Thursday, 29 November 2012

The first Christmas card arrived today, tucked into the first Christmas present and, no, I haven't opened it yet ...
Although I am ashamed to say that a BOGOF purchase of mincepies has already disappeared.
And there wasn't a single one left when I guiltily settled down to watch a preview of the TV adaptation of The Making of a Marchioness which I refuse to call The Making of a Lady.
(A Christmas act of goodwill so I won't be inflicting it on teenage boys come Boxing Day teatime.)
Liberties have been taken with the original and, if you've read the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett,  you won't recognise heroine Emily Fox Seton who is slender and 20 instead of 34 with big feet and good hips. And, sadly, liberties have also been taken with her poor, but cheerful lodgings which were so delightful in the book ... no Turkey-red cotton chairs or cheap Liberty cushions or twopenny halfpenny art china.
No, Emily's charming lodgings have been downgraded to standard-issue ITV garret. Presumably because the subtleties of Turkey-red cotton are lost on viewers who can't pronounce Marchioness after two glasses of Baileys and mum's sherry trifle.
I'll let them off for whizzing through part one of the book, even though that's the part I liked best, because the story is structurally very peculiar, I have to admit.
But really ... Linus Roache isn't my idea of a dull, prosaic 54-year-old marquis. (Standard-issue Mr Darcy moment when he takes off his nightshirt.)
He can put his slippers under my fourposter bed any time he likes.
Still ... I did enjoy it. Even without the mince pies.
Fortunately, I only remembered my hidden stash of blackberry whisky once it was over.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

I'm a bit late joining in with Cornflower's 'my day in books' - completing sentences with book titles that we've read this year - and I'm afraid I don't have her patience, so I haven't created any links ... but it always amuses me how there's always a title to fit!

It goes without saying that I am compiling this right now this minute largely because I am running out of excuses for putting off a job that I have been contemplating all day.

I began the day by No Surrender
before breakfasting on Cakes and Ale
and admiring Half of the Human Race.
On my way to work I saw The Odd Women
and walked by The Crowded Street
to avoid Vile Bodies
but I made sure to stop at Wolf Hall.
In the office, my boss said, Why Be Happy, When You Could Be Normal?
and sent me to research Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris.
At lunch with Wilfred and Eileen
I noticed The Expendable Man
in The End of the World Book Club,
greatly enjoying The Best of Everything.
Then, on the journey home, I contemplated Ghastly Business
because I have Double Indemnity
and am drawn to Terra Incognita.
Settling down for the evening in Jacob's Room,
I studied The Elegant Art of Falling Apart
by The Less Deceived
Before saying goodnight to The World's Wife.

Fellow procrastinators, do feel free to join in!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

I have been completely gripped this week by my latest Persephone treat, Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, and my high expectations were amply fulfilled.
The real Harriet, to mark her engagement in 1874
Jenkins, who only died two years ago, aged 100-and-something, was fascinated by Victorian crime and especially the chilling horror of domestic crime. Harriet is based on the real-life Penge Mystery, a sensational murder trial that gripped the nation in 1877. Harriet is mentally disabled, a 'natural' they would have said in those days, but she has been brought up as a fastidious lady by her loving mother - she loves fine clothes - and she has a substantial fortune of her own. On a visit as a paying-guest to distant, impoverished cousins, she falls victim to a fortune-hunter who marries her against her mother's will. Lewis was previously courting Alice, one of the cousins, whose older sister is married to his brother Patrick, an impecunious artist, in whose eyes Lewis can do no wrong ... and before too long, Lewis and Alice are living in some style as husband and wife, on Harriet's money, while Harriet and her baby are starving to death in a squalid attic at his brother's house in the country.

Harriet and her baby? Oh, yes ... it is typical of Jenkins' laconic style that she drops this in so casually, bringing the reader to a sudden jolt of realisation that Lewis has consummated his marriage to poor Harriet, how confused she must have been and how terrified giving birth to a child. Perhaps he thought it wiser to consummate the marriage so it couldn't be annulled ... and then Harriet was available, so why not, her silly devotion flattering to his vanity, and he didn't find her repulsive ... or at least he didn't yet.

There is no conspiracy to kill Harriet ... it's more a creeping wickedness of neglect and, as in her later book Dr Gully - also based on a true Victorian murder-scandal - Jenkins is brilliant on what goes on behind closed doors, out of sight of respectable society.

And although I know I'll be howled down for this, her brilliance as a writer is that she does moral ambiguity so well. In The Tortoise and the Hare, one of the best novels I've ever read about marital infidelity, she allows you to sympathise with each of the characters ... the devoted, insipid wife, her Alpha-male husband and the voracious spinster next door.

What happens to Harriet is undoubtedly wicked, but Jenkins allows you to get under everybody's skin, so although you can't exactly sympathise, you can begin to understand. How Alice is envious of lumpish Harriet in her beautiful silk gowns ... who wouldn't be? How Patrick's wife would do anything in the world for her husband and family. But of course she resents Harriet's intrusive presence in her home ... wouldn't you? How they are each of them trapped in barely genteel poverty on the lowest rungs of the Victorian middle class. Can't you just imagine Lewis, as an impoverished clerk with dreams, investing in a 1d copy of self-help guru Samuel Smiles - and embracing its message rather too well?

And at the end, we're left wondering are they guilty? Morally guilty, without a doubt. But guilty of murder?

No great surprise that Kate Summerscale chose this as one of her books of the year in yesterday's Guardian. Jenkins is wonderful on Victorian detail - food, furnishings, clothes - and I wonder if that's because she was writing in the 1930s. Close but not too close. A contemporary writer might have taken it for granted; wouldn't have bothered mentioning how Harriet fastidiously combed out her fake hair every night. (One of the shocking details later is that her real hair has become hopelessly tangled and matted into her wig.) 

I'd love to track down some more of Elizabeth Jenkins. Apparently, she wrote 12 novels - but despite keeping an eye out in charity shops, I've only ever managed to find Dr Gully, Jenkins' own favourite. Apart from the two that are still in print, of course. I enjoyed it, but I much preferred Harriet.  

Friday, 23 November 2012

It was twilight as I walked through the Parc Monceau on a literary quest before catching my train home. 

And I thought of how Charles Ephrussi must have walked along these same allées, twirling his cane (or would that be vulgar?) and feeling pleased about the latest painting in his collection.

I turn up Rue de Monceau, looking for the very grand hôtel Ephrussi and a lady comes out of the house opposite. She says it has been demolished, and I say I don't think so ...
And she says you're the second English person who has asked me ...
And I stand there wondering whether I can really make out E for Ephrussi in the cast-iron window grilles or if it's just my imagination.
Then a girl comes of the house I'm looking at and I bound across the road, thinking if ask nicely maybe she'll ask me in ...
Only she has never heard of Charles Ephrussi.
And I say haven't you read the book? Only I can't remember the word for hare, so I say well, it's like a big rabbit, only it's not really a rabbit, with amber eyes ...
And she shakes her head.
(And in all honesty, would you invite this English person into your very grand house?)
And then I rummage in my coat pocket for the bit of paper and realise that I am outside 81 Rue de Monceau and that the hare/rabbit with amber eyes lived at 82. Which is quite some way down the road and I've already walked past it.
The lights are on and I stand on tiptoe and see people inside having a meeting. It is now an insurance office.
 I linger for a moment and think about Charles who appears in this painting.
And realise that if I am quick, there is time for one last glass of Kir before the train.

Thursday, 22 November 2012


On a misty Saturday morning in Paris, I turned my back on the crowds of tourists outside Sacré Coeur to make a little pilgrimage to Renoir's garden, where a handsome black cat was waiting on this bench ...

Highly appropriate because there was a rather good exhibition on about the famous Chat Noir cabaret.

The garden isn't quite as it was in Renoir's day when, 'It looked like a beautiful neglected park. Outside the hallway of the little house, you found yourself facing a huge lawn of unmown grass dotted with poppies, convolvulus and daisies.'

But you could still imagine it like this ...

Garden in the Rue Cortot, Montmartre, Pierre Auguste Renoir

And I was delighted to see that there was still a swing. If not THE swing ...

From the bottom of the garden, you can look across the Montmartre vineyard, where chrysanthemums grow beneath the vines, to the Lapin Agile.

Then stroll down the road to Moulin de la Galette, where shopgirls and clerks came to dance - and the owner generously provided sandwiches if they were hungry. 

Of course, as soon as I got home I realised that I must have passed within yards of Renoir's other house in Montmartre. Oh, well...
I loved this book but it has been quite a long time since I read it.
Of course, it might have been an idea to pull it down from the shelf before I set out.

Monday, 19 November 2012

It's always a plus when a work trip to Paris - a rare treat these days - coincides with an exhibition that I'm aching to see. And what I really wanted to see was the Musée d'Orsay's Impressionism and Fashion exhibition. So I was up before the crack of dawn, out of the house by 5.30am to recover on the train with a new Persephone book ... and by mid-afternoon, my time was my own.

Was it crowded? It seemed like every woman in Paris was there. Here's a review.

Women in the Garden, Claude Monet

Fresh cotton muslin crinolines made me think straight away of this painting by Monet. Spotted and striped, flounced and braided ... one of the prettiest was striped with bands of marguerites and tied with a green ribbon sash.

Sans doute les Parisiennes sont femmes, mais elles sont plus femmes que toutes les autres femmes.

It all sounds so irresistible in French, pleats and panniers, pelisses, bustles and bows. I was fascinated by all the fashion magazines and descriptions of the big new Paris department stores. 
Puis venaient des tissus plus forts, les satins merveilleux, les soies duchesse, teintes chaudes, roulant à flots grossis ... les damas, les brocarts, les soies perlées et lamées.
And I realised that I absolutely must read Zola's La Bonheur des Dames. (The inspiration for that truly dreadful BBC costume drama a few weeks ago.)
Seeing these ravishing gowns brought the paintings and the city to life, as I imagined the latest fashions  filtering down from femmes du monde to the midinettes, with money of their own to spend for the first time. Look at this ... can't you just hear the rustle of silk? (Click on the picture for the fabulous detail.)

And then look at this ...
La Parisienne, Edouard Manet

Dans la Serre ou Mme Bartholomé, Albert Bartholomé
I loved this one, because can you imagine seeing the very same dress that was worn in the painting, still looking so fresh and crisp and new? Mme Bartholomé died six years later, only 38, and her husband devotedly preserved her lovely summer frock.

I spent four hours sighing over every furbelow and flounce ... and I haven't even mentioned the bonnets and hats. If only I could go back again next week! (The exhibition is going on to Chicago and New York, but not London.)

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

I don't think that I wrote about Pure when I read it earlier this year, other than to say briefly how much I enjoyed it. I know I meant to, but life probably got in the way. And I'm not going to review it now because it's gone back to the library.
But it's probably the novel that I've enjoyed most out of all that I've read this year, so I grabbed the chance to hear Andrew Miller speaking this evening at a book festival that's almost on my doorstep.
The book is about the destruction of an ancient cemetery in the heart of Paris in the last days of the Ancien Régime and Miller's writing is so brilliant that you smell the putrefying stench that pervades the locality, penetrates homes, taints food and even makes the inhabitants' breath smell.
It was interesting to hear that, as a doctor's son, Miller's childhood reading included a stash of old BMJs and copies of The Lancet.
I can't think of any historical novel - other than Wolf Hall, which I've just finished reading for the second time - that has brought the past so vividly to life.
I was surprised when Miller said that so far it hasn't been published in France. Maybe the French think that it's their history and their territory ... but they're missing out.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Sometimes I have to give myself a shake to get out of the house on a cold evening, especially when Downton Abbey and Homeland are on television.
But I was glad I made the effort last night as this Canadian film about four young girls and their lives in the care system was gruelling but incredibly powerful, with wonderful performances from the young actresses - especially the little girl, eight in real life, who plays the part of an anxious six year old shuttled from one foster home to another.
I don't suppose this will get wide distribution - but if it's on near you, it's well worth seeing.