Day 1042: Troy Chimneys

troy-chimneysTroy Chimneys is a curious novel. Written in the 1950’s by a contemporary of the modernist Elizabeth Taylor, Troy Chimneys is set in the early 19th century and feels more like a Victorian novel except for the complexity of the morality. As such, I preferred it over the spare works of Taylor.

Miles Lufton is an ambitious man, but he has no fortune or title, so he must make his own way. He becomes a member of parliament and so must please people and curry favor.

Mr. Lufton sees himself as two different people. The ambitious, political Lufton who is always diplomatic and conciliating and has sometimes had to associate with the wrong people he calls Pronto, after a character in a play. The more retiring, thoughtful Lufton, who has no particular ambition and tends to the naive he calls Miles. Lufton dreams of the day when he has earned enough money that he can retire to his home, Troy Chimneys, and become wholly Miles.

After only one adventure in romance when he was young, Pronto has been content with flirtation (well, almost). But he finally realizes he is in love with a serious, intelligent spinster named Caroline. Caroline has had the perception to notice the two Luftons, but she has a different opinion of them than Lufton does.

The introduction of my Virago edition states that, like Taylor, Kennedy was examining virtue in this novel. That seems rather stuffy sounding, but the novel is quite enjoyable, full of ironies.

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Day 1040: The Orchardist

Cover for The OrchardistOn Tuesday, I meant to say that my review was my tribute to Valentine’s Day, with an unusual story of love. Well, here is another one.

Talmadge is a man with a sad history. When he was still a boy in 1857, his father died in a mining town in Oregon. He and his mother and sister then walked all the way along the Columbia River to Wenatchee, Washington. They created an orchard from the start of two diseased apple trees.

Talmadge’s mother died in 1860, when he was 12, and after that, he and his sister Elsbeth were everything to each other. But then when he was 17, his sister went into the forest to gather herbs and was never seen again. Talmadge searched for her for years.

At the opening of the novel, Talmadge is in his 40’s. He has lived his subsequent life alone, working his orchard. He has friends, particularly Caroline Middey, an herbalist, and Clee, a Nez Perce horse trader whom Talmadge and Elsbeth were friends with since they were children. Every year, he and his men stop by with their horses to work the harvest.

One day in town, Talmadge spots two wild young girls who appear to be homeless. Although barely in their teens, they are both pregnant. They find their way to the valley where Talmadge has his orchard, and he leaves food out for them. Although he tries to make a shelter for them, they stay outside. The girls are named Jane and Della.

Talmadge hears someone is offering a reward for the girls. He does not intend to turn them in but travels to see what type of person this Michaelson is. He finds Michaelson runs a brothel for young girls and is an erratic opium smoker.

Michaelson eventually finds the girls, just after they have their babies. The result is disaster. Della has lost twins in childbirth, but the resulting tragedy leaves Jane dead and Jane’s child Angelene alone with Talmadge and Della.

The rest of the novel is driven by Talmadge’s sense that it is his duty to keep Della and Angelene safe. But Della is a wild girl whose actions are controlled by her unrecognized grief. She learns how to ride and finally goes off to work with Clee and his men. But she proves too unruly for them.

This novel is deeply interesting and beautifully written. It is also incredibly sad. It is about the loneliness of the human condition, about our ties to one another, about responsibilities to other people.

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Day 1036: Edwin High King of Britain

Cover for Edwin High King of BritainIn the 7th century, Edwin has found refuge with Rœdwald, king of the East Angles. Edwin is the king of Deira and Bernicia, but he was long ago exiled when Aethelfrith usurped his throne. Edwin learns that Rœdwald is plotting to turn him over to Aethelfrith, and that provokes him to take back his kingdom.

Over time, through wars and alliances, Edwin is able to overcome his enemies and become High King of Britain. One of these alliances is his marriage with Aethelburh, daughter of the king of Kent, who is Christian.

I didn’t get terribly involved in the novel. I’m not sure if my problem was the flat characterization, the emphasis on battles and religion, or the lack of any sense of the characters’ day-to-day lives. If it was all feasting, fighting, and lusting after gold, then I don’t find this period very interesting. But I think the problem is that the characters and their lives are not fully realized. I couldn’t help contrasting this novel with King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, set a few centuries later, which has similar themes and story arc, but it is so much richer. Or, for that matter, The Long Ships, set a little nearer in time, about characters leading a similar life, but with a rollicking sense of humor.

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Day 1034: Ulverton

Cover for UlvertonWe’re now more familiar with novels written as related short stories, but Ulverton was written in 1992 and may be the first novel of this kind. The novel covers 300 years of English history and is set in one place, the fictional village of Ulverton. Other hallmarks of this unusual novel are that each chapter is written in a distinctly different voice and the chapters are written in different formats, from a tale told in an inn to the captions from a photographic display to the script of a documentary.

In 1650, the novel opens with the return of Gabby Cobbold from the Cromwellian wars. He meets the narrator, a shepherd named William, on his way home, but William does not have the courage to tell him that his wife, Anne, thinking he was dead, has remarried Thomas Walters. Gabby explains that he was away earning money to support the farm. Gabby disappears, and William is sure that Thomas and Anne killed him. But three hundred years later, Gabby gets his own back against a descendent of Thomas.

In 1689, the foolish Reverend Brazier tells the story of a strange night out on the downs, when he, William Scablehorne, and Simon Kistle were making their way through a snowstorm. As related in his sermon, they were apparently attacked by the devil and Mr. Kistle went mad.

Diary entries made in 1717 reveal a farmer’s preoccupation with improvements to his property and begetting an heir. Since his wife is ill, he does not touch her but begins trying to impregnate the maid.

In 1743, Mrs. Chalmers writes letters to her lover while shut away after childbed. Apparently having read her letters, her husband gets his doctor to keep her isolated longer.

And so it goes, stopping in about every 30 years, so that we sometimes hear of characters again. Through time, names are repeated and the story of incidents changes.

On occasion I had problems with the vernacular, although I tried to stick with it. The most difficult stories for me were the 1775 letters of Sarah Shail to her son and one side of the 1887 conversation between a man plowing and two boys. Sarah Shail is illiterate and is dictating her letters to John Pounds. However, this chapter has its own humor as Sarah is writing to her son Francis, who apparently answers her abusively, to the indignation of Pounds, who begins adding threats to the letters. Pounds’ spelling is so bad, though, that the letters are sometimes incomprehensible. In the case of the plowman, his dialect is so thick that I kept rereading parts of it but was unable to understand very much.

This was just one chapter, though. Overall, I found this novel deeply original and interesting. The countryside is so integral to the story that it features almost as a character. The writing is lovely, and the novel contains a great deal of drama and humor.

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Day 1033: The Miller’s Dance

Cover for The Miller's DanceThe Miller’s Dance is the ninth Poldark novel in a series of 12. Perhaps 12 books is too many for a series, or perhaps the shift of focus more to the activities of Ross and Demelza’s children is a problem for me. I just feel a winding down of interest fighting with the feeling that, having read so far, I should finish the series.

It is 1812, so there are important historical events on the horizon, but they only receive a modicum of attention. Instead, we are focused on the love affairs of the two oldest Poldark children, Jeremy and Clowance.

In the last book, Jeremy proposed to Cubie Trevanion and was not accepted. He assumed it was because his lineage wasn’t good enough, but when he confronts her brother, he finds that what he needs is money.

Jeremy doesn’t have money, although he seems to have a future as an engineer. The person who has money is George Warleggan, and he sets about arranging a marriage between Cubie and his son Valentine.

Clowance betroths herself to Stephen Carrington, who for my money is not to be trusted for a minute. Ross and Demelza do not interfere but insist on a long engagement.

Although the novel contains brief accounts of the wars in Europe and with America, as I said before, it concentrates on Jeremy and Clowance. They are not the vivid characters their parents make, and I’m not that interested in their romances or in Jeremy’s steam engines, which we hear about in great detail. Three more books to go, but I probably wouldn’t read them if I didn’t want to know what happens to the family and if I hadn’t already bought the books.

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Day 1031: A Country Marriage

Cover for A Country MarriageMary Springer marries George Strong even though she hardly knows him. She has been raised with the idea that a good marriage is her only option in life, and George is a good catch. His family owns the farm of Summerleas, and even though he is not the oldest son, she will be provided for. What Mary doesn’t know is that someone else wants her new husband, Annie, his brother Tom’s wife.

Mary has other surprises in store. She is not to live at Summerleas after all, because the farm will not support the two youngest sons. Instead, she and George will live at dark, damp Keeper’s Cottage. Also, George has only one idea about their intimate life, and it doesn’t include affection or companionship.

George is also involved with a group called the Radicals, who are working for better pay for farm laborers. But they use extreme tactics, like destroying farm machinery and burning hayricks.

This novel conveys the difficult life of rural workers in the early half of the 19th century and covers an important issue of the times. I sympathized with Mary’s plight, but felt that some of her behavior later in the novel was completely out of character.

At some point, the plot devolves into a focus on two illicit love affairs. I didn’t find this plot line interesting, nor do I care for three-page-long sex scenes, although some may think they’re romantic. Goddard has given this novel a subtitle “A Summerleas Novel,” so she seems to be planning a series about the family. I didn’t have enough interest to continue, however.

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Day 1026: Imperium

Cover for ImperiumBest Book of the Week!
One of the books on my Walter Scott prize list is the second in Robert Harris’s trilogy about Cicero, so I thought I’d start with this first book. The only other straightforward historical series about this period of Roman history that I’ve read is Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series about Julius Caesar. This series makes an interesting contrast.

The novel is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and amanuensis. Cicero is already in his 30’s when the novel begins with his decision to prosecute the corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres. Cicero is usually an advocate, but he sees in this case a way to further his ambitions to ultimately become consul.

Although corrupt governors are apparently not unusual, Verres has completely abused his authority, by even condemning to death without due process a Roman citizen or two, something that was unspeakable to the Romans. Still, as a policy the powerful aristocrats are behind him, including the renowned orator Hortensius, who is defending Verres. Cicero must take a trip to Sicily to collect evidence.

This novel is a really fine combination of a legal and political thriller. McCullough’s series was mostly positive on Julius Caesar and negative on Cicero, even faintly ridiculing him. Harris’s novel makes Cicero a complicated sympathetic character and Caesar a slippery conniver. If you are at all interested in this period, I highly recommend this novel. And for excellent plotting and writing, I recommend it if you are at all interested in historical fiction.

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