Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

It’s 1746 and Richard Smith has just arrived in New York bearing a bill of credit for one thousand pounds. Presenting this to be cashed at the counting-house of the merchant Lovell on Golden Hill Street, the mysterious Smith causes quite a sensation. Who is he and where has he come from? Where is Lovell supposed to find such a huge amount of money? And what does Smith intend to do with it once he has it?

I would like to tell you more about the plot of Golden Hill, but I’m limited as to how much I can say without spoiling things for future readers. I think it’s enough to say that it’s a hugely entertaining story involving duels, card games, imprisonments and a chase across the rooftops of New York. One of the things which makes this book such an enjoyable and compelling read, however, is the air of mystery surrounding Richard Smith from beginning to (almost) end.

“There’s the lovely power of being a stranger,” Smith went on, as pleasant as before. “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’ve a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be. But the bill, sir, is a true one. How may I set your mind at rest?”

His refusal to explain what he is doing in New York and why he needs so much money keeps the other characters – and the reader – guessing until the final pages. Is he really as rich as he seems to be or is he involved in some sort of hoax? Should Lovell trust him or will he be made to look a fool?

Smith’s secretive behaviour arouses both fascination and suspicion among the people he meets. Although he says very little about himself and his past, there is evidence that he has been well educated, travelled extensively in Europe, has a good knowledge of the theatre and an aptitude for dancing, acting and magic tricks – and yet he also makes a number of mistakes and blunders that suggest he may not be as sophisticated as he seems. To complicate things further, Smith soon falls in love with Lovell’s daughter, Tabitha, a character I found just as enigmatic as Smith himself. With her prickly exterior, sharp tongue and often spiteful behaviour, it’s difficult to know how Tabitha really feels about Smith, which is something else to ponder while you read.

Francis Spufford’s writing style is wonderful and perfectly suited to the story and the period; it’s clearly intended to read like an authentic 18th century novel and a lot of care has obviously gone into the choice of words and the way sentences are structured. Sometimes the narrator breaks into the story to speak directly to the reader, passing judgement on the actions of the characters, expressing annoyance (at having to explain the rules of the card game piquet, for example), and making amusing asides and observations. This is the sort of thing I tend to enjoy, although I know not everyone does! The narrative style is not just for show, though – there’s another reason why Spufford has chosen to tell the story in this way, although I didn’t understand until I reached the very end of the book.

Another highlight of the novel is its portrayal of New York at a time when, far from being the major city it is today, it’s a relatively small community still with a significant Dutch influence (seen in the design of the merchants’ houses and the names of the surrounding villages and neighbourhoods – Bouwerij for Bowery and Breuckelen for Brooklyn, for example). It’s a city in its early stages of development, just beginning to expand and prosper, and brought to life through Spufford’s vivid descriptions.

There’s so much to love about this unusual, imaginative novel. I had never heard of Francis Spufford before reading this book, but it seems that although he has written several non-fiction books, Golden Hill is his first novel. Naturally I am hoping that he’ll write more!

Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott

redgauntlet Redgauntlet, one of Scott’s Waverley novels, is set in Scotland and the north of England in 1765, twenty years after the failed Jacobite Rising of 1745. Although the rising was unsuccessful and ended in disaster for Charles Edward Stuart and his supporters, there were still those who dreamed of restoring the exiled Stuarts to the throne. Redgauntlet centres around a fictional third Jacobite Rebellion and the lives of two innocent young men who accidentally become caught up in the plot.

The novel is made up of a mixture of letters, journal entries and first person narrative written from the perspectives of Darsie Latimer and his friend, Alan Fairford. Darsie, an orphan, has grown up in Scotland knowing very little about his family background, aware only that he has been forbidden to cross the border into England until he turns twenty-five, which is also when he will come into his inheritance. The reason for this unusual condition is unknown to Darsie but eventually becomes clear as the story unfolds and the truth about his past is revealed.

Kidnapped on a fishing expedition to the Solway Firth, Darsie discovers that he has fallen into the clutches of the mysterious Hugh Redgauntlet, a former Jacobite who seems to know more about Darsie than Darsie does himself. Help is on its way, however – when Alan Fairford, who is completing his legal studies in Edinburgh, receives a message from a beautiful young lady known only as Green Mantle, warning him that Darsie is in danger, he sets off at once in search of his friend.

Redgauntlet is the third Scott novel I’ve read (the others were Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian) and my favourite so far. In fact, I was ready to name it one of my books of the year until the plot began to fizzle out towards the end, which meant it lost its place on my list. Up to that point, though, I was completely engrossed in the adventures of Darsie and Alan. No, it’s not a particularly easy book to read, and yes, there are some long, dry passages where Scott discusses the politics of the period or describes obscure points of Scottish law, but otherwise I loved it. I loved the setting, the characters, the air of mystery and foreboding, the exciting plot and the way the novel was structured to incorporate different forms of writing and different viewpoints. I particularly enjoyed reading the letters sent between Darsie and Alan in which the personality of each man – the practical, unimaginative Alan and the romantic, adventurous Darsie – come through strongly.

The problem I had with this novel was with the storyline surrounding the third Jacobite Rising. Knowing that it never happened historically took away some of the suspense and Scott didn’t manage to convince me that Redgauntlet’s schemes would ever come to anything. I enjoyed the build-up, but when the rebellion started to come to the forefront of the novel near the end of the book, this was when I lost interest. It all seemed such an anti-climax after sticking with the story through so many pages. Still, the good bits of Redgauntlet are very, very good – my favourite part was Wandering Willie’s Tale, a wonderful ghost story which appears in the middle of the book. It’s worth reading Redgauntlet for this story alone.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Scott’s novels. Having only read three so far, I certainly have plenty left to choose from. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know which you think I should read next. And I would love to hear other readers’ thoughts on Redgauntlet. Brilliant but flawed is my verdict!

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.

Gilded Splendour by Rosalind Laker

Gilded Splendour First published in 1982, this is the story of the famous 18th century cabinet-maker and furniture designer, Thomas Chippendale, author of The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. Not knowing anything about Chippendale before beginning this book, I was interested in learning more and curious to see why Rosalind Laker had thought he would make a good subject for a novel.

It seems that the amount of information available on Thomas Chippendale is limited; although there are plenty of documents which shed some light on his professional career, we know very little of his personal life, which leaves a lot of scope for an author to use his or her imagination. And use her imagination is exactly what Rosalind Laker does, intertwining Chippendale’s story with that of Isabella Woodleigh, who provides a love interest for Thomas throughout the novel – and who is a completely fictional character.

At the beginning of the novel, Isabella is staying with friends of her father’s at Nostell Priory, a grand estate in Yorkshire, while she recuperates following an illness which has left her weak and frail. When she takes delivery of a wooden wheelchair made especially for her by a local carpenter’s apprentice, she is so grateful and impressed that she becomes determined to meet its creator. This is how Isabella is first brought into contact with Thomas Chippendale, a young man who is just starting out on a career in furniture design.

It’s not long before Isabella falls in love with Thomas and at first it seems that her feelings may be returned – until Isabella’s envious younger sister, Sarah, arrives for a visit and immediately begins to cause trouble. Left with no choice other than to marry the wealthy politician Nathaniel Trench, a man she knows she will never love, Isabella’s life starts to follow a very different course to the one she had expected and hoped for. Meanwhile, Thomas leaves Yorkshire for London, where he sets about establishing his own business. His path crosses with Isabella’s again and again, but is there still any chance that Isabella’s dreams will come true?

With a lot of focus on Chippendale’s love affairs, this book will probably be enjoyed by fans of older-style historical romances. Having said that, I didn’t find this a particularly romantic story, mainly because so many of the characters were so difficult to like. While I admired Thomas for what he achieved as a craftsman, I lost respect for him during an incident with Isabella’s sister, Sarah, early in the novel, and after this I wished Isabella would just forget about him and move on. The other men in Isabella’s life treat her badly too, as does Augusta, her own mother – and Sarah is a horrible, manipulative person, with no real explanation given for why she is so cruel and vicious towards everyone she meets.

Despite disliking most of the characters, including the hero, I still found this an interesting read with more to offer than just the romance. We are given a lot of information on architecture, furniture making and interior design; it was impressive to see the amount of effort and hard work which Chippendale put into perfecting his skills and learning new ones – including carving, veneering, marquetry and gilding. I particularly enjoyed reading about the dolls’ house Thomas creates at Nostell; so much care and attention to detail was required to carve miniature bedposts and create little frames for tiny paintings and mirrors.

Gilded Splendour provides some fascinating insights into Thomas Chippendale’s life and work. The only problem is that with so much of the novel devoted to his relationship with an imaginary character, it’s difficult to know which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional. As long as that doesn’t bother you, I think this book is definitely worth reading.

I received a copy of Gilded Splendour via NetGalley for review.

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis

The Butchers Hook Life is not easy for Anne Jaccob, the young protagonist (more anti-heroine than heroine) of The Butcher’s Hook. Her mother is an invalid, her father is cold and distant, and she is struggling to warm to her new baby sister, who will never, ever take the place of the beloved little brother who died. The one bright spot in Anne’s life is her secret romance with Fub, the butcher’s apprentice, but even this is threatened when her father announces that he is arranging a marriage for her with the vile Simeon Onions. It seems that Anne is going to have to take matters into her own hands…

The Butcher’s Hook is the debut novel of Janet Ellis, who is probably best known for presenting the BBC’s long-running children’s show Blue Peter in the 1980s. It’s an unusual and imaginative story set in a Georgian London populated with colourful, larger-than-life characters. Many of them feel as though they could have stepped out of the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. There’s Titus Levener, the grotesquely fat butcher, and Dr Edwards, the sinister tutor who gives the young Anne an education she’ll never forget. There’s Angus, the Scottish soldier defeated in the recent Jacobite rising, who wanders the streets of London hungry, ragged and cold. And then, of course, there’s Anne.

From the beginning I was drawn into Anne’s world – the world of a lonely, confused young woman who has difficulty fitting in with the people around her. As the story progresses, Anne decides to take control of her life and shape her own destiny despite the obstacles which have been placed in her way. From this point on, things become very dark and twisted! I don’t want to say too much, but you need to be aware that you’ll be spending a lot of time in the company of a character who is seriously flawed and capable of the most horrifying things.

The Butcher’s Hook is an unsettling and atmospheric novel, with a plot that took me by surprise several times with its unexpected changes of direction. Based on this first effort, I’m sure Janet Ellis can look forward to a successful new career as a writer. To think that I nearly didn’t read it because I’m a vegetarian and found the title off-putting! My only disappointment was that I thought the ending felt slightly unfinished, as if there was more of Anne’s story still to be told; I don’t know whether there will be a sequel, but if not I’ll be interested to see what Janet Ellis writes next.

I had the opportunity to read this book just before Christmas, but have been waiting to post my review here until after the UK release date – which was yesterday. Thanks to Lovereading for the review copy.

The Georgian Menagerie by Christopher Plumb

Elephants, kangaroos, parrots, zebras, bears, tigers, camels – we all know what they look like and how they behave; even if we haven’t actually encountered them for ourselves in a zoo or on safari, we’ve certainly seen them on television and read about them in books. But there was a time when, for British people at least, these animals and birds were new and unusual. The Georgian Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century London is a fascinating account of how these creatures were brought to Britain and what happened to them when they arrived.

The Georgian Menagerie Christopher Plumb draws on a wide range of sources including diaries, court cases, wills and other legal documents, advertisements, newspapers, letters and even poems and jokes to explore the stories of exotic animals and birds in Georgian society. As the British Empire grew during the 1700s, overseas trade and shipping increased and it became easier to travel to faraway destinations; this meant that menagerists and private collectors were able to obtain animals from distant continents and – as long as they were able to survive a long sea journey – bring them home to exhibit to the public.

The book features anecdotes from all over Britain, but specifically London, where most of the early menageries were located – including Pidcock’s Menagerie in the Exeter Exchange and Kendrick’s Menagerie at Piccadilly. While a lot of attention is given to the menageries with their large collections of creatures, eventually some of the animals and birds (canaries, for example) became more common and ordinary people could sometimes afford to buy one to keep in their own home.

Unfortunately, though, some of the animals being imported were required for a different purpose. In a section entitled Ingredients, we learn about the popularity of turtle soup, the use of bear grease by wigmakers and the demand for perfumes made with oil from the glands of civet cats. And even dead animals were of interest to the Georgians: they could be studied by anatomists, artists and naturalists, and were often then stuffed and put on display in museums.

As you can probably imagine, many of the anecdotes in the book are very sad to read. The people who were removing these animals from their natural habitats had no idea how to look after them correctly and, in most cases, didn’t seem to care. The animals and birds usually didn’t live very long in captivity and had short, miserable lives, being fed inappropriate food and provided with inadequate housing. There are stories of a young polar bear kept for a month in a wooden barrel with fresh water poured in daily and a parrot left unable to walk after being tethered to a perch on a short chain, to give just two examples.

Sometimes the animals would take their revenge. In a chapter called Bitten, Crushed and Maimed you can read about owners, keepers and spectators being injured or attacked by animals – not always because the animal was being tormented or badly treated, but also due to human ignorance. If people didn’t know how to care for the animals, they didn’t know how to behave around them either and seemed to have no understanding of the dangers of taunting rattlesnakes, trying to climb on elephants’ backs or poking fingers between the bars of cages!

The Georgian Menagerie is not always a pleasant read, then, but I suppose not everything in our history is very pleasant. And of course, there are lots of amusing and lighthearted anecdotes in the book too, particularly in the final section, Humour, which discusses the novelty of electric eels, the jokes surrounding Queen Charlotte’s zebras, and the relationships between parrots and their owners. Christopher Plumb’s style throughout the book is engaging and easy to read and there are plenty of beautiful illustrations by artists of the period. References and sources are provided both within the text and at the back of the book.

Despite the sometimes distressing descriptions of animal cruelty, I found The Georgian Menagerie completely fascinating. I love reading about the eighteenth century and this book gave me an opportunity to explore an aspect of Georgian life about which I previously knew very little. Definitely recommended!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Master of Ballantrae My experiences with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson so far have been mixed. I liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although knowing the basic plot beforehand spoiled it slightly; I gave up on Kidnapped halfway through (but would like to give it another chance); and while I did read Treasure Island as a child, it was an abridged version for children, and I have no idea what I would think of the book as an adult. I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Master of Ballantrae, then, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it.

Published in 1889, The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale is set much earlier, opening in Scotland in 1745, just before the Jacobite Rising. When news of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arrival in Scotland reaches the Duries of Durrisdeer and Ballantrae, the family must decide what to do. There is no question of Lord Durrisdeer himself joining the rebellion, but his two sons – James Durie (the Master of Ballantrae), his eldest son and heir, and Henry, his younger brother – are both keen to go. A coin is tossed and it is decided, to Henry’s disappointment, that the Master will join the Jacobites while Henry stays at home and remains loyal to King George. This way, the family titles and estates will be safe no matter which side wins.

As history tells us, the rising will fail – and it is not long before the Duries receive reports that James has been killed. Henry becomes heir in his brother’s place and, at his father’s urging, marries the Master’s grieving fiancée, Alison. These are difficult times for Henry: his neighbours see him as a traitor for not taking part in the rising, and he knows that his father and wife will never stop mourning for James, always the favourite son. But things are about to get a lot worse for Henry – it seems that the Master of Ballantrae is not dead after all and is about to come home to Durrisdeer to take his revenge.

The Master of Ballantrae has all the elements of a typical adventure story – duels, pirates, sea voyages, buried treasure – but it is also a fascinating psychological novel about the relationship between two very different brothers. James, the Master, is the charming, charismatic brother whom everyone seems to love, yet he is also devious, scheming and manipulative. Henry is his opposite – quiet, responsible and dutiful, but less glamorous and less popular. At first it seems that this is another Jekyll and Hyde story, with one character representing good and the other evil, but it soon becomes obvious that it is not as simple as this and Henry’s personality begins to change as his obsession with his brother starts to rule his life.

We get to know these two men from the perspective of Ephraim Mackellar, a family servant at Durrisdeer, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mackellar is not a very reliable narrator. It is clear from the start that he is loyal to Henry and his narration is definitely biased towards the younger brother, but whenever he spends time alone with the Master his opinion seems to change slightly and he is able to acknowledge that the elder brother also has some good points as well as bad.

Not all aspects of The Master of Ballantrae worked as well for me as others: the purely ‘adventure’ scenes, such as the encounters with pirate ships at sea and the treasure hunts in the American wilderness, became a bit tedious, especially whenever the narration switched away from Mackellar while another narrator took his place. But I loved the central storyline and the rivalry between the two brothers; I particularly loved the Master, who may have been the devilish brother, but was so much more interesting to read about than poor Henry! I will read more by Robert Louis Stevenson, though I’m not sure whether to move straight on to one of his other books, maybe The Black Arrow, or to try re-reading Treasure Island and Kidnapped first.