Sunday 16 February 2020

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1901)

Emily Fox-Seton is the thirty-four year old protagonist of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, The Making of a Marchioness. She is single, good-natured and hard-working and now that her mother is dead and the few relatives she has left have no intention of being burdened by her penniless state, she is making her own way in the world.

‘She was such a simple normal-minded creature that it took but little to brighten the aspect of life for her, and to cause her to break into her good-natured childlike smile. A little kindness from any one, a little pleasure, or a little comfort, made her glow with nice-tempered enjoyment.’

As one of the ‘genteel poor,'  Emily has connections to some wealthy people who sometimes provide her with work in return for a modest remuneration but she faced an unknown future and expected to remain unmarried.

‘No one knows what the Future is to poor women. One knows that one must get older - and one may not keep well, and if one could not be active and in good spirits - if one could not run about on errands - and things fell off - what could one do?’

One of her patrons, Lady Maria, asks her come to entertain guests and be general dog's body at her country residence for a short period and Emily is delighted with the idea. While there she meets Lady Maria’s cousin, the Marquis of Walderhurst, a widower in his early fifties, and a rich, unsentimental man of the world. Lady Maria said that it amused her to see women flocking around him, trying to attract his attention, thinking he might marry one them, while he ignores them all.
Lady Maria is a selfish old woman. She likes Emily but has her running around doing all sorts of errands without much thought for her workload or comfort. Walderhurst notices the amount of work being required of her and when another guest remarks on Emily's good nature and the way she accepts her fate without resentment, he asks,

'What is her fate?'

The answer: 'It is her fate to be a woman who is perfectly well born, and who is as penniless as a charwoman, and works like one. She is at the beck and call of any one who will give her an odd job to earn a meal with.'

His response to this information was,

'Good skin...Good hair. Quite a lot,' and 'Looks quite decent.'

A man of few words, but when he hears later that Emily has walked some distance in the heat to purchase some fish for the evening meal at Lady Maria's request, he is appalled and takes his carriage out to meet her.
There follows an interesting little scene in which he asks the equally unsentimental Emily to marry him. Of course, everyone is shocked, but mostly pleased, by this turn of events.

The book is divided into two parts and the first is a fairytale/Cinderella type of romance while the second part is quite different and has some sinister undertones.
When Walderhurst makes Emily his wife, the man who would have been his heir, Captain Osborn, is furious. Osborn, a brutish, self-indulgent man, is stationed in India and marries there. Hester, his wife, is from a poor and barely reputable family and nurses dreams of the wealth they would inherit upon Walderhurst’s demise.
Now that these dreams are thwarted, a plan is made to return to England in the hope that Walderhurst will take pity upon them and possibly provide for them.
But Walderhurst is no fool and so Osborn and Hester change tactics to take advantage of Emily’s innocence and good will. When Walderhurst goes out of the country for work, Emily becomes their target and her husband is unaware of the danger she is in.

Francis Hodgson Burnett's reputation as a writer has been built mostly on her children's books: The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. The Making of a Marchioness, although a favourite years ago, was overshadowed by her best-selling children's books and is now published in a lovely Persephone edition.
The second part of the book is more suitable for older readers (I'd recommend it for around age 15 years and over) as Osborn's behaviour to his wife is obnoxious and violence is alluded to. It also includes descriptions of a racist manner in regard to Hester and her ayah.

This is my entry for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: A Classic by a Woman &
Reading Classic Books Challenge (No. 9)

Monday 10 February 2020

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild (1945)

is the story of the Wiltshire family: Alex and Lena and their four children, Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday, who are by all accounts a successful middle class family, well off and happy. That is, until the war began.
With the bombing of London imminent, the Wiltshire children were evacuated to the country to stay with their grandparents. Alex was involved in special war work and had to stay in London. He wanted Lena to go to his parent's home with the children but she refused to leave him.

‘The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just those things.’

As the war progressed, the grandparents had to give up their large home to the military and move to a smaller place. There was a change of schools for the older ones and the children were farmed out to different relatives creating much unrest and misunderstanding.
Lena had unshakeable poise and was pretty and narcissistic.

‘There was nothing she liked better than to be envied and admired.’

‘For all her perfection you couldn’t help feeling that Lena was more blown together than built on a foundation.’

Bit by bit the family disintegrates and Lena loses her control over the life she had built for herself. She was unable to cope with the changes forced upon her by the war and with no inner resources to call upon, she was extremely needy and neglected her children.

In Saplings, Streatfeild examines the effect of trauma and separation on children. Her ability to view the world from a child’s perspective is just superb. I was reminded in some ways of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s book, The Homemaker. They are very different books (I think Fisher’s is the better written one) and Saplings is definitely a much darker story, but both authors display very astute insights into how children interpret their experiences of the world and the attitudes of those around them.

It was interesting that while there were a number of kindly and warm-hearted people in the lives of the Wiltshire children, Streatfeild often concerned herself with the seemingly small comments, attitudes and decisions that can impact children who are already insecure. She uses the thoughts of these people to highlight their concerns about each of the children's inner struggles and does this very well.

This is definitely an adult book, unlike many of her others which were written for children.
It felt unfinished to me. I really wanted a more decisive closure but I think that was possibly Streatfeild’s way of showing the nature of trauma and its lingering effects.
This book has been republished by Persephone Books. I love their covers!

Linking to Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 for a Classic About a Family;
Reading Classic Books: 3) Read a classic that takes place in a country other than where you live & to the Classics Club

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Crime Classics: The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (1930)

Miss Marple makes her debut in this novel which was my first introduction to Agatha Christie’s amateur sleuth. It was a very enjoyable crime mystery although I didn’t find Miss Marple herself very endearing. Maybe I have to get to know her a bit more. She was quite peripheral for most of this story but came to the fore at the end with her solution to the crime.

Mr Clement, the vicar of the sleepy little village of St Mary Mead, narrates the story. He is married to Griselda who is almost twenty years his junior and they share their home with their nephew, Dennis.

‘You underestimate the detective instinct of village life. In St Mary Mead everyone knows your most intimate affairs. There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.’

Colonel Protheroe is found dead and the whole village comes under suspicion because just about everyone seems to have a motive for the murder. Even the kind-hearted vicar had been heard to say while carving a remarkably tough piece of boiled beef that anyone who murdered the Colonel 'would be doing the world at large a service.'

It takes many twists and turns and false conjectures before the murderer is revealed.
While I appreciated the complicated plot and the murder’s resolution, what I enjoyed most about The Murder at the Vicarage were the relationships between the people at the vicarage. The Vicar and his wife have such  disparate natures. He is serious while she is witty and playful and often exasperates or embarrasses her husband with her comments. Dennis’s remarks and ditties are full of fun, and the droll descriptions of the abysmal meals cooked and served by Mary their testy maid are delightful.
I'd like to know if Miss Marple becomes more likeable. Is she really just an old gossip and busybody, albeit with rare detective skills, or does she have some more admirable qualities?

Linking this to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 for the Genre Classic (Mystery)
And the Classics Club 50 Classics in 5 Years Challenge.

Saturday 1 February 2020

Memoir: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)

H is for Hawk is a beautifully written memoir detailing the author’s struggle with grief after the sudden and unexpected death of her father. It is also a richly descriptive piece of nature writing because Macdonald’s way of dealing with her pain was to purchase a wild hawk and go through the process of taming it.
As a child she had been determined to become a falconer and had read all the classic books on the subject, one of which was The Goshawk by T. H. White. Now years later as an adult, the idea of taming a wild bird became an obsession, and her memoir is interspersed with extracts from White’s book and reflections on the man himself.
Like T.H. White, Macdonald isolated herself and became almost feral. As her hawk, Mabel, grew tamer, she became wilder.

'The hawk was everything I wanted be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of life.'

On the day she first took Mabel out to hunt she realised that what she had done was akin to gambling. She’d poured herself into training a hawk and then had to relinquish control over it. She lost herself in it...

‘I had found my addiction on that day out with Mabel. It was as ruinous, in a way, as if I’d taken a needle and shot myself with heroin. I had taken flight to a place from which I didn’t want to ever return.’

The day of her father’s memorial service came and she had to speak. As a university professor, she had given so many lectures and talks but this terrified her. Her father had been a very well-respected photographic journalist and there were hundreds of people at the service. As she forced herself to look out over the audience of his colleagues and friends she lost her fear and began to tell them about his early life and what a wonderful father he had been.
The singing of the choir, eulogies praising her father’s skills, a reading of a poem prefaced by the words ‘He was a Good Man,’ washed over her and broke her.
After the service drinks were poured in the Press Club, stories were told, hugs and kisses exchanged. Helen felt that her family had expanded by about two hundred people.

'All the way home on the train I thought of Dad and the terrible mistake I had made. I thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. Some had fixed themselves to the stars of elusive animals. Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens. Some sought wildness at a distance, others closer to home. ‘Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’
Now I know this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold.'

There was so much about grief and loss to relate to in this book. It was an unusual setting for a theme of this sort but the idea of fleeing to the wild or separating ourselves from human company in order to heal from a great hurt can be a powerful urge. I was struck with Helen Macdonald's words above, 'Hands are for other human hands to hold.'
We need each other, '...the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.'

H is for Hawk is a poignant reminder that life goes on in the midst of loss and that memories play an important role in recovery and growth.

'There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.'

Update: H is for Hawk was a timely read for me. I wrote about my own experience with grief and loss here.

Linked to Book'd Out Non-fiction Challenge: Nature