Larchfield by Polly Clark

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I was recommended this book by the lovely owner of the independent book shop in Grantown-on-Spey I visited on my recent holiday to Scotland. Had I just read the blurb on my own, I would have dismissed it, but her enthusiasm for the book won me over. I duly bought it and read it within two days, unexpectedly drawn into the world of a novel that requires plenty of suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader to work, but pulls it off to create a poignant and beautifully written story about two poets magically drawn together across time.

The novel opens with the young poet Wystan Auden arriving to teach at a school in the Scottish seaside town of Helensburgh in the 1930s. He doesn’t want the job; he can’t imagine anything worse than being stuck in the back of beyond teaching in a provincial boarding school. However, he needs the money rather desperately, as being a poet obviously doesn’t pay, and so reluctantly he heads to Larchfield school to start a new life, away from everything and everyone he knows. Fast forward to the present day, and Dora Fielding, also a young poet, is also moving to Helensburgh, but with her new, much older husband Kit, whose architect’s firm has a big job in the town. Pregnant and separated from her social and professional networks in Oxford for the first time, Dora is anxious about the move and not entirely sure they have made the right decision. They move into an auspiciously named sea front villa, Paradise, in which they have the ground floor flat. The flat is beautiful, but their upstairs neighbours, Mo and Terrence, take an instant dislike to Dora and Kit, and begin to make their lives a misery. At the same time, back in the 1930s, Wystan is having a terrible time at Larchfield. One of the other teachers has also taken an instant dislike to him, he has no social life, and he is desperate for a meaningful sexual connection. However, being homosexual in conventional Helensburgh in the 1930s is not conducive to the development of a functioning relationship, and even though Wystan has unexpectedly met a lover, they must operate in clandestine secrecy if he is to keep his job.

When Dora gives birth prematurely to her daughter Bea, her anxiety and loneliness grow ever worse. Mo and Terrance seem to take pleasure in ensuring their home is always filled with loud music and visitors who trample and park all over Dora and Kit’s front garden, and yet somehow it is Dora who has been painted as the nightmare neighbour, with Mo and Terrance’s friends accusing her of making an old couple’s life hell by her nastiness after she challenges them. As she gradually becomes more distressed and paranoid, and unable to express herself in writing, Dora feels she is losing her identity. One day, she goes for a walk on the beach and finds a message in a bottle, signed Wystan, and with a telephone number – she dials it, and finds herself connected to the Larchfield of the 1930s, now an abandoned relic – and to W.H.Auden himself. When she arrives at the school to meet him, she finds herself in the 1930s, and forming a friendship with a poet she has always admired, and who is able to bring her back to herself. However, as she increasingly seeks comfort in this new friendship, her grip on her own reality weakens. As her sanity is questioned, so is her capability of being a mother. But is Dora really meeting with W.H.Auden across time, or is he merely the product of a disturbed mind that needs locking away?

The dovetailing of these two vulnerable people, both living lives that have separated them from an essential part of themselves, was a stroke of genius on the part of the author. She has made a truly meaningful and moving exploration of loneliness and isolation that works as both a chance to shed a light on an intriguing time in W.H.Auden’s life as well as on the experience of new motherhood. While I found it ever so slightly unrealistic that neither Dora’s husband nor her health visitors pick up on the fact that she clearly has post-natal depression and needs support, I didn’t find it hard at all to believe in the connection between the two poets over time, as I chose to interpret it merely as a figment of Dora’s imagination. The book is written in a beautiful, lyrical, poetical voice that clearly reveals Polly Clark’s own poetic talents, and is a truly mesmerising piece of fiction that fully swept me away to the wide, bleached skies of the Scottish coast. I would really encourage you to give it a try!

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Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain

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I’ve loved Edward Burne-Jones ever since I was a teenager and first became obsessed with the Victorians. The ochre-toned autumnal colour palette of his paintings always transports me to the fog-bound streets of nineteenth century England, where in my imagination, the weather is always slightly damp and the only light is the glimmer of a softly glowing gas lamp in the perpetual dusk. I love his predilection for a romantic medieval past, of chivalrous knights and women in jewel coloured robes that fall in delicious folds about their bodies. His blend of romance, myth and religion creates a mesmerising, fantastic visual world that for me entirely embodies the complexities and contradictions of the Victorian imagination, and I can stand in front of a Burne-Jones painting for hours, drinking it all in.

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Tate Britain is currently holding an exhibition of his work, which is the first major solo exhibition of Burne-Jones since the 1930s. Victorian art is still rather unfashionable in fashionable circles: many dismiss it as tasteless and twee, or often, too maudlin. I would challenge anyone who thinks Victorian art is these things to visit this exhibition, because it is a hall of absolute wonder. For the first time, all of his enormous exhibition paintings have been reunited, alongside haunting portraits, stained glass and the most exquisite line drawings that reveal a fascination with Dürer. Seeing such a representative body of his work allows for the extraordinary nature of Burne-Jones’ imagination and genius to be seen. He was daring, innovative, multi-talented and possessed of a creative vision that saw in religious and mythical stories a richly, darkly meaningful parallel world to our own.

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If you can manage to make it along, prepare yourself to be amazed and enchanted, and to wish that you could turn the clock back sixty years or so to when such paintings as this were being chucked away and sold for peanuts. The Tate have done a marvellous job of clustering the art together thematically, and allowing enough space for everything to be seen to its best advantage. From enormous paintings to wall-length tapestries, a painted grand piano to illustrated letters to his beloved granddaughter (who was middlebrow writer Angela Thirkell), there is so much to delight in. And if you can’t make it in person, the exhibition catalogue is a wonderful resource. I have it by my side as I type, and am looking forward to dipping in and out of it for inspiration as the nights draw in and I want to be transported back to those smoke shrouded streets of Victorian London!

After the Party by Cressida Connelly

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A beautiful cover, a WW2 setting and a plot that includes the mention of a Mitford sister? Could a book be any more suited to me?, I thought, as I treated myself to the pretty hardcover edition. Cressida Connelly is an author new to me, though Darlene reviewed a different book by her a few weeks ago and piqued my interest. She seems to favour historical settings, and this book is certainly very well researched. Largely set in the late 1930s, it tells the story of Phyllis, a middle class, utterly respectable thirty something, who has spent several years living abroad due to her husband’s work. Newly returned to England after her husband finds himself out of a job, Phyllis and her family settle near her sisters, Nina and Patricia, in the peaceful Sussex countryside. Phyllis is delighted to be back in England after so long abroad, but she feels rather lost and out of sorts. Used to having people to look after her children for her, she is uncertain of her role as a mother, and she is starting to question her marriage to the much older Hugh, who had initially wanted to marry her far more outgoing and glamorous sister Patricia. The youngest of the family, and used to being somewhat bossed about by her sisters, Phyllis struggles to find a place and identity for herself, until she is roped into helping out her sister Nina and her husband Eric with the summer camps they run for adults and children. Thrown into the society of all sorts of interesting people who attend the camps and mix socially with her sisters, Phyllis and Hugh soon find themselves caught up in the political movement Nina, Eric, and to a certain extent Patricia and her husband Greville, too, are involved in. This gives them both a sense of purpose and belonging, and the party’s focus on peace as WWII breaks out becomes ever more important to both of them.

In amongst all of this is Phyllis’ growing friendship with a neighbour, Sarita, who seems to understand and accept Phyllis more than anyone else ever has. They form a strong bond, but Phyllis can see that something isn’t right beneath the surface. Fabulously wealthy and beautiful, Sarita seems to have everything. But something is clearly making her desperately unhappy, and when a dreadful event happens after a party thrown at Sarita’s house, Phyllis blames herself. Things seem to be crumbling around her as her friendships and marriage start to fall apart, and then, all of a sudden, her connection with Nina’s political views comes into question, and she is shocked to find that not everyone thinks her beliefs are for the good of the country…

Essentially this is a novel about the rise of Fascism and how innocuous extreme beliefs can initially appear. It opens with Phyllis’ first person narrative from the 1970s, so we know straight away that she has been in prison – but we don’t know why or what she’s done – there are hints she’s to blame for something terrible, but it’s all very vague. To people not familiar with Oswald Mosley or Diana Mitford, whose names are mentioned quite early on – it might be more of a surprise that it’s about Fascism, but to me it was obvious from the start, and I assumed she’d been imprisoned for her political affiliation and for doing something connected with Hitler, but I was surprised by the actual circumstances of her imprisonment. The something terrible turned out to not be connected to the politics at all and I found it frankly rather far fetched and unrealistic – a strange add-on to the plot, too, that had no real reason to impact on any of the events. It’s well written and atmospheric, but unfortunately it fell rather flat for me as Phyllis is such a wishy-washy character and there is no real reference to her political beliefs, ideology, convictions, etc. at all. We are expected to believe that Phyllis and her husband, who have never shown any interest in politics, have become passionate advocates of Oswald Mosley’s political party without ever having any conversations with each other, or any one else, about their opinions on the matter whatsoever. It was absurd to me that this part of Phyllis’ character was not fleshed out in any detail, and though she is presented as a thoughtful, sensitive and intelligent woman, we are expected to believe that she sleepwalked into becoming a fascist, simply believing that it was all about putting Britain first. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re writing a novel about politics, there needs to be some politics in it, and the total lack of this meant I couldn’t really believe in the characters or events. It’s a shame, because the premise had so much promise, but ultimately, it didn’t work for me as a coherent novel. Nevertheless, I did very much like Cressida Connelly’s style of writing, and I’d certainly be interested in trying another one of her books in future.

Autumnal Aberdeenshire

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After a quite stressful first half term back at school, made worse by the fact that I had to live out of a suitcase in my very kind sister in law’s spare room for several weeks due to delays in the building work on my new flat, I was very ready for a holiday. I had flirted with the idea of San Francisco, but then I saw a photo of a Scottish castle surrounded by autumnal foliage in a magazine and thought that actually, I had much more beautiful – and cheaper! – scenery on my own doorstep. So, a week in Aberdeenshire was duly booked, as it was a part of Northern Scotland I hadn’t yet explored, and the promise of more castles per square mile than any other part of the UK and the unspoiled beauty of the Cairngorms National Park were temptations too good to miss. I was taking rather a risk to visit at the end of October – people made all sorts of faces when I said where I was going, suggesting I was slightly insane to possibly submit myself to a week of driving rain and stubborn cloud – but my head was too full of visions of nature in a blaze of autumnal glory to worry about getting drenched. And as it happens, we were extraordinarily lucky with the weather. The days were crisp, with the most glorious soft golden light that gave the landscape a beautiful sepia hue. It was a delicious week.

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We decided to fly in order to make the most of our time; from London, the train to Aberdeen is over seven hours, which is far too long to be sitting down, in my opinion. Though I missed getting to see the subtle changes in the topography of the UK as the train steams up from the gentle slopes of the South to the craggy coast line of the North, it was a treat to arrive in Scotland within an hour of leaving London. As soon as we picked up our hire car, we were off to visit castle number 1: Drum. Drum Castle is everything you’d expect of a Scottish castle; turrets, towers and plenty of myths and legends! We loved exploring the castle itself, but the surrounding woodland was also breathtaking, with the trees burnished with gold and the waning sunlight casting a golden glow on the surrounding landscape as we climbed up higher and higher to see the Dee valley spread before us. It was a magical first day, and we drove back to our Airbnb cottage filled with excitement for the days ahead.

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Over the next few days we visited all of the other castles in the surrounding area that were open: Crathes Castle, Castle Fraser and Fyvie Castle, as well as two William Adam designed Georgian houses, Duff House and Haddo House. I could bore you with descriptions of all of these, as they were all glorious, but I’ll just tell you about my favourite: Fyvie Castle. Extensively renovated during the Victorian period by a Scottish steel magnate who went to America to make his fortune and brought back a dynamic and very wealthy American wife to the castle that had belonged to his ancestors 500 years previously, it is a magnificent example of how a traditional tower house can be made into a sumptuous home, and we adored it. It helped that we had a brilliant tour guide, but the Victorian interiors were absolute heaven for me! We also very much enjoyed Haddo House, which is well worth a visit for its beautiful grounds alone, where you can see red squirrels!

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In addition to castles, we enjoyed exploring the magnificent countryside and coastline of the region. The beautiful Cairngorms National Park takes up a huge swathe of the north of Scotland, and we drove through it, along the Royal Deeside route, as far as the pretty little town of Ballater. Surrounded by gently rolling hills, lochs and woodland, the Royal Deeside area is so called because of the River Dee that runs through it, but also because of its connection to Queen Victoria, for this is where Balmoral is situated, the Queen’s Highland home. All of the towns in the region benefited enormously from Queen Victoria’s decision to build her castle here in the mid nineteenth century, bringing a railway line with her, alongside a huge number of tourists and wealthy Victorian businessmen and industrialists who were keen to build their own Scottish retreats. The towns along the road to Balmoral received railway stations, neat new rows of houses, and an array of shops to serve the needs of their highbrow customers. Now much of this bustle has gone, in part due to the closure of the railway line in the 1960s, but Ballater retains its quaint Victorian charm and is still the place where the Royal household does its shopping when at Balmoral today. I was delighted to find the wooden station building built for Queen Victoria still standing, and inside it has been marvellously repurposed as a visitor centre, local library and restaurant, with one of Queen Victoria’s railway carriages to look at, a reconstructed royal waiting room, and a fascinating exhibition about the history of the railway line and its connection to the royal family.  It is definitely worth stopping off to visit, especially as there’s a very nice second hand book shop to look in, too!

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The coastline of Northern Scotland is wild and rugged, and though there was no chance of any sea bathing at this time of year, we still wanted the opportunity to see the sea while we had the chance! There are plenty of lovely places to visit along the coast; we stopped off first of all at the pretty town of Elgin, where there is a spectacular ruined cathedral to explore as well as a magnificent little museum, the oldest in Scotland, full of a fascinating, quirky collection of all sorts of objects, including a world-famous early Victorian fossil collection – just my cup of tea! From Elgin we went on to Cullen, a charming village that hugs the coastline, has an amazing railway viaduct, and is the birthplace of the famous Scottish soup, ‘cullen skink’, which is made from smoked fish and potatoes. We pottered about in the antique shops before heading off to Banff, which is a beautiful Georgian coastal town that is also the home of Duff House, whose Georgian splendour was almost eclipsed by the excellence of the coffee and cake we had in the tea room! As the sun began to set, we drove back along the coast to Portsoy, and watched the sun go down over the horizon, before returning to Cullen for the best fish and chips I’ve ever had at Linda’s – definitely a must visit!

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We had a marvellous time taking in the delights of the area, all against the backdrop of an ever changing pallet of glorious golds and ochres that were a feast for the eyes. One final recommendation I must make is to visit the most wonderful independent bookshop I’ve ever been to, in Grantown-on-Spey in the heart of the Cairngorms: The Bookmark. Filled to the brim with an amazing selection of books, including Persephones, we had a marvellous time exploring, and the owner was lovely, knowledgable and full of recommendations. She is passionate about getting people reading in the local area, running all sorts of groups and events, and I was amazed by her energy and enthusiasm. Please do go and support her if you can!

Literary Landscapes

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Normally when I am asked to take part in a blog tour, my instant response is ‘no’, largely because I am terrible at remembering when I am supposed to be doing things at the best of times, but also because I usually don’t feel particularly passionate about the book being promoted. I would feel incredibly dishonest raving about something that I wasn’t convinced the people who read this blog and enjoy reading what I enjoy reading would like. However, in this case, I was delighted to make an exception and take part, because I love the concept, I love the book itself, and I genuinely believe that all lovers of literature will want this on their shelves.

Literary Landscapes: Charting the World of Classic Literature explores the real-life landscapes featured in favourite classic novels from across the world, looking at their meaning and significance to the novel as well as to the reader and the author themselves. It’s lavishly illustrated with paintings and photographs and ranges from nineteenth century fiction such as Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables to contemporary novels with a profound sense of place, such as Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. Each novel chosen to be featured comes with an accessible, scholarly written essay about the book’s setting and its significance, along with a variety of maps, paintings and photographs that are so beautiful and fun to look at. Making links to contemporary concerns, literary movements, the author’s own life and the impact on readers, each essay offers a short and sweet tour of the novel’s setting that allows even the most sophisticated of reader to learn something new and place their favourite books within a wider literary landscape. While some of the books featured are very familiar to me, and I fully understand and appreciate the significance of their setting already, there were many in the book, particularly ones set in foreign countries, or by more contemporary authors, which were more of a revelation to me.

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I’ve never been a huge fan of Toni Morrison, for example, but reading more about her choice of setting for The Bluest Eye, and seeing a photograph of her in high school, suddenly allowed me to make a connection that wasn’t there before:

“The Bluest Eye is set among the working-class African-American community just after the Great Depression, in the author’s home town of Lorain, Ohio, during the early 1940s. The then small, industrialized town, now a small city, is situated at the mouth of Lake Erie and later became part of what is now known as America’s Rust Belt.

The main theme of this short, melancholic book is of the self-hatred engendered by racism, with whiteness, and blond hair and blue eyes in particular, setting the standard for accepted beauty. Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove believes – and is encouraged to believe – that because she is black she is ugly, and therefore cannot be beautiful, or loved – and indeed, her life is one of violence and disaster …

Toni Morrison was born in Lorain at 2245 Elyria Avenue, a two-storey frame house with a backyard full of weeds, very close to Lake Erie. Morrison used this house as a setting in The Bluest Eye, as well as a rundown store downtown, which became, in the novel, the home of the Breedlove family. ‘There is an abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio’, she wrote. ‘It does not recede into its background of leaden sky, nor harmonize with the gray frame houses and black telephone poles around it. Rather, it foists itself on the eye of the passerby in a manner that is both irritating and melancholy.’”

From exploring the real-life territory of Hardy’s Wessex to following in the footsteps of Eleanor Catton’s neo-Victorian protagonists in gold-rush New Zealand in her 2013 novel The Luminaries (far more interesting to read about than read, in my opinion!), this book is one of those that provides endless interest and fascination, and is a wonderful way to pass a quiet Sunday afternoon on the sofa. I know I’ll also be using it in the classroom, as a way of helping to bring the classic novels I study with my students alive, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’d like a copy of your own, and are on twitter, then you can win one, closing date 31st October – all you need to do is follow @modernbooks and tweet your own favourite #LiteraryLandscape for a chance to win.

Literary Landscapes is published by Modern Books and is released on the 25th of October.