Tuesday, October 17, 2023

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side

I am trying to make up for lost time here! I cannot believe nothing has been posted on the blog since July (apart from Sunday's offering). I had such good intentions of keeping it going, but my husband got ill again, and life has been hectic with his latest round of hospital appointments. Anyway, as I've said before, this week is The 1962 Club, organised by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, so I'm doing my best to join in. 

Agatha Christie has featured in many previous Clubs, and the current one is no exception. Usually I really enjoy her Miss Marple books, but I struggled a bit with The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, and am not sure why. There are some very good things in it, but I don't think it will become one of my favourites. Like many people, I watched the old BBC dramatisation, with the excellent Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, and the more recent ITV version with Julia McKenzie starring as the spinster sleuth, but I don't think I've read the novel before - if I have, I've completely forgotten it.

It's quite slow moving, there are some loose ends that don't lead anywhere, and are never explained, and there's a lot of domestic detail that doesn't add anything to the plot - I normally like domestic detail, especially in 'Golden Age' crime novels, but this time there was too much. And I always feel Christie never quite adjusted to life in the 1960s, and the novels she wrote during that period somehow seem a little less real than her earlier work.

Agatha Christie

Anyway, The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side centres on the death of Heather Badcock. organiser of the local St John Ambulance, who dies after drinking a poisoned cocktail at a fete held to raise money for the charity. Police assume the intended victim was American film star Marina Gregg, the new owner of Gossington Hall, where the fete is held - after all, who would want to murder Heather, a kindly woman who always wants to help people, even if her efforts are not always appreciated. Other deaths follow, along with mysterious telephone calls, death threat notes, and poisoned coffee. Is someone really trying to kill Marina? And if so, who? And why? Or, however unlikely, could Heather have been the target? 

There are plenty of suspects, including Heather's downtrodden husband; Marina's current husband the film director Jason Rudd; a wealthy movie mogul who was spurned by Marina, and his film star wife who was once married to one of Marina's ex-husbands. Scotland Yard sends Chief Inspector Dermot Cradock to investigate, and he enlists the help of the redoubtable Miss Marple, who is already trying to unravel the mysterious goings-on at the Hall and the nearby film studios.

She is particularly interested in her friend Dolly Bantry's account of a meeting between Heather and Marina Gregg, and the odd expression on the film star's face, which reminds Dolly of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott, which is referred to several times throughout the book:

"Out flew the web and floated wide—
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me", cried
The Lady of Shalott."

John William Waterhouse's painting of The Lady of
Shalott - I've included because I love it!

The Lady of Shalott, for those who don't know the poem, could only look on the world through the reflection in her mirror, and the tapestry she was weaving - otherwise she will die. There are parallels, I think, with Marina Gregg, who is also unable to face reality, and whose life is shattered when a long hidden event from the past reppears. Dolly, a former owner of Gossington Hall, is much more astute than I remember her being in The Body in the Library, and offers some useful insights into Marina's character.  She explains how the actress began to say all the usual things. "You know, sweet, unspoilt, natural, charming, the usual bag of tricks," she tells Miss Marple. Christie builds Marina's character bit by bit, seeing her through the eyes of staff, residents, her husband, people in the movie industry, and the police. She is insecure, craves love and affection, and adores being  the centre of attention. She can be sweet and charming when it suits her, but suffers mood swings with dramatic highs and lows - I guess these days she would be described as bi-polar.

Christie also paints a sympathetic picture of the ageing Miss Marple. In most of the books Jane Marple remains much as she was in her first appearance some 30 years earlier, and life in St Mary Mead (and elsewhere) doesn't seem to have moved on. But here Miss Marple and the world around her have changed. She is frailer than she was, and trips and falls while out on walk. She can't see clearly enough to find dropped stitches in her knitting, and can no longer do the garden - there is a man who drinks lots of tea and does very little work. There is no maid, but Cherry from the new housing estate comes in to cook and clean, and although her work is not quite up to the standard expected, she is cheerful and caring. Less caring is Miss Knight, employed by Miss Marple's nephew Raymond West to look after her following a bout of bronchitis. 

Since devoted maidservants have gone out fashion, people like Miss Marple have to rely on the Miss Knights of the world for help when they are ill. "There wasn't, Miss Marple reflected, anything wrong about the Miss Knights other than the fact that they were madly irritating. They were full of kindness, ready to feel affection towards their charges, to humour them, to be bright and cheerful with them and in general to treat them as slightly mentally afflicted children. 'But I,' said Miss Marple to herself, 'although I may be old, am not a mentally afflicted child.'" It did make me think about the way society treats the elderly, and people focus on what they think is good for pensioners, rather than considering what they actually want and enjoy.

If you want a slightly different view of the book, then read Karen's review here - she was much more enthusiastic than I have been.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

l’ve just re-read
Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is every bit as brilliant as it was first time around, and since it was published in 1962, I've re-posted my review for the 1962 Club, which is cheating really, but I’m sure organisers Simon and Karen. I raved about the book here when I was halfway through, because I was so surprised to discover how good Jackson is, and how much I liked this novel. I didn’t expect to enjoy it because I hated her short story The Lottery, and this slender novel is not my usual style at all. It’s bizarre, macabre, unsettling, disturbing – and utterly compelling. I was totally gripped from the opening paragraph to the last word. I just couldn’t put it down.

As I said in my previous post, Jackson writes like a dream, but the tale she tells has a nightmarish quality. Gothic horror doesn’t even begin to describe it and it’s impossible to categorise or find a comparable author. Angela Carter, Barbara Comyns, and Alice Thomas Ellis have all written strange, unconventional novels with a dark edge, and some of the short stories penned by Margaret Atwood, Sara Maitland and Sylvia Townsend Warner are very odd indeed, but I’m not sure any of them quite match Jackson when it comes to weirdly wonderful.

It’s well nigh impossible to write about We Have Always Lived in the Castle without giving the plot away, but it’s become something of a cult classic, and elements of the story seems to be so well known that perhaps spoilers don’t matter. If you don’t want to know what happens then stop reading!


Basically the narrator, Merricat (Mary Katherine Blackwood), and her sister Constance live with their Uncle Julian in a run-down family mansion. Six years ago the girls’ mother, father, aunt and brother all died when someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Uncle Julian survived, with his mind and body irreparably damaged; Merricat escaped poisoning because she had been sent to her room for a misdemeanour, and Constance never took sugar. However, she prepared the meal and washed the sugar bowl before the police arrived – there was a spider in it, she claimed. She was tried for murder and acquitted, though local people remain convinced of her guilt. It’s obvious that bad feeling between the Blackwoods and the villagers goes back a long away – well before the murders, but it’s never explained. Once a week Merricat runs the gauntlet of hostile, staring, jeering villagers to change library books and buy groceries, because her sister never ventures beyond the confines of house and garden.

Everything changes when Cousin Charles arrives, seeking the fortune he believes Mr Blackwood has left. He beguiles Constance. And Merricat, excluded from her sister’s new relationship, seeks a way to banish him and restore their usual way of life, but things don’t go according to plan. She sets fire to Charles’ bedroom in the hopes that he will leave, but the flames spread – and the fire brigade, having extinguished the blaze joins the crowd of villagers in systematically smashing the Blackwood home and possessions to piece. It’s every bit as terifying as the mob that stones a woman to death in The Lottery.

61UJ59drydL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The girls clad themselves in table cloths and drapes (their clothes have been destroyed), and barricade themselves in the ruined house, while the villagers, ashamed of their actions, take to leaving gifts of food on the doorstep.

The past unfolds slowly, there is a feeling of unease from the outset, and the tension just keeps on rising, highlighted by the juxtaposition of everyday normality with the weird. It’s told from Merricat’s perspective, her internal musings, which are frequently very unpleasant, but always entertaining, and it soon becomes apparent that she is not merely a little odd, but deeply, deeply disturbed, and that it is she, not Constance, who is the poisoner. Yet there are times when I wondered if the sisters were complicit in the murders, and it is strange that Constance tells the police her family deserved to die. 

Merricat’s life is dominated by her protective charms and rituals – words that she mustn’t say, a buried doll, a book nailed to a tree – that go hand in had with her self-imposed rules on what she can and can’t do. It’s like some kind of instinctive sympathetic magic, but I think there’s more than that; it’s like some obsessive behavioural pattern taken to extremes. 

220px-WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastleThis all sounds very dark and chilling, and it is, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle also has one of the funniest scenes I have ever read in any novel. An old friend of the sisters’ dead mother comes to tea, accompanied by ‘little Mrs Wright’, whose avid curiosity about the murders overcomes her good manners – she can’t bring erself to drink tea or eat any of Constance’s cakes and sandwiches, but she takes a ghoulisjh interest in the details of the crime. And Uncle Julian rises to the occasion magnificently. He is a showman, displayimg his exhibits – the house, its inhabitants and their possessions - and he does it with outrageous charm, old-fashioned courtesy, and a wry sense of humour. 

“Would you like to view the dining room?” he asked. “The fatal board? I did not give evidence at the trial, you understand; my health was not equal, then or now, to the rude questions of strangers.”

“Madam.” Uncle Julian contrived a bow fron his wheel chair, and Mrs Wright hurried to reach the door and open it for him. “Directly across the hall,” Uncle Julian said, and she followed. “I admire a decently curious woman, madam; I could see at onceqq that you were devoured with a passion to view the scene of the tragedy; it happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night.”

He continues with great relish:

“The sugar bowl on the sideboard, the heavy silver sugar bowl. It is a family heirloom; my brother prized it highly. You will be wondering about that sugar bowl, I imagine. Is it still in use? you are wondering; has it been cleaned you may very well ask; was it thoroughly washed I can reassure you at once. My niece Constance washed it before the doctor or police had come.”

28251249Amidst the horror and oddities everyday concerns loom large. Gardening, cooking, clothes are all important, as are good manners – at the end, despite everything that has happened, when villagers leave food Constance is concerned about what people would think of them if they sent the dish and cloth wrapping back dirty.

And nothing is ever explained. When terrible things happen, in fiction, as in life, we like to know why. We look for reasons, justifications, attributions of blame, anything that will make it easier to accept and understand. But Jackson offers no clues. We never know why the family were murdered or what has caused the bad feeling between the Blackwoods and the villagers, but you can see how fear, rumour and suspicion feed prejudice in small town America.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

The Ladies' Paradise

This cover of this edition of The Ladies' Paradise
by Emil Zola features a scene from the BBC
adaptation, which I didn't see. The book is excellent. 

Hanging from above were pieces of woollen and cloth goods, merinoes, cheviots, and tweeds, floating like flags; the neutral, slate, navy-blue, and olive-green tints being relieved by the large white price-tickets. Close by, round the doorway, were hanging strips of fur, narrow bands for dress trimmings, fine Siberian squirrel-skin, spotless snowy swansdown, rabbit-skin imitation ermine and imitation sable. Below, on shelves and on tables, amidst a pile of remnants, appeared an immense quantity of hosiery almost given away knitted woollen gloves, neckerchiefs, women’s hoods, waistcoats, a winter show in all colors, striped, dyed, and variegated, with here and there a flaming patch of red. Denise saw some tartan at nine sous, some strips of American vison at a franc, and some mittens at five sous. There appeared to be an immense clearance sale going on; the establishment seemed bursting with goods, blocking up the pavement with the surplus.”

Denise and her brothers are standing awestruck outside The Ladies’ Paradise - the biggest store in Paris - in Emile Zola's novel of the same name. The orphaned trio hope to find a home with their uncle and his family. Even more hopefully, 20-year-old Denise believes she will be able to work in her uncle's drapery shop, earning enough to pay for Pepe, aged five, to be educated. Meanwhile, she has already apprenticed Jean (16) to an ivory carver. But her uncle cannot help because he, like all the other small, old-fashioned establishments in the area, is facing bankruptcy, pushed out of business by the ever-expanding emporium directly opposite his premises.

Le Bon Marche, the iconic French department store
may have been the inspiration for The Ladies Paradise.
(Pic: Wikipedia).

Denise finds work in the ready-made section of the store, where she is ostracised by the other women because she is plain, small (she is described as being 'puny' and a 'bag of bones'), and poorly dressed. They are also annoyed because the boss of the store has taken an interest in her. She perseveres, scrimping and saving so she can looking after her brothers - especially Jean, who is a charming, feckless womaniser, always in need of cash to get himself out of a scrape. Eventually, though no fault of her own, she loses the job, but gets it back later. She is very naive, and it takes her a while to realise Octave Mouret (the man in charge) has more than a passing interesting interest in her, and even longer to realise she is in love with him. 

I always think of Zola as being a kind of French Dickens. He doesn't copy Dickens, he very much has his own style, but he has the same ability to juggle various plots and subplots with ease, and a talent for describing what seems like dozens of characters so clearly that you can see them and hear them - you know how they behave, as well as what they look like, and they are all credible. Even if you wouldn't act like that, you can understand that other people would. The Ladies' Paradise features a young woman (Denise's cousin) who dies of love because her fiance is besotted with a salesgirl who sleeps with anyone and everyone, a kindly old umbrella maker, a vengeful ex-mistress and a henpecked  husband who has only one arm. There are shy young men and women, brash, confident young men and women. And there are all sorts of customers, like the shoplifter who is desperate to keep up appearances and possess lovely lace that she hides some up her wide sleeves, or the beautiful and mysterious lady who spends a fortune and could be a duchess or courtesan, but no-one ever discovers which!

Denise and her brothers arrive at their Uncle Baudu's
shop and home. (Pic from 1886 edition on Poject Gutenberg)

Another similarity is his descriptions of buildings, landscapes, interiors, gardens and so on: he paints pictures with words. Dickens' descriptions are often criticised by modern readers - I think they would prefer more conversation and action, and they would probably feel the same way about Zola, But I love the way he describes the window displays, and the goods which are piled high in every department. He layers image upon image, making the store feel like some kind of magical Aladdin's cave, just as in Le Ventre de Paris he stacks the market stalls at Les Halles with every food imaginable with an assault on the senses that overwhelms you. 

Additionally,  Zola, like Dickens, was a social commentator, with a strong sense of the need for justice and reform. Just as Dickens highlighted social issues in his novels and journalism during the early and middle years of the 19th century, so Zola showed similar concerns in his work during the last part the the 1800s.  He exposes the hypocrisy of people at the top of the social pile, and the squalor and misery of those at the bottom. 

Inside Le Bon Marche, The interior of The Ladies' Paradise
must have look much the same. (Pic: Wikipedia)

In The Ladies' Paradise (or Au Bonheur des Dames to give it its French name) he has a field day showing how the business methods used by Octave Mouret, which were very innovative (and, possibly unethical), ruined lives. Traditionally there were lots of small shops, all catering for different things: umbrella makers, silk dyers, ready-made clothes, materials, gloves, lace... You name it, there was a specialist shop to meet your needs. But Mouret, the driving force behind the retail giant, is selling all the these goods in different areas of the shop, and has even branched out into furniture: it's the beginning of the department store! To make profit, he buys goods as cheaply as possible, so smaller artisan suppliers can't compete with prices offered by bigger, mechanised company, and he introduces 'loss leaders', like the very expensive silk which he sells cheaply to attract customers - and once he's pulled them in, they're hooked, and buy all sorts of other things they probably neither want nor need. Mouret also buys up surrounding buildings, so his empire is growing bigger all the time.

Some staff sleep in small, cold rooms at the top of the building. Denise is installed  in No 7, where her box had already been put. "It was a narrow cell, opening on the roof by a skylight, furnished with a small bed, a walnut-wood wardrobe, a toilet-table, and two chairs. Twenty similar rooms ran along the convent-like corridor, painted yellow; and, out of the thirty five young ladies in the house, the twenty who had no friends in Paris slept there,” Zola writes. They wear regulation black silk dresses, which rustle. "All wore between two buttonholes of the body of their dresses, as if stuck in their bosoms, a long pencil, with its point in the air; and half out of their pockets, could be seen the white cover of the book of debit-notes" he adds.  

The salesmen and women, who live in little, cold rooms, at the top of the building, rely on commission from sales to eke out their wages - and many of the women find lovers to help keep them. There is supposed to be a system of 'taking your turn' with sales, but the more sales you make, the more money you get, so there's a lot of competition between the sales staff, and very little help or companionship. In addition, there's a reward  for reporting mistakes others have made, and there's a strict hierarchy, so there's a lot of currying for favour and jostling for position. As well as sales girls there are clerical staff and administrators who handle paperwork and money. And, since customers (the wealthy ones at any rate) don't carry their purchases home themselves, there are also staff who wrap and deliver parcels, and inspectors who check that neither staff nor customers are stealing from the store.

Madane Boves being searched for stolen lace
in a 1988 edition on Project Gutenberg

Despite the fact that it was written in 1883, The Ladies' Paradise still has relevance today. The issues raised haven't gone away, and human nature hasn't changed that much. I think Zola deserves to be more widely read than he is today.

*I've posted this for Paris in July 2023, which used to be hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea, but is now organised by Emma, who was born in France, but now lives in America. You'll find the main post about the event, together with other participants, at her Words and Peace website.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Time for Crime

A 1958 edition published by
Hodder and Stoughton.

Althea Graham is 27 and has 'let herself go', which is hardly surprising since she spends her time looking after her demanding mother. "It was years since she had had her hair done at a shop. It was years since she had stopped using make-up. It was years since she had stopped taking any interest in how she looked." Five years to be precise. That's when she had planned to marry Nicholas Carey, but her mother, who considers herself to be an 'invalid', protested and fell ill. So Althea broke off her engagement and put her life on hold, while Nicholas (a journalist), went abroad. Now he's back in town, and the attraction between him and Althea is as strong as ever. But Mrs Graham remains vehemently opposed to their marriage. Then tragedy strikes when her body is discovered in the summer house where the lovers have held a secret meeting. She has been strangled, and the finger of suspicion falls on Nicholas... But is he guilty? And if not, who is the real killer? And what is their motive? 

That, briefly, is the plot of The Gazebo, one of Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries. Miss Maud Silver, for those who don't know, is an elderly one-time governess who has turned her hand to detecting, a little like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. A former governess, she is very observant while remaining unobserved herself, with a wide knowledge of human nature (just like Miss Marple). She also enjoys knitting, and loves Tennyson - she can (and frequently does) produce an apposite quotation for every occasion. Oh, and I nearly forgot, she has a trademark cough, which can be prim, gentle, hesitant, warning, expressing all kinds of emotions and thoughts. Whenever I read these books, I'm always amazed at the many different ways a person can cough! 

Anyway, that's quite enough about Miss Silver. Let's get back to Althea. The plot is fairly simple, but also features two unsavoury men bidding to buy the house where Althea and her mother live, even though it is not on the market - so why are they so desperate to buy it for far more than it is worth? Ne'er-do-well Fred Worple, who talks and looks like a spiv, is a one-time local who has returned with money to spend, while Mr Blount, an antique dealer with dodgy taste in suits and a terrified, downtrodden wife, claims to be visiting the area. We learn that he is thought to have killed his father, and his first wife, but nothing was ever proved, although his current wife is convinced he is trying to murder her. 

Stories of the past come to light, with an account of the Gordon Riots in the 18thC, when the original house on the site of the Grahams' home was burned to the ground, and there are rumours of hidden treasure waiting to be found. Then a valuable diamond goes missing from a ring: its absence is noted by others, but goes unreported by the owner, who offers to provide a false alibi for Nicholas, and you wonder why, and whether any of these events are linked to the murder. The local police are baffled, so Scotland Yard sends its best, in the shape of Detective Inspector Frank Abbott, an old friend of Miss Silver who, fortunately, is on hand to lend her expertise.

At a cocktail party held shortly after Nicholas
returns, Althea makes the effort to llook attractive,
and is described as looking pretty in a green 
dress - something like the one in this old
McCall's pattern perhaps.

Patricia Wentworth is sometimes accused of creating caricatures rather than fully rounded characters, and it's true that her books abound with 'types' who look and behave just as you would expect, but she describes them so well they still seem credible. And when she is in the mood she can really bring a character to life, skewering unpleasant people with pinpoint accuracy. Her description of  Althea's widowed mother Winifred is wonderful, and tells you all you all you need to know. "Mrs Graham wore her invalidism in a very finished and elegant manner, from her beautifully arranged hair to the grey suede shoes which matched her dress. It is true that she wore a shawl, but it was a cloudy affair of pink and blue and lavender which threw up the delicate tints of her face and complemented the blue of her eyes," she tells us.

Wentworth is good at showing character and social class through clothes. Mrs Graham, whose pretty, blond looks have faded over the years (along with her finances), keeps her hair soft, pretty and full of lights with the aid of Sungleam hair rinse, which sounds a little like the Hint of a Tint available when I as young - does anyone remember it? Her hair, make-up and clothes, are all understated,but tasteful, designed to emphasise the fact that she is fragile and delicate.  Her friend Ella Harrison also colours her hair, but looks like what she is - an ex-chorus girl who has married into money. She has brassy hair, a voice to match, and wears too much, too bright make-up and a lot of showy jewellery. And her clothes are most definitely not understated. There is a 'clinging garment of royal blue, the colour being repeated by a twist of tulle and a jewelled clasp in the hair', and plaid skirt worn with a twin set 'in a lively shade of emerald', and again with a scarlet jumper and cardigan, which is 'even more startling'. They seem an unlikely duo to make friends, but I think they are both outsiders, both disliked or distrusted by other women.

This black and white photo of Anne Francis in the 1960 film,
Girl of the Night is not an exact match for Ella in her plaid skirt
 and bright twin set, but has the right air for the woman and the
 period. Ella liked clothes that clung to her curves, so she would
 have worn a skin-tight pencil skirt. rather than a flared one, and her
jumper and cardigan would also have been very tight indeed.

There are some lovely 'bit part' players in the story. I particularly liked the three Miss Pimms, Maud, Nellie and Lily who, like the Grahams, have come down in the world, with a reduced income and shortage of domestic help. They know everything that goes on in Grove Hill, and live for gossip, garnering all the local news and secrets between them, and see nothing wrong in passing the details on to others. And Fred Worple is also well-drawn. He is good-looking in a 'rather obtrusive' way and his tone is one of 'impertinent familiarity'. He is described as being 'quite dreadful' and 'forward and pushing'. He turns out to be an old beau of Ella Harrison, which is unsurprising since they both like lots of noise, glitter, and plenty to drink. I assume they never got together on a permanent basis because neither of them had any money.

Sadly, it's difficult to build much of a picture of Althea's appearance or personality. She's obviously a thoroughly nice middle-class girl, who was once bright, lively and pretty, with brown, curly hair, but has been thoroughly squashed by her selfish, manipulative mother, and has steeled herself to show no emotion, and to remain uncaring about her appearance. She plods through her days, weeks, months and years as if she is sleeping, but is brought back to life when Nicholas reappears. Again, he seems a little shadowy, although he's obviously honourable, good-looking, devoted to Althea, and more than a little reckless and impetuous. Somehow, I always expect the central protagonists to stand out more strongly, but here the action happens around them. They, and almost everyone else, are pushed into the background by Mrs Graham, even though her death her occurs very early in the novel. 

This is Alexandria of Denmark, wife of
Edward VII. Her curly fringe was copied by many
women, including Miss Silver. 

Miss Silver, whilst happy to remain unnoticed, retains her identity and would never, ever allow herself to be pushed anywhere. Being quiet, friendly, and unobtrusive allows her to obtain information from people in a way the police could never achieve, and her appearance reinforces people's perception of her as a harmless, little, old lady. She may have a razor sharp mind, but she looks dowdy and old-fashioned, and is probably the last woman in England to sport an Alexandra fringe - a curly fringe made famous by the wife of King Edward VI. Wentworth says: "She had on one of those patterned silk dresses which are thrust upon elderly ladies who have an insufficient sales-resistance. It had a small muddled pattern of green and blue and black on a grey background, and it had been made high to the neck by the insertion of a net front with little whalebone supports."  Her hat is black, as usual, but she has departed from her custom of straw or felt (depending on the season) and has donned a black velvet toque, bought for a wedding in the spring, and trimmed with three pompoms, one black, one grey, one purple. 

Toque hats usually had small brims, and tallish, straightish, squashed down crowns.
In the 1950s and '60s some were taller and smoother, but I think Miss Silver
would have opted for something similar to this Julie Magner
toque in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The book was originally published in England in 1958, so I assume it was written around that time, but it's difficult to tell what period it is set in - life doesn't seem to have changed much since Miss Silver first appeared in the late 1920s. Like many other early and mid-century novels, what strikes you how limited women's lives were. Marriage was still the ultimate goal, and few of them had careers: Nurse Cotton is an exception, as is Miss Silver, with her thriving sleuthing business, and Ella was a chorus girl (which is not considered at all respectable). But most other working women only do a few hours cleaning for those higher up the social scale. 

This may not be the best Miss Silver mystery, but nevertheless I enjoyed it a lot.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Julia Child in her kitchen as photographed
©Lynn Gilbert, 1978, on Wikipedia.

Julia Child, the woman credited with teaching America how to cook, gets a brief mention in Elaine Sciolino's The Only Street in Paris (which I reviewed here), and is quoted in one of the chapter headings: "I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume, Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly, The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a taste of the ocean that blended marvellously with the browned butter. It was a morsel of perfection."
The words come from Child's My Life in France, described as 'a classic memoir of food and French living' so I bought it it, because Paris in July,  a celebration of all things French, is still running, and I thought the book might be interesting but, sadly, I was disappointed. I know I'm being unfair, because Child was approaching her 92nd birthday when this written, in conjunction with her grand nephew Alex Prud'homme, based on her memories, old family letters, and other documents. 
It's a fairly slender book, and I'd expected a lot more about food and cooking - I felt there was way too much about journeys, parking, meetings, phone calls, who said what to who, and people she knows, few of whom are very interesting. For me, it was a memoir that never quite came to life, and I skipped bits because I was so bored.
Julia Child went to France in 1948 when her husband was appointed to a job to 'inform the French people by graphic means about the aspects of American life the US government deems important'. I'll say no more about that, because I shouldn't let my views on her husband's work affect my thoughts on her book.

So, back to Julia. She was 36 when she arrived in France, couldn't speak French and couldn't cook. Her first meal in France was a revelation: half a dozen oysters with a rye bread, followed by sole meuniere in brown butter with sprinkling of parsley on the top, and then a salade verte. It was the most exciting meal she'd ever had, and a far cry from the broiled mackerel served up back home in Passadena. She falls in love with French food - things like juicy pears 'so succulent you could eat them with a spoon', 'exquisite grapes with a delicate, fugitive, sweet, ambrosial and irresistible flavour'. I could have done with more writing like this.

She learns to speak French, and starts to cook, seeking advice and information from food stalls shops and market stalls, restaurant cooks, and a couple of cookery books and more accomplished, but however much she learns, she wants to know more. . Slowly, she becomes more   slowly becoming more accomplished, but however much she leans, she wants to know more, eventually enrolling on a  cordon bleu course and continuing to practise and experiment at home.

"I suddenly discovered that cooking was a rich and layered and endlessly fascinating subject," writes Child. "The best way to describe it it is to say that I fell in love with with French food - the tastes, the processes, the history, the endless variations, the rigorous discipline, the creativity, the wonderful people, the equipment, the rituals." She says she found her life's calling, but it's not often that her passion and obsession come across.

However, she was determined to pass on her new acquired knowledge to others, so they too could enjoy the joys of good food. There is a lengthy (very lengthy) account of how she joined up with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle to write a book showing Americans how to cook classic French dishes using American ingredients, and of the battle they had to get it published. Mastering the Art of French Cooking went on to become a culinary classic. First printed in 1961, it's still available (in two volumes) and gives detailed instructions for preparing hundreds of dishes: it's very practical, providing what is probably a fool-proof guide for people who have little or no knowledge of cooking. It is very American (obviously) which may be off-putting for English readers (certainly is for me) but you can look up the terminology to find English equivalents.

Child went on to produce more books, as well as American TV shows, but for my money, Elizabeth David, whose French Provincial Cooking was printed a year before Child's book, remains the doyenne of French cookery writers and there are many other writers who give better accounts of Paris and French people than Julia Child.

Friday, July 14, 2023

A Secret Cornish Summer

I'm not the greatest fan of romantic fiction - though it could probably be argued that my favourite 19th century novels are just that! Anyway, despite the fact it's a genre I don't often buy, I've made an exception for A Secret Cornish Summer, by Phillipa Ashley, because she's a friend, as well as being an award-winning novelist and Sunday Times bestseller, and I always enjoy her work. Besides, there's nothing to say I can't like light-hearted love stories in addition to classics and 'serious' books. 

A Secret Cornish Summer is the perfect feel-good book for a hot summer's day, when you're feeling too lazy to do anything, and don't want to to think too deeply, or to worry about the awful things happening in the world. It's set in Cornwall, and features a heroine who lives in an old lighthouse keeper's cottage, and runs a cafe (with home-made cakes) and a coffee roasting business. Eden is feisty, funny, intelligent, caring and hard-working, and is slowly rebuilding her life following divorce from a man who spent all their money, planned to marry another woman whilst still married to her - and ended up being jailed for fraud. Now she has received a letter from Simon saying he is out of prison, but has an incurable disease, and wants to meet her to put the past to rights. Eden suspects this is one of his manipulative lies, and is determined she will have nothing more to do with him.

Understandably, she is wary when tanned, blond Levan moves in next door. Their first meeting is not auspicious - he standing on his head in the garden wearing nothing but a pair of orange Speedos (doing yoga in the garden in his pants, as Granny Iris says). They are obviously attracted to each other, but Levan has a secret past, and is as cautious of Eden as she is of him. Phillipa is very good at creating dramatic tension between her characters, especially when it involves a  couple who are obviously destined to be together (even if they don't realise it yet), and this book is no exception. The 'will they, won't they' story line moves along at a good pace as Eden and Levan encounter various obstacles - the path of true love never runs smoothly in a romantic novel! And things get more complicated when evil Simon reappears..

Cottages on the mainland at Mayon, where families of the
keepers from the Longships Lighthouse made their homes.
Did Eden and Levan live somewhere like this?
(Pic: Rob Allday, Wikipedia)
The Longships Lighthouse.
(Pic: Fossick OA, Wikipedia)

I won't reveal more of the plot than that (you'll have to read the book if you want to know), but I will say there is a happy ending - I do love a happy ending! There are some nicely drawn characters: Eden's mother Sally, her granny Iris, her glamorous best friend Morwenna, Sardine the cat, and a host of others. There is a fascinating account of the way coffee beans are roasted, and mouth-watering descriptions of bakes and bakes.

And the setting is spectacular with an isolated cluster of cottages by a lighthouse on a headland in the far west of Cornwall. Eden's father and grandfather were both lighthouse keepers, and her mother and grandmother had hard, lonely, worrying lives when the men were working on  lighthouses out at sea. Eden was brought up in the cottage where she now lives after her father was posted to the lighthouse on the cliff, and the family bought the property after the light was automated. There is a wonderful chapter where Eden takes Levan inside to see the equipment, and they climb the spiral staircase in the tower to look at the light and admire the view, looking across the sea to the Wolf Rock and Longships lighthouses, both of which really do exist, unlike Hartstone in Phillipa's novel. I know she carries out a lot of research, so the details and history are absolutely spot-on, but presented in such a natural way you don't know you're learning something new.
There's a theme of secrecy which runs through the novel. In it (and, maybe, in real life as well) Lands End is the hub of a global telecommunications network, and Levan is a cyber security expert, working from a hidden HQ. "The fact that Cornwall had secrets hidden beneath its granite, concealed in ramshackle sheds and beneath its azure waters, was lost on the sunbathers," writes Phillipa. "They lay on the golden sans, oblivious to the priceless information passing beneath their feet - all those trillion-dollar deals whizzing across the Atlantic in a tiny fraction of a second. All those shadowy transactions that could be so easily intercepted if anyone wanted to."
Levan has to make sure that none of those messages fall into the hands of the wrong people and, occasionally, to ascertain some messages are intercepted by the right people. It's a hidden world, and I liked the way secrets in the landscape reflect secrets in people's lives - even Granny Iris has something in her past she chooses not to reveal.

Wolf Rock Lighthouse, perched on a tiny rock in
the Atlantic - Eden's father named his cottage after it.
(Pic: Alvaro, Wikipedia)

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Only Street in Paris

"Some people look at the Rue de Martyrs and see a street.  I see stories. For me, it is the last real street in Paris, a half-mile celebration of the city in all its diversity - its rituals and routines, its permanence and transience, its quirky old family-owned shops and pretty young boutiques. This street represents what is left of the intimate, human side of Paris."

So says American journalist Elaine Sciolino in The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue Des Martyrs, a delightfully quirky account of the street's history and the people who live and work there. It sounds an odd premise for a book, but it offers a fascinating glimpse into French life and I loved everything about it. Sciolino is a skilled writer who hooks you in and keeps you turning page after page as she reveals the stories of the street. It climbs uphill, from the Pigalle to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, passing through the 9th and 18th arrondissements, and on the whole it seems to have escaped Haussemann's  renovation of the city during the 19th century, as well as more modern developments and alterations. The buildings, varying in style and age, have retained their individuality, says Sciolino. And she adds: "It is the tenacity of the small, traditional merchants and artisans that keeps the character of the street intact"

Rue des Martyrs (From Wikipdia)

The street is packed with some 200 shops, restaurants, cafes and businesses, ranging from traditional butchers, bakers, fishmongers, dress shops and second-hand stores, to a transvestite cabaret and a repairer of 18th century mercury barometers who also gilds wooden picture frames and mirror surrounds, using real gold leaf. 
Sciolino discovered the area when her work took her to Paris in 2002. She intended to remain for just three years, but fell in love with the city in general, and the Rue des Martyrs in particular. In 2010 she was overjoyed when an apartment above a firework shop just off the rue des Martyrs fell empty. The building boasted an intricate iron entrance gateway, a magnificent old door,  a rare, decorative oval spiral staircase, and two cobbled courtyards - one with a 19th century fountain. Who wouldn't want to live in such a fabulous place!

"Immediately, in obedience to my journalistic instincts, I wanted to know everything about my new home, and why the rue des Martyrs has retained the feel of a small village," she writes. "The street jealously guards its secrets: it has no landmarks, no important architecture, no public gardens, nor any stone plaques on the sides of buildings telling you who was born, lived, worked, or died here. But I didn't have to go into reporter mode to seek out the experts who could help. They found me." 

Traders told her about themselves and their families; older residents recalled their childhood,  and local historians shared their knowledge. One even maintained that Jules Verne, who had links to the area, had lived in the building which housed Sciolino's home but, sadly, she found no evidence to prove this. Nor did she find proof that the road follows the route thought to have been taken by St Denis (patron saint of Paris) who, having been beheaded, carried his head to the spot where he wanted to be buried! But the Crypte du Martyrium de Saint-Denis, just a few yards round the corner in Rue Yvonne le Tacand is - allegedly - the site where the saint and his two companions met their deaths.  


Other tales from the past are much more credible. In the 20th century the young Edith Piaf sang in the street and collected coins thrown from windows. Further back in time, towards the end of the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson - who went on to to become President of the United States - was the American Minister to Paris and visited a friend in the Rue des Martyrs. In the following century the poet Baudelaire and the artist Edgar Degas were regular patrons at Brasserie des Martyrs (now a concert venue) and Degas also enjoyed the Cirque Medrano which stood on the corner of Rue Des Martyrs and the Boulevard de Rochechouart. Degas, Jean Renoir and Toulouse Lautrec were just a few of the artists who drew and painted the circus performers. Musician Georges Bizet (of Carmen fame) was baptised at the church of Notre Dame de Lorette, at the bottom of the street, as were artists Claude Monet and Paul Gaugin. Sciolino also mentions that prostitutes in the area were known as lorettes!

The present residents are equally interesting. There is Ezzidine, a greengrocer, who shows Sciolino how to crack and peel fresh almonds by 'slamming' them against a wooden pillar, and dreams of kissing film star Sharon Stone. Then there is Yves the cheesemonger, who left home aged 13 and worked as a field hand, sleeping in a barn with the cows before improving his lot in life. And what about Guy Lellouche, the antique dealer who is more interested in appreciating lovely objects than making money, or flamboyant Michou, who is in his eighties, dresses in shades of blue, and has been running the transvestite cabaret since he created it 60 years ago. They care about their customers, and are all passionate about their work, and keen to pass on their expertise to others, or to find that special item which will make someone;s day. They are a community who support each other, and they are very diverse: Sciolino meets people from all over the world, of all religious faiths, but they are all proud to consider themselves French. 

People join together to remember the 19 Jewish girls and one teacher at the local school who were killed during the Nazi occupation, and they mourn those killed and injured in modern terrorist attacks, showing their solidarity with the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. It makes you wonder, if one little community can live together in peace and harmony, then why can't others?

It's not just the stories that captivate Sciolina. She also captures the everyday sights, sounds and smells of France - the water flushing the streets clean, shop shutters opening, church bells ringing the hours, the smell of coffee and fresh baked breads and pastries, and the colourful displays of fruits and vegetables which look so much nicer (and taste so much better) than in England.

For a few years between the death of my father and my mother falling ill with dementia, Mum and I enjoyed a trip to Paris each May, to celebrate my birthday, and remember Dad whose birthday was also in May. We sat at pavement cafes watching the world go by, explored beautiful little 'secret' gardens as we roamed down alley ways, wandered around street markets, and got the most delicious food from wonderful shops for picnic lunches. We bought brown paper bags full of fruit (cherries were our favourites) and ate them as we walked along the streets, peering through wrought iron gates into hidden courtyards, making up stories of the people who might have lived there in the past. This book reminded me of those holidays. It may be about one street, but it encapsulates Paris as I remember it. 

* I should have said this is published by WW Norton and Company, that it has lots of photos, which I can't reproduce because I have the Kindle edition, and I feel I really haven't done full justice to the book! I've posted it for Paris in July 2023, which used to be hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea, but is now being organised by Emma, who was born in France, but now lives in America. You'll find the main post about the event, together with other participants, at her Words and Peace website.

I am trying to make up for lost time here! I cannot believe nothing has been posted on the blog since July (apart from Sunday's offering...