Archive for the ‘books read’ Category

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 crookeed 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 or 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.

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”.

AZ Murder Goes … Professional (book #170)

14 February 2020

Book cover: AZ Murder Goes ... Professional

Edited by Barbara Peters, 2002. This is a book of conference papers by mystery writers Joanne Dobson, AJohn Dunning, Nicholas Kilmer, Thomas Perry, Nancy Pickard and William G Tapply, on the general theme of professions or occupations in crime novels.

I liked this, in Thomas Perry’s paper “But What Do They Do For a Living?”, an extract from his book Death Benefits about the amateur detective / insurance data analyst who is the protagonist.

He had been placed under the distant but sane supervision of Joyce Hazelton. She had explained to him what an analyst did: “They give us raw data. We cook and serve.” Information about all company operations was brought in, and he would screen the numbers for meaning and wrote reports that revealed trends and anomalies. She had said, “If we suddenly have seven per cent of our clients dying on a full moon, I want that in block letters. If it’s fifteen per cent, I want it underlined too.” Since then she had left him alone, except to smile cordially at him once a day and meet with him every six months to show him that his performance ratings were all excellent.
He had found an unexpected pleasure in his work. The analysts all made jokes about the job, but it was intoxicating. Examining the figures was like being a cabalist searching for messages about the future encoded in the Talmud. Some of the messages were reassuring. At certain ages, people had children and bought term life. By consulting actuarial tables, he knew how many of the policies sold this year would come back for payoff at what future dates, and how many premiums the company would receive in the meantime. … Because of the large number of policies and the long stretch of time, the individual deviations from the norm disappeared to produce reliable predictions.

The collection is worth reading if you’re interested in mystery fiction. The editing retains the individual voices of the contributors.

Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London (book #166)

26 February 2018

Picture of Mary Lamb

Susan Tyler Hitchcock, 2005.

Review by Nigel Leary.

I knew very little about Mary Lamb’s life, though whenever I am in the kitchen with my mother and a bread knife I am compelled to mutter “Mary Lamb”. I enjoyed Charles’s Essays as a child, and their joint poems in The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse.

This is a good biography, though there are a couple of imagining sections near the start which are a bit annoying.

I did not know that Mary’s murder of her mother was acknowledged at the time to be linked to Mary’s caring role – as the only surviving daughter, not only was she working as a mantua-maker, but also looking after her paralysed 60-year-old mother, her 70-year-old father, who had dementia or a stroke or both, her elderly though reasonably healthy aunt and her brother John, who did not normally live with them but had injured his leg and moved back home. In addition, her brother Charles, who did live at home, had had a mental breakdown the year before and spent some time in a private madhouse, and Mary had a new apprentice, aged 9.

The family were poor and had no servants. Charles describes their mother as responding to Mary’s love with “cold and repulse“. A newspaper wrote about the murder that “As her carriage towards her mother was ever affectionate in the extreme, it is believed, that to the incresed attentiveness which her parents’ infirmities called for by day and night, is to be attributed the present insanity of this ill fated young woman”.

The year after the murder, when Mary was still in another private madhouse, Hitchcock describes Charles’s difficulties in looking after his father. “What Charles really needed was some time to himself, but circumstances did not allow it.”

Hitchcock writes about the inter-dependency between Charles and Mary that Mary “cycled through the pattern over and over: caring, finding herself overwhelmed, retreating and detaching, recovering herself, and then returning to the situation in which she must start caring again”. Charles’s alcoholism and mental health issues, in his words, were “wasting and teazing her life”.

I was interested to know that the Lambs were friends with John Rickman, discussed in my last post. “Charles called [him] ‘the clearest headed fellow,’ ‘fullest of matter with least verbosity,’ ‘hugely literate, oppresively full of information,’ and in general ‘the finest fellow to drop in a nights about nine or ten oClock, cold bread and cheese time, just in the wishing time of the night, when you wish for somebody to come in, without a distinct idea of a probable anybody’.” Data people – there with the matter and up for bread and cheese of a night.

Much later, Mary became a children’s writer. Hitchcock quotes from Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s book for three- and four-year-olds:

The sky is very black: the rain pours down. Well, never mind it. We will sit by the fire, and read, and tell stories, and look at pictures. Where is Billy and Harry, and little Betsey? Now, tell me who can spell best. Good boy! There is a clever fellow! Now you shall have some cake.

The Lambs objected to this type of writiting as not fostering imagination.

There’s a comment about Charles not liking William Godwin’s life of Chaucer because of Godwin “‘filling out the picture by supposing what Chaucer did and how he felt, when the materials are scanty'”. Given Hitchcock’s passages of imagining, I found this amusing.

There is a good account of the Lambs’ living arrangements, as described by Mary:

We still live in Temple Lane, but I am now sitting in a room you never saw. Soon after you left us we were distressed by the cries of a cat which seemed to proceed from the garrets adjoining to ours, and only separated from ours by a locked door … We had the lock forced and let the poor puss out from behind a pannel (sic) of the wainscot, and she lived with us from that time, for we were in gratitute (sic) bound to keep her as she had introduced us to four untenanted, unowned rooms, and by degrees we have taken possession of these unclaimed apartments.

They set up one of the rooms as a workroom for Charles, but

he could do nothing he said with those bare white-washed walls before his eyes … [so we] almost covered the walls with prints, for which purpose he cut out every print from every book in his old library, coming in every now and then to ask my leave to strip a fresh poor author, which he might not do you know without my permission as I am older sister. There was such pasting – such pasting – such consultation where their portaits and where the series of pictures from Ovid, Milton & Shakespear would show to most advantage and in what obscure corner authors of humbler note might be allowed to tell their stories … – the poor despised garret is now called the print room and is become our most favourite sitting room.

And let’s end on a relatively cheery note – an account of the Lambs’ holiday in 1803. Mary was not long out of a stay in a madhouse. This is written by the Lambs’ friend Captain James Burney, brother of Fanny.

We do every thing that is idle, such as reading books from a circulating library, sauntering, hunting little crabs among the rocks, reading Church Yard poetry which is as bad at Cowes as any Church Yard in the Kingdom can produce. Miss Lamb is the only person among us who is not idle. All the cares she takes into her keeping. At night however we do a little business in the smoking line [Mary also smoked, unusually for a woman], and Martin [James’s son] endeavours to make Conundrums, but alas! he is not equal to the achievement. Such is the edifying life we lead at the Isle of Wight.

The Lambs’ Poetry for Children is online here. Their letters are also online, in a coupld of editions: here and here.

There is another biography of Mary Lamb, published the year before this one, which I would like to read: The Devil Kissed Her: the story of Mary Lamb, by Kathy Watson. Review here. There’s also a double biography from the year before that, A Double Life: a biography of Charles and Mary Lamb, by Sarah Burton. Review by Hermione Lee here.

The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker: The story of Britain through its Census, since 1801 (book #165)

14 January 2018

Cover of The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker

Roger Hutchinson, 2017.

Describes John Rickman, who in 1800 pushed through the legislation for the first census, and then carried out the first three censuses and planned the fourth. From 1802 he was Secretary to the Speaker of the House of Commons. The post came with a house in New Palace Yard in the precincts of the mediaeval Old Palace of Westminster. Hutchinson writes that it was “among wooden buildings which date from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, some of them so close to the River Thames that, as Rickman’s daughter Ann would recall, ‘at Spring tide there was great pleasure to us children in dipping our fingers down into the waters from the sitting room window … ‘”

Ann described the garden as “‘a bright, pleasant piece of ground with a terrace and rails to the river, and the roses and other flowers grew luxuriously’, while at the end of Keeper of the Exchequer Mr Wilde’s house on the terrance ‘there was a Hamboro’ grape; and we had gooseberries too and a Morella cherry beside a very pretty Bird cherry tree … and there was a corner and a mound to bury the kittens and canaries in … ‘”

“‘Papa very often in warm weather stretched himself down on the slope of turf that formed the terrace, in the centre of which were four stone steps: he generally went to sleep and we made daisy chains to dress him up, and looked at his pigtail, but we never quite made up our minds to pull it.’ The lighthearted polymath Papa Rickman in his turn insisted that at the family dinner table his children should order their desserts in Latin.”

Guardian review.

Review and information about the author from the Skye Reading Room.

Lab Girl: A story of trees, science and love (book #164)

6 October 2017

Hope Jahren (2016).

Book cover, showing trees

Read this for the book club.

Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me and didn’t.

Hope Jahren on Wikipedia.

Interview in Time.

Guardian review.

Censoring Queen Victoria (book #163)

11 September 2017

Book cover, showing Queen Victoria

Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentleman Edited a Queen and Created an Icon. Yvonne M Ward, 2014.

I liked this passage from Arthur Benson‘s diary for 1904. He’s describing working in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle.

My own room is a big room, hung with Hogarth engravings and good furniture — a white chair with pink satin on wheels was used by the Queen. I did not use the room to-day as it was not ready, but worked in the strong-room, and went through an interesting lot of Melbourne’s letters — beginning with one on the morning of the accession. His writing is very hard to read. It was odd to sit in this big room, all surrounded with shelves, with the deep embrasure full of guns. The wind roared and the rain lashed the window. I was amused and happy.

(Diary is online at

I also liked the fact that in an interview, Yvonne Ward describes a rather parallel experience of researching in the archives of the publishers John Murray:

The room I worked in had been a salon where previous John Murrays had held court with their various clients: Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Samuel Smiles. There were lithographs and paintings on the walls depicting soirées that had taken place in that room, and hundreds of books lining the walls. It was a wonderful atmosphere to work in.

There’s a review of the book here by Kathryn Hughes.

In other news, am finding things difficult at the moment, but have plans and tentative plan b et cetera.

Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (book #162)

8 June 2017

Cover of book - image of Warner

Claire Harman, 1989.

I’ve been meaning to read this for years, ever since hearing Harman speak (about food in literature). My book club read Lolly Willowes recently so I thought it was time to read the biography. Which is really good, particularly on Warner’s troubled, devoted relationship with Valentine Ackland (problems including Ackland’s other relationships, her lack of literary success, their imbalance in earnings, Ackland’s alcoholism and later religious faith). Also good on the houses they lived in, often inconvenient and cold. And good use of Warner’s and Ackland’s writing in the text. And I know this should be commonplace but it’s also good to see a lesbian relationship where the women, and the biographer, seem to have very little interest in what others thought about their sexuality.*

Some pieces I liked:

Ackland’s letter about bomb damage in London (she’s writing about Inverness Terrance and Mecklenburgh Square in October 1945):

completely flattened … smell of smoke and fire still hanging over the streets and pieces of the fixtures of the houses still littering the basements and gutters. Front doors ajar, and stately rooms beyond, with pit-holes down to the earth instead of floors, and small trees and jungles of dying loosestrife grown up almost to the front windows.

Ackland’s poem (included in her posthumous 1973 collection The Nature of the Moment, but mentioned by Harman in her section on 1948) “Journey from Winter”:

As days become shorter and the cold ghost of the North
leans across from the Pole to strike us, and winter appears in the sky,
it is time to consider our journey. Take down the guide,
the schedule of trains and of sailings, the smart list of ‘planes;
and here by the first fire, our comfort and warning, consider:

The ways of coming at truth, attaining creating or re-discovering,
need no special equipment of faith or unfaith;
the amateur party about to set out to-morrow
will follow one route of the three; but all run together
somewhere in country uncharted, and all reach the end.

There are no true maps of the kingdom; guides have been and returned,
but some will not venture again, while others will shepherd part-way
and still others travel as exiles working a passage home.
The natives are foreign to us and will offer no kindness,
being without interest in strangers and unable to speak our tongue.

They say the first stages are easy; civilised travel
and pleasant companions en route. But once over the frontier
there’s nothing to help you except your own wits, and the wish
to reach your objective. Once over the frontier the others
who started out with you scatter, and each one travels alone.

Guide books agree that the contry is full of silence;
no written words to be found, no signposts, no place-names, no roads,
and scarcely a living man met. All you can do
is watch for the flight of birds or study the slant of the stars
or try to decipher the hieroglyphs drawn by sheep on the hills.

You can live on the country, they say, and do better so
than to carry provisions which, under that sky, will rot.
You can travel fast or slow; there is nothing to tell you
how much further you have to journey until you arrive,
how much further before you reach –

Reach what? I do not know.
All I know is the blight of the North wind, the carrion
patience of winter hanging up there in the sky,
and the blow that is aimed from the Pole, that is aimed to destroy us.
These things, and the date of starting, are all I know.

Also this bit on love – the letter is from about 1950:

there was a sombre truth as well as a simple one in what Sylvia wrote to a friend at about the same time, imploring him not to be tormented by fantasies of losing his lover: ‘think of me,’ she said. ‘Here I am, grey as [a] badger, wrinkled as a walnut, and never a beauty at my best; but here I sit, and yonder sits the other one, who had all the cards in her hand – except one. That I was better at loving and being loved.”

I’d like to know more about the Blitzed Libraries scheme, for which Warner and Ackland sorted books at a National Salvage Depot in 1943.

*I know that’s 4 x good in one paragraph, but it’s the right word for this book.


Review at Shiny New Books.

NY Times review of the letters of Ackland and Warner, with a link to the first chapter of the book.

The Incredible Crime (book #161)

5 June 2017

Book cover - Cambridge scene, river, punt, bridge.

Lois Austen-Leigh (1931).

This is one of the British Library Crime Classics. It has the “none of the characters are likeable” problem.

Lord Wellende’s description of the “school managers’ meeting” is interesting:

” … We’ve got to get a new mistress for the village school, and a golden-haired lady has applied for the post.”
“Who are the managers?” said Prudence.
“Well, the ones that attended this morning were Woodcock and Abel Lundy – farms Stanny House Farm, you know – and myself. She got me cornered, the lady did,” chuckled Wellende. “Suddenly asked me what my views were about Clause 8 under Schedule B – or something of the sort – but Woodcock came to my assistance by asking her if she ever took a hand at halfpenny nap. And they got off to talking about halfpenny nap, which saved me; hadn’t the foggiest notion what Clause B Schedule 8 might be.”
“You must be a priceless collection as school managers – you, Lundy, and Woodcock,” laughed Prudence.
“It’s the best we can raise, anyway; the golden-haired lady evidently agreed to with you, for she declined the job; an occasional evening in the big room at the ‘Plough and Sail’ for halfpenny nap is about the only dissipation there is to offer.”

There’s some snobbery – someone comments on how the police detective’s “keen, intelligent face doesn’t excuse various little things about him … For instance, his constantly saying ‘your lordship’ to our host [Lord Wellende]”. (The Past Offences review linked below talks more about class in this novel.)

Characters are impressed by Lord Wellende not being “effete”: ‘”he gets his hair cut by an under-gardener – an under-gardener, if you please – because seventy years ago the old fellow was in a barber’s shop, and he always has cut his lordship’s hair for the last forty years, and so he always will!”‘.

Wouldn’t particularly recommend this one unless you’re a BL crime completist.

There’s a Guardian article which talks a bit about Austen-Leigh’s life. Past Offences has a fairly critical review which is worth reading. A more positive review from Bookbag.

Edited to add a link to another critical review, at In Search of the Classic Mystery.