Snow in the Maze (book #175)

4 April 2021

Barbara C Freeman, 1979.

cover of Snow in the Maze. Snow scene, statue of Hecate, Rosa in red coat, dog, vase or cup, wreath

I remembered this book as one I used to get from the library as a child, and have been looking for it for some time but without the benefit of remembering the title or the author’s name. Found it in the Oxfam shop in Winchester last summer. My copy has travelled, as it was sold by a bookseller in Auckland and in the school library at Massey High School.

I hadn’t realised that Freeman (1906 to 1999) was the author of another book I enjoyed, the earlier A Book by Georgina. Wikipedia says that Freeman was originally an illustrator, and worked as such for about thirty years before starting to write herself – she was 73 when Snow in the Maze was published. She had studied at the Kingston School of Art. There is more information about her life at the illustration art gallery blog, which says she was the daughter of William and Lucy Freeman; William is decribed as a writer and secondhand bookseller. The site gives a quote from Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers calling her “a gentle writer [who] makes no great demands of her readers”. I’m not sure I would agree with that from what I have read of her. Snow in the Maze is quite a dark book.

The illustrations in this post are from the book. I find them generally more sentimental than the writing (Rosa’s uncertain pose on the cover, Hebe’s lips).

The book begins with Rosa looking at a fan in the Long Gallery. The fan belonged to Cytherea Briarcourt (born in 1766) and shows a painting of Cytherea herself in the Maze belonging to the house. Cytherea is standing by a sundial and a statue of a goddess, thought to be Hecate. There are three men in the maze. There are several other paintings of Cytherea and her brother Vialis. There is also a portrait of her orphaned cousin Hebe, who was ten years younger than Cytherea. Hebe and Cytherea are said to have gone abroad in 1785, and it’s not known what happened to them after that. Vialis became a recluse, sold the house and then went abroad himself, and is believed to have been killed by bandits in Italy.

Some of Hebe’s clothes are on display, and her doll. In the portrait, she is

sallow and plain, and looked out at the world with round, unhappy eyes. Her brown hair straggled from under her cap and her pose was awkward and strangely defiant. With both hands she clutched a small, folded fan to her chest as though she feared her treasure might at any moment be snatched away from her. Rosa noticed that her fingernails were dirty.

drawing of Hebe, with fan and doll

Rosa is visiting the house with a school party, but lingers and is approached by one of the guides, who tells her off. Rosa tells him that she is interested in fans and that her father, Hubert, made her one when she was little, after she found a fan-maker’s trade card in his studio; he later died suddenly. She goes on to tell him that she is “‘kind of a public character, you see, and I only want to be a private one'”. She goes into the gardens of the house:

The bedraggled chrysanthemums seemed to lean together for support, and there was a hint of darkness in their bright air. Rosa remembered how she had once seen the Spring Garden, with her father, in the pale February sunlight. The grassy slopes had been white with snowdrops, and there were crowding pink buds on the almond trees. Intricate tree shadows lay over the winding paths and miniature hills; and she had been entirely happy. For Rosa that single visit had, now, the mysterious quality of a dream, and on nights when she could not sleep she returned, in imagination, to those same narrow paths where she and Hubert could only walk abreast if she clutched tightly at his hand. Frances, her mother, had not been with them.

It starts to rain and Rosa takes shelter in the summerhouse. She is full of grief for her father, and thinks about how hard it has been for her mother, Frances. “Hubert was gone; the Spring Garden was a dark wilderness and there were times when she and Frances had nothing to say to each other.”

The guide appears with an umbrella. She randoms about her feelings at him a bit more, and he tells her his name is Jackman and he is “‘caretaker, librarian, archivist, gardener and Jack-of-all-trades here. In short, I’m responsible for Briarcourt House while the owner is away – and he usually is'”. Jackman has a formal manner of speech. He takes her into his office to get dry. He gives her a postcard of the portrait of Hebe, and tells her a bit more about the family. “‘I have lived so long in this house, with the Briarcourt portraits and the Briarcourt books, that Cytherea and Vialis and their cousin, Hebe, are more real to me than my colleagues'”. He and Rosa talk about whether it is possible to escape the past.

At home, Frances, “thin and fair-haired, with dark, anxious eyes”, has just finished a unsuccessful portrait-sitting with the Abominable Andrew. Her earlier sitting with Sally had also been unsuccessful after the child hid under the table. She and Rosa have a scratchy conversation. Rosa asks Frances if Hubert ever mentioned the fan-maker’s card to her.

“He didn’t,” said Frances. “There were a quite a number of things he didn’t mention to me – like electricity bills, and Income Tax demands. He used to tuck them into books and forget them.”

“I know,” said Rosa. “I may be able to find the card if Hubert put it back into the book.”

“I sold most of his expensive reference books,” said Frances. “We needed the money. But, of course, you wouldn’t remember that.”

“I don’t remember it, but I’m never allowed to forget it,” said Rosa. “Sorry – I didn’t mean to say that.” …

“I suppose you realise that you’re exactly like your father?” said Frances. “Hubert would talk to me about painting, but he never told me anything”.

Frances isn’t coming out well from this conversation. She then tells Rosa that they have had an invitation to go to Baltimore. We learn that Frances is known for her portraits of Rosa. Several of these have been bought by her patron, Mrs Mac: “‘she’s longing for her friends to meet the original of all her Rosas‘”. She reminds Rosa that they owe Mrs Mac a lot. Rosa doesn’t want to go but Frances says she can’t go without her. She tells Rosa that after Hubert died, “‘my grief was mixed with panic, sheer dreadful panic, because there was hardly any money and there were dozens of bills. … When one has lived with panic for months on end, it can never be all over'”.

The next day, Rosa goes back to Briarcourt to return Jackman’s umbrella. She is stopped by a couple of local women on the way who ask her when there will be a new Rosa. When she gets to the house, she falls off her bicycle and damages it, and her knee. She finds Jackman in the gardens and tells him she needs unbiased advice. He refuses, and she starts to leave, upset. He sees that she is limping and follows her, and she tells him that “‘I thought, suddenly, that you might be able to help me. Of course, it was a ridiculous, night-time idea, but I was too tired this morning to look at it reasonably and scrap it. I suppose the real problem is that I’ve no-one to talk to.'” He asks her to come in so he can sort out her knee. She cries in the bathroom, then falls asleep in his office.

Topiary in the garden of Briarcourt House

When Rosa wakes up, she tells him about Rosas, of which there are now seven, starting when Rosa was a small child. She describes the painting of the first one, with her mother telling her to “‘hold it'”, and goes on to talk about the invitation to America. She says “‘I hate hate the Rosas … I’ve tried not to, but I do. It’s not because they’re bad paintings – they’re not, they’re rather good – but because they’re me. I don’t want to be the Rosa girls; I simply want to be R. Clark. And I don’t want to be away from school. … I don’t know how to tell her that I can’t endure the idea of being the Rosa girl any longer. I’ve begun to feel that my life isn’t my own any more, and that I must, somehow, take it back into my own hands.'” She says that, because of her looks, “‘strangers smile at me in bus queues, and boys whistle after me in the street, and I’ve even been embraced by people I’ve never met before, because they recognised me as the Rosa girl'”. Lots of reproductions have been sold, and she is harassed by telephone calls and presents. Someone sends her a skirt and knitted jumper every Christmas, but they are too small.

Jackman doesn’t reply. Rosa changes the subject to Cytherea, for whom she has sympathy because of Cytherea’s beauty and they way it would have trapped her. “‘Cytherea was enslaved by her own beauty, just as others were enslaved by it,’ Jackman said harshly.” He gives Rosa a book on mythology and leaves the room. She feels a presence and hears whispering. “Someone was in the room with her, someone was trying to tell her something, was trying to force her to listen.” She hears the word Perdu. Jackson returns and gives her a lift home, but won’t talk to her about ghosts.

That night, Rosa can’t sleep. Frances hears her walking about and comes in, and tells her

“If it hadn’t been for you, I should have walked into the river when Hubert died.”

“Oh no you wouldn’t,” said Rosa. “You’d never have been able to say, ‘This is the last time I draw a wrist,’ or ‘This is the last time I mix yellow ochre and vermillion.'”

There is a lot of emotion swilling around in this small family. They get up and have cocoa and fried bread and tomatoes. In the morning, Rosa tells Frances about the book on mythology Jackman has given her. Vialis turns out to be another name for Mercury, and Cytherea for Venus. She tells Frances that Jackman makes her uneasy, that she thinks he is hiding something, and about the whispering voice.

We jump forward to December. Rosa finds the fan-maker’s card in one of Hubert’s books. It advertises Henri Leclerc, and has written on it “I have just heard a report that La Petite has gone abroad. It is but a rumour and I do not credit it, but am gone to B.H. to make enquiries”. She rings her grandmother to ask her if she knows anything about the card. She remembers it but doesn’t have any useful information. She pressures Rosa to come to stay with her, and says that Frances is not generous about sharing Rosa. Rosa asks Frances if she can go to stay there after Christmas, but Frances says she “‘couldn’t endure this house even for a few days, if I were alone here'”.

Rosa receives a letter from Jackman saying that he will be leaving Briarcourt in February, and inviting her and Frances to come and look at the things in the Long Gallery that she hadn’t had a chance to do so before. She writes to refuse this, as she was frightened by the whispering. He ignores this and comes to pick her up. Frances says “‘The man’s desperate … I know that tight, controlled expression, and the careful, over-polite manner. For God’s sake go and say something to him – and don’t wish him a happy Christmas'”. As I say, too many feelings, inappropriately shared with children. Jackman tells Rosa that “‘I have been alone at Briarcourt House since the end of October, and there are times when I can no longer endure – ‘”. She goes back with him to the house.

In the Long Gallery, she looks at the portraits of Cytherea, Hebe and Vialis. She realises that Vialis could be a younger Jackman. She hears the whispering again, Perdu. Jackman tells her that he is a member of the Briarcourt family. He starts to read her The Confession of Vialis. He tells her that Vialis

would not see what he did not wish to see, or hear what he did not wish to hear. He would not recognise hate, because it was inconvenient to recognise it, nor would he permit pain or terror or grief to touch more than the surface of his life. He was loved, more than he deserved to be loved, and lost a treasure without realising its worth. He became a solitary wanderer, and wrote his Confessions in the vain hope of exorcising his guilt.

Vialis’s account starts with Hebe coming to the house as a four-year-old. She cried for three days and nights and he eventually comforted her. Cytherea will not acknowledge her at first, but a few years later starts to mock her. Cytherea is angry that Vialis cares about Hebe. Vialis leaves to go on the Grand Tour. He buys the statue of Hecate in Rome. On his return he gives Hebe a puppy and Cytherea a fan, but she doesn’t like it and stamps on it. He commissions a London fan-maker to make Cytherea a fan she will like. On his return from London, he finds Cytherea dragging Hebe into the Maze to trap her there.

Cytherea as a child in cart, being pulled by Vialis

At home, Frances invites Jackman for Christmas, and when he comes he continues Vialis’s Confessions, from memory. The narrative says that the fan-maker, Monsieur Leclerc, visits Briarcourt and Cytherea asks him to paint a fan showing her in the Maze with the statue of Hecate behind her. He is very reluctant as he says he can see darkness and death in Hecate. He does agree in the end. Frances says that Vialis seems very amiable. Jackman says that he was “‘too amiable … He shut his eyes to [Cytherea’s] malice and cruelty … When, at the last, he fully understood that his easy amiability had led to – to terror – and tragedy, he strove, in the only way that seemed possible, to – to make amends'”.

Jackman continues with the story. Vialis’s friend Louis comes to stay at Briarcourt, and they plan a ball. Louis is attracted to Cytherea. For the ball, Cytherea makes Hebe wear an old dress, looking like “‘some mountebank’s monkey'”. At the ball, Cytherea runs into the Maze and says she has “‘presented [her] rose to Hecate'”. Afterwards, Vialis finds that she has run away with Louis. He is horrified, becomes feverish and wants to die. When he recovers, he is told that Hebe has disappeared and that Cytherea must have taken her with him. Hebe’s dog goes into the Maze and is not seen again. Several days after Cytherea has left, Vialis finally reads the end of the note she left him, which says that Hebe is in the Maze and “‘you had best take a lantern and fetch her as soon as you have read this. And you had best order her bed to be warmed'”.

At this point Frances tells him to stop the story, but Jackman can’t. He describes Vialis falling into a fit and waking with amnesia and a horror of the Maze. He has a dream about looking for Hebe in the Maze and having a conversation with Hecate. He offers his life for Hebe’s. Hecate talks cryptically about time stopping for him until “the exchange is completed”. The Maze is allowed to overgrow. The fan painter, Henri Leclerc, comes to look for Hebe, without success.

Years later Louis and Cytherea are killed in the French Revolution. Jackman leaves at this point in the narrative. Rosa says “‘I’m glad there’s a lot of washing-up. It’s a nice calm occupation'”.


We go forward to February. Frances is still agitating about going to America, and she and Rosa cannot resolve this. Jackman rings late one night to say he has been cutting an entrance into the Maze, and can Rosa come the next day, as he thinks he will get to the centre. He has been working solidly for three days and nights. (I cannot believe that it is efficient to work in February dark.) He has dreamt of Hecate telling him “‘The exchange is completed. You have won back the child’s sunlight'”. Then the call is taken over by Henri Leclerc, who tells Rosa that he is her ancestor – the name was changed to Clark. He says she must come to the house now as Jackman has collapsed and he thinks it may be too late for La Petite if Rosa waits until the morning. He says Jackman has always chosen the easiest way and it is possible he will funk going into the Maze. He tells her – and I think this is an off-note – that “‘Your father – and I – are not strangers now'”.

Rosa cycles to Briarcourt and finds Jackman unconscious. She picks up the copy of the Confessions and finds that they are blank. “Jackman-Vialis had told his story in the only way that had seemed possible, by quoting from his unwritten confessions.”

Rosa falls asleep and wakes in the early morning, but cannot get Vialis to wake. She hears a dog barking and rushes into the Maze. ” … she was afraid. The Maze was a trap, cold, secret and dangerous – haunted by Hebe’s desperate terror”. She comes to the final blocked section and hears the dog whining. She hacks her way through the last section and finds the dog, realising he is Hebe’s dog. He leads her to the centre of the Maze, where time has stopped. Rosa doesn’t think she can go in, but the dog goes in and howls and she makes the effort. She finds Hebe half-buried in snow by Hecate’s pedestal, but cannot wake her up. Eventually she reminds the sleeping Hebe of the time when Vialis comforted her by making shadow pictures, when she first came to Briarcourt. “‘And now the shadow man is waiting again, and only you can fly the dove home to him.'” She mkes the dove with Hebe’s hands, and Hebe wakes up.

Rosa twists part of the statue of Hecate to open Hecate’s basket, finding Hebe’s fan, which has a plan of the Maze on it. They thank Hecate (I’m not sure why – not sure she has been a force for good) and leave the Maze. There is a reunion between Hebe and Vialis. Hebe is surprised to see a grey squirrel.

drawing of the maze

Frances rings, and is unsurprised to hear that Hebe has appeared. Rosa asks her “‘When – when did you guess?'” “‘At Christmas,’ said Frances. ‘You look at things Rosa, and I look at faces.'” (Super-recogniser.) They give Hebe the jumper and skirt sent to Rosa. Vialis says he and Hebe will go abroad for a while, but Hebe is very sad to hear they cannot take the dog. Frances points out that, as the wreath Hebe was wearing were drooping but have revived, Vialis and Hebe “‘are back in time – not – not stranded outside it. So there is no further need for you to hide abroad, and return, and then hide again'”. Frances says that she is going to go to America and Rosa to her grandmother’s, and that Vialis, Hebe and the dog can stay at their house. Vialis agrees, and he and Hebe return to Briarcourt for the moment.

Frances tells Rosa that she has realised that Rosa hates the Rosas. When she found Rosa had gone out in the night, she thought Rosa had run away. She says there will be no more Rosas. Then Rosa reads a letter from Mrs Mac, who has just bought Briarcourt House. (Possibly too neat a tie-up?) “‘She’s been dreaming about the house for years.'” Rosa suggests that Frances paint one last Rosa, “‘just for Mrs Mac? Not a Rosa to be reproduced and go into the shops, but a completely private Rosa – just for her'”. Frances decided to paint Rosa as she is at that moment. “‘There’s the light on your hair, and on the letter, and with the plates on the rack behind your head and the glimmer of the taps – hold it, for heaven’s sake, hold it!'” And the book ends, circling back to the first Rosa.

So really Gothic, part of that tradition of children’s time-slip novels, but focussing also on the complex relationship between Rosa and her mother. There’s a lot elided – Rosa’s time at school, for instance, which she implies she enjoys, but we only get the glimpse of her with the other schoolgirls at the start. It’s written very intensely, mostly avoiding the mundane (though I like the cocoa with fried tomatoes and fried bread). Rosa and her mother speak very directly, which is set against the often cryptic speech of Jackman-Vialis.

drawing of leaves, berries and flower

The Sisters-In-Law: A Novel of Our Time (book #174)

23 March 2021

Gertrude Atherton, 1921.

advertisement for the book, 1921I read this because it was advertised as a best-seller in 1921. The Aberdeen Press and Journal also lists it as one of the books London is reading at the moment (7th March 1921). It was a bit of wild ride. There are spoilers in this review of the entire plot. I cannot find any other discussions of the book online.

The book starts at five am in 1906 with Alexina Groome returning from a party in San Francisco. She is the eighteen-year-old daughter of an aristocratic old money family. Her mother refuses to let her socialise with new money families, but she has disobeyed. Atherton tells us that, at the party Alexina has just been to, “The decorations had been done by a firm of young women whose parents and grandparents had danced in the old house, and the catering by another scion of San Francisco’s social founders, Miss Anne Montgomery”. Atherton is laying out her themes: money, class, tradition and change.

Just before Alexina gets back into her house, the San Francisco earthquake happens. The fires start. Mortimer Dwight, whom Alexina met at the party, comes to see if she is safe. He tells her mother that he is in business, but despite this, and probably because he is emphatic that he does not approve of young women “‘painting themselves, smoking, drinking cocktails'”, Mrs Groome decides that he “‘looks like an exceptionally decent young man'”. He also has a good family background, going back over two hundred years, though no money. He and Mrs Groome bond a bit more over “‘these new people.”.

Alexina and her friends spend the day wearing wet handkerchiefs and watching the fire, “fascinated by the spectacle of the burning city”. Atherton then takes us to Dwight’s sister, Gora. She is also watching the fire, sitting on the roof of her house:

The heat was overpowering (she bathed her face constantly from the pitcher) and the roar of the flames, the constant explosions of dynamite, the loud vicious crackling of wood, the rending and splitting of masonry, the hoarse impact of walls as they met the earth, was the scene’s wild orchestral accompaniment and, despite underlying apprehension and horror, gave Gora one of the few pleasurable sensations of her life.

The reader learns that Gora is bitter about growing up in poverty and being shunned by girls of her own class, and that her brother is not bright enough to make a success in business. Gora runs a successful boarding-house for business women.

People in her street have been ordered to leave by armed men: “Gora recognized the voice as that of a young man, clerk in a butcher shop in Polk Street, and appreciated the intense satisfaction he took in his brief period of authority”. Gora does not intend to leave unless the fire gets very near. She takes in a English man, Richard Gathbroke, who is carrying the dead body of his sister. She had died of heart disease during the fire. Gora and Gathbroke carry the body to the cemetery and put it temporarily in one of the vaults. They watch the fire from the cemetery during the night and talk. Gathbroke tells her that he is a younger son and in the army, but would prefer to be in business, especially as he doesn’t think there will be a “‘real war'” any time soon. He thinks to himself that he finds Gora’s face “disturbingly” interesting, though not beautiful. She tells him about her class bitterness. He has met her brother at a party, dancing with Alexina, and was himself attracted to Alexina. Gora tells him that Alexina is only 18.

“That is rather young,” he said dubiously. “I don’t fancy her conversation would be very interesting, and, after all, that is what it comes down to, isn’t it? I’ve been disappointed so often.” He sighed and looked quite thirty-five. “Still, she has personality. Five or six years hence she may be a wonder…. I don’t think I’d care about educating and developing a girl – I like a pal right away….”

Gathbroke tells Gora that she thinks too much about class. She replies “‘That’s easy to say, and besides you are a man. My brother, who is only a clerk in a wholesale house, has been taken up and goes everywhere. They don’t know that I even exist'”. He tells her that she could make a fortune or use talent to “‘make ’em sit up'”. She tells him that she has been studying in order to become a writer. They discuss whether Gora is feminine, or too much a fighter. The fire spares Gora’s house.

Gathbroke mets Alexina again at her sister’s house, and becomes “besotted”. She has already decided to marry Mortimer Dwight. Gathbroke asks her to marry him. She refuses, and he kisses her. She tells him she hates him and herself. Atherton then tells us that Gathbroke remembers his time in San Francisco “during the retreat from Mons and again in those black days of March, nineteen-eighteen”, particularly thinking of Alexina and how he has “ruined his chances by acting like a cave brute”.

Back in 1906, he visits Gora to say goodbye before he takes his sister’s body to New York. He finds out from her that Mortimer and Alexina are engaged, despite opposition from her family. They discuss Gora’s future:

“Have you thought of being a nurse? All work is hard and I should think that would be interesting. Must meet a jolly lot of people. You should see the becoming uniforms the London nurses wear. Prettiest women on the street, by Jove.”
Her heart sank but she replied evenly: “Not a bad idea. I’ve quite enough saved to take the course comfortably -”
He had a flash of memory. “And that would give you time to win your reputation as a writer. Then the nursing would be merely one more resource.”

Atherton jumps forward again briefly to tell us that “the next time they met was when he looked up from his cot in the hospital after he had been retrieved from the hut by two of his devoted Tommies, and saw the odd pale eyes of Gora Dwight close above his own”.

That’s the end of Book I. Book II starts three years further on, at 4am. Gora is now a nurse and has been looking after Gora’s mother, who has just died. When told of her mother’s death, Alexina doesn’t want Mortimer to be woken up, and realises that he is a failure socially and in business, and that she finds him dull. She thinks her best friend, Aileen, would tell her “‘Fate handed you a lemon, old girl'”. Mortimer tells Gora that Alexina “‘has no intellect'”, which makes her laugh. She tells him that in a year she would like her money back – it is invested in his business – and that she has started to sell stories to good magazines. He asks her not to use her own name, but she refuses.

We jump on another three months. Aileen tells her that her father is worried about Mortimer’s business and advises Alexina not to invest her own money in it. They talk about Gora and Aileen tells her that Gora and Gathbroke correspond, which makes Alexina angry. She realises that Gathbroke would have been “her mate” and that they would have had “the complete fusion”. Atherton points out that they had only met for less than three hours, but does not allow this to undermine her character’s realisation.

Alexina goes to see Gora one evening, and walks through a dodgy part of the city. She is accosted by a working man, James Kirkpatrick, a socialist, and asks him to come to talk to her and her friends about socialism. On getting to Gora’s, she asks Gora about Gathbroke and hears that they are “‘Good friends, that is all'”. Gora reads her first published story to Alexina. It is “original”, and Alexina says “‘It shocks and jars and gives one’s smugness a pain in the middle'”. Gora then discovers that Alexina has given a power of attorney to Mortimer to access her money, and tells her to revoke it, which she does. Alexina has a conversation with Mortimer, who has not been paying his share of the bills – they were living at her mother’s expense until her mother died. He agrees to pay half, knowing that he can’t afford it and will probably have to use capital.

Kirkpatrick starts his lessons on socialism for Alexina and her friends, using a book by John Spargo, as he finds Marx’s writing too difficult.

The next few years pass. Alexina and Mortimer stop sharing a bedroom:

Mortimer, who had, during her absence [on holiday], occupied a large room at the back of the house visited by the afternoon sun, found himself invited to retain it…. They must avoid the least possibility of a family until they were better off…. She had been hearing the subject discussed … the most economical baby cost fifty dollars a month. [ellipses in original]

Alexina then finds out that a third of her money, forty thousand in bonds, has disappeared from her safe deposit box at the bank. First she suspects Mortimer, then she thinks it could be Gora. She asks Gora to stay for a night. Alexina brings up the subject of her bonds, without telling Gora they have been stolen, and Gora says that anyone would need a pass to get into the bank, which Alexina thinks means it must have been Mortimer. They go on to talk about Gora’s success as a writer. Her publisher has told her her writing is too highbrow, and she says

“I don’t say I wouldn’t write for the mob if I could. Nice stories about nice people. Intimate life histories of commonplace ‘real Americans,’ touched with a bit of romance, or tragedy – somewhere about the middle – or adventure, with a bad man or woman for good measure and to prove to the highbrows that the author is advanced and knows the world as well as the next, even if he or she prefers to treat of the more ‘admirable aspects of our American life.’ Unluckily I cannot read such books nor write them. I was born with a passion for English and the subtler psychology. I should be hopeless from any editor’s or publisher’s standpoint if I didn’t happen to have been fitted out with a strong sense of drama. If I could only set my stage with commonplace people no doubt I’d make a roaring hit. But I can’t and I won’t. Who has such a chance as an author to get away from commonplace people? Fancy deliberately concocting new ones!”

Alexina asks Kirkpatrick for advice about a “friend’s” loss of money and suspicion of her husband. He tells her that this is inevitable in a capitalist system and her friend should not blame her husband. She also asks him about the possibility of a European war and he says there won’t be one, as the workers won’t stand for it.

Mortimer confesses to Alexina that he took the bonds, and that he has been unsuccessful in business. He also tells her that recently he received ten thousand dollars to pass to Gora as part of an inheritance, but he speculated with it without telling Gora, and lost it. He wants her to tell Gora. He has given up the business but doesn’t know what to do as he doesn’t want to go back to working for someone else, and doesn’t want Alexina to work – she is considering interior decorating. Alexina tells her sister that they need to save money, and her sister, husband and their daughter move in with them (Alexina and Mortimer are still in her mother’s house) and take over the bills. Alexina sells some of her jewels, lace and furniture to make up the ten thousand to give to Gora. On receiving the money from Mortimer, however, Gora gets the truth out of him and tells Alexina that she knows. She tries to give the money back to Alexina, who refuses to take it, so Gora puts it in Alexina’s cabinet and they both say they will not touch it. I don’t think we ever hear of it again, so don’t know who ends up with it.

A friend of Gora’s asks her to divorce Mortimer and marry him; she refuses. Atherton anticipates his death in the war, still thinking of Alexina.

Gora’s first novel is published and becomes a success. She is invited to speak at the Seven Arts Club, and takes Alexina and Aileen with her. This is a satirical scene, with a drunk woman who pretends to have known Gora’s mother, a badly dressed chairwoman, an elderly man who insists Alexina’s grandfather was her father, all sorts of eccentric clothes and grubbiness. Aileen and Alexina, looking on, decide they will start a decorating business, but Aileen’s father forbids her to be involved.

The war begins. Alexina goes to France and spends a year nursing, then starts a war-relief organisation in Paris. (We never get any details of this, except that it was hard work and the hours are 9 to 6.) The war ends, having lasted about two pages. Alexina attends an embassy party in Paris. The king of the country whose embassy it is (we are not told which) is thought to have been attacked at the party, but it turns out just to be a melted fuse. Alexina thinks she has seen Gathbroke at the party. She thinks about her age (thirty) and her faded looks and decides the Californian sun would rejuvenate her. She remembers episodes from her time as a nurse:

Alexina had been horrified at first at the wanderings off after nightfall of women who had nursed like scientific angels by day, accompanied by men who were never more men than when any moment might turn them into carrion. But with her mental suppleness she had quickly readjusted her point of view. There is nothing as sensual as war. It is the quintessential carnality. … [The nurses] lived under the daily shadow of death. Even when safe from the shells of the big guns, the murderous aircraft paid them daily visits, singling out hospitals with diabolical precision. They were in daily contact with young torn human bodies from which had gone forever the purpose for which one generation precedes another. Life was horror. Blood and death and shattered bodies were their daily portion. No matter how brave, they heard death scream in every shell. The world beyond existed as a mirage. No wonder they became primeval.

Alexina has decided that if she finds Gathbroke again she will “fight for him tooth and nail”. She thinks she sees him at a party and follows him, but bumps into Gora instead. She tells Gora cryptically that she might divorce Mortimer for someone else. Gora suggests that she herself may be interested in someone. They discuss how ruthless they would both be in pursuit of the men in whom they are interested – both suspecting that the other is talking about the same man.

Alexina’s organisation asks her to visit a town that had been on the Front during the war. She meets Kirkpatrick there and he tells her that he hates the class system because it has separated them. He cannot “have” her because he is “common”. He rushes away and she follows him and kisses him on the cheek. That is him out of the book.

Still in the war-damaged town, she meets Gathbroke. She asks him if he is engaged to Gora and he says no, that he “‘came very close'”, but when he had been away from Gora for a while he couldn’t stop thinking about Alexina. He tells Alexina that he wants her, not Gora.

We return to Gora and hear her side of things. “She wanted to settle down in a home. She wanted children. She must always write, of course. Writing was as natural to her as breathing. And she had already proved that a woman could do two things equally well.” She hears from a mutual friend that Alexina and Gathbroke may be involved. She tracks Alexina to a bombed church in a ruined village (unclear how) and asks her if she is going to marry Gathbroke. Alexina tells her she is. They discuss who loved him first, and Alexina asks Gora if Gora came here to kill her.

“Yes, I did. No, I haven’t a pistol. I couldn’t get one. I trusted to opportunity. When I saw you standing at the edge of that hole [the crypt] I thought I had it.”

Gora tells Alexina that “‘All things have come to you unsought. Beauty. Birth. Position. Sufficient wealth. Power over men and women. An enchanting personality. All the social graces'” and Alexina reminds Gora of her literary talent:

“You will write better than ever. Possibly the reason that you have not reached the great public is because your work lacks humanity, sympathy. You never lived before. You were all intellect. Now you have had a terrific upheaval and you seem to have experienced about everything, including the impulse to murder.”

They briefly discuss the rejection of Gora’s last novel by her publisher as “‘war stuff'”. Alexina says “‘I don’t believe for a moment … that the intelligent public will ever reject a great novel or story dealing with the war. … No novel of any
consequence for years to come will be written without some relationship to the war. … Go back to California and bang your typewriter and find it out for yourself'”. Gora agrees to go back to California, and the book ends.

I don’t know what to make of it all! The characters are generally not likable. The earthquake, fire and war bring melodrama. The jumping about in time and foreshadowing is extravagant. The style at times reminds me of Frances Hodgson Burnett, with its focus on emotion and destiny. There is also a lot of description of landscape. The book is part of a loose series about Californian aristocracy, and I haven’t read any of the others. There is a feminist focus on Alexina having ability but not being allowed to use it, whilst having to defer to her husband’s lack of business acumen.

Some reviews from 1921:

The Pall Mall Gazette says, with a fine swipe, “to the English reader there is always something unreal in American snobbery, it seems so superfluous”, and concludes “it is a stupid and vulgar world that Mrs. Atherton describes with much minuteness, but she makes it remarkably interesting”.

The Northern Whig says “The British reader is puzzled, for Mrs. Atherton’s Americans seem at times so childish, foolish, useless that one wonders can they be real. One hopes for the sake of America that there is an error in the transcription”.

The Tatler says “If society in San Francisco before the earthquake was such a company of Perfect Snobs as Mrs. Gertrude Atherton describes it in her interesting new story, “Sisters-in-Law” (Murray), then it seems almost a pity that the subsequent fire did not destroy other things besides most of the buildings. For her characters seem almost incapable of talking or thinking about anything other than their own pedigree and the family of those who wish to associate with them. It is amusing, of course, but if it represents anything like a correct picture of American society, then I for one am thankful not to belong to that land of liberty. … I don’t think one could very well exaggerate the dulness of these wealthy Americans, though it is amusing to read about all the same”. The reviewer goes on to say that “the story abounds in clever character-drawing” (particularly mentioning Mortimer), and concludes “Mrs. Atherton can interest us in the men and women of her tale just as much as in the tale itself, and that surely is the test of a good novel. Well, Sisters-in-Law is a very good novel indeed”.

The Derbyshire Advertiser‘s review ends “Mrs. Atherton writes of the obstacle in very easy fashion (divorce is easy in America), but we do not feel that Gora with her socialistic strong-minded views would have been easily appeased, and our sympathies are entirely with her. The other characters in the book, men and women, rather tire the reader with their dialogue, some of which sounds strange to English ears”.

The Gentlewoman says testily “this book would undoubtedly be her finest work had she not brought in the war — I think rather unnecessarily — and kept it in too long for the reader’s patience”. (Amusing given Gora and Alexina’s conversation about how people will always want the war in novels.)

The London Daily News compares Atherton to Ouida and says that “Alexina and Aileen, the heroines of this book, remind one constantly of the regardless-of-all-expense personages who never use soap if they can use scent, and bite on mangosteens out of wagon with teeth stopped with diamonds”. The reviewer says that “In her drawing of Dwight Mrs. Atherton shows skill and humour, and a certain unrelenting hatred which is almost as effective as sympathy. He is by far the most successful character in a story where most of the people are too much part of the gold-tapestry pattern to move with any freedom”, and criticises Gora in particular for not being believable. Gathbroke “is only introduced because Mrs. Atherton believes that an English husband is a cure for a Californian temperament”. The review ends, and I don’t fully understand this, “”Sisters-in-Law” has, however, all the virtues of a book written by one who believes in having and giving a good time, even if she be a little forgetful that what’s “good time” to one may be merely “time” to another”.

The Oxford Chronicle pitches into the book. “Its cohesion is of the slightest, and often it would drop to pieces altogether were it not for the compelling and virile force of Mrs. Atherton’s own personality, which she cannot help infusing into every page she writes … [it] holds our interest more by the actual happenings of history, of which it is a record, than by its sensuously-imagined people with their flamboyant talk and colour-stained emotions”. The review says that with the story of Alexina’s marriage and the rivalry between her and Gora “are sandwiched reflections on progress, psychology, and sex, tracts on socialism, contrasts between Latin and Anglo-Saxon, staccato descriptions of scenery in the different capitals”. It admires the descriptions of the war, “as good as anything we have had in fiction” but says “Mrs. Atherton cannot forbear to pad into her pages triteness, platitude, and dogmatio assertion”.

A definite streak of anti-American feeling in some of these reviews.

The other books “London” was reading in March 1921 were, apparently, The Mountebank by WJ Locke, The Seeds of Enchantment by Gilbert Frankau, She and Allan by Rider Haggard, Thuvia by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Privilege by Michael Sadleir.

“Grandad’s cool fossil top”

18 January 2021

As requested by my father. Another version of the Chirotherium pattern, with slightly more colour. t-shirt with fossil blackwork

close-up of fossil blackworkI will admit that on my father first asking me to do this, I said yes but put it very far down the list. But next time I saw him, he handed me a t-shirt to work on. Given his Alzheimer’s, I was impressed by this and thought I’d better get on with it.

The chocolate cat at Christmas

7 January 2021
Cat on rug on table


26 December 2020

From the SBTB podcast:

Maya: – like, for me, like, the big lesson that I think has been reproduced, especially over the last six months, is this idea that – or I don’t think people should be spending time trying to save institutions that have harmed them, and it is very often that responsibility that is thrown onto the people who’ve been most directly harmed, to, to do the work, to save the institution that has never done anything for them except told them that without them, without this institution, this individual would not be successful –

Fossil footprint blackwork

14 December 2020

Blackwork based on this fossil of a Chirotherium. More information about the animal at Wikipedia.

My attempt to do shading was not that successful. I am planning a repeat and may try using more colours.

Cemetery photographs

21 November 2020

Met up with my father recently in a cemetery. (His sheltered accommodation does not allow visitors at the moment.)

path through cemetery
overgrown grave
graves in open grassy area

We think of making a project of it; a map and some research.

Robin (book #173)

29 May 2020

book cover

Raymond Jacberns, 1901.

Raymond Jacberns was the pseudonym of Georgiana Ash (1886-1911), a clergyman’s daughter, who was very prolific in the first decade of the twentieth century. My copy of Robin has an inscription from 1910, a prize for Arthur Martin of Ely St Mary Sunday School. It also has a bookmark for the News of the World, BRITAIN’S LEADING NEWSPAPER and BEST REPORTS of all THE SPORTS.

Georgiana Ash is on the census in 1871 aged 4, living with her widowed mother, her aunt and her grandmother in Sussex. In 1881 she is living in Hastings with her mother. I can’t find her on the 1891 census. In 1901 she is living with a friend in Hastings, and in 1911 with the same friend (stated to be sharing expenses) in Battle. In this last census Ash gives her occupation as “Private Means, Authoress”. She died relatively young (45) after an operation.

I am tempted to say that Robin‘s plot is the only plot of late Victorian / Edwardian stories for girls. It’s certainly overwhelmingly frequent. The clue is in the four introductory quotations, one of which is about duty, one about love hallowing mundane tasks, and two about discontent.

Robin is an orphan who lives with her widowed uncle, her aunt (her uncle’s spinster sister) and her two girl cousins. She is nineteen when the book starts. It opens in a stirring manner with Robin angry about something in the news. We only get a passing reference, but it seems to be something about soldiers having to spend their own money on something: “‘it is a scandalous shame to expect the men to buy things out of their wretched pay'”. Robin’s cousin Phyllis tells her to “‘write to the War Office and tell them your valuable opinion is at their disposal'”.

Robin is energetic and “wanted to be doing something for her day and generation” – resolving injustices, nursing the sick, “fight[ing] the world’s miseries”:

As a very small child Robin had been discovered painstakingly teaching an equally small neighbour the intricacies of the A B C which she had just mastered herself. A little older she had started upon the education of the workhouse maid-of-all-work, and reduced that damsel to tears over the multiplication table. As a young girl, she had lavishly expended all her store of information on any one who would listen, and now, at the mature age of nineteen, the same old longing possessed her, to go out into the world and talk, and hear other people talking, and exchange ideas, and teach people – what, she could not have told, had she been asked – but teach them something of which they stood in need, and of which she herself possessed the knowledge.
The consciousness of latent power is not always conceit, and Robin had a very low opinion of her own powers indeed at times, but at other times it must be owned that she was rather trying, being at the present moment totally without sympathy for other people’s moods. If she was interested in a subject, be it the mismanagement of army matters, or the training of a puppy, she would work that subject to death, and then wonder pathetically why the world was cross, and would not be interested in anything that she cared about.

Robin wants to leave her uncle’s house to make her own way in the world, but he promised her mother that she would stay until she was 21. She is very cross about this and wants to work as a governess or nurse for the small children of a neighbour. Her uncle won’t allow this, but then an older child in the same family comes down with scarlet fever, so the children come to stay with Robin and her family. She is responsible for them for all but two hours a day six days a week (the under-housemaid takes charge for those two hours), at the nominal wage of ten shillings a week.

Jacberns realistically shows that Robin struggles with the children, not having either the ease or the authority with them that others have.

There are sub-plots about the love affair of one of Robin’s cousins (her almost-fiancé loses his money) and about two new neighbours, sisters, the younger one being disabled. Robin influences the disabled sister to feel hard-done-by, which she had not previously, but comes to her senses, telling Robin “‘we have been created for His glory in this world, and for His glory in the life to come, and that therefore feelings, and disappointments, and crooked backs, and dull days, and powerlessness to work as much as one would like, nothing of all that really matters one scrap'”.

The book reminds me of Yonge in that mistakes Robin makes really do led to almost-tragedies (though Yonge is darker). She makes one of her Sunday School scholars discontented, and as a result the girl, Fanny, runs away to London. Fortunately, although Fanny’s luggage and money are stolen, and the friend she had planned to go to has left London, she is helped to write home, is forgiven and returns home, “a depressed young person with a wholesome horror of London streets and London ways”. Robin, who felt guilty when the issue was in doubt, then feels “alternately disgusted with Fanny for having been such a poor-spirited creature as not to have battled through her difficulties unaided, and relieved that the episode had ended harmlessly”.

Longer-lasting effects come from Robin’s failure to discipline the children. They run away from her to see their mother, and infect Robin’s Aunt Priss with scarlet fever. Although she recovers, she is almost blind. This is the point of Robin’s transformation. She realises she has “a real call” and a duty to take over managing the house from her aunt – otherwise one of her cousins, both of whom are now engaged, would have to postpone marriage. She considers

Was it right that she should put aside the grand hopes she had built for the future, when she would be free to go into the world, unchecked and unhindered, free to work as she would, free to make the very best of her life as she could? Could it be right to bury herself in a quiet home, to spend the best part of her life tending two old people, making two old people happy? … Could she not do more good if she went out into the broader life, and worked there for God? … Was it, and that, after all, was the question that lay at the root of the whole matter – was it His will that she should do this, and if it was, had she the strength to do it ungrudgingly and will a cheerful heart?

Robin’s decision is never in doubt, and she receives the thanks and praise of her family. Her uncle asks “‘How about all the grand schemes for the future, Robin?'” and she replies “‘Twist them round and have grander ones still'”. I do wonder how it will work out and whether Robin ends up embittered and lonely. Obviously within the moral framework of this novel this cannot happen. She is 19 around 1901 (assuming the book is set at the time of publication) – the right generation to be involved in women’s suffrage activity later on; I would like to think of her as a lecturer finally having the chance to use her enthusiasm for putting the world to rights.

This Rome of Ours (book #172)

24 April 2020


Augusta L Francis, 1939.

This is a “faction” book about Rome, published just before the war, a reprint of pieces published in two magazines, The Pylon and The Missionary. The book describes sight-seeing in Rome in a party of three; the narrator Augusta, her friend (or possibly family member) Pellegrina, and Aunt Julia, who is I think Pellegrina’s aunt rather than the narrators, but the personal details of the group are non-existent. They are Catholics, and Pellegrina’s name means pilgrim.

There’re a couple of Francis’s articles online: Many Legends Explain the Coming of Wise Men (The Denver Catholic Register, p9, 1938) and Castelli Romani. (The ad at the start of this post is from the 1938 newspaper.) I also found a review of The Pylon which mentions her articles:

If it were only for Fr Martindale’s companion to the Acts of the Apostles, “Letters from their Aunts”, or for Augusta L. Francis’ refreshing and informative “Aspects of Rome”, the magazine would be worth buying. But these vie with articles by Arnold Lunn, Allison Peers, Wyndham Lewis, Clare Boothe Luce . . . (ellipsis in original)

Source: The Venerabile (magazine, 1948).

There is a brief introduction by the archaeologist and art historian Eugénie Strong.

I haven’t been able to find out very much at all about Francis herself. A review of the book in the Irish Monthly in 1940 by “E.H.” says “the author, who, according to a publisher’s note, is a lecturer in archaeology”. That particular review starts off sounding a bit negative, saying the book will bring on mental indigestion. It becomes more positive:

There are many satisfying snatches of what could almost be described as gossip about the Eternal City, which could only be disclosed by one who knows and loves it. … The chapters take the form of conversations between Pellegrina, who knows all about Rome, and her two friends, who do not; consequently Pellegrina becomes a rather monotonous figure, in spite of the author’s attempts to keep her human. However, it is well worth subduing any impatience one may feel with Pellegrina for being so impossibly explicit, in order to hear what she has to say. The book is illustrated with some remarkably fine and unusual photographs, and many sketches.

I was a lot less interested in the chat about Rome than details of the characters’ lives, of which there are sadly very little. This was probably the best bit:

“Donald and Virginia want a flat for the winter,” said Pellegrina as we sat watching the cloud shadows on the campagna. …
“I had a night-letter from them,” she went on. “Destable things, night-letters. None of the succinct terseness of a telegram, none of the friendliness of a letter, but a sort of skeleton draped in a – a – ” She couldn’t think of any sort of drapery sufficiently ugly.
“Lambrequin?” I suggested.
“Exactly. Draped in a lambrequin – not that I know exactly what a lambrequin is. They used to put them over doors and windows, didn’t they? To keep out the air. She drew a deep breath of rain-scented ozone. “Well, they want a flat, or a little house, a residence at least nominally their own, for a year. He has been given some work to do here for his Company Manager and she is thirsting for the Eternal City – she always was. We must get them something entirely perfect. Furnished, of course.”
“Chromium or thirteenth century?” I enquired.
“You mean furniture? Oh, definitely thirteenth century; and the rooms, too, provided there are washing facilities. Their breezy night-letter ended: ‘Step on it dear. Grateful more than ever. Virdon,’ the last being their code name. They are so proud of it. Babes they are, in a way, but nice, very nice, and quite knowledgeable.”
“Let’s go,” said I, “but let me think for a minute. Why not? It isn’t often I get an inspiration like this. We’ll house-hunt for Virginia and Donald, all over Rome, for days if you like, and we’ll investigate the rooms of all the Saints who ever lives in Rome.”

(A night-letter seems to have been like a long telegram – I found one reference from 1928 in America mentioning a limit of 50 words.)

They look at “utterly charming flats furnished like the day after tomorrow … They had the inevitable and catastrophically ‘simple’ chromium furniture, described either as ‘efficient’ or ‘amusing’ or ‘intriguing’, according to the vocabulary of the person who was trying to let the flat. It was awful”. Then they see “hopeless ‘artistic’ houses” and “terrible still more arty ones with dingy studios”. “The next day Pellegrina appeared in the severest black coat and skirt she possessed, and refrained from tilting her head. So did I. And we went to the agent for a fresh set of addresses. That day it was better” but then the houses are too mediaeval and musty. They redress in “something quiet with a touch of ‘eleganza’. That did it” and they find the right mix of “mediaeval in atmosphere and modern in cleanliness”. They send a cablegram to Donald and Virginia signed “Pelaug”, which is the only indication of the narrator’s name.

So although I like semi-fictionalised travel narratives, this one was too travelly and not enough fictiony or peopley for me. Would still like to know more about the author though.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Head of the House of Coombe (book #171)

10 April 2020

Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1922.

This is Burnett doing those things she does. There is a semi-mystical intro about time passing; she says that the events of the book started “when people still had reason to believe in permanency”. If she were another writer I’d be sure, given the date of the book and the wartime setting of the sequel, that she’s referring to before the First World War. She may be, but given how weird Burnett can be, it may be something else. Her earlier novel The Shuttle (1907) has a similar mystical start.

The book initially concerns “Feather”, a beautiful young woman from Jersey who is without money. She marries Robert Gareth-Lawless, who is the remote heir to a title but doesn’t have money either.

Robert quickly dies, leaving Feather with no money and a new baby daughter. Feather does not cope well, neglecting the baby (Robin). Here’s a scene after all the servants have left (they haven’t been paid). Feather is disturbed by

stealing down the staircase from the upper regions that faint wail like a little cat’s. … she felt the child horrible to look at. Its face was disfigured and its eyes almost closed. She trembled all over as she put the bottle to its mouth and saw the fiercely hungry clutch of its hands. It was old enough to clutch, and clutch it did, and suck furiously and starvingly – even though actually forced to stop once or twice at first to give vent to a thwarted remnant of a scream.

Lord Coombe, a older, detached (“I never thought of such a thing in my life – as being fond of things”) and clever man, takes on financial and practical responsibility for Feather and Robin. This means that everyone wrongly thinks Feather is his mistress, so as Robin grows up she is ostracised. Her mother ignores her – aged 6, Robin does not understand the concept of mother and has rarely seen Feather. “She would not have [visited Robin] at all but for the fact that she had once or twice been asked if the child was growing pretty, and it would have seemed absurd to admit that she never saw her at all.” Robin’s nurse mistreats her.

Then, still aged 6, she meets eight-year-old Donal Muir in the square garden. Burnett being mystical again: “So they stood and stared at each other and for some strange, strange reason – created, perhaps, with the creating of Man and still hidden among the deep secrets of the Universe – they were drawn to each other – wanted each other – knew each other.” Donal’s mother stops them meeting again because she believes that Feather is Lord Coombe’s mistress. Donal is likely to inherit Lord Coombe’s estate, as he is second in the line of inheritance and the first in line is sickly, as well as being “a repulsive sort of person both physically and morally”. Burnett believes that health, nature and goodness are linked.

Not long after this, Feather has Robin brought down to show her off to the company. She refuses to shake hands with Lord Coombe because she thinks that it’s he who has stopped her meeting Donal again. Her nurse, Andrews, takes her back upstairs and threatens her. Lord Coombe, who has followed them upstairs because Robin said that “Andrews will pinch me”, walks in on this and sacks Andrews. Feather continues completely uninvolved. Lord Coombe tells Andrews that he has already agreed the sacking with Feather. “It was a lie, serenely told. Feather was doing a new skirt dance in the drawing-room.”

Things improve for Robin then, with a loving nurse (Dowson) and later a governess (Mademoiselle Vallé). Lord Coombe tells Feather that he’s making these arrangements because “The situation interests me. Here is an extraordinary little being thrown into the world. She belongs to nobody. She will have to fight for her own hand. And she will have to fight, by God! With that dewy lure in her eyes and her curved pomegranate mouth! She will not know, but she will draw disaster!”

At this point in the book, about halfway through, things get political. Lord Coombe becomes friendly with an elderly woman, the Dowager Duchess of Darte. “He had known her during certain black days of his youth, and she had comprehended things he did not tell her. She had not spoken of them to him but she had silently given him of something which vaguely drew him to her side when darkness seemed to overwhelm him.” Both of them are interested in European politics – “the Chessboard, which was the Map of Europe”. They are concerned about German expansion and ideology:

“I have been marking how It grows,” he said; “a whole nation with the entire power of its commerce, its education, its science, its religion, guided towards one aim is a curious study. The very babes are born and bred and taught only that one thought may become an integral part of their being. The most innocent and blue eyed of them knows, without a shadow of doubt, that the world has but one reason for existence – that it may be conquered and ravaged by the country that gave them birth.”

Robin’s German teacher, Fräulein Hirsch, is (unknown to Lord Coombe) a spy. Robin is keen to learn as much as possible from her teachers because she wants to support herself. She has found out that Feather is thought to be Lord Coombe’s mistress, and as a result is revolted by him and plans to earn her own living. Lord Coombe, told about this by Mademoiselle Vallé, says that Robin will be in danger: “She is, on the whole, as ignorant as a little sheep – and butchers are on the lookout for such as she is. They suit them even better than the little things whose tendencies are perverse from birth. An old man with an evil character may be able to watch over her from a distance.” There is much emphasis on Robin’s beauty and innocence.

When Robin is about 17, Fräulein Hirsch tries to have her kidnapped and sexually assaulted – this seems to be from political motives. Fraulein Hirsch introduces her to a woman calling herself Lady Etynge, who suggests that Robin come to live with her as a companion to her daughter. Lady Etynge asks Robin to look at the rooms she has prepared for her daughter, and then locks her in them. Fortunately, Lord Coombe has had a detective keeping “a casual eye on Robin”. Lord Coombe rescues her, and says to the false Lady Etynge:

“My coming back to speak to you is – superfluous – and the result of pure fury. I allow it to myself as mere shameless indulgence. More is known against you than this – things which have gone farther and fared worse. You are not young and you are facing years of life in prison. Your head will be shaved – your hands worn and blackened and your nails broken with the picking of oakum. You will writhe in hopeless degradation until you are done for. You will have time, in the night blackness if of your cell, to remember – to see faces – to hear cries. Women such as you should learn what hell on earth means. You will learn.”

He adds “I have allowed myself to feel like a madman … It has been a rich experience – good for such a soul as I own.”

You can see that this is melodrama. The website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books would call it crazysauce. (Wikipedia says that this novel was the fourth best-selling novel of 1922.)

Lord Coombe then arranges for Robin to go as companion to the Dowager Ducess of Darte (unconventionally, taking her nurse Dowson, whom she loves, with her). This works well. The Duchess says

Her one desire is to be sure that she is earning her living as other young women do when they are paid for their work. I should really like to pet and indulge her, but it would only make her unhappy. I invent tasks for her which are quite unnecessary. For years the little shut-up soul has been yearning and praying for this opportunity to stand honestly on her own feet and she can scarcely persuade herself that it has been given to her. It must not be spoiled for her. I send her on errands my maid could perform. I have given her a little room with a serious business air. It is full of files and papers and she sits in it and copies things for me and even looks over accounts. She is clever at looking up references. I have let her sit up quite late once or twice searching for detail and dates for my use. It made her bloom with joy.

She was allowed to enter into correspondence with the village schoolmistress and the wife of the Vicar at Darte Norham and to buy prizes for notable decorum and scholarship in the school, and baby linen and blankets for the Maternity Bag and other benevolences. She liked buying prizes and the baby clothes very much because – though she was unaware of the fact – her youth delighted in youngness and the fulfilling of young desires. Even oftener and more significantly than ever did eyes turn towards her – try to hold hers – look after her eagerly when she walked in the streets or drove with the Duchess in the high-swung barouche. More and more she became used to it and gradually she ceased to be afraid of it and began to feel it nearly always – there were sometimes exceptions – a friendly thing.

Towards the end of the book, the Duchess holds a party for Robin and for her grandchildren. One of the young men there kisses Robin on the back of her neck whilst they are sitting in the conservatory. She is horrified. The Duchess’s granddaughter, Lady Kathryn, reassures her and takes her back to the party, where she meets Donal, now “a kind of miracle of good looks and takingness”, according to Kathryn. Burnett breaks off into a discursion on “a Force illimitable, unconquerable and inexplicable … given the generic name of Love”. The book ends

In the shining ball room the music rose and fell and swelled again into ecstasy as he took her white young lightness in his arm and they swayed and darted and swooped like things of the air – while the old Duchess and Lord Coombe looked on almost unseeing and talked in murmurs of Sarajevo.

I do have the sequel, Robin, which I guess will deal with the war.

Adding that I sent my father a link to the Gutenberg text of the novel, telling him that I didn’t think he’d make it through more than a page and a half. He replied “I have read two pages of the rather extraordinary book that you sent to me. I can’t get a grip on what it is, being somewhat dazzled by its extraordinary style, at once bizarre and supremely confident”.