Monday, August 30, 2010

{review} out of print

J. S. Fletcher Murder of the Secret Agent: being Entry Number Eight in the Case-Book of Ronald Camberwell (London: George G. Harrap & Co. 1937).

J. S. Fletcher turned out this sort of stuff by the truckload from the mid-1910s until  his death in 1935. His most famous work is The Middle Temple Murder (1918; free on Project Gutenberg).  I've not read it yet, but after reading Murder of the Secret Agent (1934) I shall go and find myself a 'real' copy. 

Murder of the Secret Agent is a typical specimen of the period (it is set in 1930) with the manly hero, his offsider with police connections, a helpless heroine ("handsome, healthy, with undeniable traces of the modern public-school product about her"), a dastardly Russian princess, an American millionaire, forged papers, devious twins, a dodgy parson, a fortune in stolen jewels and a murder on a lonely moor: all wonderfully cinematic. And this is proper old-fashioned detection: the moment the detective pulls out his Bradshaw's Railway Guide you know you're in safe hands. 

It has aged quite badly, but is, I would suggest, all the more delightful for its evocation of a gentler, lost world. What more could you want to fritter away a few hours? My only puzzle is the title: no spies herein; but it was certainly catchy enough to make me remove it from the shelf.

Rating: 5/10.

If you liked this... hmmm. Maybe something like Roy Vickers' The Department of Dead Ends (1947: short stories, many from the 1930s). Something with more tedious train trips would be even better.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

{weekend words}

Shortly after their wedding day Arthur tried to put a stop to Hannah licking his boots. He felt it was wrong when she was his wife. He would only allow it on special occasions, such as their wedding anniversary, and at her insistence. 

Love and Dirt: The Marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Begging to join the groaning shelves this week:

 The Great Silence

Juliet Nicolson (2010): 
1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

{review} daddy-long-legs

Jean Webster Daddy-Long-Legs (1912).

This is the cover of my 1954 copy of Daddy-Long-Legs, which I found in a second-hand bookshop in Perth for a measly $7:

I can't believe that I didn't read this wonderful book in my youth. It is quite magical and I think I might sit down and re-read it immediately. Just as soon as I download all the other books by Jean Webster (they're mostly available for free on-line). Puffin are going to reprint Daddy-Long-Legs soon too:

Daddy-Long-Legs (Puffin Classics)

I loved the film (how could one not like a Fred Astaire film, although the age-gap between Astaire and Caron was considerably more than in the book):

Jerusha Abbott is an orphan miraculously taken under the wing of an anonymous benefactor who sends her to a nice ladies' college of the Vassar type and provides an income so that she can fulfil her promise of becoming a writer. Summer holidays are to be spent on a farm working at her craft. In exchange? Once a month, Judy - as she now becomes - must write her guardian a letter about her life. She will never hear from or meet Daddy-Long-Legs, as she calls him - having spied his elongated shadow on the orphanage wall - and she is not to ask any questions about him. Judy's letters are a delight as we learn how she adapts to college life and to having money to spend on clothes and entertainment for the first time in her life. Her letters reveal snippets of the ills of life as the oldest orphan and we watch as she flowers intellectually and physically. Romance enters her life in the form of a room-mate's "big, good-looking brother" and, most spectacularly, another room-mate's wealthy older uncle Jervis - all of which she documents to Daddy-Long-Legs. Can't give away the rest (though it's pretty obvious).
I hope he'll [Jervis] come soon; I am longing for someone to talk to. Mrs. Semple, to tell you the truth, gets rather monotonous. She never lets ideas interrupt the easy flow of her conversation. It's a funny thing about people here. Their world is just this single hilltop. They are not a bit universal, if you know what I mean. It's exactly the same as at the John Grier Home. Our ideas there were bounded by the four sides of the iron fence, only I didn't mind it so much because I was younger, and was so awfully busy. By the time I'd got all my beds made and my babies' faces washed and had gone to school and come home and had washed their faces again and darned their stockings and mended Freddie Perkin's trousers (he tore them every day of his life) and learned my lessons in between - I was ready to go to bed, and I didn't notice any lack of social intercourse. But after two years in a conversational college, I do miss it; and I shall be glad to see somebody who speaks my language.
It is remarkably undated, apart from references to women not having the vote. Loved it: laughed, cried, rushed out and bought the 'sequel' Dear Enemy on ebay before I discovered it for free everywhere.

Rating: 10/10.

If you liked this... I want to read Anne of Green Gables again. Not that other red-headed Orphan Annie though. Failing that: Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame.

Monday, August 23, 2010

{review} clothes on their backs

Linda Grant (2008) The Clothes on Their Backs.

The Clothes on Their Backs

I was a bit concerned that The Clothes on Their Backs was going to be an Anita Brookner pastiche, and in places it does seem to cast a knowingly Brookner-ish eye on its narrative. Perhaps I'm just overly attuned to any sentence with 'a start [sc. in life]' in it. It has the makings of pure Brookner in its protagonist, the university-educated only child of migrant Hungarian Jews brought up as an outsider in a lonely block of flats in the West End of London in the 1960s/70s: "My parents had brought me up to be a mouse".

The Clothes on Their Backs never achieves the sense of complete, suffocating claustrophobia which marks out the typical Brookner (that isn't a criticism!), but is instead a novel of great dynamism and, in places, brutality. What happens when you seek out revelation rather than closet yourself away from the world?
I have not forgotten our summer together, when I learned the only truth that matters: that suffering does not ennoble and that survivors survive because of their strength or cunning or luck, not their goodness, and certainly not their innocence.
Grant establishes historical footings for her protagonist, Vivien Kovaks aka Kovacs, with the most significant events in her life occurring around her 25th birthday in 1977. Vivien is sexually liberated but naïve about life. She is curious about her parents' lives before they came to London in 1938, since they refuse to speak about those years, and she possesses a near-fatal curiosity about her Uncle Sándor, the slum landlord who brought shame on the family by his jailing in the 1960s. 

Unemployed, recently tragically widowed, and post-traumatically stressed (her glass-biting is a lovely detail), Vivien makes contact with her uncle and attempts to uncover her family's past. Acting as her uncle's amanuensis, Vivien grows in political awareness as she discovers the suppressed history of her Jewish family's lives and deaths against a background of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. 

The trappings of the various historical periods (1920s/30s Hungary; 1950s/60s/70s London) are believable and everything links up beautifully (as only a novel can do) - the rise of Hungarian fascism with that of the neo-fascist National Front; the deprivations and fears faced by Jewish migrants of the 1930s with that of Caribbean migrants of the 1950s/60s.

And then there are the clothes... I came to this book as though to the third panel of a triptych, having read both Grant's The Thoughtful Dresser (2009) and her 'thoughtful' blog on clothing (the thoughtful dresser). The clothes set the scenes. They also have their messages spelled out for us (sometimes heavily): "My clothes acted as a kind of carapace, an armour with which I protected my inner, soft body." So, Vivien's political awakening is mirrored in her dress, as she moves from a malleable girl in "floating scarves and silver bangles" to harder-edged punk ("our jewellery was safety pins").
"My Mickey's got his best wig on. It was made special for him. Beautiful shade of chestnut, and very natural looking, don't you think?"
"But you can still tell it's a wig," I said.
"Well obviously. If you're going to spend all that money, you want something to show for it."
Grant captures wonderfully the - complicated - nostalgia we feel for the foolish carelessness of youth as we grow older. She is also good on reminding us how important it is to remember; not to become careless with our memories, even when it may be only with regard to what some (not Grant, obviously) regard as the trivialities of dress. This can become clichéd, of course, and this book does on occasion push the clichés:
You realise that the way you treat a woman is the way your little girl will be treated by men in her own life. It can strike you like a plank of wood around the head, this thought. You know, I was never unkind to women, just careless.
I read this book in one sitting - it is very good indeed.
"It's true not nice things happened to him," my father said. "Still, they could have made him a better person, and they didn't. He never changed."
Rating: 8/10

If you liked this... Grant's The Thoughtful Dresser (non-fiction) is a must read; or, of course, some Anita Brookner (my favourites are Hotel du Lac, A Start in Life and Fraud). I am going to read Grant's Orange Prize winning When I Lived in Modern Times.

The Thoughtful Dresser 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

{weekend words}

One is tempted to say: once he was certain of eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream.
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) on Kafka in 'Max Brod's Book on Kafka and Some of My Own Reflections' [letter to Gerhard Scholem: June 12, 1938], in Illuminations [p.143 in my Fontana 1973 edition, translated by H. Zohn with an introduction by Hannah Arendt].

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Begging to join the groaning shelves this week:

 Against Nature: A Rebours (Oxford World's Classics)

Joris-Karl Huysmans (1884):

Sometimes (hence 'book-forgetting') I've wanted to read something for so long that I can't remember why I added it to the wishlist in the first place. I have a French copy of À Rebours which I bought as a souvenir at the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris; but that's far too hard work and it just sits on the shelf mocking my good intentions.

I think my interest was probably sparked via something Oscar Wilde-related. À Rebours was a book of profound importance to Wilde: "This last book of Huysmans is one of the best I have ever seen" [quoted in Richard Ellmann Oscar Wilde, p.237 in my Penguin 1988 copy].

 Oscar Wilde

In Richard Davenport-Hines' A Night at the Majestic: Proust & the Great Modernist Dinner Party of 1922 (2006), Huysmans' name is mispelled Huysman throughout. I hope that's not the only reason for my interest. Unfortunately, once I've found one glaring typo I tend to lose some readerly confidence. Davenport-Hines takes a single incident - a dinner party (admittedly one involving Proust, Stravinsky, Picasso, Joyce and Diaghilev!) - and spirals out in all directions, digging up loads of fascinating details. It is a worthwhile read but a bit like a biographic form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Hopefully when I finally read À Rebours I will remember why I wanted to do so. At least that's sort of Proustian...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

{lit link}

Keith Thomas in the
on how he writes history:
scraps of paper, stuffed envelopes, 
staples & much rearranging; but,
"a good deal of nostalgic pleasure".

Keith Thomas (2010) "Diary", London Review of Books 32 no. 11: 36-37

Monday, August 16, 2010

{review} the group

Mary McCarthy The Group (1963).

The Group

This was a great read.

My first contact with McCarthy was via Lillian Hellman's Pentimento (a book which contains the famous 'Julia' story made into the 1977 Fonda/Redgrave film). McCarthy was sued for defamation by Hellman after she said in 1979, "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." McCarthy also set the cat among the pigeons by claiming that 'Julia' was not Hellman's own story.

On The Group, McCarthy said, "I am putting real plums into an imaginary cake" (New York Herald Tribune, 5 Jan 1964) - a reference to her own education at Vassar, the exclusive women's college in New York State. McCarthy's cast is a group (the group) of Vassar graduates, the class of '33. She drops in on them at various intervals during the seven years following their graduation. They are a privileged group of women, although some are poorer than others, and some become poorer through their choices or, indeed, lack of.

To cover coherently this span of time and number of characters requires exceptional powers of organisation, and McCarthy pulls it off brilliantly. The complex narrative works due to McCarthy's focus on the character of Kay, the first to be married. We do not necessarily always see Kay herself, but we discover her life's progress through the viewpoints of the other women. Their different perspectives – sympathetic, apathetic, hostile – build up a mosaic image of Kay which, in turn, helps to define her observers.

Chapter by chapter we see how the choices these women make: some go to work in womanly professions, some attempt to carve their own ways, others choose, or have chosen for them, marriage and child-rearing. The 1930s' New York setting - post Depression, pre World War - is perfect, and is no doubt part of the reason for comparisons of The Group to Sex & the City. This book is very much a New York story.

The narrative turns the spotlight on each woman in turn. There is Kay with her doomed marriage to the adulterous gadfly Harald ("Even in bed, he kept his sang-froid; he did the multiplication tables to postpone ejaculating - an old Arab recipe he had learned from an Englishman"):
She said he wanted to marry her, but that was not the way his letters sounded to the group. They were not love letters at all, so far as the group could see, but accounts of personal successes among theatrical celebrities.
The boyish, accomplished Helena ("The compleat girl") for whom others speak:
...she had been watched and described too carefully by too many experts - all indulgent and smiling, like the group... Helena (as her mother said) could play the violin, the piano, the flute, and the trumpet; she had sung alto in the choir. She had been a camp counselor and had a senior lifesaving badge. She played a good game of tennis, golfed, skied, and figure skated; she rode, though she had never jumped or hunted. She had a real chemistry set, a little printing press, a set of tooling leather, a pottery wheel, a library of wild-flower, fern, and bird books, a butterfly collection mounted on pins in glass cases, collections of sea shells, agates, quartz, and carnelians... She could write a severe little essay, imitate birdcalls, ring chimes, and play lacrosse as well as chess, checkers, mah-jongg, parcheesi, anagrams, dominoes, slapjack, pounce, rummy, whist, bridge, and cribbage. She knew most of the hymns in the Episcopal and Presbyterian hymnbooks by heart... she knew Greek and Latin and could translate the worst passages of Krafft-Ebing without a shadow of embarrassment.
The self-serving man-eater Norine, floating on the group's outskirts:
...Norine, like Kay, had grown thin and tense. Her eyes, which were a light golden brown, were habitually narrowed, and her handsome, blowzy face had a plethoric look, as though darkened by clots of thought. She rarely showed her emotions, which appeared to have been burned out by the continual short-circuiting of her attention.
Pokey the heiress who defies convention to become a vet,
...who was sitting sprawled out, across the table, putting ashes into her plate of melting ice cream and soggy cake with the very bad table manners that only the very rich could afford.
The "colorless" Priss marries a domineering paediatrician Sloan who is keen to become a society doctor (and test his ideas on their baby):
On her lips, which were dry, was a new shade of lipstick, by Tussy; her doctor had ordered her to put on lipstick and powder right in the middle of labour; he and Sloan both thought it was important for a maternity patient to keep herself up to the mark.
And then there's Dottie, who loves a poor man but marries a rich man - and whose quest for birth control is one of the funniest scenes in the book - and the unlikeable Libby (a "mauvaise fille") who aspires to the literary intelligentsia and becomes the complete career-girl for lack of other options. My favourite from the group was the kindly Polly ("This capacity for making lackluster friends, especially of her own sex, was Polly's faiblesse) who lets her manic-depressive father move in and is reduced to selling her own blood to support his grand schemes.

Finally, there's the fabulously rich Lakey, present physically only in the first and the last chapters but a hoveringly pristine ("She was ashamed of the curiosity she had felt... To be curious about someone opened you to contamination from them") sort of moral, social and intellectual arbiter for the other women - even after she returns from Europe with her lover the Baroness d'Estienne.

The nicknames are so telling of the social milieu from which these women either come or aspire. This book looks at what women can do and what women do: how far can one redraw the social lines upon which a Vassar woman ("a rich, assured, beautiful bluestocking") has been constructed? What options are open to such women? What will divide the group and their universalizing opinions?
'Anyway,' Norine said, 'your crowd was sterile... But, God, I used to envy you!... Poise. Social savvy. Looks. Success with men. Proms. Football games. Junior Assemblies. We called you the Ivory Tower group. Aloof from the battle.'
The 'theys' and 'theirs' of the group fill the novel:
She had been amazingly altered, they felt, by a course in Animal Behaviour she had taken with old Miss Washburn (who had left her brain in her will to Science) during their junior year.
The Group is quite a tragic tale, but its telling is richly peppered with humour and its tone is perfect:
...she had been delivered 'prepared for burial' (which they supposed must mean eviscerated), wrapped in a sort of shroud... When Ross came into the living room to ask a question - should they put a brassière on...? - they felt sick. It was a hard question to decide too. It seemed against nature, somehow, to bury someone in a brassière..., and yet, as Ross pointed out, the Fortuny gown was clinging.
Many of the minor characters are delicious. Consider Pokey Prothero's family butler Hatton who "was used to being looked up to, like a portrait statue raised on a tall shaft in a London square. With this end in mind, he had perfected an absolute immobility of expression, which was one of his chief points, he knew, as a monument and invariably drawn to the attention of visitors." Another really satisfying minor character is Polly's father who lost his money in the Depression and was locked up in an institution. He no longer participates in games of Monopoly or 'Murder'! On his divorce:
Mr Andrews was sanguine... 'I've given her grounds, the best grounds there are.' Polly was slightly shocked at the notion that her father, at his age, had been committing adultery. But he meant insanity. He was delighted with himself for having had the foresight to be loony and to have the papers to prove it.
The mothers too deserve a mention; both Helena's and Polly's are quite bats:
'Your father and I,' she now said, 'have never been compatible. I was too normal for Henry.' But no one would guess that, seeing her on the farm dressed in overalls with a finger wave in her majestic coiffure.
One could analyse the burdens these women place on their daughters - and one could spend some time on the unsatisfactory men in this book - but I don't want to over-intellectualise what was a hugely enjoyable read from start to finish.

Rating: 9/10

If you liked this... Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl (1962) appeared a year before The Group. Gurley Brown was editor of Cosmopolitan for 32 years (!) and a firm believer that women could have it all (especially if they used sex to get it).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

{weekend words}

There is no need to do any housework at all.  After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse.  
Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant (1968).

The Naked Civil Servant (Penguin Classics) 

Friday, August 13, 2010

{review} a few right thinking men

Sulari Genill A Few Right Thinking Men (2010)

A Few Right Thinking Men

I'm lucky enough to have been given a signed copy of Sulari Gentill's A Few Right Thinking Men by a friend. I thoroughly enjoyed this book - and why wouldn't I? It's set in my favourite era, it's a crime novel, it's Australian, it's well written and well-researched and it opens a fascinating window into Sydney society of the 1930s. I kept wishing that I'd thought of it!

The hero is Rowland Sinclair, wealthy man-about-town who really just wants to live for his art and forget his social responsibilities. He has thrown his Woollhara mansion open to his poor artist friends - including the talented sculptress for whom he holds a torch - and the group of friends sets out to solve the mystery behind the murder of Rowland's uncle. Was the crime related to Rowland senior's financial interest in a gambling hell? What do the Communists and their opponents the "right thinking men" of the Old and the New Guards have to do with the crime? The narrative travels from Sydney to country New South Wales (amid the "Bunyip aristocracy", a lovely phrase) before culminating in the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the so-called "iron lung" of Depression Sydney. Gentill has picked a very interesting period on which to base her narrative and the historical underpinnings are deftly handed and well explained. It is quite unbelievable how close the New South Wales' Labor government under Jack Lang came to revolution in this era. 

The strength of the setting and characterisation was a happy thing, since the solution to the mystery was not difficult to unmask. One other tiny quibble: this book is quite coy about sex. Maybe I should consider that just a refreshing change (!), but I never got the impression that Rowland, who is such a capable (and right-thinking) man, was particularly passionate. Nevertheless, I loved all the characters and am thoroughly looking forward to the sequel where Gentill can push forward with their development.

Rating: 7/10

If you liked this... I want to re-read D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo (1923), another novel concerned with Sydney's nationalistic politicking.

I've already posted this image, but it's so lovely here it is again:

"The Bridge in-curve" (1930) 
Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) 
from the National Gallery of Victoria.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Monday, August 9, 2010

{review} farthing

Jo Walton (2006) Farthing.


Farthing is an 'alternate history' detective story set in 1949 and is the first in a trilogy (with Ha'penny and Half a Crown) featuring Scotland Yard's Peter Carmichael.

Britain negotiated peace with Germany in 1941 and while the war still continues in Europe, Britain has almost returned to normal as she sits safely out of the conflict. But what is the price of continued peace in a world where traditional British tolerance is being undermined by those who desire a neo-fascist state with its concomitant anti-Semitism and repression of other political parties? Will Britain's Jews, resident and migrant, need to flee their only European safe haven?

Against a background of political flux, the 'Farthing Set', negotiators of the peace settlement, come together for what seems like a typical aristocratic weekend at 'Farthing', Lord Eversley's Hampshire country house. But all is not what it seems: Sir James Thirkie, one of the architects of the peace, is murdered, and the clues point to only one man, Lord Eversley's Jewish son-in-law David Kahn. So begins a fight by Lucy Kahn to clear her husband's name. Lucy is aided by a sympathetic policemen, Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard, but he too has his problems: his bosses at Scotland Yard want the murderer brought to justice at any cost - even if an innocent man is hanged - and their political masters are prepared to use any means to ensure Kahn is arrested. Carmichael has his own secrets - he is homosexual - and this case could ruin him. In a world where justice has been compromised by political expediency, will David Kahn be able to escape the trap set for him?

This is a gripping read. The narrative alternates between the voice of Lucy Kahn (all aristocratic in a sort of mad Mitford way with nicknames and secret languages) and Peter Carmichael (politically astute Lancashire boy made good who must choose between hanging an innocent man and personal ruin). The alternating narrative works exceptionally well as it fills in for us the gaps which each narrator cannot know.
He sighed. "I found out that Kahn did it, whatever the evidence looks like and however much of it I had. I found out that I'm the kind of person who can compromise and keep on going. And last, but definitely not least, I found out that a farthing doesn't buy very much."
This book was so good that I immediately ordered the rest of the trilogy.

Rating: 8/10

If you liked this... perhaps Daniel Silva's The Unlikely Spy (1996: a beautiful German agent loose in Britain in World War Two is tracked by an unlikely spy-hunter). Counterfactual history: Andrew Roberts writes about Britain making peace with Germany in "Prime Minister Halifax" in More What If? Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley (2001).

Saturday, August 7, 2010

{weekend words}

If "compression is the first grace for style",
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any on thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, "a method of conclusions";
"a knowledge of principles",
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
Marianne Moore (1887-1972), 'To a Snail' (1924) in Complete Poems (Penguin).

Complete Poems

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Begging to join the groaning shelves this week:

Juliet Gardiner (2010):
An Intimate History of Britain 

I'm hanging out for the paperback (all 944 pages). 
There's a review at random jottings 
which tempts me not to wait tho'.
is extraordinarily good.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

{review} rimington + connelly

Stella Rimington Dead Line (2008)
Michael Connelly The Scarecrow (2009)

Dead Line   The Scarecrow

I was a bit let down by Dead Line, the fourth outing for Stella Rimington's heroine Liz Carlyle. For a fair bit of this book I really had no idea what was going on. My concentration was not held and at some vital point I lost track of whose secret services were doing what, where, why and to whom. I like Liz Carlyle - she's a modern heroine with modern issues, but I started to get a bit annoyed with her 'OMG I'm still single' thought monologues. The mini-theme of birds of prey was apt - Liz is becoming a bit like a vulture herself, looming over the slowly dying wife of her boss. On the plus side: Rimington is great on details of espionage, as we'd expect from the former head of MI5. It's the characters who are starting to irk me: how can I balance my desire for them not to be one-dimensional (as some are) with my wish not to know any more about their lives outside their secret worlds?! Oh dear, I've run right off my "on the plus side" list. Anyway, the plot, if I grasped it properly, is about an attempt to sabotage a Middle East peace conference in Scotland. The conclusion was entirely predictable. I kept wishing that they'd all been blown up at about page 50. I enjoyed the first three books in the series, so I'm hoping this one will be erased from my mind by the next one, which I'm sure I won't be able to resist. All that sexy spycraft... Rating: 5/10

Happier things: a Michael Connelly book is like meeting up with an old friend. Connelly's so reliable, so intensely plot-driven, so good on the details of character and place. I was happy to see the return of Rachel Walling (from The Poet and a couple of other Connelly's) in The Scarecrow. She is a great strong but flawed female heroine. I was less keen on Jack McEvoy, to whom I didn't particularly warm in The Poet. I keep mentioning The Poet. This was Connelly's excellent 1996 serial killer thriller. It was well-written, with memorable characters and the action was fast and tightly plotted. It was filled with shocks and surprises and contained an attractive mix of professional and amateur detection in its story of the FBI's hunt for the serial-killer the Poet. The Scarecrow reunites Rachel Walling, the FBI agent who was responsible, with the journalist Jack McEvoy, for tracking down the Poet. Many years have passed and McEvoy is about to be made redundant from his newspaper reporting job. He decides to go out with a bang with one final big story on a serial killer whom no one has suspected - but it seems that he may have fatally underestimated his high-tech opponent. Fortunately Rachel is prepared to put her career on the line (again - why is it that women do this so readily when it is so much more difficult for them to regain the ground?) to save Jack from himself and the Scarecrow. The result is not as gripping as The Poet or its sequel The Narrows, but it is a good read: a Connelly rarely disappoints. I've mentioned his ability to set a scene - he is such a visual, almost cinematic writer. Every book I read makes me feel like getting straight on a plane to Los Angeles. Again, though - and maybe I'm just a sour old sociopath - the personal issues intrude unevenly in places. McEvoy's dialogue, in particular, I thought a bit stilted (funny, given that McEvoy has Connelly's ex-job at the LA Times). He seems, in this outing, a somewhat formulaic figure, unlike Connelly's better known and always unpredictable hero Hieronymus 'Harry' Bosch. Rating: 7/10

If you liked these: read Stella Rimington's fascinating autobiography Open Secret and Michael Connelly's The Poet - or any of the Harry Bosch series.

Monday, August 2, 2010

{review} agnes grey

Anne Brontë (1847) Agnes Grey.

Agnes Grey (Penguin Classics)

I've been admiring the cover of my Penguin edition of Agnes Grey, which features this painting from the V&A (Richard Redgrave's 1844 The Governess):

I thoroughly enjoyed Agnes Grey - and [spoiler!] what a delight to find an unambiguously happy ending in a Brontë novel. It is a more accessible (and shorter) read than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which, while a very good book, contained, I'm afraid, rather too many religious minutiae for my taste.

Poor Agnes Grey, a 'lady' through and through, decides that she can earn some money for her impoverished family by becoming a governess. Her first experience is deeply unhappy - the Bloomfield children are wild and difficult and it is the ill-equipped governess who is blamed for the family's wider failings. The descriptions of the children's brutality are vivid and shocking (how much is based on Anne Brontë's own experiences?): they are cruel to animals - and their governess - and quickly prove ungovernable and unamenable to reason, kindness and even brute force.
The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me; my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild, unbroken colt.
Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience. ...I determined to refrain from striking him even in self-defence; and, in his most violent moods, my only resource was to throw him on his back, and hold his hands and feet till the frenzy was somewhat abated. ... Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance were my only weapons...
Her attempts to quell their wildness with spiritual texts and moral instruction are to no avail. And Agnes is not even paid very much by her miserly employers who constantly undermine her disciplinary endeavours ("petticoat government"), believing that their children can do little wrong. Their lack of attainments must therefore be Miss Grey's fault, "attributed to a want of sufficient firmness, and diligent, persevering care on my part."

Agnes discovers that she is little better than a servant, despite her education and social status as the daughter of a clergyman and a squire's daughter:
...the little words Miss and Master seemed to have a surprising effect in repressing all familiar, open-hearted kindness, and extinguishing every gleam of cordiality that might arise between us.
As one of her charges puts it:
I never care about the footmen; they're mere automatons - it's nothing to them what their superiors say or do; they won't dare repeat it; and as to what they think - if they presume to think at all - of course, nobody cares for that. It would be a pretty thing indeed, if we were to be tongue-tied by our servants.
Agnes' position is doubly lonely since she is not a servant and thus another potential source of companionship is closed to her; she is neither fish nor fowl: "I sometimes felt myself degraded by the life I led..."

The most consistent problem faced by Agnes is that she must not speak her mind. Her mental asides are often amusing and always true, but never uttered. Her tale is punctuated by references to the silence she must keep:
I judged it prudent to say no more.

...I chose to keep silence, and bear all...

But no matter what I thought.

I was used to wearing a placid smiling countenance when my heart was bitter within me.
Agnes' second post is with the Murrays, a family of higher social status than the Bloomfields. While her challenges are different, she remains browbeaten and silenced. The redeeming feature of this post is her friendship with the curate Edward Weston with whom she falls in love - a state of affairs which makes her even more miserable than before. Her misery has causes beyond unrequited love: she is homesick, as far from home as she's ever been (seventy miles! - she even notes train travel), and her pupils, once again, are not all a governess might desire. The two boys (the one "rough as a young bear, boisterous, unruly, unprincipled, untaught, unteachable"; the other "pettish, cowardly, capricious, selfish... to teach him, or pretend to teach him, was inconceivable") are soon packed off to school - again Agnes is blamed for their shortcomings, despite the parental instruction that, "I was to get the greatest possible quantity of Latin grammar... into their heads in order to fit them for school - the greatest quantity, at least, without trouble to themselves." school he was sent, greatly to my relief, in the course of a year; in a state, it is true, of scandalous ignorance as to Latin... and this, doubtless would all be laid to the account of his education having been entrusted to an ignorant female teacher, who had presumed to take in hand what she was wholly incompetent to perform.
The two girls remain, the coquette Rosalie and the tomboy Matilda. The girls are to be made, superficially attractive and showily accomplished as they could possibly be made, without present trouble [or] discomfort to themselves; and I was to act accordingly - to study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine.
The difference between the education of girls and boys is marked; particularly in comparison to Agnes' own accomplishments and bookishness, which she owes to her mother's desire to educate her daughters. But it is their moral failings which comparison renders so damning:
...I was the only person in the house who steadily professed good principles, habitually spoke the truth, and generally endeavoured to make inclination bow to duty.
The phrase "make inclination bow to duty" encapsulates Agnes perfectly: an intelligent, thoughtful woman condemned to a cheerless half-life. She describes how her pupils might see her:
She had her own opinions on every subject, and kept steadily to them - very tiresome opinions they often were, as she was always thinking of what was right and what was wrong, and had a strange reverence for matters connected with religion, and an unaccountable liking to good people.
Agnes is a good clergyman's daughter and appears to gain some degree of fulfilment from her all too brief escapes from her constrained life as a governess as she (dutifully) visits the aged and infirm or goes to church. But even these simple pleasures become a wearisome duty when accompanied by her charges, the Misses Murray: her occupation of the worst seat in the carriage makes her so sick she cannot enjoy the service; and her visits to the tenants are marred by the girls' condescension and inconsiderate behaviour towards those they regard as inferiors. By the time Miss Murray senior is to be married off, Agnes is a picture of melancholy (clinically depressed, we might suggest) - a state of affairs exacerbated by her father's death and her imminent departure from Mr Weston.

Agnes is a very careful individual. Her small moments of happiness are stored up as valued treasures for the bad times (as is her small income). Even her final happiness is described with such caution - the caution of one to whom life has assigned many sorrows to bear. Mr Weston, I thought, actually sounded insufferable; but each to her own.

There are some moments of pure delight in this book. Every now and then we read a pearler of a sentence appended to the end of a paragraph which sums up Agnes ' unuttered  opinions. Consider 'Uncle Robson', the brother of Mrs Bloomfield:
...a tall, self-sufficient fellow, with dark hair and sallow complexion, like his sister, a nose that seemed to disdain the earth, and little grey eyes, frequently half closed, with a mixture of real stupidity and affected contempt of all surrounding objects. He was a thick-set, strongly-built man, but he had found some means of compressing his waist into a remarkably small compass, and that, together with the unnatural stiffness of his form, showed that the lofty-minded, manly Mr Robson, the scorner of the female sex, was not above the foppery of stays.
I didn't want Agnes Grey to end, and certainly could never tender "a malediction against the prolixity of the writer" as is so self-referentially suggested by Agnes/Anne.

Rating: 8/10

If you liked this... well, on a teacherly theme, I liked Charlotte Brontë's Villette; although really I'd like to re-read Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness about another good woman constrained by poverty to make her own way in a hostile world.

{READ IN 2018}

  • 30.
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  • 26. The Grave's a Fine & Private Place - Alan Bradley
  • 25. This is What Happened - Mick Herron
  • 24. London Rules - Mick Herron
  • 23. The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White
  • 22. Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed - Alan Bradley
  • 21. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust - Alan Bradley
  • 20. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches - Alan Bradley
  • 19. Speaking from Among the Bones - Alan Bradley
  • 18. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
  • 17. Miss Ranskill Comes Home - Barbara Euphan Todd
  • 16. The Long Arm of the Law - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 15. Nobody Walks - Mick Herron
  • 14. The Talented Mr Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
  • 13. Portrait of a Murderer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 12. Murder is a Waiting Game - Anthony Gilbert
  • 11. Tenant for the Tomb - Anthony Gilbert
  • 10. Death Wears a Mask - Anthony Gilbert
  • 9. Night Encounter - Anthony Gilbert
  • 8. The Visitor - Anthony Gilbert
  • 7. The Looking Glass Murder - Anthony Gilbert
  • 6. The Voice - Anthony Gilbert
  • 5. The Fingerprint - Anthony Gilbert
  • 4. Ring for a Noose - Anthony Gilbert
  • 3. No Dust in the Attic - Anthony Gilbert
  • 2. Uncertain Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 1. She Shall Died - Anthony Gilbert

{READ IN 2017}

  • 134. Third Crime Lucky - Anthony Gilbert
  • 133. Death Takes a Wife - Anthony Gilbert
  • 132. Death Against the Clock - Anthony Gilbert
  • 131. Give Death a Name - Anthony Gilbert
  • 130. Riddle of a Lady - Anthony Gilbert
  • 129. And Death Came Too - Anthony Gilbert
  • 128. Snake in the Grass - Anthony Gilbert
  • 127. Footsteps Behind Me - Anthony Gilbert
  • 126. Miss Pinnegar Disappears - Anthony Gilbert
  • 125. Lady-Killer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 124. A Nice Cup of Tea - Anthony Gilbert
  • 123. Die in the Dark - Anthony Gilbert
  • 122. Death in the Wrong Room - Anthony Gilbert
  • 121. The Spinster's Secret - Anthony Gilbert
  • 120. Lift up the Lid - Anthony Gilbert
  • 119. Don't Open the Door - Anthony Gilbert
  • 118. The Black Stage - Anthony Gilbert
  • 117. A Spy for Mr Crook - Anthony Gilbert
  • 116. The Scarlet Button - Anthony Gilbert
  • 115. He Came by Night - Anthony Gilbert
  • 114. Something Nasty in the Woodshed - Anthony Gilbert
  • 113. Death in the Blackout - Anthony Gilbert
  • 112. The Woman in Red - Anthony Gilbert
  • 111. The Vanishing Corpse - Anthony Gilbert
  • 110. London Crimes - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 109. The Midnight Line - Anthony Gilbert
  • 108. The Clock in the Hatbox - Anthony Gilbert
  • 107. Dear Dead Woman - Anthony Gilbert
  • 106. The Bell of Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 105. Treason in my Breast - Anthony Gilbert
  • 104. Murder has no Tongue - Anthony Gilbert
  • 103. The Man who Wasn't There - Anthony Gilbert
  • 102. Murder by Experts - Anthony Gilbert
  • 101. The Perfect Murder Case - Christopher Bush
  • 100. The Plumley Inheritance - Christopher Bush
  • 99. Spy - Bernard Newman
  • 98. Cargo of Eagles - Margery Allingham & Philip Youngman Carter
  • 97. The Mind Readers - Margery Allingham
  • 96. The China Governess - Margery Allingham
  • 95. Hide My Eyes - Margery Allingham
  • 94. The Beckoning Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 93. The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham
  • 92. More Work for the Undertaker - Margery Allingham
  • 91. Coroner's Pidgin - Margery Allingham
  • 90. Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham
  • 89. The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham
  • 88. The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
  • 87. Dancers in Mourning - Margery Allingham
  • 86. Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
  • 85. Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
  • 84. Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
  • 83. Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham
  • 82. Look to the Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 81. Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
  • 80. The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
  • 79. The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham
  • 78. Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
  • 77. No Man's Land - David Baldacci
  • 76. The Escape - David Baldacci
  • 75. The Forgotten - David Baldacci
  • 74. Zero Day - David Baldacci
  • JULY
  • 73. Pilgrim's Rest - Patricia Wentworth
  • 72. The Case is Closed - Patricia Wentworth
  • 71. The Watersplash - Patricia Wentworth
  • 70. Lonesome Road - Patricia Wentworth
  • 69. The Listening Eye - Patricia Wentworth
  • 68. Through the Wall - Patricia Wentworth
  • 67. Out of the Past - Patricia Wentworth
  • 66. Mistress - Amanda Quick
  • 65. The Black Widow - Daniel Silva
  • 64. The Narrow - Michael Connelly
  • 63. The Poet - Michael Connelly
  • 62. The Visitor - Lee Child
  • 61. No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories - Lee Child
  • JUNE
  • 60. The Queen's Accomplice - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 59. Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 58. The PM's Secret Agent - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 57. His Majesty's Hope - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 56. Princess Elizabeth's Spy - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 55. Mr Churchill's Secretary - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 54. A Lesson in Secrets - Jacqueline Winspear
  • 53. Hit & Run - Lawrence Block
  • 52. Hit Parade - Lawrence Block
  • 51. Hit List - Lawrence Block
  • 50. Six Were Present - E. R. Punshon
  • 49. Triple Quest - E. R. Punshon
  • MAY
  • 48. Dark is the Clue - E. R. Punshon
  • 47. Brought to Light - E. R. Punshon
  • 46. Strange Ending - E. R. Punshon
  • 45. The Attending Truth - E. R. Punshon
  • 44. The Golden Dagger - E. R. Punshon
  • 43. The Secret Search - E. R. Punshon
  • 42. Spook Street - Mick Herron
  • 41. Real Tigers - Mick Herron
  • 40. Dead Lions - Mick Herron
  • 39. Slow Horses - Mick Herron
  • 38. Everybody Always Tells - E. R. Punshon
  • 37. So Many Doors - E. R. Punshon
  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore
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