Archive for the ‘books read’ Category

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.

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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 Archive.org.)

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.

Links:

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.

The Larks of Jubilee Flats (book #160)

11 January 2017

Marjorie A Sindall, 1956.

larks-003

I can’t find anything about Marjorie Sindall online. This is a short book, in the Panther series. Slight, but pleasant – everyone is very nice and everything turns out for the best. Nursing is a big part of the plot, with Jill, aged 14, planning to be a nurse. She attends a Junior Domestic and Technical School, called the Elmer Foundation, which dates back to the seventeenth century. Her family is working class, her father working at a brewery and her mother a hospital ward orderly:

‘But if I could have my time over again,’ she often said with a small sigh, ‘I’d be a nurse. Best job there is.’

Jill’s school spends two days a week on housecraft and cookery, and sends her for one morning a week to a day nursery. I was surprised that they are planning a school trip to Bruges, staying with Belgian families – cost to the children, £10 each.

There are some good details in the text and pictures. I liked Jill’s father “sprucing himself up” for Sunday visitors: “he donned his best brown suit, and the whole flat was filled with the scent of his violet hair cream”. Feather Ghyll points out the patients smoking on the hospital wards.

The illustrator is Frank Haseler. There’s a bit about him online. This post has some of his illustrations from 1972 (and his son has commented on it). There’s another 1970s image of his here. And a nude by him on eBay.

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A Girl Governess; or, Ella Dalton’s Success (book #159)

10 January 2017

AE Ward, 1894.

ella-cover

16-year-old Ella has been booked to sing, for pay, at a drawing room concert. She wants to do it in order to earn money for her ill sister’s treatment.

There’s a good bit about clothes, reminiscent of Polly and Fanny in An Old-Fashioned Girl:

perhaps I can borrow [a dress]; or if not, I must make my old white muslin do, though it has been washed so many times that it is getting rather thin in places. I can shorten the sleeves and put a bit of fresh lace into them, and you will see how nice it will look.

Fortunately a friend secretly gives / lends her “a beautiful new dress of white muslin, and the sweetest little cashmere mantle”. I like her brother’s phrase, “all that grand toggery”.

A mean girl, Carrie Mason, is not happy about Ella singing for money, and tries to interfere, but Ella is a success and earns two guineas. A chap in the audience then randomly (given her age and inexperience) employs her as governess to his grandchildren, spoilt Geoffry and “meek-spirited”, emotionally neglected Helen. Although at this point Ella is clearly a good girl, thoughtful and kind to her family, her mother thinks she is too self-confident about being a governess, but she, the mother, can’t do anything about this as she herself has not found God so can’t “bid [Ella] distrust herself and look to a higher strength than her own”. So on the one hand Ella’s prospects are looking good, but on the other hand she’s onviously going to be humbled before her relationship with God can be solved.

Fortunately, the rector tells her that she has to give herself to God, and she does so. Rather anti-climatic, but we’re only half-way through the book at this point, and Geoffry is still a right pain. One of the servants has been telling him he is the heir to the estate and shouldn’t have to obey anyone. Fortunately an orphan comes to live with one of the village families, and is a suitable charitable case on which Geoffers can learn unselfishness. Also Geoffry sprains his ancle and twists his back (which explains the scene on the cover) and has to stay in bed for weeks. He learns the value of his sister too. So all’s well with the world, including for Ella’s mother and ill sister, who move to a better house because of the kindness of her employer. The latter remains a bit of a randomer and cannot see that there has ever been anything wrong with Geoffry’s behaviour. All a bit by the numbers generally, I was disappointed that Carrie Mason didn’t reappear. One pleasing thing though – no love interest for Ella.

The book is nicely produced, with the standard random pictures at the start of chapters, as you can see from the first image here.

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Ella looks more than 16 in this picture:

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I think I have read AE Ward’s other book, Arthur’s Victory.

The Young Clementina (book #158)

16 October 2016
Cover of Young Clementina

Cover of Young Clementina

Originally published as Divorced from Reality and revised and re-published, I think in 1966 – this edition is 1970. Cover does not reflect book particularly well.

As the change in title might suggest, the book is not really about Clementina (who is a child). The (literal) divorce is treated in some detail, with a transcript of some of the evidence given – strikingly realistic for 1935 I thought. I can only recall brief mentions of divorce in other novels of the time (eg in Busman’s Honeymoon).

The comments in this review suggest that the revised version of the book has some significant differences from the earlier one.

Stevenson is good on tiredness, I think, rather like Goudge.

I liked the brief descriptions of the private geographical library Charlotte works in, though am worried it’s not financially viable.

I’d have liked things to be slightly harder for Charlotte than they are. She talks about being incompetent with the servants and how difficult things were with Clementina (who is 12 at the time Charlotte becomes her temporary guardian), but you don’t really see that. Even her imaginary friend turns out to be real.

Some DES fans seem to think this is one of her best, but it was a bit slight and without enough detail for me.

Artists and illustrators around the New Forest and Solent (book #157)

20 August 2016

Robert Coles, 1999.

Impressively illustrated book about New Forest and Solent artists since the 17th century.

I liked this illustration by Heywood Sumner of his excavations in the New Forest (from Excavations in New Forest Pottery Sites, 1927). You can see the archaeologist / artist himself, musing or drawing.

Heywood Sumner - Excavations in New Forest Pottery Sites (1927)