My commonplace book: May 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

He could put the young king aside as some nameless bastard; he could take England into his hand to shape to what greatness he would. In that moment, he never questioned his power. It was his to claim kingship or forgo it. On the strains of the dirge drifted to him a sound of King Edward’s voice: “Richard hath failed me never; him I do well to trust!”

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1913)

~

Vaux le Vicomte

The scaffolding had disappeared, flowers and shrubs were gradually covering the bare earth, bringing the flowerbeds to life, and Vaux was slowly taking shape, little by little revealing its full majesty.

The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée (2005)

~

Thus at two on a Sunday morning, on the second day of September, in the year of our Lord, also the year of the Beast, 1666, London begins to burn.

Fire by C.C. Humphreys (2016)

~

Phileas Fogg

The mansion in Savile Row, though not sumptuous, was exceedingly comfortable. The habits of its occupant were such as to demand but little from the sole domestic, but Phileas Fogg required him to be almost superhumanly prompt and regular. On this very 2nd of October he had dismissed James Forster, because that luckless youth had brought him shaving-water at eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit instead of eighty-six.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873)

~

Even after all this time, grief threatens to overwhelm me when I think about my family…so powerful, so vigorous, yet all destroyed in a few short years. But still, we left our mark on history; never again will the world see our equal.

The Sons of Godwine by Mercedes Rochelle (2016)

~

Mary Anne Clarke

This was what they remembered in after years. The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth remained, and the love of living.

Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier (1954)

~

“The worst of it is, I’ll have to tell him so myself. He’ll never dare to mention the subject again, after what I said to him that night he proposed last. I wish I hadn’t been so dreadful emphatic. Now I’ve got to say it myself if it is ever said. But I’ll not begin by quoting poetry, that’s one thing sure!”

Love and Other Happy Endings edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)

~

She could not even recall his features properly nor remember the colour of his eyes, but she could recall how her heart had leaped when he looked at her. She could remember the sound of his voice but not the words he had spoken, as one remembers the perfume of a flower long after it has been pressed out of shape between the pages of a book.

The Queenmaker by Maureen Peters (1975)

~

Pembroke_Table_by_Chippendale

Sometimes the apprentice fainted with exertion and had to be revived with a cup of water dashed in his face. Thomas often thought, when a veneered surface had been subsequently polished to a satin-like shine, that it was doubtful if the future owner of the piece would ever have the least idea what sweaty, strength-wrenching effort went into the making of it. Hell held no fears for him. It could be no worse than a veneering shop.

Gilded Splendour by Rosalind Laker (1982)

~

“Jack, Jack,” cried Stephen, running in. “I have been sadly remiss. You are promoted, I find. You are a great man – you are virtually an admiral! Give you joy, my dear, with all my heart. The young man in black clothes tells me you are the greatest man on the station, after the Commander-in-chief.”

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (1977)

~

Favourite book this month: Around the World in Eighty Days

A resolution revisited

Sorry about the unannounced disappearance over the last week or so. I had a stressful day at work last Friday trying to deal with a difficult colleague and it left me feeling very down for a few days and not very interested in blogging. I was struggling to concentrate on any of the books I was in the middle of reading and found myself reaching instead for The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett to re-read a favourite scene…and of course I ended up re-reading the rest of the book! As anyone who has read it will know, it finishes on such a cliffhanger that it’s almost impossible not to want to pick up the next book in the series as soon as possible, so naturally I have had to move straight on to a re-read of Pawn in Frankincense as well.

oscar-wilde-dramatist-if-one-cannot-enjoy-reading-a-book-over-and Having been reminded of how much I used to enjoy returning to my favourite books again and again, I remembered the list of reading resolutions I posted at the beginning of the year. My top resolution was to spend more time on re-reads…and until now, not a single one of my 2016 reads has been a re-read! This is something I really want to change as there are so many books I keep saying I would love to re-read and it makes me feel frustrated and sad that I just never seem to get round to doing it.

So, for the rest of the year I’m determined that I’m going to stick to my resolution and do a lot of re-reading! I’m not going to set any targets in terms of numbers, as I don’t cope very well with targets where reading is concerned…or with lists. I know that if I mentioned any specific titles here I would immediately feel under pressure and lose my enthusiasm for re-reading them, so I’m afraid you’ll have to wait and see which books I choose to re-read!

Do you enjoy re-reading too or do you prefer to discover new books?

Which are your favourite books to read over and over again?

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon

The Royal Succession The Royal Succession is an English translation of Maurice Druon’s 1957 French novel La Loi des mâles, the fourth volume of his Accursed Kings series which began with The Iron King. Described by George R.R. Martin as “the original Game of Thrones”, the seven books in this series tell the story of Philip IV the Fair of France and the kings who follow him, said to have been cursed “to the thirteenth generation” by the vengeful Grand Master of the Knights Templar.

Books two and three – The Strangled Queen and The Poisoned Crown – described the troubled reign of Philip’s son, Louis X. As The Royal Succession opens in the year 1316, Louis is dead, leaving no clear heir to the throne. There is some doubt over the parentage of Jeanne, his five-year-old daughter from his first marriage, so all eyes are on Queen Clémence, his pregnant second wife.

While France looks forward to the birth of Clémence’s child, a regent is needed; the obvious choices are Louis’ younger brother, Philippe of Poitiers, and his uncle, Charles of Valois. At this crucial moment, Philippe is away in Lyon awaiting the election of a new pope, but by resorting to some underhand methods he is able to turn the situation to his advantage and becomes regent on his return to Paris. However, his mother-in-law, Mahaut, Countess of Artois, is even more ambitious and vows to clear the path to the throne for Philippe.

Nobody is safe from Mahuat’s plotting, and when Clémence gives birth to Louis’ posthumous child, the sickly Jean I, the baby king finds himself at the centre of one of her schemes. Meanwhile, Philippe searches for a way to deal with the claim of his little niece, Jeanne, and finds a possible solution in the Salic Law, which excludes females from the line of succession.

I hope I haven’t made all of this sound too complicated! Some concentration is needed, but Druon does explain everything clearly and the plot is easy enough to follow, especially if you have also read the previous three books (something I would highly recommend). The period covered in this particular novel is fascinating and I found this a much more gripping and entertaining read than The Poisoned Crown.

The Accursed Kings series is based closely on historical fact, but there is one part of The Royal Succession which feels more like fiction – and that is the storyline surrounding the fate of little Jean I. However, having looked this up, it seems that Druon has developed this storyline out of a theory which has never been proved or disproved. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, and other books have been written on the subject. It also explained for me the role in the series of Guccio Baglioni and Marie de Cressay, something I’ve been wondering about since the first book as their story had previously seemed so disconnected from the central history.

There are three books left in the series and I’m looking forward to continuing with the next one, The She-Wolf.

Love and Other Happy Endings, edited by M. R. Nelson

This is a collection of five classic short stories from five very different authors: Katherine Mansfield, L.M. Montgomery, Wilkie Collins, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Oliver Curwood. The title given to the collection by its editor, M.R. Nelson, means that we know before we begin that each story will have a happy ending of some sort, but I can assure you that this doesn’t spoil the pleasure of reading them. The interest is in seeing how each happy ending is reached and how the conflicts or problems in each story are resolved.

Love and Other Happy Endings First is The Singing Lesson by Katherine Mansfield, a story which appeared in her 1922 collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories. This is a very short story, but Mansfield (a new author for me) manages to pack a lot of meaning into it. The story follows Miss Meadows, a singing teacher, who has had some bad news and begins the day “With despair — cold, sharp despair — buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife”. We see how Miss Meadows’ state of mind affects not only herself but the girls in her class; she is someone who brings her personal troubles into work with her. Later in the day, something happens to change the teacher’s mood and the way she perceives the world is suddenly quite different.

Story two is Akin to Love by L.M. Montgomery, best known for her Anne of Green Gables series. I read her Anne novels (or most of them anyway) as a child, but this is the first time I’ve read any of her other work. Akin to Love is from her 1909-1922 collection of short stories. It’s a simple tale of two single people, Josephine Elliott and David Hartley, who are friends and neighbours. David has proposed to Josephine many times over the last eighteen years and she has turned him down every time. Eventually Josephine begins to experience a feeling akin to love, but will she act on her feelings?

The third story, Mr Lismore and the Widow is by Wilkie Collins, who has long been one of my favourite Victorian authors, so it’s not surprising that this was one of the stories I enjoyed most from this collection. Originally published in 1883, it’s the story of a man in need of money and a woman in need of a husband. It’s easy to predict what will happen – or is it? This is a tale with a twist…a slightly implausible twist, but a fun one!

Next is Head and Shoulders, a story from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers (1920). It’s a great story, again with a twist, about Horace Tarbox, a clever, intellectual student and Marcia Meadow, a dancer (a philosopher and a flapper?). Despite being complete opposites, the two fall in love, but their relationship does not follow the course you might expect. I’m not really a fan of Fitzgerald, but this is a bright, witty story which really stands out from the others in the book.

The final story is The Other Man’s Wife, taken from the 1920 collection Back to God’s Country and Other Stories by James Oliver Curwood, another author I have never read before. In this story we meet a man who has taken refuge in the wilderness because he needs some time away from the woman he loves – and from her husband, whom he describes as “a scoundrel, a brute, who came home from his club drunk, a cheap money-spender, a man who wasn’t fit to wipe the mud from her little feet, much less call her wife.” This is another very short story, and I found it easy to guess how it would end, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying to read.

Reading these five stories one after the other encouraged me to look for common themes and ideas and to think about the ways in which different authors tackle the subject of love. I wondered why, out of all the short stories in the world, Nelson chose these particular five, so I was interested to read her notes at the end explaining her choices. I really enjoyed this little collection and am pleased to be able to give this review a happy ending!

Thanks to M.R. Nelson for providing a copy of Love and Other Happy Endings for review.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests This is Sarah Waters’ sixth novel, published in 2014. I have read and enjoyed all of her previous five, but after seeing some very mixed reviews of The Paying Guests around the time of publication, I decided I wasn’t in any hurry to read this one. I knew I would read it eventually, but I wanted to wait until I was in the right mood for it.

This book is set in London in 1922 which I was pleased about as, surprisingly, I have preferred Sarah Waters’ 20th century novels (The Little Stranger and The Night Watch) to the Victorian ones (Fingersmith, Affinity and Tipping the Velvet). I always find the 1920s an interesting decade to read about; it was so soon after the end of the war and, for most people, life would never be the same again.

In The Paying Guests we meet twenty-six-year-old Frances Wray, a young woman whose life has certainly been affected by the war – her two brothers were killed in action and her father died not long after, leaving Frances and her mother alone and struggling financially. Frances is now doing the work that the servants used to do and, to avoid having to sell the house, she and her mother have decided to take in lodgers or ‘paying guests’.

The paying guests are a young married couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, and from the moment of their arrival the atmosphere in the house changes. The Barbers belong to what Frances calls the ‘clerk class’ and they have different views, different attitudes and different ways of living their lives. Sarah Waters captures perfectly what it feels like to suddenly have to share your home with strangers:

Water was run after that, and then another odd noise started, a sort of pulse or quick pant – the meter again, presumably, as the gas ran through it. Mrs Barber must be boiling a kettle. Now her husband had joined her. There was conversation, laughter… Frances caught herself thinking, as she might have done of guests, Well, they’re certainly making themselves at home. Then she took in the implication of the words, and her heart, very slightly, sank.

As Frances gets to know the new lodgers, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Lilian. Having ended an earlier romance with another girl, Christina, for the sake of her family, Frances is determined not to let another chance of happiness slip away. This time, though, she faces not only the disapproval of her mother, but also an even bigger obstacle in the form of Lilian’s husband, Leonard.

The relationship between Frances and Lilian develops slowly throughout the first half of the novel. Although it’s difficult to tell what Lilian is truly thinking or feeling, there’s no doubt about the intensity of Frances’s emotions. While I can’t say that I particularly liked Frances, I did feel worried for her: she had already been through so much in the past and I could sense that there would be more trouble coming her way in the future. And I was right. The tension builds and builds in the Wray household and there is the sense that something big and significant is going to happen. Eventually something does happen (something horrible, dramatic and shocking) and from that point the plot begins to go in a very different direction.

The second half of the book is still interesting and compelling in its own way, but it does feel like an entirely different story and I think I might have been happier if this had continued to be the quiet 1920s domestic novel it seemed to be at the beginning. I did enjoy The Paying Guests, though, and I’m intrigued by the list of books Sarah Waters mentions as her influences; I’m particularly interested now in reading A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse.

The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett

The Peoples Queen They say you should never judge a book by its cover and in the case of The People’s Queen, I have found that to be very true. The image on the cover of this particular book gives the impression that this is a typical ‘royal court’ novel, maybe similar to the sort of book you might expect from Philippa Gregory. If you take away the cover, the novel itself – written in third person present tense and with a focus on politics, money and trade rather than love and romance – feels much more like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Our heroine, if it’s possible to call her that, is Alice Perrers, most famous for being a mistress of England’s King Edward III (who reigned from 1327 to 1377). Alice was never a queen and, as far as I can tell, was never popular with the people either, so I’m not sure where the title of the novel comes from – other than that she was a woman from a humble background who rose to a position of power. I have read fictional portrayals of Alice before, but only as a secondary character, so I was curious to see how she would fare as the protagonist of her own story.

The People’s Queen is structured around the medieval concept of the Wheel of Fortune. As the novel opens, Alice is riding at the top of the wheel, at the height of her power and influence. During her rise, Alice has made a lot of enemies…but also some friends, including the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who has gained a new position as comptroller of customs for the Port of London under Alice’s patronage. It is said that pride comes before a fall, however, and Alice’s fortunes are about to change.

Aware that the King is starting to grow old and infirm and won’t be around forever, Alice begins to make plans for the future. Knowing that she will lose his financial support when he dies, she enters into an unscrupulous business venture, confident that nobody will discover what she has been doing. Eventually, of course, Alice’s schemes start to fall apart as the Wheel of Fortune begins to turn again.

Alice’s story takes place during an interesting and eventful period of English history: the novel incorporates the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt and features characters such as John of Gaunt, the Black Prince, Katherine Swynford and Wat Tyler. Somehow, though, Vanora Bennett manages to make a potentially fascinating story feel boring and passionless. I mentioned a similarity to Hilary Mantel, but the similarity is in the style of writing only. Where Wolf Hall is a compelling and enjoyable novel, The People’s Queen just isn’t, at least not in my opinion. Not being particularly interested in economic history, I thought there was too much time spent discussing taxes, budgets, loans and interest rates. I was also disappointed in the lack of medieval atmosphere; I think the author was trying to draw parallels with modern life and modern politics, but I felt that this came at the expense of creating a sense of time and place.

I do think Bennett does a good job of making Alice a complex, well-rounded character. She is shown to be greedy, ambitious and manipulative, as well as intelligent and shrewd…but she also has a softer, more vulnerable side, and it can’t be denied that she does provide some happiness and comfort to Edward. The way in which she becomes involved with Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt appears to be completely fictional and does not feel convincing, but I liked the portrayal of her friendship with Geoffrey Chaucer (which forms a major part of the story). There is some historical basis for this as they did know each other and Alice is believed by some historians to be the inspiration for the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Despite finding Alice an interesting character, though, I didn’t feel any sort of connection with her. I didn’t expect to actually like her, but it was disappointing to find that I didn’t care at all what happened to her.

I haven’t given up on Vanora Bennett yet because I did like Midnight in St Petersburg a lot more than this book and I also still have Queen of Silks on my shelf to be read. I’ll hope for a better experience with that one!

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Around the World in 80 Days When Frenchman Jean Passepartout starts a new job as valet to a wealthy English gentleman called Phileas Fogg, he is pleased to find that his master is a quiet, solitary man who lives his life to a strict routine. Having previously worked as a singer, a circus acrobat and a fireman, Passepartout is looking forward to leading a settled, domestic life for a change. To his dismay, no sooner has he taken up his new position than Phileas Fogg informs him that they will be leaving at once to go on a journey around the world. He has made a bet with some friends at London’s Reform Club based on a newspaper article which claims that, with the opening of a new railway in India, it is now possible to travel around the entire world in eighty days.

Travelling by train, boat, sledge and even by elephant, Fogg and Passepartout begin a race against time through Europe, Africa, Asia and North America, crossing both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Along the way they rescue an Indian widow, are attacked by Sioux warriors…and find themselves pursued by a detective who believes there is more to Fogg’s eccentric behaviour than meets the eye.

Around the World in Eighty Days is the first book I’ve read by Jules Verne. It has been on my Classics Club list from the beginning, while other titles have been added and deleted, but it has never seemed to be the right time to read it. Last week I wanted to take a break from the very long novel I’m in the middle of reading (Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset) and have a change of pace, so I decided to give this one a try – and it was the perfect choice. This is a short book with short chapters, and the rate at which Fogg and Passepartout move from one adventure to the next makes this a very quick and entertaining read.

Putting the novel in historical context – it was published in 1873 – it really must have seemed that the world was getting smaller and more accessible. It seems such a waste, though, to be determined to travel the world at such a speed! If I had the opportunity – and the money – to make a journey like that, I would want to spend some time exploring each of the countries I passed through on the way, but Phileas Fogg appears to have no curiosity at all:

Mr. Fogg, after bidding good-bye to his whist partners, left the steamer, gave his servant several errands to do, urged it upon him to be at the station promptly at eight, and, with his regular step, which beat to the second, like an astronomical clock, directed his steps to the passport office. As for the wonders of Bombay — its famous city hall, its splendid library, its forts and docks, its bazaars, mosques, synagogues, its Armenian churches, and the noble pagoda on Malabar Hill, with its two polygonal towers — he cared not a straw to see them.

We do still learn a little bit about the geography and history of the various places Fogg and Passepartout visit (and Passepartout, who shares my frustration at Fogg’s lack of interest, does occasionally manage to do some sightseeing on his own, with mixed results) but the main focus of the story is on the journey itself and whether they actually will succeed in going around the world in eighty days. There’s also a romance, which I found difficult to believe in as we rarely even see the characters involved speaking to each other, but I suppose the hints were there! I loved the relationship between Fogg and Passepartout, though; they are such different men yet have so much loyalty to each other.

I enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days much more than I thought I would when I first decided to put it on my Classics Club list. I’ll have to keep Jules Verne in mind for my second list – which I’ve already started to compile despite still having twenty books to read from the first one!