Flush by Virginia Woolf

Flush Phase 4 of Ali’s year-long #Woolfalong involves reading biographies by or about Virginia Woolf during the months of July and August. I didn’t think I would have time to participate, but Flush, Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, is a very short book and I have managed to fit it in before the end of the two month period. Flush is a book I’d been interested in reading for a long time and I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed!

Flush, a red cocker spaniel, is given to the poet Elizabeth Barrett by her friend Mary Russell Mitford. Unmarried and an invalid, Elizabeth is confined to her bedroom in the family home on London’s Wimpole Street, where she lives with her father and siblings. Flush immediately forms a strong bond with his new mistress and although at first he misses the open spaces of his old home with the Mitfords, he quickly becomes spoiled and pampered, happy to stay curled up at Elizabeth’s feet in front of the fire. It’s not long, however, before Flush’s happiness is threatened by the arrival of another contender for Elizabeth Barrett’s love: the poet Robert Browning.

As Browning’s visits to the Barratt home become more frequent, Flush is forced to deal with new emotions he has never experienced before: jealousy and rivalry. When Barrett and Browning elope, Flush goes with them to Italy. Here Elizabeth finds a new strength and independence away from the control of her father and the stifling seclusion of her Wimpole Street bedroom – and in one of many parallels between the life of woman and dog, Flush rediscovers some of the freedom he had enjoyed as a young puppy.

Flush is a wonderfully creative combination of fiction and non-fiction. For factual information, Woolf draws on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s two poems about her dog and also the letters of Elizabeth and Robert, some of which she quotes from in the text. From a fictional point of view, the book is written from Flush’s perspective, imagining how a dog might feel and behave in a variety of different situations. The result is a book which is fascinating, unusual and a delight to read!

Flush works on at least three levels. First, it’s exactly what it appears to be: the biography of a dog, taking us from puppyhood to adulthood and old age, immersing us in a canine world – a world of intriguing scents and mysterious sounds. It’s also the biography of two poets, exploring the lives of both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning through a dog’s eyes. Finally, it gives Woolf a chance to examine various aspects of class and society. For example, on his occasional outings in London with Wilson, the maid, Flush notices that not all dogs are equal:

But the dogs of London, Flush soon discovered, are strictly divided into different classes. Some are chained dogs; some run wild. Some take their airings in carriages and drink from purple jars; others are unkempt and uncollared and pick up a living in the gutter. Dogs therefore, Flush began to suspect, differ; some are high, others low…

If this book sounds of any interest to you at all, then I would highly recommend giving it a try. It’s insightful, amusing and entertaining and I think it might be a good place to start for a reader who has never read Woolf before; I found it a much lighter and easier read than To the Lighthouse, for example, which I read earlier this year. Although I haven’t managed to take part in every phase of the Woolfalong, there are still another two to come so I may be tempted to read more Woolf before the year is over!

The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley

The Olive Tree I wasn’t sure, when I first heard about The Olive Tree, whether I really wanted to read it or not. I’ve enjoyed most of Lucinda Riley’s previous novels but part of the appeal is the way she intertwines past and present, linking the lives of modern day characters with ones who lived in times gone by. The Olive Tree is not like that; it has a contemporary setting, with the action taking place mostly in 2006 with a few chapters bringing us right up to date in 2016. I thought I would miss the historical element, but actually, once I started reading, I found I didn’t mind that it was a different sort of book and I ended up enjoying it anyway (although not quite as much as the historical ones).

The Olive Tree is the story of a family holiday in Cyprus. The setting couldn’t be more idyllic – a house called Pandora, with its own pool, a sunny terrace and a beautiful view – but the holiday itself is the holiday from hell. As its Greek name suggests, Pandora holds a lot of secrets and some of them are about to be revealed.

Pandora belongs to Helena Cooke, the novel’s main female character, who is returning to the house for the first time in years, having recently inherited it from her godfather. Almost as soon as she arrives, however, she wonders whether coming back was a mistake: Alexis, with whom she had a teenage romance in Cyprus more than twenty years earlier, is still living nearby and still seems to have feelings for Helena. Her husband, William, is not going to be pleased!

Someone else whose life has been thrown into turmoil by the presence of Alexis is Helena’s eldest son, thirteen-year-old Alex. Alex has never known the identity of his biological father…could it be Alexis? As Alex retreats to the privacy of his tiny bedroom to write in his diary and pour out his hopes and fears, another troubled family arrives to stay at Pandora. They are the Chandlers: William’s alcoholic best friend, Sacha; his long-suffering wife, Jules, and their two children, one of whom is Alex’s worst enemy. With the additions of Chloe, William’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage, and Helena’s friend Sadie, who is getting over a break-up with her latest boyfriend, it’s going to be a difficult summer!

At nearly 600 pages, this was a surprisingly quick read, which is something I’ve found with most of Lucinda Riley’s novels; she knows how to tell a good story and how to hold the reader’s attention from one chapter to the next. I don’t think the book needed to be quite so long (the Sadie storyline, for example, added very little to the overall plot) but otherwise I did enjoy spending time getting to know the Cooke and Chandler families. There were some twists in the story towards the end and although I’d had my suspicions, I was still surprised by some of the revelations.

Interspersed throughout the novel are passages from Alex’s diary and I particularly liked reading these sections. I found Alex an intriguing character; having been assessed as a gifted child with an exceptionally high IQ, sometimes he seems much older than thirteen, but in other ways – such as his attachment to his toy rabbit, Bee – he feels very young and insecure. I think if the whole novel had been narrated by Alex it might have been too much, but I always looked forward to returning to his diary entries – they were written with such a unique combination of humour, wisdom and vulnerability.

This isn’t my favourite Lucinda Riley novel but with its sunny, summery setting it was a perfect August read. I’m now looking forward to reading The Shadow Sister, the next book in her Seven Sisters series, which is coming out later this year.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of The Olive Tree for review.

The Devil and King John by Philip Lindsay

The Devil and King John King John, who reigned from 1199 to 1216, has the unenviable reputation of being one of England’s ‘worst’ kings. Although historians are constantly revising their opinion and adding to what we know of John, people still tend to have a negative impression of him. His portrayal as the villain of Robin Hood must be at least partly responsible for that! This 1943 novel by the Australian author Philip Lindsay attempts to give a more balanced view of John, based around the idea that many of his actions were the result of an uncontrollable temper rather than simply cruelty.

The novel begins with John’s early years when he is known as Lackland because his father, Henry II, has divided his lands between his three eldest sons, leaving no substantial territories for John to inherit (despite John being his favourite son). On Henry’s death, John’s brother, Richard, takes the throne but spends much of his reign overseas fighting in the crusades and neglects the very important task of producing an heir. When Richard dies in 1199, John becomes king…but his own reign will be a very troubled one.

The Devil and King John is a straightforward fictional biography, taking us through the key moments of John’s life and career: his military defeats in northern France and subsequent attempts to win back lost lands; his dispute with Pope Innocent III and his excommunication; the death of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, widely believed to have been murdered by John; and the rebellion by his barons which led to the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. Lindsay’s portrayal of John throughout all of this is generally quite sympathetic, but not excessively so and I certainly can’t say that I came away from the book liking the character!

In the opening chapter of the novel we are told that the Angevins (the royal house to which John belongs) were descended from a witch and that “from the devil they had sprung and to the devil they would go”. After this, there are references to the devil on almost every page (at least, it seemed that way). I can understand that the author wanted to keep the theme going throughout the story, but constantly being told that “the devil is in John” or “John rides with the devil” is too much!

When I wrote about the other Lindsay novel I read earlier this year – Here Comes the King, the story of Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpeper – I complained that there was too much focus on the romance and I said I thought I’d enjoy one of his other books more. I did prefer this one and thought there was a good balance of romance, battles and politics. However, I was disappointed with the way in which the female characters were depicted in this book, particularly John’s second wife, Isabella of Angoulême, who had the potential to have been a great character. I also felt slightly uncomfortable reading about the relationship between John, in his thirties, and Isabella, aged thirteen, even though I know that an age difference of this size wasn’t unusual by the standards of medieval nobility.

John’s first wife, Hadwisa (also known as Isabella of Gloucester), is portrayed as a witch who encourages John to follow the ‘Old Religion’. Lindsay states in his author’s note that there is no historical evidence for this, but he wanted to find a way to connect John with witchcraft and to explain the king’s lifetime of conflict with the church over issues such as his reluctance to take communion.

Although there were some aspects of this book that I didn’t like very much, overall I thought The Devil and King John was an interesting read. If you’ve read any of Philip Lindsay’s novels – or any good books about King John – I’d love to hear about them!

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby

Poor Caroline Poor Caroline, published in 1931, is the third book I’ve read by Winifred Holtby. I read both South Riding and The Land of Green Ginger in 2011 and enjoyed both (particularly the wonderful South Riding) so I don’t know why I’ve waited five years to try another of her novels! I enjoyed this one too, although the setting and subject of the book make it very different from the other two I’ve read.

The Caroline of the title is Caroline Denton-Smyth, an elderly spinster who has founded the Christian Cinema Company with the aim of reforming the British film industry. With feathers in her hat and beads around her neck, peering at the world through a pair of lorgnettes, Caroline is a figure of fun – someone to be pitied and certainly not taken too seriously. Caroline herself, however, takes the Christian Cinema Company very seriously indeed and is determined to make it a success. And so, despite having no money herself, she sets out to encourage others to invest in the company and to put together a board of directors.

This is not a novel with a lot of plot; the enjoyment is in getting to know the various people who become involved with Caroline’s business venture in one way or another. First there’s Basil St Denis, an idle, pleasure-seeking young man whose lover, Gloria, persuades him to leave his life of leisure in Monte Carlo to become chairman of the company. Then there’s Joseph Isenbaum, who hopes that joining the board will increase his standing in society and help to secure a place at Eton for his son. Hugh Macafee is an obsessive Scottish scientist who has invented the Tona Perfecta, a new film technique which he is desperate to put to use, while the American scenario writer Clifton Johnson is a greedy, unscrupulous man who, like the others, is interested only in what he can get out of the company.

Not a very pleasant collection of people so far, but there were two more whom I found slightly more likeable: Caroline’s much younger cousin, Eleanor de la Roux, newly arrived in London from South Africa with an independent fortune to invest, and Roger Mortimer, the young priest who falls in love with Eleanor and who is also the object of Caroline’s own affections – leaving her open to even more ridicule, as she is old enough to be Father Mortimer’s grandmother.

Poor Caroline vmc Each of the characters I’ve mentioned is given a chapter of his or her own, so that we have the chance to see things from several different points of view and add to what we know of Caroline, of the other characters and of the Christian Cinema Company. Although the opinions of Caroline differ from character to character – some view her with scorn, some with pity and some with frustration – each chapter ends with the same words: poor Caroline!

Caroline is an unusual heroine; being almost seventy-two at the time of our story, she devotes herself to her cause with an impressive amount of energy and enthusiasm, yet this devotion makes her unrealistic about what she is likely to actually achieve and blind to the things which are more important in life. She is not always a nice person and, as her family like to point out, she has spent a lifetime borrowing money from people knowing that she will never be able to give it back. Despite all this, I had a lot of sympathy for Caroline and couldn’t help admiring her as well as feeling sorry for her. Even though it seemed obvious that the Christian Cinema Company was doomed to failure, for poor Caroline’s sake I wanted it to succeed.

Reading Poor Caroline has reminded me of how much I like Winifred Holtby’s writing. I’m glad I still have a few more of her novels to look forward to – if you’ve read any of them please let me know what you thought!

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell

Magdalena Bach Novels about the wives of famous men seem to have become very popular over the last few years. Books on Zelda Fitzgerald, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Hadley Hemingway, Lizzie Burns (Engels) and Virginia Clemm Poe are just a few that I’ve read or heard about. You could be forgiven for thinking that with The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, Esther Meynell is following the current trend – until I tell you that this book was published in 1925.

Anna Magdalena Bach was, of course, the wife of the composer, Johann Sebastian. In this novel, Meynell imagines that, following Bach’s death, Magdalena is visited by Caspar Burgholt, a former pupil of her husband’s, who suggests that she write down everything she remembers about him. The Little Chronicle is the result.

“Write,” he said, “write a little chronicle of that great man. You knew him as no one else knew him, write all that you remember — and I do not suppose your faithful heart has forgotten much — of his words, his looks, his life, his music. People neglect his memory now, but not always will he be forgotten, he is too great for oblivion, and some day posterity will thank you for what you shall write.”

Magdalena begins by telling us about her first encounter with Bach in the winter of 1720, when she hears him playing the organ in St Katharine’s Church in Hamburg. Unaware of the organist’s identity, Magdalena is mesmerised by the beauty of his music, but runs away in a panic when he turns to look at her. Her father tells her later that the man whose playing she loved so much is Johann Sebastian Bach, the Duke of Cöthen’s Capellmeister (director of music). In 1721, more than a year after the death of Bach’s first wife, Barbara, he asks for Magdalena’s hand in marriage. Magdalena is overjoyed – and goes on to devote the rest of her life to caring for her husband and raising their children.

And that is the problem with this book. Magdalena’s life (at least as it is portrayed by Meynell here) just isn’t very interesting. Of course, I’m aware that eighteenth century women weren’t usually expected to do anything more than be a wife and mother, and it’s possible that Magdalena was content with that, but I’m sorry to say that I found her story quite tedious to read. The real-life Magdalena apparently shared her husband’s passion for music – she was a talented singer and she also worked as a copyist, transcribing Bach’s music – but the fictional Magdalena constantly plays down her own achievements and gifts, happy in the knowledge that she could never compete with her husband’s genius. On reaching the end of the book, I didn’t feel that I’d really learned anything about Magdalena as a person; I had no idea how she really felt about anything, what she liked and disliked or what her hopes and dreams were. All I knew was that she loved and worshipped her husband, because she told us so over and over again.

I did learn quite a lot about Bach himself (while remembering that, as is stated at the end of the book, some parts of the story are imaginary). Magdalena’s chronicle takes us through all of the key moments of Bach’s career and also spends some time discussing his music. I think, though, that the musical aspect of the book could be too detailed for readers who are more interested in the human side of the story, while not scholarly enough for those who already have a good knowledge of Bach’s music. And again, it seems that Bach didn’t have the most exciting or dramatic of personal lives, which makes me think that maybe he and Magdalena just aren’t good subjects for a work of fiction.

It’s a shame, because there’s nothing wrong with Esther Meynell’s writing; it’s the story itself which lacks colour and vibrancy. I was pleased this was such a short novel because had it been much longer I’m not sure I could have persevered with it. I was disappointed but, if nothing else, reading this book has made me more interested in listening to Bach’s music, which can only be a good thing.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Historical Musings #17: The historical mystery

Historical Musings I’ve been so badly organised recently that I had no idea what this month’s Historical Musings post would be about until yesterday, when I sat down to start reading Sovereign, the third book in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake mystery series, set in Tudor England. I enjoy reading historical mysteries for the same reasons that I enjoy reading historical fiction in general (escaping into the past, learning through fiction etc) but also because I like to see mysteries being solved through traditional methods – questioning witnesses, making observations, searching for clues – without the use of modern technology.

Sovereign I loved the first two Shardlake novels, yet it has taken me more than a year to get round to picking up this third one; the problem with historical mysteries is that they all seem to be part of a long series! I can’t think of many standalones that I’ve read; The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is one, The Unburied by Charles Palliser is another, and then there are some of Andrew Taylor’s books (The Anatomy of Ghosts and The American Boy) – but historical mystery series are in abundance! Although I seem to be very good at starting them, I’m not so good at remembering to continue with them.

Here are a few that I have in progress at the moment:

Crocodile on the Sandbank Shardlake series by CJ Sansom (Tudor) – read the first two books and currently reading the third
Sebastian St Cyr series by CS Harris (Regency) – read the first book
Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters (19th/20th century, Egypt) – read the first two books
Mary Russell series by Laurie R King (early 20th century) – read the first two books
Justin de Quincy series by Sharon Penman (medieval) – read the first book
Charles Horton series by Lloyd Shepherd (19th century) – read the first two books
Adelia Aguilar series by Ariana Franklin (medieval) – read the first book
Thomas Hawkins series by Antonia Hodgson (18th century) – read the first two books and starting the third soon

As you can see, I’ve got a lot of reading to do!

This month, then, I’d like to hear your thoughts on historical mysteries. Do you enjoy reading them? Which are your favourites?

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern

The People in the Photo August is Women in Translation Month and although I hadn’t made any formal plans to take part, I found myself reading a translated novel by a woman this month anyway – one I’d been interested in reading for a while. Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo was originally published in French in 2011; this Gallic Books edition is an English translation by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz.

Hélène Hivert lives in Paris, where she works as an archivist. She has never known her mother, who died when Hélène was very young, and for some reason her father and stepmother have never wanted to talk about her. When Hélène finds a photograph of Nathalie, her mother, taken at a tennis tournament in Interlaken in 1971, she’s intrigued. There are two men in the photograph whom she can’t identify, so she places a newpaper advertisement asking if anyone can provide more details.

Stéphane Crusten, a Swiss biologist living in England, responds. One of the men in the photo is his father, Pierre, who is now dead, and he recognises the other as a close friend of his father’s. What Stéphane doesn’t know is why Hélène’s mother is in the picture with them. Corresponding at first through letters and emails and later by telephone and in person, the two begin to piece together the fragments of information they have in an attempt to discover the connection between their parents. Gradually, as they delve into their family histories and more old photographs come to light, the true story of Nathalie and Pierre is revealed.

The People in the Photo is a beautiful, moving novel. The story is told in epistolary form, through the letters and emails Hélène and Stéphane send to each other, and it was nice to watch two people being drawn together in this way, forming a bond in writing before they had even had the chance to meet. The photos they discover are not included in the book, but they are described in such careful detail that I could picture them quite clearly in my mind, and I liked that aspect of the novel too.

However, this was not a perfect book; it did have a few flaws which stopped me from loving it as much as I’d hoped to. First, I thought it was very predictable – maybe not for Hélène and Stéphane, who were genuinely shocked by each revelation, but definitely predictable for the reader. This in itself wouldn’t have been a big problem, but I also found the plot very contrived and too reliant on coincidences, on photographs which turned up just when another clue was needed and on circumstances which conveniently prevented secrets from being revealed until after the next letter was received.

In the end, though, none of this mattered too much. It’s still a lovely, emotional story and once I started reading it I didn’t want to stop until I reached the final page and had learned all the secrets of the people in the photo.