Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Does Anyone Have a Mapp?

I'm afraid I've lost my way and would appreciate some helpful direction, advice or at the very least a comforting bit of empathy.

This lovely Vintage edition came to me by way of a draw held by one of my favourite bloggers, Rochester Reader.  It was supposed to fill a gap in my reading, enable me to laugh at references regarding the wonderful world of Benson and build on my vocabulary with words like 'tarsome'.

The ingredients are all favourites.  The era, the humour, quaint cottages, the eccentricities, they all tick boxes and goodness knows I'm not averse to a bit of silliness.  But despite a giggle every now and then by page 96 I was searching reviews for insight, for someone with assurance that despite a slow start they were soon riveted.  The boundary of allure seems to stop at my doorstep.

The busy antics of Lucia, Daisy and Georgie seem to be relentless and once Mapp was thrown in I desperately wanted everyone to sit down to a civilized cup of tea and just be quiet for a moment.  It was all becoming 'tarsome' but I must say that I have been drooling for figs.  Imagine a fig tree in your back garden!?  I digress.

Mapp & Lucia has been put aside for the moment, perhaps this circle of friends would be best enjoyed from a sunny patio with a glass of lemonade.  We are still blanketed in white and in winter-mode despite the calendar declaring it is now Spring.  I am far from waving the white flag on this book so if you adore this series a word of encouragement would be very much appreciated.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Queen's Cake, Part Two

Scrounging through my collection of mismatched teacups and mugs for something to bake my Queen's cakes in I found the ones matching my teapot were best.  Printed on the underside it claimed they could go from oven to table...perfect!  Although, how many people place their mugs in the oven?

Popping the batter-filled mugs into a preheated oven at 350 degrees, I held my breath hoping they wouldn't crack.  The worst never happened and soon the kitchen was filled with the heavenly aroma of cake.  I debated leaving the cakes in the mugs but worried they would get a bit soggy so I turned them out. 

The Royal icing was quite runny, is it supposed to be?  The lemon zest made it deliciously zingy though so not a total loss. 

Taking a mouse-sized slice out of one I thought they looked like just the sort of cake well-suited to a party in one of Beatrix Potter's books.  For me, the delight was in trying a recipe and baking method which is hundreds of years old.  I'm just so glad that I didn't have to stoke a fire for hours in the process!   

Friday, March 25, 2011

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

'She saw in front of her the young faces of the children, round, fresh and eager, unscarred by experience.  She saw the lined faces of the women, their swollen hands reddened by work, the wedding rings embedded deep in the rheumatic flesh.  She saw the bent shoulders of her pilgrimage, faced life without the consolation of triumph, the stimulus of success.  Their sturdy endurance in obscurity made her ashamed.'

It is probably not a very good idea to write about a book when you've just turned the last page and feel utterly bereft.  But the house is quiet and the time just feels right.

South Riding opens at Maythorpe Hall, an imposing manor that was once the beacon of a community for hundreds of years.  Now its crumbling exterior houses Councillor Robert Carne, his teenage daughter, Midge, and a portrait of her mentally ill mother, Muriel, who is cared for at the County Mental Hospital.

Sarah Burton arrives at the village to fill the position of head mistress at Kiplington High School.  At forty and unmarried it would be a typical assumption to label her a virginal schoolmarm but Sarah has progressive views and strives to reach the students who seek more from life than husbands and babies.  Watching a school concert where these young ladies exhibit their talents in a less than academic manner has her cringing in shame and feeling sorrow for girls taught things better left unlearned.

The cast of over one hundred characters in this book is vast and varied.  I found that in taking notes it was difficult to know which characters would remain throughout and which would be peripheral.  Like a stroll though a village on a bright summer day you just never knew who was going to come around a corner.  Some left more of a mark than others such as the martyr, Lily Sawdon, who hides a terminal illness from her husband when he suddenly buys a pub.  Her struggle to work each day through immense pain kept reminding me that Holtby herself was dying from a kidney ailment during the writing of this book. 

The Holly family, with their brood of children and barely enough to go around pulled at my heartstrings.  Watching the eldest daughter, Lydia, resign herself to changing nappies and wiping noses when she had such potential in the classroom was extremely frustrating.  But it was clear from many of the storylines in this book that Holtby was a great supporter of women's rights and I kept faith that all was not lost for Lydia.

Readers also have the displeasure of cringe-worthy characters such as Alderman Snaith who doesn't miss an opportunity to gain from someone else's misfortune and Councillor Huggins.  A lay preacher who gets himself into a bind trying to cover up some dirty tracks.

Naturally there is a romantic storyline since we have a handsome fellow living in a lonely manor and a head mistress turns up.  But you won't find the writing soppy and formulaic here, far from it.  In fact, considering the era this story was written in, it's rather daring.

As some of the storylines were coming to their conclusion I felt quite sad as not everything ends well or tied with a bow but there were also reasons to cheer.  The rousing description of the 1935 Silver Jubilee celebration at the end was beautifully written and would have had me enthusiastically waving an English flag if I had one.  And I would highly recommend having a tissue at hand for the epitaph written for Holtby by her dear friend, Vera Brittain.  Not only do I now want to read more of Holtby's work but I am intrigued to know more about her background and how she came to be so wonderfully progressive.

Hopefully the mini-series will air on television over here soon but I certainly have quite the images in my head to last me until then.  And now there are those Queen's cakes that I wrote about last time to bake...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Queen's Cake

One of the many things I love about reading English novels is the frequent appearance of tea and cake.  It's there as a snack, when friends pop 'round, the village fete, a train ride, it rained...the list goes on. 

Drawing inspiration from Cornflower, I jotted down the names of a few cakes from South Riding to try.  There is Queen's cake, tea cake and currant loaf so far.  Since there is a Royal wedding just a flip of the calendar away I wondered what Queen's cake was all about.

Lo and behold, when I did some research the information came from a website featuring none other than Mrs Rundell and her book, A New System of Domestic Cookery.   This re-issue by Persephone just happens to be on my shelf!  During the Regency era these cakes would have been turned out of their cup and as you can imagine were the beginning of what we now call a cupcake.

The best bit is that they're described as being 'not really a substantial cake' which sounds like an invitation to enjoy more than one.  So unless something else tempts me along the way as I'm just three-quarters the way through South Riding, I will be giving this recipe a try.  Let's hope I can make Mrs Rundell proud.  If I screw things up horribly there is always the hot buttered toast that also gets a mention.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Deacon and Darlene Vlog

The only thing that Deacon loves more than his ball is being on 'squirrel watch' and sometimes a bit of cheese.  I thought it would be fun to show him for the action man that he is as he's still trying to recover some dignity after the pinny episode.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Books and a Bit of Luck

Not that I'm a loser or anything like that, but I'm not usually the person at the company Christmas party taking home the raffle prizes.  Recently the planets aligned and I became stupendously lucky all of a sudden, winning a photo contest and two draws through blogging and a sweatshirt from the library.  Wouldn't you know it though, getting cocky I bought a lottery ticket and my luck ended right then and there. C'est la vie and really, would I want to run the risk that all that money could possibly affect who I am anyway?
My smile could not have been any brighter at finding a copy of, Mapp and Lucia, by E.F. Benson, courtesy of Rochester Reader, in my mailbox.  A few days later, South Riding, by Winifred Holtby arrived, ever so cheekily sweetly, accompanied by a copy of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.  Book Snob is convinced that she can illuminate me to the joys of American literature and will not rest until I experience this book for myself.  Shy away from nothing lest you face a force to be reckoned with named, Rachel!

Dropping The Heiress off after an overnight visit this past Sunday, R and I browsed a few second-hand shops in the blustery downtown area of Kitchener.  I should know better than to wear flats without socks there, it's always so much colder!  The only thing my search was yielding was a stiff neck from tilting my head to read the spines.  Then what do I spy but R walking towards me holding a copy of, A Wreath of Roses, by Elizabeth Taylor, I think he was saying something like 'do you have this one?'  Honestly, the only thing I saw was a fabulous book surrounded by a halo of light.  Then, back he goes and quickly spots, Miss Mole, by the wonderful E.H. Young, only the very book I've most wanted to read since being completely enamoured by, William!  Spotting green spines has made these bookish outings a great source of fun for my husband as he takes great pleasure in being way more successful at it than I am.    

Somewhere between here and Paperback Reader's house there is a copy of, The Winds of Heaven, by Monica Dickens.  Lady Luck struck again during Persephone Reading Weekend leaving me almost embarrassed to claim another prize, almost.  I think that saying the Brits have of 'all your Christmases and birthdays coming at once' applies here because if you are a book lover it is the best gift there is and that is exactly how I am feeling at the moment.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

American heiresses from Fifth Avenue and English aristocrats from the rolling green countryside reminded me of Downton Abbey so I began to read, The Shuttle.  The similarities ended pretty quickly.

The Vanderpoels are rich beyond imagination with two beautiful daughters.  Rosalie is described as a 'slim little creature, with quantities of light feathery hair and childlike simpleness'.  The younger daughter, Bettina, had abundant glossy dark hair, long legs and an inquisitive near to the son Mr Vanderpoel wished for but would never have.

The title of the book refers to the many transatlantic crossing which took place during the passenger liner era beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.  The vile, Nigel Anstruthers, Lord of the crumbling Stornham Court crosses the Atlantic in hopes of securing an heiress to pay his debts and afford him a living.  Rosalie makes an easy target and Anstruthers rubs his hands with despicable glee at her malleable personality.

In no time at all, the new Lady Anstruthers is a shadow of her former self, shrunken from being tormented and bullied.  Her fashionable silks are eventually faded and out of date.  While she lives as a penniless prisoner, aged beyond her years, with her debilitated son, Ughtred (poor child), the despicable Nigel fulfills his every whim whilst abroad.  There are whispers that he keeps the company of women other than his wife.

As Bettina matures, she remembers how uneasy she felt in Anstruthers presence and realizes he is the reason her sister has become a stranger to her family.  She sets about a plan to cross the ocean for a visit and to perhaps even rescue her sister.  With her fiery spirit and ability to argue any point she stands up to the spoilt Lord Anstruthers in a confident manner which thwarts and frustrates him to no end.

'Her eyes, which were well opened, were quite the blue of steel, and rested directly upon him.  'I, for instance, would let you make a scene with me anywhere you chose - in Bond Street - in Piccadilly - on the steps of Buckingham Palace, as I was getting out of my carriage to attend a drawing-room - and you would gain nothing by it - nothing.  You may place entire confidence in that statement.'

Hodgson Burnett wrote this character with passion and it is her powerful heroine that made the story for me.  Bettina also possesses a keen social awareness and sets out to restore the village providing work and income to the long-suffering villagers.  There is a new respect for Lady Anstruthers who is once again socializing in pretty silks while gaining strength, confidence and spirit.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the wonderfully colourful, G Seldon, who provides comic relief as a travelling typewriter salesman hoping to break into the English market.  His catalogue of various makes and models is always close at hand!

This was a brilliant read, sweeping me away with its epic family saga on both sides of the Atlantic.  And don't despair, to level things with the grim storyline of a dysfunctional marriage there is also a love story contained in these pages!
The endpaper in my Persephone edition is called 'Tulip Tree' designed by Lewis F Day, 1903