South Riding – the real thing

So, having been off gallivanting again – this time to Manchester with at least no dramas about returning – I bought far too many books and now feel obliged to write about at least some of them. My Mothering Sunday present from Son Two was If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley.

I have started to read it, and it is a enjoyable history book. I am enjoying it, partly for the reasons that I was disappointed in Bill Bryson’s  Home. This is a book of British home history in all its itchy, smelly but fascinating detail. So you do not need to be an American History don to understand it. Also, it does represent the female element far more fully, revealing the sheer hard work behind bed making, dressing and all the other activities of the bedroom…

The main book today is the amazing South Riding by Winifred Holtby.

If you have only watched the (admittedly excellent) BBC adaptation you may have gained the impression that this is a lightweight romance. Not so. If you have read Middlemarch you will recognise the type of book this really is. It is the story of a community, but more importantly the various people, their passions and problems, that make up that community. I think that Holtby was trying to present a portrait of what actually makes a community tick through looking at some of its inhabitants, old and new, with a vested interest in the people and place as well as the newly arrived and ambitious. As in the tv adaptation the main character is the new headmistress of the girls’ school, Sarah Burton, and her ambitions. She does encounter the mysterious Carne, who has many problems of his own, as well as Lydia, whose intellectual promise is held back by her family responsibilities. This book includes many other characters and their stories which are developed and run together. It is a complex book, far deeper than the tv would make you believe, with far more to say about love, hope, ambition, compromise and fulfillment. It is is not a completely happy book; there is death, disillusionment  and despair. But there is also love of many kinds, humour in the variety of people, and fascinating situations. It is a deep wallow of a book, an undertaking to read but very rewarding. I enjoyed it and have already given my copy to unwary relative to read. If you enjoyed the drama on the tv, this is a really good read, even without David Morrisey…

Singled Out and Maisie Dobbs – Leftover women

One of the fascinating areas of reading popular at the moment – or is that every Remembrance Sunday – is the other effect of the carnage of the First World War, being the sheer number of women who survived the War, despite their often risky war work. Mathematics alone shows that there must have been many women who could no longer hope to marry or have relationships with men, so many young men having died or been terribly injured.

Not that I want to dwell on the tragic aspects of this era, but it did mean that women had to enter and become proficient in occupations that they would never have considered possible before. The lovely Persephone Books deal with this subject in some of their reprinted novels, but a factual book which seems to be quite positively dealing with the women’s fates is Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson, subtitled “How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War”.

This seems on my reading so far to be a positive account of what these women did. It scores a hit with me because it mentions Winifred Holtby and even quotes from The Crowded Street, her novel recently reprinted by Persephone

The Crowded Street

(No.76) which is a moving account of the fate of young women who cannot fulfill their intended destiny of respectable marriage. Not one of Persephone’s most cheerful offerings, but an absorbing read which draws the reader into the plight of women living not so long ago. I would recommend it as an excellent account of the sheer hopelessness (and not in a feeble way) of these women.

Which is a long winded way of getting to today’s book, An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear, being the fifth Maisie Dobbs Mystery. For the uninitiated, Maisie is a girl who though born in the servant class in London, is supported by a wealthy patroness, begins studying at Cambridge, then becomes a nurse in the First World War.  Through the novels she becomes a Private Investigator who looks at different cases using her experiences and intuition. This latest novel fits the pattern well, reflecting the mystery-solving theme amongst some rather poignant events. I read this book quickly, enjoying picking up the clues early (for me, anyway) and the observations on life and death. It is not a cheerful book, but one which is interesting on several levels.

I have commented before that there are several series of books in which an independent female soles murder mysteries in the 20s and 30s. Of all of them, this series is the most sombre and arguably the most obviously well researched. This novel depicts the gypsy way of life, which Winspear has apparently studied carefully. which shows in some laboured passages of description. It is also a little tedious on Maisie’s abilities to become a miraculous diviner.

Those things said, this is an interesting series of books which are worth reading if you are interested in the period of history, murder mysteries and the long term effects of the War on many levels of society.