The Red Widow Murders (book #133)

23 February 2015

Carter Dickson, 1951 (originally 1935).

I wasn’t that keen on this – process-heavy, and the detective and other characters don’t have enough life for me. But here are a couple of sections I did like:

The street was very quiet and dim-lit, a backwater in itself, which curved round to the right towards the mysteriousness of Lansdowne Passage. And, towards Lansdowne Passage, the heavy house-fronts began to fall away in startling ruin. They were tearing down many of the solid town-houses that had bulwarked Mayfair for two hundred years. A ragged side-wall or two still remained standing, still patched with the wall-paper of vanished rooms; a heap of stones, a gaping vastness of cellars in the open spaces, a street gutted to ruin.

(A character says a few pages later that “‘Old Mayfair’s going, and maybe a good thing. They’re buying up all the good sites for big blocks of flats and cinemas … ‘”.)

Carstairs was a lank young fellow with a ruddy face, a brown tooth-brush moustache, and a genial manner, whose hobby seemed to be any sport which entailed the more spectacular ways of breaking your neck. As an example of the Silent English Sportsman, he was a surprise. Not only did he impart most of his life history in the first fifteen minutes, but he illustrated each adventure with a powerful piece of acting and a wealth of gesticulation. He used everything on the table to plot out the course for a motor-race, making frantic brr-r-ing noises as the salt-cellar which represented his car went plunging round the track. In the stealth of a hunting expedition, he leered behind imaginary rifle-sights and expelled his breath triumphantly as the express bullet went home. And, oddly enough as Tairlane found, he was not a liar.

Midst Many Snares (book #132)

12 January 2015

Laura A Barter Snow, ?1909.

Cover of Midst Many Snares

Snow’s protagonists are beset by Roman Catholics, who are shown as going to any sort of deceit to get influence. Lord Wythe’s footman turns out to be a Jesuit who is trying to discover secrets about foreign affairs, and who threatens a woman who recognises him with death if she informs on him. A locum for a Church of England vicar turns out to be a Roman Catholic priest. Two children are ill-treated at a convent school to try to persuade them to convert. A “secret society for the spread of Romish doctrines” tries to lead undergraduates “’astray … They are utterly changed, and regularly go to confession, and give every promise of turning out tip-top Ritualists, if not something worse’”. A minister influenced by this takes over a church and the congregation start leaving to go to the Methodist chapel instead.

“’And can you blame the people? The ritualistic churches may attract weak, silly girls and women, especially of the upper classes, and also a few men, but the sound-headed and sturdy middle class know better. They want something satisfying; they have got to face the wear and tear of life, and demand reality. … ‘”

Laura Barter Snow makes it clear that she has no problem with non-conformists or dissenters, just RCs. One of her characters says

“’I belong to the Church of England … and I love her liturgy; but that does not hinder me loving those of other sects. I have worshipped with the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Plymouth Brethren, for are we not all one in Christ Jesus? Wherever a sectarian spirit creeps in, it is to the loss of spiritual power.’”

Apart from the Catholic hierarchy and the issue about the Pope and saints being important, one of her main anti-RC points is their lack of use of the Bible, which apparently keeps countries backward. Christine is told

“’Have you ever noticed … that all Roman Catholic countries, where the Bible is a sealed book, suffer for it? This Book is the secret of England’s greatness … Look at Holland, Prussia, the United States, and see the thriving condition of these nations in contrast to Italy, Spain, and France, where Rome is leading the people practically to infidelity. … ‘”

Confession is also terrible to her, and she presents it as a sort of sexual harassment, as in Mrs Smith’s description of confession with a high Anglican vicar:

“’ … I was shown into his study, and as soon as I got in he up and locks the door, and that scared me. … At first I answered all his questions; but presently he began to say things I didn’t like – things I’d never heard or thought of before, and it made me hot all over. I hid my face in my hands and began to cry, and the more he talked the worse I got … says he, ‘Remember, Hester White, you will commit a great sin if you ever disclose to any human being anything that has taken place in this room. Confession,’ says he, ‘is a secret between the priest and the sinner.’ … ‘”

One main character, Una, becomes a nun against her mother’s wishes, and is ill-treated, “never allowed to sit down … they always had to live without fires”. We are given to understand that she regrets her decision, but is not allowed to leave. “Why is it that these places are not open to public inspection, like other institutions in our great country?” Yes, good plan, bring in Ofsted for convents.

I was also interested in the brief treatment of the Irish. Christine’s father was Irish.

“’And so I suppose you consider yourself more than half a Paddy,’ laughed Mrs. Worthington. ‘Well, dear, you will be none the worse for that; many of our most brilliant leaders, statesmen and military men, have been Irishmen. Only don’t go in for disturbances, I pray you; I do like living in peace!’ and all joined in the merry laugh which followed this statement.”

I do like a good chapter intro of this kind: “Two years passed away.” More contemporary novels should use this temporal jumping.

I have not previously come across LBS as far as I remember, which is surprising as she was evidently extremely prolific and there are lots of copies of her books available. There is very little information about her online. Her biography, The Joyous Servant. The Life Story of Laura Anna Barter Snow … By Her Daughters indicates that her dates were 28/08/1864 to 23/06/1939. Here are some of her books, with great titles:

Marjory; or, What would Jesus do? (1893)
Mona’s Inheritance; or, “Who hath despised the day of small things?” (1896) I’m a bit baffled by this one as a copy on eBay seems to be bound with Three Girls In A Boat, which I can’t find in the BL or Bodleian catalogues.
Ruth’s roses, or, What some girls did (1903)
Honor’s quest; or, How they came home (1906)
Her Bright To-morrow; or, “All must be well” (1907)
Norah’s Victory; or, Saved through Suffering (1913)
The Sealed Packet. The stirring story of Aimée’s gold mine. (1918)
Eldwyth’s Choice (1929)
Ursula, a candidate for the Ministry (1930)
The Two Myrtles; or, “I, being in the way, the Lord led me” (1933)

Some of these have good dustjackets:

Cover of Sealed Packet

Cover of Aileen

I’ve given the earliest date from either the Bodleian or BL cats, but they may not be totally reliable. Midst Many Snares is given as third impression, 1909. My copy is also 3rd impression but inscribed “All Saints Epping Upland Church Choir. Awarded to Lizzie Bailes for Regular Attendance & Good Conduct. 1919-1920. Walter A Limbrick Vicar”.

Cover inscription

One passage from LBS is all over the internet on contemporary Christian sites: This Thing Is From Me.

Of the daughters who wrote / may have written her biography, Dorothy Snow, Marjory Snow, Eileen Snow and Kathleen Snow,

– Dorothy Snow seems also to have written The Long Pursuit (1931), Fiddlers Three (1953) and David, Tony and the Bees (1946), reprinted as Tony, David and the Bees (1947). The Bees book was evidently Christian, judging by the publishers.
– Eileen Snow seems also to have written Tales about Tails, etc (1949), Ludhiana Christian Medical College responds to the Challenge of India (1958), and contributed to Christ’s servant, India’s friend: a memoir of Dr. Aileen Pollock of Ludhiana with an epilogue by her friend and successor, Dr. Eileen Barter Snow. There is a history of Ludhiana Christian Medical College here.

I had a quick look for LBS in the census records. I can’t find her as Laura Barter, so either her DoB is wrong, her name is badly misspelt in the census, she was using a different name or she wasn’t listed. I found her in the 1901 census living at 27 Duncan Terrace, Islington, with her husband Frank, 3 year-old Dorothy, a son, also Frank, aged one, a visitor, Jessie Padden, living on her own income and born in India, a cook, Florence Pitt, and nurse, Christina Cameron. Laura is listed as having been born in India, which may be why she wasn’t on earlier censuses. By the 1911 census they have moved to The Vicarage, Broadway, Worcestershire, and have another 4 children (Eileen aged 9, Lucy Kathleen aged 7, Richard aged 4 and Marjory aged 3). They now have a servant, Blanche Ashby, a nurse, Fanny Powell, and a Private Secretary and Typist, Mabel Ashwell. I presume the typist is for Laura’s work mainly as I can’t find any books by Frank. A slightly more detailed place of birth is given for Laura – Calcutta. Frank can be traced back to the 1881 census, when he was living in Barrow-in-Furness and was a Commercial Clerk. I can’t find him in the 1891 census.

Images from the book – Visiting the poor:

Scene from MMS - visiting the poor

Christine – same image as cover, but dress is a different colour:

Scene from MMS - Christine picking roses

Visiting Una in the convent:

Visiting Una in the convent

MMS - spine

The Victorian Woman (book #131)

28 November 2014

Suzanne Fagence Cooper, 2001. SFC is the author of the biography the film Effie Gray is based on.

This is a picture book using the collections of the V&A.


The Dinner Hour, Eyre Crowe, 1874. There is a good Eyre Crowe site here.

TVW 001

Photograph by Paul Chapuis, Woman painting portrait, c 1860. See this on the V&A site here.

TVW 004

Poster, Convicts and Lunatics … , c 1900, Emily J Harding Andrews. There are some really interesting notes on the artist’s life at Woman and Her Sphere.

TVW 005

The Slade Life-Class, magazine illustration, 1883.

TVW 006

Paul Martin, photograph, Girls Paddling at Cromer, 1892. There is a similar picture here and some other pictures by Paul Martin here.

TVW 007Photograph, 1898, from family album.

Doreen Wallace (1897-1989), Writer and Social Campaigner (book #130)

17 August 2014

June Shepherd, 2000.

Wallace was one of the Somerville School of novelists. I can’t find much online about this group (most links are to lists of all novelists from Somerville, not this more specific group) but Shepherd says they comprise Vera Brittain, Muriel Jaeger, Margaret Kennedy, Holtby and Sayers as well as Wallace. They are discussed in Susan J Leonardi’s Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists, which I would like to read.

Wallace wrote 48 novels, starting with A Little Learning in 1931 and ending with Landscape with Figures in 1976. I came across her through How to Grow Food, 1940, recently republished.

Sayers probably caricatured Wallace in Gaudy Night in the person of an old student, Catherine Freemantle / Bendick, who had been brilliant at university but then married a farmer, had children and sunk into domesticity: “a Derby winner making shift with a coal-cart”. Wallace certainly felt this was a depiction of her and was angry about it. It seems odd though as Wallace was already publishing novels by this time – I guess Sayers must have seen this popular writing as of no account weighed against academia.

“It was some three years after her son’s birth [which was in 1927] when, in the later stages of her third pregnancy, Doreen sat down … to start the novel that had been in her mind for months. ‘I was too hefty to do much gardening or other physical work … [ellipsis in text] I felt that by now I had enough experience of life, though limited, and knowledge of country people, though limited, to have something more to say”.”

I like Wallace’s implication that she was “too hefty” to garden so might as well write.

Wallace was very involved in the 1930s Tithe Wars – these were protests by landowners in East Anglia and Kent against paying the church tithe. Again, there’s not much online, but see the summary of this paper, The Tithe War in Kent 1925-36: an Example of English Militant Agrarianism and this article about an East Anglian man’s memoirs, North Suffolk man’s autobiography recalls tithe wars and Mosley’s blackshirts. The Tithe Wars lost their importance when the Second World War started, but compulsory tithes were not ended until the 1970s. Wallace said that it was this issue that ended her friendship with Sayers, who as a vicar’s daughter and Christian was on the other side of the argument.

The biography includes some of Wallace’s poems as an appendix. I don’t think most of them are very good, though I quite like this one, the first verse anyway, for its focus on a mundane activity (and the suggestion of Marvell’s mower):

Cutting the Grass

He is cutting the grass, and it flies like spray
On following wind, in a brilliant bow
With light white bubbles bestarred, the day
Prisoned by trees in this narrow plot,
Bright, scented, hot,
Rings with the noise of the blades that mow
Their ribbony pathway to and fro.
Like bubbles of foam the daisies fly
Before the speed of his industry.

It is done: there lies the impeccable sward,
Silkily striped like a party-gown.
A crushed sweet silence creeps abroad
And night’s first veil comes down.
The cutter is being taken away,
A dwindling tune of jangles and jars:
But the myriad daisies, where are they
That were more and whiter than summer stars?

There’s also this one:


A valedictory whisper, high and rare,
The last note of a hidden violin,
Steals from another world discreetly in
And quietly flowers on the heated air.
Thin is the wall that sunders Here from There,
A membrane only of the mind, so thin
That I can watch the conversation spin
Its web about the room from chair to chair.

And still be drawn by that frail note away
To the unbounded world beyond the wall
Where I can see the littleness of day,
The timely grace of seasons at their fall,
Can see the light go down, the darkness climb,
And hear the cadence of the feet of Time.

As with the mowing one, she’s reaching for deepness in the second stanza, and I don’t think pulls it off. But some of the first verse is more successful, the amazement at the here-and-there-ness of the radio sound.

I want to scan in a picture of Wallace in a wonderful 1920s hat, but my printer won’t let me as it’s out of ink (even though I don’t need ink to scan), and as this is an inter-library loan book I’ll probably have to return it before getting more ink. I’ll photocopy the picture and scan it if it comes out at all usable.

Read since last post:

Jan at Island School, Ethel Talbot
The Case of the Gilded Fly, Edmund Crispin (re-read)
Private Scandals, Nora Roberts
Key of Light, NR (reread)
All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Born in Ice, NR (re-read)
Blue Smoke, NR (re-read)
Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (re-read)
One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming

Wanderings in Anglo-Saxon Britain (book #129)

2 August 2014

Arthur Weigall, not dated but the Bodleian catalogue has it as 1927, and the inscription in my copy is also 1927. The book is online.

I’d not heard of Weigall before but he seems to have a fascinating life: worked with Flinders Petrie, was concerned about the export of archaeological items from Egypt, wanted to support Egyptian involvement in archaeology. Is described as having some sort of breakdown and then becoming a set designer and novelist. I would like to read the biography by his grand-daughter. Would also like to read some of Weigall’s novels.

This book fits well with the books by Jessie Mothersole I’ve been reading. Weigall, who was a journalist, expresses more definite views than Mothersole about what we can or should infer about the British from archaeology. He says in the first chapter,

our school books have so incorrectly spread the belief that the English have no relation to the British, and we have been credited with a purely Germanic ancestry. Actually, however, we are a blend of the two races; and thus while our English ancestry takes us back only 1,500 years or so to the darkness of a rather stormy life in Denmark, Schleswig, and along the neighbouring German coast, our British blood, apart from the “Roman” strain, carries us right back into the four centuries of our connection with Rome, and thence back for at least another 1500 years of more or less civilized life in Britain, and links us at length with the men who built Stonehenge.
As descendants of the British we have at least 3,500 years of civilization in our own land behind us; but though our English history covers less than half that period it, too, presents, even in its early phases, a very creditable tale. The conditions of life in England in early Anglo-Saxon times were at any rate far superior to those in France under the contemporary Merovingians.
Thus, if my purpose is achieved, I shall put forward in these pages a picture of our forefathers’ history which, on the whole, will give us cause for much pride of race …

I love the idea that we should be looking for a creditable tale in archaeology. Here are some more of his thoughts on the British, with more slaps at foreigners:

In spite of wars and tumults, a remarkable and gradually increasing refinement of mind is to be observed in these early [Anglo-Saxon] ancestors of ours, contrasting them very favourably with their contemporaries on the Continent. …

Is it the influence of Britain, rather than that of any one strain in our blood, that has made our race the most orderly, the most magnanimous, and perhaps the most kindly in the world? Is there some quality in the land itself, some unchanging spirit of gentleness brooding over our countryside, which tames all men who come hither, whether they be Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, or Normans, and moulds them into one undying type? What is the nature of this miracle wrought by Britain time after time upon the minds of those various peoples who have come home-hunting to her shores, so that to call a man British is to denote his character? …

the Anglo-Saxons, the English as we now say, became a people different from their Germanic kin, gentler, more magnanimous, more kindly, more idealistic, yet of greater common-sense, more nearly approximating in certain ways to the Celt than to the Teuton …

[The Anglo-Saxons] generally displayed that same tendency towards domestic exclusiveness, privacy, and independence which has remained a national characteristic ever since, and which is now exemplified in the saying that an Englishman’s home is his castle. …

[In Bede] we may fully study the childhood of the English nation, and it may well be a matter of deep satisfaction to us that, thanks to this great old Englishman, our country is far ahead of any other in western Europe in the knowledge of its early history. Through Bede’s labours it may be said that the English race makes its appearance on the world’s stage in both a more vivid and a more reputable manner than does any other western nation; and at a bound, so to speak, we thus take our place in front of all other peoples. …

On the Continent it is proverbially said that “the English are defeated in every battle except the last.” Now this exaggerated but witty saying need cause us no offence, for it means simply that the steadiness of our nerves and our powers of endurance are deemed to be greater than those of other peoples, and that though at first we may receive a terrible gruelling, owing to our national dislike of the attitude of being prepared for war, we may be expected to survive the first shocks and to come out at last on top. …

Weigall is concerned to correct the “Dark Ages” stereotype, writing that “the story of Britain . . . maintains its detailed course through the Anglo-Saxon period, full of interesting and romantic matter, rich in recorded events, and never once falling back into the darkness and vacancy of an unchronicled epoch”.

He ends like this:

the crowds upon it [the road of British history], viewed in the mass, move forward in the same traditional spirit of goodwill, toleration, and compromise which are the historic characteristics of our age-old race. From incalculable distance, augmented by innumerable strains of type and breed, the British people come thronging along this immeasurable way, pressing forward towards the vision of the future, generation succeeding generation, moving from strength to strength, until the Past merges into the Present and we of to-day see ourselves inseparably part of the progression, part of old England, part of Britain that was, and is, and is to be.

Books read since last update

A Fountain Filled With Blood, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Out of the Deep I Cry, Julia Spencer-Fleming
To Darkness and To Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Treachery in Death, J D Robb

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900 (book #128)

27 July 2014

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900
Clive Bloom, 2008.

This is the second edition, revised from the 2002 edition, and reads at times as if the revisions were done rather hastily.

Talks about the difficulty of establishing what the bestsellers actually were. “The British lists were only regularised in the late 1970s.” Before that, he quotes a 1969 article, the lists “‘were produced on a whim by a panel of bibulous bookmen‘, using booksellers whose ‘cynical’ replies were sometimes merely an attempt to sell slow movers”. “There are also no cumulative bestseller lists”, so there is a difficulty about books which over time sell in bestseller numbers, but do not achieve bestseller numbers in any one year.

Bit simplistic at times about reader response – for instance, saying Cartland and Miss Read “attracted women to whom liberal values did not appeal”.

Rather a misogynist comment about Blyton.

Sometimes badly written or edited – this second sentence is hard to understand: “Perhaps hard and fast category distinctions [between adult and child literature] are breaking down in some areas. The growth of teenage literature, R. L. Stine’s extraordinary success in the field of horror is certainly indicative and Philip Pullman’s work, a complex web of ideas and imagination challenges adult beliefs as well as moulding children’s imaginations.”

Bloom seems to dislike commas, as in “The story follows Eragon a poor boy who finds a blue stone in the forest that turns out to be a dragon’s egg”. There are some longer sentences that become breathless because of this.

About half the book is short entries, alphabetical by period, on the bestselling authors. I need to read Berta Ruck.

There are some slightly random comments. For instance, he talks about James Hadley Chase and other paperback thriller writers of the 40s and 50s setting books in America though most of the writers hadn’t been there. ” … few travelled outside the UK. This is still the case with authors today. Stef Penny was prevented from going to Canada by agoraphobia but it did not prevent her from winning a major prize for The Tenderness of Wolves, set in Canada.” Not sure how useful it is to compare the first group of writers with the contemporary Stef Penney (not Penny) who had a different reason for not travelling.

There are a lot of typos, including the splendid “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is the story of a bird who files for the love of it rather than the necessity.” I can visualise the photographs – JLS against faded vintage office cabinets and wooden library index card drawers.

Books read since my last update:

A Stepmother for Susan of St Bride’s, Ruth Adam (which has some kittens that save the day, which is always good).
Margaret Finds a Future, by Mabel Esther Allan.
Thai Dye, Monica Ferris.
A Lady Awakened, Cecila Grant.
Treachery in Death, J D Robb (re-read).
In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming.
I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home, Lisa Manterfield.

Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography (book #127)

20 July 2014

Frances Spalding, 1988.

Smith provided an introduction and captions to Cats in Colour, a 1959 book of photographs of cats. She wrote “arch chatty captions, inferring human intent from the cat’s look or pose,” but wrote in the introduction

It is we who have made these little catsy-watsies so sweet, have dressed them and set up them up, in their cultivated coats and many markings, and thrown our own human love upon them and with it our own egocentricity and ambition … Really to look in an animal’s eyes is to be aware of stupidity, so blank and shining those eyes are, so cold. It is mind that lights the human eyes, but what mind have animals? We do not know, and as we do not like to know, we make up stories about them, give our own feelings and thoughts to our poor pets …

Read since I last posted:

The All You Can Dream Buffet, Barbara O’Neal
The Saxon Shore, Jessie Mothersole (which I shall blog)
Her Last Breath, Linda Castillo
Delusion in Death, J D Robb (re-read)
Seduction in Death, J D Robb (re-read)
Wanderings in Anglo-Saxon Britain, Arthur Weigall (which I shall blog)
Catching Snowflakes, Nora Roberts (two novels, one of which was a re-read)
The Return of Rafe MacKade, Nora Roberts
Christmas Magic, Nora Roberts (two novels)
The Heir of the Castle, Scarlet Wilson

In Roman Scotland (book #126)

7 July 2014

Jessie Mothersole, 1927.

This is an account of visits to Roman sites in Scotland. Mothersole writes as if it’s a connected tour, but there’s no actual statement that it was, and I think she probably made separate visits to different places. She seems to have been alone sometimes and other times with unnamed companions.

Mothersole is clearly serious about archaeology, and I would like to know whether she studied it. She writes in detail about the layout of the sites she visits, talks about previous excavations and the accounts of previous visitors. She’s interested in the methods and logic of archaeology. Here’s a drawing by her of a post hole:

Post hole

The book includes her watercolours of the sites, and maps, even ones that fold out – not a cheap publication.

Here’s Eagle Rock, Cramond – the frontispiece. I don’t think her watercolours are very good.

Eagle's Rock, Cramond

There’s a photograph of the site now here.

Fold-out map of the Birrens fort – she notes that it’s after Barbour, who excavated it in the 1890s:

Map, Birrens

Map of Ardoch (she notes that it’s after the 18thc plan by Roy):

Map, Ardoch

Watercolour of Raeburnfoot fort:


Roman road at Burnswork:


She refers particularly to Sir George Macdonald’s work, but also acknowledges Collingwood.

She makes the contemporary inhabitants of the places she visits part of the scene as well as the archaeology. In Musselburgh she’s shown a better view of the Old Bridge by “a young man, who had evidently been through the war,” who invites her into his parents’ house. Although she represents him as speaking without an accent, his parents speak Scots: “’When I hae crossit it wi’ ane of the bairns clingin’ to each o’ me hands, I hae said, ‘Haud tight, or ye’ll be ower the edge’”’. She’s taken to the flat above to draw the bridge: “I was rather taken aback to see a man sitting on the side of the bed hurrying into his clothes. He was apparently on night-work. I apologized for disturbing them, but neither of them seems a bit disconcerted, inviting me to the windows, and begging me to stay”. She gives the man she met first, Donald, “a commission for some snapshots in the neighbourhood, which in due time he discharged faithfully” – she seems surprised.

She’s interested in “whether there was any local interest in such [Roman] things”, asking people for directions and sometimes rather patronising about their lack of interest and knowledge. “And all the time it was just behind him!”

She meets a local man who worked on the excavation of Raeburnfoot fort. He “beamed all over” when she asked him about it. Mothersole is critical of some of his information. He says “’This is whaur what they callit the ‘Pray-torium’ wull ha’ been.’ As a matter of fact the excavator’s report states that nothing was found within the fort that could definitely be assigned to a building.

Her account of a sleepy summer’s day at Ardoch Roman Fort reminds me of a passage in Charlotte Higgins’s Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain. Here’s Mothersole:

I spent a long summer’s day sketching on this site, and I shall always remember the mounds of Ardoch, not only for their grandeur, but also for their wild flowers, and for the honey-sweet fragrance with which the air was filled. The turf was white with ladies’ bedstraw, purple with heartsease and vetch, blue with bird’s-eye speedwell. … Plovers haunted the spot, circling round, or alighting quite close to me as I lay on the grass, so still that they could not tell I was alive.

I’ll dig up the Higgins quote and add it.

She mentions a tombstone for “a woman from Rætia, with the melodious name of Titullina Pussitta. The first friend to whom I quoted it promptly rechristened her cat”.

Against the cosiness, there are occasional things that make the modern reader think of some of the context of her travels. There’s the condescending references to the people she meets, the odd mention of the war (the woman in Musselburgh had had three sons die in the war), the stately home in Carstairs that is about to become “a Roman Catholic home for defective children”, a quick Google of which shows a history of abuse …

I like the map of Roman Scotland with which her book ends:

Map, Scotland

Here’s an ad from the back for one of her other books:


Mothersole wrote several other non-fiction books, including one called The Saxon Shore which I have ordered, and one on Czechoslovakia. Brian Philp says that The Saxon Shore “inspired me as a schoolboy to a 50-year programme of excavation and publication on the Reculver and Dover forts which continues yet” (link).

There’s some of her art online: a picture of Mary Jane Ellis of Scilly, 1910, and something called Angelic Inspiration, 1913.

Her first book seems to have been published in 1910, though she illustrated a version of Cupid and Psyche published in 1903. She must have been born by about 1885 (which would have made her 18 in 1903). She contributed some drawings to a book by Margaret Murray about the Egyptian site of Saqqara (published 1905), which suggests she may have worked on that excavation. If so, that probably takes her date of birth back a bit, as it’s not terribly likely a 18 year-old young woman would have joined Murray’s dig. Looking in the census, I think she must have been the Jessie Mothersole born in 1873/74, who in the 1911 census is described as a “Painter (artist)”, aged 37, was living in Middlesex and had been born in Colchester. In the 1901 census the same person aged 27 was “Living on own means,” and in 1891, if it’s the same person, aged 17, she was a “Wholesaler,” which suggests a change in circumstances. Free BMD suggests she may have died in 1958 aged 84. I’ll poke around a bit more when I have more time.

Other books I read this week:

LM Montgomery, The Blue Castle (re-read)
Linda Castillo, Her Last Breath
Nora Roberts, Shadow Spell (re-read)
Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl
Nora Roberts, Whiskey Beach (re-read)
Clive Bloom, Bestsellers (which I will blog)

Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words (book #125)

17 June 2014

The Authorised Biography
Boel Westin, trans Silvester Mazzarella
2007, 2014

An amazing book with a luxurious number of colour and black-and-white pictures. I knew nothing at all about Jansson’s life. The book was a bit puzzling at times as I knew very little about Finnish / Swedish twentieth century history or artistic movements (Jansson was the daughter of artists), but definitely worth reading.

Interesting things include how Jansson related to people, the tension between children’s and adults’, serious / playful art or writing, how her work was seen, and her urge to write and re-write, re-imagine or re-tell her past and present, including using real people and events very clearly in her work. I’ve also been reading a biography of Stevie Smith, and she also uses friends recognisably in her writing (sometimes leading to them ceasing to be friends).

The Moomins became an enormous industry, overwhelming Jansson’s ability to manage it and continue other creative work; in particular, she felt obsession (Westlin’s word) about painting, and guilt about not doing so, or not doing so well enough: “There have been so many attempts and so many failures, endless pauses and trying again. … And my feeling of guilt has increased, year by year, to a constant, compact feeling of indisposition, which has made it harder and harder for me to paint.”

She loved to build things: “This was how she described her ‘latest flight from reality’ and the details of its intricate construction (in front of a cave): ‘It is built so that the cave opens out like a inner room … its back wall is not covered but you look up to see the mountainside and patch of sky … Under the ceiling runs a primitive multicoloured thorn, with a window of plaited osiers, and outside a totem pole … Inside there’s an earth floor with flat stones and a stair up to the cave on whose white sandy floor I have strewn shells and on whose walls I am busy carving mammoths and other animals faithfully copied (from ancient discoveries). … ‘

I liked this poem by Jansson’s mother, Signe Hammarstein:

I was a clergyman’s daughter
Guide leader
Interested in
care of the sick
books and drawing
in religion an idealist

I was loved
an artist
moved to his country
survived four wars
worked hard for
the meatballs of life
gave birth to three wonderful
fantastic children
so really
the whole thing wasn’t so

Mentions a fifteenth century church mural by Albertus Pictor of Death playing chess with a knight.

Albertus Pictor: mural from Täby Church

Jansson wrote to a friend “I’m afraid that all my life I shall be an unpolitical = asocial painter, a so-called individualist depicting lemons, writing fairy tales, collecting weird objects as a hobby and detesting associations and societies.”

Something missing for me – and this may be to do with being an ignorant reader – was little sense of how Jansson came across to people, what people who knew her thought of her. It’s only in the last paragraph of the Acknowledgements that Westin, who knew her well, writes “Tove Jansson was at the same time open and secretive, intimate and distant, in a manner all her own”.

The archive and studio Jansson left sounds incredible for her biographer, containing over fifty years of work and life, and Westin implicitly returns to it in the last few words of the book in a sort of Strachey’s Victoria and the rug way, looking back to Jansson’s parents’ studio where bookshelves reached to the ceiling “and she was free to search all the way from the big art books at the bottom near the floor up to the novels and poetry … as she put it herself, ‘to find the Pictures and the Words: the things that will never end’”.

The Fine Companion: DC Daking and the Log of The ‘Fine Companion’ (book #124)

10 June 2014

DC Daking and Hilary Clare, 2011. The book has two subtitles, the other being “The Journal of a Caravan Trip from Oxford to Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer of 1914″.

Interesting list of items sold by a pedlar. “Cucumbers oil lemons darning wool candles soap bootlaces. Pins scrubbing brushes rabbit food. Starch boot blacking soda metal polish. Tape cottons brushes writing paper. Bananas with picture postcards. Tomatoes plums tea. Foot rules. Suspender elastic. Sandpaper cocoa laundry blue. Safety pins. Nail brushes matches ‘Zam Buk’ jam covers. Tin tacks luggage labels boot laces.” [Bootlaces twice.]

Daking adds “His name is J.H. Townsend. Middle Tysoe. General Dealer – & he has a hat of the same make as Alec’s”.

This is half the journal of Daking and friends’ travels in a caravan in July – August 1914, and half notes by Clare on Daking’s life and the people mentioned in the journal. Daking is the Pixie in Oxenham’s Abbey books. Quite a depressing book.


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