Archive for January, 2016

Margery Sharp Day 2016 – how could I have missed this? I knew it was happening, but I forgot to do anything about it. I console myself by reading the appreciations of the others, in particular those new to the joys of this clever, clever writer.

Here’s a link to Margery Sharp appreciator and special day organizer Beyond Eden Rock’s post. This year Jane happily chose one of my very favourites, The Innocents, as her own book. A roundup is promised; I look forward to reading everyone’s thoughts.

Happy 111th Birthday, Margery Sharp! May the re-publishers please get going on bringing you back into print. Someone? Persephone? Grey Ladies? Virago? The early works are quite simply stellar, though I admit there are some minor bobbles later on.

And here is my own reviewlet of The Innocents which I wrote back in 2013:

the innocents margery sharp 001The Innocents by Margery Sharp ~ 1972

This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1972. Hardcover. 183 pages.

My rating: 11/10. I think this may well be my very favourite Margery Sharp, and, as you all may have guessed by now, I am seriously enthusiastic about this author to start with.

This was my second time reading The Innocents; I will be rationing myself to revisiting it, oh, maybe once a year or so, because I don’t want to wear out its already special status in my favourites list. For all of that enthusiasm, this is a very quiet book, one of those minor tales concerning a few people only, with nothing terribly exciting going on within it. But it is a compelling read, and I was completely on the side of the angels right from the get go, though fully cognizant of their failings.

In brief, then.

A middle-aged spinster living in a quiet English village is visited by a younger friend who has married very well indeed, and who is now living in America. It is immediately pre-WW II, and the married couple are hoping to squeeze in a Continental holiday before things cut loose. They are also travelling with their small child, and the unstated purpose of the visit-to-an-old-friend soon becomes clear: they are hoping that they can leave the child in the peace of the country while they continue on their tour.

All is arranged, and spinster and child settle in to a peaceful routine, which quietly turns into a longer-term arrangement as war intervenes and the parents return to America without stopping to collect their child.

Here’s the hook. The young child is very obviously mentally retarded, and though the father suspects this, the beautiful and vivacious mother refuses to even consider that her offspring may be in any way “sub normal”. The child and her caregiver form a deep and complex bond in the ensuing years before the now-widowed mother returns to collect her daughter and return with her to America, to launch into society, as it were, as a charming sidekick to her fashionable mother.

The reality is much different than the dream, and the subsequent events are absolutely heart-rending. The author lets us all suffer along with the brutally dazed child until bringing things to a rather shocking conclusion, which she has already told us about on the very first page.

Margery Sharp is at her caustic best in this late novel. Loved it. A longer review shall one day follow, full of excerpts and much more detail.


In lieu of a new review, here are some more of my past posts from the archives. May I say “highly recommended”?

Rhododenron Pie, 1930

The Flowering Thorn, 1933

Four Gardens, 1935

Harlequin House, 1939

The Eye of Love, 1957

Something Light, 1960

Martha in Paris, 1962

Martha, Eric and George, 1964

The Sun in Scorpio, 1965

And two of the juveniles, for good measure:

The Rescuers, 1959

Miss Bianca, 1962


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Today stretches before me as a day of great endeavour, for it has been cleared of all other minor duties – painting those cupboard doors, for example, and cleaning off my desk in preparation for getting at my tax papers – in order for me to finalize the last few seed lists.

As most of you who have frequented this space know by now, I am something of a gardener, and I am chief operater of a small old-style plant nursery – meaning that we grow the plants ourselves, most from seed, versus acting as a retailer for plants grown by larger wholesale enterprises.

The seed lists, therefore, are of immense importance, for they are where everything starts, and the yearly process of chosing what to try has as much agony involved as ecstasy, mainly because there are so many things out there that we want to try, and we must remind ourselves to be practical and go with tried and true – and saleable! – with only a modest breaking out into tricksy and obscure little alpines from faraway countries, and quite frankly weedy-ish wildflowery things which have an exceedingly limited appeal to the public at large, who mostly just want a petunia or a geranium, and who are often already the tiniest bit bemused at the concept of the perennial plant, let alone the biennial – these last two being my staple in trade, with a handful of annuals showing up on my tables, but seldom anything as immediately familiar as a marigold.

My goodness. I am running on a bit. Sentence-wise, and otherwise.

So. Today. Seed lists. They will be done. Most are long since sent and received, but this last crucial lot will fill in the gaps, and I intend also to do a bit of gambling, gardener-wise, by ordering some things I know I likely won’t succeed with, but will get much quiet enjoyment out of attempting.

What a great pleasure then to read the words of a gardener from the past, as she describes her own thought processes while listing her wished-for seeds.

Violet - by John Farleigh - from A Country Garden by Ethel Armitage, 1936

Violet – engraving by John Farleigh – from A Country Garden by Ethel Armitage, 1936

The following excerpt is from Ethel Armitage’s wonderful 1936 A Country Garden, illustrated with engravings by John Farleigh. One of my most treasured “working library” posssessions, a pleasure to read, both for the information it contains regarding English country gardens of its era, and the writer’s highly individualistic voice, which resonates so strongly with me, sharing as we do our relative stage of life and our common occupation, though separated by eighty years. Here she is, on March 9, 1935.

9th. The much debated and discussed seed list has at last been got off, though it was not completed without a certain amount of difference of opinion.

Unfortunately, the world has progressed since those happy days when the choice of flowers was limited, and the belief still held that every seed sown was absolutely certain to come up, and all that was needed for the perfect garden was a nice broad riband of virginia stock backed by canary creeper growing up pea sticks.

Now we ponder over all the beautiful South African annuals, wondering if our soil is too cold for them; think we will try our old favourites, Shirley poppies and sweet sultans once again, as there have not been many slugs about recently; feel it is really scarcely worth while having giant sunflowers as there is no room for them, and no stakes strong enough to hold them up; decide not to raise delphiniums from seed, as the last time we did so all the drab ones flourished, while those we felt sure would be of a heavenly tender indescribable blue all got devoured.

But we agreed to have a packet of Collinsia again, a plant which hails from North America, having been called after Collins, a naturalist. We saw it for the first time growing in the school-children’s gardens. It is one of the prettiest, neatest and most reliable of annuals, and has the charming sobriquet of ‘Chinese houses’, and even looks quite appropriate in the rock garden.

Then blue pimpernel is hard to do without, and blue phacelia is almost a necessity, as is also blue nemophila, and of course neither mignonette nor night-scented stock can be omitted.

The rock garden needs ionopsidium, as well as the nice little Sedum coeruleum.

And so the list goes on increasing, until it grows to such large dimensions that when the little packets arrive, one is appalled at their number and can only hope a place will be found for everything, and they will not be left lying on a shelf in the potting shed until it is too late to do anything with them at all.

The greatest joy ever given by an individual seed packet was one which cost a penny and contained a solitary banana seed, which, when planted, actually came up and in time grew into a very fine plant. It had, of course, to be kept in the greenhouse, where for many years it was the pride of the place, though never a banana did it produce. But all hope of this miracle happening was not abandoned until the plant became too large for its surroundings and had to be cast out, which drastic deed was the cause of many tears and of unutterable, though temporary, despair.

We are now too old to plant banana seeds with the idea of getting any fruit from them, or even to entertain any hope of getting our oranges from the pips we have ourselves saved, or plums from stones that have been thoroughly sucked before planting. We have to content ourselves with things that give a quicker and more certain return, like the homely wallflower and the steady-going Sweet William.


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The books I have read the past ten days of 2016 are already disappearing from my desk quicker than I can consider writing about them. I blame my husband, who is in his wintertime mode of reading the long evenings away, as it is too dark and cold for his other-three-seasons outside occupations. He’s hot on my heels reading-wise this time of year, as I am spending much of my inside “free” time parked at the computer, working on twin time-consuming projects – our plant nursery website, and our upcoming regional performing arts festival, of which I am registrar and program director. No winter doldrums here!

But I’ve looked in all of the obvious spots, and have re-gathered the January books-to-date. I doubt I’ll be writing at length about much this coming year – it promises to be fully as hectic as 2015 – so I am going to try instead to pull off some mini-reviews as I go along.

christmas with the savages mary cliveChristmas with the Savages by Mary Clive ~ 1955. This edition: Puffin, 2015. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-141-36112-3. 186 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Ordered in late November from England, this one arrived a few days too late for pre-Christmas reading, but it turned out not to really matter, as its time frame covered the extended after-Christmas weeks as well, and it felt most timely for a seasonal New Year’s read.

This slim book is based on the childhood experiences of the author – Lady Mary Katherine Packenham as she was christened in 1907 – as an attempt to share with her grandchildren a vanished way of life. I had assumed its depiction of a rather spoiled, prim and proper solitary child going off to spend Christmas with a boisterous house full of other children was autobiographical, but as it turns out, the narrator “Evelyn” of Christmas with the Savages is a fictional creation, though all of the children are based on real-life models – Mary, her own brothers and sisters, and assorted cousins.

Though marketed by Puffin as a “sweetly charming” juvenile Christmas story, this wasn’t that at all, being rather a gloves-off depiction of the true nature of children by a writer with little use for mawkish sentiment.

Young Evelyn is quite a horrible prig of a child – she treats her governess and nursery maid with snobbish disdain, looks askance at the rowdy crowd of upper class brats she is expected to mingle with, and assiduously courts the company of the mostly disinterested grownups who live their parallel silk-lined lives alongside the slightly grotty sub-world of the nursery.

This is quite a grand little book in its way, and though it wasn’t the “cosy” I assumed at first that it would be, it does have a dash or two of youthful joy, with Mary Clive’s unsentimental depiction of the world of Edwardian upper class childhood including many pleasurable events and the occasional thoughtful moment.

Mary Clive wrote several other memoirs for adult readers, and I am now dead keen to get my hands on them, in particular Brought Out and Brought Up, her 1938 account of her season as a debutante in 1926.

Mistress-Mashams-Repose-by-TH-WhiteMistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White ~ 1946. This edition: Putnam, 1946. Illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This gloriously involved juvenile by the brilliant T.H. White is one I’ve read and re-read with great pleasure over the years, though somehow I never did read it aloud to my own children. Indeed, I rather wonder what the 21st century child would make of its arcane references to art, architecture, history and literature. I suspect a fair bit of what makes this tale so deeply funny would sail right over the heads of the present crop of youngsters, though an interested child could certainly find a lot of scope for click-research!

Orphaned ten-year-old Maria, last of her noble and once fantastically wealthy family, resides in a tiny corner of the crumbling Great House of the Malplaquet estate, attended to only by a solitary old family retainer, and under the sadistic “protection” of her malicious governess and her official guardian, a wicked vicar.

One day, while out exploring the ornamental lake in a leaky punt, Maria decides to visit the tiny manmade island which is crowned by a now-decayed ornate ornamental temple, known as Mistress Masham’s Repose. What she stumbles upon there is a thriving population of Lilliputian people, descendents of escapees from those brought to England by the scheming but bumbling Captain Biddle, who displayed them as sideshow oddities in order to earn money to indulge in his drinking habit, way back in 1700-and-something.

What happens when Maria decides to take on a philanthropist’s role to her discovery – and when her overseers inevitably discover the tiny people – makes for a lively, occasionally philosophically meandering, deeply appealing adventure tale.

Good stuff. This one may well get a proper long post one day, full of quotes and samples of Eichenberg’s brilliantly detailed illustrations.

what maisie knew henry jamesWhat Maisie Knew by Henry James ~ 1897. This edition: Anchor Books, 1954. Paperback. 280 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Ah, Henry James. Master of the densely written social examination. In small doses, I rather enjoy him, though I am beyond grateful I’ve never had to approach his work in any sort of scholarly capacity.

What Maise Knew should be subtitled Adults Behaving Badly, as it portrays some of the least likeable parents imaginable.

Wee Maisie is the focus of her parent’s divorce trial, with each vying for possession of her small person in order to punish the other. A compromise is reached, six months per household, and Maisie shuttlecocks between mother and father, acquiring in the course of affairs two governesses, who shall feature strongly in her subsequent life.

In a few years, Maisie’s terms of residence turn from being maneuvered for to being something to be avoided; now the parental game is to see how long each can force the other to care for the increasingly unwelcome child. In the course of things, Governess Number One becomes Maisie’s stepmother, while Governess Number Two tries to imbue the child with at least a semblance of moral sense, while giving her a modicum of steadfast love and stability in a brutally uncaring world.

Parental partners come and go, until at last Maisie is disowned by both birth parents and ends up as the charge of two step parents, the kind but weak Sir Claude who has married and then been abandoned by Maisie’s mother, and the newly “freed” second wife of Maisie’s father.

Complicated doesn’t begin to describe the relationships in this morbidly fascinating concoction, thought be some critics to be Henry James masterwork. I found it hard to look away, while at the same time struggling with the bogging-down complexities of James’ über-wordy prose.

Pleasure reading?  Well, sort of. It felt like something of an accomplishment merely to make it to its odd and only vaguely optimistic (in my opinion) end.

And what did Maisie “know”? A heck of a lot, as it turns out. As a depiction of how an unwanted child remakes herself into a survivor, this is a telling little tale.

mermaids on the golf course patricia highsmithMermaids on the Golf Course by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1985. This edition: Penguin, 1986. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-008790-7. 233 pages.

My rating: 5/10

A collection of eleven rather grim, sometimes macabre, only occasionally – and then only faintly – humorous short stories. Not really what I was in the mood for, as Highsmith here portrays her characters in the least positive light possible, and I just got sadder and sadder as I worked my way through these, hoping that the next one would strike short story gold. It wasn’t to be.

This rather twisted moodiness was something Highsmith made rather a thing of in her novels as well, come to think of it. Mr. Ripley being what he was, for one example.

Several of the stories end in suicide, and one of the most subtly disturbing concerns a Down’s Syndrome child’s secretly resentful father and a brutally random murder.

People in these gloomy tales generally wander about with festering grievances which precipitate the plot lines. Endings fade into grey, and most of them left me feeling a bit suspended in space, as if I’d missed that last step – but with no subsequent bang! of a landing. Just floating down, landing with a suppressed whimper.

Not a collection I’d whole heartedly recommend, though there are compensations in Highsmith’s more than competent styling.

TheYearTheYankeesLostThePennantThe Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop ~1954. This edition: Norton, 1954. Hardcover. 250 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Now this was an unexpected pleasure. A happily romping fantasy concerning a middle-aged real estate salesman’s inadvertent pact with the devil, and his transformation into a younger baseball superstar who comes out of nowhere (literally!) in order to assist his favourite but dismally unsuccessful baseball team, the Washington Senators, break the clockwork-precise New York Yankees’ long winning streak.

Now, I’m not at all a baseball fan, but one doesn’t have to be to appreciate this cheerfully light tale.

Will our hero Joe be able to hold the devil to his bargain? And what of the middle-aged wife so staunchly dealing with her sudden loss of a husband with good natured stoicism? And then there is the most beautiful woman in the world, who falls in love with the reinvented Joe, and who has a Faustian dilemma of her own to work out.

This is the best-selling novel behind the successful musical Damn Yankees, which I must confess to never having seen. But now I want to!

bill bryson road to little dribbling 2015The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson ~ 2015. This edition: Doubleday, 2015. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-68571-9. 384 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Do I need to talk about this one? Surely not, for those interested will likely already have read it, and the internet will of course be rife with reviews, though I haven’t actually checked to see, having purchased the book as a Christmas gift to my husband merely on spec, seeing as how we have enjoyed (to various degrees) everything else the author has ever written.

Bill Bryson delivers the goods as expected, though this redux of the earlier Notes from a Small Island shows American-by-birth Mr. Bryson in full curmudgeon mode, versus his earlier honestly appreciative if frequently critical take on his adopted country, Great Britain.

Basically, England is going to hell in a handbasket, and our Bill is both mournful and moved to righteous annoyance. Occasionally he finds something to appreciate, and is honestly fulsome in his praise. I laughed out loud here and there, but I also occasionally cringed, because the author’s tone is so harshly judgmental. Well, generally with good reason, but still…

It was more than okay, but not one of his best. Has the Bryson bucket gone to the travel memoir well one time too many? I wonder.


And I bailed out on two books. Just couldn’t get into them, though I may try again one day.

Iris Murdoch’s The Green Knight defeated me at page 80, after a long rambling set-up filled with the complicated back stories of way too many characters. Weird things going on with phrasing and punctuation, too, which had me stopping in confusion and re-reading whole paragraphs to see if I was missing something. I wasn’t, but the editor certainly was. Browsing ahead, there are some intriguing passages, and I hope to return one day to enjoy them. Perhaps.

One Winter in the Wilderness by Pat Cary Peek sounded extremely promising, being presented as the diary of Peek and her wildlife biologist husband one isolated winter in the Idaho back country at the Taylor Ranch Field Station. It might have picked up steam farther along, but the first few sections were just the tiniest bit plodding, as if the writer were trying a mite too hard – and mostly unsuccessfully – to turn her repetitious diary entries into something more literary. Apparently the Idaho Book of the Year in 1998. Fair enough. Back on the shelf, perhaps even into the giveaway box, for someone else to take a go at.


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nasturtium, and bee september 2015 hill farm



Hemmed in by the prim

deodorizing stare

of the rare-book room,

I stumbled over,

lodged under glass, a

revenant ‘Essay on Color’

by Mary Gartside, a woman

I’d never heard of, open

to a hand-rendered

watercolor illustration

wet-bright as the day

its unadulterated red-

and-yellow was laid on

(publication date 1818).


Garden nasturtium hues,

the text alongside

explained, had been

her guide. Sudden as

on hands and knees

I felt the smell of them

suffuse the catacomb

so much of us lives in-

horned, pungent, velvet-

eared succulence, a perfume

without hokum, the intimate

of trudging earthworms

and everyone’s last end’s

unnumbered, milling tenants.


Most olfactory experience

either rubs your nose

in it or tries to flatter

with a funeral home’s

approximation of such balms

as a theology of wax alone

can promise, and the bees

deliver. Mary Gartside

died, I couldn’t even

learn the year. Our one

encounter occurred by chance

where pure hue set loose

unearthly gusts of odor

from earthbound nasturtiums.


Amy Clampitt, 1980

nasturtium september 2015 hill farm



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you the jury mary bordenYou, the Jury by Mary Borden, 1952. Alternate title: Martin Merriedew. This edition: Longmans, Green and Co., 1952. Hardcover. 346 pages.

My rating: 8/10

An unreliable narrator, a damning society, a haunting question.

We grew up together. I didn’t get on with him too well once the first excitement wore off (it was wonderful making a friend of our very own), but my brother Francis adored him, they were like David and Jonathan, so I had to go on being friends if I wasn’t to be left out of everything. And I wanted him to think well of me, he was a glorious boy, but he wasn’t the sort of person you could be comfortably fond of, he was too independent and expected too much. Eventually you either gave in to him and loved him blindly, or came to hate him; it was the same with almost everyone who knew him.

So speaks narrator Barbara Patche, looking back from 1951 to the childhood day in 1914 when she and her brother met seven-year-old Martin Merriedew, whose influence on them was to mark and change the expected pattern of their future lives.

Barbara and Francis are the blue-blooded children of an English earl and reside in a typically stately country home; Martin is the child of the newly arrived village doctor whose calm good sense proves a godsend to the Patche family, aiding as it does to the successful treatment of Francis’ crippled legs.

The boys grow up together, and swear an unbreakable oath to go out into the world and do some unspecified action of heroic good together; Barbara jealously looks on, never quite buying (she says, protesting perhaps too strenuously) into Martin’s charismatic appeal, but staying silent because of her beloved brother’s friendship which grows into something more complex and troubling as the boys grown to manhood. (It’s not the sort of male-to-male relationship you might think, either, but something much more complicated.)

Martin takes his medical degree, Francis steps into his father’s place as the new lord of the manor, and both set the countryside all agog with their eventual establishment of a medical clinic funded by Francis’ inheritance, and run along the lines of medical common sense mixed with a dash of faith healing.

For Martin is steadfast in his belief that he knows the will of God – at least as it applies to himself – and when the Second World War breaks over England, he steps forward boldly to proclaim his conscientious objection to taking life, and is posted as a medical orderly (he has since stopped practicing as a doctor for reasons I will leave up to the author to explain) to a front-line surgical station. He and Francis have become estranged some years previously; Francis has followed the way of his more mainstream peers and has joined the air force and is engaged in active combat.

Something happens at the front; Martin is charged with treason and sent back to England to stand trial as the war winds its way into its final days. The penalty, if a conviction is attained, is automatically death.

In a strange twist of fate, the judge who presides over Martin’s trial is Barbara’s husband. Barbara and Francis are shocked and silent spectators as Martin is tried for his life.

As you might suppose, this is not a cheerful sort of story, but instead a deeply thought-provoking examination of what it means to be a true pacifist. Though it can’t avoid a certain amount of sensationalism, the atmosphere throughout is tense with foreboding, and the importance of what isn’t being discussed looms larger than the charges of the village gossips and the headline writers.

I never felt that I got to really know any of the characters in a truly intimate way; too much is unsaid, and Barbara’s point of view is always just slightly open for interpretation. By the end of the story we know the most about her, and only what she allows us to know about the others in that forged-in-childhood triumvirate which has parted and which comes together so irrevocably those decades later.

I won’t detail the ending, but I will say that it was more than slightly ambiguous. Neat solutions and tidy wrap-ups not to be found here.

An interesting book, beautifully written in a tense, controlled, dispassionately stoic tone. It works, in this case, quite well. An author I will be reading more of, if I can.

This was a random acquisition at a book sale a year or so ago, added to the stack after a quick glance inside and the reading of a few paragraphs hinted at something promising. It has taken me some time to get around to reading it, and the paradoxical reward for my procrastination has been the discovery of yet another author-of-note to add to my list of look-for names while out upon the old-book hunt.

A modest amount of research reveals that Mary Borden was a woman of some accomplishment. Daughter of an American millionaire, against all expectations and with no medical training, she spent the Great War voluntarily and by all reports quite brilliantly and efficiently running a field evacuation hospital in one of the most active war zones in France. She wrote a damning (and suppressed – it was not published until some years after the war) memoir of the carnage she witnessed, the recently republished The Forbidden Zone, reviewed in detail here, at Open Letters Monthly.

Taking up writing after the war, Mary Borden produced a number of well-regarded novels, most with serious or suspenseful themes. (You, the Jury, was her last published work. Mary Borden died in 1968, at the age of 82.) She served again in Great Britain during the Second World War, financing and operating an ambulance unit. As well as her novels she apparently wrote at least one further volume of memoirs.

Why have I never come across this writer before? I am sure she must be – or was once – fairly well known; her books are in good supply in the used book trade, in multiple editions.

Is anyone else familiar with this writer? And if you’ve read this or any other of her books, what did you think?

I myself am quite impressed, though I hesitate to recommend this particular book without a caution that it’s not a very typically appealing sort of thing. Hard to classify, really. A product-of-its-time psychological drama?

Edited to add that someone else certainly knows about Mary Borden – Roger who has kindly commented below points us in the direction of an online appreciation and a link to a recent biography of Mary Borden here, as well as a fascinatingly pertinent blog which I spent a satisfying amount of time browsing this morning, Great War Fiction.

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