Review 1700: #ThirkellBar! Wild Strawberries Recap

Cover for Wild Strawberries

It’s time for our reviews of the second Barsetshire novel, as we read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series in order! In this case, I had already reviewed Wild Strawberries some time ago.

I looked at my original review of Wild Strawberries to see if I have anything to add for this reread. I don’t, except to point out how vividly Thirkell has depicted her characters. Lady Emily, for example, is equally adorable and frustrating. That first scene in church is a comic masterpiece, enough to make even the reader impatient with her, yet her family shows no sign of frustration, only affection. Most of Thirkell’s characters are funny, even our heroine Mary in her childish infatuation with David, and some of them, like managing Madame Boulle or finagling Mr. Holt, are hilarious. Or Agnes, so infatuated with her children that she heartily bores everyone else. Only John remains as the straight man.

I liked this book even more this time through but found the ridiculous errors in my Moyer Bell edition, which didn’t even employ a spell-checker, even more frustrating. Sadly, the Virago edition was not yet out in paperback when I reread this one (now it is).

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Review 1697: Black Narcissus

After reading Coromandel Sea Change, I decided to find more of Rumer Godden’s India novels and read them. Black Narcissus was the first (although I have already reviewed a few of the others), and I found it mysterious and haunting.

Sister Clodagh and a small group of Anglican nuns arrive at a palace above a remote Himalayan village to establish a convent, hospital, and school. The abandoned palace once was the home of the General’s father’s harem. He first gave it to religious brothers for a boys’ school, but after only five months, they left with no explanation.

From the first, the place seems to affect the sisters oddly. Sister Clodagh finds herself dreaming about Ireland and Con, whom she thought would marry her long ago. Sister Philippa, the gardener, becomes involved with the flower garden, to the neglect of the vegetables and the laundry. Sister Honey becomes too involved with the children. Sister Ruth, always difficult, becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, the General’s agent. The sisters occasionally begin to forget their devotions.

Mr. Dean has warned the sisters about possible cultural misunderstandings with the villagers, but although they sometimes make an attempt to understand the natives, mostly the sisters heedlessly continue on their agendas. The sense of foreboding grows.

This is an absolutely terrific novel, very atmospheric, in which the brooding mountain across from the convent becomes almost godlike, certainly a character. I was so rivetted, I stayed up late into the night until I finished it.

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Review 1695: The Bridge of the Gods

A friend who knew I was writing a story set locally before the arrival of white men gave me The Bridge of the Gods, which was written in 1899 as a result of Balch’s years of collecting Native American folklore and customs in Oregon. The novel is based on a legend about a bridge of stone across the Columbia.

The novel begins in 17th century Massachusetts, where Reverend Cecil Grey feels the mission to preach Christianity to the indigenous people of the West and dreams of a huge stone bridge over a river. His wife having died, he sets off to do just that, accompanied by his Native American nurse.

Eight years later, Multnomah, chief of the Willamette tribe, decides to test his allies. His tribe is the leader of a confederation united against their enemies, the Spokanes and the Shoshoni. The ascendancy of the Willamettes is prophecied to last until the Bridge of the Gods, a massive stone arch over the Columbia River, is destroyed. However, Multnomah has been hearing that some tribes want to leave the confederation. He decides to summon all of the tribes for a great council on Wappatta Island (now Sauvie Island).

Multnomah has a beautiful daughter, Wallulah, whose mother was an Asiatic princess shipwrecked at the mouth of the Columbia. Multnomah wants to betroth her to Snohomish, chief of the Cayuses, to cement their alliance. Wallulah, having seen Snohomish once, is not averse—until Cecil Grey comes on the scene.

I didn’t expect much from the attitudes of this book, considering when it was written, and I didn’t get much. Despite the young Balch having been interested enough to travel around and interview indigenous people, they are referred to constantly as savages, their traditions are treated with abhorrence, their villages are described as degraded, they are shown as violent and cruel. Even Multnomah, who compared to Snohomish is a good guy, is depicted as obdurate and cruel. Grey’s faithful nurse doesn’t even have a name.

Only Wallulah escapes this treatment, but note that she is half “Asiatic” (and a confused half at that, for her mother is said to have taught the Willamettes something about Buddha but calls god Allah). Her mother is described as white. Wallulah is herself a typical late 19th century romantic heroine, fragile and weak and a completely unlikely indigenous woman.

Although this novel is billed as a romance, Grey’s struggle is between his mission and Wallulah (even though they do not seem mutually exclusive), and since Grey is a zealot, Wallulah doesn’t have much of a chance. This is actually a romance in the older sense of the word, an adventure novel.

Since Balch went to so much trouble to personally speak to indigenous peoples and collect stories, I was hoping this book would be a little more enlightened—say, perhaps, written by someone who actually liked the people. It wasn’t. If you’re interested in an older book based in the life of indigenous peoples, I recommend The Loon Feather.

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Review 1694: The Lady and the Unicorn

The Anglo-Indian Lemarchant family lives in the annex of a crumbling mansion in Calcutta. Belle, the oldest daughter, is beautiful, fair, and charming, with the reputation of a saint but a character lacking in morals. She is determined to do whatever it takes to get rich, which, for her, means marrying the right man. Rosa, the second daughter, is fair and gentle. She tells lies when she is scared, so has a worse reputation than Belle even though she is much more moral. Blanche, the youngest, is dark in complexion and generally treated disdainfully because of it but is the most honest.

At a party, Rosa meets Stephen Bright, a British young man who treats her respectfully and seems different than the others. But he is new to India and doesn’t understand how he’s expected to behave in 1930’s India. While he is dating Rosa, he becomes interested in the old mansion, where they find evidence of French nobility having built it.

Out in the garden at times Rosa and then several other characters see a sobbing woman and a little dog. Others report seeing a carriage departing from the house. These appear to be ghosts.

This novel is an unusual case of a doomed romance and an ancient mystery. I liked it, but it seems more cynical than Godden’s other Indian novels, though they often have sad endings.

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Review 1690: Tension

When Sir Julian, who is on the board of the local commercial and technical college, mentions the name of the new Lady Superintendent to his wife, she recognizes it. She believes Miss Marchrose is the young woman who jilted her cousin.

Lady Rossiter’s belief in her own kindness conceals her meddlesome and ill-natured personality even from herself. She dislikes Miss Marchrose on sight. When she sees a friendship growing between Miss Marchrose and Mark Easter, the popular Superintendent, she makes it her business to spread insinuations about Miss Marchrose’s character.

Sir Julian likes Miss Marchrose and disapproves of his wife’s interference in the running of the college. I kept waiting for him to step in and stop her.

This novel, while it sparkles with wit and contains several comic characters, is about the serious subject of the damage of loose talk and gossip. Don’t look for a silly romantic novel here. I was rapt by this novel, as I found Miss Marchrose gallant and detested Lady Rossiter’s hypocrisy and self-deception.

That being said, the novel contains some very funny characters, for example, silly Iris Easter, the author of a novel entitled Why Ben! A Story of the Sexes, and her pseudo-Scottish lover, Douglas Garrett, or Mark Easter’s horrendously behaved children, Ruthie and Ambrose, alias Peekaboo. This is another excellent book from the British Library Women Writers series.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1687: The Sea-Hawk

Sir Oliver Tressilian is in a good place. As one of Elizabeth I’s privateers, he has made a fortune and gained the Queen’s favor. He is also engaged to marry the woman he loves, Rosamund Godolphin, or at least she has promised herself to him. When he calls on her brother Peter to ask for her hand, though, Peter refuses it, determined to keep up the feud begun between their parents. Indeed, he is insulting to the proud Sir Tressilian, so much so that Oliver would have killed him had he not promised Rosamund he would not.

Peter’s refusal seems of little moment to Oliver, because Rosamund will soon be of age. When Oliver’s brother Lionel returns home, however, he has fought with Peter without witnesses and killed him. Oliver promises to protect him but later learns that the wounded Lionel left a trail of blood to his door and everyone thinks Oliver murdered Peter. When Oliver tries to speak to Rosamund, she refuses to hear him. He is able to prove he is innocent to a magistrate and a minister because he has no wounds, but Rosamund will not listen.

Lionel becomes frightened that Oliver will tell the truth, so he arranges with a shady sea captain, Jasper Leigh, to kidnap Oliver and sell him into slavery. Jasper Leigh actually intends to let Oliver buy himself back, but their ship is taken by Spain and both Oliver and Jasper end up as galley slaves.

When next we meet him, Oliver is named Sakr El-Bahr, the Sea-Hawk, for his famous acts of piracy. He has adopted Islam and is a chief of Asad-ed-Din, Basha of Algiers. He learns that his brother and Sir John Killigrew have had him declared dead and Lionel has taken over his property and his former fiancée. Upon hearing this, Sir Oliver sends a messenger to Rosamund with the proof of his innocence in her brother’s death, but she throws it unread into the fire. Oliver is overcome with anger against both Lionel and Rosamund. How will it end?

I thought this was a very interesting swashbuckler, mainly because both the hero and heroine have more dimensions than in the usual adventure tale. There are times when both of them behave very badly, and I especially disliked Rosamund for much of the book because she was so quick to distrust Oliver. However she is also more brave and self-possessed than the majority of adventure story heroines. They get into some seriously exciting situations.

This is my last book from my second Classics Club list, which I have finished a couple of weeks late, so I’ll be publishing another list tomorrow.

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Review 1684: #ThirkellBar! High Rising

I have long been saying I will read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels in order, but I just keep potting way at them as I encounter them. So finally, I decided to go back and read them all, in order, and I hope some others of you will join me at least part of the way. High Rising is the first one.

Mrs. Morland is a widow who has supported her three sons by writing what she calls “good bad books,” featuring skullduggery in the fashion industry. Her old friend, George Knox, is a widower and also an author, of serious historical works.

It is Laura Morland’s habit to work in London while her young son Tony is in school and come to High Rising when he is on holiday. When she and Tony arrive for the Christmas holidays, she learns there is a disturbing new resident at Low Rising. It is George’s new secretary, Una Grey, who is efficient and sweet to George but behaves officiously as if she were the mistress of the house even to George’s quiet adult daughter, Sybil. It is clear that Miss Grey is aiming at marriage with George, and she immediately treats Mrs. Morland as an enemy and rival.

The plot of High Rising is mostly concerned with this situation, but it also introduces more sympathetic characters. There is Miss Todd, who has been doing all the caretaking of her dying mother and works half-time as a secretary for Mrs. Morland. Dr. Ford is in love with her but thinks the difference in their ages makes him ineligible. Miss Todd herself believes she is the type of woman that men don’t marry.

Adrian Coates is Mrs. Morland’s editor. Although he is a good deal younger than she is, early in the novel he proposes. But Laura has no interest in marrying again and thinks he will make a much better match for Sybil Knox.

There are lots of characters, but one of the funniest is Tony, Laura’s single-minded young son. He is absolutely besotted with railways, and Thirkell does a great job of making him a believable motormouth of a boy.

Most of Thirkell’s books are notable for a subtle wit, but this one is a lot funnier than I remembered. I also felt really invested in the problems of these characters. This novel makes a nice start to the series.

So, who read High Rising along with me, and what did you think?

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Review 1681: Mamma

Diana Tutton only wrote three books. All of them feature dysfunctional families, although Guard Your Daughters is a quirky but relatively traditional romantic novel. Mamma is more unusual.

Joanna has been a widow for 20 years, because her husband died unexpectedly in the early days of their marriage. Although only 41, she has a 20-year-old daughter, Libby, with whom she has a close and loving relationship.

Joanna has just moved when Libby comes for a visit and informs her that she is getting married—to an Army major named Steven. The marriage is to be soon, because Steven expects to be deployed overseas within a few months.

At first, Joanna is not sure what attracted Libby to Steven. She finds him unattractive, and at 36, he is closer to her age than Libby’s. However, circumstances throw them together to live with her, and she begins to understand that she and Steven have more in common than Steven and Libby. With her feelings for Steven growing, Joanna must figure out how to navigate this emotional situation.

Tutton depicts these relationships skillfully, in a way that makes you feel only sympathy for the characters. It is an empathetic and emotionally astute portrayal.

I received a copy of this novel from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1679: Evelina

I haven’t read much 18th century fiction, but when I made my Classics Club list, I wanted to pick books from a variety of centuries. So, I picked Evelina.

Evelina’s heritage is unfortunate. Her grandfather married a vulgar woman much below his class and died without providing for his daughter, Caroline, leaving everything to his wife. When Caroline was old enough, her mother tried to force her to marry a cousin. Caroline instead eloped with Lord Belmont, but when her grandmother cut her off without a penny, Lord Belmont threw her off and denied they were legally married. After her mother’s death, Evelina was raised in isolation by the elderly Reverend Mr. Villars, who had been her grandfather’s tutor and had also raised her mother.

When Evelina gets an invitation from Lady Howard to visit London, Mr. Villars is reluctant to let her go because of her family history. But Mrs. Mirvan, Lady Howard’s daughter, offers to take great care of her. Evelina makes some social errors at her first appearances, for example, agreeing to dance with Lord Ormond when she has already turned down Lord Lovel.

Evelina is immediately attracted to Lord Ormond but she is barely able to speak to him at the dance and keeps making mistakes or having people impose upon her, so that she fears she creates a wrong impression. She herself is the typical 18th century heroine, virtuous, compliant, and innocent.

Later, her vulgar and coarse grandmother, Madame Duval, appears in London and demands her attendance. Evelina meets a series of ill-mannered and socially inferior cousins who keep putting her into embarrassing situations.

This novel is a social satire that pits the innocent, gentle Evelina against a number of snobbish or sexually aggressive members of the upper class and against the crassness of her relatives in the merchant classes. Some modern readers may struggle with the elaborate speech. That didn’t bother me, but my patience was a bit tried by the middle section of the book, in which Evelina is on a long visit to her grandmother and rude cousins. In that section as well as those featuring Captain Mirvan, I had a hard time believing anyone would behave so badly.

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Review 1675: Kingfishers Catch Fire

Before she is even eight years old, Teresa has learned to put her head down and cry when her mother has an idea. Sophie Barrington-Ward is feckless, naïve, doesn’t listen to anyone else, and only sees what she wants to see. Widowed and left relatively poor after paying off her husband’s debts, she has worked so hard at jobs she’s not qualified for that she gets sick. Recovering, she has an idea. The Kashmiri peasants are poor, but they are healthy and well-fed. Why not rent a house in the Kashmir countryside and live like a peasant?

Of course, she has no ability to live like a peasant and has no understanding of just how poor the villagers are. As she settles into her house in the high Himalayas, she doesn’t notice that the villagers are vying for opportunities to make money from her. She consistently overpays and doesn’t listen to the advice of her landlord or his caretaker, Nabir. More dangerously, she doesn’t realize that there are two feuding factions in the village, the Sheikhs and the Dārs.

Teresa knows that it is Nabir who keeps them safe, particularly herself and her little brother Moo. But Nabir has a pride and aloofness that makes him seem insolent. And he has people working against him, including Sultan, the incompetent house servant Sophie brought from the city. Over time, a dangerous situation evolves.

Like the other India-based novels by Godden I’ve been reading lately, Kingfishers Catch Fire is freighted with a love of this region that does not miss its cruelties. Its descriptions are lush. Its heroine is complex. At first frustrated by Sophie’s faults and her lack of understanding of her daughter, I eventually came to admire her. Although I thought Black Narcissus was wonderful (I haven’t reviewed it yet), I think this novel is even better.

The afterword notes that this novel is one of Godden’s mostly autobiographical, and it includes a short section of excerpts from Godden’s Kashmir diary.

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