos of her tomb.

It is said that Bess ensured that each husband richer than the last. She was a moneylender, property dealer, exploiter of iron works, coal mines and glass works – part of the early industry of the East Midlands. She ended up as the richest woman in England after the Queen – shrewd, charming, scheming, powerful and ambitious. Lovell’s book is thorough, readable, fascinating – highly recommended.

Congratulations to northernreader on her blog.

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Thanks! Watch this space for more reviews and Bookish stuff. (And even a cat plus books photo!)

In This Grave Hour : a Maisie Dobbs novel by Jacqueline Winspear

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This is the latest in a long series of novels featuring private investigator, Maisie Dobbs and her family and associates. In this book it is September 1939, war has just been declared, and tension is in the air, especially among those who remember the First World War all too well. The novels have covered the time from early in the twentieth century, when Maisie is discovered as a young maidservant reading in a library. Her adoption as a special case by her employer and the man who becomes her mentor leads to University, nursing on the Front during the First War, injury and loss of the man she loves. She makes friends, then suffers a great loss which she tries to work through by becoming involved in espionage and other work in an increasingly troubled Europe. At the beginning of this novel she is throwing herself back into investigative work with two of her colleagues, only to discover murder and mystery among refugees from previous conflict which seems to be building up once again.

So this is another book which features a woman working in the field of investigation in the interwar period. This is a sober series compared with some others that I have read; there are very few if any amusing passages in an earnest episode in which there are some affecting murders. Winspear treats murder less as a puzzle; the family of victims show emotion at their loss, desperation to discover what happened and why. The shadows of the First World War are ever present which leads me to wonder just how old some of the characters are meant to be. I wonder how much longer Maisie’s father is to continue to be a living character, let alone imparting warnings and wisdom.  The earlier books also spend many words describing Maisie’s clothes, which is not such a theme in the present novel. My favourite character, Priscilla, the strong survivor of a family who all fought in the War, does make an appearance, and  insists on Maisie joining in family events. This is a novel which could easily slide into sentimental traps with an evacuee child who refuses to speak and how Maisie deals with the situation. Winspear manages to keep it moving, and this episode shows just how difficult it is to write about this period from the twenty first century without falling into grim saga. Winspear writes memorable if slightly purple passages and scenes, but also deals with individuals who are hurting. Wounded soldiers are frequently observed, and I have no doubt that Winspear’s research into these men’s later lives is impeccable.

Winspear is a confident writer, unafraid to tackle the big international pressures through people of various classes and influences. Throughout this series I have felt occasionally that her research has dictated her theme rather than the other way round, but in this novel the necessary work on the plight of Belgian refugees is well integrated and lead me to wonder how she will tackle the European refugees in the Second War, assuming that there are more novels to come featuring Maisie Dobbs. I sometimes wish her central character would be granted lasting joy; grim satisfaction seems to be the default position. This is a book of impeccable skill as Winspear demonstrates her total command of her chosen era and characters, a strong book of women making a difference in a world where war is beginning to have its impact on daily life.

My posts have been a little more spread out as Christmas hits the Vicarage with its intermittent busy days and moments of calm. Assessment tasks for my University course are also being a bit demanding. My next post is number 300, so I am wondering if there will be time to do something a little different…