Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke and illustrated by Charles Vess

I started the R.I.P. Challenge II aiming to read just one book. It’s now nearly the end of the challenge and I have exceeded my target. I have read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, several short stories from Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, from the Great Ghost Stories collection published by the Chancellor Press and today I finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke. I’m glad I took this challenge as it has made me read Poe’s Tales after years of wondering what they are like, but I am a little disappointed that they are not as spooky as I imagined them to be and I don’t like the gory elements and Poe’s fascination with premature burials. I’m probably in a minority on this.

Ghostwalk was to my mind a much more satisfying read and I’m pleased that The Ladies of Grace and Adieu was as fantastical as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (also by Susanna Clarke), which I read about two years ago. I was entranced by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is set in a parallel nineteenth century England and tells the story of two magicians, full of mystery, magic, fantasy and faerie tales and The Ladies, although much shorter, is another book full of fantasy stories.

As a child I read all the fairytale books I could find and The Ladies collection takes me back to the magical world of those stories. They are full of deep dark woods, paths leading to houses that seemingly move locations, ladies who are never what they appear to be, princesses, owls, and above all fairies, including the Raven King.

The stories are all captivating and strange and set up echoes in my mind of such fairytales, as Rumpelstiltskin (in On Lickerish Hill). My favourite stories are The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mrs Mabb, and The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. The Ladies explains why Jonathan Strange prevented his clergyman brother-in-law from an engagement with Cassandra Parbringer as Strange discovers that his magic is no match for Cassandra and her two friends, the three bewitching ladies of Grace Adieu.

Mrs Mabb is a fascinating story in which the heroine, Venetia Moore contends with the mysterious Mrs Mabb who has stolen away Venetia’s fiancé. Whichever path she takes to get to Mrs Mabb’s house she cannot find it, although she catches sight of the house and wonders at the smallness of it. She is surprised to realise that she remembers little of what has happened to her after she is found in a state of confusion, with her clothes in tatters. On another occasion after trying to get to the house she dances all night until her feet are bleeding, and finally she is attacked by what seems to be a great crowd of people with glittering swords. This reminded me of a book my mother used to have full of strange and wonderful stories and poems, one of which was about Queen Mab. I wish I still had that book. I have tried to find what the poem could be – as I remember it, Queen Mab was a fairy queen, full of malice and mischief, who turned out to be not what she seems. I think the poem I read must have been from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Mercutio’s speech in Act 1 scene iv:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

The story I enjoyed the most was The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. I have not read any of Neil Gaiman’s books, but I think I really should. The story of the Duke’s horse is set in Wall, a village in the world created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, where there is an actual wall dividing our world and the world of Faerie, guarded by burly villagers with cudgels. The proud Duke, the Nation’s Hero, passes unchallenged by the intimidated villagers into Faerie, in pursuit of his horse. His fate is then seemingly set in stitches in a magnificent piece of embroidery in exquisite pictures. I wonder if the creator of Heroes has read this story – there are similarities with the painter, Isaac, who has the ability to paint the future? The Duke’s fate depends on whether he can alter the future shown in the embroidery. The ending has a satisfying twist.

I have enjoyed this Challenge and although it ends on 31 October I shall carry on reading “R.I.P.” books. I have Susan Hill’s The Man in the Picture and Raold Dahl’s Completely Unexpected Tales waiting in line.


Ghost Stories R.I.P.Challenge II

Great Ghost Stories

This is a collection of ghost stories by different authors including G.K. Chesterton, Walter De La Mare, O. Henry, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, R.L.Stevenson, and H.G. Wells. So far I have read just a few of them and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. It’s a good book to dip into from time to time.

Berenice by Edgar Allen Poe
Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood
Honolulu by Somerset Maugham
The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant
The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett

Berenice is not included in Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. According to Wikipedia it was first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1835 and due to public outcry an edited version was published in 1840.

The opening sentence sets the scene ‘Misery is manifold.’ From then on you know that this is another of Poe’s tales of unrelieved tragedy. There is no escaping it. The narrator is Egaeus, an obsessive intellectual who falls in love with his cousin, Berenice. She is his opposite, beautiful, agile, healthy and full of energy. His obsession is monomania; he is fixated on objects to the exclusion of everything else around him. Alas, disease befell Berenice and she wasted away until all that was unchanged were her teeth. Egaeus as you would expect is devastated, but is totally obsessed with her perfect teeth and he sees them everywhere. She dies. He comes to as though ‘awakened from a confused and exciting dream’ to an horrific discovery ‘.

This story is very much what I’ve come to expect from Poe and repeats a number of themes he uses in other stories – death, burial and mental illness. To me they lack suspense, maybe because they are so short. When he revised Berenice Poe wrote in a letter to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger on April 30, 1835: “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste — but I will not sin quite so egregiously again.” I not sure that he succeeded.

Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood is a story with a supernatural twist; he builds up a tale of gradually increasing tension. Marriott is a student at Edinburgh University studying for his exams. He is disturbed in his room by the arrival of Field, who appeared to be starving, thin as a skeleton, exhausted and under the influence of drugs. Marriott gave him a whisky and they had supper together before Field dropped with exhaustion on Marriott’s bed where he slept the night. Marriott could hear his heavy deep breathing in the next room as he resumed his studies. When morning came there was no sign of Field and Marriott feels a sensation of fear, his left arm throbs violently and he trembles from head to foot. There is the impress of a body on the bed and Marriott can still hear the breathing.

The pain in his arm is caused by a scar on his wrist and he realises that it is now bleeding. Then he remembers how the scar had been made and why, which leads him to discover the truth about his nightmare experience. Had Field really been there? Marriott had fed him and seen him eat and drink – but in the morning the food was untouched, although he could still hear the breathing…

In contrast Honolulu is an amusing but sinister tale of a little fat sea captain, who tells of the strange events that had overtaken him whilst sailing in the South Seas between Honolulu and various small islands. An enjoyable tale of love, betrayal and voodoo.

The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant is set in the High Alps in the depth of winter. The Schwarenbach Inn is left in the care of two mountain men as the family descend to the village below. De Maupassant’s description of the freezing conditions as the snow falls and the two men are isolated on the mountain sets the scene for the events that follow. When one of the men goes out hunting and doesn’t return the other is alone in the inn. He can’t get out because something is trying to get in!

The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett tells the story of a young wife with an unimaginative and controlling husband, set in one of the Pottery towns in Staffordshire. She wants a belt to enhance her ball dress, which leads her to a strange experience connected (or is it?) to the death of a mandarin in China. This is not a scary story. It’s a study of how an ordinary situation can become seemingly extraordinary through the power of imagination.

Me and My Blog (Or Who’s a Silly Blogger Then?)

I’™d been thinking about writing a blog for some time and when my husband set one up for me last year I felt I really should use it. So, feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious I wrote my very first post on 22 July 2006. I was still working full time then and didn’™t write anymore until April this year after I’™d retired.

Basically I am a shy person and at first I found it really difficult to write about what I thought. Who on earth would want to know what I think anyway and why should they? I go to a book group and another member usually asks when we’™re deciding which book to read next ‘œwho is this person and why should we read what they’™ve written?’ Thoughts like these were going through my mind and then I thought well no-one will know what I’™m writing unless I tell them about the blog and I’™ll just write for my own satisfaction and so I began.

Soon I thought this was a bit self-centred and as I got a bit more confident I very, very occasionally dared to add a comment on someone else’™s blog, using my blog name as the contact. I was amazed when someone actually added a comment to my blog and that person was an author ‘“ Linda Gillard, whose book Emotional Geology I’™d mentioned in the post! Brilliant. I didn’™t feel I was writing in isolation anymore and I realised I actually like people to read what I’™m writing and to add their comments.

Stuck In a Book asked in one of his posts what do you call people you only know through blogging? He suggested ‘œe-friends’. Like him I feel a bit embarrassed talking about FRIENDS when I’ve never met them, but what else can you call them? I feel I do know a bit about some of the people whose blogs I visit, well I know what books you like, what food some of you like to eat and to cook, which places you like to go on holiday, and what your other hobbies are apart from reading and writing. I do think of you as ‘œfriends’ and I am so pleased you visit my blog.

Through Site Meter or Google Analytics I have some idea of where you live and how you found me. It’™s broadened my horizons. I now have a much better idea of where countries are and where for example Connecticut is in America and that there is a town called Cheshire in Connecticut (of interest to me because I was born in Cheshire, a county in the north west of England). I am amazed when I see that people from Cyprus, Scandinavia, India, Italy, Australia, Iran, Singapore, Peru and so on have visited me. I feel so much more cosmopolitan.

Most visitors to my blog are from the US and the UK, but surprisingly after that comes Romania. How did they find me? I noticed that the number of visitors rose quite steeply after I wrote about Lewis Carroll and his interest in photography and all the people from Romania had arrived at my blog to read this post, directed from a site called Fototarget, but how did Fototarget find it? Anyway if you’™re reading this in Romania, welcome and I hope you weren’™t too disappointed. I knew very little about photography before but now I’™ve realised that I am very interested in it and its history. If you can get BBC Four a new series started last night called The Genius of Photography. It’™s brilliant and well worth watching.

Another intriguing question is related to some of my posts that have been translated into German and posted on other blogs ‘“ why on earth do they want to do that? My post on Astrid and Veronika is in German on ‘œTravel’ blog, I can’™t imagine why, the book has nothing to do with travel. My last post on the Verneys of Claydon has been translated and put on ‘œHugh Health’ blog. It’™s called ‘œDas Verneys von Claydon’ and this has such a nice ring to it that the book may become called that in my mind from now on. But I think people reading it hoping to find out about health will be surprised to read about the medical practices in seventeenth century England that are described in the post.

So to all my e-friends thank you for visiting and I do hope you’™ll come again and I really like to read your comments.

The Verneys of Claydon

I became very fond of the Verneys as I read Adrian Tinniswood’s book The Verneys, shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2007. If you’re interested in seventeenth century England you simply must read this book, or if you like reading biographies and family histories read this book. I think it would make a fantastic film or TV series.

It is a tour de force, a mammoth of a book. It is huge, both in its scope, its extraordinary detail and its length. It is also heavy, but only in weight. It is impressive in its coverage of not only the lives of the Verney family but also of the seventeenth century itself.

Of course every century is a time of change and none more so than the seventeenth century in England. If we disregard the last years of Elizabeth I reign it was the time when the Stuarts ruled England, violently interrupted by the Civil War and the Interregnum, which was in essence the reign of Cromwell. It was a time of political and social upheaval, revolution, war, plague, famine and fire. This book covers the lot. What makes it so very good is that the Verney family correspondence has survived – tens of thousands of their letters and Adrian Tinniswood has made a superlative job of weaving together their family story from the family archives and placing it within the national context.

The sub-title is a summary in itself: ‘A true story of love, war and madness in seventeenth century England.’ The Verney family has lived at Claydon in Buckinghamshire since the 1460s. The book starts with the death of Sir Francis Verney at Messina in 1615 and moves through the seventeenth century to the death of Sir Ralph Verney at Claydon House in 1696. There are many Verneys, fortunately their family tree is given at the beginning of the book and I found it invaluable in keeping track of who was who.

Sir Edmund Verney, the half-brother of Sir Francis, was Charles I’s Standard Bearer at the battle of Edgehill. His body was never found and the story goes that he died still clutching the standard. His oldest son, Ralph was at odds with his father, supporting the Parliamentary cause, but during the Cromwellian period he was suspected of royalist connections and went into exile in France. Ralph’s brothers were very different – Mun was a professional soldier, Henry a gambler and obsessed with horse racing, and Tom was a villain, a crook and a sponger. Ralph’s son Jack, who eventually succeeded Sir Ralph after the deaths of the his elder brother, Edmund (another Mun) and his sons, was different again. He went into commerce and spent eleven years as a trader in Aleppo with the Levant Company, before returning to England.

There is so much in The Verneys – the horrors and atrocities of war, the ordinary day-to-day life of the landed gentry, the London social scene, Parliamentary elections, the cultural scene on the continent in Italy and in particular in France, where Sir Ralph and his family lived for a while in voluntary exile; life in the plantations of Barbados, in the forests of Virginia, in North Africa; and trading in the souks of the Levant. When Jack returned to England in 1674 it was to a London he didn’t recognise; all the landmarks he had known, including St Paul’s Cathedral, the Guildhall, the Custom House by London Bridge, warehouses, churches and many houses had all disappeared, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and a new city was being built. I could imagine Jack’s shock at seeing this new London as the devastation was being cleared and new and renovated buildings rose from the ashes.

The most vivid and to me the most interesting parts of this book are those dealing with the family and their personal relationships and the light that throws on the society in which they lived. The Verney women show that the accepted view of how the ideal woman should behave was not the norm, but was just that – an ideal. Whereas it was accepted that men would be unfaithful and their wives’ reaction was to be a dignified silence, women were supposed to be faithful, meek, modest and pious. With the exceptions of Mary, Sir Ralph’s wife and his mother, Margaret who were in successful relationships and held positions of power within the family, the Verney women just didn’t conform to this ideal. Some eloped, one slept with her sister’s unsuitable boyfriend, one separated from her violent husband, and some became pregnant before they were married. They were spirited, passionate women who refused to do as they were told.

Tinniswood recounts the terrifying details of medical practices and treatment. As doctors began to discover the circulation of the blood, not everyone accepted it and still treated patients by blood letting under the tongue, for example, to relieve a fever and restore the balance of fluids in the body. The treatment of hysteria and madness is also fascinating, if somewhat extreme. The treatment included bleeding, purges and emetics – cures such as taking pimpernel juice through the nostrils and using suppositories of Castilian soap were recommended. Even more extreme was the practice of ducking the patient, stripped naked and bound, backwards suspended by the feet into a big tub of water, an ‘advancement’ on the medieval practice of ducking witches.

Mun’s wife, Mary suffered from depression and eventually was diagnosed as mad, but fortunately her treatment was much more humane, although she did have to suffer having the head of a hare bandaged to her forehead for a few days, the idea being that the ‘melancholy hare’s brain would draw off the melancholy from hare-brained Mary, after which it must be ‘put into the feathers of a pillow whereon the party grieved must lie as long as they live.’ This was not prescribed by her doctors but was suggested by a local ‘wise woman’. She was looked after at home, although the doctors really had no idea of how to treat her and she spent most of her married life in fear and misery.

A panacea much more to my liking is chocolate. It was a rarity in Western Europe at that time but was considered to be a cure for all sorts of illnesses such as consumption and the ‘cough of the lungs’. Sir Ralph thought that his wife, Mary should try it when she was terminally ill and he ‘began to fret over the right dose, the best time of day to take it, the length of time to wait after one meal and before the next.‘ The family doctor advised that she could drink chocolate whenever she liked, as he knew it would make no difference whatsoever. Mary’s death devastated Sir Ralph; he had her body embalmed which then remained in the house for six months whilst he was arranging for it to be transported back from France to Claydon for burial in the family vault.

The Verney family monument still dominates the interior of Middle Claydon church. It contains portrait busts of Sir Edmund and his wife Lady Margaret with those of Sir Ralph and his wife Mary below them, flanking a drapery with an inscription to Sir Edmund and Lady Margaret, whilst below that is a black marble panel commemorating the life of Mary and announcing that this is also where Sir Ralph ‘intends to be buried’, as indeed he was in October 1696.

When I visited Claydon House recently I saw the portraits of Sir Edmund, Lady Margaret, Sir Ralph and his wife Mary, Thomas, Edmund (Mun) Henry and Jack who became Viscount Fermanagh in 1703. The present house is not the house they lived in, as it was almost entirely rebuilt in the eighteenth century, with major alterations in the nineteenth century. The portraits and of course their correspondence and family records are probably all that remains of the seventeenth century Verneys. I like to imagine what it was like when they were there.

Booking Through Thursday – Read with Abandon?

Today’™s suggestion is from Cereal Box Reader

I would enjoy reading a meme about people’™s abandoned books. The books that you start but don’™t finish say as much about you as the ones you actually read, sometimes because of the books themselves or because of the circumstances that prevent you from finishing. So . . . what books have you abandoned and why?

There are only a few books that I’ve abandoned recently, although there have been quite a few that I’ve taken back to the library unread. That’s not because I’ve abandoned them, but because they’ve been due back and I haven’t even started them. My eyes are always optimistic in the library, or greedy may be a better description and I nearly always come home with more books than I can possibly read during the loan period.

There was one library book I did completely abandon completely and that was Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates, a book of short stories that I just couldn’t read as the first couple were too nasty.

Another book I’ve started but not finished is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, because I kept starting it and putting it down; frankly I found it just a bit boring. Maybe I’ll have another go sometime as I know that other people think it’s a good book, but it’s not on my radar right now.

Mostly the books that I’ve started but not finished are those that are long and detailed, like Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. I don’t consider that I’ve abandoned it because I do intend finishing it, but not just yet because I want to read more of Hardy’s own books first. I’ll go back to it and probably have to start it again.

I’ve also started to read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie and although I’ve stopped I certainly haven’t abandoned it – it looks just the sort of book that I enjoy – it’s because I’ve been reading other books, in particular The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood, which is a library copy and was due back a few days ago. I can’t renew it as lots of people have reserved it. It’s a great book – a post on it is in progress.

Christine Kringle by Lynn Brittney

Although it’s still only October Christmas is already making an appearance. Christmas catalogues have been delivered through my door, the shops have had Christmas cards and wrapping paper on sale for a few weeks and the superstores have Christmas trees and other seasonal goods on display. In the light of this it seems appropriate to write about Christine Kringle, which the author Lynn Brittney kindly sent to me.

This is the story of a potential disaster when it is announced that the Town Council of Plinkbury, a town in England has banned the celebration of Christmas – no Christmas tree in the town square, no Christmas lights in the shops and no carol singers in the streets. (As an aside I’m reading The Verneys, set in the seventeenth century English Civil War period when Christmas celebrations really were banned).

Although the myth is that there is one Santa who flies all round the world delivering presents this book reveals that there are many Santas, known by different names in all the different countries, world-wide. They are gathered together at the Annual Yule Conference when news of the ban hits the headlines. They are busy debating a number of controversial issues ‘“ the introduction of some extraordinary Christmas Lights, fuelled by flying reindeer droppings; choosing an International Gift-Giving date; and the most controversial of all – that a female can inherit the role of Gift-Bringer if there is no male child to carry on the family line. This is the suggestion from Kriss Kringle from the US as he has no son and wants his daughter Christine to take over his ‘job’ when the time comes. However, the news from England throws everything into turmoil.

Christine and her friends, Young Nick from England (son of Santa Claus) and Little K, the son of Santa Kuroshsu) from Japan (who invented the Christmas lights), fly to England in Babbo Natale’s (the Italian Santa) red Ferrari (the latest in sleighs) hoping to re-instate Christmas and also to show that females are capable of being Santas. Helped by Nick’s beautiful mum Zazu (a tall elf) and her charming brother Egan they descend upon Plinkbury to carry out their plans to foil the Town Council’s ban. I really liked Zazu, the inspiration behind Barbie dolls, with her jewellery, beautiful clothes and most of all her impossibly high heels.

This story, aimed I think at young adults, kept me fascinated right to the end. There’s plenty of magic and I was quite taken with the idea of a car boot that’s enormous inside, a bit like Dr Who’s Tardis and a magic cleaning fluid that really does remove all stains, even squashed blueberries, not to mention chocolate liqueurs filled with real Christmas spirit. The story also brings out various issues, that I found interesting, not only the prejudice against women entering into what is considered to be a male preserve, and the distinction between the elves and the Santas, but also the way commercialism has become a dominant theme of Christmas, and the position of people of other faiths at Christmas time.

I particularly liked Christine’s speech on the meaning of Christmas and give just a short extract:

Christmas unites everyone, of every creed, race and colour, in a winter celebration of love, peace, light and joy. Over the centuries, the day of Christ’s birth has become a universal symbol of hope, fellowship and reunion.

A Country Walk on Public Rights of Way

Being a bookaholic means that I spend a lot of time inside, as I don’t really like reading outside even on sunny, warm days. But I do love walking and maps. Although we haven’t got nearly as many maps as books we do have quite a large collection of maps because every time we go to a new place we buy a map and explore the countryside and towns. The photo shows a small selection of our maps.

I’ve been meaning to write about walking since I started this blog. England is criss-crossed by many, many miles of public rights of way and my husband and I spent many years working as rights of way officers dealing with the maps, landowners, walkers, horse riders and cyclists, and not forgetting the trail riders. We love walking, although now we don’t walk as much as we used to do. We went for a walk today and although the sun wasn’t shining it was a perfect autumn day. The trees are just turning bronze, yellow and gold and the views were beautiful. The fields have been ploughed and the new crops are just showing through. It was so peaceful; we were alone in the countryside, apart from the birds, cattle and sheep and not another soul in sight.

These are some of the views from our walk.

When we go out walking we can’t help looking at things from a Rights of Way point of view. The public footpaths are all open and easy to use, but the photograph below is a good example of what I mean. It should have been marked out at least 1 metre wide by the farmer as it is a cross-field path. But it’s really narrow and because it’s only been walked out through the crop by people using the path it is only just wide enough to walk along in single file. Anyway, as we’re retired now we just moan about it to each other and carry on – it’s still walkable after all. We can’t help noticing when paths are not quite in the right position either and that’s another little gripe.

There were cattle in the next field. They weren’t the slightest bit interested in us and carried on munching the grass as we walked by.

Further on our walk we left the fields and continued down a little enclosed path, the ground covered in fallen leaves.

This led to a another narrow footpath fenced in between two fields – sheep in one and more cattle in the other. Looking at old maps I can see that it was originally an unfenced path across a larger field. At some time after 1930 the field was divided in two and the path enclosed between the two fences.

This is an awkward path to walk along as it is on a slope and is stepped, one side being slightly higher than the other and is uneven – you have to watch where you put your feet. But I’m just being picky now, it’s not hard to walk along and many people use it every day with little difficulty.

As we walked along the cattle ignored us but the sheep were very interested and came to see us.

This Land is Our Land by Marion Shoard is about the history of the British countryside and has some interesting information about the origins of public rights of way. Now the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 has made more areas of the countryside open for public access, but rights of way still provide the main access available for the public to use.

Good places to find information on public rights of way are Defra and the Ramblers’s Association. The Ordnance Survey publishes a series of Pathfinder Guides for walks in the British Isles. They’re excellent and give details of walks of varying lengths and difficulty ranging from gentle strolls to quite challenging routes over rugged terrain.