Monday, December 19, 2011

Fair Stood the Wind for France by H.E. Bates

At the unbelievably young age of twenty-two, John Franklin crash lands his Wellington bomber in Occupied France during World War II.  Despite a badly injured arm, he and his four fellow airmen make their way through fields and wood under the cover of night in search of somewhere safe to shelter. 

Franklin's declining health forces the group to trust a French family who take in the airmen despite the threat of being shot for assisting the enemy.  Francoise, the daughter, is still in her teens but exudes both confidence and courage beyond her years.  She soon bonds with Franklin layering this war novel with a love story which Bates blends to perfection.  And make no mistake, the war he writes about is not romanticized and the love affair is far from sentimental.

Each new character appearing on a page brought about new twinges of suspicion.  Every decision to be made from which road to take, where to cross on the river and who to trust could be life or death.  I'm quite sure I held my breath for half of this book and cursed everything that made me have to put it down. 

If you need further convincing here is the link to Reading Matters and thank you to Kimbofo for leading me to a stellar read.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An End of Year Book Meme

Kate Greenaway's 'Christmas in Little Peopleton Manor' in Illustrated London News Christmas, 1879

A book meme I first spied on Cornflower's blog and too much fun to pass up!

My Day in Books

I began the day with Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

On my way to work I saw The Other Elizabeth Taylor

and walked by Westwood

to avoid An Episode of Sparrows

but I made sure to stop at The Carlyles at Home.

In the office, my boss said "To the North"

and sent me to research The Way Things Are.

At lunch with Mrs Miniver

I noticed The Tortoise and the Hare

under The Odd Women,

then went back to my desk As It Was.

Later, on the journey home, I bought A Wreath of Roses

because I have The Soul of Kindness,

then settling down for the evening, I picked up Nourishment

and studied The New House

before saying goodnight to The Winds of Heaven.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

'She rearranged the fire a little, mostly for the pleasure of handling the steel poker, and then sat down by it.  Tea was already laid: there were honey sandwiches, brandy-snaps, and small ratafia biscuits; and there would, she knew, be crumpets.'

Coincidentally I've just laid a fire myself but something tells me that Mrs Miniver wouldn't have had to wash the black from her hands twice, pull splinters from her t-shirt or had a dizzy spell from huffing and puffing to get things going.  I digress.

Like so many others I connected Mrs Miniver with the film starring Greer Garson but this book isn't that at all.  It's better.  The character was created when Jan Struther was asked to write a series of articles about an ordinary woman for The Times.  Despite Struther's claims that the episodes she wrote about bore no resemblance to her own family life her followers weren't buying it.

There is a poignant story about the whole family arriving at the Town Hall to be fitted for gas masks at the outbreak of war.

 '...a very small child bursting into a wail of dismay on catching sight of its mother disguised in a black snout; the mother's muffled reassurances - "It's on'y Mum, duck."...'

 There were equally touching stories but with a humourous touch such as the story about her daughter, Judy, choosing which doll in the shop she liked best. 

"You see, it would be so awful to pick the wrong one.  I mean, suppose you could have gone and bought me in the shop instead of just having me; you might have made a mistake and chose Marigold Thompson instead."
Mrs Miniver's mouth twitched.  She couldn't somehow imagine herself choosing Marigold Thompson.  A nice child, but pudding-faced.
"Well," she said, "I like Marigold."
"Oh, so do I.  But what I mean is, she wouldn't have done for you.  And what's more," pursued Judy, "Marigold's mother wouldn't have done for me.  At all," she added with conviction.

Each vignette sparkles in its own way but the ones surrounding the Christmas season were timely and so charming.  And some things never change...

'At intervals she tried to pretend that Christmas Day fell on the 5th of December, or alternatively, that all her friends and relations lived in South Africa and that she had to catch an early mail; but it was no use.'

There is no doubt about Jan Struther's sense of humour or that she would have been just the sort of person people gravitated towards.  I don't think I've ever laughed out loud while reading an introduction before but the description of her family dressing up a mannequin to surprise unsuspecting guests in the loo was hilarious!

With headings such as London in August, A Country House Visit, On Hampstead Heath or A Drive to Scotland, Mrs Miniver is the quintessential 'lovely' book.  I only wished it had four times as many pages.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Reading The Slaves of Solitude was a bit like playing with a jack-in-the-box.  The plot kept me on edge, some of the characters upset me, but I kept turning the pages to see how it would all turn out. 

The Rosamund Tea Rooms is the boarding house in Thames Lockdon where Miss Roach resides to escape the bombs falling in London.  It also houses the obnoxious Mr Thwaites, a relentless bully.  At least in London the bombs were hit or miss.

'Miss Roach now tried to dodge his fury, to apologize, in so far as it was possible, for the present state of affairs on the Eastern Front, by smiling, making a vaguely assenting and agreeable noise in her throat, and looking hard and giddily at her soup.  But Mr Thwaites was not the sort of man who would permit you to look at your soup when he was anxious to talk about the Russians.'

It was excruciating to enter the gladiator's arena that was the dining room.  Peripheral characters would either sit in silence or try to appease the bully with soft snippets while waiting to see how uncomfortable things got before a retreat was in order.  When an American Lieutenant takes an interest in Miss Roach I thought perhaps he would provide a refuge or at least a lovely distraction.  The reality wasn't nearly as appealing and his idea of showing a woman a good time involved propping up the bar.  Her most toxic relationship wasn't with either of the aforementioned men though, it was with a German woman she befriends who ends up moving into the boarding house.  Vicki Kugelmann laughs and flirts her way into a threesome with the Lieutenant and Miss Roach which can only end badly.  Worse still, Vicki entertains the bully, Mr Thwaites, in the dining room.

So many people have described The Slaves of Solitude as an enjoyable read but I found it uncomfortable.  Which I suppose is all down to Patrick Hamilton's writing skill.  From a personal perspective, as someone who was raised in an atmosphere of alcohol and bullying he nailed the tension in that dining room.  But on a cheerier note there are a couple of scenes involving the etiquette faux pas of using someone else's comb that had me laughing out loud.  The last twenty or so pages were the most satisfying for me and made me really glad to have hung in there.

As far as books set in boarding houses go I preferred London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins, accidental murder and all.  But it's good to step outside of your comfort zone when you're reading for pleasure.  It can't all be about pots of tea and slices of cake!  I just don't know what I was thinking when I also bought Hamilton's Hangover Square but no doubt I'll get through that as well.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Odd Women by George Gissing

It can be a bit frustrating to be surrounded by a community of mainstream fiction lovers when you want to stand on a chair and shout out how much you adored a late-Victorian novel.  So I'll do it here...I loved this book!

The Odd Women, published in 1893, is a spectacular novel about the choices and obstacles faced by women in their struggle for independance.  Whether that be as single women or within a marriage.  Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn are steadfast in their belief that to marry reduces a woman to being a cook and cradle rocker and to retard her thinking.  Together they operate a business that teachs young women to use a typewriter so they can escape the drudgery and abuses of service or other menial occupations.  They also make themselves available one night a week in their Chelsea home to meet with women who share their views.

Alice and Virginia Madden have reached the stage of spinsterhood but their younger sister, Monica, has beauty enough to secure a better future for all three.  Her chance meeting with the modestly wealthy Edmund Widdowson creates debate amongst all of the above-mentioned ladies.  Let it be said that Mr Widdowson is a stuck in the mud loner and once he reels in his young prey becomes nothing short of her jailer.  His opinions are to be Monica's opinions and his jealous eye questions her every movement.  The security of marriage has come at a price to both and Gissing writes of that toll from his own dismal experiences.  There are other riveting storylines but to hint at them would ruin the fun of discovery.

The Odd Women is a page-turner full of secret alliances, betrayal, vice, misunderstanding and deceit.  And I have a new author crush in George Gissing, which is saying a lot for someone who tends to prefer the writings of women.  His portrayals of a Victorian London where pea soup fog from charcoal fires causes its citizens to hug walls in order to read an address is irresistible.  Also, his ability to convincingly construct characters from different classes and both genders while creating arguments for and against marriage is nothing short of remarkable.  Even before I had finished The Odd Women I placed an order for two more books by Gissing, The Nether World and New Grub Street.

If this book is languishing on your shelf then you are housing a gem.  Go and get it!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Deacon's Morning

This morning was a chilly one and I smiled as Deacon waited so patiently while I piled on my coat, scarf, boots and gloves.  His winter coat will be showing itself soon making his ruff look like a lion's mane.  His pants, the long fur that hangs down from his backside, had to chopped off due to a run-in with a huge burr patch while I was away in September.  An event which seems to happen pretty regularly the minute it all fills back in.

The white bit at the end of his tail, and he's lucky to still have one, is referred to as a 'shepherd's lantern'.  A little furry beacon to guide shepherds along the fields at night, or make me laugh as it swishes back and forth so daintily.  Because this boy is anything but, despite this accommodating moment.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Window Shopping on Sunday

We've been having unseasonably warm temperatures in the Greater Toronto Area for over a week now.  The curtains were billowing in the breeze as we slept last night and the flannels simply have to go back in the cupboard.  Despite what the thermometer says Christmas is just a flip of the calendar away and the shops are full of festive swag.  And it's my favourite time of year for window shopping.  Everything pops with colour and the scent of cinnamon is everywhere from gift shops to coffee houses.

And the display tables at bookshops are being stacked with gorgeous coffee table books.  Stunning enough to make me an enthusiast on every subject.  Charles Dickens is everywhere at Christmas but even more so this year with his bicentenary just around the corner.  I had my first peek at Claire Tomalin's biography on the man himself, very nice.

The festive season's sparkle and shine came after a good scrounge around a second-hand bookshop though.  No doe-eyed dreamy browsing there, I was all business.  Since a certain cruel youth has decided not to return my library's lone copy of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, I bought my own.  The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton and Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner are NYRB editions and titles I've been coveting for some time so they went into my bag.  And last, but not least, R picked up a copy of Juliet Gardiner's The Blitz for me because he knew I liked it. 

Book shopping Sundays mean book guilt on Monday but somehow I think I'll get over it.  It was a lovely day.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

The adorable cover art on this edition of Stella Gibbons's Westwood is what initially drew me in and I was then thrilled to discover the book is set in both Highgate and Hampstead.  Two wonderful destinations on my list of many while I was in London.  I had to buy it.

Margaret Streggles finds a ration book during a walk on Hampstead Heath and being the helpful sort she is, she seeks out its rightful owner.  This lands her on the doorstep of Hebe Niland, a moment which is fortuitous for both of them.  Hebe needs someone that very instant to watch her brood of children.  And Hebe's father is Gerard Challis, the famous writer whom Margaret just so happens to adore.

Plain Margaret and her glamourous friend, Hilda, are veering towards different paths as they mature.  Margaret is constantly reminded by her mother to try and make the most of her rather dowdy appearance while Hilda's social calendar is booked solid.  So while Hilda is working her way through servicemen, Margaret becomes more immersed in the eccentric Challis family and their German maid, Zita.  Now I know it is very un-PC to mock accents but the way Gibbons writes her dialogue had me laughing out loud a few times.

Questioning what she wants out of life, Margaret keenly observes the lives and relationships of those around her.  Why do women dedicate their lives to men who simply continue to do as they please?  Is it enough to sit for hours on end every evening darning socks?  An outing to Bedfordshire to spend a weekend with the ancient matriarch of the Challis family proves to be an eye-opening experience.

Stella Gibbons writes scenes beautifully.  Her descriptions of the rhododendron bushes around Kenwood, darkly lit tube stations, walks up and down Highgate Hill and kitchens filled with cooking smells put you right there in the moment.  My only complaint is that in some cases this makes the story more drawn out that it need be.  Which is great if Westwood is the only book you've packed for a two week holiday but if you have other books calling then you just want to get on with things.

A lovely read which I wouldn't hesitate to read again and well worth the purchase price.  You just may feel the need to follow it up with something a bit more succinct.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Anyone for Gissing?

The swish of silk is calling so I've pulled The Odd Women from my shelves.  Gosh, that sentence would fit one of StuckInABook's memes perfectly!  I digress.  Despite my sidebar showing that I am currently reading George Gissing's book it will actually be a couple of days before I crack the cover.  So if anyone is in the mood for Victorian London and has been dying for an excuse to give this title a go, please feel free to join along.  It has four five-star reviews on Amazon....

Monday, November 7, 2011

Muses for Monday

The arrival of the latest issue of the Persephone Biannually is always cause for great joy.  Knowing that it's on its way is to check the mailbox with childlike enthusiasm.  The current issue is particularly wonderful with short stories by two of my favourites, Dorothy Whipple and Mollie Panter-Downes.  There is always a piece of artwork that catches my eye and whose heart doesn't leap for a favourite blogger when their quote appears? 

The magazine section of the bookstore has lost some its appeal for me.  I can't bear to read about mascara application as if it were a science, I'm cynical about ads for wrinkle cream featuring twenty year-olds and articles about the rapist living next thanks.  And yet people pay lots of money every month for these glossy pages and my past experience is that quite a lot of it is simply flipped through.  Don't get me wrong, there are times when that's all you want, for instance at the dentist's office.  But I am one of those people who apparently can't carry around enough guilt and feel a bit as though I'm stealing from Persephone.  There is so much to sink your teeth into with the Biannually and it's free.  It must cost quite a bit to produce and mail out so I for one would not be opposed to a subscription rate to help fund it. 

And....listening to a podcast featuring James May this morning, he mentioned that he has been debating with his father for forty years about milk versus tea in the cup first.  James puts the milk in first and so do I.  And even though I feel righteous when buying loose leaf tea, I get lazy and end up plopping a bag into the pot...without warming it first.  Tsk, tsk.  What's your tea ritual?

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Pumpkin Carving Party

The number of trick or treaters in our group is dwindling but we cling to our tradition of an annual pumpkin carving party.  Aidan was the very picture of concentration.
His sister, Danielle, took a more relaxed approach but she has a few more years of experience behind her.
Anna is at the stage where getting your hands dirty doesn't seem like all that much fun.  Her brother, Luke, is at the stage where being entrusted with a sharp knife is just the coolest thing ever and was thrilled to simply jab at anything.
A bracing walk in the woods behind our hosts' home was just the thing to work up an appetite for dinner.  And the boys were beyond excited to find the skeleton of a fox still bearing its bushy tail...ugh.     
Getting back to the house, the kitchen was a hive of activity whilst everyone sorted out their plates of food, kids going one way while adults went the other.  I love days like this with my friends...and the pumpkin spice cupcakes I baked were a hit as well! 

 Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley by Kathy Page

'You'll have to be more careful in the sentiments you express, Christine,' says the tall slender woman standing beside her, 'if you don't wish to provoke a riot.  The working classes are not yet ready for the regulation of fertility, I'm afraid.'

It was the green Virago spine that first caught my eye at Skoob Books in Bloomsbury.  The cover art of a tired woman hanging the laundry she takes in for work isn't appealing but the writing most definitely is.

At sixteen, Clara Riley was raped by the son of her wealthy employers.  Her swelling belly is noticed and she's swiftly turned out by the lady of the house with a box of cast-off baby clothes.  Once belonging to her rapist no doubt.  Without means to care for a child, Clara's baby is abandoned on the steps of another wealthy family.  She can only hope his life will be better than hers.

This is Edwardian England but there are no tea parties or yards of muslin for dresses in Clara's life, only hunger, rough hands and hardly a moment of peace.  An offer of marriage from a Bible-quoting man from the working class is accepted but her small sense of security comes with a price.  While many women are happy to bear a child a year with barely enough to live on Clara is not.  Not that she is a woman aspiring to rise above her poor station in life, she simply wants to lead her life free from men's bidding.  And then she discovers she is pregnant.

Mrs Audley Jones supplies Clara with work and some of her cast-off clothing.  She is also actively involved in the suffragette movement and helping women put an end to their unwanted pregnancies.  All highly illegal.  While she is massively forward in her thinking, Mrs Audley Jones is married to the Admiral who is very much a traditionalist.  Thankfully for her, he is away for most of the year and ignorant to her causes. 

Every woman taking part in marches, hunger strikes and protests as a way of achieving liberty could be silenced by two signatures on a document.  An unsympathetic husband and a doctor willing to comply with his wishes was all that was required to lock up a woman in an asylum.  The Admiral is back home, rumours are swirling, the police are making inquiries and the Doctor has been to the house to check on Mrs Audley Jones.  She swiftly decides a course of action and makes plans.  Meanwhile, Clara is on the road to madness due to her lack of choice or say.

The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley is a riveting read and while the subject matter is frustrating the characters are not.  Kathy Page does an impressive job of depicting the Edwardian era and some of its bleakest moments for women.  This was an interesting and entertaining read so do pick it up if you come across it at a second-hand bookshop and don't let the grim cover put you off!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

As It Was by Helen Thomas

"My father introduced us and our eyes met--the boy's solemn grey eyes rather over-shadowed by drooping lids with long lashes.  He did not smile, but looked very steadily at me and I at him as he took my hand with a very hard and long grip.  I remember feeling pleasure in that first touch and thinking "I like him..."

Within a few minutes of meeting Simon at the National Gallery, he handed both Rachel and me a copy of As It Was by Helen Thomas, first published in 1926.  Mary was also included in our blogger meet-up and the four of us jumped into conversation so my book was tucked away.  I had never heard of Edward Thomas or his poetry but the reason to read this book, as I soon found out, is for Helen's stunningly beautiful and open account of her relationship with her future husband.

As a child Helen loved to watch her father smoke cigarettes and sip whisky while he reviewed books and wrote essays.  When he takes David under his wing to go over his writing it isn't long before the two teens are going for long walks in the meadow.  Helen felt she was his intellectual inferior but she loved to learn.  David was very shy but Helen was quick to express her feelings and was quite uninhibited.  Each was exactly what the other needed.  Especially so for Helen when the father she adored died after contracting tuberculosis and her mother turned against her.  I found it heartbreaking to read about the attention Helen's mother heaped onto male boarders while hurling insults at her daughter.  There were a few choice words spinning around in my head for that woman I can tell you.

With David in her life Helen could endure anything.  They shared poetry readings in sunny fields, lazy picnic lunches, letters written every day and nosegays of wildflowers presented at every turn (cowslips feature prominently hence the painting shown above by Ewa Dalecki).  Their courtship is lovely and old-fashioned but eventually they become intimate.  It is fairly clear that it was Helen who initiated their sexual relationship and she writes very openly about their assignations  While professing not to care about convention (it's the late 1800s, after all) I did find it interesting that this aspect was kept secret from even their closest of confidants.  As was likely to happen, eventually Helen falls pregnant and is anguished by David's marriage proposal, seeing it as an impediment to their sense of free love.  But marry they do and the book ends with the birth of their son.

As It Was was written by Helen years after David was killed in France during World War I, as a way to deal with her loss.  When you read her vivid accounts of something as simple as a picnic from years long past you realize that these moments were burned into her memory and her heart.  You could swoon, I promise you!

Helen wrote another book World Without End which follows her marriage and the turmoil of David's/Edward's battle with depression.  It doesn't sound as though it will be nearly as breathtakingly beautiful but if it's anything like As It Was it will be sincere and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

Thank you, Simon, for introducing me to such a remarkable book.  It absolutely deserves its place on your "list of books you must read that you may not have heard about".

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

"The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child."


Henry James takes the reader through a maze of ambiguity with a story that will leave you none the wiser but better for trying to figure it out.  Also, be prepared to take some time settling in to his writing style of outrageously long sentences and more commas than you can shake a stick at.

The Turn of the Screw opens with friends gathered in front of a roaring fire and sharing ghost stories on Christmas Eve as was tradition during the Victorian era.  Douglas has received a manuscript from his sister's governess upon her death and during this gathering he shares her bizarre and frightening story.

The governess was hired to care for two children, Miles, who is ten and his sister, Flora, who is eight.  Their parents are dead and their uncle basically has no interest in their day to day existence.  Both children are extremely well behaved and attractive so at first glance the position of governess doesn't appear to be a particularly taxing one.  That is until we find out that Miles has been expelled from school for an unspeakable crime which no one will relay anything about.  And then there is the appearance of two figures, Peter Quint, a valet and Miss Jessel, the former governess.  They really shouldn't be showing up at the house as they are quite dead.

The fun bit of the story is trying to solve the riddle about whether or not the governess is absolutely stark raving mad, the children are evil or these three are being terrorized by ghosts.  My initial thought was that perhaps a sinister game was being played on the governess to drive her away.  After all, how many times does this plot present itself in fiction?  Quite regularly.  Further along in the story though, I began to feel the absolute horror and fear that Miles was desperately keen to hide.  So much so that he was making himself ill.

My theory, and there are a few out there, is that Miles could have witnessed something sexual between Quint and Miss Jessel and relayed the event to friends at school.  Given the nature of the story and the social mores of the time it would explain why no details were forthcoming from the school.  The ghosts were appearing to remind the children to keep quiet about what they knew.  Miles was being pressured by his governess to tell the truth and Quint was ever-present warning him not to.  Miss Jessel weeps with her head in her hands as though ashamed.  In the end, stress and fear kill Miles.

It is easy to see how analysing every sentence of this story could become an obsession for those desperate to reach a definitive conclusion.  I was tempted to turn back to the first page and start a spread sheet sorting out the episodes, conversations and comments myself.  A stack of books to read made me come to my senses but I'd really be interested in hearing from anyone who has their own theory about what James was getting at here. 
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is my contribution to the RIP VI challenge.  I was also hoping to read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill but a customer at the library seems keen not to give up our lone copy.  I'm tempted to park a rocking chair outside of his front window...and if you're familiar with the story you know how frightening that would be.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Withdrawn Whipple

I've just risked life and limb at the mailbox and for what?  Nothing!  The sun is shining, children are screaming in the school playground and I was looking forward to my copy of Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple arriving any minute. 

Looking forward to a parcel stamped "Royal Mail" from The Book Depository, I was about to unlock my mailbox when I heard snarling.  Instinctively turning to the sound I looked up into the foaming jaws of a canine boxer looking down on me from his post on top of a hot tub.  It's peering down at us from above the owners' fence.  Deacon and I made our escape and didn't look back to check if the dog had leapt the fence.

Safely inside the house I turned on the computer only to find out my pre-order of Greenbanks from The Book Depository has been cancelled.  My credit card has been refunded.  It all sounds so final.  I'm at the back of the line, out of the latest Whipple release loop!

Has anyone else experienced the same feeling of utter disappointment today due to an email sent by The Book Depository?  A support group might make me feel better.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme

"One day Fanny Kemble the actress 'bolted in' to see Carlyle.  Jane did not take to her: 'she is Green-room all over, and with a heart all tossed up into blank verse...The longer I live, the more I want naturalness in people.'  On this occassion the actress was dressed in a riding habit and flourishing a whip--'but no shadow of a horse,' said Jane drily, 'only a carriage, the whip, I suppose, being to whip the cushions with, for the purpose of keeping her hand in practice'."

With that paragraph from The Carlyles at Home I was keen to discover more about the lady behind the tired eyes and simple dress.  Her husband may have been hugely popular amongst other eminent Victorians of the day such as Dickens and Darwin but there is no doubt about who steals the story in Thea Holme's book.  Jane's battle with illness, her dependancy upon opiates, being a clever woman in a man's world and oh, that wit.  I couldn't get enough of reading whatever it was she had to say!

Going about things completely backwards, I visited 24 Cheyne Row knowing nothing at all about Thomas and Jane.  Eyeing the details in the house I could have been viewing a potential home to purchase for all I knew about its former occupants.  The rooms were cosy and the stairs creaked in a charming way.  But when I started reading The Carlyles at Home I was thrilled to be able to visualize Thomas in his study, Jane in her bed, maid-of-all-work, Helen, staggering drunkenly around the kitchen and Nero curled up on the sofa.

When the Carlyles took possession of their home in 1834, Chelsea was hardly desirable.  The street was full of the sound of horse hooves and carriages, vendors peddling wares, cocks crowing, and spectators gathering to listen to organ grinders.  And the Thames, which was just a short stroll away, stank.  The rent was a bargain though and being Scottish, Thomas and Jane were willing to put up with such things for the value.  And this was a sentiment they repeated about themselves quite often.

This book works well as an introduction to this famous couple and their writings but also as a social history of the Victorian era.  I was fascinated by how Jane dealt with a long string of domestic help.  Some became a great comfort to her when she was bedridden with her terrible headaches and others were not to be trusted.  Jane's refusal to wear a corset went against the fashion of the day and she quite happily ran errands at times without a bonnet on her head.  Evidence of bedbugs was cause to send bed curtains to be boiled and for carpenters to disassemble bed frames.  Mealtimes and indigestion were frequent topics of conversation between man and wife.  To read the letter that Jane wrote to Thomas justifying the increase in her household spending is, well, I could have cheered for her.

The Carlyles at Home is my thirty-fifth Persephone title.  I bought it with no expectation other than as a reminder of a day out in Chelsea, hoping it would be somewhat of an extension of my tour around the house.  It has turned out to be so much more than that and I can honestly say that it is now firmly one of my favourite Persephone titles.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Treat

At the library we have a tradition that if it's your birthday, it's your treat.  That date has come and gone but everyone indulges so much during Thanksgiving that I've waited a bit to dole out more sugar.

I was up just after 5 am to warm up the oven and get out the mixing bowls.  My Primrose Bakery recipe book arrived yesterday and I chose the Chocolate and Banana Cupcakes to bake for my colleagues.  They are frosted with a chocolate buttercream icing and the whole package is really just too divinely rich.  The icing was used sparingly as I envisioned the staff dragging their heels once the sugar buzz had passed.  Hope everyone likes them!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Back to the Bakery

Oh what this girl won't do to recreate a little bit of London back at home in Burlington.  Yesterday afternoon I whipped up a batch of carrot cake cupcakes using the recipe from the Primrose Bakery.  Mine don't have a little marzipan carrot on top and I may not be sitting on the bench outside the shop in Covent Garden...but they're delicious!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Thanksgiving and Contrast

It's Thanksgiving in Canada, a time to enjoy family, sleeping in on a Monday morning, turkey dinner, and with our temperatures hovering around a freakishly warm 26C...getting outside!  As is tradition, R and I drove out to Balls Falls for their festival and every year I have to take a photo of the wreath on the church door.  It's a new one this year!
After immersing myself in the many delights of London and Canterbury through travel and blogging about it, it is well and truly apparent that I am now back on Canadian soil.
This cat has been spitting water courtesy of the local steam engine society at Balls Falls every year for ages!  The belts chug round and round while the engines putt-putt, blowing puffs of steam as a calliope plays in the background.
Admiring this saucy pumpkin fellow, his creator said I could take him home with me.  He looked pretty cute outside in the sunshine but sitting by my computer screen he's growing more sinister-looking by the hour.

The most touching part of this Thanksgiving weekend though happened in Canterbury.  Knowing that The Heiress was far from home and family her dorm mates got together and planned a proper feast as a surprise.  She had tears in her eyes at the sight of a poster in the lobby inviting students to write down what they were thankful for.  A card was passed around for everyone to sign and she showed us how full it was over Skype.  While the others did the cooking, The Heiress gathered leaves to decorate the room and twelve of her new friends sat down to dinner.  If I could I would give them all a big hug and say "Thank you!".

Saturday, October 8, 2011

London - Day Nine

Do you ever find yourself wondering if one day, far off into the future, someone will be conducting a tour of your home?  It's so interesting to step back in time to catch a glimpse of how people lived and spent their leisure time.  And if such a house was visited by a steady stream of noteworthy guests such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning or George Eliot then so much the better.  Taking the tube to the South Kensington stop and then the 49 bus to the Thames bank, I was a short walk from Carlyle's House on Cheyne Row.  Passing terraced houses ranging from quaint to luxurious on narrow streets I arrived at Number 24 a few minutes before the doors opened to the public.  A very nice woman laughed with surprise to see someone so keen on the doorstep when she unlocked the door for business!

Pointing out aspects of the front room she pointed out the piano that Chopin had played when he came to visit and how many of the furnishings were the very ones shown in this painting.  Standing in what was the china closet just off of the dining room I imagined Mary, a servant, giving birth in there while Thomas was at home.  Each room had a guide to highlight items in the house such as the second-hand sofa that Jane bought and wrote excitedly to Thomas about.  She also wrote to friends requesting they bring her pictures to help with a collage she was making to cover a large folding screen that still stands in a lounge.  Mrs Carlyle exhibits a wonderful sense of humour in her letters which is rather surprising considering her ill health and how drawn she looks in portraits, poor thing.
The most interesting bit of architectural detail in the house is the pulley system that operates sliding doors on the ceiling in Thomas' study on the upper floor.  Flooding the room with extra light would have reduced eye strain during his long hours of reading and writing as well as the amount of money spent on candles.  The back garden is small but lovely and the kind gentleman who lives in the house as a National Trust tenant even picked a fig from the tree for me.  It was delicious!

I went about things a bit backwards as I knew next to nothing about the Carlyle's before visiting 24 Cheyne Row.  But having a feel for the rooms and hearing anecdotes from the lovely staff has really added to my reading pleasure of Thea Holme's delightful book The Carlyle's at Home published by Persephone Books. 
Leaving history behind in Chelsea I basked in the sunshine while enjoying a picnic in Berkley Square.  Fortifying myself enough to kick the tires on a few sporty Bugatti's and Bentley's in their showroom in Mayfair.  While not exactly a petrol head I do enjoy watching Top Gear!
And being a tourist I couldn't resist dropping my bags for a snap of these cabs parked outside of The Mayfair Hotel on Stratton Street.
Thinking it would be best if I made tracks for Bloomsbury if I wanted to have some notes left over to mail The Heiress, I decided to have dinner at a bookshop.  Simon and Claire had enjoyed the quiche on offer at the London Review Bookshop so I requested the same with a delicious quinoa salad.  I love how they have you grab a seat at a very large table and goodness only knows who may join you!

My last night in London was spent on the The Old Knightsbridge Village Pub Walk with Fiona as our guide.  Meeting approximately twenty others at the South Kensington tube station we set off along roads lined with expensive sports cars and once it got dark we craned our necks to peek inside some very distinct houses.    Fiona told us about a couple who lived on the route and how they used to host a dinner party every Friday evening.  Now she hadn't guided this particular tour for two years and was just filling in for a friend so she laughed as we passed the very house and they had company for dinner!  How lovely of them not to draw their curtains so we could admire their exquisite furniture.  Delighting in anecdotes, examining architecture and stopping at a couple of pubs, Fiona took us well over the two hour mark and I knew there was a kettle being boiled in my honour downstairs in the kitchen at The Morgan.  So I rode the tube back to Russell Square to pack my bags and have a cup of tea.
The next morning my bill was paid, my bags were safely installed in the manager's office and I had a couple of hours to kill before heading to the airport.  Skoob Books is situated at the back of the Brunswick Shopping Centre and well worth a visit.  Were it not for a tired body and the thought of hauling my heavy bags to the airport I could have scooped up an armful of novels but bought only one, The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley by Kathy Page.  Saying goodbye to Russell Square I found a seat on the tube and pulled my latest book from my bag and before I knew it we were at the end of the line at Heathrow. 

But I'll be back....

Thursday, October 6, 2011

London - Day Eight

Taking the train from Paddington to Oxford in the morning was anything but relaxing.  It was packed with commuters and since I arrived only a few minutes before departure it was standing room only for the first forty minutes of my journey.  I know you'll be shocked to learn that I struck up a conversation with a lovely young lady who was on her way to a business meeting.  We made the best of a very crowded situation as we peeled off layers in the stifling carriage.  But oh the wonder upon arrival once I had walked a few streets away from the train station.  Every sigh, each ooh and aah, every wish for a lottery win whilst watching Inspector Lewis was before my very eyes in full colour and I was mesmerized!  If this were Narnia I would never leave the closet!
Perfectly content to simply let the lanes unfold as they may I gasped when I found myself staring at the iconic Radcliffe Camera.  If Simon or Verity see this then perhaps they can fill us in on whether or not it's still used as a reading room for undergrads since they call the Bodleian their workplace.  Lucky them!  Oh, and I sat here munching on Walnut Coffee Cake while sipping a cup of tea and wondered how my day could possibly be any more perfect.
And then I ended up on New College Lane which led me to "The Bridge of Sighs".  Sometimes it pays to be an ignorant tourist because the feeling of awe I felt when stumbling upon such historic buildings and structures was absolutely thrilling!  Nearby is a tight passage leading to the Turf Tavern featured in Inspector Morse.  Very quaint with a ceiling height not much higher than I stand.  Tall patrons beware!
Simon had drawn me a map to some bookshops which I mistakenly left behind when I switched bags for the day.  Not to worry though, I did find a few to browse in.  This Blackwell shop was wonderfully cosy and popular!  Full of customers shopping for books, meeting friends for coffee, having a bite...I don't know if it was just the fine weather or something in the air but everyone was delighting in their day.
Bicycles are everywhere in Oxford!  This is only a fraction of the number also parked at the train station, there were literally thousands of them.  I for one was pleased and couldn't imagine such pretty roads flooded with cars.

After grabbing a sandwich, some yogurt and a drink from Sainsbury's for a picnic lunch near a churchyard, I wondered what it must be like to call Oxford home.  And how do I go back to my little patch in Burlington with non-descript office buildings and box stores?  Sometimes there is no place like home but on such a gorgeous day in the middle of breathtaking surroundings I wished more than ever that I could just stay right where I was.  Of course R and Deacon would have to pack up and join me!

Making the train before the commuters took it by storm I desperately tried not to end up in a heap in the warm carriage.  The countryside was relaxing and my non-stop travels were starting to take their toll and I still had another stop to make!
Joking with the attendant at the bottom of the stairs that I was visiting to get some ideas for decorating my home, I explored the Wallace Collection.  Opulent furnishings and famous artwork astound at every turn.  Part museum, part art gallery this is the place to visit to see some of the most exquisite examples of craftsmanship in several art forms.  My favourite of the day was Frangonard's The Swing.  While not one of the features on most people's agenda when they mention a trip to London I would implore them to add a visit here.  It is stunning and I will be returning again and again.

My notes ended there so I must have had an early night of drinking tea, enjoying a scone and writing about my day.  My plan to finish Persuasion as part of Rachel's read-along was a failure as the appeal of London and all it has to offer proved too great and I'm too nosy.  With just one more day to bask in the glory of my London wishlist I was happy to hear of another sunny day for strolling Chelsea towards 24 Cheyne Row and the Carlyle's House.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

London - Day Seven

It's always a bonus to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to start your day only to find out it's 2 am.  Snuggling back down under the duvet until breakfast was served was almost like another night's sleep.  Today was the day I had been looking forward to since reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, it was Highgate Cemetery day and I had an appointment.  But first I had a couple of other stops to make!  Cutting through Russell Square I watched as a young man from Germany desperately tried to coax a squirrel into posing for a photo.  Offering him some of my cashews he was thrilled when his furry little model took the offering straight from his hand.  "Wait until my friends see this on Facebook, they won't believe it!"  Making me wonder whether squirrels exist in Germany?  Still smiling I walked down Guildford to Lamb's Conduit Street and did some window shopping while I waited for Persephone to open for business.  Meandering through stacks of grey I picked up a copy of The Carlyle's at Home by Thea Holme.  Tucked in a pink gift bag I held it close against the heavy mist in the air as I walked to the British Museum to see two of Mrs Delany's botanicals (pictured above).
Later on, exiting Archway tube station I found a charity shop that Rachel had told me about and paid 1 GBP for a Virago with short stories about wicked women.  A gift for Rachel and we'll say no more about it.  Climbing Highgate Hill and not wanting to go any further than required I asked an elderly gentleman alighting from a bus the way to the cemetery.  It just so happened he was heading over there so I joined him for a walk through Waterlow Park.  He told me about Baroness Burdett-Coutts, her riches and the scandal when she married a much younger man.  We were enjoying each other's company so much he asked if I'd like to see where he has lived since 1966 and I said "Why not?"  At the bottom of Swain's Lane and through an archway opened up the quaintest square with eight Victorian stone houses called Holly Village.  That's him making his way to his home at the back left (above).  He invited me in for coffee which I politely declined but I do regret not spending at least half an hour more listening to his stories.
While waiting for my tour to begin I snapped this exquisite angel statuary (above) through the gate on the East side of the cemetery.  And as you can see, the weather was fine when the weatherman promised rain.  You know, atmosphere and all that.
Our tour guide took us along the dirt path past Victorian mausoleums too numerous to count.  Even though the sun was shining I was glad of my warm sweater to keep the chill of the damp and dark entryways at bay.  At one point we were allowed to enter a large catacomb and gaze down the dank passages containing layer upon layer of sealed squares containing the deceased.  Our guide shouted "Is anyone still inside?" before locking the door tight.  Eeek!
Partway through the tour I asked if we would come across the grave of Thomas Sayers, a bare-knuckle fighter who died in 1865.  His dog, Lion, is immortalized in stone and was the chief mourner among 100,000 others.  Sayers was quite the celebrity in his day.  It wasn't long before the tour brought us past the very spot.
The guide then pointed out one of his favourites, a breathtakingly beautiful monument.  It was surprising that the abundant English ivy growing everywhere hadn't swallowed up this slumbering angel.  My mind was swimming with questions but time was running short.  The cemetery is extremely tranquil but there is a hub of activity going on behind the scenes with throngs of volunteers and groundskeepers tending to its many acres.  I wasn't at all surprised to learn that the grounds require an income of 1,000 GBP a day to maintain.  Highgate Cemetery is both eerie and beautiful and well worth your time and money so please pay it a visit!
And skipping right to my lovely dinner companions, Simon and Canadian Claire (as she's known in my house) kindly invited me to join them at Giraffe.  Rachel had to bow out due to her pursuit of a flat which she did end up getting so we were very pleased for her.  These two had spent the afternoon exploring the city and Simon did his best to deplete the second-hand book market even more than he already has.  He found some real gems though, see here.  Poor Claire was paying careful attention to her luggage allowance as she was on a long and lovely European tour with her Mum.  She is posting about their travels so do stop by her blog!

Tucked in the corner in a booth we laughed at the reaction of some of our friends and family to meeting others known only through the internet.  I can honestly say that it was a thoroughly wonderful experience for me and enhanced my time in London immensely.  Simon had a long train ride back to Oxford and at least twenty pounds of books to drag behind him so we said our good-byes and went our separate ways.  Thanks for the lovely evening, both of you!

Monday, October 3, 2011

London - Day Six

Rachel made me laugh at our blogger meet-up when she mentioned how many times people, probably tourists, ask for tube directions to reach a landmark she could point to down the street.  Simon and I seem to be equally directionally challenged and agreed we could still manage a wrong turn regardless.  So, determined to stay above ground for a walk to Covent Garden I set out after breakfast.  Asking my longtime blog friend, Kristina, if she knew of any places I could seek out she mentioned Miller Harris.  How could she know that I've been researching scents since last winter?  Wearing samples of jasmine vert, coeur de fleur, geranium bourbon and la pluie over the next few days provided blissful floral waves on hot, crowded tube rides.  On my last day in London I nipped back for a large vessel of the la pluie!
And while not on my itinerary, I laughed as I made my way down this street and discovered Pineapple Dance Studio!  You can barely walk for more than 10 minutes in London without discovering something historical, famous, culturally significant or highlighted in some magazine.  Anyway, my actual destination was the Cath Kidston shop around the corner and opening time was fast approaching.  Time to dash!
Thanks to Jane Campion and her beautiful film Bright Star I knew a visit to Keats House in Hampstead would be a priority during this visit.  Exiting the Hampstead station I nipped across the road to browse the Oxfam bookshop before making my way down the High Street to Downshire Hill and finally Keats Grove.  Now in my mind, I imagined that just down the street (above photo) a vast expanse of hillside would appear and Keats House would be along a winding path.  Urban development since I don't know how long ago meant this landmark now exists amongst the other beautiful residences just down the street and on the right.
Walking through the gates and around back I paid the 5 GBP admittance and made my way through the sparsely decorated rooms.  No photography was allowed.  During the time Keats was in residence with Charles Brown the house was semi-detached but made to look as a single dwelling.  The rooms were generous with fabulously large windows on the lower level and I couldn't help but imagine the hours Keats stood there, gazing out at the Heath.  A floor clock belonging to Charles Brown still chimes beautifully clear in one of the lounges.  In a display case of belongings the engagement ring John gave to Fanny featured on the top shelf.  Eerily, a copy of Keats' death mask stands in the corner of his bedroom.  This is a house to contemplate in, to imagine its former residents going about their business while you desperately wish you could recite Ode to a Nightingale by heart.  Don't hesitate to visit the house, preferably on a gloomy day, it just suits the mood.
It was time to search for a cafe where I could grab a bite and within a two minute walk around the corner was just the place.  I ordered the Croque Monsieur and gasped when I saw how much cheese flowed around the plate.  Oh mon dieu!  I managed to get through it without requiring the Heimlich manoeuvre and after finishing my pot of loose leaf tea I once again set off through the streets of Hampstead.  And wished for a lottery win so I could choose any number of properties that caught my eye.
My next journey took me to the Strand where I would finally meet up with Claire!  After her long day at work she greeted me outside her office and without missing a beat we joined the throngs of people on the sidewalk.  She thought the Sherlock Holmes pub would be fun for me but unfortunately it was closed due to construction so it was on to The Clarence on Whitehall instead.  Claire was such good company and even more lovely than I had imagined.  Being quite clever and very informed I hoped she wouldn't find me too boring but we chatted about all sorts of things from pets to books, relationships, kitchen appliances and how she came to be in London after growing up in Scotland.  The pub was cosily packed with customers, so packed that the gentleman with his family at the table next to ours commented on how wonderful our Rekorderlig strawberry-lime cider smelled.  Munching on nibbles while we chatted the time went by all too fast.  Claire still had a train journey ahead of her so after a couple of hours we made our way to Charing Cross station but what's this...a Waterstones in the way?  Claire and I browsed for a bit and I took advantage of their 3 for 2 offer and a stunningly beautiful behind the scenes book of Downton AbbeyMoon Tiger by Penelope Lively came recommended by my friend so I especially look forward to reading it.  And then we parted ways.  I want to sit cross-legged on the floor during a lazy Sunday and chat with my new-found friends and not watch the clock!

Arriving back at the B&B, Joseph met me part way on the stairs to let me know the kettle had been boiling for ages.  Yes, I am that predictable.  And so another night was passed while I sipped tea, wrote in my journal, listened to random English television programs and thought about how very lucky I am.