Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Inspector Wexford is one of my favorite fictional detectives (right up there with Kurt Wallander and Precious Ramotswe), so I was thrilled to see that there is a new Ruth Rendell novel out.  I was under the impression that she was going to "retire" Reg Wexford, but although he is retired from the police force, he is by no means retired with investigating crime as we see in the book No Man's Nightingale.

The book opens with the discovery of the murder of vicar Sarah Hussain.  Sarah and her 17 year old daughter Clarissa lived in the vicarage, but Sarah didn't have many close friends.  Therefore, it's rather puzzling as to who could dislike her enough to want to strangle her.  Detective Superintendent Mike Burden, formerly Wexford's subordinate, is now in charge of the case.

Since retiring, Wexford has spent a lot of time reading, and when we catch up to him in this book, he's still at it.  He's in the middle of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," but it's not easy to read when you've got a chatty housekeeper, and the Wexfords certainly have that.  Maxine Sams never stops talking while she works, and so Wexford tries to avoid her as much as possible.  Still, her chattiness does occasionally come in handy, such as when she describes the scene when she found Rev. Hussain murdered.  Maxine is most talkative about her own family, including her son Jason and his baby daughter Isabella.

Jason's landlord, Jeremy Legg, is a shiftless layabout who is always looking for ways to make a quick buck without actually having to do any work.  He is separated from his former partner, with whom he rented a flat.  He was able to find a new girlfriend and move in with her, so in the absence of his old girlfriend (who has moved abroad with her new partner), he is renting out his former residence to Jason and his family.  Things are going well until the girlfriend announces she's coming home and plans to move back in to the flat.  Jeremy panics, since the girlfriend doesn't know he's been renting the place out.  Luckily, he's able to convince his new girlfriend to help him buy a new flat that he then convinces Jason to move into.

Wexford, somewhat at a loose end, is thrilled to be kept up-to-date on the murder investigation and to occasionally go out and question witnesses.  Because of his many years of experience, he is able to put everyone at ease and most people have no hesitation in speaking to him.  As in previous years, however, Mike Burden fixes on a suspect and refuses to consider any alternative explanations for the crime -- no matter how weak his evidence seems to be.

At the same time, Clarissa Hussain is nearing her 18th birthday, a milestone which her mother promised to celebrate by revealing to Clarissa who her father was.  Sarah had been married, but her husband died several years before Clarissa was born.  Sarah's one close friend reveals a possible explanation for Clarissa's conception, but Wexford isn't entirely convinced that is the whole story.  Since a new vicar is going to take Sarah's job, Clarissa has to move out of the vicarage.  Luckily, Wexford's prickly older daughter Sylvia has a spare room for rent.  She soon wonders about this arrangement when her son Robin falls in love with Clarissa.

Will Wexford find out the truth about Clarissa's father? Will he be able to solve the murder?  And are the two things related?  Will the cleaner Maxine ever shut up so that Wexford can finish his book in peace?  And will Burden ever take off his blinders and see that, yet once again, Wexford has solved the case?  These questions are all answered by the end of the book.

I enjoyed visiting Wexford's world again, as always, but I did have some problems with this book.  There were many, many occasions when there were inexplicably abrupt transitions.  Wexford would be speaking with someone in person, and in the middle of a paragraph he would suddenly be at home or calling them on the phone at a later time.  Also, the book seemed to end rather abruptly (even though most of the loose ends had been tied up by that time).  I turned the page, expecting another chapter, but was surprised to find that was the end of the story.  Still, I doubt we've seen the last of Chief Inspector Wexford (retired), and that's always a good thing in my book!

Final verdict for No Man's Nightengale:  Three Gherkins, for being a welcome, if somewhat unsatisfying, visit with an old literary friend

Monday, November 25, 2013

It's never easy being the poor relation.  That is a lesson Fanny Price must learn when she's sent to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle in Mansfield Park, based on the Jane Austen novel.  Young Fanny's mother can no longer take care of her, and luckily, she has better-off siblings who are willing to give Fanny a home.

Unfortunately, even though she is family, Fanny is never allowed to forget that she is the poor cousin.  Lady Bertram and her husband live in a beautiful stately home with their four children and another aunt, the snooty (although she seems to be a poor relation living on charity, too) Aunt Norris.  Fanny, played by Billie Piper, is treated as a servant, to be called upon to do everything from fetching and carrying to providing companionship for the aunts.  During her time at Mansfield Park, Fanny has fallen in love with her cousin, Edmund.  He is the second son of her relatives, and so decides to be a clergyman since he won't inherit the estate.  The oldest son, Tom, who will inherit, is a dissolute fellow, given to drinking, carousing, and (horror of horrors) putting on plays.  Fanny's life is going along on its fairly uncomplicated path until a scheming brother and sister pair arrive in the neighborhood. 

Mary and Henry Crawford have left the family home in London to travel in the countryside after their stepfather, "the Admiral" moves his mistress into the house.  Mary is hoping to find a rich husband who will allow her to move up in society.  Henry is a flirt and only hopes to find some girls to occupy his time.  They arrive at Mansfield Park with their eyes on the Bertram siblings.  Poor Fanny, of course, isn't worth bothering about.

Mary, naturally, wants to marry the older brother, Tom, so that she can become lady of the manor.  What a pity that Tom has vacated the boring countryside for more lively surroundings.  Sir Thomas, his father, has had to go to the West Indies for business, so the son has decided to make marry while he has a chance.  There's nothing else for poor Mary to do but set her sights on the younger brother, Edmund.  When she finds out he wants to be a clergyman, which is not only dull but also doesn't pay very well, she attempts to persuade him to adopt a more lucrative career.  Henry, on the other hand, determines to woo the younger daughter, Julia, since oldest daughter Maria is engaged to the devoted, if somewhat simple, Mr. Rushworth.  Maria, however, seems rather smitten with the new arrival.

In the midst of all this flirtation, Tom arrives back and announces that his family members should help him to put on a play.  Everyone is given parts (some more reluctantly than others) and the rehearsals give the couples even more chances to flirt shamelessly.  Unfortunately for the assembly, father Thomas returns, glowering, and puts an end to such frivolities as play-acting.

Once harsh reality sets in, life returns to normal and Maria marries her Mr. Rushworth.  Deprived of his chance of a dalliance, Henry Crawford decides to set his sights on the often overlooked Fanny as someone he can manipulate into falling in love with him.  At this opportune moment, Fanny's brother William returns from sea.  His career in the navy has stalled.  Luckily, Henry sees a chance to gain Fanny's gratitude. He is able to get his
stepfather (the Admiral) to arrange a promotion for William.  He thinks this will make Fanny indebted to him, but he's wrong.  Fanny has seen his scandalous behavior with her engaged cousin, and she knows him to be a devious and untrustworthy person. Henry, not wanting to lose an advantage, appeals to her uncle.  Sir Thomas, as nearly all of the older generation is wont to do, scolds and browbeats Fanny for not doing what everyone else wants her to do. He tries to talk her into a relationship with Henry, but Fanny (still secretly in love with cousin Edmund), refuses to go along with everyone else's plans for her.  Uncle Thomas will eventually be relieved she was so perceptive about Henry's character, although he won't have seen the last of Henry just yet . . .

Just then, Tom is brought back home in a terrible condition.  His drinking and merrymaking have
caught up with him, and he's carried home to recuperate.  Luckily, the doctor is on hand with plenty of leeches, so his health will be sure to improve with such state-of-the-art medical treatment.  In the meantime, Mary Crawford, who had given up on boring old clergyman Edmund, reappears when she hears that older brother Tom might be on his deathbed.  Not that she wishes him ill or anything, but if he's going to die anyway, she might as well be on hand to offer comfort and consolation to the new heir of Mansfield Park.  Thankfully, by this time, Edmund has begun to catch on to her deceitful ways.

Poor Fanny is still hanging around the periphery of all this flirtation and plotting, so it remains to be seen whether or not Cousin Edmund will ever begin take notice of her as anything other than a piece of furniture in the living room.  Then again, as this adaptation is based on a Jane Austen novel, I think we can be pretty sure that the virtuous maidens are rewarded with love in the end!

I was excited to see some familiar Eastenders faces in the cast, with Michelle Ryan (Zoey Slater) and Maggie O'Neill (Suzy Branning) making appearances.

Final verdict for Mansfield Park:  Four Gherkins, for being a gorgeous adaptation of a lesser-known Austen novel

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I, like many others, am always a sucker for anything that remotely has to do with Jane Austen, so I was excited to see the book Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay.  I was expecting it to be set in the time of Austen's novels, or to feature some of the characters.  I was therefore a bit surprised to discover that this book is only very slightly connected to Austenmania -- namely, the main character, Samantha Moore, is a fan of Austen's work.  Otherwise, people expecting Austen-like characters and situations are in for a shock!

The novel is set in modern times, and features a young girl who's had a very difficult childhood.  Samantha was in and out of foster homes as a child, and after a period of time on the streets as a runaway, she is taken in at Grace House, a home for abandoned children.  Throughout her upbringing, she's always felt alone and rootless, so she's taken refuge in her favorite books -- especially those by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.  She often uses the words of the characters in these books to avoid giving away too much of her self, and as a way of keeping people at a distance.  She eventually graduates from college and moves out of Grace House to work in a corporate job, even though she was offered a scholarship to go to graduate school.  Her inability to form personal bonds and her standoffish personality soon get her fired from her job, and she decides to move back to Grace House and look at the possibility of accepting the scholarship.  She knows this is her last chance, because soon she will be too old to live at Grace House.

She finds that the scholarship is still available, but there are some strings attached.  Rather than allowing her to study what she wants, she must study journalism.  With no other options, she accepts.  Also, she is required to write frequent letters detailing her progress in the program to her benefactor, known only as "Mr. Knightley."  The letters to him form the vast majority of the book. 

During her time back at Grace House, she tutors younger children and also begins running with Kyle, a troubled teenager whose upbringing mirrors her own.  Even though her immediate problems are solved, Sam soon finds that her reluctance to open herself up to the world also shows in her journalism assignments.  Her professor, Dr. Johnson, tries to encourage her, but at the same time lets her know that if she doesn't get away from impersonal, perfunctory writing, she will be kicked out of the program.  In the meantime, she struggles with boyfriend issues, personal safety problems, and plenty of self doubt. 

She eventually moves into an apartment and meets the author Alex Powell, a graduate of the same program she's attending.  She's thrilled to be in the presence of such a famous and attractive author, but finds him a bit hard to read.  They eventually become friends and bond over the friendship with a retired professor and his wife.

While I enjoyed most of the book, I did have problems with parts of it.  How likely is it that someone is going to contact you with an offer of free tuition, a paid apartment, a new wardrobe, a computer for schoolwork, etc. and all they ask in return is the occasional letter?  I'm sure we'd all love to have that  happen to us!  And isn't it odd that not only Sam, but most of the people she encounters, have memorized every English and French novel from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, and can identify any quote from them instantly?  Sam was also very prickly and unpleasant most of the time (not that she didn't have good reason), but no one ever seemed put out or angry with her unreasonable behavior. 

I'm not (unlike everyone in this book) familiar enough with the various plots of Jane Austen's novels to know if this is a modern interpretation of one of the books.  Other than the many quotes and references to characters that we are apparently supposed to know all about, there isn't much of Austen to be found here -- so don't be enticed by the title into thinking this is another Austen knock-off.  The story is pretty bleak and definitely grittily modern. 

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Dear Mr. Knightley in exchange for this review as part of the BookSneeze program

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Before there were fashionistas like Victoria Beckham, there were the Eliott sisters, Beatrice and Evangeline.  The two sisters in the delightful series The House of Eliott take their flair for design and style and turn it into a thriving fashion business.  The DVD release of the complete collection includes all 34 episodes from the 3 seasons of the series which originally ran from 1991 to 1994.  The series was created by the same team that brought us the classic series Upstairs, Downstairs, so you know you're in for some compelling story lines!

The series begins with the death of Bea and Evie's father in 1920.  The unmarried sisters lived with their widowed father and don't have much connection to the outside world.  Bea is 12 years older than 18-year-old Evie and, because their mother died when Evie was born, has served as something of a maternal figure for Evie.  Their pompous and somewhat slimy cousin, Arthur, has been appointed executor of their father's will, as well as Evie's legal guardian until she comes of age.  It falls to Arthur, who is a solicitor, to tell the girls that not only did their father not leave them anything in his will, but that there was really nothing to leave.  He had even mortgaged the house, so that the girls were soon going to have no place to live.  The sheltered sisters were hit hard with the reality: they had no money, no skills, and no home.  Since this was soon after the end of World War I, they would also be competing with millions of other unemployed people for the few jobs that were available.

Luckily, Evie is friends with Penelope Maddox, who suggest that her brother Jack might need an assistant for his photography business.  This turns out to be just the lifeline the sisters need.  Not only does the no-nonsense and efficient Bea soon become indispensable to Jack, but the sisters move into a flat above his photography studio.  Aunt Lydia, Arthur's socially conscious mother, recommends Evie for a position at Partini's dressmaking shop.  Because the sisters had lived with little money from their father all their lives, they had been accustomed to making their own clothes.  This fortuitous position is their entry into the world of fashion.

Soon the sisters move up to ever more prestigious fashion houses, while continuing to do designing and dress-making for private clients.  When an employer becomes enraged at their creativity and flair for design (which makes his own creations pale in comparison) and fires them, the Eliott sisters decide to strike out on their own. 

They encounter many financial difficulties along the way.  Cousin Arthur, while not embezzling their money, does not inform them of everything they inherited from their father.  He also doesn't tell them that their father had a long-term mistress and, allegedly, an illegitimate son.  This son, Sebastian, eventually turns up expecting his share of the inheritance.  All of this makes starting their own business a tricky proposition.

At the same time, the crusading figure of Penelope reappears, championing the rights of the poor and commenting loudly on the ridiculous ways of the rich, who waste extravagant amounts of money on clothes when that money could be put to better use for social causes.  In addition, the sisters must contend with busy personal lives, employee difficulties, rival jealousies and professional set-backs.

Unfortunately, the series was abruptly cancelled by the BBC after series 3, so there is no big resolution to the series.  Still, it's very enjoyable to follow the trials and tribulations of the Eliott sisters, two young women forced by circumstances to support themselves at a time when female businesswomen were a rarity.

Several familiar faces turn up, including a young Minnie Driver and Burt Kwouk (Cato from the Pink Panther films).  Many fascinating extras make up the set, including a booklet containing an interview with the series co-creator Jean Marsh, who describes how the series was created.  There are also very interesting production notes, including information about the filming -- which cost £6 million for the first season!  I imagine the majority of that was spent on the lovely fashions that everyone (well, everyone but Penelope, who had more important things than fashion on her plate!) wore.  There is also an interview, 10 years after the series ended, with a glamorous Louise Lombard, who played Evie.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The House of Eliott: Complete Collection, from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for The House of Eliott: Complete Collection: Four Gherkins, for being a gorgeous and entertaining look at the lives behind a fashionable brand

Monday, November 4, 2013

Hardly a day goes by without a news story about the appalling treatment of women in some far off, "unenlightened" country.  We conveniently forget that not that long ago, women in England had very few rights and were considered to be basically the property of their husbands.  The fascinating book The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton takes a look at the woman who took issue with the situation women faced in nineteenth century England and decided to do something about it.  Author Diane Atkinson, who holds a Ph.D. in the field of the politics of women's labor, takes a very detailed look at the life of Caroline Sheridan Norton, and the progress she made toward advancing the rights of women.

Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan was born in 1808 into the theatrical Sheridan family.  Her father, Thomas Sheridan, was already showing signs of the tuberculosis that would kill him when Caroline was only 9 years old.  His death left her mother, also named Caroline, a widow with 7 children at the age of 37.  Luckily, even though the Sheridan family was somewhat dissolute, with drinking and debts figuring prominently in their lives, they were well-connected.  Tom's old friend the Duke of York was able to secure housing for the widow and children at Hampton Court Palace.  While this sounds rather ritzy, it was in fact something of a last resort for the upper classes.  Charles Dickens wrote how the accommodations were cold, damp and cramped.  Still, it was better than being out on the streets (and I wouldn't mind a Hampton Court Palace address myself, no matter what the circumstances!).  Because of her very poor circumstances, Caroline's mother spent most of her time scrambling to find suitable employment for her sons and advantageous marriages for her daughters. Since the daughters would be entering their marriages penniless, there weren't many takers.  When Caroline was barely 16, she was spotted by George Norton, younger brother to Lord Grantley.  Twenty-one year old George took an immediate liking to Caroline, and asked for her hand in marriage.  Mrs. Sheridan agreed, but stipulated that the couple must wait 3 years to marry.  No doubt she hoped a better offer would come along, but none did, and in 1827 George and Caroline married.  Poor Caroline had little say in the matter, but few girls of her class did at that time.

Caroline was already well-known for her wit, beauty, writing talent and flirtatious ways.  George had trained in the legal profession, but had little ambition to follow that career.  He wanted to make a career as a politician, and had little trouble being elected to Parliament as an "Ultra Tory" -- which was an ultra-conservative branch of the party, whose main objective seemed to be to thwart any attempts at modernization.  George was described as being dull, slow, lazy and always tardy -- in other words, nearly in every way the opposite of his vivacious and intelligent wife.  While "opposites attract" might work out for some, in the Norton marriage, this was a recipe for disaster.

In accordance with the laws at the time, everything Caroline owned before marriage (in this case, not much) became her husband's property.  Additionally, any money she earned also became his.  Because George was not exactly ambitious, throughout their marriage Caroline was the main breadwinner of the family.  She was constantly turning out books of poems, novels and even songs.  In 1831 George lost his seat in Parliament, and he persuaded Caroline to ask their friend William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, who was then Home Secretary, for a job.  He came through with a job for George as a magistrate for Whitechapel.

As their marriage progressed, the Nortons had 3 sons.  George's family took an instant dislike to Caroline and made their views known whenever possible.  George, resentful of his wife's success and popularity, became abusive.  This did not endear him to her family, either.  Finally, Caroline, fed up with the abuse, left her husband in 1835.  He persuaded her to return to him, promising to stop abusing her.  She was pregnant with her fourth child and, believing his promises, returned to him.  The abuse began again, and she lost the baby.  Her brother invited her and the children (but not George, in a pointed snub) to his estate for the Easter holidays.  This, along with his family's goading, persuaded George to lock Caroline out of the house, deprive her of her possessions, and even prevent her from seeing her children.  All of these things were his right as a husband at the time.  Even more damaging, he brought charges against Lord Melbourne, then Prime Minister, for "criminal conversation" -- basically committing adultery with his wife.  If found guilty, Lord Melbourne would have to pay damages to George.

While the publicity of the trial and the surrounding scandal weren't helpful to his career, Lord Melbourne won the case and George Norton ended up looking like a fool.  This added to his already vindictive nature.  After the trial, Caroline set about trying to gain access to her children, but it was brought home to her how she had absolutely no rights in this matter in the eyes of the law.  Thus began many, many years of legal wrangling with George in an attempt to get him to let her see the children.  At the same time, frustrated by her lack of legal options, she set about to bring the horribly unfair treatment of women and mothers into the public eye.  She published a pamphlet titled "Observations on the Natural Claims of a Mother to the Custody of her Children As Affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father," which spelled out her own situation and how unfair the current law was.  This increased support for a bill before Parliament, the Infant Custody Act, which eventually passed in 1839.  It stated that a woman who was divorced or separated who had not been found guilty of adultery could be granted custody of her children who were younger than seven.  However, it was still prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy women to take advantage of this new law, since it required a case to be brought in Chancery Court.  Still, it was a step in the right direction.

Caroline and George continued to wrangle through the courts on issues of child custody and spousal support.  George attempted to get out of paying his wife's debts or much maintenance to her, even though he was legally required to do so.  He also attempted to keep control of a small inheritance she received from her father.  As her sons became older, she was able to spend more time with them, although they had health problems that were a great worry to her.

By 1852, Caroline had slowed her career of writing "fancy things" to concentrate on getting more laws changed.  She published another pamphlet, entitled "English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century" which outlined the many instances where married women were discriminated against in the courts.  This helped to influence the reform of the divorce laws, which up to that time were expensive and complex.  Caroline also appealed to Queen Victoria and explained that she was not advocating for equal rights for women, but only interested in obtaining justice for women.

As I expected when I started reading this book, I was greatly disturbed by much of what happened to Caroline Norton during her lifetime.  Married women were unable to retain property or earnings, appear in their own defense in court, sign contracts or divorce their husbands (unless they could prove incest!).  It was hard to believe that such things were considered completely acceptable.  I really hated that she had to go through such terrible ordeals during her lifetime, but thanks to her refusal to accept the status quo, she did a great deal toward advancing the legal rights of women.  We all owe her a debt of gratitude for using her influence as a writer to help change antiquated attitudes and give women more say in their own lives. 

It's amazing how much research must have gone into the writing of this book.  The lives of Caroline Norton and her family are traced and many of her letters (both sent and received) are quoted.  I also enjoyed reading about Caroline's interactions with many notable literary figures of the day, including Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens.

I wish I could have attended this lecture!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton from Chicago Review Press in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton: Four Gherkins, for being an inspiring look at a pioneer of women's rights

About Me

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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