A Room with a View – E M Forster

Originally published in 1908 this Edwardian romance and comedy of manners is nowadays regarded as one of the classics in English literature although probably not rated as highly as two of Forster’s other novels ‘Howards End’ and ‘A Passage to India’. I know I have read it before, probably around 1985 when the Merchant Ivory film adaptation came out, but to my genuine surprise I realised that I had completely forgotten the story line when I started reading it again this week. I chose this over the other two, that I also have on my shelves as a good friend of mine in Barcelona has just started reading a brand new Catalan translation along with two friends so I thought it would be fun to join in with the English original.

The novel is in two parts, the first of which is set entirely in Florence, Italy whilst the second part mainly takes place in England. We start with twenty year old Lucy Honeychurch and her much older cousin Charlotte Bartlett, who is acting as her chaperone, newly arrived at the Pensione Bertolini in Florence and bemoaning the fact that neither of them had been allocated a room with a view despite being assured when booking that they would each have a good view of the square and the river. We are then rapidly introduced to the other guests at the hotel as they discuss the situation leading up to Mr Emerson and his son George offering to swap rooms as they do have good views

“What I mean,” he continued, “is that you can have our rooms, and we’ll have yours. We’ll change.”

The better class of tourist was shocked at this, and sympathised with the new-comers. Miss Bartlett, in reply, opened her mouth as little as possible, and said “Thank you very much indeed; that is out of the question.”

“Why?” said the old man, with both fists on the table.

“Because it is quite out of the question, thank you.”

“You see, we don’t like to take—” began Lucy. Her cousin again repressed her.

“But why?” he persisted. “Women like looking at a view; men don’t.” And he thumped with his fists like a naughty child, and turned to his son, saying, “George, persuade them!”

And so within the first couple of pages we hit on the class difference between the Emerson’s and the other guests at the hotel as Lucy and Charlotte were shocked by the suggestion as it would leave the two women under a perceived obligation to two strange men, something that never occurs to either of the Emerson’s. It is this perceived total social unsuitability of these men to the rest of the group that provides the dynamic through the remainder of the book as various characters keep meeting them and recoil regarding their ‘common ways’. In fact a clergyman, Mr Beebe intercedes and convinces Charlotte that the exchange of rooms can be done without obligation so they both end up with a room with a view by the end of the first chapter. I don’t want to give away the plot but suffice to say that Lucy finds herself accidentally alone with George on more than one occasion whilst in Florence to the considerable embarrassment of her and the pleasure of him.

Part two has a sudden shift in location and time, clearly many weeks, if not months have passed and a new character is introduced, Cecil Vyse. We are also at the home of Mrs Honeychurch, Lucy’s mother in the fictional village of Summer Street in Surrey. Slowly various characters that made up the guests at the Pensione Bertolini also appear in the village either accidentally or deliberately and the tensions between the group are reproduced only this time with the added complication of Cecil who has become Lucy’s fiance or her ‘fiasco’ according to her brother Freddy and never a truer word was said in jest. The problems caused by various unseemly, at least to the mores of the time, acts or words by the assorted people and again unfortunate meetings and misunderstandings carry us through a thoroughly satisfying final chapter. I greatly enjoyed the book and the interplay between the characters and although many of the things they regard as shocking or unsuitable would not be so nowadays the fact that Forster is gently poking fun at them is always clear.

The edition that I currently own is from a set of six Penguin Classics designed in 2008 by Bill Amberg, the London based leather work studio, each book comes in a sturdy box with a belly band indicating which book is inside. The book itself is fully bound in a soft brown leather with a hole punched right through the cover and all the pages in the top left corner where a leather book mark is attached with the titles and author embossed in it. The only thing marking the cover itself is the Penguin Books logo at the base of the spine. It is also incredibly difficult to photograph accurately, the photos below are as close as I could get, with the bookmark being the closest to the actual colour of the leather. The leather cover overlaps the pages by a significant amount making it a yapp binding where over time and repeated reading the leather will fold over to totally encase the book. Each book was published in a limited edition of 1000 and priced at £50 per volume.

For the Penguin Classics leather binding I have chosen a vegetable tanned, buffalo calf. I should stress that all the skins were taken from ‘fallen animals’ – i.e. they died from natural causes – and were sourced from India’s premium calf tannery. They use traditional methods in a totally ecological process, where the water used is recycled after filtering through reed beds. This creates leather that improves with every use, the grain and sheen brightening continually over time.

Bill Amberg

Leaflet included with the book

The High Toby – J B Priestley

This is less of a review of the High Toby than a brief look at the history of the toy theatre in Britain and more specifically the end of an era with the collapse into administration of the most famous, and by then the only significant, toy theatre company in the country, that run by Benjamin Pollock. For those readers unfamiliar with toy theatres I will also look in some detail at The High Toby and what you got when you purchased the book.

Benjamin Pollock didn’t set out to be a toy theatre maker and retailer, he married into the trade in 1877 when he took Eliza Redington as his wife and effectively inherited the family business of print making, especially sheets for toy theatres, before that he had been a furrier like his father. But his name was to become synonymous with toy theatres which was already a declining business when he started in the trade. However he was in for a considerable stroke of luck, with the reduction in the popularity of the toy theatre had gone a significant reduction in the number of competitors as they had slowly gone out of business and then in 1887 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an essay called ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’ about his love for toy theatres and specifically mentioning Pollock’s business, you can read it as chapter 13 of his later compilation of essays called Memories and Portraits available on Project Gutenberg. The title refers to the way the sheets were priced either a penny a sheet that you had to colour in yourself or two pence for pre-coloured, frankly half the fun of these was the colouring in as successfully performing a play on a toy theatre was actually quite difficult. This essay which originally appeared in The Magazine of Art drove interest in the subject and dramatically increased trade for Pollock’s.

Benjamin Pollock continued the business until he died in 1937, largely simply reprinting the sheets originally sold by John Redington with his name replacing Redington’s (just as Redington had done with his predecessor in the business) although he did introduce a handful of new plays in the six decades he was in charge. It was this careful use of the existing plates that kept his costs down and enabled the business to continue bringing in an income in the face of yet another downturn in demand for the products he was selling. Pollock’s daughters continued the shop for a short while but WWII intervened, the building was bombed and in 1944 they sold the plates and remaining stock to Alan Keen who ran an antiquarian bookshop. Keen may have understood book selling but the far more financially precarious world of toy theatres was all new to him and he set about expanding the new Benjamin Pollock Ltd company he created and that meant new plays and new designs of theatres to perform them in. Not content with new versions of classic pantomimes which didn’t require much or any royalties to be paid he commissioned completely new works including an adaption of the 1948 J Arthur Rank film of Hamlet starring Laurence Olivier.

As the film was in black and white the backgrounds and wing dressings for this production was also in black and white although the characters were reproduced in full colour using photographs of the actual cast. The licencing for this could not have been cheap but was almost certainly eclipsed by the cost of the other 1948 publication of The High Toby. There would be one more new production from Benjamin Pollock Ltd. which was a version of the nativity story published in 1950 but by 1952 the company had gone into receivership, probably pushed over the edge by the two 1948 new productions.

As indicated above The High Toby should really have been called The High Cost. In 1948 when this book was published Priestley was at the height of his powers, his most famous play ‘An Inspector Calls’ was written in 1945 and had reached the London stage the following year to excellent reviews so hiring him to write a play was a bold but extravagant choice for the Benjamin Pollock company. That they also got the well known artist and theatrical designer Doris Zinkeisen to design the sets and figures may well have been a step too far, although getting Penguin Books to publish the book unlike than their self published Hamlet may well have offset some of the cost as Priestley could at least expect more royalties that way but as this was a commission he would have received a significant advance. The book is intended for use with the Benjamin Pollock Regency Theatre which cost 38 shillings and sixpence (the equivalent of £69 in 2021) so not a cheap toy, especially so soon after WWII, so this was only an option to wealthier families. Along with the short play there are backdrops, dressings for the wings and characters in various poses to fit the performance all of which need to be cut out and mounted on cardboard before attaching to rods so they can be moved on the stage.

Some of the backdrops included in the book can be seen below, there are a total of nine pages of backdrops

Wing dressings and a couple of carriages are on these pages again there are more wing dressings than I have included here.

and the designs for figures include these, there are two more pages of characters to be cut out. Not only did the lucky child with this toy need wealthy parents they also needed endless patience to cut out and mount all the various parts.

The text of the play indicates which version of each character is needed in that scene and as you can see this would have been a very colourful performance which is more than could be said for the largely black and white version of Hamlet printed by Benjamin Pollock at roughly the same time.

The play is actually quite good fun and the stage directions are clear and easy to follow there is even a section which indicates the type of voice to be used for each of the characters, but it would still need at least two children to perform it with any degree of success. There is a licencing note as well in the book that makes it clear that whilst toy theatre performances are royalty free, should anyone wish to perform the play on a real stage then there would be a licencing cost associated with it.

I’m glad to say that 1952 was not the final end of the Benjamin Pollock business, in the mid 1950’s Marguerite Fawdry needed some parts for the toy theatre that her children played with and tried to buy them from the receivers who refused. They did however suggest she could buy all the plates, printed sheets and theatres they held which she duly did and opened The Benjamin Pollock Toy Theatre museum, which also continued selling stock as the shop had. She even produced new plays but in a much more modest fashion than Alan Keen. The museum she created still exists and is still run by the Fawdry family in Fitzrovia, a district of London, and is now high on my list of places that I want to visit the next time I am in the city.

Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, each time it was a different story. If you know Starkfield Massachusetts, you know the post-office.If you know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to it, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself across the brick pavement to the white colonnade: and you must have asked who he was.

The opening of Ethan Frome draws the reader in immediately, who is Ethan Frome? Nobody seems to know yet everybody ‘knows’ him and as a reader you to already want to know about this mysterious character. The narrator seems determined to find out so lets keep reading, further down the first page he is described as “but the ruin of a man” with “lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain”, what on earth had happened to him? After the opening preface in which the anonymous narrator gets to know a little more about Ethan Frome whilst employing him to drive a sleigh each day to and from the railway station as it is winter and the snow is feet deep. He is about to enter Ethan’s home after finally being defeated by the snow one evening trying to get back to town when suddenly the preface ends and the first chapter leaps back in time. The book drops the narrator and continues in the present tense but this is clearly the present for Ethan of almost two and a half decades ago.

Back then the Frome farm is in a bad way, very little money coming in and what there is being spent on remedies for his ‘ill’ wife. I put the word ill in quotes because it’s fairly clear that a lot of what is wrong with Zeena is psychosomatic although she probably does have some underlying illness but not a severe as she believes. The other occupant of the farmhouse is Mattie, Zeena’s cousin, whom they took in a year ago when her parents died and is supposedly helping around the house although she isn’t very practical. Over the seven years since their marriage Zeena has become more and more sour tempered and nagging and the arrival of Mattie into their household had initially given Ethan some relief from her constant complaints. Over the intervening months however his feelings for her had changed to something far more and it transpires that Mattie’s feelings for Ethan had also grown but it is obvious that Zeena had noticed this and resolves to send Mattie away which leads to the tragedy which is foreshadowed several times during the book. The development of the entirely platonic romantic relationship between Ethan and Mattie in the shadow of the terrible atmosphere at the farm is beautifully written, neither character will admit to their feelings for the other with its implications for Ethan and Zeena’s marriage which frankly had fallen apart years ago and they were only still together due to the impossibility of doing anything else given the dire financial position of the farm.

The final chapter returns to the narrator and what he finds in the Frome household when he enters and all I’m going to say about that is that it isn’t what I expected from the start of the book.

My copy is the first Penguin Books edition from November 1938, the book was first published in 1911 nine years before Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for easily her best known work ‘The Age of Innocence” but by 1911 she had already published three full length novels, three shorter novellas, a couple of books of poetry, six volumes of short stories and even four non-fiction books, Wharton was clearly an experienced writer and this shows in her confident use of language and entirely believable dialogue in Ethan Frome. The book is now out of copyright and can be read or downloaded as an ebook from Project Gutenburg at this link.

My Life and Hard Times – James Thurber

Originally published in 1933, this is the first Penguin Books edition from July 1948 and the introduction printed inside the front cover made me want to read it.

James Thurber is America’s greatest genius of humour and is as much a phenomenon as the Grand Canyon; indeed, they might both be said to have a nightmare and fantastic unreality about them. Yet both are undeniably acts of nature, which delight as well as amaze. This volume – the first of his to appear in Penguins – contains some of his maddest stories, such as The Night the Bed Fell and The Day the Dam Broke, which will be the best of introductions to non-Thurber readers and a renewed delight to confirmed Thurberites.

With a build up like that how could I resist? Well I wish I had. All I can say is that in the intervening eighty seven years since the book was first published and seventy two years since that glowing introduction the humour has apparently evaporated. It felt very like reading old copies of Punch magazine where you find yourself wondering how anyone ever found any of this remotely funny. The tales are tedious in the extreme, I even tried reading them aloud in case they sounded better that way; they didn’t. Fortunately the book was only 135 pages long or it may have made it to my fairly short list of books I failed to finish.

Am I missing something? Maybe a confirmed Thurberite could comment and explain why his writing should be compared to the Grand Canyon. As far as I can see the only similarity is that both consist of a massive hole, one in the ground and the other in the four hours I spent reading and then writing about this humourless rubbish. I can sort of see what he is trying to do, the family situations that he writes about could be the basis of a theatrical farce but a large part of such a performance is the visuals and Thurber for the most part failed to enable me to envisage the scenes and when I did see in my minds eye the household running around in confusion I simply didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them.

There is also what can only be described as casual racism, especially in the section entitled ‘A Sequence of Servants’ where non-white characters are reduced to ridiculous stereotypes with ‘comedy accents’ all spelt out phonetically. It was a deeply uncomfortable read at times especially in this age of the Black Lives Matter campaigns and coming from an American author who was lauded in his time it simply emphasised the ingrained prejudices in an unsettling manner.

I really cannot recommend this book to anyone.

Puffin Annuals

At the beginning of 1967 Kaye Webb had launched the Puffin Club to great success, in fact more success than anticipated as demand for membership soared, which for a club dedicated to the children’s output of a publisher was unheard of. The quarterly magazine that members received was full of stories, reviews, puzzles and things to make and in 1974 it was decided to produce a larger version, for sale not just to club members, and make it an annual. This post is going up on the 1st December so just about when the annuals were hitting the shops when I was a child. I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, probably the heyday of the annual in the UK. What had started as simply a reprint of the weekly child’s magazine with The Boy’s Own and The Girl’s Own papers had expanded via The Rupert Annual (started in 1936 and still going strong) along with The Beano and Dandy comics and of course the much admired The Eagle annuals from 1950 to the late 1960’s all of which featured new material especially for the annual. TV shows got in on the act, Blue Peter has had an annual every year since 1964 and most other children’s shows followed suit especially Doctor Who. Even films spawned annuals, I have The Star Wars annual from 1977, the year of the first film. The Puffin Club had to have an annual, the problem was Penguin Books had never done anything like this before.

The title page of Puffin Annual number 1 gives a feel for the contents but also the style of the book, this was going to be fun and it really was going to have the look and feel of Puffin Post, the quarterly club magazine only in a much more durable hardback and the same size as all the other annuals out there competing for the eyes of children and the purses of their parents and grandparents, you could rarely go wrong with a Christmas gift of the annual relating to a favourite comic or TV show. This blog is going to be rather image heavy I want to give an impression of just what sort of publication these were.

The contributors page of number one is a very impressive name check, including stories by Roald Dahl, Norman Hunter (Professor Branestawm), Tove Jansson (Moomins) and Michael Bond (Paddington Bear) but also artists and illustrators of numerous children’s books, and oddly the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and HRH The Prince of Wales both describe their favourite paintings. Puffin was definitely in the high brow end of the market and that was where it liked to be.

Michael Bond’s contribution was an introduction to his other, now largely neglected, character Olga da Polga who did get a series of books but never really caught on in the way Paddington Bear did. The thinking was sound, children can’t have a bear but they could, and did, have guinea pigs so maybe stories about their adventures would sell, well they sort of did but at a fraction of the sales of Paddington. Whilst Tove Jansson had a short story called The Cat, which she also illustrated.

Roald Dahl however could write about anything and children lapped it up. What you have probably noticed is the major failing of this first annual, there is very little colour. Despite the bright and enticing cover the contents are almost entirely black and white, but that was to change for the next year.

1975’s Puffin Annual was a very different beast to that of 1974. Still the same sort of mix in the contents (see below) but not just the cover had colours, this was much more in keeping with the competition and should have given the Puffin Annual every chance in the marketplace and it had to. This was Penguin’s first attempt at this section of the book business and it had to live or die on it’s performance, Penguin has a history of killing off series if they don’t perform and this was a much more expensive undertaking than the previous years effort. But again the list of people contributing and the variety of material was impressive.

Again though this is aimed squarely at children of better off families, no knockabout comic strips so loved by fans of The Beano or The Dandy, this is much more like a book than a comic but there are more things to do in this edition, not just games and instruction as to how to do simple magic tricks but also a model to cut out and make that takes up eight pages and illustrates one of the stories especially written for the annual.

This is quite an elaborate model and includes basic instructions for fitting small bulbs so that it can be lit up at night. A peep show of the Adam and Eve Gardens in reality would have probably been far too much for a book aimed at children as by the time this park in London was closed down in the 18th century it was a haven for theft and prostitution. There is also a section on paintings although not as formal as the example in the first annual. This book has a lighter touch more in keeping with Puffin Post, I really need to do a blog about that magazine sometime next year.

There are a couple of single page ‘introduce the author’ articles and of course lots of artwork by that stalwart of the original magazines, and favourite children’s illustrator, Quentin Blake, who drew the fun end papers which are also the index and also provided pictures for the story of J. Slingsby Grebe – Boy Genius.

This was such a dramatic improvement on the first annual, lightening up the tone and bringing in so much colour but had they done enough to save the Puffin Annual? 1976 would indicate that they hadn’t, when instead of the expected annual number 3 the rather oddly named Puffin’s Pleasure appeared in time for Christmas and styled itself as number one.

Now even a brief glance through this book shows that it was clearly intended to be the third annual, it was even assigned the catalogue reference number that such a book would have had. Annual number one was Puffin Story Book number 700, annual 2 was number 800 and this is number 900. So what happened? Well it appears that although the annuals were assigned to the Penguin scrapheap of failed series so much work had already gone into annual number three with writers and artists commissioned that it may as well be printed. Kaye Webb was apparently unhappy with the name Puffin’s Pleasure but calling this The First of its kind was wishful thinking as this was to be the only edition published.

The contents list is definitely varied and getting an author of the standing of Ursula Le Guin to supply a short story means that Webb and Bicknell certainly had ambition for their publication but it was not to be. There simply wasn’t a big enough market for such a book and Penguin’s lack of experience in such titles led to nervousness and not enough time would be allowed for an annual series to properly establish itself.

Ironically there is a four page article by Nicholas Fisk about the history of comics, the very things that were massively outselling this book and would therefore contribute to its demise. The popular astronomer Patrick Moore provided a single page on space oddities and there was a six page article about the history of the British Canal network.

All very worthy stuff but just who was this aimed at, it feels more like the target audience was the parents who were paying for it rather than the children who would hopefully enjoy it. I must admit reading these three books as an adult has been great fun, but would I have thought so when they came out and I was just leaving ‘young childhood’ and becoming a teenager? Possibly as I was a very bookish child, more often to be found curled up reading than playing outside, I know I didn’t have them as a child even though I was presumably exactly who they wanted as a reader.

I’ll leave you with the very last item in Puffin’s Pleasure, a maze printed on the endpapers, see if you can get the lighthouse keeper from his rowing boat to the lighthouse, have fun.

The Mad Hatter Mystery – John Dickson Carr

20201110 The Mad Hatter Mystery

John Dickson Carr was one of the best known mystery writers of the golden age of detective fiction in the 1930’s but who has now largely slipped from public consciousness. Although born in the United States he spent a lot of his active writing life in England and was highly prolific with roughly 100 books published; mainly under his own name but also using pseudonyms. Oddly for a prolific novelist he was strangely unimaginative in his pen names using Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and once somewhat randomly Roger Fairbairn. His main output was stories about two English amateur detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell written under his own name and Sir Henry Merrivale as Carter Dickson, this book is the second of the Gideon Fell books following on from Hag’s Nook which I also have as a Penguin first edition but which is too fragile to read without worrying about damaging such a rare wartime paperback. Although first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1933, Penguin didn’t print their first edition of The Mad Hatter Mystery until October 1947 so this copy is somewhat more robust.

In this book Dr. Fell is first encountered in a bar, over the twenty three novels and several short stories in which the character appears this would prove to be the best place to find him. He is described as a very large man, not just tall but fat with numerous chins and needing a cane to get around, he is believed to be modelled on G.K Chesterton who certainly fitted this description and Carr admired the man and his works especially the Father Brown stories. About Fell himself we learn very little in this book, Carr is much more interested in the plot of the mystery than in biographical details of his character. He does however fit in to a familiar trope of being an amateur detective who is frequently called upon by the professionals due to his unusual way of linking details and coming up with the solution to an apparently baffling case, something that goes back to Sherlock Holmes but Dr. Fell only works with the police rather than taking on clients.

The actual mystery of the Mad Hatter alluded to in the title is really a minor diversion through the book and is quickly solved by Fell; what he is actually brought in to help with is the theft of a manuscript of an unpublished story by Edgar Alan Poe. The police don’t want to be involved as the person reporting the theft has a somewhat dubious claim to be the owner in any case and has only asked Chief Inspector Hadley for assistance as he knows him. There is a murder but it doesn’t occur until after the other two problems are being pursued, although as I said the identity of the person stealing distinctive hats across London is deliberately left pretty obvious by Carr presumably so the reader can feel that they have solved something along with detectives even if it continues to confuse the main murder plot line and solution as the victim is found wearing one of the stolen hats although had definitely not been wearing it when seen shortly before his death.

The inter-relationships between the characters is fairly complex, as is common in Carr’s works. Why are so many of the people living at the home of Sir William Bitton, the putative owner of the manuscript before its theft, to be found at the Tower of London when the body is found on the steps of Traitors Gate, when they had apparently gone there independently? Who had taken the manuscript from Bitton’s study, when and why? These are two puzzles that slowly unravel as Fell determines how the murder victim met his end and who did that, which needless to say is a very different solution to that reached by Chief Inspector Hadley.

I like John Dickson Carr’s crime novels, Dr. Fell rather more than the Sir Henry Merrivale tales whom I find considerably less likeable as a character. The solutions do tend to be a little convoluted, although that really isn’t the case in this book where it is unexpected but at least looking back you feel that it should have been possible for the reader to reach the same solution given the information provided although of course you don’t at the time. He is sadly neglected nowadays, no television or film adaptations of either of his great detectives have brought him back into the limelight although there is more than enough material to make several series around either of them. Several of his books have now appeared in the British Library Crime Classics series a sure sign that he is neglected by the mainstream as this series was founded to bring back into print works that have gradually disappeared from the shelves and revive interest in the authors.

Sky Burial – Xinran

This is one of those books that is only on my shelves because it completes a set, in this case the twenty six volumes of Penguin Drop Caps which I have covered as a series right back at the beginning of this blog in early 2018. This does mean that I came to read the book with no preconceptions at all knowing nothing about either it or the author and I have really enjoyed it. Having said that I have a suspicion that Xinran made it into this collection more due to her name beginning with X than for the literary merit of the book. This could be the fault of the translators from the original Chinese, Julia Lovell and Esther Tydesley, as the style is rather flat which considering the subject matter seems odd but as I cannot read the original I have no way of knowing if that is better. I don’t know why Xinran didn’t make the translation as she has lived and worked as a journalist and writer in London since 1997 and this translation was first published in 2004 so presumably she would be more than capable of producing an English version herself.

The conceit of the book is that it is based on the real life story of a Chinese doctor Shu Wen who in 1958 who in 1958 at the height of the Tibetan-Chinese conflict went to Tibet to try to find out what happened to her husband who was a military doctor and ends up stranded there for over thirty years living with the nomads and travelling from camp to camp. According to the introduction Xinran met Shu Wen in Suzhou and talked to her over a period of a couple of days whilst she related her story, Shu Wen then suddenly checked out of her hotel and disappeared. Wikipedia appears to have fallen for this and describes the book as a biography but it is clearly listed as a work of fiction on the publication data page and frankly the idea that an intelligent woman would make no attempt to either continue her search or head back to China and would stay with the nomadic family for three decades is desperately unlikely. The resolution of the novel also stretches credulity to breaking point as a real life case with too many unresolved plot points being sorted out in a relatively short space of time compared to the vast amount of time with no movement on them at all.

Treating it as the novel that it is becomes far more rewarding than looking at it as a dubious biography, the book is 220 pages long in this imprint and I read it at one sitting as you do get drawn into the story. The depiction of Tibetan nomadic life is fascinating and it appears that Xinran did a significant amount of research, so you slowly learn, along with Wen, how the dynamics of family life operate. The book also largely avoids discussing the Chinese takeover of Tibet which has existed since the 1950’s, this is done by completely ignoring the subject by putting Shu Wen away from all contact with other Chinese people and any news of the world outside of the nomadic family she is with for a couple of decades. The exception is at the start where the conflict is acknowledged because that is why Shu Wen’s husband, Kejun, was in Tibet in the first place and also the description of Wen’s journey into Tibet having enlisted in the military and the surprise that her fellow soldiers have that they were not being welcomed with open arms as liberators from the rule of the Dalai Lama. This is where another extremely unlikely event occurs as Wen discusses with a senior officer and gets agreement from him to desert her unit in her search for Kejun. In a novel this is fine, strange things happen in novels, but in real life deserting the Chinese army at the time would have been punished severely.

I have deliberately not written much about the time Wen spends with the nomadic family or how the various issues are resolved as this is the real meat of the novel and any coverage would just be spoilers. Suffice to say that even though there is much that is not as good as it could be the book is a pleasant way of spending a rainy afternoon, just sit back, suspend belief a little, and go with the flow.

The History of England – Jane Austen

Although entitled The History of England this actually makes up quite a small proportion of this book which includes two pieces from Juvenilia, the other being Lesley Castle, both works were written when Austen was sixteen and show a remarkable talent even at such a young age. Jane Austen is not known for her comedic writing but both of these short works are very funny in completely different ways. This book was published as part of a set to mark fifty years of Penguin Classics in 1995.

The History of England

Subtitled “From the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st, by a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian” this certainly lives up to the initial billing. Jane’s prejudices are specifically pro Yorkist and later pro Stuart and hence very anti Lancastrian and Tudor. This means that Henry VI, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I come out of this rather badly whilst Richard III unusually for the time gets a rather reasonable write up solely due to him being from the House of York. It is best to give some idea of the style of Jane’s writing by quoting a section and I have chosen the opening paragraph on Henry VIII.

It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King’s reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, & myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign.

The complete disinterest in dates reminds me of the much later work by R J Yeatman and W C Sellar 1066 and all that, and I can’t help but wonder if they had come across the young Jane Austen’s effort before they wrote their larger but also funny summary of English history. The pictures used on the cover of this slim volume are the ones drawn by Jane’s sister Cassandra for the original manuscript of The History of England.

Lesley Castle

This much longer work is the start of an unfinished novel written in the form of letters between five ladies. There are ten letters and a short enclosed note in all in what was completed and I can only wish that she had written more as she has assembled such a disparate cast of characters that the interaction between them has so many possibilities. That there is also a wonderful bitchiness about the letters just adds to the amusement, I’d love to see it performed with each character reading out the letter as they wrote it with maybe the recipient reacting as though just reading it.

In such a short work we have Charlotte Lutterell being far more concerned with the potential waste of food that has been prepared for the wedding banquet of her sister. That the fact that the match is off because her sister’s fiancee has fallen off his horse and broken his neck is seen by her as a minor inconvenience, she also cannot understand why her concern over how they will eat all the food already prepared is not shared by her sister and the suggestion that at least some of it could be used for the funeral, whilst a practical suggestion, is not seen favourably by her. Her correspondence with Margaret Lesley, one of the two unmarried sisters living in the titular Lesley Castle also covers the surprise wedding of their widowed father and the subsequent difficult relationship between the girls and their new stepmother.

Margaret is apparently also incapable of regarding anybody else’s feelings as the extract below from the final letter between her and Charlotte when Margaret finally comes down to London from Lesley Castle which is up in Scotland.

In short, my Dear Charlotte, it is my sensibility for the sufferings of so many amiable Young Men, my Dislike of the extreme Admiration I meet with, and my Aversion to being so celebrated both in Public, in Private, in Papers, & in Printshops, that are the reasons why I cannot more fully enjoy the Amusements, so various and pleasing, of London. How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours! But ah! what little chance is there of so desirable an Event;

If asked to sum up Jane Austen’s well known novels in one word ‘humorous’ would be very low down on the list of possibilities, but these short works show that, at least as a teenager, she was possessed of a sharp and dark wit.

Maigret Travels South – Georges Simenon

20200609 Maigret travels South

This book arrived in the post yesterday having taken almost fifty days to get here from the USA and it occurred to me that I have never actually read anything by Simenon. I wanted it as this is the first edition of the first Maigret book published by Penguin and came from the New York operation set up by Allen Lane and Ian Ballantine during WWII when transatlantic exports were not possible.  It was published in September 1945 whilst the UK parent company didn’t get to Maigret until January 1950 and this title would eventually appear in the UK in January 1952 printed along with nine others as part of the Simenon Million (10 books each in an edition of 100,000 published simultaneously).

Simenon’s novels are quite short so Penguin, along with other publishers, have normally put two together in one volume and this contains ‘Liberty Bar’ along with ‘The Madman of Bergerac’ and even then the book is only 250 pages. Both stories were translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury who translated several of the early Maigret novels printed by Penguin. As they are separate novels only linked by Maigret not being in his regular Paris haunts but much further south I will review them separately.

Liberty Bar

The seventeenth Maigret novel sees the great detective sent off on a murder investigation which apparently requires great tact, something he keeps repeating to himself whenever he gets frustrated by the progress of the case. It’s set in Cannes and Antibes and you can tell straight away that Maigret is not comfortable here. He makes no concession to the location wearing his black coat and bowler hat regardless of the heat and so dramatically stands out where presumably in Paris he would be much like anyone else in the capital. William Brown has been murdered is another mantra he keeps repeating, but his first problem is who was William Brown? Because without understanding that there is no way to work out what had actually happened and why.

My first surprise was nothing to do with the plot but how much alcohol is consumed right from Maigret’s arrival and introduction to the local detective whom immediately suggests going to a bar. Every time we see Boutigues he is either drinking or about to open a bottle and Maigret gets through plenty in his own right especially when he finds Liberty Bar. The characters we are introduced to are wonderfully drawn by Simenon, the four women in particular, the mistress, her mother, the alcoholic bar owner and the prostitute and the time when they finally meet at the funeral, which is engineered by Maigret whist he claims to not know anything about it, is poignant but also funny as they manoeuvre for precedence.

Right up until almost the end I had no idea who had done it and you are cleverly pointed into various dead end possible solutions. My first Maigret story was an absolute delight.

The Madman of Bergerac (Le Fou de Bergerac)

To my surprise the next novel included in this book was written earlier, being number fifteen in the Maigret series, but just emphasised that you really can read any of the seventy five novels plus numerous short stories pretty well in any order. If anything it was also a better story with Maigret solving the murders and the mysterious past of some of the most important characters in Bergerac all from his bed after being shot. I’m not really giving anything away here as that happens very early on in the novel and provides a reason for the Inspector not being able to see for himself what is going on but having to piece everything together from conversations in his room at the hotel where he goes to convalesce.  This plot device is fascinating as Simenon tells the reader Maigret’s thought processes as he slowly unravels the tangled web of lies and half truths surrounding the people he suspects.

The novel starts with Maigret having to go to Bordeaux just to tidy up some loose ends on another case and he takes the overnight train. However the upper bunk of the couchette he ends up in is occupied by a restless man whom in the middle of the night sits up, nervously pulls his patent leather boots over knitted grey wool socks, climbs down the ladder, slips out of the compartment leaving the door open and after waiting for the train to slow down jumps from the carriage. This wait had alerted Maigret as he hadn’t closed the door behind him so he saw him about to jump and got up and followed him being shot by the stranger when he realised he was being pursued.

Who was the mysterious man in grey socks? Why did he jump from the train? And is he anything to do with the murders of women who are strangled and then a long needle inserted in their hearts that has so rattled the town of Bergerac? All this Maigret solves from his bed in one of the best murder mysteries I have read for a long time.

One thing is certain I need to read more Maigret.

On Britain and Germany – Tacitus

20200505 On Britain and Germany

Back in January 1946 Penguin Books started a new series which is still going way beyond the dreams of the originators, that was Penguin Classics featuring all new translations of classic literature from around the world especially created for the series. They started in Greece with Homer’s Odyssey and the first Latin title was this one featuring two of the books by Tacitus, which was the fifth book in the series coming out in September 1948. On Britain and Germany is actually his two works Agricola and Germania and they were translated by Harold Mattingly who also wrote an extensive introduction along with the notes and glossary. His additional information in fact takes up almost half of the book at seventy six pages with Agricola being forty eight pages and Germania just forty.

Agricola

Representing Britain in this volume is Tacitus’s biography of his father in law Gnaeus Julius Agricola and whilst it does indeed include commentary on his seven years in charge of the conquest of most of Britain it does spends a significant amount of time back in Rome. Tacitus starts this work by stating that biographies are disapproved of in the current Roman society but that he will write this one anyway but unfortunately whatever his abilities as a historian way be revealed in his other works this is not a good example. He rarely states where any of the military actions he describes take place and his grasp of dates is also somewhat tenuous which makes working out what is going on quite tricky. He also has a rather odd idea as to the geography of Britain, stating that it is diamond shaped and not far from Spain with the island of Ireland being between the two countries.

This is where the text by Mattingly really comes into its own not only in the introduction, which prepares you for the lack of details but the notes which accompany almost every chapter clarify quite a lot of the text. One thing I really liked about this edition is that the notes are at the back of the book rather than at the bottom of the relevant pages, this allows the reader to more comfortably concentrate on the text and then pick up on the notes either as they go on or, as I did, complete Agricola and then read the notes. As stated above it is a fairly short biography so this is entirely practical.

Germania

Tacitus has barely started his description of Germania when he comes up with a sentence that I can safely assume is not one quoted by the German tourism authorities.

who would leave Asia, Africa or Italy to visit Germany, with its unlovely scenery, its bitter climate, its general dreariness to sense and eye, unless it were his home.

and a little later

The country in general, while varying somewhat in character, either bristles with woods or festers with swamps. It is wetter where it faces Gaul, windier where it faces Noricum and Pannonia.

He was remarkably polite about Britain in comparison, Noricum is modern Austria whilst Pannonia roughly equates to Hungary. After spending time being rude about the land he turns his attentions to the peoples and tribes of Germania, this is a place that includes not only present Germany but parts of France, Switzerland, the northern Netherlands and Poland. Beyond them is believed to be a great ocean rather than the Baltic Sea and the Romans seem to have almost no knowledge of Scandinavia. Rome appears to have only recently become aware of most of these peoples at the time of Tacitus and then only from contact through war so his descriptions of their lives are short of details and sometimes confused but he does discern a significant number of different tribes and kingdoms but does not ascribe what he would regard as civilisation to any of them other than the ones that have regular dealings with the Romans. His most damning assessment is applied right at the end of the short book with the little he has gathered regarding the Suiones (southern Swedes) and a neighbouring tribe that is only mentioned in Germania so is probably a misunderstanding by Tacitus of the same people or another part of Sweden.

Continuous with the Suiones are the nations of the Sitones. they resemble them in all respects but one – woman is the ruling sex. That is the measure of their decline, I will not say below freedom, but even below decent slavery.

Revisions

The book appears to have gained its original title in Penguin simply because it was translated soon after WWII finished and certainly in the notes Mattingly can be quite jingoistic at times for example in his opening line regarding Germania.

a detailed account of a great people that had already begun to be a European problem in the first century of our era, should still have a message for us in the twentieth.

It is clear that the choice of title was made to entice potential readers after the war whilst maybe calling it Agricola and Germania might not have done as much. Amazingly seventy four years after its first publication Mattingsly’s translation is still the one in the Penguin Classics catalogue, which now runs to well over a thousand titles, and most of the early titles have been completely replaced with updated translations. However it has been revised twice, initially presumably to replace the dated style of the introduction and notes but also to rename the book to the more useful ‘Agricola and Germania’ so that it is clearer what is actually included. The first revision was done by S.A. Handford and was published in October 1970, this book was renumbered from L5 to become L241 and the original version dropped. In 2009 it was revised again, this time by J.B. Rives and now has the ISBN 9780140455403 which makes it the equivalent of L540 when you breakdown the code and the Handford version is no longer available.

Conclusion

The book was very enjoyable and a good introduction to the works of Tacitus via two of his minor writings, what I now need to do is tackle his major works ‘The Annals’ and ‘The Histories’. Tacitus was a Roman senator so well placed to view the intrigues of the emperors and their rivals and this he covers in those more important works. Having the viewpoint from an insider of how the Roman empire was actually governed should be really interesting, I knew nothing about Tacitus before I read this book so I definitely need to find out more.