Texan gals

An unusual novel from the author, Edmund White. Full of wit, tenderness and observation, hallmarks of his best writing, but about two women, Yvonne and Yvette (names the mother liked but had never heard spoken; so, until they were better informed, they were pronounced Why-vonne and Why-vette).

Twins, born into near poverty, they get lucky when the small holding is found to be over an oil field, so for many years there was the opposite, very comfortable wealth. Yvette is the quiet spiritual one and Yvonne, the firecracker.

In adulthood, they diverge completely. Yvonne goes to Europe and marries into the impoverished French aristocracy, finds herself a baronesse with a flat in the Avenue Foch, the widest and grandest of the Baron Haussmann boulevards and a dilapidated chateau in Var, her husband Adhéaume, Baron de Courcy, spends her money freely, grabs his conjugal rights which result in twins, a boy and a girl and is then unfaithful, possibly serially.

Yvette takes the opposite course and goes to Columbia to work with the indigenous people, and her saintly nature fulfils her, she is not without feelings for her Bishop and for a fellow nun, but this leads to unforeseen consequences, and much unhappiness.

The characters are vividly brought to life on the page, and Yvonne makes a delightful, if unreliable, narrator and letter-writer. Her passion, first for her husband, and later on for others is nuanced and lightly brushed in, her love for her sister, so different but so much a part of her character is apparent throughout.

One feels a part of the swirl and gaiety, yet thankful not to be immediately involved. Tonally the scenes in Paris are very much along the lines of a flaneur, the walks, restaurants and shops are wandered through and past. It is an interesting and delightful stroll.

Parental relationships are less delightful, and painted with a studied awareness. A delicacy of touch with covers both her own parents, father and step-mother and her in-laws who perch disapprovingly in the chateau upon which their son has spend an egregious amount of Texan oil money.

A Saint in Texas has a clever and dramatic twist. I loved reading this novel.

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A Storm in the Panhandle

It is impossible not to bracket these two titles. The one written by John Steinbeck in 1939, winning The Pulitzer Prize and the other completed in 2021, with the potential to win prizes, but not yet and not the worse for that.

A brief synopsis of The Grapes of Wrath would read like this: Set during the Great Depression, after the First World War, the novel focuses upon the Joad family, a poor share-cropping farming family in Oklahoma driven from their land by debt, drought and big business. Their near-hopeless situation is brought home to them when their land, which their grandfather carved from the wild, and their father worked, is ploughed up before their very eyes. Their situation, the same as many others, is one of plenty followed by slowly increasing hardship. For years the rains fell and the crops grew, the farmers prospered. Then the rain stopped falling, one year, the next and the next, until the land became a dust bowl; dust storms and winds shrieked and blew, the sun turned red and the land turned grey and the Joads, like many others, were forced onto the the road West in search of jobs, dignity and a future.

Change a few details here and there and you have, in a nutshell, the synopsis of Kristin Hannah‘s novel The Four Winds. The situation facing the Martinellis in the Texas Panhandle is in essence similar. The narrative is very different though. The Martinellis are Italian immigrants. Elsa Wolcott, the least favoured daughter of a prosperous farm machinery dealer, has spent a childhood made difficult by illness and an early adulthood over-shadowed by her parent’s dislike. At twenty-five, she is destined for a lonely spinsterhood, but then she meets Raffaello Martinelli. Pregnant and disgraced she is dumped in the farmyard of her boyfriend’s family by her enraged father. Shocked at first, the Martinellis gradually realise her worth and she makes a life with a family, sustained, for the first time, with love: the love of Tony and Rose and of her daughter, Loreda and her son, Antony. But then the rains stop, and the rest follows.

This is a novel full of love, its power to heal and its power to wound. It is the story of the land and the power it has to bind humans to it, even when it appears to have destroyed them. Elsa, the wounded child, becomes the matriarch warrior and this book tells the women’s story of the Dust Bowl years, the search for labour, dignity and the future in an unwelcoming and brutal world. The endless struggle to keep the family together and to survive, in squatter camps with the bare necessities, driven by poverty to follow the crops: cotton planting, fruit picking, cotton picking, always at the mercy of the owners, with meagre wages and poor conditions.

The American Dream turned sour, for a long time, for thousands of families; while big business exploited and abused them in pursuit of profit. Families fled the drought and streamed West into California, who welcomed the first few because their immigration laws had driven the Mexicans away and they had no one to pick cotton or fruit, but then more and more came until theses outsiders began to demand welfare, education and food and the native Californians saw that their taxes were being eaten up by the “Okies”, a generic term that covered all the incoming families whether from Oklahoma or Texas or any other direction of the four winds.

The New Deal, which was supposed to help America regain its prosperity after the Great Crash of 1929, served industry and business, the farmers lost out and paid the price. These two novels, which describe the painful reality are a salutary lesson as the world, not just America, looks into the abyss again. Kristin Hannah cannot have know what was barrelling towards her when she began this novel: that by the time she finished in 2020, America would be in the grip of the Coronavirus pandemic, and once again would be facing a crisis of huge economic collapse, unemployment, poverty and once again, it is often the women who will be bearing the load.

Can we learn from the past?

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Conjuror of Devils

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593): Poet, playwright, brawler, spy? Everyone knows he came to a sudden and sticky end in a brawl, but why was he there and what led to his death?

In this interesting and intricately constructed novel, we are witnessing the interrogation of Thomas Phelippes (1556-1625): cryptographer, linguist, forger and intelligence gatherer. King James I of England, VI of Scotland is now on the throne, and it as his behest the questioner is probing into the life of Christopher Marlowe, dead now for decades. But who, still alive, knew Kit better?

Phellipes has fallen on hard times and is an old man now. He is incarcerated, as a debtor, in the King’s Bench Prison, though seemingly in slightly better quarters as a result of this situation. More candles and more paper and ink. But what is the purpose behind all this, what exactly does the King want to know?

So, as a result of not knowing what he is required to answer, Thomas Phelippes goes back to the beginning, Cambridge, where he first met Christopher and on through the twists and turns of Christopher’s involvement in the intelligence service to the Crown, Elizabeth’s crown. Kit’s task has been mostly the carrying of letters and the infiltration of various Catholic groups to find out who is plotting and what they are planning.

Marlowe is sent to France and the Low Countries, seeking Catholics, sniffing out priests and unravelling plots. As an agent for Sir Francis Walsingham, he has a hand in the capture of the priest, Edmund Campion; he has a direct engagement with the plotters behind John Ballard (priest) and Babington, the plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne (which ended in her execution) and all along, his principle guide and mentor is Thomas Phelippes. Marlowe is implicated in the Dutch Church scandal, and absolved although the seditious pamphlet has all the hallmarks of his work, signed Tamburlaine, and with references to many of his plays, if indeed it was intended to catch him, the scheme was too obvious and it was discounted. He has also been guilty of counterfeit coining, but as the coin was foreign currency, he was exculpated.

In the end, it would appear that the sudden death of this complex and free-thinking man, was almost accidental.

As a way of writing a memoir, or outlining a biography, A Fine Madness is genius. Alan Judd has delivered on all fronts, both a portrait of Christopher Marlowe, and the workings of his mind and thought, as understood by his friend and as an insight into machinations of the intelligence network of Walsingham, of its time the most sophisticated and successful intelligence service in Europe.

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Reading Aloud

This week I did something that I have never done before. I uploaded a book that I haven’t read on to my Audible account. This may sound a bit odd, but usually I upload books that I have read, just to hear them read to me again. This often results in giving me a new perspective upon the novel or non-fiction book. But for once this was a book recommended by a friend, which I hadn’t got. I had a new knitting project and BBC Radio 4 was failing me for once and I needed the distraction of a book or story.

This novel was the favourite book of the person who recommended it. A totally justified choice. It is the story of a young girl whose family slowly desert her, one by one, until at the age of ten she is just about surviving in a shack on marshlands in North Carolina.

This version, beautifully read by Cassandra Campbell, is unabridged. Which, in my opinion is essential, no matter how many hours of listening there are. The choice of reader is also important, and this was a perfect match of narrative and voice. So while, in the main, I would always prefer to read a book myself, this first was an eye-opener to future possibilities.

Delia Owens has created a story that encompasses all human emotion: love, fear, possession and everything in between. With a detailed description of the marsh, its birds, beasts and insects, its mosses, grasses and muddy waters and these are as important to the story as the life of the young girl. Totally uneducated, she is taught by a friend to read at the age of fourteen, but by then she already knows more about the marsh that most people. Eventually, her studies bring her fame, in the form of books, written and illustrated, about the marsh flora and fauna.

An unexplained death leads inexorably towards a court room drama, and being different, she is caught up in it all.

Knitting while tears fall, is not easy, so I am glad the pattern was not complicated. There were so many instances when the author wrings every drop of pain out of this young woman’s life, from the moment her mother walked away, followed by her last sibling and on and on through her struggling childhood and gradual change from girl to beautiful, shy and delicate woman. Her few, but precious, friendships and her tangled relationships with men, notably first, her violent father.

This is truly a wonderful and glorious book.

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A Change in Perspective

Toby Green sets out to rebalance the historical misconception that Africa had no history before the arrival of the Europeans, and he goes further to demonstrate forcibly that the arrival of the Europeans, most particularly the British, spelt the death knell for West African prosperity, culture and environment.

This magnificent volume provides an economic study going back to trade with Egypt, Spain, Portugal and many other places that predated the wholesale exchange of goods for humans. He shows how the cultural ideas of exchange, whether of cowrie shells, cloth, iron or other commodities, were very different from European concepts of exchange and barter, so that any attempt to rationalise the economic model is flawed from its outset if it is used to explain the inequalities that arose between Africa and Europe.

I wrote about A Fistful of Shells in 2019, but I am coupling it here with another book that has been published more recently.

In the light of so many things that are happening in the world today, not least Black Lives Matter, it is salutary for us in Britain to remember and acknowledge that while we congratulate ourselves for being the first nation to abolish the slave trade, we did not for at least another twenty years, actually abolish slavery.

The reasons for this are fairly obvious to any intelligent and historically acute person. It was one thing to stop the Middle Passage part of the nefarious Triangular Trade, but the third side of the triangle was the part that put the ‘great’ into Great Britain: the trade in sugar, rum, coffee and tobacco.

When you read Michael Taylor‘s account of the influence of the West Indies, from whence we got most of these commodities, upon the wealth of the nation, or rather the wealth of many extremely influential and rich members of the Establishment, all will become clear.

What comes as a shock however, is the names of the people so heavily involved in the riches pouring out from the West Indies, members of a group known as The West India Interest (or just The Interest) and of their many and vociferous supporters, including such national heroes as The Duke of Wellington, Horatio Nelson, Barings Bank and many others.

Slave owning became the defining issue of the day. Having stopped the trade, it was thought that it would end slavery by a process of elimination. But nothing could be further from the truth. What was more troubling to The Interest was that news of possible emancipation was filtering through to the slaves themselves; rumours which gave rise to several notable rebellions and which severely threatened the harvest and production of sugar and rum. On the American coast, a rebellion in Demerara nearly destroyed the entire enterprise and fears that this would spread more and more successfully to the Caribbean islands caused great anxiety and where insurrection seemed likely, the reprisals were fierce and unforgiving.

In some ways, this made life for the slaves even worse. Meanwhile, back in London the arguments raged back and forth, from Canning, through Gladstone and different Parliaments, always with the steady and unrelenting pressure from those whose livelihoods were bound up in the profits from the labour of slaves so far away.

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A Stitch in Time

More women in trouble. This time in the 19th Century. 180 female convicts being transported to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) for a variety of petty crimes. One of them is not who she claims to be. The red-headed one, travelling with her son, is popular. So who would try to murder her?

The ship, Rajah, is real. Her Captain, Charles Ferguson, the Royal Navy surgeon Dr James Donovan MD and the pastor, Reverend Roland Davies all sailed with the women on that voyage between April and July 1841. With them was a passionate social reformer, Kezia Hayter.

A group of women, which included Elizabeth Fry and Mrs Elizabeth Pryor, form a Society of Ladies intent upon prison reform, especially in the case of women. As well as attending Newgate Prison and other prisons, they also maintained contact with the ships that were transporting felons to the Antipodes. One such was the Rajah. Inspired by the social reforms promoted by the Society, one of their members, Kezia Hayter, took upon herself the task of giving these women a project upon which to work during the voyage. The result was The Rajah Quilt.

The Rajah Quilt

Worked in broderie perse by twenty of the women on board, it was presented to the Governor’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, when the ship docked in Hobart. One of many such artifacts that is still available to see in The National Gallery of Australia.

Hope Adams saw the quilt when it came to London for an exhibition at the V&A. She became fascinated with its story and weaving fact and fiction she has created a compelling narrative to fill her novel Dangerous Women. For the purposes of the story, she has fictionalised the women, their names and characters are entirely invented, as is the brutal murder, but from there she is enhancing a true story. The only reason for the changed names is that descendants of these 180 women still live in Tasmania.

Other reading:

Tracy Chevalier A Single Thread
William Golding Rites of Passage (a trilogy)

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The Oldest Profession 20th Century style

It was quite by chance that I went from the 18th Century trials and tribulations of some ladies of the night to another novel about the same profession, set in Soho, London just after the end of World War II.

Fiona Mozley‘s new novel is mostly about a scattered number of people who live in Soho, or frequent its bars and restaurants. The first encounter is with a snail which escapes from a consignment destined for the pot, garlic and butter. Above the restaurant are lodging rooms, and at the top of the house live Precious and Tabitha. We will meet the snail again in the rooftop garden where the women occasionally enjoy the warmth of the sun.

Precious is a prostitute. Tabitha, retired from the profession now, is her ‘maid’. Which in that world does not mean her domestic servant, but more an older carer who looks out for her, as well as looking after her. Summoning help if trouble is brewing; cooking and cleaning and generally making sure of her welfare. The front room of the apartment is where Precious ‘works’, luxuriously furnished, with gentle lighting. Behind that is another room, comfortably shabby, with kitchen, table, chairs and a second bed, which the women share.

Beneath the house there is a cellar which is home to an assortment of semi-vagrants. Two tricksters called Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee who do magic tricks (badly) and get money for the effort, if not the skill. Cheryl Laverty (Debbie) will disappear at some point, which begins the unraveling of the plot; The Archbishop, who maintains he was there when the huntsmen ran through after the deer, blowing ‘tantivvy’ on their horns and crying So! Ho! on a sighting and another, Richard Scarcroft who leaves eventually to try life on the streets.

The building is owned by Agatha Howard who is doing her best to evict all the tenants. Mostly by exorbitant rent hikes, so far without an appreciable success.

Beneath all that is the rumble of the underground and the steady drilling for Crossrail. Patience is convinced that she feels the tremors, but the others are sceptical. However, Tabitha has observed that the toaster seems to edge towards oblivion every day, and has to be pushed to the back of the worktop.

Other characters drink at Aphra Ben, an old fashioned pub. Among them Robert Kerr, who thinks Cheryl may be his daughter and Lorenzo, an aspiring actor. Bastian also drops by from time to time, with a friend Glenda.

Soho in all its tawdry glory is very much a character in this novel. Hot Stew is filled with this rich mix of people and place bringing a dizzying sense of energy, joy and community to the streets of London, still scarred in places with bomb damage but slowly gathering the energy to reform and rebuild – if only there weren’t people in the way the developers could let rip – but the community have other ideas. The smells, sounds and vibrations of years of history still mark the spot.

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The Oldest Profession

In her new novel, Laura Shepherd-Robinson has turned her gaze on to the licentious behaviour of Georgian society, the narrative opens in Vauxhall Gardens where Caroline Corsham is intending to meet a friend, whom she believes is an Italian contessa. She finds her, dying from multiple stab wounds, in one of the more discreet bowers designed for assignations of one sort and another.

Her scream of surprise and terror bring assistance, firstly of Lord March, her lover who has followed her with the intention of breaking off their relationship, and then others.

However, it turns out that Lucia di Caracciolo is not as Caro had thought, Italian, nor is she a noblewoman but a common prostitute working under the name Lucy Loveless. At this point, it seems that the authorities have lost interest in her murder, so Caro engages a ‘thief-taker’, Peregrine Child, with a resolve to uncover the murderer for herself and to bring to book the men who had used her.

Ms Shepherd-Robinson has introduced us to some of these characters before, in her first prize winning novel Blood and Sugar we followed the fortunes and misfortunes of Caroline’s husband, Captain Harry Corsham as he delves into the murder of his friend Thaddeus Archer, who himself was pursuing the much more grisly and shocking murder of African slaves in the notorious ‘middle passage’. This massacre was fictional, unlike the macabre Zong scandal that rocked London in 1781. During his investigations, Harry comes across Peregrine Child.

Both of Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s novels are highly informative and detailed, Daughters of the Night suffers slightly from a lack of focus. The digressions while interesting, historically accurate and detailed leave the reader somewhat confused. I think fewer sub-plots might have given this narrative a sharper edge. Which is not the same as saying this is not an excellent novel, pacey and thrilling. Both of them bring into the light the darker side of England, its underbelly – in Blood & Sugar the focus is on the nefarious triangular trade: guns and beads to Africa, men, women and children to the Caribbean and rum, sugar, tobacco, indigo, cotton and coffee back to England. In her latest novel the focus is on the lives of women in Georgian England, the narrowness of their choices: wifedom, whoredom or domestic servitude or worse.

There is nothing simplistic in this approach. The lives of Georgian women, many of them uneducated and without any power, was often constrained. They went from family to marriage as property of the men in their lives; if wealthy and well-connected this was probably a comfortable, if vapid, existence; further down the social scale and it became decidedly less attractive, until you reach the bottom. A close study of the satirical cartoons of William Hogarth gives a graphic depiction of the life described in Daughters of the Night. The sex trade was part and parcel of the economy, some estimate that as many as one in five female Londoners were engaged, at some point, in prostitution. Brothels for both opposite sex and same sex relationships abounded; private rooms were available for nightly trysts in most eating houses and taverns; syphilis and unwanted pregnancies were common – the consequences of both were disastrous. All these, and more, appear in Daughters of the Night.

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Remembering enslavement

There are days, and I admit this is not a privilege available to everyone, when I open a book and read it through until the end, breaking off only for coffee or to make a sandwich, a cup of tea and a light supper. No interruptions, no other responsibilities. In fine weather I can sit on a balcony, turning the pages in the sunshine, when cold, doing the same indoors.

The Prophets was just such a book. I had just finished a knitting project and though another was waiting, I took time off to read. Yesterday and the day before, first the Rory Clements and then this debut novel by Robert Jones, Jr. What a start to a writing career!

Set in the Deep South in the Mississippi area before the Civil War in America, we are on a cotton plantation in among the slaves. Elizabeth Plantation is owned by the Halifax family, the second generation is Paul Halifax, his wife Ruth and one son, Timothy. Ruth has had many pregnancies, but only one survivor, Timothy who is now a young man, studying in the North.

The slaves are mixed between farm hands, field hands and house maids. Isaiah and Samuel have grown up together, lived together and loved together for as long as they can remember. They look after the animals, live with them in the barn and sleep with them in the hay. For the other slaves there are shacks, small, poor and insanitary.

By the end of the book, we have learned which slave is mother to another, which one has impregnated another since visits to The Fucking Shed are regular and as unwelcome as one can imagine, though there are also willing and loving relationships. Isaiah and Samuel are both in excellent health and should become breeders of more fine negro slaves, but unaccountably, they are failing in that respect and oftentimes, Paul Halifax has to fill in where others have failed.

The overseer, James, is a cousin and he too has been known to have sex with one of the female slaves, it is not an encounter he is likely to forget.

Owing not a little to Toni Morrison, this book is not another Beloved. It stands alone among a similar stretch of novels by African American authors, but Robert Jones Jr is not in any “danger of [just] becoming a Black writer” as warned by Ernesto Mestre-Reed, for this novel is as much for the “skinless” readers as for anyone else. Inspired, too, by James Baldwin to write about the African American experience, this novel will stand for many years as a testament to the wilful cruelty of the White slave owners, traders, liars and exploiters who so ravaged Africa and subjugated a people.

The narrative is broken up with passages, not unlike a Greek Chorus, spoken by the Seven Spirits, warning the reader to be aware of their relationship to this story, for in the beginning we are all descended from a people that walked away from the African savannah, this then is our story whatever skin tone we have now.

The tenor of the novel is also a swing towards feminism, reminding us that there was a time in African history, at least, when the King was a woman, and male partnerships were celebrated. Several sections of The Prophets, take us back to the Kosongo kingdom before the “skinless ones” came, with their weasely words, their Bibles and their huge ships to carry the people away; and for the attentive reader, these passages adumbrate the events on the plantation.

The message that I take away from this book is that however far removed we may like to think we are, we have their blood on our hands.

More suggestions for reading:

Toby Green A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution
Michael Taylor The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery
Barry Unsworth Sacred Hunger
Toni Morrison anything you have not already read
James Baldwin ditto

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Royal catastrophe

Another Twentieth Century thriller from Rory Clements. This time based on the very real and tragic death of George, Duke of Kent, the brother of the King (whose regnal name was also George [VI]). Like his brother, Edward VIII, who had abdicated, the Duke of Kent was familiar with many aristocratic sympathisers of the Nazi regime, not least his cousin Philipp von Hessen.

The novel opens with George and Philipp meeting at the summer residence of the King of Sweden at Drottningholm Palace. Mr Clements posits in this novel, that this was an exploratory visit to discover the strength or weakness of the German position at that time, this was 1942 and the Germans has attacked Russia.

History does not relate what happened at that meeting, in fact the official record does not include this meeting at all, since the plane with the Duke and his entourage crashed into a Scottish hillside and the whole catastrophe was cloaked immediately in silence. The Duke’s body was returned to London and he was buried quietly in the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore. The King feeling that as this was simply one more terrible death during war time, there was no call for a more elaborate funeral. The tremendous emotional toll this took on the King was never explored or explained.

Mr Clements makes no speculation as to where the Duke’s sympathies lie, the meeting is held and the return journey is fatal. Where the novel departs from the official record is in an extra passenger who survives the crash.

This is where Professor Tom Wilde gets involved. Thus begins another adventure for Tom and Lydia, his not-so-uncomplaining partner, with more hairpin bends than an Alpine mountain road, and as many near death experiences. This fast paced and thrilling narrative combines the Duke’s mission with an attempt by people (actually mostly the Polish Resistance) to get news of the Final Solution for the Jewish Population out to the wider world.

It is documented in several places, that both Churchill and FDR knew about the mass extermination programme but felt that they could do nothing about it. A Prince and a Spy puts forward a different story but with the same result. It also posits a quite unique explanation for the plane crash that killed the Duke, an interesting hypothesis.

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