As some of my friends know, I am writing a story – very slowly – that begins with a young boy leaving his mother in war time because there is not enough food for both of them. He joins the navy. This opening impressed my friend Barbara and to encourage me she lent me her copy of Mother’s Boy.
My story and the narrative of this novel have almost nothing in common beyond the separation of mother from son by war. Nevertheless I am grateful to Barbara for the loan of this novel as I have very much enjoyed reading it.
This is a fictional account of the poet Charles Causley’s early life. Born and brought up in Launceston in Cornwall Charles was known to be close to his mother. Laura Causley was widowed when Charles was young, her husband died as a result of being wounded in WW1. While her husband was away at war, she had earned her keep by assisting her mother who did laundry. And when she died, Laura took on her mother’s business herself, and supported her son as he grew up.
There is not much money in the family, or in the town. Charles, although he does well at school, goes into a boring local office job. He enjoys playing piano in a band and putting on amateur dramatics. As war approaches again in 1939, Charles signs up for the Navy. He becomes a coder, a new naval role which requires quick and methodical thinking, but not great eyesight.
He is not especially suited to naval life, and he suffers unrelentingly from sea sickness. The novel opens with a violent episode, and nothing else quite lives up to the drama of that scene in this novel. Some of his war is spent on naval bases, in Gibraltar and Malta and in the Far East. He finds love and sexual experience (gay), loses friends, and acquitted himself well.
Laura, at home in Launceston, notes the changes brought by the war to the town: Plymouth is bombed, evacuees are taken in, soldiers from the US are based locally and the colour bar brought by the US troops results in violence in the town. After D Day Launceston hosts some POWs. Finally Charles returns to teach at the local school and Laura keeps house for him.
The themes explored in this novel relate to the lives of British people in the early twentieth century: separation by war, expectations based on gender and class, learning tolerance of others. Evacuees bring the values of the city to rural Cornwall; other nationalities and ethnic groups must mix in too; Charles is gay and this is also something to be understood and accommodated.
One theme, indicated by the title, which runs through this novel is the affection and regard between mother and son. After his return, Laura kept house for Charles until her death. Their regard, tested and perhaps strained during the war years, was resilient enough for them to spend her final years together. Charles Causley remained in Cornwall, a generous and popular poet until his death in 2003.
I enjoyed reading this novel as the central relationship is tenderly depicted. In addition, both characters are made vivid by the details of their lives: the routines, practices and equipment of a laundress, and the naval regime for Charles. The details of the local communities are very attractive. Some of the novel is set in Teignmouth, not far from my home. While this is a story based on the poet’s life, Mother’s Boy is definitely a novel, imagined and explored by a respectful writer.
Thank you, Barbara, for the loan of this novel, but it rather held me up than encouraged my own story-writing!
Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale, published in 2023 by Tinder Press. 406pp
I picked Jamaica Inn for my contribution to the #1936 club because I had a copy sitting on my shelves, and I had forgotten my first reading of it, which may have been about 50 years ago. I have been critical of Daphne du Maurier, specifically of Rebecca, but also of The House on the Strand. Jamaica Inn was her fourth novel, published before those two and in it I found a writer who can write a good old fashioned suspense story, with some romance. Wuthering Heights lite anyone?
We are in Cornwall in the far south west of Britain in the 1820s.
The heroine Mary Yellan is as she should be: youngish, but not so young as to be foolish; independent, but not by choice as she had promised her widowed and dying mother to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn; pretty, but not so attractive that all the men will do anything for her; and with spirit to stand up to people, but a soft heart as well. The story begins as she makes her way from the peaceful town of her childhood, Helston, to the wilderness of Bodmin moor. It is night and the coachman is reluctant to set her down at this infamous hostelry.
The villain is Joss Merlyn and as villainous as a reader could wish. He is the landlord of Jamaica Inn. He drinks, he is a bully, he is violent and we know at once that he is up to no good.
He was a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased black brow and a skin the colour of a gypsy. His thick dark hair fell over his eyes in a fringe and hung about his ears. He looked as if he had the strength of a horse, with immense, powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees and large fists like hams. (20)
He married Mary’s aunt Patience and has reduced her to a frightened dependence. It is not long before Mary discovers that he is the leader of a band of ruffians and cutthroats who are engaged in smuggling. Jamaica Inn is the perfect isolated place to store the contraband. Later when he is drunk he tells Mary that he and his band are also wreckers They deliberately lure ships onto the rocks to steal their cargo, killing any witnesses.
The hero Jem Merlyn is as he should be despite being the younger brother of the landlord: independent, a little wild but not with malice; handsome but in a rural and rugged way; with a reckless and adventurous outlook, and some mystery about him.
Daphne du Maurier tells a good story, full bloodied, daring heroine, ghastly baddies and set in a dramatic landscape that adds to the suspense. The story is set up well. We join Mary at the end of her coach journey in the late evening, the last passenger. She must be set down at Jamaica Inn despite the coachman’s reluctance, for respectable folk no longer go to the inn. Darkness continues to be the background for much of the action, in the inn, on the seashore and on the moor. This darkness is contrasted with the peaceful, bright little town of Helston where Mary was brought up, and the jollity of the Christmas fair at Launceston, where Mary and Jem spend a happy Christmas Eve.
In the darkness sounds play a crucial role in the story: the sounds of horses, carts and men carrying heavy goods into Jamaica Inn rouse Mary to first notice the wrong-doing. Horse hooves on the roads announce the arrival in the scene of a new character. There is a clock that ticks, but one night it has stopped. There is rain and hail against the windows, and wind around the house. And when Mary is taken one night by the gang and left unconscious in a carriage on a narrow path, she wakes to hear the sea.
There could be no stillness where the sea broke upon the rock-bound shore. She heard it again now, and continually; a murmur and a sigh as the spent water gave itself to the strand and withdrew reluctantly, and then a pause as the sea gathered itself for a renewal of effort – a momentary fragment in time – and then once more the thunder and the crash of the fulfilment, the roar of the surf upon shingle and the screaming scatter of stones as they followed the drag of the sea. (162)
What follows is a terrible scene as a ship is lured to the beach and the gang go wild with violence and greed.
So Mary’s task is to bring her uncle and his gang to justice and to rescue poor Patience. It’s hard to achieve for he has the physical advantage and on their return from the wrecking he makes a prison of Jamaica Inn, locking Mary in her room. It soon emerges that there is another person that has been directing Joss Merlyn and the wreckers. He is not prepared to be caught and goes to desperate ends to evade justice. The final climax takes place at Roughtor high on Bodmin moor.
Daphne du Maurier
Born in 1907, Daphne du Maurier lived until 1989. Her most famous book was Rebecca, but she wrote 17 novels in all and many other plays, pieces of journalism, essays. She lived for much of her adult life in Cornwall which features in many of her novels.
As with some of her other novels, Alfred Hitchcock made a film of Jamaica Inn in 1939 with many changes to the story. Daphne du Maurier was not pleased with it. Nor was Hitchcock. There was also a serial by the BBC in 2014 and ITV adapted it for television in 1983.
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, first published in 1936. I read the Penguin edition of 1962. 268pp
I have a long-standing interest in the history of the war years, especially of the home front. I guess it is because, being of the ‘boomer’ generation and born after the war, it influenced so much of my formative years. Yet we knew so little of what our parents had done. Many of us had mothers who were silent about their experiences, which we sometimes later discovered had been rather racy; our fathers in the armed or reserved services were hard to imagine. My own father hid behind the Official Secrets Act if we asked him about his war years.
And there is the added interest of our current troubles, the pandemic, which has many parallels with the war. One overwhelming difference is that our ‘enemy’ is a microscopic virus, while in the Second World War it was Hitler and his followers and their malign beliefs. The reactions of the home population during the war have many similarities to our thoughts today, which I find comforting, not least the belief that we will get through it.
Margaret Kennedy’s memoir of the summer of 1940 is therefore a boon to people with my interests. It was published in America in 1941, and has been made available to us today, reissued in a handsome edition by Handheld Press in March 2021. (My thanks to Handheld Press for a copy of this book.)
Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry
She writes about the people she meets, friends she corresponds with, the decisions she makes and how the war progresses over the next six months. The immediate fear was of invasion, but also bombardment of the kind seen in Guernica in Spain in April 1937. By September 1940, when the Blitz was well under way, it seemed unlikely that an invasion was imminent.
My story begins at six o’clock on an evening in May 1940 when the BBC announcer told the British people that the situation of our army in Flanders was one of ‘ever-increasing gravity’.
Those three words banished for ever the comfortable delusion that we were ‘certain to win’. And from that moment, the war took on a new character in our minds. (10)
During those months ‘we in this country were living through a supreme experience’, she wrote.
Many of us were more frightened than we ever expected to be. Many, before the year was out, found themselves being braver than they had ever expected to be. We discovered unsuspected passions and loyalties. We realised which things we valued most. […] The story of last summer is the story of forty million people, each one of them taking that journey. Each had to find his own path back to faith and sanity, each had his own unuttered fears, each found his own source of courage. (3-4)
In our own case, the pandemic brought similar experiences of fear, unsuspected bravery, passions and loyalties. And we have each needed to find our own resources to deal with what the pandemic has thrown at us.
Margaret Kennedy writes about the fall of Belgium that occurred soon after that BBC announcement. The situation was indeed increasingly grave. The British army became trapped at Dunkirk and was rescued, France was invaded and capitulated, and Paris was occupied. A German invasion was expected every day.
During that time she and her husband had to make decisions about where to live: she moved with the children from Surrey to ‘Porthmerryn’ – St Ives, Cornwall, where she had spent much of her childhood; her husband stayed in London as an air raid warden. Later they decided not to send the children to Canada for the duration. This decision was partly motivated by egalitarian principles. Instead they helped with the hundreds of evacuee children who were sent west to Cornwall.
The children went to Cornwall by train and saw another train full of soldiers rescued from Dunkirk.
While they were waiting on the platform a train full of soldiers came in. The men were filthy and ragged and unshaven, many of them wounded and hastily bandaged up, They were shouting and cheering wildly, and all the people on the platform were cheering and rushing forward with coffee and rolls and fruit and cigarettes. A huge, north-country giant jumped down on the platform and kissed Lucy; pressing a Belgian franc into her hand. (32)
Later as she followed them the writer met a train full of French soldiers, who were much less cheerful for they were going into exile.
Margaret Kennedy’s skill as a writer is in evidence throughout this memoir. I enjoyed her sketches of people, such as the woman who posts pro-German leaflets (like an antivaxxer on social media); the refugee couple from Vienna who have seen terrible things; her friend who denies that anything bad is happening.
For another example, she goes into the garden to find Cotter, the gardener, after that BBC news announcement.
He too had heard the six o’clock news and he looked perturbed but not flabbergasted. But it would take the last trump to dismay Cotter, and even then he would probably appoint himself an usher and marshal us to our places before the mercy seat. He runs the entire village, the British Legion, the Cricket Club, and the Parish Council. It’s my belief that he was born giving instructions to the midwife. (15)
She comments upon class issues, pouring scorn upon the ‘Gluebottoms’ who arrive seeking safety and expecting service they had enjoyed before. They do not muck in. The attitude to the evacuee children is not always generous. We read of the general suspicion of the French, the preparations for invasion and bombardment; rumours that spread and get distorted, and reactions to the first alert.
There are some interesting and amusing details. There are no boats in the Porthmerryn harbour when they arrive because they have not yet returned from Dunkirk. They go for a walk on the seemingly unprotected cliffs and are surprised by hidden soldiers. There is Lucy’s postcard to a school friend:
The waw is getting very bad and we are lerning to nit.
If you think of it as the waw it does not seem so frightening somehow. (32)
She is exceptional for presenting, along with her own thoughts, the variety of attitudes, arguments, dogmatisms about Belgium, France, the US, bombing, evacuating children to Canada and so on.
By the end of the summer, like us, she and the British public have learned to live normally in an abnormal situation; to keep the children safe and educated, to keep in touch with friends. She repeats the general admiration for the RAF, reminding me of the admiration we feel for the staff of the NHS. She believes that the British will carry on, and even create a better world after it’s over, although the fight is likely to be long and bloody. It lasted for another four and a half years. Let us hope our ‘duration’ is nothing like as long.
Born in 1896 Margaret Kennedy attended Cheltenham Ladies College and then shared her time at Somerville, where she read history, with Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Hilda Reid and Naomi Mitchison among others. Her first book was a history book and she went on to write 15 novels. Her brother was killed in Palestine in 1918. She died in 1967.
The presentation of this memoir in this new edition is excellent. There is a useful and interesting introduction by Faye Hammill.
The title comes from a poem, My Soul there is a Country, by Henry Vaughn.
My soul, there is a country Far beyond the stars, Where stands a wingèd sentry All skilful in the wars: (set to music by Parry, in Songs of Farewell, during the First World War)
Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry by Margaret Kennedy first published in 1941 but only in the US, reissued by Handheld Press in March 2021. 201pp
Daphne du Maurier is a highly respected writer. Her novels are much enjoyed by readers whose opinions I admire. Her reputation rests largely on Rebecca, a novel she published in 1938. Through the brooding good looks of Laurence Olivier and the happy fortune of Hitchcock’s film (1940) this writer has remained very popular. I think her reputation today is based on that film, and especially upon the creepy character of Mrs Danvers. The novel has a slightly different plot denouement from the film. I find it difficult to enjoy a book that depends on the reader’s sympathy for a murderer. I wrote about this here.
So what to choose for the Daphne du Maurier reading week, organised by HeavenAli for 11-17th May? I had a choice of four novels which had been on my mother’s shelves. I asked for help from book-tweeters and back came the recommendation for The House on the Strand.
I experienced nostalgia as I read it, a nostalgia based on the smell of the pages, and the appearance of the browning pages. This was one of those regular arrivals from the World Book Club. Sight, feel and smell all brought back my teens, reading from among these books in the school holidays. Katherine by Anya Seton (1954) was another, as was Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957) and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961). The House on the Strand fits right in, published in 1969.
The House on the Strand
Richard Young, our hero and narrator, is staying in a house in Cornwall near Par. He is on his own, the house having been lent by his great friend the biophysicist Professor Magnus Lane. But his American wife and two stepsons will join him in a few days.
Dick has agreed to undergo an experiment for Magnus, which pitches him back in time to the early 1300s amongst the families of the district, and particularly beside one man, Roger, who is steward to one of the rich women. Dick returns several times to this world, coming to see it as more interesting. Gradually he becomes obsessed with it and would rather be in that world than with his wife in the present day.
The reader follows Dick in his first experience of taking the drug. He finds himself in a vivid medieval world, full of politics, passion and underhand doings centred on the local gentry. The setting of the novel is vividly realised, the place names link old and current names, the tides and other topographical details are exploited. For example, a man is killed because in his consciousness he is on an empty hillside, but physically he is on a railway track still in the current day.
At each visit to the past Dick finds himself a little further on with the story he has been witnessing, especially as it concerns the beautiful and adulterous Isolde. There is a suspicious death, a brutal murder, community events and eventually a visit by the Black Death.
As for Dick, he has severely endangered his own marriage, and put his health in jeopardy too. The doctor who treats him suggests that there is a Freudian explanation for what he has experienced, but aspects of it are not accounted for by this theory.
Daphne du Maurier
Born in 1907 Daphne du Maurier lived a long and productive life, writing many novels as well as short stories and plays. Most of her life was spent in Cornwall, where she died in 1989 at Fowey. From 1965 she lived in Kilmarth, the house on the strand.
She is usually characterised as a romantic novelist and there are often dark shadows of the paranormal in her plots. Although there is a fair amount of pseudo-science to explain the drug and its time-travelling effects, enough for one reviewer to claim it falls into the science fiction genre, the drug’s effects are more mystical especially as the traveller is not physically present in the medieval world, and experiences bad reactions when he touches a person from the past, including being catapulted back into the present. She is also famed for her ambiguous endings, the calculated irresolution. In this novel it is unclear what the lasting physical effects of Dick’s misadventures will be.
What are we to make of this book? She seems to be implying that drugs that mess with your brain are damaging. This was the time when LSD was becoming widely known and used. Or was she suggesting that science was getting out of hand? There is an eccentric professor to create the drug complete with a basement laboratory where monkeys’ heads are kept in jars along with phials labelled A, B and C.
Any ideas of class are completely ignored. Apart from Mrs Collins the benevolent housekeeper (an antidote to Mrs Danvers) all the characters are firmly in the well-to-do bracket. Dick’s wife is a widowed American who brings two step-sons and ambitious plans for Dick to emigrate to a job in the USA. And in the medieval period all the main players are people of substance, engaged in local and national battles for power.
It was hard to have sympathy for any character. Dick is weak and manipulatable; Vita is too energetic and has beastly friends; Magnus creates the concoction that initiates the whole mess and then disappears; and the bloodletting among the medieval characters, the jockeying for positions, the unpleasant relationships, none of these characters are sympathetic. Roger, a steward, who is the main character that Dick always follows has the redeeming feature of loyalty to his employer. But even he switches employer.
I am not much impressed by this book. It seems dated to me in its class assumptions, its focus and the narrative was hard to follow with all the place names (the all begin with Tre-) and the family names. Unless another blogger in this reading week manages to convince me, I think I shall leave the rest of Daphne Du Maurier’s oeuvre on the shelves.
What did you think of it?
Heavenali loved it and she has a much more positive review on her site than I have posted here. Happy Birthday!
The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (1969) I read my mother’s hardback edition from World Book Club. 285pp. Virago Modern Classics published an edition in 2003
You cannot have escaped the good reception this book has had, perhaps you’ve been told about it by someone who has read it, or noted it in a shortlist for a prize. It has some alluring ingredients: resilience in the face of bad fortune; it is set in that liminal seashore zone; betrayal, illness, walking, wild camping, beautiful landscapes and wildlife.
With such ingredients it was sure to be successful and bring pleasure to many. My book group read it in September and discussed it a couple of weeks ago. It provoked lively discussion, which is our criterion for a good book. If you haven’t read it I can assure you that you will find something to please you in it.
The Salt Path
Raynor Winn and her husband Moth are in their 50s and have been living in Wales for many years on a freehold small farm. Their children have grown up, the farm and its land are taken from them in a court case which is presented as both unfair (the judgement) and a betrayal (by a former friend). They have no means, no financial security at all. And then Moth is diagnosed with a degenerative and terminal illness: CBD. What are they to do?
They decide to walk the South West coast path, from Minehead to Portland, and to camp along the way. The choice is pretty near random, based on a book: The South West Coast Path: From Minehead to South Haven Pointby Paddy Dillon, complete with OS maps and a waterproof cover. The choice of guidebook also determined the direct of their walk, even though it meant doing the toughest part first.
So they set out in late summer of 2013 and with a break in the winter living in a shed they were renovating they walked 600 miles in the next 10 months. They slept wild and ate as cheaply as possible, and therefore badly. And they hoped that by walking they would find a solution to their homelessness, their lack of income and the pressing problem of living with an approaching death. Walking is known to help clear the mind, but these two had such difficult daily experiences from the challenges of their walk that they were not able to spend much time thinking about or discussing their imponderable future.
But they met these challenges with stamina, endurance, resilience and mutual support despite being preoccupied with the daily pursuit of food, a safe place to sleep and an occasional wash. They were resourceful in the face of having so little cash. A scene that gives real pleasure was set in St Ives, and out of cash as usual Moth begins a loud recitation of Beowulf in Seamus Heaney’s translation and Raynor takes round the hat. They earn £28.03.
Other people cross their path or walk with them for a while. Few are aiming to go so far or are rough sleeping. Some are welcome company, a few are not. Some are generous too with warmth or food or a welcome. The landscape, especially the northern coast of Cornwall is impressive while also providing severe challenges. Early mornings, before many people are around, and while the shore birds are still feeding, and the air is fresh and clear, these are the good times.
They encounter strong prejudice against homeless people, and experience urban homelessness briefly in Plymouth and note the contrast with their coastal path existence.
And they find that their love for each other is a strong as ever having been severely tested by the circumstances of their walk. They meet good luck and generosity having arrived at some decisions about their futures, and find permanent accommodation as easily a pretty feather or a pebble.
What did the book group think?
All members of the group had enjoyed going on the emotional journey of The Salt Path with the writer. Some felt angry about what had happened to them and respected the couple’s positive response to such a dreadful position.
Much of the time while I was reading this book I wondered why we were being asked to applaud bonkers behaviour. Why on earth were they walking the coastal path? But in my book group it was suggested that a better question would be – why not? They had nothing better to do.
And because we live close to the South West coastal path, and have all walked parts of it, we set to again to discuss what we had enjoyed about this compelling and moving book. One reader suggested that the best writing described the walking and the landscape and she was not so keen on the insertion of bits of local history. Another remarked that it was the author’s story, not so much the couple’s.
We all agreed on the pleasures of walking in the south west, and that walking is good for you and makes you feel good.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn published in 2018 by Penguin. 275pp
The Sunday Times bestseller, Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland Prize & shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Biography Award & Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize 2018
With such a name, how could you go wrong? Marvellous Ways is an 89-year old woman, living in a caravan in an isolated creek in Cornwall in 1947. The author, Sarah Winman, did very well with When God was a Rabbit, so we are in the region of popular fiction. How do older women appear in popular fiction? The clue is in the title!
This is the 23rd post in the series looking at older women in fiction on this blog. You can find previous posts by clicking on the category: older women in fiction.
This is the story of Francis Drake, a soldier deeply damaged by his experiences of the Second World War. That he did not prevent a rape by fellow soldiers is haunting him. He returns to London in 1947 to search for his childhood friend, Missy. He finds her and falls in love and thinks his future can be with her. But she disappears into the River Thames before his eyes.
Drake has a letter for a doctor from his son, who did not survive the war. In search of the doctor, he comes to the creek in Cornwall where Marvellous Ways lives. Marvellous has been waiting for him, she tells him. She cherishes him and restores him to health, both physical and mental. Into their lives comes Peace Rundle, who has been taught how to bake bread by Wilfred Gently. She too is restored by the relationships in the creek, and finds contentment and love living nearby. These characters are all oddities, seeking a life out of the mainstream, different, regarded by others as best with a bit of distance.
It turns out … well everyone is connected to everyone else in this story. And they all need to be a and a little more forgiving and a little kinder to themselves and to each other.
Gillian Creek by Jonathan Billinger, March 2007 via WikiCommons
The Old Woman
Marvellous lives up to her name. She is just what everyone’s granny should be, the ideal older woman: a little eccentric, very wise and all-seeing. And she is patient, waiting on her mooring stone, for what? For a man of course. As she waited for the return of Paper Jack, the love of her life, so she waits for Francis Drake.
Well, this is whimsical, magical, a bit of a fairy story, and Marvellous Ways owes quite a bit to the popular image of the little old, odd, cronky woman. She is, however, independent, experienced, a raconteur, skilled in the arts of healing, and capable of reflection on her past life and her present. She is more like a white witch than a grumpy old sod. Mostly she manages her ageing but as she nears her death she reflects on her life.
And it simply didn’t make sense. Who she was then and who she was now. Just. Didn’t. Make. Sense. (250)
Marvellous is 89, and very wise. She has loved (two men and a woman) and learned the craft of midwifery, and to live alone in her caravan beside the creek. She believes she is the daughter of a mermaid, a black woman brought by her father to Cornwall. She has the gift of foresight, knowing when important people will come, their troubles and how to cure them. It is an unrealistic but strong version of an older woman.
Upper reaches of Gillian Creek by Rod Aliday, July 2008 via WikiCommons
Rich in imagery, this is a feel-good book to curl up with. It owes something to magical realism. Here are the opening paragraphs of A Year of Marvellous Ways.
So here she was, old now, standing by the roadside waiting.
Ever since she had entered her ninetieth year Marvellous Ways spent a good part of her day waiting, and not for death as you might assume, given her age. She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for because the image was incomplete. It was a sense, that’s all, something that had come to her on the tail feather of a dream – one of Jack Paper’s dreams, God rest his soul – and it had flown over the landscape of sleep just before light and she hadn’t been able to grasp that tail feather and pull it back before it disappeared over the horizon and disintegrated in the heat of a rising sun. But she had known its message: Wait, for it is coming. (3)
There are many stories in this novel. Every character has an interesting name and a back-story and, like a spider graph, they are all somehow linked to Marvellous Ways. It turns out … how many times does the reader find that it turns out?
A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, published by Tinder Press in 2015. 314pp
A review on Girl with her Head in a Book blog has some pertinent observations, including this: ‘the question of how one recovers from past trauma hovers over the novel but never quite takes root’.
A more enthusiastic review comes from Savidge Reads. He enjoyed When God was a Rabbit as well.
A Year of Marvellous Ways was chosen for Richard and Judy’s WH Smith Book Club in 2016.
Every novel I read for a brief period recently seemed to contain references to paintings, were about eminent painters, or were inspired by particular paintings, or the plot turned on the art of the painting. Here is a selection of four, beginning with the best!
How to be both by Ali Smith (2014)
This was one of my best reads of the last 12 months: judges of many prizes agreed, including Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize which it won in June this year. This novel draws on fresco painting techniques in its layering of stories, and in its exploration of ambiguity. The paintings are the frescoes in Ferrara, and in the National Gallery, St Vincent Ferrer by Francesco del Cossa.
You can read my review about the novel from March 2015 here.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (1999)
This book was a best seller, not least because of the film adaptation. The book tells the story of a servant girl, Griet, and the picture painted of her by the great Dutch painter – Johannes Vermeer. It is narrated in the voice of Griet, who is unfamiliar with the world of the artist, but learns how to mix his paints, pose for him and eventually to loose her innocence through her relationship with the painter.
Tracy Chevalier has made a speciality of highly researched historical fiction. The insights into the Delft household, and Dutch society in the seventeenth century are among the attractive details of this novel. Vermeer has become very popular since the book was published. Here is a picture of the crowd around another of his paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Girl with a Pearl Earring is in The Hague in the Mauritshuis.
Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton (first published 1997)
Translated from the French by Tamsin Black
This is novel also takes its inspiration from a Dutch artist. But it was written in French. As the title suggests, Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s housekeeper, is condemned by the Calvinist citizens of Amsterdam. She tells her story from her arrival in Rembrandt’s house as an illiterate maid, to the moment she dies of plague, after having given birth to a daughter.
The theme is the valuing of art and love over dogma and narrow-mindedness. The novel drew me into the life of Amsterdam and its people, as you can read in the longer review in December 2014, one of a group of novels I reviewed that were situated in Amsterdam.
Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995)
This novel draws, not from a single painting, but on a group of artists who congregated in Cornwall before the First World War. They were real people.
It concerns a love triangle. The larger-than-life figure – all performance and attention demanding – is AJ Munnings, who later as Sir Alfred Munnings became President of the Royal Academy. His rival in love is Captain Evans a rather staid, but open young man. The men are portrayed as complete opposites, but friends. The object of their affections is Florence Carter Ward. Florence’s character really irritated me: a fatally attractive woman, men are unable to resist her. She was the subject of Munning’s painting, Morning Ride, sold for nearly half a million pounds at Christies in 2000.
Florence married Munnings, and the story follows them until the tragic ending of the unhappy triangle. Was this novel more than a love story? Was it anything to do with painting? What was the influence of love on painting and of painting on the novel? And what was the role of that other artist Dame Laura Knight?
Of the four novels referred to in this post, this was the least convincing to me. But it is interesting how novelists use painting and painters in their writing.
What novels have you read that are influenced by painting or painters?