Saturday 26 December 2020

Black Narcissus

'Then she could have sworn she heard a noise, a drag like a wet skirt on the floor, but the room was empty.'

Rumer Godden's novels begin with a journey. In Black Narcissus the five English nuns travelling to Mopu in Northern India think they will establish a school for making lace, a clinic and teach local children to read and write. Instead the Himalayan altitude begins to work on them and the Darjeeling wind which smells of tea and orange blossom evokes desire and memories. 

Sister Clodagh cannot stop thinking about her former love in Ireland, Sister Blanche yearns for a baby, Sister Philippa becomes obsessed with the gardens and poor sad, mad Sister Ruth becomes fixated on Mr Dean the macho site agent.

Only the older, wiser Sister Briony keeps it together but even she can't prevent Sister Blanche from making a fatal mistake which turns the local people against the nuns.  Then Sister Ruth makes her move on Mr Dean.

Virago have just published this lovely edition and I'm very much looking forward to the BBC production tonight.  I hope they do justice to a wonderful storyteller.  Rumer Godden went on to write a more sophisticated study of a convent in In This House of Brede, one of my favourite novels, but nothing quite captures the gothic tension of Black Narcissus.

Friday 13 November 2020

Ann Patchett

When my daughters were little I used to read them the Blue Kangaroo books by Emma Chichester Clark.  While they were entranced with the adventures of Lily who kept losing her toy kangaroo, I became besotted with the house Lily lived in. It was generously proportioned with high ceilings, fireplaces and tall bookshelves, wooden spindles on the staircase and panes of coloured glass in the front door.  We were living in a small semi at the time and when we eventually did buy a larger house I was looking for a Victorian house like the one in the Blue Kangaroo books.

I do like a novel that centres around a house or has a house as character.  Ann Patchett's The Dutch House features a post WW2 house built with secret crawl spaces, window seats and  cinematic size panes of glass.  There is a shattered ballroom on the third floor, once infested with racoons and now lovingly restored.  The house is a backdrop for secrets slowly revealed and a rock of a big sister, the magnificent Maeve. There is also a second wife whose coldness and insecurity centres around her insatiable desire for the house.

I think this is Ann Patchett's finest novel to date and I want to go back to the beginning and read it all over again!

Friday 7 August 2020

When the sukebind is in bud ...

Delicious new cover for the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Cold Comfort Farm.  I've never found this book quite as amusing as is often claimed.   Probably because  I am very fond of one of the novels it parodies (Mary Webb's Precious Bane) but there is lots to love about this 1932 classic.

Flora Poste is an elegant bluestocking, remarkably self-assured for a nineteen year old but her moments of self-doubt and kindness keep the reader on her side as she descends on Cold Comfort Farm to drag the unwilling inhabitants into the twentieth century.

I liked Mrs Beetle, wife of Agony Beetle and mother of Meriam the hired girl who falls pregnant 'when the sukebind* is in bud' and has produced several babies.  Flora advises Meriam on contraception and Mrs Beetle offers her own advice:
Anyway, we know now, thanks to Miss Interference from up the 'ill. And I'll lay she's no better than she ought to be, a bit of a kid like 'er sailing in 'ere as bold as brass and talkin' to you about such things.  Still, she does look as if she washed 'erselef sometimes, and she ain't painted up like a dog's dinner, like most of them nowadays.  Not that I 'old with wot she told, you mind you, it ain't right. 
I really liked all the Jane Austen references.  The novel's dedication comes from Mansfield Park 'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery' and  begins with Flora's position in the world and financial prospects which is also typical of the beginning of an Austen novel.  I suppose her interfering nature makes her a little like Emma, but Flora does not have Emma's wealth and status.  She does however intend to write a novel as good as Persuasion when she is 53.

Sukebind is a flower invented by Stella Gibbons to symbolise human lust!

Sunday 14 June 2020

Daphne Du Maurier and Her Sisters

In September 1926, Daphne Du Maurier and her sisters Angela and Jeanne and their mother caught the Great Western train at Paddington bound for their first visit to Cornwall.  Arriving at Looe they travelled a few miles west towards Fowey and gazed across the harbour at the Boddinick Ferry.  They were overwhelmed by the harbour, the houses and the mystery and beauty of Cornwall.
Daphne knew that here was a place where she could find the freedom and solitude she craved to walk, to row boats and above all to write.  Angela and Jeanne also forged deep connections with the west country and both eventually settled there.

Daphne Du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn is a traditional ‘womb to tomb’ biography in one sense but is also unusual in that it is a biography of the three Du Maurier sisters, Angela, Daphne and Jeanne.  They had a very privileged London upbringing as daughters of actor-manager Gerald Du Maurier.  Gerald was friends with J M Barrie who wrote Peter Pan and this book was a huge influence over the lives of the sisters who renacted scenes at home.

Daphne was famously reclusive and remote as a mother and wife, but I suppose the artist has to find time and space to write.  Writing took priority over everything.  Angela wrote, too, but did not have Daphne’s gift for storytelling or her confidence and  willowy elegance.  It seems that Daphne got all the gifts.  Angela recalled meeting a lady who mistook her for the famous Daphne and on realising her mistake turned to her husband and said ‘It’s only the sister!’   Jeanne the youngest sister remains quite elusive in the biography but she became an artist in the Newquay arts colony in Cornwall.
I particularly liked the account of the first meeting between Daphne and her future husband the handsome Guards Officer, Tommy 'Boy' Browning who had read her first book The Loving Spirit and sharing her love of boats and the sea set off in his own boat to find her in Fowey.
I'd forgotten how much I like to read a good literary biography - if you have any recommendations do let me know! 

Saturday 9 May 2020

Trouble at Lowood

 When the typhus fever had fulfilled its mission of devastation at Lowood, it gradually disappeared from thence; but not until its virulence and the number of its victims had drawn public attention on the school. Jane Eyre

Something about Victorian literature in troubled times.  Charlotte Bronte's descriptions of typhus in Jane Eyre which infected forty-five of the eight pupils at Lowood school for orphans during a bright and beautiful April and May is remarkably prescient.  The poorest suffered the most and of course Charlotte was drawing on memories of the loss of her two young sisters Maria and Elizabeth.

It's been a while since I read Jane Eyre and it was such a pleasure to revisit the scenes where Jane climbs the step-ladder to the attic at Thornfield and throws open the casement window looking out over the hills and valleys and vents her frustration at the limitations of her existence.  Charlotte's voice seeps into the text and becomes the voice of Jane. 

There is also the wonderful chapter where Jane meets Mr Rochester and as she walks alone on the frosty causeway she first of all sees his large dog, Pilot, and thinks for a moment it is the Gytrash of North England legend which haunts solitary ways and startles travellers.
Jane Eyre
When Mr Rochester later asks Jane if she is from another world she goes along with his questioning to the bafflement of Mrs Fairfax.  Jane, at last, has met a kindred spirit. 

"No wonder you have rather the look of another world.  I marvelled where you had that sort of face.  When you came on me in Hay Lane last night I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse."  Jane Eyre

Saturday 29 February 2020


"I'm afraid it does not concern me very much what Mrs de Winter used to do ... I am Mrs de Winter now you know."

My favourite moment in Rebecca is when the second Mrs de Winter finally decides to call the shots at Manderley ordering the morning room windows to be opened, the dead flowers to be taken away and crossing out Mrs Danvers' cold menu and demanding hot food in the dining room.

From that moment she rises in power and the novel is no longer a 'study in jealousy' as Daphne Du Maurier called it.  Whether Maxim de Winter is worth it is another question.  He is difficult to like and how much of his account is true?  In fact, one of the most perceptive characters in the novel, the deeply unpleasant Jack Favell, Rebecca's cousin, is much more convincing that Maxim and gets some of the best dialogue, too.

I rather like this overblown cover featuring the red rhododendrons which grow at Manderley and symbolise danger.  Interesting too, that the azaleas which also feature in the novel as Rebecca's favourite flower are highly toxic.

However many times you reread Rebecca the novel never loses its power and Manderley never loses its charm with the sloping lawns that lead down to the sea, the 'safe' west wing overlooking the rose garden and the ominous east wing showing glimpses of the sea from the landing and bedrooms. 

Any recommendations for a really good biography of Daphne Du Maurier?