Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor - Book Review

Sussex in the snow

I made it down to Sussex after joining the commuters at London Victoria station last Friday night in the battle to get to the south coast through the snow and subsequent delays to the rail services. Waiting at Victoria station for over an hour in the freezing cold made me even more grateful to arrive home to my mother's fully stocked fridge, woodburning stove and library for me to 'borrow' from.

In between the various preparations for Christmas and catching up with friends I managed to read The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor. I hasten to add that this is not the diamonds and multi-husbands Elizabeth Taylor but another one entirely - something that I have only recently discovered. The shame.

The Wedding Group is the first novel by Elizabeth Taylor that I have read and I wasn't blown away by it. The story focuses on Cressy who grew up in an artistic community, Quayne, made up of her family and headed by her Grandfather. Cressy is headstrong and is stifled by life in the community so she is desperate for a means of escape. David, a local young journalist, writes a searing piece about the community and Cressy writes to him with a plea for help. He doesn't respond to her so she turns to their cleaning woman for help. Through her, Cressy gets a job in the local antiques shop, which is run by David's friends, and she eventually moves in to the attic.

David starts taking Cressy out to all the places that she has never been to like service stations and diners. He is enthralled by her enthusiasm and naivety and more importantly so is David's mother, Midge. Midge is the stifling presence within David's life, manipulative and controlling Midge lives vicariously through David. David still lives with Midge as his father left them.

Eventually, Cressy and David get married and it all starts to unravel. Rather than breakaway from Midge they live nearby and Midge takes complete control of domestic affairs which induces Cressy to become lazier and lazier. Cressy falls pregnant, much to David's dismay, and they become even more trapped within Midge's web.

Overriding the 'apron strings' issue is the fact that Cressy is lazy and David spoilt. It seems as if all Cressy's energy went into leaving Quayne only to become trapped in a worse situation. The reader is not surprised when Midge takes over the role of parenting their child, when Cressy becomes fat and David starts having an affair. The whole situation is too depressing for words and frankly it is difficult to have any sympathy for any of the characters - as the reader you want to leap in and give them all a good talking to.

Initially Cressy was the hero as she broke free of the chains of Quayne, but Taylor morphs her into a stupid, lazy and irritating woman who strives for nothing for herself, her husband or her child. David is self-satisfied and self-pitying and Midge is a pathological liar, alcoholic and control freak. Not much going for any of them. Taylor seems to have become confused as to what she wanted the reader to experience. To dislike all the characters is not a problem in itself and quite often can make for an interesting read but the threads become tangled and the characterisation is weak as a result.

It appears that Taylor was trying to write something more than just an exposé on the relationship between mothers and their sons but she doesn't quite manage to do this. Quayne was an interesting strand within the novel which I felt wasn't fully pursued and Cressy's character becomes weaker and weaker towards the end like Taylor got lost with her.

The peripheral characters were not developed thoroughly and I felt frustrated as I tried to piece together their involvement and relevance in the plot. I got a sense that Taylor did not fully jump into what it was she was trying to write - perhaps a lack of direction or even confidence - and this affects the experience for the reader. There are so many interesting themes within the novel, religion, family guilt, addiction, sexual abuse, depression, village life, incest, but none of them are fully developed.

Despite this, it was an enjoyable read from the perspective that it made me think after I had put it down and I am definitely intrigued about Taylor as a writer as she attempts to probe the human condition and peel back the layers of family relationships.

Talking about family relationships, it is Christmas Eve tomorrow so everyone will be descending upon us. I am off to test my relationship with my mother as I go and steal more books off her shelves to keep me going for the (few) quiet moments over the next couple of days (she has masses of Virago's). I hope you all have a lovely Christmas full of good cheer, mulled wine, friends, relations and comfort.

Monday, 14 December 2009

A Spotless Rose

Chichester Cathedral in the snow, taken by Jane Sanders

Christmas is my favourite time of year, partly because of the music. I love choral music and Christmas is the highpoint in the choral calendar as seemingly endless rehearsals fade into a long span of concerts leading up to the big day. No Christmas holiday would be complete without going to a carol concert and this year I am giving myself two helpings as I am going to the concert at St. John Smith Square performed by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and the carol service at Chichester Cathedral which I go to every year (another Christmas ritual).

Chichester is a magical place to be at Christmas as the traditional Georgian houses display twinkling lights on dainty trees in their windows and the delicious smell of woodsmoke wafts through the streets from the chimney pots above the mad, scrambling shoppers looking for their final gifts. The trees outside the Cathedral are decorated with lights and each year the young choristers help to decorate the tree inside the Cathedral. The carol service draws a huge crowd and everyone jostles inside to get their seats. The population of Chichester tends to be quite civilised until, that is, they want good seats at the carol service. I have to say it is a purely militant operation and the leading perpetrator of scurrying in with elbows at the ready is my Granny. She is a lovely, sweet lady but a lady who knows how to operate.

I enjoy a good belting sing (not sure that the people around me appreciate this) so Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Oh, Come all Ye Faithful are carols that I particularly look forward to as the congregation get to join in. But what is really fantastic is when the choir sings. One year they sang A Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells, a 20th century British composer. It was one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I had heard and it is my favourite Christmas carol. I have it on my iPod and I have to ration when I listen to it or else I would end up listening to carols all through the summer!

The words are taken from a 14th century poem:
A spotless Rose is blowing, sprung from a tender root
 / Of ancient seers’ foreshowing, of Jesse promised fruit. / 
Its fairest bud unfolds to light amid the cold, cold winter,
 /And in the dark midnight.

The Rose which I am singing, whereof Isaiah said
 / Is from its sweet root springing in Mary, purest maid.
 / For through our God’s great love and might
 / The blessed Babe she bare us in a cold, cold winter’s night.
I love the imagery and when the lyrics are coupled with Howells' flowing melody they are made even more beautiful. You can hear a recording here on YouTube by the BBC Singers. My favourite recording is by the Cambridge Singers under the direction of John Rutter. This carol is also a favourite as it combines my areas of interest; somewhat oddly, I have a serious penchant for both medieval literature and music and early 20th century literature and music (don't ask me anything about the Victorians - my knowledge of 19th century literature is sparse to say the least) and this carol brings together the two periods in history that I love. But aside from that it's just a lovely tune to listen to on a cold winter's night.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Habit of Art

A few nights ago I went to see Alan Bennett's new play The Habit of Art at the National Theatre. I am an admirer of Bennett's writing; his dry, subtle humour and piercing observations of human character are masterly. But this, is in an entirely different league.

The play makes use of a well-established theatrical device, a play within a play. The company are rehearsing a play which portrays W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten towards the end of their lives when Auden is seemingly redundant and living in a cottage belonging to Christ Church college, Oxford, and Britten is struggling to write his haunting opera Death in Venice (made more haunting by Deborah Warner's wonderful production at ENO).

Richard Griffiths who plays Fitz/W.H. Auden is fantastic, especially considering that he came to the part late as Michael Gambon had to withdraw due to ill health. Both the characters of Fitz and Auden, who Fitz plays, are bolshy, opinionated and arrogant men who were highly successful within their creative careers; an actor and poet respectively. They are both in need of constant praise and, most of all, in need of success. Britten on the other hand (who is played by ex-rent boy Henry) is tentative, insecure and highly competitive but is similarly desperate for success.

The tie that binds the parallel plays is the thematic tie of art and the execution of art. Who is the artist? How does the artist create? And, more importantly, who is it who is not acknowledged in the creation of art?

The play that the company are rehearsing is called 'Caliban's Day'. And it is to The Tempest that Bennett, the playwright of Caliban's Day 'Neil' and indeed Auden refer to. Auden wrote a long poem called The Sea and the Mirror between 1942-44, which is a series of dramatic monologues spoken by the characters in The Tempest once the play has finished. Auden converted to Anglicanism which informed the writing of The Sea and the Mirror, as he presented his ideas as orientated by Christian philosophy. He makes it clear that Ariel (creative spirit) and Caliban (bestial worldliness) cannot exist without each other. Auden wanted to correct the blaming of the bestial for the imperfections of the spirit. In the Christian theology of The Sea and the Mirror, man is equally imperfect in mind and body; he is to be existentially anxious until death when he will know wholeness.

In Alan Bennett's play, Auden and Britten both represent this combining of the bestial with the spiritual through a discussion over the creation of Death in Venice which Britten is struggling with due to the insinuation of paedophilia and the subsequent repercussions for the reception of the opera as he is driven by a desire to be loved. Auden acknowledges the need for honesty and the recognition of the importance of bestial urges whilst Britten, driven by the spiritual is repressed and projects disaster onto the acknowledgement of truth.

As this discussion takes place Auden's rent boy Stuart, enters and is asked by Auden what he knows, Stuart answers that he "knows about dicks". Stuart is uneducated, he 'services' the intellectual elite of Oxford for a living and is constantly looking in from the outside. He epitomises bestiality. However, it is to Stuart that both Auden and, eventually, Britten turn to for reassurance. Their creative spirits need the juxtaposition of Stuart and his body. Ultimately though, Stuart's lack of knowledge about music and poetry comforts them as they feed off his ignorance to serve their creativity and reassure their intellectually founded arrogance.

Comparably, the company rehearsing 'Caliban's Day' feed off the comfort that Kay (wonderfully played by Frances De La Tour) the Stage Manager provides. So, thematically across both plays - there is always someone forgotten who was instrumental in the production of art. Caliban is not lauded as he should be but he is part of the artistic process nevertheless as Kay and Stuart know.

Bennett references Auden's poetry, Britten's music and Shakespeare to create a play that exudes both intertextuality and humour. The play is funny - there are enough bawdy jokes to keep me going for a lifetime but more importantly the play is so multi-faceted that you leave the theatre hungry for more. Hungry to research the references and think about what was being said and this is what I loved. Added to that the fact that they played an extract from Britten's Peter Grimes that I adore (Sea Interlude), this play was one of the events of my year. The ending which was given to Stage Manager Kay was reminiscent of one of my favourite extracts from The Tempest in which Prospero acknowledges that the spirits who create, melt into air as they are real beings after all:
These our actors, /As I foretold you, were all spirits, and /Are melted into air, into thin air; /And like the baseless fabric of this vision, /The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, /The solemn temples, the great globe itself, /Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve; /And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, /Leave not a rack behind. /We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life /Is rounded with a sleep.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

A Christmas Ritual

Kay Harker and Cole Hawlings with the Box of Delights copyright BBC Images

Aside from Christmas lunch and receiving a stocking each year, my most important Christmas ritual is watching the BBC adaptation of The Box of Delights. Watching it marks a home-coming, as I dim the lights and snuggle under a blanket with a hot cup of tea to watch it.

It is set in 1934 during the run up to Christmas and Kay Harker is on his way home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays. Whilst changing trains for Tatchester (the local Cathedral city) Kay bumps into an old Punch & Judy man, Cole Hawlings who is keeper of the elixir of life and a magic box, the box of delights. This chance encounter pulls Kay into a series of adventures as Cole warns him that the 'wolves are running' and entrusts Kay with the box in the hope to outwit the evil and power hungry Abner Brown who wants box and will stop at nothing to get it.

Kay's guardian, Caroline Louisa, has invited the Jones children to stay, all of whom become embroiled in Kay's adventures. Kay's world is turned upside down when both Caroline Louisa disappears and he realises that Abner Brown is using the cover of a well respected local clergyman who runs a theological college. The local policeman does not believe Kay's pleas for help, so it is up to Kay and the Jones children to defeat Abner.

Abner is prepared to 'nobble and scrobble' his way through the entire population of Tatchester to get the box - he mistakenly thinks that Cole may have given the box to the Bishop so the clergy are thrown into his dungeon one by one. Preparations for the one-thousandth midnight mass at Tatchester Cathedral are thrown into disarray as Abner and his sinister gang wreak havoc.

Will the one-thousandth midnight mass go ahead? Will Abner and his gang be caught? What happens to the box?

The series epitomises cosy Christmas viewing. All the elements that are essential for a traditional Christmas pepper the series, from Kay Christmas shopping in the snow to dancing around the Christmas tree and the children building a snowman, it diffuses an atmosphere of sheer Christmassy delight. The soundtrack is partly taken from Victor Hely-Hutchinson's A Carol Symphony so snippets from 'A First Nowell' and other favourite carols add to the drenching in Christmas that this series so happily gives the viewer.

I have to confess that I have never read the book by John Masefield which, I feel, should be rectified but I just love the BBC series so much and for me the television series came first which means that when I read the book I will struggle not to see the actors in my head.

This is the time that I start getting really excited about Christmas. Plenty of Advent calendar doors have been opened, the Christmas shopping is done and the Christmas party season is in full swing. At the end of a couple of weeks of work parties and Christmas drinks with friends (I can never tire of mulled wine) I will sink down into my mum's sofa a few days before Christmas, with the aforementioned cup of tea, and watch the Box of Delights to take me back to the delicious childhood excitement that Christmas is coming and magical adventures are around the corner - if only I could find that box.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

On Winter, or Christmas part one

As I walked to work this morning I caught sight of a sparkling leaf. Dusted with frost, it lay across my path and reminded me of the beauty of winter, which I have tried to show in the following poem.

The crisp whip of wind lashes,
Stark cold trails blazed by icy tendrils
Reaching through the dark,
To swathe foreign lands
In sparkling ribbons.

Water relinquishes its element as
Crystal splinters of ice mutate
To reflect the darkling sun,
Sinking into premature glory,
In a burst of bronze.

Barren landscapes offer up
Weary berries for visual bounty,
Ruby orbs clinging on to hostile limbs
Shining out through natures contempt,
Waiting to be plucked.

The crisp, cold, bright days followed by clear, starlit nights lead to Christmas - my favourite time of year.

Every year I go home to my mum's in West Sussex and every year we follow the same timetable and I would be devastated (yes, devastated) if anything were to change. I have clung on to my little Christmas rituals for years. Nevermind that I am twenty-five and my sister is thirty-one (and, this year, heavily pregnant - so, surely a grown-up now?) we still HAVE to have stockings. Spoilt? Yes. But, without a visit from Father Christmas I would be seriously discombobulated. It is a little odd that Father Christmas has to visit before I go to bed as he (my mum) goes to bed before me but I choose to ignore this and pretend that Father Christmas is ho ho ho-ing his way down our chimney to deposit my bag of goodies.

An obsession of mine (apart from the continuation of the stocking) is the food. Christmas lunch is my 'meal of the year' as soon as I have stuffed myself senseless and had a recovering lie down, I start dreaming about next year's feast. It is what gets me through each year (I am not exaggerating). Everyone claims that their mother's cooking is the best which is utter, laughable nonsense. My mother's cooking really is the best and when partnered with my granny, well stand back Delia is all I can say. I do intend to do a full write up of our Christmas lunch as it is worthy of its own post.

There are so many things about Christmas that I love. So many, that I will post more on Christmas as Advent progresses.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The V&A Book Club

Recently, I set up a book club at work with the help of some colleagues, one of whom you may know as Book Snob. It is very democratic as we all put book suggestions into the hat and we all bring cakes to share around - cake is essential for fuelling literary discussion. Last Wednesdays' choice was Being Dead by John Crace which, although a short book, sparked a lot of lively discussion and I came away with lots of new ideas to think about.

Being Dead is a lyrically written examination of death. The two middle-aged protagonists are murdered in the sand dunes where they first had sex together. They are both scientists, complex characters and die in a horrific way - together. It is this togetherness that is the guiding light within, what would otherwise be, quite a depressing read.

Although, would this be depressing if it weren't for the fact that we are not at peace with death? We cannot handle our own mortality and we tend to move away from confronting our fragility - essentially we are all on our way to the end of our lives. We are powerless over our own deaths as Crace starkly shows us. Crace also highlights the arbitrary nature of death - we never know when our last day will be or how we will die and his character Celice was killed mid-sentence, in full flow and in her prime.

Joseph and Celice are an ordinary married couple going about their lives. Celice is bored and disappointed and she is still trying to find her way through life. Joseph is quiet, a bit odd and loves his wife. He wakes up on his last day with an overwhelming desire to go back to where they first met and romantically rekindle their sexual spark in the location of their first passionate encounter. It is this amalgamation of their ordinariness and their going on a special trip that makes their death, and the manner of their death, more stark as they are cut down in the midst of a sacred and fragile act.

The fragility of their love-making is transposed onto the fragility of their very being - in minutes they are both dead and nature, science and ultimately fact, start to take over, but perhaps it is not as depressing as it may seem. Joseph and Celice are united in death:
Joseph's grasp on Celice's leg had weakened as he'd died. But still his hand was touching her, the grainy pastels of her skin, one fingertip among her baby ankle hairs. Their bodies had expired, but anyone could tell - just look at them - that Joseph and Celice were still devoted. For while his hand was touching her, curved round her shin, the couple seemed to have achieved that peace the world denies, a period of grace, defying even murder.
It is the 'period of grace' which is presented to the reader throughout the novel. Their bodies are not sanitised by our rituals of death such as cleaning, make-up and disinfectant. Instead, Joseph and Celice are allowed, for a time, to blend with nature - to become part of the natural processes of life and death.

The book is at times an uncomfortable read, Crace goes into the detail of decomposing bodies at great length (maybe I just have a weak stomach) but the novel has stayed with me and made me consider my own mortality and how I think about death.

I would never have chosen to read this book had it not been for the V&A Book Club; which is entirely the purpose of a book club - to encourage us to pick up books we wouldn't have done ordinarily. I try to keep my reading horizons broad but, I admit, I do read a lot of early twentieth century literature so the book club has led me down a new reading path and I am looking forward to our meeting next month.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The bell chimes again

The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Firstly, apologies for my absence. The past two weeks have flown by and I have not had a minute to spare and any seconds that I have found have, of course, been spent reading. Once I was over the flu, work and life took off and I am currently doing two part-time courses at City University which are enjoyable but with a full time job, blog, friends and family something is going to be neglected and sadly, it has been Bloomsbury Bell.

In the midst of the chaos I did manage to go away to Oxfordshire for the weekend for flu recovery and an escape from the madness of my diary at the moment. We visited the new Ashmolean which, was truly stunning and the perfect escape from the driving wind and rain which greeted us on the morning of our trip. The museum does not only provide a refuge from the weather but from the hustle and milieu of the Oxford shopping streets which, on a Saturday, were heaving.

The new galleries are light, spacious and full of the Ashmolean's wonderful collection which spans centuries of archaeology and art. Instead of a warren of gloomy galleries all leading further into the bowels and depths of the building, the new galleries invite panoramic views, space and light so you can stand in a gallery and see into many rooms at the same time as this photo shows.

Walkways pepper the building so you catch glimpses of other visitors in various parts of the space.

I particularly liked the paintings galleries as they have a great collection of medieval art and also a room dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite movement which included this stunning portrait of Jane Morris, entitled Reverie, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The muted, autumnal colours and thoughtful pose of Jane Morris make this portrait utterly enchanting. I have always wanted pre-raphaelite hair, but sadly I have poker strait, boring hair which refuses to conform to any sort of style. So, standing in front of this beautiful portrait in the Ashmolean my mind did not soar to higher plains - I was thinking about my hair.

Once I had moved on from my vain navel-gazing I found The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello which is an extraordinary study in perspective as it completely draws the viewer in to the centre of the action. The colours are still so vibrant considering it was painted in 1470.

During the trip I found a rival for my favourite library - previously written about
here - as we discovered the village of Bampton which has the prettiest little library that I have ever seen.

I can easily imagine spending hours in there with the rain pattering on the window and the cosy cardigan wearing librarian stamping and cataloguing books. The library was closed when we arrived but I had a good look in through the windows and saw comfy reading chairs and a delightful childrens area. Paradise.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Lady Lazarus

Lady Alexandra Curzon (Baba)

For the past few days I have been bedridden with one of those seasonal viruses which make everything except sleep and watching rubbish telly, impossible. The title of this post alludes to the title of Plath's poem Lady Lazarus but I thought it was fitting as I had been reading so much about the upper classes before I fell ill. Thankfully, I have been well enough to read today and have continued to be gripped by Anne De Courcy's biography of the three Curzon sisters, The Viceroy's Daughters.

Irene, Cimmie and Baba were the three daughters of Viceroy Curzon and were born during a time when the British upper classes were at their ruling zenith. Irene was born in 1896, Cimmie (Cynthia Blanche) was born in 1898 and Baba (Alexandra Naldera) was born in 1904. Their mother Lady Mary was the daughter of an extraordinarily rich American, Levi Ziegler Leiter. Due to Leiter's wealth all three Curzon sisters were heiresses of a vast sum of money.

The biography charts their lives and is a fascinating insight into the lives of the wealthy during the early twentieth century. Cimmie was the first wife of Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and the book delves into both the rise and demise of this murky political party. The lives of the three sisters are set against the backdrop of the wider goings on within society at the time, as much to contextualise their lives as because their lives were entwined with many political leaders of the day.

What startled me was the extent of the bed hopping that occurred between the higher levels of society. They were apparently insatiable in their extra-marital appetites. It seems that as long as no one openly spoke about it, anything went.

This is a fantastic read to transport you to the glamour, glitz and gossip of the first half of the twentieth century and was exactly what I needed to help me recuperate.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

Dancers at The Cafe de Paris in 1932

When we were teenagers, my best friend and I would spend hours excitedly preparing to go out to a party or nightclub. We would spend an entire afternoon in her bedroom going through boxes of make up deciding what to use. Clothes would be tried on, discarded and tried on again as we attempted to find the perfect party ensemble. In a flurry of perfume, hairspray and glitter we would listen to saccharine pop and dream about the perfect boy that we would meet during the perfect evening.

We would arrive at the party with our expectations full to the brim. Bursting with nerves and excitement we would enter the room and search for people we knew. Gradually, people would start dancing and I would slowly fall back down to earth. Tugging at my ill-fitting clothes and looking for a quiet corner I would scan the room and see people pairing off and realise that actually the party in my head was a different place. The best part was sitting in my best friend's utility room eating a bowl of Alpen, dissecting the evening before heading upstairs to a bed that her mum had put a hot water bottle in. I would snuggle down under the duvet and store my dreams for the next time whilst feeling a little bit closer to them coming true.

Invitation to the Waltz tells the story of Olivia Curtis who is invited to attend her first dance at the age of seventeen. Like myself, and all teenage girls, she excitedly plans what she is going to wear and takes the red material that she received for her birthday to the local dressmaker to create something dazzling for the dance. Olivia is a thoughtful girl and unlike her sister Kate is not so comfortable with her appearance. Kate spends time thinking about and planning her appearence with an air of expertise whereas Olivia awkwardly tries her dress on back to front and pours too much perfume on to her hair.

The dance is hosted by the Spencers who are local aristocracy. Lady Spencer's jewels dazzle Olivia as she "was handsomer even than Queen Mary, in the same sculptural style, but of a more classical cast of features. A gown of silver brocade moulded her opulent but well-controlled contours; a parure of diamonds and sapphires set off the imposing architecture of her bosom and a tiara flashed above the severely carved wings of her grey hair". Olivia dances with a succession of old men all playing to her sympathetic nature and between dances she anxiously aims for the safety of the cloakroom unless she is intercepted by another ill-suited partner.

As her sister Kate finds the perfect boy at her perfect dance, Olivia grapples around through the various representatives of masculinity present at the dance. She encounters the poet Peter who is paranoid, drunk and vulnerable. She dances with Tim the young man who was blinded in battle in the first world war and she has an altercation with the roguish, wealthy and arrogant Archie. Finally, Olivia meets Rollo Spencer out on the terrace with whom she feels at ease for the first time during the night. He is honest, charming and, irritatingly, attached to Nicola. Eventually, Olivia falls asleep on a chair as she waits for her sister to finish dancing.

As Olivia is able to recount the entire evening to her mother with youthful and innocent enthusiasm, her sister Kate is detached. Through the establishment of an understanding with Tony Heriot she has left Olivia behind, "I've left it all behind me. She looked at Olivia lying back on the settee, her eyes black and small with sleep. We won't be able to talk over the dance, exchanging every detail for hours and days. I can't share tonight with her. Olivia's too young." The dance is the catalyst for change for both the sisters, their relationship with each other has shifted as Olivia too realises that Kate has gone down a path which Olivia cannot yet follow, "I'm left behind, but I don't care. I've got plenty to think about too."

Lehmann's portrayal of a young girls' first dance pierces to the heart of the experience. The social anxieties, the pressure and the excitement are all enmeshed. Olivia is thrown into a social melting pot between the sexes for the first time and slowly she starts to learn about herself. It is here for the first time that she notices a class difference between herself and her friend Marigold Spencer "The friends she flew to join now were not their friends. They were those who would tread with her the prosperous, mapped road of coming out, whose mysteries and allurements were to be the natural setting of their days and nights." Olivia realises her middle-class status for the first time and what this will mean for her.

This novel is a beautiful and insightful account of a young girl poised on the edge of adulthood - slowly testing herself in the wider world but still able to flee back to the comfort of childhood. As I dipped my toe in to the water of parties and clubbing, I still longed for the bowl of Alpen, my cuddly toy cat and the comfort of a hot water bottle at the end of the night. And it is this aspect of being in between, of waiting, of being ready but of not being ready that Rosamond Lehmann perfectly portrays.

Monday, 26 October 2009

On being published

The Persephone Books endpaper design for High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

I have finally received my copy of The Persephone Biannually through the post which is not only exciting because I love reading the Biannually but because in this edition of the Biannually I have been quoted in the 'Our Bloggers Write' section! I found out last week from Rachel at Book Snob and was immediately bursting with excitement as it was completely unexpected and made my week. But I had to wait for days and days before my copy came through the letterbox. At long last it arrived and I frantically ripped open the plactic wrapper like a mad woman and there it was - in print. My quote is happily next to lots of other quotes from familiar bloggers such as Simon at StuckinaBook, Claire at Paperback Reader, Claire of KissaCloud and Rachel at Book Snob.

Once the excitement of seeing my little quote in print faded I was able to settle down and read the Biannually. I am now completely over excited by the publication of Dorothy Whipple's High Wages. I cannot wait to find out what happens to Jane who works in the Draper's shop. Whipple, is fantastic at characterisation and bringing the ordinary, everyday, monotonous and tedious aspects of humanity to life with a view to dissection. She is highly moral in tone and a tad all-knowing but you can sink in to one of her books and look over her characters shoulders as they battle with ordinary aspects of life during the early twentieth century. History books leave out the 'small things' so it is to writers like Whipple that we turn to gain a sense of what went on in the domestic world; what went on in everyday life. I cannot wait to get my hands on the latest Whipple offering from Persephone Books.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Highgate Cemetery, High Tea and books

Highgate Cemetery taken by Wendy Keel

This week has been incredibly busy and tiring (hence no blog post) and I have just sat down to catch up on all the things that I should have done earlier in the week.

Yesterday I went to Highgate Cemetery with Rachel from Book Snob. We finally made it to the Cemetery after having experienced a bit of an epic journey. Firstly, Archway tube was closed for engineering works so I had to get off at Highgate tube (apparently nowhere near the cemetery) and then catch the number 134 bus down Archway Road. We met at Archway tube and set off for the Cemetery - we merrily hopped on to the bus only to alight and realise that we were in the wrong place. Essentially, we had gone back the way we came so we were back up Archway Road when we wanted Highgate Hill. We then got the bus back down the road. I can now hold my head up and say that Rachel and I are the only people in the world to have caught the number 134 bus three times within the space of 30 minutes. We are now experts on the Archway Road.

After all our bus riding we decided that we were too late for the 11am tour so we would have to go in to some charity bookshops to kill some time until the 12pm tour. Rachel found a stash of bargains and, despite my book-buying ban, I bought two books for 40p. I thought that it was no longer possible in 21st century Britain to buy anything for under £1 but I got two whole books for 40 pence! I found a copy of Those Fragile Years by Rose Franken and No Drinking, No Dancing, No Doctors by Martina Evans who was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at my university and who I went to see once a week for writing advice. She is a lovely woman and I am very excited to have found her only novel (she is a poet) as I have been looking for it for a long time.

So, our book buying done we walked up the hill to the cemetery (having given up on buses in the area). Highgate Cemetery is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been to. To say it is atmospheric is an understatement. We arrived as it was just starting to drizzle and it looked stunning in the murky gloom of a drizzly autumn afternoon.

I have not yet read Audrey Niffenegger's novel Her Fearful Symmetery which features the cemetery and has sparked a lot of interest in the place. This is something I will rectify as soon as possible especially as Rachel at Book Snob and Claire at Paperback Reader rate the book so highly.

Walking around the cemetery you can easily see how the place can spark stories within the imagination of any writer. Not only are there the life stories encapsulated within every tomb but the place itself lights the imagination and triggers literary possibilities. Our tour guide was wonderful but I just wanted to wander off the whole time and spend hours reading every single head stone and tomb and I am sure that I am not the only one. The cemetery is so much bigger than I had expected.

The Victorians managed death in a really interesting way. Every aspect of death was ritualised, from the funeral service, to mourning and the carvings on the tombs themselves. Our tourguide explained the meanings behind some of the symbols which was fascinating. A broken column on a tomb is representative of someone cut down in their prime, a torch upside down is life extinguished and a wreath is the gift or achievement of resurrection through death. There were also many statues of angels above peoples tombs. Essentially two types of angel were depicted; the triumphant angel conquering death and ready for the afterlife and the sorrowful angel. In some sense I felt that death for the Victorians is what sex is for us in modern Britain. Whereas sex was the taboo in Victorian society it is death which is the taboo for us. Apparently, visiting Highgate Cemetery was a regular day out for many Victorian Londoners and their families even if they were not visiting a particular grave. Our tourguide said it would have been a bit like Kew Gardens with lots of brightly coloured exotic plants.

One of the most interesting parts of the tour was going into the catacombs which are essentially a series of corridors within which were shelves where the coffins were placed. It was really cold and dark in there and you can see the coffins in their compartments. Obviously, my imagination turned to the contents of the coffins which spooked me a little. It is a slightly odd thing to see coffins stacked in neat rows. I felt a bit lonely for the corpses as it is literally being left on a shelf. But when their relatives were alive the catacombs would have been lighter with oil lamps burning and you could go and visit your relative and, I guess, have a chat.

After we burst back in to the light and the tour was over Rachel and I decided that we were absolutely in need of a reviving cup of tea. We found High Tea of Highgate which is a really jolly little tea room that serves homemade cakes and a lovely variety of teas.
I had a slice of Lavender cake with a traditional afternoon tea and Rachel had a Scone with jam, clotted cream and some sort of Orange tea which shockingly I cannot remember the exact name of. I have a real penchant for floral flavours. Rose, violet, geranium, lavender, all of them together in one go - I am in love with anything floral tasting so I immediately went for the Lavender cake. I have to say the sponge was not as good as my mum's but it was still delicious and 'lavendery' enough for my floral requirements. The tea was superb and just what I needed after a tramp about the cemetery.

The interior decor is gorgeous and the crockery is suitably mismatched and floral. It only has tea, a selection of other hot drinks and cake on the menu so don't go expecting anything suitable for lunch unless, like us, you are perfectly happy with cake for lunch.

I am now off to prepare for another mad week - this will teach me to do two evening classes. It is Colm Toibin's fault.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Dreaming Spires

Yesterday I went to Oxford with a group of friends from the City & Guilds Bookbinding Course that I recently completed. It was the loveliest day as the early winter sun was peeping through the clouds, showering golden light on the wonderful university buildings.

We went to an exhibition at the Bodleian Library called 'An Artful Craft: Fine and Historic Bindings from the Broxbourne Library and other collections'. The exhibition examines the book as an object valued for more than its functional purpose - the book as an object of beauty. The Broxbourne Library was compiled by the diamond merchant Albert Ehrman (1890-1969) and is comprised of more than 1,500 bindings which were presented to the Bodleian Library by Albert's son John, in 1979, in memory of his parents. Albert Ehrman bought his first rare book in 1919. He collected early printed books and his primary interest became the stylistic and decorative features of their covers.

The majority of the books on display in the exhibition are examples of exquisite gold tooled covers. Gold paint was used to decorate the covers of books in the early Middle Ages. Later, during the 14th and 15th centuries, Islamic craftsmen heated metal tools and used them to make impressions in leather in gold and silver leaf. This technique reached Europe and became the dominant technique for the decoration of fine bindings.

What I love about books is that they are valued as much as material objects as they are for the ideas and stories that they contain. Books were used as symbols of power - the exhibition contains fine bindings presented to Elizabeth I and Cardinal Wolsey as exquisite and expensive gifts. In aristocratic houses finely bound books would be on display for all to see - they were a symbol of wealth. Books carry sentiment; we collect books for their covers as well as their content. I collect Virago Modern Classics, Persephone Books, first edition Iris Murdoch novels and early edition books published by the Hogarth Press. I don't just collect these books for their content, I collect them because I love their design.

I wasn't permitted to take photographs in the exhibition so on the right is a photograph that I took of a postcard. It shows a gold-tooled binding for Cardinal Wolsey - the stamped blocks of gold show Tudor badges and St. George. This is believed to be the earliest English gold-tooled binding as it is dated 1519. The binding is astounding and to think that this book has survived almost 500 years is mind-blowing. The book contains various Latin texts; books were not originally decorated to represent the content within as the object itself carried independent status.

I love early bindings and there were bindings in the exhibition that contained texts which dated from the 12th century. One of the earliest bindings in the Broxbourne Library was bought by Albert Ehrman for £8,000 which is a lot of money today but when you think how much that would have been in 1951 when he made the purchase it makes you realise just how much Ehrman spent on his collection and how much the collection is worth now.

This binding was one of my favourites in the exhibition and contains the Poems of Henry Constable. It dates from 1930 and was bound by Sybil Pye. The binding is made up of inlays of leathers of different colours. It is wonderful as it is an early twentieth century style, Art Deco, and it is great to see examples of books bound by women as there were few women binders. Sybil Pye was one of the most respected binders of her generation.

The exhibition is free and is on until 31 October so go and see it if you can as bookbinding exhibitions are sadly few and far between. I often wonder just what treasures are stowed away in academic libraries up and down the country that we rarely ever get to see.

After the exhibition it was time for lunch so we wandered around the Radcliffe Camera to the Vaults and Garden Cafe which is in the vaults of the University Church of St Mary. I really recommend this cafe as the food is always freshly cooked, relatively inexpensive, warming on a cold day and the vaulted ceiling is stunning and dates from 1320.

After lunch we went for an afternoon stroll around Christchurch Meadow which is one of my favourites places. Cattle were grazing in the meadow which is situated in the centre of the city. It is a peaceful space and you can walk around the meadow following the river, watching punts and rowing boats bobbing along the Thames. The trees were all turning bronze and golden and the dappled light filtered through the remaining leaves and fell at our feet.

As we walked the sound of the bells drifted over to us and called us back to the melee of the city on a Saturday afternoon. The High Street was jam packed with shoppers all bustling along for their next purchase and of course I couldn't help but join in so I went to the fantastic Blackwell's bookshop on Broad Street whose top floor is a secondhand bookshop.

The shop opened in 1879 and is a book lover's paradise. I went straight up to the secondhand section and was absolutely spoilt for choice as they had so many fantastic titles in stock. My resolve not to buy any books until I have seriously dented the pile of books in my flat waiting to be read fell by the wayside completely and I found myself with an armful of books (some Christmas presents) darting towards the cashier before I had time to think sensibly. I have an addiction and it is literally taking over my life as I am having to manoeuvre myself around the piles of books around the flat. But I have decided that I am beyond help so I am carrying on with my crazed book buying.

I picked up some great bargains and added to my VMC collection.

So, I only bought four books for myself. I am very excited about reading Molly Keane's Young Entry and I love the cover of Naomi Mitchison's Travel Light which shows a detail from the Unicorn Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, which I have been longing to see for a long time.

A great Saturday spent in Oxford. Now I am going to confront the pile of books waiting to be read with a pot of tea and a few (packets of) biscuits.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A Secret Hideaway...

'It rained outside so we camped inside'
Chanters House, Devon, England 2002 © Tim Walker
This photograph by Tim Walker reminds me of making camps indoors with my sister when we were little. Some days I still feel like putting a sheet over a table and hiding; how wonderful would it be to camp in this library? A library would be a dreamy home.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The first whip of winter

Copyright: Moma, New York

The other night I felt the first whip of winter and was glad at the thought of all the cosy nights ahead of me. The night skies at this time of year are clear, limitless, crisp and full of sparkle. However, as I live in London the light pollution hampers my star-gazing so I turn to the wonderful poet Alice Oswald who takes me to the night skies and familiar evening smells of woodsmoke and leaves every time I read her poem A Star Here And A Star There which is from her collection Woods etc.

the first whisper of stars is a faint thing
a candle sound, too far to read by

the first whisper of stars is a candle sound
those faraway stars that rise and give themselves airs
a star here and a star there
the first whisper of stars is that faint thing
that candle sound too far away to read by

when you walk outside leaving the door ajar
and smell the various Danks of Dusk
and a star here
and a star there

you walk outside leaving the door ajar
and on by one those stars bring you their troubles
and a star
those deafmute stars - Alkaid Mizar Alioth -
trying to make you hear who they once were
and a star
here and there
here and there the
start of a
Phad Merak Muscida - it's like blowing on a ring of cinders
all that sky that lies hidden in the taken for granted air

it's like blowing on a ring of cinders
the crackle of not quite stars that you can hear
when you walk outside leaving the door ajar
and smell the various Danks of Dusk
and here and there
the start
of a star

someone looks up, he sees his soul growing visible
in various shapes above the house

he sees his soul tilted above the house
all his opponent selves hanging and fluttering
out there in the taken for granted air
in various shapes above the house
he sees a star here and a star there
and a star here
and a star a star
here and there he sees

there flies that man they call the moon,
that bone-thin man, his body almost gone
there he flies among the stars,
that deafmute man, urgently making signs
among those first faint stars
those whispered stars, their meanings almost gone

Poem taken from Woods etc. by Alice Oswald
published by Faber and Faber 2005

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Book Review - Howards End by E.M. Forster

Howards End examines the cultural inheritance of England. Forster was writing at a time when England was changing; the development of urban conurbations, the motorcar and mass production are just a few changes that E.M. Forster observed as having impact upon the English landscape.

My favourite passage within the novel is the following and captures many of the novel's themes:
‘England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole Island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world’s fleet accompanying her towards eternity?’

‘Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands,’ this line clearly portrays businessmen and politicians; the Wilcox’s. Henry Wilcox, is at the forefront of financial power, he seems wholly materialistic and encourages all forms of technology, change and modernity. Henry Wilcox is one who has ‘moulded her’ and this we witness through his disregard for rural traditions. He built a garage ‘to the west of the house, not far from the wych-elm, in what used to be the paddock for the pony.’ This indifference to the preservation of rural England is made more poignant a few chapters later when it transpires that Mrs Wilcox loved the paddock more than she loved the garden. This demonstrates a depressing, prophetic vision of England. One in which we see the paddock, turn into a garage with a motor-car and therefore the rural England with long-established traditions is destroyed by ‘the civilization of mechanical appliances.’

In stark contrast to the Wilcox vision of England as a powerful force for change, there is the vision of an England represented by the house ‘Howards End,’ and people who represent the creative imagination. The Schlegals are in opposition to the Wilcox’s. They have ‘added nothing to her power.’ They belong to the world of culture and sustain England’s intellectual life. The Schlegals have ‘seen the whole Island at one…sailing as a ship of souls,’ in other words they are able to make a connection at an individual level. We clearly see this through Margaret and Helen’s relationship. Through their values they embody and represent the novel's epigraph, ‘only connect.’

Whilst the Schlegals have not added to England’s power, they have enhanced the various visions of England. They have seen ‘the whole Island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea.’ The vision of a ‘Jewel in silver sea’ is wealthy imagery. This is the perception of the Schlegals towards England, it has been made wealthy by others and they shall enjoy the vision of its wealth. Margaret states that the Wilcox’s ‘keep England going.’ She acknowledges a connection between the Wilcox’s and the future of England.

The Wilcox’s realities of class, money and power conflict with the Schlegal’s representation of self-realisation through their relationships with each other. Margaret Schlegal in particular is a representative of the humanistic ideal. Helen also embodies this to a certain extent and the foremost example of their humanist tendencies appear in their relationship with the poor Leonard Bast.

Leonard is their project; the liberal Schlegals promote his cultural aspirations and try to connect with him through these. Despite their passion to enable him to come aboard their ‘ship of souls,’ he becomes a theoretical case, ‘Helen at one part of the table, Margaret at the other, would talk of Mr Bast and of no one else, and somewhere about the entrée their monologues collided… and became common property…After the paper came a debate, and in this debate Mr Bast also figured.’ The Schlegals lose their connection with him as a human individual, which is paradoxical as they truly care for people above all else, ‘It is sad to suppose that places may ever be more important than people.’ Margaret’s prophetical statement becomes increasingly poignant as the novel develops. Howards End becomes more important to Margaret than Leonard Bast or even her husband Henry Wilcox.

The Schlegals are half-German which introduces the theory that they do not seek possession and ownership of England as the Wilcox’s do. They are unattached, Helen uses Germany as a refuge when England and the Wilcox’s impose too much power over her. The Schlegals are visionary with regards to England, their discussion groups and interest in ‘causes’ illustrates this. They theorize and connect with each other in order to promote their liberalism and their liberal dream for England.

Howards End starts with a vision of England that centres on Mrs Wilcox. Helen’s letter to Margaret describes this, ‘trail, trail went her long dress over the sopping grass, and she came back with her hands full of the hay that was cut yesterday.’ And further on we hear the narrator state ‘she seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew that she worshipped the past.’ These images promote England’s rural past and Mrs Wilcox embodies a vision of England that is being eroded by the mechanical, powerful and modern ideals of her husband. Mrs Wilcox’s vision of England is connected to the earth and to her house, therefore her constant walking in the garden and smelling of the hay.

Henry Wilcox’s power conflicts with Mrs Wilcox’s vision of Howards End being left to Margaret. Howards End needs ‘accompanying … towards eternity’ if it is to survive. Referring back to the introduction, Mr Wilcox’s power is threatening its survival and Mrs Wilcox recognizes Margaret as one of the ‘brave world’s fleet’ who will protect the house. The conflict between power and vision leads to a form of unification at the end of the novel. Margaret creates a home for both Henry and Helen, and Mrs Wilcox’s vision is achieved.

Forster portrays a vision of national continuity within the passage, ‘with all the brave world’s fleet accompanying her towards eternity,’ which presents the ideals of harmony. It is a vision untainted by power. Vision and creativity will ‘continue towards eternity’ whilst characters like Margaret are able to mediate with those in power, as Helen points out to her sister ‘but who settled us down? … You!’ The novel ends in a similar way to its opening with Helen's idyllic description of Mrs Wilcox, it promotes a continuation of the pastoral ideal, ‘ “The field’s cut!” Helen cried excitedly – “The big meadow! We’ve seen to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as never!”’

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

We have a winner...

I am really pleased that the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize is Hilary Mantel for her novel Wolf Hall. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and it is absolutely on my list for another read soon.

Last night I went to the Southbank Centre to hear the Shortlisted Booker Prize authors read from their nominated novels and answer questions from the audience. Hearing the authors talk was fascinating and gave me a real insight into the creative process of novel writing and how differently people set about the task.

J.M. Coetzee was not there as he remained in Australia and Sarah Waters was unwell so could not attend. Hilary Mantel was so interesting to watch as whilst she read from an extract of Wolf Hall she gesticulated wildly and acted out the reading through her hands and arms. She is incredibly witty and gave considered, honest answers to the questions.

I was really interested by Simon Mawer's reading from The Glass Room, a novel I have not yet read and also Adam Fould's reading from The Quickening Maze. I have to confess my mind wandered during A.S. Byatt's reading from The Children's Book which might be a sign that it is not going to be my cup of tea. However, A.S. Byatt herself was gripping, she seems a very formidable character but occasionally flashes of softness shine through the external hardness. She, like the other authors, was incredibly witty and a memorable quote from her was her talking about her Finnish translator "who read my book on the telephone [meaning iPhone I presume] whilst riding a bike on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela." A.S. Byatt was highlighting her astonishment at the way technology is changing reading, publishing and writing.

When asked by the audience if they had read each other's work they looked a bit sheepish as none of them had read each other's except A.S. Byatt who had read them all and said that she could honestly say that they were all exceptional and that she was in very good company. Simon Mawer admitted that he needed to put some distance between himself and the Booker Prize process before he would pick up all the shortlisted novels. Adam Foulds said that it would be like thinking about his girlfriend's ex-boyfriends, that they were all wonderful in ways that he could not match!

The novelists were also asked what they would be thinking during the five minutes before the winner was announced - all of them agreed that they would be finding the experience very surreal. A.S. Byatt said she would be "numb", Simon Mawer said "relief that he would not be facing the flashing camera bulbs", Hilary Mantel said she would need to look back on that time to be able to process it fully.

An audience member asked them about characterisation and if all their characters were completely made up - Simon Mawer answered that his characters are aspects of himself, he is playing a part many times over and A.S. Byatt agreed with him up to a point and said that she has little demons within herself through whom she looks out through her characters eyes. Adam Foulds and Hilary Mantel had based their protagonists on real people within history, John Clare and Thomas Cromwell so they hadn't entirely invented their characters.

When asked about modern authors as celebrities Hilary Mantel stated that when an author is sitting in front of a blank screen trying to get the next sentence out and being fully aware that they are only as good as their next sentence, they are not a celebrity, they are a writer. I agree with her as the act of writing is hardly enjoying the state of being famous for these authors, it is hard work.

Winning the Man Booker Prize has launched Hilary Mantel's name into a few more households, but will she now count herself as a celebrity? Considering her answer last night, I doubt it. However, the OED says that the word celebrity originates from 'celeber' meaning 'frequented or honoured', so is Hilary Mantel a celebrity in my opinion? Yes, because she has been honoured and deservedly so.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Book Review - The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Last week I wasn't very well - just a seasonal cold but having the sniffles made me long for comfort. I wanted comfort food (fish pie), comfort television (Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson) and comfort reading. I had my fish pie and watched Sense and Sensibility but I couldn't find suitable reading material until my Mummy rescued me.

Mum gave me a 'red cross' parcel full of goodies and at the bottom I found a copy of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge and I snuggled into my sofa, under a blanket and started to read.

First published in 1946, The Little White Horse is a wonderful children's novel that tells the story of Maria Merryweather and her adventures when she goes to live at Moonacre Manor. The book opens with Maria Merryweather in a carriage with her governess, Miss Heliotrope and her King Charles Spaniel, Wiggins. Recently orphaned, Maria is on her way to live with her cousin Sir Benjamin Merryweather at Moonacre Manor in the village of Silverydew somewhere in the West Country.
Maria arrives at Moonacre and thinks that it is 'so beautiful that it seemed hardly to be of this world'. She arrives when the grounds are covered in moonlight,
"And for a fleeting instant, at the far end of a glade, she thought she saw a little white horse with flowing mane and tail, head raised, poised, halted in mid-flight, as though it had seen her and was glad."
Miss Heliotrope could not see the little white horse and from this moment on Maria is determined to see the horse again to prove that it is real. Maria settles in to Moonacre Manor, Sir Benjamin is welcoming and loving and she and Miss Heliotrope find that they enjoy living there. Before long, Maria starts to unravel some of the mysteries and she finds out that the sadness that hangs over Silverydew is caused by the Men from the Dark Woods who steal their livestock and terrorize Merryweather Bay.

Every generation a Moon Princess comes to live at Moonacre Manor and it falls to her to defeat the Men from the Dark Woods - whose evil behaviour is the result of a long, long feud between the Merryweathers and the Cocq de Noir family. So far, none of the previous Moon Princesses have succeeded as their own pride got in the way. Maria discovers that to defeat the Men from the Dark Woods she must enlist the help of a pauper whom she loves. Handily, she loves Robin the local shepherd boy and together with help from Wrolf the dog/lion, Periwinkle the pony, Zachariah the cat, Wiggins the spaniel and Old Parson the old parson, they set out to lift the gloom from Silverydew for good.

This is a completely romantic fantasy novel for little girls and is a book I would have adored as a child. As an adult I utterly loved it as reading it is true escapism and you have to suspend all belief in anything remotely plausible to go along with the adventure. It is heavily descriptive and the detailed writing brings Silverydew to life so it is a feast for the imagination. It is a little dated but this adds to the charm of the book - the material is nostalgic and reading this over sixty years after publication the nostalgia is even more prominent. Silverydew is an idyll and Maria learns what none of the other Moon Princesses could learn, to be good and selfless.

The Little White Horse
truly is comfort reading at its best; escapsism, fairytales, adventures, romance and good triumphing over bad.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Bookbinding, jam-making, apple harvesting and candle dipping

I harbour fantasies of retreating to some isolated idyll where I spend my days bookbinding, illuminating manuscripts, making jam, harvesting apples from my orchard, reading, dipping candles and feeding the hens. Last year I thought I had better do something about making this happen. So I enrolled on to a bookbinding course.

After a year of hard work, some tears and a small amount of blood I have finally received my City & Guilds Certificate in Bookbinding. I did the course at City Lit which is an adult education college near Covent Garden. The course was wonderful - every Tuesday night I would plod along to college after a day in the office and I would stitch, glue and bind to my heart's content. I hadn't done anything remotely 'arty' since I was fourteen so it was a daunting task to put together a portfolio of supporting work alongside the actual books I was making. I found that I was able to tap in to a part of my brain which I had no idea was there and create books from scratch that, if I do say so myself, are not too shabby - well, you can turn the pages.

I cannot sew a button on but I can sew a multi-sectioned book and I think that is far more necessary.

My favourite book that I bound during the course has to be the Persephone Books edition of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey. Nicola Beauman very kindly gave me the unbound textblock for me to bind. The result is below.

I wanted a cover that was reminiscent of summer and the red and gold motifs on this paper reminded me of a barley or wheat field about to be harvested. Inside the endpapers are metallic burgundy to match the spine cloth. Frankly, my effort is not as beautiful as the dove grey Persephone Books themselves, but how can they be beaten?

Below is a selection of some of the other books that I made during the course.

Above shows the inside of
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding
The book above and below is a multi-sectioned slipcase binding.
Above is my binding of the Folio Society's edition of
Daphne Du Maurier's short stories, Don't Look Now and Other Stories
My first notebook

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The out of control 'to be read' pile

My pile of books waiting to be read is now so enormous that I am struggling to find anywhere to put them. For now they are living on my desk which, oddly, is right by our front door so visitors are met with a barrage of toppling books as soon as they enter. Despite this, I am seemingly unable to curb my book buying habit even though I really should finish reading everything I already own. But I find it really hard to resist bargain books in secondhand bookshops and charity shops so the pile is growing and rather than a one in, one out policy it seems to be ten in, one out (this has got worse since Rachel at Book Snob introduced me to charity shops near our office). Added to this is the problem that when I have read a book from the 'tbr' pile I have nowhere to put it as all my bookshelves are bursting.

Anyway, below are the books from my 'to be read' pile that I aim to read in October:

Monday, 28 September 2009

Book Review - Frost in May by Antonia White

Antonia White

I went to a Catholic convent school from the age of seven to sixteen. The fact that I am not Catholic was irrelevant to the military nuns drilling us in the 'art of confession' and obedience. I don't know which was worse, the fact that in an all girls secondary school we were not allowed tampon dispensers in the toilets because "the use of tampons means that a girl is no longer a virgin" or the Bronco toilet paper. If you don't know what Bronco toilet paper is you never need to know and you are a very lucky person. Rumour has it that Bronco manufacturing ceased in the late 1980s - I was at school until 2000 - but the nuns had an attic full of the stuff along with boxes of soap left over from when the school was a laundry for 'fallen women'.

I cannot believe, therefore, that I have only just picked up and read Antonia White's novel Frost in May. This hugely autobiographical novel is succinct and compelling. Fernanda Grey's father is a convert to Catholicism and the novel opens with Mr Grey taking his daughter to the Convent of the Five Wounds to start her Catholic education. A naturally spiritual and imaginitive child Nanda struggles to feel equal to her peers who are from wealthy Catholic families. Not only is her family not wealthy, they are not Catholics. This pushes Nanda to become completely indoctrinated and to spend considerable time worrying about her vocation, on her first night at the Convent she prays:
Nanda felt a wave of piety overwhelm her as she knelt very upright in her bench, her lisle-gloved hands clasped on the ledge in front of her. "Oh dear Lord," she said fervently in her mind, "thank you for letting me come here. I will try to like it if You will help me. Help me to be good and make me a proper Catholic like the others."
Nanda settles in to life at the boarding school. The nuns are a constant presence of routine, discipline and instruction and Nanda starts to find reassurance in this. However, Nanda cannot quite suppress her imaginative and passionate self. She gets caught reading literature that the nuns do not allow and she makes close friendships with a small group of girls. This the nuns do not encourage as it is a self-indulgence to have close friends. Self-sacrifice is a recurring theme and is something that, like any young girl, Nanda cannot always achieve.

The self-assurance of the nuns that they are truly conducting God's work is startling and, for me, a memory. They deny the enquiring mind and censor all correspondence between pupils and the outside world; between parent and child. The nuns are not bad women, they are genuinely trying to save the souls of their pupils and to raise good Catholic women. But for Nanda, the saving of her soul by Mother Radcliffe leads to a personal tragedy that the reader knows will have repercussions for years to come.

'"I am only acting as God's instrument in this. I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed." Nanda glanced at the nun's face. It was pale and controlled as usual, yet lighted with an extraordinary, quiet exaltation.'

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Book Review - Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Autumn is my favourite time of year for many reasons. I love the crack and sparkle of bonfires, the smell of woodsmoke, the crunch of leaves underfoot, frosty mornings and conkers. I love walking through London and looking in at the activity through the warm, lit windows. Autumn is the season of red, gold, brown, green and orange; my favourite pallette. But, ultimately, autumn is the perfect season for reading as I can huddle on my sofa under jumpers and blankets with a big mug of tea, the lamp on and the cold outside. It is the season for cosy reading and there are no better books for hours of cosy reading than those written by Dorothy Whipple.

One of my favourite novels by Whipple is Someone at a Distance; beautifully published by the wonderful Persephone Books. Someone at a Distance follows the North family as their world is spun by the arrival of Mademoiselle Louise Lanier, a young and beautiful French woman who has been employed by Ellen North's Mother in Law as a companion.

Ellen North is married to Avery, they have two children, Hugh and Anne. They live in a beautiful house in a quaint English village. Ellen manages the household and raises the children, Avery goes and works hard to earn the money to maintain the North's happy home. Ellen is that rare and unfashioable woman, a very happy housewife. Her love for Avery is shining and constant, her children are well mannered, happy and joyful. Ellen is grateful for her home and family and then Avery's head is turned.

The girl was so beautifully finished: the cool suit, the white Juliet cap on the smooth dark hair, the white lawn blouse - all exactly right.

Louise is youthful and vain, she takes endless care of her appearance and she hasn't had two children and doesn't know the tiredness resulting from managing a family. Ultimately, she is sexy and flirtatious. Avery is bored and Louise is there to entertain him when Ellen is busy in the kitchen or garden or at the shops. Louise plays a skilful game and Ellen finds herself out of her depth.

As Avery succumbs to the charms of Louise, the family is torn apart. Ellen is steadfast and resolutely believes that her husband will do the right thing and put his family first. Avery is weak, indecisive and selfish. He finds himself carried along by the excitement that Louise promises before thinking through any consequences. Before long his actions are irrevocable and he has to face up to the choices he has made. It is a stark realisation indeed for him to consider what he has lost. As Ellen slowly builds a new life her love for Avery remains constant.

Dorothy Whipple's final novel was published in 1952 and is a gripping account of a middle-aged man's folly and the repurcussions that occur. Whipple's novel is a searing examination of human frailty and there is a distinct moral message as Avery North and Louise Lanier get their come-uppance. But overriding this, is a sense of hope. Hope for Ellen, a genuinely good woman whose tale has been told so many times by so many people throughout time. But it is Dorothy Whipple who recounts this tale with insight, honesty and clarity which combine to create a unique portrayal of a deceived wife and foolish husband.

The endpapers, pictured above, borrow from the autumnal pallette and this is absolutely a book to read when the rain is pattering on the window, the fire is glowing, the cat is asleep and the hot cup of tea warms your heart as Ellen learns that,

Life is like the sea, sometimes you are in the trough of the wave, sometimes on the crest. When you are in the trough, you wait for the crest, and always, trough or crest, a mysterious tide bears you forward to an unseen, but certain shore.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Teaser Tuesday

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.
The talk ran on herbaceous borders, hens, and parochial treats, the roads, the rain. There were shakes of the head over the bad manners of the young people, the deterioration of the servants, the sad state of England.
The Rector's Daughter by F.M. Mayor