Archive for May, 2014

the gabriel hounds coronet mary stewartThe Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart ~ 1967. This edition: Coronet, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-04353-9. 256 pages.

Oh. My. Goodness. This was utterly over-the-top, and if it had been written by anyone lesser (say Phyllis A. Whitney) I would have savagely panned it. But I’ve now embraced this author fully, and therefore completely forgave her the bizarre plot and the very weird and unlikely “drugging” scenes. (And the slightly ick-inducing cousinly love.)

Drum roll, please (or you may substitute the snarl of an accelerating Porsche engine here) …

My rating: 9.5/10

Loved it.

Okay, this isn’t even going to be a “proper” review, because I want you to come to it with no idea of where the plot would go, like I did. I will instead throw out these teasers. This story contains:

  • A lovely, unapologetically wealthy, 22-year-old sophisticated world traveller as the heroine.
  • An eccentric old lady who has completely channeled Lady Hester Stanhope and has created her own legend in a decaying Lebanese castle.
  • A ne’er-do-well young Englishman, handsome and intelligent but fatally weak-willed, who has gotten into a situation very much over his head; perks being the privilege of enjoying the favours of a dusky local maiden and galloping about the countryside on a beautiful Arab horse, accompanied by two gorgeous saluki hounds.
  • A scene in which the heroine unwittingly (???) smokes three “marihuana” cigarettes and only succumbs to their “self-will erasing effect” until the end of the third one, after which she is unable to walk and is carried away giggling.
  • A dastardly villain who eventually confesses absolutely EVERYTHING in a long, rambling monologue.
  • A handsome young man who can scale steep cliffs (and crumbling castle walls) without benefit of climbing gear, and who (bonus feature!) drives a white Porsche 911 S with utter aplomb and finesse.
  • Oh, and a fabulously unique and valuable ruby ring, which no one of the evil-doers seems to be able to recognize for what it is. (Among other priceless heirlooms which they casually dismiss and bundle away as “junk”. Hmmm, not quite as sophisticated as all that, then, these out-for-the-main-chance types.)

There. How can one resist all of that? And there’s more. Oh yes, much, much more!

Enjoy!

Couldn't find a white Porsche 911 S, but here's a 1966 in an elegant shade of sand, suitably posed against a Mediterranean-looking setting. How'd you like to tootle about the Levant driving this?

Couldn’t find a white 1966 Porsche 911 S, but here’s one in an elegant shade of cream, suitably posed against a Mediterranean-looking setting. How’d you like to tootle about the Levant driving this?

 

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kindling nevil shute 001Kindling by Nevil Shute ~ 1938. Original British title: Ruined City. This American edition: Lancer, 1967. Paperback. 319 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I’m starting to fall out of the routine of posting, what with springtime’s long days and the utter luxury of being able to spend long hours out in the garden. The sabbatical year is going well, aside from the anticipated pinch of much less cash flow.

(For those of you who don’t know my back story, I generally operate a small specialty plant nursery and this year have shut up shop in order to refocus and take care of some outstanding personal farm and garden jobs which can only be properly tackled in the spring. I’m starting to think two years off might be even better, as there is no way I’ll get everything on The List finished this time round…)

Well, I’ve still been reading, though at a slower rate, and mostly in bed at night, so I notice I’ve been gravitating towards slighter novels, the kind one can finish off in an evening or two. No complicated sagas in the springtime! The brain is much too full of other stuff to make sense of anything too challenging.

Which makes Nevil Shute quite a good choice, as one can’t call books such as this last read, Kindling, at all complex. If anything, it was a bit too simplified, and I found myself occasionally annoyed at how briefly the author touched on some major plot developments, and how he introduced some promising characters and then dropped them cold, never to be seen again.

It is the mid-1930s, in England, and the long agony of the worldwide financial depression is grinding away at the status quo. It has even started affecting the very wealthy business class, who are, by and large, dealing fairly well with the money market difficulties, though those lower in the hierarchy are losing their grip.

Competently keeping his feet at the top of a shifting pile of lesser men, we have the successful, middle-aged merchant banker, Henry Warren, who deftly keeps in order a whole puppet show of various enterprises, handling staid English investors and dramatic Balkan politicians with absolutely level-headed aplomb. This involves frequent long nights in London, and many trips abroad, and Henry seems never to be home at the same time his wife is, what with the two of them leading fully separate lives and only meeting infrequently when their respective circles of activity brush against each other.

Serious problems are brewing, and not only on the home front, though things there have imploded with a sullen bang. Mrs. Warren has become romantically involved with a wealthy Arab sheik, and the gossip has surpassed the whisper stage. Henry is reluctantly forced to take notice, especially when he finds himself staying at the same French hotel as his wife and her lover. A divorce is the inevitable solution, after Henry’s ultimatum of a new sort of arrangement of reduced jet-setting and poshly-cushioned rural solitude for his wife is spiritedly rejected.

Henry sets his lawyers to work getting his divorce tidied up, and goes back to his wheeling and dealing, pausing only briefly to mull over the reasons behind the failure of his marriage. The major thing being, he concludes, that his wife’s financial independence has made it too easy for her to neglect the homemaking aspect of things. When a wife is dependent upon her husband financially, Henry muses, she has much more incentive to dedicate herself to her job, which is the home and family, while the husband’s half of the deal is to provide the money and the house.

He always felt helpless in his dealings with Elise. In most marriages, he thought, the economic tie must make things easier: the wife had her job for which she drew her pay; she could not lightly give it up. Both husband and wife then had to work, he in the office and she in the home. With Elise it was different. She had her own money – plenty of it; a dissolution of their marriage would mean no material loss to her, no unavoidable discomfort. She was not dependent on her job for her security, therefore she took it lightly…

But though he seems to recover quite quickly from the shock of the failure of his marriage, Henry Warren is riding for a fall. His overworked physique is about to let him down, and when it does, it is in quite an unexpected way. Henry ends up an incoherent patient in an overcrowded hospital in a depressed small city which has lost its only industry, that of a shipyard, some five years before. He is assumed to be an indigent wanderer, and, once he has recovered from abdominal surgery, he plays along with the charade, for he has become interested in how desperate the straits are of an entire community of unemployed men, and of how the progression of their loss of hope has affected them and their families.

If only one could bring back industry to the town, he muses…

What follows is a description of how Henry Warren manages to arrange financing to reopen the shipyard, which requires some intricate and not-quite-above-board dealings with the afore-mentioned Balkan politicians, and some at-home clever negotiations to bring some British investors into the deal.

But Henry has let his emotion in this case override his common sense, and has resorted, for the very first time in his financial career, to some shady practices which won’t stand up to investigation. And he has inadvertently made an enemy, who is in possession of a damning set of documents…

Of course there is a love interest, this time a properly womanly woman, the utter opposite of the ex-Mrs. Warren, who has departed the scene to live with her “black” paramour.

One of the sticky bits in this novel, even greater than the casual sexism, was the offhand racism exhibited throughout. The Arab lover is referred quite commonly as being “black”, and “a n*gger”, and Henry notes the “swarthiness” and the “olive texture” of Prince Ali Said’s skin, which “darkens to brown” – one would assume with a hidden blush? – when Henry lightly insults him. And the Jews in Henry’s circle get much the same treatment, though here and there one is given the nod as a “good man” despite his Jewishness and the associated stereotypes of appearance and behaviour this implies.

This aspect of Shute’s writing, even given its “era expectedness”, was a hurdle I had to crawl labouriously over, but once I made up my mind to go on, I found myself quite taken up in the story of Henry Warren’s new obsession, that of the rehabilitation of a town and its population. Henry puts the philanthropic desires of his heart before the sensible qualms of his brain, and in stepping out of bounds in a completely uncharacteristic way, makes himself an unlikely hero.

I mostly bought into it, and though the author’s philosophical soapbox was evident throughout, he told an engaging enough tale that I was held until it was all told out. Not much in the way of nuances here; we are told throughout exactly how we are expected to react and think, and I found myself meekly following Shute’s direction, though I gave myself a little shake when it was all over, to get myself tuned back in to the here-and-now.

I think “vintage” is an apt summation of the experience as a whole. The details of the financial planning are rather intriguing, being based on Nevil Shute’s own involvement in establishing a pre-war aircraft factory, which was, after many set-backs, successful.

One final note, and this on the cover. The story is set in the 1930s, and there are no passionate embraces with lightly clad women within. Henry Warren’s post-marital love affair is carried out with the strictest decorum, and though he does associate with an exotic Corsican dancer during some of his Balkan scheming, that relationship is apparently quite platonic. So the cover art is mostly imaginary, and obviously designed to catch the eye of the jaded businessman, who is (I suspect) the intended audience for Shute’s masculine romances.

 

 

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Madeline After Prayer (Eve of St Agnes) - Daniel Maclise, 1868

Our pensive heroine – ‘Madeline After Prayer’ – Daniel Maclise, 1868

As a tie-in of sorts to Mary Stewart’s short novel The Wind Off the Small Isles, which includes snippets of the poem as chapter headings and a tenuously related story line (one of the pairs of lovers run away in defiance to a father’s wishes), here is Keats’ dramatically lush narrative poem.

The Eve of St. Agnes

 
I.
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.
 
II.
His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,
And back returneth, meagre, barefoot, wan,
Along the chapel aisle by slow degrees:
The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,
Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails:
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries,
He passeth by; and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.
 
III.
Northward he turneth through a little door,
And scarce three steps, ere Music’s golden tongue
Flatter’d to tears this aged man and poor;
But no—already had his deathbell rung;
The joys of all his life were said and sung:
His was harsh penance on St. Agnes’ Eve:
Another way he went, and soon among
Rough ashes sat he for his soul’s reprieve,
And all night kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve.
 
IV.
That ancient Beadsman heard the prelude soft;
And so it chanc’d, for many a door was wide,
From hurry to and fro. Soon, up aloft,
The silver, snarling trumpets ‘gan to chide:
The level chambers, ready with their pride,
Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,
Star’d, where upon their heads the cornice rests,
With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts.
 
V.
At length burst in the argent revelry,
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
The brain, new stuff’d, in youth, with triumphs gay40
Of old romance. These let us wish away,
And turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there,
Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
On love, and wing’d St. Agnes’ saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full many times declare.
 
VI.
They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
 
VII.
Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline:
The music, yearning like a God in pain,
She scarcely heard: her maiden eyes divine,
Fix’d on the floor, saw many a sweeping train
Pass by—she heeded not at all: in vain
Came many a tiptoe, amorous cavalier,
And back retir’d; not cool’d by high disdain,
But she saw not: her heart was otherwhere:
She sigh’d for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year.
 
VIII.
She danc’d along with vague, regardless eyes,
Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short:
The hallow’d hour was near at hand: she sighs
Amid the timbrels, and the throng’d resort
Of whisperers in anger, or in sport;
‘Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn,
Hoodwink’d with faery fancy; all amort,
Save to St. Agnes and her lambs unshorn,
And all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.
 
IX.
So, purposing each moment to retire,
She linger’d still. Meantime, across the moors,
Had come young Porphyro, with heart on fire
For Madeline. Beside the portal doors,
Buttress’d from moonlight, stands he, and implores
All saints to give him sight of Madeline,
But for one moment in the tedious hours,
That he might gaze and worship all unseen;
Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss—in sooth such things have been.
 
X.
He ventures in: let no buzz’d whisper tell:
All eyes be muffled, or a hundred swords
Will storm his heart, Love’s fev’rous citadel:
For him, those chambers held barbarian hordes,
Hyena foemen, and hot-blooded lords,
Whose very dogs would execrations howl
Against his lineage: not one breast affords
Him any mercy, in that mansion foul,
Save one old beldame, weak in body and in soul.
 
XI.
Ah, happy chance! the aged creature came,
Shuffling along with ivory-headed wand,
To where he stood, hid from the torch’s flame,
Behind a broad hall-pillar, far beyond
The sound of merriment and chorus bland:
He startled her; but soon she knew his face,
And grasp’d his fingers in her palsied hand,
Saying, “Mercy, Porphyro! hie thee from this place;
They are all here to-night, the whole blood-thirsty race!”
 
XII.
“Get hence! get hence! there’s dwarfish Hildebrand;
He had a fever late, and in the fit
He cursed thee and thine, both house and land:
Then there’s that old Lord Maurice, not a whit
More tame for his gray hairs—Alas me! flit!
Flit like a ghost away.”—”Ah, Gossip dear,
We’re safe enough; here in this arm-chair sit,
And tell me how”—”Good Saints! not here, not here;
Follow me, child, or else these stones will be thy bier.”
 
XIII.
He follow’d through a lowly arched way,
Brushing the cobwebs with his lofty plume,
And as she mutter’d “Well-a—well-a-day!”
He found him in a little moonlight room,
Pale, lattic’d, chill, and silent as a tomb.
“Now tell me where is Madeline,” said he,
“O tell me, Angela, by the holy loom
Which none but secret sisterhood may see,
When they St. Agnes’ wool are weaving piously.”
 
XIV.
“St. Agnes! Ah! it is St. Agnes’ Eve—
Yet men will murder upon holy days:
Thou must hold water in a witch’s sieve,
And be liege-lord of all the Elves and Fays,
To venture so: it fills me with amaze
To see thee, Porphyro!—St. Agnes’ Eve!
God’s help! my lady fair the conjuror plays
This very night: good angels her deceive!
But let me laugh awhile, I’ve mickle time to grieve.”
 
XV.
Feebly she laugheth in the languid moon,
While Porphyro upon her face doth look,
Like puzzled urchin on an aged crone
Who keepeth clos’d a wond’rous riddle-book,
As spectacled she sits in chimney nook.
But soon his eyes grew brilliant, when she told
His lady’s purpose; and he scarce could brook
Tears, at the thought of those enchantments cold
And Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.
 
XVI.
Sudden a thought came like a full-blown rose,
Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
Made purple riot: then doth he propose
A stratagem, that makes the beldame start:
“A cruel man and impious thou art:140
Sweet lady, let her pray, and sleep, and dream
Alone with her good angels, far apart
From wicked men like thee. Go, go!—I deem
Thou canst not surely be the same that thou didst seem.”
 
XVII.
“I will not harm her, by all saints I swear,”
Quoth Porphyro: “O may I ne’er find grace
When my weak voice shall whisper its last prayer,
If one of her soft ringlets I displace,
Or look with ruffian passion in her face:
Good Angela, believe me by these tears;
Or I will, even in a moment’s space,
Awake, with horrid shout, my foemen’s ears,
And beard them, though they be more fang’d than wolves and bears.”
 
XVIII.
“Ah! why wilt thou affright a feeble soul?
A poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing,
Whose passing-bell may ere the midnight toll;
Whose prayers for thee, each morn and evening,
Were never miss’d.”—Thus plaining, doth she bring
A gentler speech from burning Porphyro;
So woful, and of such deep sorrowing,
That Angela gives promise she will do
Whatever he shall wish, betide her weal or woe.
 
XIX.
Which was, to lead him, in close secrecy,
Even to Madeline’s chamber, and there hide
Him in a closet, of such privacy
That he might see her beauty unespied,
And win perhaps that night a peerless bride,
While legion’d fairies pac’d the coverlet,
And pale enchantment held her sleepy-eyed.
Never on such a night have lovers met,
Since Merlin paid his Demon all the monstrous debt.
 
XX.
“It shall be as thou wishest,” said the Dame:
“All cates and dainties shall be stored there
Quickly on this feast-night: by the tambour frame
Her own lute thou wilt see: no time to spare,
For I am slow and feeble, and scarce dare
On such a catering trust my dizzy head.
Wait here, my child, with patience; kneel in prayer
The while: Ah! thou must needs the lady wed,
Or may I never leave my grave among the dead.”
 
XXI.
So saying, she hobbled off with busy fear.
The lover’s endless minutes slowly pass’d;
The dame return’d, and whisper’d in his ear
To follow her; with aged eyes aghast
From fright of dim espial. Safe at last,
Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
The maiden’s chamber, silken, hush’d, and chaste;
Where Porphyro took covert, pleas’d amain.
His poor guide hurried back with agues in her brain.
 
XXII.
Her falt’ring hand upon the balustrade,
Old Angela was feeling for the stair,
When Madeline, St. Agnes’ charmed maid,
Rose, like a mission’d spirit, unaware:
With silver taper’s light, and pious care,
She turn’d, and down the aged gossip led
To a safe level matting. Now prepare,
Young Porphyro, for gazing on that bed;
She comes, she comes again, like ring-dove fray’d and fled.
 
XXIII.
Out went the taper as she hurried in;
Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died:
She clos’d the door, she panted, all akin
To spirits of the air, and visions wide:
No uttered syllable, or, woe betide!
But to her heart, her heart was voluble,
Paining with eloquence her balmy side;
As though a tongueless nightingale should swell
Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell.
 
XXIV.
A casement high and triple-arch’d there was,
All garlanded with carven imag’ries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;
And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.
 
XXV.
Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,
As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon;
Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
She seem’d a splendid angel, newly drest,
Save wings, for heaven:—Porphyro grew faint:
She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.
 
XXVI.
Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.
 
XXVII.
Soon, trembling in her soft and chilly nest,
In sort of wakeful swoon, perplex’d she lay,
Until the poppied warmth of sleep oppress’d
Her soothed limbs, and soul fatigued away;
Flown, like a thought, until the morrow-day;
Blissfully haven’d both from joy and pain;
Clasp’d like a missal where swart Paynims pray;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.
 
XXVIII.
Stol’n to this paradise, and so entranced,
Porphyro gazed upon her empty dress,
And listen’d to her breathing, if it chanced
To wake into a slumberous tenderness;
Which when he heard, that minute did he bless,
And breath’d himself: then from the closet crept,
Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness,
And over the hush’d carpet, silent, stept,
And ‘tween the curtains peep’d, where, lo!—how fast she slept.
 
XXIX.
Then by the bed-side, where the faded moon
Made a dim, silver twilight, soft he set
A table, and, half anguish’d, threw thereon
A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet:—
O for some drowsy Morphean amulet!
The boisterous, midnight, festive clarion,
The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarionet,
Affray his ears, though but in dying tone:—
The hall door shuts again, and all the noise is gone.
 
XXX.
And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.
 
XXXI.
These delicates he heap’d with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfume light.—
“And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
Open thine eyes, for meek St. Agnes’ sake,
Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache.”
 
XXXII.
Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm
Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
By the dusk curtains:—’twas a midnight charm
Impossible to melt as iced stream:
The lustrous salvers in the moonlight gleam;
Broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies:
It seem’d he never, never could redeem
From such a stedfast spell his lady’s eyes;
So mus’d awhile, entoil’d in woofed phantasies.
 
XXXIII.
Awakening up, he took her hollow lute,—
Tumultuous,—and, in chords that tenderest be,
He play’d an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call’d, “La belle dame sans mercy:”
Close to her ear touching the melody;—
Wherewith disturb’d, she utter’d a soft moan:
He ceased—she panted quick—and suddenly
Her blue affrayed eyes wide open shone:
Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.
 
XXXIV.
Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d
The blisses of her dream so pure and deep
At which fair Madeline began to weep,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly.
 
XXXV.
“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”
 
XXXVI.
Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,—
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.
 
XXXVII.
‘Tis dark: quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:
“This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!”
‘Tis dark: the iced gusts still rave and beat:
“No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!
Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine.—
Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?
I curse not, for my heart is lost in thine
Though thou forsakest a deceived thing;—
A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing.”
 
XXXVIII.
“My Madeline! sweet dreamer! lovely bride!
Say, may I be for aye thy vassal blest?
Thy beauty’s shield, heart-shap’d and vermeil dyed?
Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my rest
After so many hours of toil and quest,
A famish’d pilgrim,—saved by miracle.
Though I have found, I will not rob thy nest
Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think’st well
To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.”
 
XXXIX.
“Hark! ’tis an elfin-storm from faery land,
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
Arise—arise! the morning is at hand;—
The bloated wassaillers will never heed:—
Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see,—
Drown’d all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
For o’er the southern moors I have a home for thee.”
 
XL.
She hurried at his words, beset with fears,
For there were sleeping dragons all around,
At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears—
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found.—
In all the house was heard no human sound.
A chain-droop’d lamp was flickering by each door;
The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound,
Flutter’d in the besieging wind’s uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.
 
XLI.
They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flaggon by his side:
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:—
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;—
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.
 
XLII.
And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar’d. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.
 
John Keats – 1819-20
 
Holman Hunt - Eve of St Agnes

‘The Flight of Madeleine and Porphyro during the Drunkenness attending the Revelry’ – William Holman Hunt – 1848

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the wind off the small isles mary stewart 001The Wind Off the Small Isles by Mary Stewart ~ 1968. This edition: Musson, 1968. Illustrated by Laurence Irving. Hardcover. 96 pages.

Provenance: Montreal Books (ordered via ABE), October 2013. Purchased after warm recommendation by fellow reader Susan.

My rating: 7.5/10

I’ve been saving this book for just the right time, and, upon hearing of the recent death of its author, now seemed perfectly appropriate.

It was enjoyable, to be sure, and one which will join the others of Mary Stewart’s best on my re-read shelf, though it was unsatisfying in its brevity – there seemed so much more possible to do with these characters, almost as though it were a rather incomplete first draft of a longer novel.

This slender work is very much a vignette; a lead-up-to and description of an incident. Beyond the violent action of the climactic episode-of-peril, most of what goes on is friendly conversation between the four main characters: two very different writers and their young assistants.

Perhaps this is completely intentional? Danielle, in her long and exceedingly well thought-out must-read post on this novella on her marvelous (and perhaps now moved-on-from?) blog, The Romantic Armchair Traveller, has this to say.

In an essay published in 1973 Mary Stewart calls The Wind Off The Small Isles “a kind of coda” to the ten gothic and romantic suspense novels that precede it and “a bridge” to The Crystal Cave, her first historical novel (“Teller Of Tales” in Techniques Of The Selling Writer, edited by A. S. Burack, p.42). Now that I have finally had a chance to read the book, I think I can see what Stewart means. A novella of less than a hundred pages, The Wind Off The Small Isles can be inhaled in one quick, casual sitting. But in doing so one risks overlooking the allegory hidden within the simple story of lovers lost and found. For this is Mary Stewart’s dialogue with her own work, a meditation on the writer’s craft and a summing up of her philosophy.

This is reportedly the rarest of the Mary Stewart works. I have seen mention that it was originally published as a “feature novella” in a magazine – either (or perhaps both) Redbook or Good Housekeeping – but the promotional blurb on the book jacket inclines me to thinking that it was written as a stand-alone book, albeit a very short one. Never published in book form in the United States (ah! – perhaps that is why it appeared in the American magazine(s) instead) it is rather rare in the vintage book trade. Sadly so, for my edition is a physically lovely thing, beautifully illustrated by Laurence Irving and printed on thick, cream-coloured, heavily textured paper. A pleasure to handle and a definite enhancement of the short story.

From the jacket flyleaf:

Mary Stewart’s new story is lit with the special magic of people and of place that are the hallmarks of a famous author’s best work. In a series of deft brushtrokes she brings her heroine, Perdita—a beautiful twenty-three year old—to vivid life. A secretary to the redoutable children’s novelist, Cora Gresham, Perdita’s job carries her to the Canary Islands in search of local colour for a new masterpiece, and a peaceful house in which to write it.

But the house is already occupied—once by the past, and the haunting memory of what happened there a century ago; and now by its present owners—very much alive—a famous playwright and his research assistant, Michael. In the fierce beauty of the volcanic landscape, in the persons of Perdita and Michael, past and present meet, violently. The weird, semi-deserted island of Lanzarote is the scene for the collision which reshapes the lives of the young lovers, as it did a hundred years ago.

The Wind Off the Small Isles, for all its brevity, is complete and quintessential Mary Stewart. It is a book to read and re-read.

What a dramatic build up to what turns out to be a rather slight, rather thoughtful, perhaps not particularly dramatic story, though we do indeed have two sets of lovers in deadly peril, and a climactic action scene to cap off the gentle set-up. Well, three sets of lovers, really, if you count the couple in Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes, which provides a rather good framing device and some appropriate chapter-heading excerpts. (Click image to enlarge to reading size.)

the wind off the small isles excerpt mary stewart 001

The most unusual element in this particular story is that while we have all of the other romantic-suspense standards – the lovely heroine and strong hero united in a situation of peril which throws them (literally in this case) into each others arms, absolute lashings of coincidence – we have no villain, no nefarious plot, no sinister complications with other characters. The danger comes from the setting itself, which is the evocatively depicted closest-to-Africa of the Canary Islands, Lanzarote, at the point in time when it was just starting to be developed into the tourist destination it is today, all super-civilized posh resorts set amidst a starkly contrasting natural setting.

Mary Stewart writes setting brilliantly, and the complex beauty of the bleak volcanic landscape is perfectly portrayed; searching out images of the places she described brought an instant nod of recognition. (I also spent a ridiculous amount of time off on a rabbit trail started by the references in the book to the cochineal industry which flourished on Lanzarote in the 1700s and 1800s; I had of course heard of the famous red dye produced by tiny insects, but was not familiar with the actual details. Quite amazing!)

The characters are instantly recognizable as well, for we’ve met them many times before in the vintage novels of Mary Stewart, Helen MacInnes, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and others of this writerly sisterhood.

The two older writers are well-respected (and rather lionized by their respective “publics”), financially secure, exceeding well-read and exceptionally well-travelled (those necessary “collecting local colour” excursions, don’t you know!); as much at home in their exotic writers’ retreats as they are in their English country cottages and New York brownstone walk-ups.

Their assistants – the equivalent of today’s young literary interns, though perhaps rather more generously financially compensated – are merely younger version of their employers. They combine athleticism and adventurous spirit with intelligence; they are charmingly golden in their youthful promise, and the dreamy bit of me is so very jealous of each and every one of them – they do lead rather envious lives, at least on paper!

In other words, the mixture as so many times before, and even in this highly abbreviated form, happily worthy of keeping about for a dash of escape reading to liven up our own same-old same-old days.

Because of its rarity and costliness – and the fact that it is a very slight thing, not a “proper” novel – I can’t comfortably recommend that you try to acquire this book unless you are an absolute Mary Stewart fan and need to own every single thing she published. It will likely still be available in the Canadian and U.K. library systems, though probably hidden well back in the most obscure stacks. The Goodreads page mentions the existence of a scanned version taken from Redbook; read through the reviews for hints on how to access this. Good luck on the quest!

 

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mary stewart

Lady Mary Florence Elinor Stewart

September 17, 1916 – May 9, 2014

************

Mary Stewart Obituaries – May 15, 2014

The Guardian and The Telegraph

This saddens me greatly, even though the announcement of the death of a woman of 97 is not to be unexpected.

Mary Stewart was a writer of great sensitivity to detail and abundant good humour; in the few short years I have been “tuned in” to her I have received immense pleasure from her books, and I am most definitely not alone.

Two of her books currently sit here on my desk waiting for their reviews, which will, when written, be enthusiastically favourable. They are Madam Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart’s first and fourth “romantic thrillers”, and alongside My Brother Michael and The Ivy Tree, well and away my stand-out favourites of the thirteen of her twenty-four books I have so far read. She is one of those writers whose work I now approach with great anticipation, opening each new-to-me book with a mind completely open to the adventure about to unfold. Comfort reading, to be sure – utterly perfect for taking one out of the troubles and travails of one’s here-and-now and into another place and time – and no bad thing.

Occasionally Mary Stewart causes me to raise a cynical eyebrow at her heroines’ unlikely escapes from certain death – what I personally term the “scrambling-across-precipitous-chateau-roofs-while-dodging-a-professional-assassin’s-bullets-and-not-losing-one’s-high-heels-or-irretrievably-ruining-one’s-favourite-leaf-green-linen-sheath-dress” school of literature – but I always forgive these, because I’ve become (mostly) reconciled to “the formula” – such as it is! –  and the majority of her writing is extremely intelligent, not to mention often poignant (consider all those tragically bereaved protagonists), usually humorous, and, occasionally, rather darkly sophisticated.

In her own words:

“Perhaps the commonest question of all is: ‘I suppose you have to have had all the experiences you describe?’ Considering the kind of thing that commonly befalls the heroines of my books, this always startles me a little. What sort of life do people imagine that I lead? The answer to that, of course, is that the word “imagine” means nothing to them, and to them one can hardly start explaining how imagination allows a writer to describe vividly something he has never done or seen. I personally have never been threatened with a gun while driving a racing Mercedes at ninety miles an hour. I have never been hunted with a fish-spear off the coast of Crete. I have never even been alone with a homicidal maniac on a Scottish mountainside. But I think I know how it would feel if I were. The place for truth is not in the facts of a novel; it is in the feelings.”

Literary Guild Review, August 1964

and

“[I] take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal everyday people with normal everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not ‘heroic’ in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.”

“The story comes first and is served first…These novels are light, fast-moving stories which are meant to give pleasure, and where the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed. I am first and foremost a teller of tales, but I am also a serious-minded woman who accepts the responsibilities of her job, and that job, if I am to be true to what is in me, is to say with every voice at my command: ‘We must love and imitate the beautiful and the good.'”

“Teller of Tales,” in The Writer, Vol. 83, No. 5, May 1970

I am deeply indebted to those of my online book friends who encouraged me to more deeply investigate Mary Stewart these past few years, calling me out when I dismissively referred to her as “just one of those romance writers.” Their united enthusiasm made me take a closer look, and for that I am most humbly grateful.

Thank you, Mary Stewart, for the pleasure of your story-telling, and for the care and craftsmanship you invested in your work.

Rest in peace.

 

 

 

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the blank wall elisabeth sanxay holdingThe Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding ~ 1947. This edition: Persephone, 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 1-903155-320. 231 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

Hardboiled is about toughness. Noir is about weakness.

All crime fiction is about moral transgression. Most mysteries put us on the side of the person trying to expose the transgression. Noir, though, puts us on the side of the person who is trying to hide the transgression.

~ Jake Hinkson (In interview with Mike Monson here.)

The reading lately has been overwhelmingly rewarding; a recent foray to the small B.C. Okanagan city of Vernon having netted me a substantial number of promising books, among them an astounding six (!) beautiful and pristine Persephone Press reprints – rare as hen’s teeth in the used book trade in this part of the world, as no doubt most of the people who go to the trouble to acquire them cling like mad to their precious editions.

There was this one, and also The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, William – An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes, and last but decidedly not least, They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple. (I left behind a single one, Mariana by Monica Dickens, because I already own several copies. But later, on the long drive home, I was rather surprised to find myself mentally berating myself for not snagging it as well. The dove-grey books being so beautifully produced.) Plus an early (pre-Persephone) edition of Heat Lightning by Helen Hull, among much else. The dusty-old-books treasure hunt was blissfully successful this time round!

This digression is really just me stalling for time, because I am waffling about how best to discuss The Blank Wall. It was good. Very, very good. But in an unusual sort of way, because it is that so-hard-to-get-just-right thing, “a novel of suspense”, and much of the thrill of reading it was coming to it with no prior knowledge beyond the brief flyleaf excerpt.

She got a book and read it in bed with stubborn determination. It was a mystery story she had got out of the lending library for her father, and she was not fond of mystery stories. Nobody in them ever seemed to fell sorry about murders, she had said. They’re presented as a problem m’dear, her father said. What’s more, they generally show the murdered person as someone you can’t waste any pity on. I’m sorry for them, she said, I hate it when they’re found with daggers sticking in them and their eyes all staring from poison and things like that.

Yet how little pity did she feel for Ted Darby! I really did that, she thought amazed. I concealed a body. Anyhow I took it away. And when I came back – after that – nobody could see anything wrong with me – anything queer. Maybe I haven’t got so much feeling, after all. Maybe I’m rather too tough.

I’d better be, too, she thought, as she rose and started to dress.

It’s well into World War II, and Lucia Holley, middle-aged housewife, is holding down the fort on the home front in rural New York state while her husband Tom is off “somewhere in the Pacific.” Lucia has recently rented a lakeside house, where she quietly resides with her elderly father (Mr. Harper), 15-year-old son (David), 17-year old daughter (Beatrice a.k.a. Bee), and long-time maid (Sibyl).

War-time rationing is in full force, making the everyday business of acquiring such household essentials such as butter, cheese, meat and laundry soap something of a challenge – interesting side plot regarding how best to lay out one’s “points” – and cigarettes and gasoline are virtually unobtainable. Rather than driving private cars, people are now frequently using taxis for their transportation – another fascinating period detail which becomes an intertwining plot device as the story convolutes to its end.

Bee, in the full throes of impatient post-adolescent rebellion, has decided to attend “art school” in the city. There she has become involved with a much older man, to the deep dismay of Lucia, who is completely involved in overseeing and nurturing her family, having apparently completely subjugated herself to the role of perfect daughter, wife and mother. Only Sibyl knows that the façade is sometimes just that, and she quietly covers up for her employer’s inefficiencies; the two women are complicit in their joint creation of the domestic fable of Lucia’s complete competence.

However, Lucia is no fool, though her children increasingly think her so. And as she finds her life spiralling into absolute disaster, she finds that she has an inner fortitude unsuspected during her previously sheltered and very tame life.

Bee is particularly snotty with her mother, informing her time after time that she (Lucia) has wasted her life, has no ambition, has no concept of how to properly live and no ability to analyze people; that someone of Lucia’s generation and social status (upper middle class) is basically dead from the neck up, and should be kept firmly in their proper place. Which is, apparently, as a provider of a nice place of live and a ready source of funds to allow those more capable of truly appreciating Life to get on with things. Meaning Bee. Who is an utterly nasty creature, in a perfectly “nice” way.

David is a miniature version of the all-knowing Man-of-the-Family, and has ruthlessly placed himself in that role, obviously compensating for his father’s absence with a juvenile version of misanthropic superiority to, well, just about everyone he meets. But in particular his doting mother, whose activities he oversees and critiques and occasionally forbids. And while Lucia meekly complies with his bossiness in the interests of domestic harmony, she is getting increasingly annoyed at her son’s pompous attitudes and assumptions.

When Bee’s shady lover turns up demanding a personal interview, Mr. Harper deals with him in his own way, and blissfully reports to his daughter that the problem of Bee’s love affair has been solved. Just how permanently is soon discovered by Lucia, when she sneaks away from the house the next morning in pursuit of an illicit (meaning forbidden by David) solitary swim…

I’ll throw out some more teasers. The rest of the tale involves blackmail, small-time thuggery, black marketers, racial prejudice, diverse people failed by the justice system, an unlikely (and sexually pure) passion, the yacht club set and social snobbery, multiple deceptions all around, and brutal death.

Definitely not a “cozy”!  A deeply disturbing story in multiple ways. The ending was exceedingly thought-provoking, and I’d love to divulge my thoughts, but in the interests of you all experiencing this one properly, I won’t.

If you are into domestic noir (think Patricia Highsmith and her ilk) – or even if you aren’t but are willing to take a chance on something rather dark – read it.

Absolutely excellent.

Heading off now to ABE, to investigate the availability of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s 17 other suspense novels.

 

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therapy david lodge v2Therapy by David Lodge ~ 1995. This edition: Penguin, 1996. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-025358-0. 321 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I still do not unreservedly love David Lodge.

In fact, until just a few mornings ago, when I set aside what I should have been doing in order to finish up this book, I was more than a little ambiguous about his work, having previously read Changing Places and Nice Work with no more than mild pleasure and a fair bit of tuning out in the more long-winded bits.

This confession out of the way, I must say that I really like what he has done here. Therapy has struck an appealing chord with me, despite its narrator being of the wallowing sort, mired in his narcissistic bog, gazing pensively at his own reflection even as he continues to sink further and further down into a stinking morass of his own making.

Laurence “Tubby” Passmore, serendipitously successful writer of a long-running sitcom, The People Next Door, is feeling down. Really, really down. There’s no logical reason for it, as he continually reminds himself. He’s making more money than he can spend; his thirty-year-old marriage is placid and his university professor wife is keen on keeping up their sex life; his grown children are well launched; he has an outlet for sharing his thoughts with his platonic “mistress” in London, where he keeps a pleasantly-appointed luxury flat for overnight stays; his rural home is a welcome haven after days spent in the city; his posh silver car (the “Richmobile”, of unspecified Japanese make) is absolutely fabulous; and his various therapists – Miss Wu for acupuncture, Dudley for aromatherapy, Roland for physio, and Alexandra the cognitive behaviour therapist –  are solicitously caring and even somewhat helpful, giving short periods of relief from his overwhelming emotional blah-ness.

To be sure, there is that nasty thing with his knee, those occasional searing twinges of excruciating pain which occur at random and which have defied surgery, but surely that can’t account for the pervasive feeling of gloom which has settled around him, his eternal angst-ridden state, his abstraction which is starting to affect all of his relationships. But at least things are stable on the home front. For, after all, with three decades of marriage one comes to rather rely on one’s loyal spouse for eternal acceptance and understanding…

While mulling over his own personal Existentialist Dread, and doing a bit of research on the topic as a whole, Laurence happens upon the name of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, and, upon delving into Kierkegaard’s Journal, becomes obsessed with the man, finding – or perhaps more accurately, fabricating – parallels between their two dissimilar lives. As he becomes more and more emotionally involved with the philosopher, Laurence’s grip on his real life loosens even further, which is perhaps why his wife’s calm statement that she is leaving him comes as such an unexpected shock.

Therapy is a lot of fun to read, cringe-worthy narrator and all.

It is divided into four segments, the first being a straightforward, tell-all journal, with Laurence’s musings on the various structures and forms of writing obviously (and most interestingly) reflective of David Lodge’s own thoughts on the topic. The second section of the book is a collection of character portraits of Laurence written by him from the perspective of a number of his intimate associates, followed by a poignant flashback episode to Laurence’s teen years and his first love, the virginal (and staunchly Catholic) Maureen. Here is where the narrative takes an interesting though rather predictable twist, leading into the fourth section, which serves to bring Laurence’s narrative to a conclusion by sending him on a very personal pilgrimage along the road to Santiago de Compostela.

David Lodge is a very engaging writer, being just crude enough in his humour to elicit a certain amount of vulgar snickering, and then soaring away from the muck with some truly poignant bits of prose regarding the human condition and our universal quest for self-knowledge and the eternal why-are-we-here. Occasionally the navel-gazing gets a bit intense, but if one can soldier on one is rewarded by some gloriously funny bits, and some rather terribly true and relatable reminders of the absurdities of interpersonal relationships. (And the actual therapy episodes – of all sorts – are tellingly described and possibly the most deeply humorous bits of the book.)

I found myself mostly in sympathy with Laurence Passmore, despite the ick-factor of Lodge’s detailed descriptions of his sexual woes – for what with Laurence’s age (late fifties), physical condition (not great), and emotional turmoil (excessive), things are getting a bit difficult to, um, sustain in that department – which were kept from being too off-putting by the aforementioned humour of the author. (Though I’ll never be able to look at a bottle of Paul Newman’s Salad Dressing in quite the same innocent way again…)

Laurence/Tubby hits rock bottom, but struggles to his feet, and his redemption, though utterly predictable, left me feeling downright cheerful.

What else? Let’s see…

Grand glimpses of the actual process of creating sit-com episodes; the television studio bits are nicely done.

I rather liked the flashback sequence to Laurence’s teen days and his first love Maureen. Rather sweet, and an interesting excursion into a more innocent(ish) past, teen courtship-wise.

All in all, a decent read in a modern-light-novel sort of way, with the bonus of a mini-course in Kierkegaardian philosophy, delivered quite painlessly.

I do believe I may be reading more of David Lodge in the future, though I will allow a decent interval to pass before tackling him again. Enjoyable as I ultimately found it, I was very ready to be done with this book when I did close the last page; at over 300 pages it was a significant investment of reading time and attention, and there was a certain amount of authorial musing here and there which took some concentration to properly absorb.

 

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