Sunday, 24 March 2019

In This House of Brede


Almost all of the nuns were acutely observant of clothes and, perhaps because of their own perpetual black and white, they revelled in colours .... the new sister Cecily’s dress and matching coat were delightful. ‘That love-in-the mist blue, said Dame Beatrice.'

Mention Rumer Godden and women of a certain age will smile fondly and remember beloved children’s books such as The Diddakoi or Miss Happiness and Miss Flower or coming-of-age novels such as The Greengage Summer, always charming and never sentimental. Then there are the semi-autobiographical trilogy of ‘Indian’ novels for which she is perhaps best known. My own favourite is her 1969 novel set in an enclosed order of nuns at Brede Abbey in Sussex. Godden had written about nuns before in the darkly melodramatic Black Narcissus but In the House of Brede is her great mature novel.
 
Philippa Talbot joins the order in her early forties, having been married and giving up a highly successful career for the contemplative life. Philippa makes mistakes, accidentally breaking the wing of a stone angel and failing to be impressed with a know-it-all missionary. She also inadvertently stokes the jealousy of Sister Agnes who sees Philippa as a threat.

She envied the clarity of the younger woman’s mind and Philippa was so much quicker than Dame Agnes who felt herself beginning to be slow; she even envied Sister Philippa’s slim height, her carriage and the grey eyes that were so beautifully set; they would be more noticeable still when they were framed by the wimple and fillet.


Philippa learns that nuns can be envious and occasionally mean-spirited but they always, always try to support one another, to do what is right and to harness the power of prayer. There are secrets in the order, too. What is Dame Hester trying to say on her deathbed? Why is Dame Veronica acting so strangely and what is Philippa herself not revealing.
 
I didn’t think that the election of a new Abbess at Brede or Dame Hester’s deathbed message or the unsuitable crush that Dame Maura develops for novice Cecily would be so nail-bitingly readable but Rumer Godden’s gift for storytelling will keep you turning the pages. 

Do you have a favourite Rumer Godden?

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Raymond Chandler kinda mood

‘Mostly I just kill time,’ he said. ‘and it dies hard.’
 
The Long Goodbye is, I think, Raymond Chandler’s best novel. I like the nods to Scott Fitzgerald, particularly in the portrayal of the tragic Gatsby-like Terry Lennox. I also liked the California setting of dusty eucalyptus trees and airless heat. The plot is sometimes utterly baffling but I don’t think Chandler is read for sophisticated plots. He is read for the attractiveness of his laconic private investigator Philip Marlowe and his mastery of the American vernacular.

The novel has a brilliant opening with Marlowe giving a drunken Terry Lennox a lift home when his wife drives off and abandons him outside a country club. This leads to a friendship - drinking gimlets (gin and lime juice) in Victor’s bar. When Lennox’s wealthy and adulterous wife is found murdered, Marlowe risks his private investigator’s licence by helping him escape to Mexico. After a few nights in jail having been framed by the corrupt police officers who pervade Chandler’s novels he is asked to locate a missing writer prone to go on alcoholic binges by his anxious wife which sends Marlowe off again on a search for a man who doesn’t particularly want to be found.
 
Terry Lennox drinks to forget the horrors of the war. The missing novelist is aware that his skills as a writer are declining and drinks to forget. Philip Marlowe’s advice to Terry Lennox for giving up drinking is an example of Chandler’s beautiful writing.
 
‘Usually it does. It’s a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colours, a quieter lots of sounds. You have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know will get to be just a little strange. You won’t even like most of them, and they won’t like you too well.’ 

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Guard Your Daughters


I’d kind of dropped out of the loop a bit with Persephone books but Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters was prominently displayed in the Cambridge Heffers just before Christmas so I bought a copy and raced through it in a couple of days.

This post-war novel features one of those bohemian, female-centred households consisting of five sisters and narrated by nineteen year old Morgan who has something of the charisma of Cassandra from I Capture the Castle. I loved the rambling old house and the episode where the sisters are initially reluctant to play French cricket in the damp garden with a soggy ball but get completely involved and finish the game in high spirits.  


I liked the daughter Cressida who cares how things look and the elder married sister Pandora who is unafraid to challenge her parents. When her father objects to a young man visiting because it upsets their mother (who is clearly not well) she calmly asks ‘Are we a convent father?’
 
 A review I read somewhere complains that the sisters call each other ‘Darling’ too much but those of us who have read a lot of Nancy Mitford and all five volumes of The Cazalets are well used to that! Just when you think the novel is getting a little twee towards the end the dark undercurrent resurfaces and although the attitudes towards mental health would now be questionable it is sympathetically written. Highly recommended.
 
I’m also ploughing through Violet Powell’s leaden biography of E M Delafield. Waaaaay too much recounting of every plot of every novel and Delafield was very prolific.  The only time the biography really comes to life is the chapter in Elizabeth’s own words which describes  her life as a postulant in a convent at the age of 21 and the touching reason she decided not to become a nun.

Occasionally when Violet Powell describes Elizabeth packing empty Christmas cracker boxes with earthy primroses to give to friends or the moment a robin from her Devon garden flies into her bedroom after her death at only 53 you get glimpses of what this book could have been.  We are well overdue for a definitive biography of E M Delafield.  Happy New Year!