Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

Sarah Waters is one of my favourite writers. Anything she writes is a pre-order in my house, so there may be some bias in my next statement. For me, she is one of the best writers of the 20th Century with, hopefully, more to come. More recently, she has dabbled into the early 20th Century and even WW2 for her novels The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, but she started back in the 19th Century and this is my favourite from that series. Amazon calls her genre Lesbian Victoriana, which made me giggle a little, but I think Waters is doing more than that; she is chronicling women’s experience. She includes lesbian encounters and women falling in love with women, but in this book that’s an aside rather than the main focus of the plot. I think to term these novels as lesbian novels is reductive and has a sense of prurience. I remember the fuss and excitement when Tipping the Velvet was serialised at the BBC, and male journalists practically salivating over Rachel Stirling and Keeley Hawes. I think they’re intended to be read as women’s experiences of living in Victorian England, with the women’s sexual relationships as part of an unspoken subculture only just emerging into the open. She is using the device of ‘writing back’ to the historical period and bringing a group into the limelight who were hidden at the time and never portrayed in fiction. It’s about seeing the Victorian era and women’s lives in totally new eyes, and accepting that the literary canon only shows us a small part of a vibrant and varied world. As with history being written by the victor, literature of the early to mid 19th Century tends to be written by white, straight, middle-class males. Waters is trying to redress the balance and give us a minority viewpoint which I love.

Orphan, Sue Trinder, lives in a family of petty thieves and is trained to become a ‘Fingersmith’. Based in London, the den is run by a motherly woman who has a hard and ruthless side. All the thieves congregate and bring their wares to ready them for sale, while a baby farm is run on the side. It is here that a man called ‘Gentleman’ recruits Sue for a scam to defraud a wealthy heiress. We also meet a young woman called Maud Lily, she’s an orphan too, but with a home in a gloomy mansion as the ward of an odd Uncle. She has a very comfortable life, helping him with his work as some sort of secretary, but his subject matter might raise an eyebrow or two. He is an avid collector of Victorian pornography. This makes Maud very uncomfortable, but it seems an unspoken agreement that her help is in return for his protection. This strange upbringing makes Maud very sheltered and naïve in one respect, but also strangely knowing in others. Gentleman has devised a long con that starts when Sue is placed within the mansion as Maud’s lady’s maid. She will then encounter the Gentleman who will try to court Maud. They hope, that with Sue’s encouragement, Lily will fall for his charms. His long term aim is to marry her, because according to 19th Century marriage law, all of her fortune will then become his property. Then it’s a simple case of claiming she’s mad, and as long as a doctor agrees, a man could sign his wife into an asylum leaving him free to use her money. If she helps, Sue will be entitled to some of the ‘shine’.

As always with Sarah Waters books, the depth of research is obvious and this feels so real. The sense of place is so strong, in the filthy detail of the London terrace streets and the silent unease in the mansion. These two places feel entirely opposite. Where Sue grew up there’s constant noise, people running in and out, babies wailing upstairs and other people’s belongings being appraised and sold on. There’s squalor and poverty, so for her, the change to being a lady’s maid is a massive leap. By contrast the mansion is quiet with the sound of ticking clocks, days without seeing another soul. There’s a feeling of being imprisoned somehow, it’s stifling and the scene where she works in the library with her Uncle feel so uncomfortable. The tension as the con slowly starts to work is terrible. Then, in what is probably my favourite twist in fiction, the pace picks up and the reader is left reeling as everything changes.

In the second section of the book we go back in time a little to Maud’s story, some of this overlaps with the first part and some of it is her history and how she ended up closed away with only a perverted Uncle for company. We follow Sue’s journey as Maud’s lady’s maid and see how a friendship develops between the two young women. Maud is living like a prisoner and has experienced years of coercive control leaving her timid and unsure. The con would only work if Sue stays focused and doesn’t get involved with her new mistress, but their friendship is deepening and Sue is starting to have doubts about the plan. There is an attraction between the two women that was unexpected, but is there anyway to back out of the plan or is it too late? There is something hypnotic about this book. It is a long read, but unlike the Victorian novels it emulates, it didn’t feel long-winded or become boring. I was engaged at every point of the story, absolutely fascinated with the twists and turns of the plot and never quite sure who is telling the truth. I was desperate to find out who has really been conned in the end. This is one book where BBC adaptation is very good too, with great casting and a definite feel of the book.

However, the novel is perfection. It’s a historical thriller, told through unexpected heroines and delving into the more deviant side of Victorian life: pornography, pick-pocketing, theft, fraud, confidence tricksters, and baby selling. Not to mention the lesbian aspects of the storyline that would have been unthinkable in fiction of the time. In fact I clearly remember a tutor at university telling me that all the focus on deviant sexual behaviour was focused on gay men and prostitution – intimating that the thought of two women having a relationship was so taboo that it didn’t even exist in most Victorian minds. I loved that we were seeing a totally different section of Victorian society and it had a voice. There is a feel of Dickens in the poverty and living conditions, and of course he had his own wife detained in an asylum. However, there’s none of that Victorian moralising that comes with fiction of the period. This is the underclass speaking for itself and the character of Maud’s Uncle hits home the idea that even the middle classes were not necessarily as respectable and God-fearing as they seemed. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys Victorian fiction whether in the form of historical novels or of the period. It’s also a great thriller with enough double-crossing and revelations to keep any reader satisfied. This really is Sarah Waters at the height of her writing powers and should be on your TBR list immediately.

Meet The Author.

Sarah Waters OBE, was born in Wales. She is the author of six novels, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, which have been adapted for stage, television and feature film in the UK and US. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction and she has won the Betty Trask Award; the Somerset Maugham Award; The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award; the South Bank Show Award for Literature and the CWA Historical Dagger. Sarah has been named Author of the Year four times: by the British Book Awards, the Booksellers’ Association, Waterstones Booksellers; Stonewall’s Writer of the Decade in 2015; Diva Magazine Author of the Year Award and The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in 2017, which is given in recognition of a writer’s entire body of work. Sarah was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Sarah Waters lives in London.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Blasted Things by Lesley Glaister.

This is the first novel I’ve ever read by Lesley Glaister and when I finished, I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of her before. Set in one of my favourite historical periods, during and after WW1, this novel was evocative and moving. The author clearly has a deep understanding of the period and the rapidly shifting society her characters are living in. Her characters are fully rounded, with depths to get lost in and the effects of trauma to unravel and understand. This is an exploration of the effects of war and loss on our two main characters, Vincent and Clementine. The scars are both physical and mental, halting their progress as they try to move forward and making it very difficult to be who they truly are. When they, quite literally, bump into each other a strange relationship emerges that will have a haunting resolution. I could see these two people in my mind’s eye and I found myself thinking about them, even when the book was closed.

Clementine was a hands on during the war, volunteering as a Red Cross nurse close to the front. Her boyfriend Dennis had proposed and he didn’t want her to interrupt their lives. He didn’t fight, being a doctor he could claim to be needed by the patients in his area, so he wanted their lives together to start. Clem wanted to be part of the war effort, so along with her friend Gwen she ‘ran away’ (Dennis’s words) and became part of a medical unit. She wasn’t just taking temperatures either, her stomach is strong enough to be in the operating tent, helping to hold patients down during amputations and disposing of mangled limbs. The author’s depiction of working in the medical tents is vivid and gritty. I was able to imagine the struggle to keep wounds clean in the squalor and sick men comfortable on camp beds crawling with lice. The description of Clem’s hair stayed with me, tied up out of the way, but greasy and alive with lice. I could feel her desperate need to wash it, and the shock she feels when the doctor, Powell, finds hot water and washes it for her. I found that image so romantic, because he’d realised what she most wanted at that moment and provided it for her. He washes her hair with such kindness and a gentle touch, I almost fell in love with him myself. They have a deep and immediate connection, so Clem knows she must write to Dennis and explain what has happened.

However, before Clem can write two things happen. She realises she is pregnant and tragedy strikes, when the unit is bombed both Clem and Powell are injured in the blast. Clem has a picture in her brain, like a flashback, of a stove pipe from the boiler embedded in Powell’s back. She knows in that first second that she has lost him. Only days later she miscarries alone in the toilets, and this scene was so real and so emotive I cried. She’s lost the love of her life and now the last part of him has gone too. Numb and shocked she returns home and seems to sleepwalk into the same situation she left behind. In the next section of the book she is married to Dennis, who doesn’t know about her wartime experiences. They live above his doctor’s surgery and they have a child together, a little boy, but she grieves Powell and their little girl. I felt she was living behind a mask, being who she thinks she has to be rather than who she is. The ambivalence she feels towards her son is well represented, because she still grieves for that first child. There are physical signs, written on the body, that she has Edgar. The silvery stretch-marks mark the time she was pregnant, yet there are no signs of her daughter. It’s like she never existed.

Vincent meets Clem when she’s visiting her sister-in-law Harri. Feeling stifled, Clem goes out for some air and keeps walking, until she’s miles away and not sure of how to get back. She takes a quick breather at a bridge and steps into the road, just as a biker comes along. As he swerves to miss the crazy lady stood in the middle of the road, he loses control of his bike and crashes. Clem strangely sees something of Powell in him at that first glimpse. Actually, Vincent is a product of the same terrible war that left Clem bereft. For Vincent it left him wounded physically and emotionally. He has a facial disfigurement that means he wears a mask, literally and figuratively. Vincent has been left in a very reduced position by the war. His marriage has failed and the job he was assured would still be his when he returned from the front, has been taken away from him. How can a man who looks like him, be the face of an insurance company? He has nowhere to live, so he’s latched onto a woman called Doll, who runs a local pub. She’s easy with her favours, and Vincent takes advantage of this to lodge upstairs. He can’t cope with how much he’s lost and wants to replace it, with visions of marriage to Doll and being the welcoming host from behind the bar. He doesn’t love Doll, but they get on and there are worse places to be. Similarly, he notices how well dressed Clem is and thinks she might be manipulated into paying for his bike’s repairs. In the end, she visits him at the hospital and offers to pay, leaving her details and the possibility of a connection between them. They are both suffering the effects of trauma and might sense that shared perspective on the world. If Vincent is willing to settle with Doll, might this be another opportunity for him? What exactly can their relationship be?

I was worried for Clem, who is vulnerable. However, I was worried for Vincent too, he has lost so much and is vulnerable in his own way. He’s not one of the ‘glorious fallen’ heroes, and unlike Clem’s husband doesn’t have any status here at home either. He’s a reminder of exactly how ugly and terrible war can be, and nobody wants to remember. Dennis certainly doesn’t want to hear his wife’s tales of war. The author pitches him perfectly, a man who chose not to fight, but likes to remind everybody that he was fighting to keep the families of those soldiers fit and healthy. He represents the old order of things, with class barriers and men as head of the home. His need for control extends to his sister as well as his wife; there’s one right and respectable way to be in the world. When her friend Gwen visits for tea, he makes it quite clear that she’s not the right company. Not only did she get Clem to run away to war, but now she’s clearly having a lesbian relationship. His way of dealing with the world is on the wane though and he felt to me like a dinosaur that doesn’t know it’s extinct. He hasn’t been through the seismic change the others have and can’t identify with them. War has changed a whole generation of people around the world. I felt for Clem, who is part of this changed generation. She knows the future is different, but she’s chained herself to the past. Is it too late?

This was so beautifully written, with well-chosen words that create rhythm and take the reader on a journey through their senses. This explosion of sights, sounds and sensations bring an immediacy to the prose. This is not some long winded description of what a battlefield was like, it is the sounds and smells as they happen. I felt like I was there:

‘Where was the fear? She searched herself as she listened: sometimes the rat-tat-tat of gunfire, rapid and snippy like the keys of two vast, duelling typewriters battering out threats to each other on a paper sky; crumpings like oil drums being crushed by massive fists; a whistling followed by the soft whoomph of a missile striking, then virtual silence, then the battering of the typewriters again’.

The author truly does show us what’s happening and the contrast of passages like the one above and the quiet, clock-ticking, stillness of Clem’s home is so effective. No wonder Clem takes to walks; she needs to breathe. Every character is flawed, but no one is irredeemable. Through Clem she shows how women were restricted by society and I love that Gwen and her girlfriend had chosen a different path. Most poignantly, she shows how war interrupts lives and takes away people’s livelihoods, opportunities and in Clem’s case, even her creativity. I think this is one of the best books I’ve read on the aftermath of trauma. The author has so much compassion and empathy for her characters and because of that, so does the reader. I didn’t want this book to end and that’s the biggest compliment a reader can give.

Meet The Author.

Lesley Glaister is a fiction writer, poet, playwright and teacher of writing. She has published fourteen adult novels, the first of a YA trilogy and numerous short stories. She received both a Somerset Maugham and a Betty Trask award for Honour Thy Father (1990), and has won or been listed for several literary prizes for her other work. She has three adult sons and lives in Edinburgh (with frequent sojourns to Orkney) with husband Andrew Greig. She teaches creative writing at the University of St Andrews and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Published by Sandstone Press on 7th May 2020

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Wake by Anna Hope.

She misses him. Fraser. Here in the shrunken hours of the night. She misses him still so much. Who is there to share her thoughts with? They wither inside her. She cannot even write them to him as she used to, can’t take a cup of tea back to bed and sit with a candle in the blackoutand think of him, trying to imagine where he is, what he sees. She cannot imagine where he is, because he is nowhere, he is nothing. All of the many tiny things that he was – the way he turned his head towards her, the slow breaking of his smile, the laughter in him, the roll of his voice; the way that he eased her, eased her – these are all gone. These are all dead.

Last year I couldn’t move on Twitter without seeing that someone was reviewing and reading Anna Hope’s Expectation. I’ve had such a ridiculous TBR that my copy is still languishing on the pile, but I wasn’t surprised to see the book become a runaway hit. I’d already fallen in love with her writing in 2014, when I read her novel covering the aftermath of WW1. Wake is a brilliant piece of historical fiction based around the real historical event, the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As he is taken from the fields of France, on his journey towards London, three women are linked by a mystery that is starting to unravel. As the Unknown Soldier is meant to provide closure to the war for the British people, these three women can’t look into the future while they are still inextricably linked to the past. Hetty’s wounded brother won’t speak, Evelyn grieves for her lost lover and Ada waits for confirmation of her son’s death, every day that she doesn’t get a telegram is another day he feels alive. We follow these three women over five days, while the selection of the Unknown Soldier is made and his journey towards Westminster Abbey begins. Slowly, a tragic tale of war’s aftermath emerges and links them all.

Hetty lives with her mother still, and her mute, shell-shocked brother. He can no longer work so Hetty has taken a job as a dance instructor at the Palais. It is there she meets an educated, wealthy, man who she quickly falls for. Every indication she has, makes her think he feels the same. However, there’s something she can’t put her finger on, a distance or sense of being unreachable that he has. Where does he go in his mind, when he seems distracted? Evelyn comes from a wealthier background, but feels equally lost. She’s working at the Pensions Exchange, where men returning from the front pass through, claiming benefit for their physical or mental wounds. Evelyn’s own loss is still raw and she feels detached from her parents who can’t understand her experience. She starts to become closer to her brother instead, because he is of her generation, also altered forever by his experience at the front. Ada is haunted by visions of the son she’s lost. She still sees him on the street and for a few moments she’s convinced he is alive. She also feels like she’s struggling alone, because her husband is grieving in his own way, becoming increasingly withdrawn. A door to door salesman attracts her attention and it’s so clear he has suffered from his war experiences and has struggled to find work. He exhibits some worrying symptoms but Ada recognises shell-shock. During one of his disturbed episodes he says the name of Ada’s son. Can she find out what happened to him? The tension really builds as the public spectacle comes closer, the ceremonial internment of this unknown young man can be a catalyst, allowing people to grieve for those whose bodies are lost forever on the fields of France or Belgium.

This is a very interesting part of history for me, because of the tumultuous social change that took place, especially for women. This period is where we saw huge adjustments and change within the aristocratic class. Some families had lost two generations, father and son or the ‘heir and spare’. This led to an estate crippled by death duties and having to be sold, or the new heir forced into reducing costs and servants, or searching for a more advantageous match – marrying American heiresses was sometimes the answer. These changes often brought less formality to the family. Women had worked throughout the war, in jobs usually done by men. There was tension on their return to the workforce, some women didn’t want to return to the home and men who couldn’t find work were reduced to begging or selling door to door. Crime was on the up and families were coming apart at the seams. There was a sense of the old order being overturned and old values like manners, morality and knowing your place being lost.

Finally I loved the significance of the title ‘Wake’ and it’s several meanings: to rouse from sleep; a ritual for the dead; the consequence or aftermath. All of these meanings are apt to the women in the book and their circumstances. This is the moment that the 20th Century finally dawned on people, and society woke from the Victorian era. Victoria’s reign had been so long that some people had never known another monarch, now there would be change from that Victorian order. The ritual refers to the Unknown Soldier, a representative of every man lost, but also representative of that death of the old order, and it’s sensibilities. The consequences of WWI were seismic, we had just fought the first mechanised war and it was hell on earth. Society did not know how to cope with the wounded who returned, whether the ranks of the physically disabled using wooden legs or metal masks to cover burns, or the shell-shocked, constantly trembling and lashing out when feeling threatened. Many ended up in institutions, because they were constant reminders of something younger people wanted to forget. The following few generations would be changed, with the war hanging over them like a giant monolith casting a long shadow. Why couldn’t people be allowed to forget? As the Unknown Soldier passes by someone comments ‘is this supposed to make it all okay?’ This is such a moving read and captures it’s era so perfectly it felt like being there, which isn’t an easy thing to achieve. I felt for each woman, but Evelyn particularly moved me. This is an exceptional piece of writing and a great introduction to this author’s work.

‘I’ll remember you he thinks, and as the gun carriage with it’s coffin and it’s dented helmet passes him by, he closes his eyes. Nothing will bring them back. Not the words of comfortable men. Not the words of politicians. Or the platitudes of paid poets.’

Meet The Author.

ANNA HOPE studied at Oxford University and RADA. She is the internationally prizewinning and bestselling author of Wake and The Ballroom. Her contemporary fiction debut, Expectation, explores themes of love, lust, motherhood, and feminism, while asking the greater question of what defines a generation. She lives in Sussex with her husband and young daughter.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

I hadn’t heard of Cecily Neville and wasn’t exactly sure where she was within the characters I already knew in the period just before the cousin’s wars better known as The Wars of the Roses. I was familiar with women like Jacquetta Rivers, Elizabeth Woodville and Warwick, The Kingmaker, from my reading of Philippa Gregory. I was also aware of Anne Neville and Isobel Neville, Warwick’s daughters, who married the Duke of Clarence and Duke of York, later to become Richard III. I hadn’t realised that Cecily Neville was the mother to both those boys and King Edward IV. I was only a few chapters in before I realised that Cecily and I share a grandmother (well to me a great-grandmother goodness knows how many generations ago) Katherine Swynford. In fact Katherine lived around five miles from me, at both Torksey Castle and Kettlethorpe Hall in Lincolnshire. She was mistress, then wife of John of Gaunt and for a short period was Queen of England. One of her daughters, Joan, is the mother of Cecily Neville. The pair, Katherine and Joan, are buried not ten minutes from where I write this, in Lincoln Cathedral. There is something very exciting in reading about your ancestor, so it did change the experience of the book for me.

The opening scene, at the burning of Joan of Arc, is one of the most powerful I have ever read. Cecily narrates in the first person:

‘It’s no easy thing, to watch a woman burn. A young woman, who has seen only three more summers than yourself and claims the voice of God compels her actions. But there it is; the day’s work. And she must harden herself to it.’

It sets the scene for the rest of the novel perfectly, it gives us a jolt and prepares us for how brutal this period of history was. It gives us a sense of how women are treated, especially those who explicitly disdain the rules of society. Joan of Arc didn’t play by the rules. Cecily is determined to shape her own future, but though words and ideas instead of action. Court is a deadly game of chess and Cecily is always on her guard. Make no mistake this is a woman’s side of court life. Where her ideas and beliefs are put across, whether at the King’s council or on the battlefield, only men are present. We hear about battles through messengers, and the men left standing afterwards. We hear about the King meeting his council through Cecily’s husband Richard. Yet the idea starts when both of them talk last thing at night or out hunting, just the two of them so no one else can hear. Cecily campaigns through letters, befriending influential women and petitioning the Queen – although in this case she believes the Queen is truly the one in charge anyway.

Without her husband Richard though, Cecily would have no avenue to pursue her plans. This is an arranged marriage, as we see in the book the family are already marrying off their eldest daughter at the age of 10. After the ceremony, the young bride and groom go back and live with their families until the age of fourteen or fifteen when the bride and groom go to live in their marital home together. So, Cecily would have had the same rules apply to her match. Luckily it appears to have been a good match, in business and pleasure. Most importantly for Cecily, Richard regards her as an equal and listens to her in courtly and political matters. His respect for her, which seems unusual for the time, means that the men of her household and her sons listen to her as well. They value her judgement and her ability read a situation and the people involved. However, being a courtier isn’t an easy life. I won’t reveal the plot, but I will say that when you’re at the beck and call of a King, you have to hope that King is of good judgement and sound mind.

One aspect that really stood out to me, was that all the women are deeply affected by their fertility, or lack of it. Cecily and Richard have been married for eight years at the start of the book, but still haven’t had a living child. In fact by the end of the book, I couldn’t keep up with how many times she had been pregnant. There is a period in the middle of the book where she realises she’s been pregnant for the majority of the last few years. I was also surprised by the breadth of the families, with mothers still being pregnant at the same time as their elder daughters. When any woman in the book delivers a son I could feel their relief. Everything must be inherited by a son, who continues that aristocratic line. These years of wrangling over who has the strongest claim to the throne, as well as the death of his own elder brother, make sense of Henry VIII’s obsession to produce an heir. I think the author captures beautifully the pressure these women feel. Their sense of loss, even though infant mortality rates must have been quite high, runs deep. Giving birth is very much women’s work, and the blame for what they do or don’t produce sits squarely with them. It’s hard to imagine not being able to control your fertility; to decide when to start or when to stop having children.

The story flowed well, and for me could have benefitted from being slightly longer. There were large time jumps in a couple of places and I did have to keep looking people up, checking family trees and names as opposed to titles. That was me trying to make complete sense of it, to fit this piece in to the larger jigsaw I was more familiar with. This was a fascinating piece of history, bringing to life another incredible woman from this time period. She sits with Joan of Arc, and her contemporaries Jacquetta Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, as women who know how to fight a war of words. Like present day spin doctors they weave the tale they want the court and the country to see – Cecily suspects the Queen of weaving the most audacious tale of all. I was left with the sense that courtly life is a living game of chess, with human pieces. Those close to the throne could be lucky enough to remain in favour, but more likely are only two moves away from ruin. As for the ending, those with historical knowledge will be aware that Cecily’s schemes are only successful to a point and there is even more turmoil beyond the book’s final pages.

She is remembered as the mother of two Kings of England and grandmother to a Queen, but the painful truth is she outlived all of her sons. Even worse, she had to witness their treachery and betrayals of each other, including the disappearance of her eldest grandsons (and heirs to the throne) from the Tower of London, never to be found. Six years before Cecily’s death, her granddaughter Elizabeth married Henry VII finally uniting the houses of York and Lancaster. She even lived to see the birth of her great-grandson Henry VIII. Annie Garthwaite has fictionalised the life of a very powerful and intelligent woman, who has a much bigger hand in history and my own ancestry than I’d realised. Her work is well-researched, creating a book that is horrifying in places, but ultimately a compelling piece of historical fiction.

Published by Penguin, 29th July 2021

As part of the blogger group The Squad Pod, Cecily has been our book club choice for August. You can see our read-along chat at @Squadpod3 on Twitter.

Meet The Author

Annie Garthwaite turned to fiction after a 30-year international business career, fulfilling her lifelong ambition to write an account of Cecily Neville, matriarch of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses and mother of Edward IV and Richard III. Her obsession with Cecily and her family began in school and never left her. Setting off in the world of work, she promised herself that, at age 55, she would give up the day job and write. She did just that, completing her novel while studying for a creative writing MA at the University of Warwick. CECILY is her debut novel and, even before it’s publication, was named a ‘top pick’ by The Times and Sunday Times.

http://www.anniegarthwaite.com

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it. The rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.”

I’m going a long way back in time for Throwback Thursday this week. I read this book in my early teens, but still hold it close to my heart. I’d read 101 Dalmations much earlier and hadn’t realised that the author had written anything other than children’s books. The truth is I’d been waiting my whole life for a heroine like Cassandra Mortmain. There are a lot of different influences to blame for turning me into the adolescent I was. Years trawling round stately homes had given me a yearning for a house I could hide in. We lived in a 1960’s bungalow with just enough rooms to live in, but I longed to hear lines like ‘ Hayley? No I haven’t seen her since breakfast. Could she be in the pink drawing room?’ Period dramas, particularly 1970s productions of D.H. Lawrence novels and L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between , both loved by my mum, had left me hankering after a wardrobe of full, floaty skirts and the sort of accessories that looked out of place. Like tramping down to the village shop wearing a feather boa, ten layers of petticoats, whilst dragging a grumpy spaniel. I would constantly imagine I was in a book or a film, walking the poor dog’s legs off while hoping to meet a man who looked like Mr. Rochester and lived in a Gothic mansion, minus the mad wife.

I also developed a fascination with Edith Holden thanks to the TV series of Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and I even wrote off for a pack about the series. We already had the book, so I bought a sketchbook and some watercolour pencils with my pocket money. My brother and I would go out early, him with his fishing gear, and me with my books and paints. There was an old track down to the woods with a drainage dyke running alongside. About halfway down there were two willow trees that had bent so far over the water it was possible to climb up and lay down along the trunk. My brother would fish from his tree, and in mine I would paint flowers and butterflies and read my book. It was the closest thing I had to room of my own. So, in finding Cassandra Mortmain I felt like I’d found exactly who I was supposed to be. I wasn’t meant to be Hayley Baxter, lives in a sixties bungalow, with a working class family and no money. I was meant to be the broken down castle, bohemian sort of poor. Where parents were trying to make money from art, roof leaks dripped into buckets instead of being fixed and they were invited to tea by the landed gentry or their new American millionaire estate owners.

I loved Cassandra Mortmain’s confidence. She was determined she was going to be a writer and nobody told her she couldn’t be, so she was always curled up in some unlikely place, writing in her journal. If I said I wanted to write novels, my close family were supportive – my mum had always wanted to write. Wider family and friends would say ‘well, as long as you do well at school and have something to fall back on.’ There were aunts and uncles who would have been bemused if I walked constantly around with a journal and pen. Writing was seen as something you had to do – you wrote a letter, or a postcard – but not something pleasurable that you devote time to. That came much later, when I had my own home and my own wardrobe of floaty skirts. When I first read her story I was much like Cassandra herself, there were parts of life that she was recording without really knowing their importance or meaning. Although she narrates her own story, as an older reader there were things I understood that Cassandra didn’t as yet. This is a story of growing up and leaving some of that innocence of youth behind.

I thought on first reading that her sister Rose was incredibly beautiful, but grumpy and not very nice to be around. However, reading her years later I could see that because Rose was older, she understood more about the realities of life. For her, the broken roof and the lack of income were not romantic, but a real problem that needed fixing. Their father’s only published book can’t keep them forever and his writer’s block makes him a very difficult man to live with. Rather comically the women lock him in his study, in the hope that inspiration will strike when he’s forced to stare at his typewriter. It’s very clear to Rose that they are in dire financial straits. This is where the book takes on some Austen-like romantic tropes, as the Cotton family come to visit the estate where they are the rightful heirs and the Mortmains are their tenants. Mrs Cotton brings her two sons, the eldest Simon being the rightful heir, and Neil, the younger son. Simon is ‘detestably bearded’ but the most eligible and able to rescue the Mortmains from their current circumstances. Cassandra’s father and stepmother Topaz are seen as delightfully eccentric by the Cottons and the whole family are invited for dinner. This is where the romantic problems begin, as Simon is besotted with the beautiful Rose, and as Cassandra develops a crush on Simon, she is in turn adored by the Mortmain’s servant and helper, Stephen. Stephen is incredible handsome, but the Mortmain girls are about to find out that the heart is an unruly organ and wants what it wants. Despite this, it isn’t long before Rose announces her engagement to Simon. This solves so many of the Mortmain’s problems – it’s as if one of the Bennett sisters actually accepted Mr Collins. As the preparations for the wedding gather pace, Rose and Cassandra spend more time with the Cotton brothers.

Simon finds that he gets on well with Cassandra. He is the more cerebral of the brothers and while Rose is beautiful, she is not blessed with brains. Yet, Cassandra is too young for romance, and a very touching friendship starts to develop. The younger brother, Neil, is more stereotypically American, loud, brash and very active. He and Rose are usually swimming or messing around in boats, with Neil often play fighting or indulging in horse play. Cassandra has never seen her sister so lively, actually forgetting to be lady like and being in the moment. Everyone is touched to see Rose so happy, and assume it is her approaching wedding. To an adult reader the attraction between these two beautiful people is obvious, but Cassandra is stunned to find out they have run away together. If we hark back to Austen, her sister has turned out to be more of a Lydia than a Jane. How can the Mortmain’s fortunes be improved by their daughter’s marriage to the second son?

This is a novel drenched in charm and nostalgia. Interestingly, it was written by Smith when she was living in America, and that may explain it’s rose-spectacled view of England. There is something slightly melancholy in that we’re watching a young girl lose the charming innocence that makes her narration a delight to read. She falls in love, but not with the person who adores her and sees the devastation that can be caused by betrayal and jealousy. We realise, as Cassandra grows up in front of us, the chaos of a household run by adults who have no money and no rules, the embarrassment of having a stepmother who will happily walk around in the nude and that moment when you find your own sister inexplicable, because you understand storybook romance, but not adult desire. Cassandra is mostly in love with life. One character describes her as ‘the insidious type–Jane Eyre with of touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl.” Her narration makes even minor characters jump off the page and straight into your heart. Finally, I loved how Cassandra leaves us with an open ending. We shouldn’t be surprised that some loose ends are left dangling, because she has told us how much she hates ‘a brick wall happy ending.’ I think it’s true to say that in me, she found a reader as romantic about life as she is. This is one of those books I’ll re-read again and again, so I’m on the look-out for a very special copy to put on my forever shelves.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson.

Following on from last week, I wanted to feature this novel which is one of my favourites from the last twenty years and shows that Kate Atkinson is truly one of our best British novelists. It follows another wonderful novel about the Todd family, Life after Life, which focused on the many possible lives of Ted’s older sister Ursula. This is written as a standalone novel, rather than a sequel and has the honour of being one of the few books that genuinely made me cry towards the end. We meet Ted as he’s a pensioner, living in York, and dealing with living his life alone after the death of his wife. However, we don’t stay there, because as with Life After Life, Atkinson mixes past, present and future with great impact. The novel is also told from Teddy’s point of view, although he does seem slightly omniscient at times, knowing things he wasn’t present for. It is such a poignant history of a man who has lived through a world war, and it feels so authentic. In true Atkinson style, it cleverly manages to be a book about fiction itself.

In Life After Life when the focus was on Ursula, Teddy seemed to be set on course to marry childhood sweetheart Nancy and their life was portrayed as idyllic. Yet in this novel we see that their relationship was far from perfect. Despite this we do follow the lives of their daughter and granddaughter too, to great effect, because it opens up all the changes Ted has seen over his long life. Teddy’s mind often wanders back to his time as part of Bomber Command – something I’ve grown up with because I live in Lincolnshire which is known as Bomber County. In fact in the course of his work as a land drainage engineer, my Dad has accidentally dug up a whole Lancaster Bomber, probably trying to limp home to RAF Blyton, only a mile and a half away. Here the bomber raids were described so authentically, they were harrowing in parts and I could imagine the anxiety of waiting back at base to count the planes back in, knowing some would be missing.

Atkinson manages to combine the personal story of Teddy’s family, with societal shifts that occurred between the wartime generation and those who came of age in the second half of the 20th Century. Teddy is an old school gentleman, often showing acts of kindness and chivalry that make him very loveable. His values are challenged by his daughter Viola, the voice of her generation, who is always looking for the next cause to adopt. She campaigned for nuclear disarmament and supported the women protesting at Greenham Common. She’s a feminist and a vegan, something very unusual until fairly recently in the 21st Century. We are shown how the generation gap creates arguments in a family, where one generation fought in a war and later generations don’t appreciate or fully comprehend the sacrifices that were made for them. Viola could be seen as an unsympathetic character, especially when compared with Teddy’s service. However I wondered if her character developed as a reaction against Teddy’s courage and heroism. Such perfection is hard to live up to. In fact, when Viola tries to reconnect with friends from her travelling days she finds one of them has died and one works in finance – far from the ideals they held before. Unlike Teddy’s generation they have had a chance to regret behaviour and change outlook. Teddy’s friends will always be the same age.

I enjoyed the interesting structure of the novel where we float back and forth in time, between characters and settings. At times Atkinson lets slip a future plot, while still in the past. All of this felt very Virginia Woolf-esque and it suited the narrative. She is such a skilled writer that this never feels overtly literary or highbrow, it remains a light easy read. There is a huge twist at the end that has a bearing on everything you’ve read so far, but it’s not there just for the sake of it. Yes, it’s an excellent example of the post-modern novel, in a similar vein to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, but that’s not all. It’s impact of the twist was devastating to me and this is where tears emerged. This unexpected direction is truly a tribute to the men of Bomber Command, especially those who didn’t come home, like the men in the Lancaster my Dad dug up who were only a couple of miles from safety. This novel is simply one way Teddy’s life could have played out and it’s all the more powerful for it. This was an intelligent, well-researched and poignant novel that I think should be viewed as a modern classic.

Meet The Author

Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.Her 2013 novel Life After Life won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. It also won the Costa Novel Award, as did her subsequent novel A God in Ruins (2015).

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

Have you ever wished that you had a chance to do something all over again? To iron out the mistakes or maybe create a different outcome. To maybe get a second chance at life, right from the start; a life with a blank slate again. What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life is one of my favourite novels of all time, alongside its sequel A God in Ruins. I loved her Jackson Brodie novels and Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but this novel is something extra special. I’d never read anything like it outside of sci-fi novels.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

Atkinson does something profoundly special with this novel. It could have been a perfectly acceptable novel if it simply explored this baby girl’s lives from a personal and family perspective. However, Atkinson weaves Ursula’s personal story in with the state of flux in the early Twentieth Century. She takes in the demise of such upper middle class family’s like the Todd’s, from changes to social mobility, women’s roles becoming more prominent, and the loss of male members of the family due to WW1 and WW2. She explores the descent into WW2 and women’s roles in places like the war office and the secret services. In the multiple lives Ursula lives she can explore whether or not war could have been avoided, and what role she could have played in that mission. There’s so much going on that I can understand some reviewers finding it complicated to follow. The trick is to simply go with it. Eventually Ursula has longer lives where these issues can be explored in depth.

I fell in love with the Todd family and their genteel English way of life that can be summed up in a single phrase; ‘one does as one must, and then has tea’. All the female characters, including Sylvie and Pamela, are well fleshed out and it’s interesting to see what different paths their own lives took because of Ursula. I also had an incredible soft spot for Teddy – and loved that he got his own story in her follow up novel A God In Ruins. However, it is Ursula who holds our attention most and the endlessly inventive ways she dies in childbirth, from Spanish Flu, from drowning or by murder. She always has very strong perceptions, and experiences strong episodes of déja vu – although she doesn’t know she’s been here before, it seems she has gained some gifts from her other lives. There must be some residual wisdom from times when she’s been a mother or not, a wife or a mistress, someone who leads a quiet life in the country or goes to Germany and changes the course of history.

Atkinson’s sense of place is incredible. There are the lazy summers at the Todd family home, lounging in the garden or the kids exploring freely, climbing trees in the idyllic countryside. Her scenes in London are incredibly evocative, especially her descriptions based in historical fact. In one section their maid goes to a huge gathering in the capital to celebrate the end of WW1 and brings Spanish Flu back to the house. Her description of the London Blitz brings home how devastating and terrifying it must have been. We have a unique perspective as readers, we have an overview of every life Ursula lives, while she only knows the one she’s living in. Of course there are some events that repeat in every life – her birthday in 1910 is replayed twelve times – but these are important moments, where even the most subtle difference can send Ursula hurtling towards a different path in life. The novel evoked several other novels for me. The scenes at home with family in the early Twentieth Century reminded me of the long, languid summer of L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between. Scenes in London during WW2, and the concept of written lives versus the truth, reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan. I never became bored of going back to the beginning, but the other characters in Ursula’s life are so strong and well-written, it seems odd that once she dies, they no longer exist either. The author explores the dynamics of family, class, and how that changes so much at this point in history. There’s also grief – for other people, a way of life, a loss of innocence – and how that affects characters differently. I think this is an astonishing novel, beautifully written and managing to be both playful in structure but profoundly moving at the same time.

Next week for Throwback Thursday I will be looking at Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life. A God in Ruins overlaps with Ursula’s story in places, but is more focused on her little brother Teddy.

Meet The Author

Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.Her 2013 novel Life After Life won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. It also won the Costa Novel Award, as did her subsequent novel A God in Ruins (2015).

Posted in Publisher Proof

Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten.

Today I get to share with you an extract from this brilliant sequel to Ellen Alpsten’s novel Tsarina.

When they took everything from her, they didn’t count on her fighting to get it back…

Born into the House of Romanov to the all-powerful Peter the Great and Catherine I, beautiful Tsarevna Elizabeth is the world’s loveliest Princess and the envy of the Russian empire. Insulated by luxury and as a woman free from the burden of statecraft, Elizabeth is seemingly born to pursue her passions. 

However, a dark prophecy predicts her fate as inexorably twined with Russia. When her mother dies, Russia is torn, masks fall, and friends become foes. Elizabeth’s idyllic world is upended. By her twenties she is penniless and powerless, living under constant threat. As times change like quicksand, an all-consuming passion emboldens Elizabeth: she must decide whether to take up her role as Russia’s ruler, and what she’s willing to do for her country – and for love.

Prologue


THE TSARINA’S DAUGHTER

In the Winter Palace, St Nicholas’ Day 6 december 1741

My little cousin Ivan is innocent – he is a baby, and as pure as only a one-year-old can be. But tonight, at my order, the infant Tsar will be declared guilty as charged.
I fight the urge to pick him up and kiss him; it would only make things worse. Beyond his nursery door there is a low buzzing sound, like that of angry bees ready to swarm the Winter Palace. Soldiers’ boots scrape and shuffle. Spurs clink like stubby vodka glasses and bayonets are being fixed to muskets. These are the sounds of things to come. The thought spikes my heart with dread.
There is no other choice. It is Ivan or me. Only one of us can rule Russia, the other one condemned to a living death. Reigning Russia is a right that has to be earned as much as inherited: he and my cousin, the Regent, doom the country to an eternity under the foreign yoke. Under their rule the realm will be lost; the invisible holy bond between Tsar and people irretrievably severed.
I, Elizabeth, am the only surviving child of Peter the Great’s fifteen sons and daughters. Tonight, if I hesitate too long, I might become the last of the siblings to die.
Curse the Romanovs! In vain I try to bar from my thoughts the prophecy that has blighted my life. Puddles form on the parquet floor as slush drips from my boots; their worn thigh-high leather is soaked from my dash across St Petersburg.

Despite my being an Imperial Princess – the Tsarevna Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova – no footman had hooked a bearskin across my lap to protect me against the icy wind and driving snow while I sat snug in a sled; I had no muff to raise to my face in that special graceful gesture of the St Petersburg ladies, the damy. My dash towards my date with destiny had been clandestine: snowfall veiled the flickering lights of the lanterns and shrouded the city. Mortal fear drove me on, hurry- ing over bridges, dodging patrolled barriers – the shlagbaumy – and furtively crossing the empty prospects, where my hasty passage left a momentary trace of warmth in the frosty air.
This was a night of momentous decision-making that I would have to live with forever. An anointed and crowned Tsar may not be killed, even once he is deposed, as it sets a dangerous prece- dent. Yet he may not live either – at least not in the minds of the Russian people or according to the diplomatic dispatches sent all over Europe.
What then is to become of the boy?
I feel for Ivan’s limp little hand. I simply cannot resist – never could – nuzzling his chubby, rosy fingers, which are still too small to bear the Imperial seal. We call this game a butterfly’s kiss; it makes him giggle and squeal, and me dissolve with tenderness. I drink in his scent, the talcum powder blended for his sole use in Grasse – vanilla and bergamot, the Tsar’s perfume – carefully recording it to last me a lifetime. The men outside fall quiet. They are waiting for the decision that will both save and damn me. The thought sears my soul.
In Ivan’s nursery, the lined French damask drapes are drawn. Thick, pot-bellied clouds hide the December new moon and stars, giving this hour a dense and dreadful darkness. During the day, the seagulls’ cries freeze on their beaks; the chill of night grates skin raw. Any light is as scarce and dear as everything else in St Petersburg. The candle-sellers’ shops, which smell of beeswax, flax and sulphur, do brisk business with both Yuletide and Epiphany approaching. On the opposite quay, the shutters on the flat façades of the city’s palaces and houses are closed, the windows behind them dark. They are swathed in the same brooding silence as the Winter Palace. I am in my father’s house, but this does not mean that I am safe. Far from it – it means quite the opposite.

The Winter Palace’s myriad corridors, hundreds of rooms and dozens of staircases can be as welcoming as a lover’s embrace or as danger- ous as a snake pit.
It is Ivan or me: fate has mercilessly driven us towards this moment. The courtiers shun me: no one would bet a kopeck on my future. Will I be sent to a remote convent, even though I do not have an ounce of nun’s flesh about me, as the Spanish envoy, the Duke of Liria, so memorably recorded? I had once been forced to see such an unfortunate woman in her cell; as intended, the sight instilled a terror that would last me a lifetime. Her shorn head was covered in chilblains and her eyes shone with madness. A hunchbacked dwarf, whose tongue had been torn out, was her sole companion, both of them shuffling about in rotten straw like pigs in their sties. Or perhaps there is a sled waiting for me, destination Siberia? I know about this voyage of no return; I have heard the cries, seen the dread and smelled the fear of the banished culprits, be they simple peasants or even the Tsar’s best friend. By the first anniversary of their sentence, all had succumbed to the harsh conditions of the East. Maybe a dark cell in the Trubetzkoi Bastion, the place nobody ever leaves in one piece, will swallow me; or things will be simpler, and I am fated to end up face down in the Neva, drifting between the thick floes of ice, my body crushed and shredded by their sheer force.
The soldiers’ impatience is palpable. Just one more breath! Ivan’s wet-nurse is asleep, slumped on her stool, resting amidst his toys: the scattered pieces of a Matryoshka doll, wooden boats, a mechan- ical silver bear that opens its jaws and raises its paws when wound up, and a globe inlaid with Indian ivory and Belgian émaillé. One of the nurse’s pale breasts is still bare from the last feed; she was chosen for her ample alabaster bosom in Moscow’s raucous German Quarter. Ivan is well cared for: Romanov men are of weaker stock than Romanov women, even if no one ever dares to say so. I cele- brated his first year as a time of wonder, offering my little cousin a cross studded with rubies and emeralds for his christening, a gift fit for a Tsar, and put myself in debt to raise an ebony colt in my stables as his Yuletide present.

Ivan’s breathing is growing heavier. The regiment outside his door weighs on his dreams. As I touch his sides, his warmth sends a jolt through my fingers, hitting a Gold in my heart. Oh, to hold him one more time and feel his delightful weight in my arms. I pull my hands back, folding them, though the time for prayers has passed. No pilgrimage can ever absolve me from this sin, even if I slide across the whole of Russia on my knees. Ivan’s lashes flutter, his chin wobbles, he smacks his pink and shiny lips. I cannot bear to see him cry, despite the saying of Russian serfs: ‘Another man’s tears are only water.’
The lightest load will be your greatest burden. The last prophecy is coming to pass. Spare me, I inwardly plead – but I know this is my path, and I will have to walk it to the end, over the pieces of my broken heart. Ivan slides back into slumber; long, dark lashes cast shadows on his round cheeks and his tiny fists open, showing pink, unlined palms. The sight stabs me. Not even the most adept fortune-teller could imagine what the future has in store for Ivan. It is a thought that I refrain from following to its conclusion.
Beyond the door utter silence reigns. Is this the calm before the storm my father taught me to fear when we sailed the slate- coloured waters of the Bay of Finland? His fleet had been rolling at anchor in the far distance, masts rising like a marine forest. ‘This is forever Russia,’ he had proudly announced. ‘No Romanov must ever surrender what has been gained by spilling Russian blood.’ In order to strengthen Russia, Father had spared no one. My elder half-brother Alexey, his son and heir, had paid the ultimate price for doubting Russia’s path to progress.
Steps approach. My time with Ivan, and life as we know it, is over. I wish this were not necessary. There is a knock on the nursery door, a token rasp of knuckles; so light, it belies its true purpose. It is time to act. Russia will tolerate no further excuses. The soldiers’ nerves are as taut as the springs in a bear trap. I have promised them the world: on a night like this, destinies are forged, fortunes made and lost.


‘Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova?’ I hear the captain of the Imperial Preobrazhensky Regiment addressing me. His son is my godchild, but can I trust him completely for all that? I feel as if I am drowning and shield Ivan’s cradle with my body. In the gilt- framed mirrors I see my face floating ghostly pale above the dark green uniform jacket; my ash-blonde curly hair has slid down from beneath a fur cap. On a simple leather thong around my neck hangs the diamond-studded icon of St Nicholas that is priceless to me. They will have to prise it from my dead body to take it from me.
I am almost thirty-two years old. Tonight, I shall not betray my blood.
‘I am ready,’ I say, my voice trembling, bracing myself, as the door bursts open and the soldiers swarm in.
Everything comes at a price.


Meet The Author

Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands, where she dressed up her many pets and forced them to listen to her stories. 

Upon graduating from the ‘Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris’, she worked as a news-anchor for Bloomberg TV London. While working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work, a nap and a run. So much for burning midnight oil! 

Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint, and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three sons, and a moody fox red Labrador.

Posted in Cover Reveal

Cover Reveal! The Rebel Suffragette by Beverley Adams.

Today I’m part of the cover reveal for this interesting book about suffragette Edith Rigby. Check out the blurb below.

The Blurb

The suffragette movement swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Led by the Pankhursts, the focus of the movement was in London with demonstrations and rallies taking place across the capital. But this was a nationwide movement with a strong northern influence with Edith Rigby being an ardent supporter. Edith was a controversial figure, not only was she was the first woman to own and ride a bicycle in her home town but she was founder of a school for girls and young women. Edith followed the example of Emmeline Pankhurst and her supporters and founded the Preston branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was found guilty of arson and an attempted bomb attack in Liverpool following which she was incarcerated and endured hunger strike forming part of the ‘Cat and Mouse’ system with the government. During a political rally with Winston Churchill Edith threw a black pudding at a MP.

There are many tales to tell in the life of Edith Rigby, she was charismatic, passionate, ruthless and thoroughly unpredictable. She was someone who rejected the accepted notion of what a woman of her class should be the way she dressed and the way she ran her household but she was independent in mind and spirit and always had courage in her own convictions. As a suffragette, she was just as effective and brave as the Pankhurst women. This is the story of a life of a lesser known suffragette. This is Edith’s story.

Look out for the blog tour coming soon.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Mr Wroe’s Virgins by Jane Rogers.

‘The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour.

In 1830, as he thought the end of the world approached, the charismatic, hunchbacked prophet of a religious sect settled in Lancashire heeds the biblical injunction and chooses seven virgins ‘for comfort and succour’. Basing her novel on the life of the real John Wroe, a leader of a group called the Christian Israelite Church, Rogers crafts an impeccable narrative, interweaving the diverse mindsets of some of the chosen women and the prophet during the nine months of complex interaction. Part morality tale, part history, packed with accurate details of early 19th century life, the stories of Leah, Joanna, Hannah and Martha unfold as they cope with the hypocrisy, blind beliefs and idealism of the sexually threatening prophet.
Told with humour, irony and a generosity that embraces even the sinister Wroe, this is a compelling story of astonishing depth, elucidating religious idealism, the beginnings of socialism and the ubiquitous position of women as unpaid labourers.

I came across this novel, even before the BBC TV series of the same name. Having seen/read both, I can recommend them equally, although I think the novel is slightly more successful in a few different ways. The way the book is structured into four different narratives allows the women’s characters to develop fully, as over nine months, the story of their lives unfold. Through them we come to experience all seven women: a pious believer; two sisters, still too young to understand their place in the world; a disabled woman; a beautiful, but egotistical woman; a mute and badly beaten woman; a girl donated by her aunt and uncle, who doesn’t believe in the prophet or his religion. It is only through the women that we experience the prophet, a clever reversal of power. In fact these narratives are the only power the women have at first, these are their only words free from restriction or religious dogma. This power shift is especially interesting when it comes to Martha, who is mute. When I first encountered her narrative I thought I’d bought a book with pages missing. However, it’s just Martha trying to express herself the only way she knows – depicted in staccato monosyllabic language, Martha writes about what she knows, eating and sleeping in the first instance. Yet instead of cutting off her narrative, Rogers leaves a blank page. This is the space into which Martha can develop and come to know herself. One of the most powerful parts of the book is watching this transformation.

We hear that Mr Wroe is a powerful speaker, and we can hear his preaching and religious teaching. However, we don’t fully come to know and understand the man. He doesn’t get to construct himself through language. So, we know something of his belief system and his interpretation of the Bible, but nothing personal. This could be because he is a conduit of God, simply meant to deliver God’s teaching. It also leaves him as something of an enigma. Why and when did he become the person he is today? The belief system he has is very selective, patriarchal and seems to benefit him more than his congregation. He sees no problem in allowing Leah to bring her illegitimate child to live with them. He accepts Hannah into the fold despite her lack of faith, and her doubts allow him to admit his own. He uses all the women as unpaid domestic servants and the exploitation doesn’t end there. He seduces the pious Joanna by convincing her that they will beget the new Messiah. For each woman his approach is different, but it works. I found his exploitation of Martha particularly difficult to read and his ability to take Joanna’s faith and use it against her in such a manipulative way is despicable. I don’t want to ruin the ending, so I’ll reserve any more detail, but such an arrangement can’t last and I kept reading hoping for the women’s emancipation.

I have always enjoyed this book and further reading shows it has stood the test of time. The historical detail is so accurate and the scene she sets is vivid – Martha’s time in the pig sty with the animals really sticks in my memory. It may seem hard to believe that any parent would willingly give up their daughters to this man. However, I understand how religious fervour can sweep through a community. Having family on my Dad’s side from the Isle of Axeholme, I know my ancestors would have experienced the Methodist revival started by John Wesley who hailed from Epworth. The real life Mr Wroe’s congregation firmly believed he was a holy man. Maybe they felt that God would look favourably upon them if they supported his vision. There were of course monetary reasons too; offloading a disabled or mute woman who would never earn money or marry could have helped a family who were stretched financially. Also, the stigma of having a disabled daughter, an old maid still living at home or a a girl who has a child out of wedlock could be wiped out by their inclusion in the prophet’s household, This can be a challenging read in parts, but worth the work as you become pulled in by the voices of these women. Little is known about the real ‘virgins’, but here Rogers gives them a voice and a power they clearly didn’t have in life.

Meet The Author

Jane Rogers has written 10 novels ranging from historical to contemporary to sci fi. Books include Mr Wroe’s Virgins (which she dramatised as an award-winning BBC drama serial), Island, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb (ManBooker longlisted, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012). Her short story collection Hitting Trees with Sticks was shortlisted for the Edgehill Award.
She also writes radio drama and Classic serial adaptations (most recently of John Wyndham and R.L. Stevenson).
Jane has taught writing to a wide variety of students, and is Professor Emerita at Sheffield Hallam University. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest novel, Body Tourists, is a dystopia set in 2040.