Day 1273: The 1944 Club! They Were Sisters

Cover for They Were SistersI was going to save my review of They Were Sisters for our February Literary Wives club, but I saw it was also published in 1944, so applied to the 1944 Club! So, for Literary Wives, I will just have to refer back to this review and then make my further comments about the depiction of wives in fiction.

I previously read another book published in 1944. Here is its link:

Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

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Lucy’s sisters, Vera and Charlotte, are much younger than she, so much so that she was largely responsible for raising them when their mother died. Lucy never thought she would marry, but she is, happily, to William, who is a bit eccentric. She has misgivings, though, about her sisters’ choices of husbands, especially Charlotte’s.

Vera’s husband, Brian, is solid and devoted. Lucy likes him, but Vera, who is a stunning beauty, seems to be bored with him. She has a constant entourage of male followers and loves to entertain. They have two daughters, Meriel and Sarah. Meriel is close to her father and paternal grandmother, who hates Vera and is always trying to make trouble. Sarah is closer to her mother, but she is the volatile one, who has trouble making friends.

Charlotte married Geoffrey. As a young man, he was constantly pulling pranks, and Lucy couldn’t see what Charlotte saw in him. As a husband, he is hypercritical and verbally abusive, teaching his daughters, Margaret and Judith, to disrespect their mother.

1944 club logoThe three women have been apart for years when they get together at the beginning of the book. After that visit, Vera and Lucy vow to keep in better contact with Charlotte because they are worried about her. Only Lucy pursues this, however, and through her efforts falls completely for Judith as a child. Although Charlotte avoids Lucy as she loses herself to alcoholism, Judith becomes a regular visitor to Lucy and William’s home, where she sees a more normal home life than the one she has. She also makes unlikely friends with her cousin, Sarah.

This novel is an insightful study of the bonds of sisters, despite their differences. It is a lovely book, also about how the act of caring on Lucy’s part has ramifications beyond her own sisters’ lives. Again, Whipple gets better and better. I will be sad when I will have read all of her books.

More about this book in February for Literary Wives!

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Day 1271: Mistress of the Art of Death

Cover of Mistress of the Art of DeathHere’s another book for the R.I.P challenge with a very appropriate cover!

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I recently realized that of Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar series, the only book I had not kept was Mistress of the Art of Death, the first one. This realization made me immediately buy another copy, which made a good excuse to reread it.

In 1171 Cambridge, someone is brutally murdering children. The locals have decided to pin these murders on the Jews, despite their having been locked up in the castle for safe keeping after the first death.

King Henry II has asked the King of Naples for help. An investigator is requested, as well as a Master in the Art of Death, a medical doctor who investigates the causes of death, trained by the University of Salerno. To everyone’s surprise and some dismay, along with Master Simon, the fixer, comes a woman, Adelia Aguilar, a doctor trained in Salerno.

Adelia finds herself in a relatively barbaric country where her identity as a doctor must be concealed for fear she will be accused of witchcraft. To be able to treat people, she passes off her Moorish manservant, Mansur, as a doctor, while she pretends to be his assistant and translator.

Her party enters Cambridge in the company of some pilgrims returning from Canterbury. Soon discoveries lead Adelia to fear that the murderer may be among the pilgrims she traveled with.

I think I enjoyed this novel even more this time through. The first time, I was skeptical that there were woman doctors in the 12th century. Now that I know Ariana Franklin better, I’m more confident that she did her research.

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Day 1269: Greenery Street

Cover for Greenery StreetThe way I work my blog is that, as I finish a novel, I write up my notes in a book diary. Every five reviews, I pick out my next five books from those notes, and generally speaking, I run about six months behind what I have read.

Obviously, there’s room for error in this system, and I have made one with Greenery Street. I kept expecting my review to turn up, and finally, the other day, I looked the novel up on Goodreads to see when I finished reading it. More than a year ago! I looked back in my journals to see if I inadvertently skipped it, only to find that I apparently forgot to write it up. What a shame for this delightful novel!

Greenery Street is a story of ordinary life in a couple’s first home, written in 1925. It begins on a day in April when newly engaged Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster wander into Greenery Street in search of a house and find a very small and pleasant one. Then it jumps back to cover their meeting and engagement.

The novel details the everyday life of this newly married couple. There is nothing particularly unusual about their lives (well, not for their time—not too many young wives spend their days shopping, socializing, and supervising the help anymore), but they are rendered in interesting detail and humor, small disagreements and the normal ups and downs of a new marriage. The end of the book is telegraphed from the beginning, when we’re told the house would be too small for three. However, the journey is delightful.

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Day 1267: Alas, Poor Lady

Cover for Alas, Poor LadyBest of Five!
A Footman for the Peacock was a strange little book, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from the much longer Alas, Poor Lady. It turned out to be an astonishingly feminist novel for being published in 1937.

At the beginning of the novel, Miss Scrimgeour, an elderly woman, receives the charitable gift of a two-room flat and an annuity for life. One of the women involved in the charity realizes that Miss Scrimgeour is a gentlewoman, of the same class as herself, and that she previously had no income at all. She exclaims, “How did that happen?” This novel answers that question.

It begins in 1870, when Grace Scrimgeour is born into a wealthy family. She is the youngest of six sisters, born almost a generation behind her last sister, but she is not the youngest child. Two years later, the Scrimgeour’s only son is born.

All the girls are raised to become wives and mothers. At least the oldest girls are sent away to school, but after Charlie is born, Grace’s upbringing is neglected and she is left to be educated by a governess who is not very competent.

The two girls marry, but it becomes clear that Mary and Queenie will not. Mary attempts to be useful by offering to teach Grace and Charlie, but her attempts to find herself an occupation are rebuffed by her parents.

As biddable, affectionate Grace nears her debut, Captain Scrimgeour spends more and more of his money on Charlie, selling out of stable financial funds to do so. Grace’s unmarried sisters become a problem once she is “out,” because most hostesses don’t want to entertain six Scrimgeours, so they leave Grace off their invitation lists. Her parents are now too elderly to see she has proper opportunities to meet someone, and neither of her married sisters take her in hand.

The novel follows the downward trend of the family’s finances, especially after Mrs. Scrimgeour is left in charge, herself having never received any instruction about finances. Clearly, tough times are ahead for the three unmarried sisters.

This novel shows painfully the origins of the destitute lady spinster—how everything in her upbringing works against her ability to support herself. Painfully ironic for the reader, who can see where things are trending, is a scene in which the newly widowed Mrs. Scrimgeour, blithely pledging £500 for a bed in the hospital for children, money she cannot afford, ignores a plea to help indigent gentlewomen, thinking the women are shiftless.

This novel is touching and eye-opening. The two most sympathetic characters are Grace, even more so her valiant sister Mary. But there is also a delightful family Grace goes to work for later.

Although I found this novel sad, it was enthralling and affecting. I highly recommend it. Another great novel from Persephone Press.

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Day 1264: Telling Tales

Cover for Telling TalesHere’s another book for the R.I.P challenge!

In addition, I have just read the Get Your Goth On Dare at Classics Club, so I have decided that I will take up that dare. During the month of October, I will read The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins for the dare. I picked it for obvious reasons.

* * *

Ten years ago, Abigail, a fifteen-year-old girl, was discovered dead by her best friend, Emma. Abigail’s father’s spurned lover, Jeanie Long, was found guilty of the murder. Police have now received belated testimony confirming Jeanie’s alibi. She was not guilty. It is too late for her, though. When her request for parole was turned down a few days earlier, she hung herself.

Vera Stanhope is called in to find out how the investigation could have gone so wrong. Right off the bat, she finds that Jeanie was convicted on no forensic evidence. Looking further, she finds indications of conflict of interest in the case.

On hearing the news about Jeanie, Emma’s younger brother Chris returns from university. He seems to be visibly upset and tells Emma he followed Abigail everywhere the summer she was killed. The next day, he is found murdered. Vera guesses that he must have witnessed something ten years ago that made him realize now who the murder was.

As the villagers’ secrets begin to come out, Vera finds several people to suspect of murder. This novel is truly suspenseful at times, and I never came near to a solution of the crime. This is proving to be a good series.

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Day 1263: The Provincial Lady in London

Cover for The Provincial Lady in LondonFans of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady should also enjoy The Provincial Lady in London, which is humorous in the same vein. The narrator, having made a surprising amount of money with her first novel, decides to buy a flat in London and to write there, free from the interruptions of daily life.

If only. Instead, we meet an entirely new set of characters. Emma is always dragging the narrator off to literary events and forcing her to speak on little or no notice. Pamela Pringle, who the narrator knows from a girl, has since had at least three husbands and uses the narrator as an alibi to her current husband while she is out with her boyfriends.

At home, Vicky has decided she wants to go to school and dispense with the services of Mademoiselle, which results in some painful scenes, almost as bad as those with the succession of cooks. For times when the children are home from school, they hire a tutor, whom the narrator refers to as Casabianca. I had to look that up to get it.

The narrator and her taciturn husband, Robert, navigate family vacations in France, dismal parties, church fêtes, casinoes, and unbalanced checkbooks while the narrator makes just as much fun of herself as anyone else. Amusing stuff!

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Day 1257: The Last Hours

Cover for The Last HoursI have been following Minette Walters since her first thriller came out, and I think she is a superb plotter and suspense writer. So, I was intrigued when I learned she had written a historical novel, and I requested it from Netgalley.

The Last Hours follows two main characters in the year 1348. Lady Anne is the wife of Sir Richard of Develish, a stupid and cruel lord and husband who has turned their daughter, Eleanor, against her mother. With difficulty, Lady Anne has done her best to improve the life of the serfs, while Sir Richard and Eleanor treat them with disdain and cruelty. The other character is a young serf, Thaddeus, a bastard who has been mistreated by his family. Lady Anne has educated him, and he is resourceful and intelligent.

Sir Richard has arranged a marriage for Eleanor and seems to want to put it forward, so he goes to the home of the bridegroom to seal the deal. Eleanor does not want to marry the young man he selected and does not seem to realize that although she is beautiful, she comes with a small dowry so is not desirable as a wife. Nor does her personality make her so. Sir Richard has blamed the acceleration of the marriage on Lady Anne, who actually thinks they should wait.

On the visit to the bridegroom’s family, Gyles Startout, a serf who has been made a member of Sir Richard’s soldiery, notices that a lot of peasants in the nearby village are being buried at night. He tries to tell his commander about it, but the Norman commander is disdainful of a serf. Soon, though, they realize that a terrible disease has struck, and they flee.

Back at Develish, Lady Anne hears about the disease. Years ago, she instituted more sanitary measures within the demesne, and now she barricades her people within its walls, deserting the village. She has made Thaddeus her new steward, and the two do their best to protect the people. Unfortunately, Eleanor is doing her best to cause trouble.

link to NetgalleyThe time period and story idea for this novel are interesting, and the characters are well drawn. However, the novel has a big flaw, the plotting. It is all too obviously the first book of at least a trilogy. Whereas most first books have their own arc, even though they may end in suspense, this one is very unsatisfying, standing alone in no respect (something that is more common with a second book in a trilogy). It goes along very well until Thaddeus takes some boys out of the demesne to look for provisions. At that point, too much attention goes to the details of how they collect food and other needed goods, and the plot bogs down. The book also ends on a very flat note. Although the entire trilogy may provide exciting, this book is not a very satisfying read.

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