A House Full of Daughters – Juliet Nicolson

By way of a change, a non fiction book. It fits nicely with my habit of reading the history of women’s lives: not exclusively viewing history that way, but so many of the books I pick up are either fictional or non- fictional biographies of women that it seems to work out that way. I’m reading Philippa Gregory’s latest book at the moment, and Northernvicar has just booked for us to go and hear her speak at Harrogate. Still on the Tudors, but this time from the angle of Margaret Tudor, who had a different view of Katherine of Aragon. Interesting.

Back to the main book. This is essentially a biography of Juliet Nicholson’s female relatives, from a dancer in Spain in 1830 through to a granddaughter born in 2013.  It is the story of a family who have mainly lived financially secure lives, in the beautiful surroundings of Knole and Sissinghurst.  Nicolson does write in the introduction about this aristocratic setting; the unhappiness felt by several of these women had nothing to do with lack of money. She writes “But I wonder if wealth  and class always amounted to privilege in a broader sense.” Some of these women have been deeply unhappy, in their marriage to unsympathetic and difficult men, in their own disappointments, even their own addictions. Encouragement of their own daughters has not always been the case, and if they have had success it has almost despite their backgrounds rather than because of it. Having said that, servants and money have always been there to soften the blow in terms of day to day existence until the most recent generations, and in the case of Pepita whose talent and beauty transformed her life. These are also women who have made their mark,; they include the writer and garden creator Vita Sackville West, whose life and writing are studied today. This chapter was a little disappointing, as I felt that Nicholson had not really created a full picture of such a vibrant woman, despite revelations about early married life.

This is a very well written , well researched book. Nicholson has obviously been fortunate in having immense family records to consult which would not be the case for most of us, as well as having famous lives to try and encapsulate. The most touching and significant portraits here as you may expect are of her own parents, and her own battles with life, again against a background of financial security but also a great sadness. I suppose one of the difficulties with history, even recent family history, is that “They all die in the end” and it is difficult to think of some individuals without loading them up with the regrets of their deaths rather than their achievements in life. I suppose I would have welcomed a little more positivism about women  who did achieve a lot, whether as a political hostess, a writer or a creator of a world famous gardener. This is not a miserable book, but neither is it a happy book.

One style point,  I became very confused about all the names given to the main people. While I appreciate that some people shared the same name, (two Lionels!) I sometime found that “mother” changed to Philippa and back again within a page. I also got my Vita and Victorias muddled, which meant a generational issue. Maybe it is because of my reading in a haphazard way, but it did affect my interest. That said, this is a searingly honest book which I found very interesting and I would recommend to anyone interested in women’s lives in the 20th century, particularly those interested in family dynamics.

















Authors of the North- at least for a time

When we moved up to the Frozen North, I suppose that I imagined that my days of going to author signings in our local bookshops, reasonably handy for London, were over. And yes, they probably have changed. One local independent bookshop, Cognito in Hexham, does seem to round up quite a few authors to sign their books ( =expensive presents for Husband and others) and seem to organise the book festival in May – hence my sighting of Phillipa Gregory as my post of a few weeks ago.

Another popular author attraction is the Newcastle University Insights lecture programme, open to the public. I have sighted Juliet Nicolson,writer of The Great Silence and more recently Juliet Gardiner writer of The Thirties and The Blitz. More about both writers at a later date.

And tonight, at our local library, Graham Pears, writer of a new crime novel, The Myth of Justice. A retired policeman of the North East, he entertained his audience with many tales of his career, including chasing an escaped lion across Sunderland. If the book turns out to be as funny as his stories, it will be excellent. I think it looks as if it is going to reveal a realistic, if fictional, story of criminal life in the North East, so  I’m looking forward to reading it. His next book comes out in March; I hope to have read this one and posted about it before then. He is due to speak in the City Library in Newcastle on Saturday as part of the Books on Tyne Book Festival. I’m actually due to go to the Free Thinking Event at the Sage, where other authors at to be let loose on the public. It looks good ( and it’s my birthday, so I’ll try to forget my age).

A book after all this gadding about?

After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson is, as may be guessed from the title, another murder mystery set in the Twenties.The Heroine, Danny Gilver, does not seek to solve a murder, thinking only that there is an insurance scandal going on involving friends and acquaintances. Thus she is a fairly inept, if instinctive, investigator, and when murder is suspected she is not motivated by the need for money, furthering her career or anything except a determination to get to the bottom of a convoluted family situation. There are very dramatic events, but there are a lot of very realistic details of Dandy’s own family situation, including her rather awkward husband.

I enjoyed this book; McPherson having established a fairly laid back style and describing a woman who has to worry about her own family responsibilities as well as crime solving. There are elements which are a little repetitive, and one or two loose ends which are a little annoying. It does represent one of an ever increasing number of women detective tales written recently but set in this period, but this does depict a female young enough to be concerned with her appearance and role, but past the courtship with the handsome young detective/lord/policeman stage. I think it is the first of a series as well, and it is a worthwhile, interesting story. It does not go off into psychological studies like the Maisie Dobbs series, but is more substantial than the Daisy Darlymple mysteries. I enjoyed it, and would recommend it as a fairly easy read if a little annoying in places where the narrative does drift a little. It does not have the stamp of authenticity like Patricia Wentworth’s book in my last post, and can sometimes be a little fantastic, but it is a page turner,and worth seeking out. I will try and read the others available in the series, but you know how it is …so many books, so little time…