Day 1176: The Native Heath

Cover for The Native HeathJulia Dunstan is delighted to have inherited her uncle’s Belmont House in Goatstock. Belmont House was the place of her fondest memories of childhood, when she and her cousin Dora would visit there. Dora, too, she is meeting for the first time in years, since Julia’s widowhood and return from life in the colonies. As Julia is given to impulsive and kind acts, she invites Dora to live with her at Belmont House, Dora having had such a hard life.

In Goatstock, the neighbors are all agog to set eyes upon Julia. And eccentric neighbors there are aplenty. Mrs. Minnis dresses like a juvenile and borrows from the neighbors; if returned, the objects are broken. Mrs. Prentice is so embarrassed at being caught looking into the house from the street that she fails to call. The vicar and Miss Pope are being preyed upon by Miss Briggs, who sees Alaric Pope as a future husband. Lady Fincy is the expert on food and gives lectures about eating nettles.

Of young people, there are only three. Julia has brought along her nephew, Robert, just qualified as an engineer. Marian Prentice is engaged to a missionary in Africa, and her best friend, Harriet Finch, would like to see her stay in England. Harriet plots to throw Robert and Marian together before she realizes she quite likes Robert herself.

As for Julia, her kind heart soon has her feeling responsible for several people. But she eagerly renews her friendship with her cousin, Francis Heswald. He always did like her, she thinks, but maybe he likes Dora a little more.

I’ve found all of Elizabeth Fair’s books delightful, and this one is no exception. They have been compared to the work of Angela Thirkell, minus the sentiment. I don’t actually think of Thirkell’s novels as sentimental, however, so I’m not sure what that comment means. With Fair’s flair for eccentric characters and their lightness, her books remind me more of some of those of Elizabeth Cadell.

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Day 1173: Atonement

Cover for AtonementBest Book of Five!
Ian McEwan is a master at turning everything you think you know about a novel on its head, and he does that effectively in Atonement. This novel is a reread for me, the first one by McEwan I ever read, and I found it breathtaking. It is just as enjoyable when you know its secrets.

On a hot summer day in 1935, Briony Tallis commits a terrible crime. At thirteen, she is an imaginative but naive girl, a budding novelist. She misunderstands some interactions she witnesses between her older sister, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s childhood friend, Robbie, and this misunderstanding provokes her to tell a dreadful lie that ruins lives.

Five year later, Briony is a nurse at the start of World War II. She is trying to get published as a writer, but she is also concerned to atone for the lives she ruined.

This novel draws you in to the hot summer day and carries you along. It is beautifully written, and it shows great insight into the mind of the romantic, self-important child that Briony was. I can’t say much more about this novel without giving it away to the few of you who haven’t read it or seen the movie, but I believe it to be a postmodern classic. In short, this is a great book. It is intelligent, with ideas to ponder but with a narrative that just sweeps you along.

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Day 1171: Seaview House

Cover for Seaview HouseAlthough Mr. Heritage has been friends with sisters Rose Barlow and Edith Newby for years, he is jealous of the attention of his godson, Edward Wray. So, he is not at all happy when he notices that Edward is attracted to Rose’s daughter Lucy.

Lucy has been friends with Nevil Fowler since they were children and has a dim expectation that they will eventually marry. That’s why it takes her a while to figure out that she has feelings for Edward. In the meantime, Mr. Heritage’s machinations have put matrimony in Nevil’s mind, and Lucy’s best friend, Philippa, has intimated that she is closer to Edward than she actually is.

Seaview House is another charming domestic comedy from Elizabeth Fair. I only recently discovered her novels, being republished by Furrowed Middlebrow, and wish there were more than six of them to read.

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Day 1170: The Black Opal

Cover for The Black OpalWhen I was a teenager, I enjoyed Victoria Holt’s gothic historical romance novels. At some point, however, I felt that she was just churning books out, so I quit reading them. When I ran across The Black Opal in a used book sale, I decided to see what I think of her now.

Carmel was found as a baby under an azalea bush at Commonwood House, owned by the Marlines. She is believed to be a gypsy child. Although Mrs. Marline wanted to send her to a foundling home, Dr. Marline insisted on keeping her. So, she stayed in the nursery with the Marline children, although she was not treated like the others.

Mrs. Marline’s brother, Toby, captain of a sailing vessel, is one of the few people who are nice to Carmel. Another is Miss Carson, the governess. Things begin to improve for Carmel when she meets Lucian and the other children at the Grange, a neighboring estate.

But Mrs. Marline dies, and Carmel is thrilled to learn she is going on a voyage with Uncle Toby to Australia. On the voyage, she learns something about her parentage. When they arrive there, they get news that the Marline household is broken up. There is nowhere for Carmel to return to, so she stays with Uncle Toby’s wife.

Ten years later, Carmel returns to England. There she finds that more was involved in Mrs. Marline’s death than she knew. There was a tragedy, and Carmel believes an injustice was done. She decides to find out what really happened.

I remember Holt’s books as being fairly tightly plotted, but that was not the case with this novel. It is all over the place. Although the earlier scenes when Carmel is a child are necessary to the story, the scenes in Australia seem unnecessary, as if they are needed for padding. Characters are poorly developed, and some characters seem to fill no particular function.

Maybe some of Holt’s earlier novels are better. It’s hard for me to say at this distance of years. But there are better gothic romance novels around. This one seemed to be about 100 pages of novel expanded out to nearly 400.

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Day 1168: Hodd

Cover for HoddI was never one for the romantic legends of Robin Hood. I always thought that, if he did exist, he was probably just the leader of a gang of thugs. And such, apparently, is indicated by the older ballads about him. In Hodd, Adam Thorpe weaves a story of the man that is closer to that told by the older ballads.

This novel is all about the manuscript, as the text of Hodd is supposedly the find of a medieval manuscript, written by a 13th century monk. The narrator, who remains unnamed, is writing the story of his youth. The novel includes scholarly notes from its translator and comments by its discoverer, a soldier in World War I. Some of these notes are funny, and some, I think, are meant to be parodic.

The narrator is about 14 when he is traveling with his master, a monk named Thomas, to Nottingham. They are held up by Hodd’s men and the narrator’s harp is stolen. He decides to go back and get it and is captured by Robert Hodd and his men.

Hodd is actually a sort of lunatic cult leader, who believes that there is no sin and that he is better than God. His followers believe him. He keeps himself intoxicated and has constant visions. He and his men are utterly ruthless and cruel. But rather than killing the narrator, Hodd decides to keep him as one of his men. He is a musician, and he can write songs about Hodd.

The narrator tells a parallel story of his education and upbringing by a holy hermit. This story continues throughout the book and comes in strongly at the end.

I think Thorpe realistically imagines the workings of the medieval mind, showing us strange beliefs. As such, this is a very unusual novel. I could have done without some of the religious moralizing, which filled the novel, as it would a medieval manuscript.

If you are a reader who needs a character to like, this is probably not the book for you, for even the relatively innocent narrator is perfidious. He so much wants to be loved that his jealousy turns him against people.

This is another interesting book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 1158: Mrs. Engels

Cover for Mrs. EngelsBest of Five!
Lately, I’ve realized that the novels I enjoy most have a strong narrative voice or sense of character. Mrs. Engels, the debut novel of Irish writer Gavin McCrea, is one of these. I had the fortune to read it as part of my Walter Scott Prize Project.

Lizzie Burns is the Irish mistress of Frederick Engels, long accepted as Mrs. Engels. She has a lot to put up with. Although Engels supports Karl Marx’s entire household, liberally, so that Marx can work on his book, he is very careful about what is spent on his own household. Further, Lizzy suspects him of yearning for her sister, Mary, who was his mistress before she died. And Lizzy is aware that Frederick is not faithful. Finally, he is completely devoted to a Communist revolution, so he often opens the house to his comrades or sends Lizzy on errands for the cause.

Mrs. Engels is a vivid imagining of Lizzy’s life, beginning in 1870 and looking backward to the past. A poor worker in Engels’s cloth mill, she leads a penurious life until Mary takes up with Frederick Engels. She becomes involved with the Fenian movement through her lover, Moss Óg. All in all, she’s a strong presence, funny and putting up with no nonsense. As she becomes more involved with the Marx family after she and Engels move to London, she begins to learn more about Frederick and what he will do for the cause, which to him means Marx.

This novel is beguiling, drawing me, at least, into a topic that I wasn’t much interested in. It tells Lizzy’s story with wit and creates a wonderfully realized setting and character.

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Day 1156: Bramton Wick

Cover for Bramton WickI so enjoyed A Winter Away that I looked for more novels by Elizabeth Fair immediately. I found that they are being reprinted in a nice edition by Furrowed Middlebrow. Bramton Wick is Fair’s first novel, set in a village in post-World War II England. It is a gentle domestic novel with a bit of an edge.

Although the novel features several eccentric denizens of the village, it centers around Laura and Gillian Cole. Mrs. Cole and her family used to be the owners of Endbury, one of the large homes in the area, until Mr. Cole died and they had to sell. Mrs. Cole, although she dislikes the current owner of Endbury, Lady Masters, has begun to notice that Lady Masters’ son Toby has a liking for Laura.

Neighbors Miss Selbourne and her friend “Tiger” Garrett raise dogs in a cheerfully disordered household. Miss Selbourne has noticed, though, that whenever there is something unpleasant to be done, Tiger gets ill.

The neighborhood isn’t short of elderly women, for the Miss Cleeves are also nearby. The Miss Cleeves are penniless and dependent upon their landlord, Miles Corton, for help. Miss Cleeve is profoundly deaf, one sister is a religious fanatic, and the other sister sprinkles her malicious gossip with untruths.

Gillian, Mrs. Cole’s other daughter who is a war widow, has decided to take under her wing the wealthy new resident of the village. Mr. Greenley is from new money. He dresses like a parody of an English country gentleman and has not been welcomed to the village. Gillian thinks he just needs a little help fitting in.

This novel is gently comic, reminding me of Angela Thirkell without quite so much sharpness and snobbery. As Laura tries to figure out what she wants from life, we are greatly entertained by the antics of her neighbors.

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