The Time Machine by H.G.Wells – The Oxford University Press Edition

This book has been said to be one of the earliest novels of science fiction. While it is not a genre I know well, I believe that this book does set down some of the rules and standards that have become part of the definition of science fiction. A realistic setting, almost domestic, a real attempt to produce evidence that would satisfy a discriminating audience, and events just beyond expectation and credibility. In this novel the protagonist is not overly dramatic, his audience chosen for their professional scepticism, and the setting is so Victorian domestic that a reader can learn something of that period. In the light of the current fashion for dystopian vision, this is a chilling report of a world where evolution has defined humanity so as to be vaguely recognisable rather than the same, but developed. Written in 1895, this is a book that would shock today in its bleak view of life many thousands of years hence.

The Time Traveller is in his sitting room, expanding on his thoughts about humanity to his guests, known mainly by their profession (a Medical Man, a Psychologist, an Editor and others) in an after dinner discussion. No women appear in this setting; this is a gathering of scientific gentleman presumed to be sceptical about such dubious assertions that time travel is possible and indeed experienced by one of their number. He produces a model, beautifully made, of a prototype time travel machine, and explains when it disappears that he proposes to make a larger version in which he will travel to the future. His friends are unconvinced, but soon he invites them to believe such an attempt has been made.

The future is at once a paradise and a frightening place. Those he encounters are difficult to categorise, but the Time Traveller recalls an experience that is incredibly detailed. Proof of events is not utterly compelling, but there is every reason to believe that what occurred in this otherwise remarkable house cannot be easily understood.

This is an extremely short, readable classic which is stylistically of a time when the forces of industrialisation and invention were resulting in whole new world views, often painful, sometimes exhilarating. Its late nineteenth century setting is solid, its view of a possible future almost lyrical. Wells was a scientific journalist; a new profession which meant that he was presumably on the edge of discoveries that to the eyes of his contemporary readers would have seemed incredible. Thus time travel would have almost seemed credible by contrast, and it is long before the rules of causing upset in travelling backwards and forwards in time were set down.

This edition of which I received a review copy from Oxford University Press sets out an informative introduction and includes a substantial amount of additional text. The notes explain some of the more obscure references and greatly adds to the understanding of the book. If your tastes run to classic science fiction this novel is a defining introduction, and this edition explains much of the background and achievement of H.G.Wells as one of the most innovative writers of his time.


The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard: the immersive Cazalet Chronicles begins….

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This novel is the first of the Cazalet Chronicles, so called because it revolves around the Cazalet family of three generations. It is a terrifically involving family saga, set in 1937 and 1938, when its looks like war is imminent. Calling it “The Situation”, the danger seems real as preparations are made to gather everyone. This is a book where many members of the family each gets a focus, so what is happening on the surface can sometimes see at variance with what various individuals are actually thinking. The most successful thing about this book is the way that each character is looked at from outside but with such understanding that their point of view is justified.

The family is ruled on one level by the Brig, or William, who is also the head of the family timber business. His wife, the Duchy, maintains a firm hand on the domestic front, but sometimes ignores what is happening in front of her, especially when regarding her daughter Rachel. Hugh and his wife Sybil misunderstand each other all the time, but love each other deeply. Edward, the second son, has married Villy who has given up much, but tries to find new distractions. The children have their various problems as they deal with growing up. No one in the family is in grievous need, but this novel reveals the perceptions and problems that beset every young person. The narrative is made of many small but interconnected events; like real life there are challenges and opportunities at every point, mainly from what feels like real people’s actions and reactions regarding other people.

It is difficult to describe the immersive nature of this book and how it brings the reader in. The knowledge that it is the first in the series of five books means that all things are to be worked out gradually, on an individual level, the family arrangements, and the real start of the war in September 1939. The skill that Howard shows in this book is being able to move the action forward while giving each character adequate time to develop and change, within the framework of their own reality. This sounds pretentious, but the simple truth is that it is a really good read, not always cheerful, but sometimes funny. I enjoyed rereading this book immensely and would recommend others to get involved in the Cazalet family and their reactions to a war that involved so many civilians.

One of the facebook groups I have joined is “Mrs Hurtle Reads a Book”, a curious title for a group that specializes in Reading challenges such as  A Century Of Books. While the idea of reading a hundred books may be a bit overwhelming, I also like to set myself smaller challenges. Last year I managed to read five Dorothy L Sayers books in the Folio set, as well as all twelve Poldark books (I know, I know, I need to get out more). This year my first challenge apart from two centuries in two years (not as bad as it sounds) is all five of the Cazalet novels. So the first one is down, only four to go…

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell – A place of Women?

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This book is one of the best social history documents concerning a small English town in the middle of the nineteenth century. In the reign of “Our Queen” – Victoria of course, the small town of Cranford (actually Knutsford in Cheshire) is dominated by women. The book actually points out that every household above a certain value is run by a woman, single or widowed, and there is a notable shortage of men beyond those strictly necessary in a Victorian town. The centre of the settlement is the household of the Misses Jenkyns, the two unmarried daughters of a previous Rector. Now in their fifties, and therefore seen as old (ouch!), Miss Deborah is seen as the arbiter of taste, custom and behaviour, the clever daughter with decided views on literature, dress and every kind of ritual which can occur throughout the year. The younger sister, Matilda or “Matty”, is a far gentler character; some might say, too gentle and undecided for her own good.  Various other women form their social circle, notably Miss Pole, incurable gossip and agitator of much activity, and Mrs Jamieson, slightly higher up the social scale and devoted to her dog, Carlo.

The women are not the poorest financially, but apart from the complicated social arrangements, they must all practise “elegant economy” as their income is strictly limited. This takes the form of balancing the use of candles, and entertainments using their finest crockery but tiny amounts of food. Calling or visiting friends is to be done at certain times, and length of each visit is strictly determined. All this life is described by Mary Smith, unnamed to begin with, but developing in time to become an actual character who takes a thoughtful hand in the fortunes of the Jenkyns household and participating in several situations. The community is fascinated by the arrival of Captain Brown and his two daughters, as some conventions are compromised and tragedy befalls some characters.

This is a well- loved novel written by a woman with skill and compassion. It is essentially an entertaining read, first serialised in Dickens’ publications, and only latterly collected into a book. In many ways it is not fictional, as Gaskell describes scenes from her own childhood and almost lists the small anecdotes of behaviour. As the novel develops, a plot of a kind emerges, as tragedy makes people behave slightly differently and entertain new possibilities. It remains an uplifting book despite losses to the community, as Gaskell shows the best in her characters. There is delightful fear as a long dark lane must be travelled, and a shortage of money addressed, yet there is still the cow who must wear memorable wraps, and a cat with a taste for fine lace. In many ways this is not an exciting read, and most interesting for those who like their humour subtle and their plots undramatic. It is not a long book, but it is strong on characterisation as Gaskell controls her cast of characters in a peaceful setting. It has much to say on the position of women with little or no education, the fear of outsiders and the myriad little disturbances of what some now call a multi thread drama. It is perhaps the antidote to the strong stories of Gaskell’s contemporaries and differs from her own other novels; it is really a loving tribute to her own upbringing in a small town, a successful evocation of times already past.

We looked at this book in our book group today, and some members mentioned how they had been asked to read it at school, and got incredibly bored with it as a result. Some of us had watched the BBC version of 2007, and got a little confused because of the inclusion of two other stories by  Gaskell. There was actually a fascinating discussion on the changes in life since the books setting, but also how social differences and economics still led to unfairness today. While some began by not really appreciating the book, it was agreed that it was an interesting read and was enjoyed by most of us.

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!

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!)

A Shiny New Books review – A Hundred Tiny Threads by Judith Barrow

Today I present a link to Shiny New Books – my review of a terrific book “A Hundred Tiny Threads” by Judith Barrow. Intense, atmospheric and generally superb writing…. – click here.

Apparently if you click on the above you get through to the review, and from there dozens (hundreds?) of book reviews!

Happy reading!

The Reformation in Fiction – a list of books with comments!

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Here is something completely different! A few months ago I gave a lecture on the Reformation in Fiction – one in a series of talks on the Reformation in England. I was then asked to summarise it for a magazine article, which meant that it became more of a list of books with comments on what I thought made them relevant. I thought that some readers of this blog may enjoy lists of books, so here is the short version. I actually read extracts of most of the books listed here, so it was a bit of a fight to keep it short! Some of the books may have also been reviewed on this blog, so do look them up under the authors’ name to the right of your screen.

This third talk looked at the place of fiction in understanding the Reformation. Limited to the Reformation in England, there was still a lot of ground to cover. The reason for historical fiction was summed up in Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures which are probably still available in transcript form online. The understanding of previous generations emerges through fiction, as what people felt, heard, saw and said can  be explored, even if not proved in documentation. All history is of necessity selective, so why not help people to understand what it was like to actually experience the Reformation?

Two series of books help us understand what life was like in a monastery in England pre Reformation. Ellis Peters “Brother Cadfael” books are set in a monastery in Shrewsbury in the 1130s. From them we learn about the monks who have lived in the world like Cadfael himself, as well as those who entered young with ambitions for advancement. The monastery offers sanctuary and help to the sick and needy, as well as having to maintain its position in the community. Similarly, Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew books set in Cambridge in the 1300s are about the variety of monks, priests and academics who inhabit the small town and the politics, rivalries and jealousies that emerge between the different orders.  Life in a convent is represented by Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “The Corner that Held Them” as it describes the inhabitants of a small English convent.

The period of the Reformation has been covered via historical fiction writers over many decades. Some will remember Jean Plaidy’s many books about the Tudors and their supporters such as Sir Thomas More. His refusal to acknowledge the break with Rome and his fate was movingly described in the play “A Man for All Seasons” which I was fortunate to study at school. More recently, the life and times of the man, Thomas Cromwell,  who implemented many of the reforms of the times has been explored to enormous effect by Hilary Mantel in “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”, the result of so much research and subsequently adapted for stage and television.

Alison Weir has produced many non-fiction books concerning British history, but her latest fictional series on the six wives of Henry VIII includes “Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession”, which shows Anne as actively interested in the reformation of religious faith in England. Elizabeth Freemantle’s first book, “The Queen’s Gambit” looks at Henry’s sixth wife, whose writing and publishing of books encouraging worship in English placed her in real danger from her husband, who was inconsistent in his views on reform.

The actual dissolution of the monasteries pushed through by Cromwell and his commissioners has been described vividly in C.J. Sansom’s “Dissolution”. A lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, is sent to solve a murder in a fictional monastery, but it soon becomes obvious that the entire establishment is riven by corruption and bitterness. As the monastery physically crumbles, the process of dissolving the religious houses of the country proceeds and their wealth redistributed. “A Cold Wind Blowing” by Barbara Willard, a much less well known book, also recounts the destruction of a monastery and its effects on the people who have been dependent on it for generations. The human cost of the Reformation is exhaustively described in Hilda Prescott’s huge book, “The Man on a Donkey” which looks at the convergence of characters which led to the Pilgrimage of Grace, the movement of people which began in the north as a protest against the religious reforms. A very real threat to the rule of Henry VIII, this book looks at people from various backgrounds who actively rejected what was done to change the practice of worship which had lasted for generations.

An account of how the religious controversy of Henry’s reform still dominated the reigns of his successors, S.J.Parris “Heresy” is dominated by the dangers of religious controversy in Elizabeth’s England and beyond. Rory Clements also recounted the real danger that England stood in from Catholic – inspired invasion during Elizabeth’s reign in “Martyr” as the settlement achieved was still precarious.

So this list of books may seem a little overwhelming, but their use of fictional characters jointly strives to give a picture of before the reformation, during the religious changes, and the effects of an uncertain settlement. There are many non-fiction books available which tackle the Reformation, but fiction can deepen our understanding of the real people involved.