Elizabeth Goudge Day: The White Witch

The White Witch A year ago I read The Child from the Sea as part of Lory of The Emerald City Book Review’s birthday celebrations for Elizabeth Goudge. This year, Lory is hosting another day devoted to the same author and this seemed like a good time to read my second book by Goudge. There were plenty to choose from – some historical and some contemporary, some for adults and some for children – but I decided on The White Witch. I loved The Child from the Sea, which was set in the seventeenth century and told the story of Lucy Walters, a mistress of Charles II, so as The White Witch is set in the same period the chances were good that I would love this book too – and I did.

The English Civil War forms the historical backdrop to the story, but the focus of the novel is on the inhabitants of a small Oxfordshire village and the ways in which their lives are touched by the greater changes taking place in the country as a whole. The ‘white witch’ of the title is Froniga, a healer and herbalist who has family ties with both the Puritan household of Robert Haslewood, the village squire, and with the band of Romany gypsies who camp nearby. Caught between both of these worlds while fully belonging to neither, Froniga is the character around whom all the others revolve.

Froniga is a fascinating character, but there were others whose stories interested me too, particularly Francis Leyland, the secretive stranger who offers to paint a portrait of Haslewood’s two young children, and the mysterious Yoben, who is in love with Froniga. There’s a ‘black witch’ too – and a parson who tries to save her soul – and a vengeful gypsy woman who causes trouble wherever she goes. Whether Parliamentarian or Royalist, Puritan or Catholic, nobleman or gypsy, in the hands of Elizabeth Goudge each of these characters becomes a well-rounded, believable human being – a person we can sympathise with even if we don’t necessarily agree with their views or their choices.

In this novel, the conflicts that take place in an individual’s heart or soul are as important as those which take place on the battlefield, though we do get to see some military action as several of our characters become involved in the major battles and events of the Civil War. But what I loved most about this book were the details of daily village life in the seventeenth century, the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside, and the undercurrents of magic, mystery and mythology which run throughout the story.

The White Witch, although never boring, has a slow pace and – as it was originally published in 1958 – it is written in a style which may not appeal to readers who prefer more modern historical novels and as with The Child from the Sea, there are strong religious and spiritual elements. I love Goudge’s writing style, though; it’s warm and gentle and comforting. I’m looking forward to working through the rest of her novels…and would like to thank Lory for introducing me to her work!

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter There really is a place called Winter; it’s in Saskatchewan, Canada, and at the time when Patrick Gale’s novel is set, it’s a small, newly-established settlement just off the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Winter is home to the fictional Harry Cane, a character based on the author’s own great-grandfather, but how did such a quiet, gentle and seemingly conventional Englishman end up in so harsh and remote a place? A Place Called Winter is Harry’s story, explaining exactly what the circumstances were which brought him to Canada, and what happened to him after he arrived there.

At the beginning of the novel, Harry is a shy, stammering young man living in Edwardian London. Doing what is expected of him, he gets married, and although he has no real love or passion for his wife, it’s not an unhappy marriage and they have a child together. Things start to go wrong for Harry when he falls in love with a man and is forced to leave the country to escape the resulting scandal. Given the opportunity to farm some land in Canada, Harry begins to build a new life for himself alone in a place called Winter.

Harry’s experiences in Canada are a mixture of good and bad. The challenging environment in which he finds himself requires skills he doesn’t possess and must learn quickly if he is to survive in the wilderness. With the help of some new friends, Harry starts to grow in strength and knowledge, but not everyone he meets is quite so pleasant and the behaviour of the villainous Troels Munck poses an obstacle which must be overcome before he has a chance of finding true happiness.

I found this a very moving and poignant novel, as well as a beautifully written one. I couldn’t help comparing it to Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer which I had read just a few weeks earlier. The two books have some similar themes, most notably a man trying to come to terms with his sexuality within the confines of early 20th century society, but I thought this novel had a warmth which the other lacked; Gale really engaged my emotions and made me care about his characters in a way that Galgut didn’t.

A Place Called Winter is my first book read from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist and I hope the others on the list will be as good as this one. I haven’t read any of Patrick Gale’s other novels and I understand that he doesn’t usually write historical fiction, but I was very impressed with his writing and would be interested in trying more of his work.

Mauprat by George Sand

Mauprat When I was looking for suggestions for books to read for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, Camille de Fleurville suggested the French author George Sand (a pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) and pointed me in the direction of her 1837 novel, Mauprat. Having never read George Sand before, I had no idea what her books would be like, but whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t this!

The novel begins with a description of Roche-Mauprat, an abandoned château in the French countryside, once home to Bernard Mauprat, an orphan raised by his wicked grandfather and violent, brutal uncles:

On the borders of La Marche and Berry, in the district known as Varenne, which is naught but a vast moor studded with forests of oak and chestnut, and in the most thickly wooded and wildest part of the country, may be found, crouching within a ravine, a little ruined château. The dilapidated turrets would not catch your eye until you were about a hundred yards from the principal portcullis. The venerable trees around and the scattered rocks above bury it in everlasting obscurity; and you would experience the greatest difficulty, even in broad daylight, in crossing the deserted path leading to it, without stumbling against the gnarled trunks and rubbish that bar every step. The name given to this dark ravine and gloomy castle is Roche-Mauprat.

Mauprat is set in the eighteenth century, in the years leading up to the French Revolution, and in Varenne an ancient feudal system is still in place with the peasants living in fear of the powerful Mauprat family, who rule over them with tyranny and corruption. One night Bernard’s uncles take a young girl captive in the woods and bring her back to Roche-Mauprat. Her name is Edmée and she is a cousin of Bernard’s belonging to another, more civilised branch of the family. Instantly attracted to his beautiful cousin, Bernard helps her to escape, but not before making her promise to marry him in return.

Unfortunately for Bernard, he didn’t specify exactly when Edmée will have to marry him. Once she is free of Roche-Mauprat, she insists that she cannot possibly become Bernard’s wife until he proves himself worthy. And so Bernard begins a seven-year struggle to gain an education and transform himself into the sort of respectable, well-mannered man Edmée is happy to love. How much of a man’s character is due to heredity and how much to the way he has been brought up? In Mauprat, we see that even a man who has had the roughest of upbringings has the opportunity to change through love, guidance and his own desire to improve.

The novel is narrated by a much older Bernard, who is entertaining some visitors with the story of his life, but apart from the first chapter, the book is structured as a straightforward first person narrative. We are with Bernard through every step of his journey, from his flawed younger self – rough, impulsive, passionate and uneducated – to the more refined, cultured man he becomes after being shaped by Edmée’s influence. Along the way Bernard encounters several other men – from the reclusive philosopher Patience and the mole-catcher Marcasse to the Abbé Aubert and the American soldier, Arthur – all of whom provide help and advice and teach him some important lessons.

We see Edmée only through Bernard’s eyes and this makes it difficult to understand her motives. I had a lot of questions about Edmée as I read. Why was she determined to keep Bernard waiting for so many years? Did she truly love him – and if so, at what point did she begin to love him? And if you love someone, shouldn’t you be prepared to accept them for what they are? Some of these questions are answered, to some extent, by the end of the book but Edmée still intrigued and frustrated me.

Mauprat is also interesting from an historical perspective. Bernard spends some time in America fighting in the Revolution (this is where he meets Arthur, the soldier and natural scientist who becomes his friend and helps to continue his education), while France is also on the brink of revolution and society is already beginning to change:

The poor have suffered enough; they will turn upon the rich, and their castles will fail and their lands be carved up. I shall not see it; but you will. There will be ten cottages in the place of this park, and ten families will live on its revenue. There will no longer be servants or masters, or villein or lord.

As I’ve mentioned, Mauprat wasn’t quite what I’d expected (the Gothic atmosphere and the amount of melodrama surprised me) and I don’t know whether it’s typical of George Sand’s novels, but I did enjoy it. Sand herself sounds like a fascinating woman too. I would like to read more of her books, so any recommendations are welcome.

Finally, I should point out that I didn’t read the edition pictured above, but it was the only decent cover image I could find. I read the free version available through Project Gutenberg, translated by Stanley Young.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War Six years after her debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson is back with a second novel – and, in my opinion, it has definitely been worth the wait! The Summer Before the War is a beautiful, moving story about a small town in East Sussex and how it is transformed forever by the effects of the First World War.

It’s the summer of 1914 and spinster Beatrice Nash is arriving in the town of Rye to take up a position as Latin teacher at the local grammar school. Despite the support of Agatha Kent, one of the school governors, Beatrice quickly discovers that not everyone is happy with the decision to offer the teaching job to a woman and that she could be about to lose her position before she’s even begun.

Also in Rye for the summer are Agatha’s nephews, Hugh and Daniel, two young men who think they know what the future holds: Hugh expects to complete his medical studies and then marry Lucy Ramsey, daughter of the surgeon he has been working for, while Daniel, an aspiring poet, hopes to go to Paris and start a literary journal with his friend, Craigmore. With the onset of war, however, all of these plans will be thrown into disarray and life in Rye will never be the same again.

Towards the end of the novel, the action switches to France where we join the men in the trenches, but most of the book, as the title suggests, is devoted to those lazy, idyllic summer days and the changes that are brought by the approach of war. The rigid social structure in place at the beginning of the summer – a time in which independence in women such as Beatrice is seen as something to be discouraged, the atrocities experienced by a young refugee girl make her a social outcast, and Daniel’s relationship with Craigmore risks causing scandal – begins to break down as the war progresses and priorities change.

The Summer Before the War is a long book (with a lovely, cheerful and sunny front cover) but I enjoyed every minute I spent with this set of characters. The story is told with humour, intelligence and sensitivity – and some witty, Jane Austen-style dialogue. Occasionally a word or phrase feels out of place, but otherwise the atmosphere of that summer of 1914 is perfectly evoked. Although the pace is quite gentle I was completely absorbed, discovering as I reached the final chapters how much I had come to care for the men on the front line and the women left behind.

This is a warm, emotional and poignant story and I was close to tears at the end. I loved it and look forward to more from Helen Simonson.

Thanks to Lovereading for providing a review copy.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair With my love of Victorian novels, I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to decide to read Vanity Fair. I think, without really knowing anything about it, I thought it sounded dry and hard going; Lisa’s review changed my mind and I added it to my Classics Club list, but I was still slow to actually pick it up and start reading. I finally got round to it this month and am pleased to say that although there were certainly times when I found the book dry and times when I found it hard going, overall I enjoyed it.

The first thing I found on beginning Vanity Fair is that Thackeray, like Anthony Trollope and other Victorian authors, likes to talk directly to the reader, commenting on his characters and giving praise or criticism where necessary:

“And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce them, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader’s sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.”

He never lets us forget that we are reading a novel and that the characters are puppets under the author’s control – but at the same time, I found them all very real and human. There are a few examples in Vanity Fair of people being ‘good and kindly’, but many more of them being silly and heartless. In a book subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero” (which is debatable), it’s not surprising that the characters are flawed and imperfect. The most flawed of all is Becky Sharp, ruthless schemer and ambitious social-climber. From the moment Becky throws her dictionary through the carriage window as she drives out of the school gates to go and make her own way in the world, I knew she was going to be an interesting character!

Becky’s friend, Amelia Sedley, is her exact opposite: quiet and gentle, sweet and obliging…and from a wealthy family. I liked Amelia – although she could be infuriating – but there’s no doubt that it’s Becky who makes things happen and keeps the story moving forward. Early in the novel, she sets her sights on marrying Jos Sedley, Amelia’s brother, and when this plan fails, it becomes clear that there is nothing Becky won’t do to get what she wants and to advance another step up the social ladder.

This is not just Becky’s story, though. Vanity Fair has a very large cast of characters, drawn from a variety of backgrounds: noblemen and army officers, merchants and servants. Most of them belong to, or are in some way connected with, the novel’s three central families – the Sedleys, the Osbornes and the Crawleys – and with plenty of subplots involving these three families, the story quickly becomes quite complex. Like many novels of the time, Vanity Fair was originally published as a serial and as a result feels longer than it maybe needed to be, but everything that happens has its place in the plot, as Thackeray explains:

“…my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all. And yet it is a chapter, and a very important one too. Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life that seem to be nothing and yet affect all the rest of the history?”

‘Vauxhall’, of course, is a reference to the famous London pleasure gardens so popular during the Regency – and this will be a good place for me to mention that despite being a Victorian novel first published in 1847-48, Vanity Fair is actually set several decades earlier, in the Regency period. The Napoleonic Wars are always in the background, with some of the characters being present at the Battle of Waterloo.

This hasn’t become a favourite classic – I thought at first that it might, but in the end there were too many moments when I felt the story was starting to drag and too many times when I found my attention starting to wander. I did like it, though, and am glad I hadn’t put off reading it any longer!

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Having read Kate Atkinson’s two most recent books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, as well as some of her Jackson Brodie mysteries, I’ve been curious about her earlier novels and was pleased to see this one from 1997 on the library shelf. I knew nothing about this novel before I started to read it and I think that was a good thing because this is a story packed with surprises, plot twists and weird and wonderful occurrences. I have done my best here to give you an idea of what the book is about without giving too much away.

Human Croquet Human Croquet is narrated by sixteen-year-old Isobel Fairfax who lives with her family in a house called Arden in a small town somewhere in the north of England. Isobel’s family consists of her brother, Charles, their Aunt Vinny, and their father Gordon, who has recently returned after a long absence, bringing with him a new wife, Debbie. Gordon’s first wife, Eliza – mother of Isobel and Charles – disappeared years ago, although her presence at Arden can still be felt in small and unexpected ways. Throughout the novel we move between the Present (Isobel’s life in the 1960s) and the Past (in which we learn more about the early days of Gordon’s marriage to Eliza and the events leading up to her disappearance).

Now, this might all sound quite straightforward so far, but I’ve promised some surprises, plot twists and weird and wonderful occurrences – and yes, there are plenty of those! One of the first indications we get that something is not right in Isobel’s world comes when she finds herself suddenly slipping through time, briefly emerging in another period before just as suddenly returning to her own time. Charles, who is obsessed with the paranormal, is envious, telling her she must have experienced a time warp. But this is only the beginning of a series of increasingly bizarre things which happen to Isobel and her family. Things also become darker and darker as Isobel tries to make sense of what is going on and the truth about Eliza is slowly revealed.

Human Croquet is a wonderfully creative and imaginative story in which Atkinson plays with time and with our perceptions of what is real and what is unreal. The novel is rich in literary references and allusions; the name of Isobel’s home, Arden, brings to mind the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and both the Shakespearean theme and the forest/tree symbolism continue throughout the book. Even the title, Human Croquet, has a meaning which only really becomes clear right at the end of the novel and which made me think again about Isobel’s role in the story.

My favourite thing, though, about this – and all of Atkinson’s books – is the characterisation. Isobel’s narrative voice is very strong and distinctive, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and peppered with witty observations, self-deprecating humour and clever wordplay. Through Isobel’s eyes the rest of the Fairfax family, as well as their friends and neighbours, come to life in vivid detail. Among the most memorable are the people next door, timid Mrs Baxter and her daughter Audrey, both of whom live in fear of the sinister ‘Daddy’. The Fairfaxes are not the only troubled family in Human Croquet; this is definitely not a happy story, so I was pleased to find that there are some lighter moments to alleviate the darkness.

I haven’t read anything by Kate Atkinson yet that hasn’t impressed me; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her earlier books, as well as Started Early, Took My Dog, the only Jackson Brodie novel I haven’t read yet. What is your favourite Kate Atkinson book?

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine I don’t often read science fiction, but when I do I usually find that I enjoy it. H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine, is an early classic of the genre and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to decide to read it – especially as I’ve previously read and liked two of his other books, The Island of Dr Moreau and Ann Veronica (although the latter is not science fiction).

The Time Machine follows the adventures of a Victorian scientist known only as the Time Traveller who believes he has created a machine which can travel into the past and the future. After describing his invention to a group of friends and explaining how it works, he announces that he intends to use the machine to explore time. Assembling at a dinner party the following week, the gentlemen await the appearance of the Time Traveller – who arrives late, looking dirty and exhausted, and proceeds to narrate an incredible story.

The Time Traveller tells of his journey to the year 802,701, a world populated by the Eloi, a race of beautiful, innocent, childlike people who, far from being the advanced society he had expected, are leading surprisingly lazy, directionless lives and appear to be weaker and less intelligent than ourselves. Due to a change in language, he is unable to communicate with them to find out more about their way of life, although he does form a friendship of sorts with an Eloi woman whose name is Weena.

Later, the Time Traveller discovers that the Eloi are not the only inhabitants of this futuristic world; another race of human-like creatures live below ground, only coming to the surface at night. Known as the Morlocks, these creatures are brutish and savage but appear to be carrying out all the work and industry which enables the Eloi to live their simple lives of leisure on the land above. They also appear to have stolen the time machine, which means that unless the Time Traveller can find a way to retrieve it, he could be trapped in the future forever!

The Time Traveller comes up with several theories to explain what is happening in this futuristic world, but has to revise his opinion as more information comes to light. He speculates that the human race must have evolved at some point into two species, the rich and privileged becoming the Eloi and the working classes becoming the Morlocks. The Eloi, he thinks, have led such comfortable lives and faced so few challenges, that they have had no further need to grow and adapt:

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of time travel and although I personally would be more interested in visiting the past than the future, I find it fascinating to see what people think the future will hold. Remembering when this novel was published, Wells’ vision of a future world has been developed from some of the issues which would have seemed relevant at the end of the 19th century, such as widening class divisions, theories of evolution and Darwinism. It’s a bleak and depressing view of the future – and if that really is what we have to look forward to, then imperfect as our current society may be, I’m very glad to be living in 2016!

While I enjoyed reading The Time Machine, I thought there could have been more to the story. I hadn’t realised it was such a short book (there are just over 100 pages in my edition, so it can easily be read in a few hours), and I would have liked it to have been a bit longer which would have allowed some of the ideas in the novel to be developed in more depth. Still, I’m pleased to have read such an important and influential science fiction novel and will think about reading more of Wells’ work at some point.