Author: bookssnob

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

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We recently started a staff book club at school, and I’ve enjoyed reading books for it that I either wouldn’t ordinarily have tried, or have been thinking about reading but would have remained on the back burner for years until I finally got around to them. The Silent Companions was chosen for our December book, which is one I’d seen in book shops and thought about trying, as I do love a neo Victorian thriller, so I was pleased to have the push to finally pick it up.

It starts with what has become a bit of a tired trope, in my opinion, when it comes to neo Victorian novels: a woman is in an asylum, and she doesn’t remember what happened to her – is she guilty of some heinous crime or has she been wrongfully imprisoned, the victim of a wicked male relative who wants her tidied away? Elsie Bainbridge, as it turns out, has had a pretty shocking time of it; she’s covered in horrific scars from having been burned in a fire, and has lost both her memory and her power of speech. All she knows is that people call her a murderess, and that she has supposedly done something terrible, but she has no idea – and has no desire to remember – what this is. Helpfully a kindly doctor who is more enlightened than the rest decides to try and help Elsie recover her lost memories, and equipping her with a chalk and slate, encourages her to start telling her story.

This therefore allows us to go back to the time before the accident, when Elsie, newly widowed after the sudden death of her husband, goes to live at The Bridge, his dilapidated and unsettling ancestral home that has been shut up for some years. Rupert had wanted them to live there together, with the child Elsie is now carrying, but while there to get the house suitably fitted up for his new wife, he dies in his bed, leaving Elsie bereft and determined to carry out his wishes by bringing up his child in the home that he had wanted them to share. However, on arrival at The Bridge, it is clear that there is a good reason why the family have never wanted to live there. The local village is destitute and yet no one will come and work at the house thanks to rumours of mysterious deaths and supernatural happenings. The housekeeper, Mrs Holt, laughs it all off as local superstition, but at night, Elsie hears strange sounds of hissing in the garrets, finds sawdust on the floors, and notices that on Rupert’s corpse, there are splinters. When she forces open the door of the locked garret above her room and finds a creepy lifesize figure of a girl that looks startlingly like a blend of her and her husband, she is terrified, but Rupert’s cousin Sarah, who has come to live with her, loves it and insists on it being taken down into the house as a decoration. Sarah also happens to find, just lying in the garret, the diary of her ancestor Anne Bainbridge, who was alive during the reign of Charles I and rumoured to be a witch, and within its pages they discover that it was she who bought the wooden figures, called ‘companions’, as a conceit to entertain Charles I and Henrietta Maria when they honoured The Bridge with a visit.

Soon, however, the one companion they found transforms into many; they start popping up everywhere, and seem to be able to move themselves. Elsie and Sarah become terrified, and convinced that the maids and Mrs Holt are playing tricks on them. Sarah keeps reading the diary, to try and find out more about their origin, and as more is revealed about the history of the Bainbridge family, it becomes more and more obvious why the house is so hated by the locals. Anne Bainbridge was a witch, and her daughter, Hetta, conjured up by magic when she was told she could have no more children naturally, was born a mute, with a deformed tongue. It was this child who loved the companions and had them as her playmates, but, living at a time when a deformity was a source of shame, Hetta was rejected and despised by her father and so carried a hidden well of hatred towards others in her heart. As the companions multiply and start to terrify the maids too, the house seems to be becoming possessed by them and some sort of dark force that Sarah seems to think originated from Anne Bainbridge. But with Mrs Holt, and Elsie’s brother Jolyon insisting on the women being hysterical, and Mrs Holt suggesting that there was nothing wrong with the house before Elsie arrived in it, Elsie’s sanity begins to be questioned. Are the companions real, or are they just a figment of a disturbed imagination? But if Sarah can see them too, and the maids…could there be someone else involved, who perhaps has their own reasons for wanting Elsie gone?

There is much more to the plot than this, and various back stories that never quite come together and have the significance I was expecting them to. Elsie and her brother own a match factory, for example, and I was waiting for there to be a connection between the wood and sawdust of the factory and the wood and sawdust of The Bridge, but nothing comes of this. There are also vague murmurings of childhood abuse which again don’t really come to very much – there is a thread of women being dominated and abused by men, but it rumbles along under the surface with such a whimper that I didn’t really see the point in it having been included at all. I did see the ending coming, and it didn’t pack the punch I think the author intended because of it, but it was still quite an interesting twist. Nonetheless there were a lot of unanswered questions and unresolved plot threads, and I didn’t find it half as chilling and creepy as I wanted to, largely because I found the concept of moving wooden figures terrifying people faintly ridiculous. I mean, quite frankly, you’d just leave the house, surely, if you were finding weird moving-eyed figurines jumping on you around every corner?! The plot hinged around people behaving in unrealistic ways and in objects that were hundreds of years old still happening to be conveniently lying around in obvious places, so after a while I was reading just to get to the end, but I was sufficiently intrigued and entertained to want to get there. It’s not a great example of literature – the poor attempt at nineteenth century and seventeenth prose did grate rather – and is certainly not of the standard of the likes of Sarah Waters, who handles this sort of thing with such skill and eloquence – but it’s the kind of undemanding book that is actually perfect for book clubs where you’ve got a range of people with different tastes – it’s good fun, filled with plenty of action, and has plenty of plot points to pull apart in discussion. And according to the amazon reviews, loads of people loved it and were terrified by it, so maybe it was just me who found it a bit of a damp squib! I’d love to hear if anyone else has read it!

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Home Sweet Home

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For those of you who have been following me since I started blogging almost a decade ago now, you’ll know I don’t tend to stay put for very long. Over the last ten years I’ve lived in eight different flats and houses, in four different towns/cities and in two different countries. Since leaving university, amongst other places, I’ve shared a ramshackle house in suburban London with five girls, lived in a tiny tenement apartment in Spanish Harlem, gone back to live with my mum in a cottage in the countryside, and rented a flat built of glass in trendy East London. All of these have been temporary, and none of them have truly been home. I always do my best to make a home wherever I go, no matter how grubby the carpets or how scarred the yellowing walls, but pretty cushions, colourful rugs and propped up pictures can only go so far to disguise cheap, ugly furniture and the general air of bland soullessness that pervades most rented properties. Pockmarked magnolia walls, poorly fitted vinyl floors, mouldy tiles and wonky cupboards had become my norm for so long that I had accepted that I would probably have to spend my life making do wherever I lived; covering up the worst of my landlord’s taste with throws and cushions and rugs, finding corners to squirrel away my books, and keeping a drawer full of special things that would take pride of place in my ‘one day’ house, when I was finally able to have somewhere of my own.

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Working as a teacher and paying London rent for the best part of a decade didn’t give me an enormous amount of hope that I’d be ever be able to buy anywhere though, as despite a fairly healthy savings account, the prices of homes kept spiralling ever out of my reach. I had just decided that it was getting to be time to up sticks and move North, to Leeds or Manchester or York, where I’d be able to buy somewhere on a teacher’s salary quite comfortably, when I received an unexpected inheritance that changed my life overnight. I am not the sort of person to whom anything exciting or unusual ever really happens, so to suddenly be in a position to be able to buy my own home in central London was truly overwhelming. A world of possibility opened up to me. Where should I live? Hampstead or Highgate, near the wild swathes of open heath that feel like the countryside and whose cobbled maze of lanes lined with Georgian and Victorian ivy massed cottages offer spectacular views over the city spread below? Trendy East London, in a warehouse conversion with exposed brick and steel and huge stretches of wall to fill with bookshelves? Down by the river in Greenwich, where I could smell the sea and go for long walks in the park where time begins? Or a fancy mansion flat in Chelsea, where I could have magnolia filled window boxes and buy myself a tiny dog to walk while I went shopping along the King’s Road?

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In the end, the choice was far easier than I expected. I love to walk everywhere, I love to be in the middle of things but to have a night that isn’t disturbed by wailing sirens and drunk people, and I love to be surrounded by beautiful, historical architecture. The only part of London that really satisfied all of this was Bloomsbury, and yet the prices there were a little too eye watering for my liking. However, within a five minute walk of Bloomsbury is a little pocket of Georgian squares and hidden gated gardens, an oasis of quiet, village-like streets that it seems absurd still exist amidst the bustle that surrounds them. You can walk into the City in half an hour, to Bloomsbury in a few minutes, and be taken up to the fresh air of Hampstead and Highgate on the bus in little more than ten minutes. In January, I saw two flats online that were on my favourite street. One was in a small block of flats built to replace a bombed Georgian terrace. The other was the top two floors of a Georgian terrace. They were exactly the same size inside, but one was six figures cheaper than the other. Madness, one would think, but apparently, this is the price one pays for period features. Intrigued, and expecting to love the Georgian terrace far more than the mid century flat, I arranged to view both. To my surprise, I fell instantly and irrevocably in love with the more modern flat, and put an offer in on the spot. It had only ever been lived in by one family, was in a rather terrible state and needed everything doing to it, but I felt just such a tremendous sense of joy the moment I stepped in the door that I knew it had to be mine.

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Fast forward ten months; after having stripped everything away, moved some rooms around, widened doorways, rewired, replumbed, refloored and redecorated, I finally have the home I dreamed of, in a neighbourhood that feels like it was built just for me. I can walk to work in the morning, and pass the homes of famous writers and artists who once haunted these streets as I do so. I can count Persephone Books as one of my local shops. I have lovely neighbours who have already been round for a drink. My friends can come over easily after work because I am central for everyone rather than being miles away from where most of them live. And most importantly, I now have somewhere to call my own, somewhere that can’t be taken away from me on the whim of a landlord, and where I can sit on a sofa that I chose, sleep in a bed that I chose, and put whatever I bloody well like on the walls! I am so very happy here. It is a haven of peace and tranquility to return to after a busy day in the classroom, and I am overjoyed to be surrounded by my beloved books and pictures and objects that have been collected over years but largely left in boxes as I have never had the room – or often the permission – to put them everywhere. To know that I can stay here for as long as I like – forever, if I so choose – has made such an enormous difference to me. I had never realised how unsettled I always felt; how much of my life felt like it was built on shifting sand. Not knowing where you will live from one year to the next has that effect on you, I suppose. I am learning, for the first time, what it feels like to be able to stand still and rest a while, and I have to say, I rather like it.

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I hope you enjoy the pictorial tour; I’ve been here a month now and there are still plenty of things to find a place for, but I’m getting there!

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!

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.