The Go-Between – BBC 1


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The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” That has to be one of the best opening lines to a novel ever! The Go-Between was my set text for English Literature GCSE, and it says a lot for the book that I’m extremely fond of it despite having to write all those essays about various aspects of it! We watched the 1971 film adaptation at school, and I saw it again quite recently and was interested to find out that the BBC had made a new version. Why, though, did they put it out head-to-head with the first episode of the new series of Downton Abbey?! Oh well, thank goodness for things like Sky Plus and iPlayer :-).

It’s very hard to fit a whole book, even one which isn’t particularly long, into an hour and a half’s TV programme, and there were things which were noticeably missing or not given as much emphasis as they might have been – Leo being teased at school, Trimingham saying that nothing was ever a lady’s fault, Leo not fitting into upper-class circles and wanting to wear his school cap for the cricket match, the Boer War and the parallels Leo drew between the Boers and the British lower-classes, the symbolism of the deadly nightshade, the hot weather, and the whole thing about it being 1900 and the start of a century which promised so much but was to go so tragically wrong for Leo’s generation. However, as I said, you can’t get everything in, and it’s unfair to nitpick … er, although I’m nitpicking anyway!

In terms of comparison with the 1971 film – also unfair! – I don’t think that Joanna Vanderham and Ben Batt had the same chemistry as Julie Christie and Alan Bates did, but then this version seemed to be concentrating more on both of them as individuals. I gather that a lot of people have whinged that the scene involving Ted swimming was put in to give viewers a Ross Poldark-esque moment with a bare-chested hero, but that scene is actually in the book!

Young Jack Hollington as Leo was absolutely superb, though!  Incidentally, I Googled him after catching the odd trace of a north west accent slipping through the character’s posh-ish voice (only a trace – I’m not criticising!) and I gather that he’s from Merseyside. Brilliant performance from a young lad given a central role. Very, very impressive.

It’s such a sad story, though … sad in a subtle way, until the dramatic ending, and all the more emotive for that. You can see that there aren’t going to be any winners in this, even if you can’t guess just how badly it’s going to turn out. There are a lot of books about forbidden love in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and they might make for good entertainment but they are very realistic social tragedies: there was no place in that society in which an upper-class woman and a working-class man could be together. Then there’s Lord Trimingham, who’s such a kind person but, who gets kicked in the teeth by life – badly scarred in the Boer War, for whatever financial reason has had to let his house out to the Maudsleys, and ends up marrying a woman who’s carrying another man’s child, and then dying young. And, above all, there’s Leo, emotionally scarred for life by the events of that one summer. And the echo of the effects down the years, on Marian and Ted’s grandson.

It’s a wonderful book, it really is, and this was a very good adaptation of it by the BBC. It’s just such a shame that they chose to put it on at a time when most of the period-drama-viewing public were bound to be glued to ITV!


The Book of Splendour by Frances Sherwood


Word PressThis is a very interesting book, set in Prague in 1600 and weaving together two streams of legend and history – the legend of the golem of Prague, combined with the real-life history of the Jewish quarter of Prague, and the court of a Habsburg emperor who was fascinated by mysticism and the occult.  There are various different stories about the golem of Prague: this one involved the story in which the golem (for anyone who never saw the golem episode of The X Files 🙂, a golem is defined by Wikipedia as “in Jewish folklore, an animated anthropomorphic being, magically created entirely from inanimate matter”, and there are stories about them being created in a number of places, but the Prague stories are the best-known) fell in love with a woman and then went on the rampage, with a fictitious character, the heroine of the novel, being a woman in question).

There are various stories, be they novels, plays or legends/folklore, which are so well-known that it’s easy to get them confused with real history.  For example, everyone associates Transylvania with vampires :-).  And it’s hard, when visiting Paris, to remember that there isn’t really a phantom hiding out in the Opera building and that the bells of Notre-Dame aren’t really being rung by Quasimodo!  In Verona, you can even visit Juliet’s balcony – which is rather strange, given that Romeo and Juliet were made up by Shakespeare.  The story of the golem of Prague isn’t that famous in English-speaking countries, but it’s so well-known in parts of Central and Eastern Europe that apparently some people do believe that the golem really existed.  That’s highly unlikely :-), but the stories do involve many people who did really exist, and they – notably Rabbi Judah Loew – appear in this story, alongside the fictional characters.  And the ghetto scenes, leaving the golem aside for a minute, are very interesting: they go into a lot of detail, and mention some quite obscure elements of Jewish religious practice which a lot of readers probably won’t have come across before.

The court scenes involve the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.  We’re so used to thinking of Vienna as the capital of the Habsburgs/the Holy Roman Empire that it’s easy to forget that other cities held that role at particular periods: Rudolf II’s court was based in Prague, and Rudolf turns up in most of the legends of the golem of Prague.

Rudolf was one of a succession of rather weak and relatively obscure succession of Austrian Habsburgs stretching almost two centuries from the abdication of Charles V to the accession of Maria Theresa.  There were some really great names amongst the rulers of other countries during this period – Philip II of Spain, Elizabeth I of England, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Louis XIV of France, Jan Sobieski of Poland, Peter the Great of Russia, to name but a few – but the Austrian Habsburgs just don’t seem to feature prominently at all, not even during the Thirty Years’ War and not even during the Siege of Vienna.  Oh well!  Rudolf was, however, interested in science and also in the occult, and the book brought that across very well.  The well-known figures of Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer, John Dee, the astronomer and astrologer who was influential at the court of Elizabeth I, and the slightly lesser-known figure of Edward Kelley, Dee’s associate, who all spent time at Rudolf’s court, all featured, as well as Rudolf and his advisors.

One bit that didn’t work that well was that the heroine was supposed to be the result of an attack on her mother during the destruction of a village on Ukraine.  That was partly to create a background in which fear of attack to the idea of creating a golem, ad also to make the heroine an outsider in her own community through no fault of her own, but, whilst the author made it clear in her footnote that this attack in Ukraine was fictional, it was clearly based on the Khmelnytsy massacres which took place half a century later.  The Khmelnytsy Uprising was an important event in Eastern European history – and, given that it was the point at which Ukraine was divided between east and west, would make a very relevant subject for a historical novel at the moment – but it had nothing at all to do with the stories about the golem of Prague.

That can be forgiven, but the number of really appalling typos in the text really can’t!  “Demure” instead of “demur”, “chord” instead of “cord”, and, to cap it all, “his pregnant belly” instead of “her pregnant belly” – have the publishers never heard of proof-readers?!  Also, I’m often annoyed by American authors using “English” when they should be using “British”, but this was the other way round.  Elizabeth I was, bizarrely, referred to as “the British queen”, there were numerous references to the “British court”, and the two Englishmen were referred to as “the Brits” – a term which, on top of being totally inappropriate in 1600, only dates back as far as the Second World War!  Very careless stuff, and a great shame given that a lot of research had obviously gone into most parts of the book.  Oh, and Prague does not really like being classed as “Eastern Europe” rather than “Central Europe”!

The errors were annoying, but it’s difficult to find books in English which are set in Central Europe, and this one’s rather different and quite interesting, so it is well worth a read.

Daughters of the Dominion by Bessie Marchant


Word PressAnother Bessie Marchant book set in Canada, but this one was a bit more down to earth: no-one was rescued from a watery grave or found that their fisherman husband was actually an earl!  However, Our Heroine of this novel did bravely and single-handedly foil a robbery at a railway depot, having earlier saved several people with her wonderful nursing skills.  This one was set in western Canada, in the age of mining and the golden age of the railroads – usually a time and place thought of as a man’s world, but the main character, Nell, and her friend Gertrude, both telegraph operators, played a very important part in their communities, as did several other women.

At one point, Nell thought of going to university and studying for a profession, which would have been daring enough for a woman to do at that time but probably still considered reasonably ladylike; but, instead, she opened up her own business, selling pies to the miners and railwayman … and made a roaring success of it!  Scarlett O’Hara would have approved 🙂 – but Nell and Gertrude, unlike Scarlett, managed to do it all without ever even seeming unladylike.  Of course, in the end they both got married, but not before they’d both, Nell in particular, shown that, to quote Janis Joplin, a woman can be tough!  Bessie Marchant’s heroines show very well that a woman hold her own in a male-dominated environment, in a genre and setting usually dominated by male heroes; and the books are genuinely entertaining as well.  I shall be on the lookout for more of them!

The Fifth Knight by E M Powell


Word PressThis was a clever idea for an alternative version of a very well-known episode in English history, but unfortunately it was rather poorly executed.  The idea was that the murder of Thomas a Becket wasn’t actually about Henry II losing his rag and asking if no-one would rid him of this turbulent priest, but about Eleanor of Aquitaine discovering that Henry had secretly made a previous marriage, rendering his marriage to her invalid and their children illegitimate, and that he had a secret daughter, Theodosia, by this marriage.  She, unaware of who her real father was, was living at Canterbury Cathedral with the intention of becoming an anchoress (female anchorite!).  The knights only did in Becket because he wouldn’t tell them where she was; she then made herself known; they then kidnapped her, but a fifth knight, Our Hero Sir Benedict Palmer, saved her … whereupon they had a lot of adventures, found her mother, found out the truth, and then disappeared off into obscurity together.  However, Palmer wasn’t actually the fifth knight of the title, an extra twist being that a monk who’d pretended to be a good guy was actually a bad guy working for Eleanor.  I like Eleanor and I don’t like people portraying her as a vindictive cow, who tried to bump off Rosamund Clifford etc etc, so I wasn’t very keen on any of this as an idea, but, OK, that’s just my personal opinion.

And the stuff with the knight and the girl going on the run and being pursued by the four knights wasn’t bad if you like that sort of thing … but the whole premise behind the story was wrong!  Obviously it was all fictitious, but it could have worked as a story – think of Richard III insisting that Edward IV had secretly married Eleanor Butler, or the claims that Lucy Walter/Barlow had a black box which contained proof that she was married to Charles II.  However, Theodosia’s mother had entered a convent, at Henry’s behest, when he decided to marry Eleanor.  That would have meant that, in both church and civil law, he was free to remarry.  So his marriage to Eleanor would have been perfectly valid, his sons by her would have taken precedence over a daughter by a previous marriage, and there wasn’t really an issue.  OK, there’d have been a scandal had it come out, but that was all.  The idea of kings packing unwanted wives off to convents is pretty basic stuff, and I’m amazed that the author, who’d evidently done a fair bit of research, didn’t seem to realise how it worked.

On top of that, Our Hero was referred to as “Sir Palmer” rather than “Sir Benedict” all the way through, which really did annoy me!  Whilst the author isn’t British (she’s Irish), surely that is very, very basic general knowledge!  Has she ever heard anyone refer to Sir Elton John  as Sir John, Sir Alex Ferguson as Sir Ferguson or Sir Sean Connery as Sir Connery?!  Come on!  Not impressed!

General verdict – as I said, clever idea, poor execution!


Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil Brinton


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I’m not normally keen on attempts at writing sequels to the classics – there have been some pretty horrendous examples! – but this one, written in 1914 (a very early example of fanfic 🙂 ?) was highly recommended; and it was really enjoyable. It involves characters from all of Jane Austen’s novels: one way and another, they’ve all come to get to know each other. James Morland is now the Bingleys’ local vicar and Edward Ferrars the Darcys’ local vicar, and several of the other characters have palled up during visits to either Bath or London. I’m not entirely convinced by the idea of Georgiana Darcy becoming best mates with Kitty Bennet, but most of the other friendships make perfect sense – it’s easy to imagine Elizabeth Bennet (now Darcy), Anne Elliott (now Wentworth), Elinor Dashwood (now Ferrars) and Eleanor Tilney (now Lady Portinscale) all getting on like a house on fire, Emma Woodhouse (now Knightley) trying to matchmake for Kitty Bennet and the Steeles trying to ingratiate themselves with the de Bourghs!

Not all the main characters from the novels feature (unfortunately we don’t get to see Henry Tilney, whom I always think would be the easiest to get on with of all Austen’s heroes!), but we do see most of them. Not everyone’s life has worked out exactly as they would have liked – one of the original heroines is saddened by the fact that she and her husband haven’t been able to have children, and one of the heroes has been killed off – but most people are getting along very well, and it’s a lovely read!

In true Austen fashion, the plot revolves largely around romances which, one way and another, are never straightforward. James Morland is after Kitty Bennet, but she’s after William Price (Fanny’s brother), but he however is after Georgiana Darcy, who is also attracting interest from Tom Bertram, who is in turn being pursued by Isabella Thorpe. Georgiana has been engaged to Colonel Fitzwilliam, but that’s now all off. Lucy Ferrars, formerly Steele, is keen to bag the Colonel for her sister Anne, but he’s only interested in Mary Crawford (who comes across as something of a tragic figure in this, the author obviously feeling that she got a raw deal), but is facing competition from Mr Elliott (Anne’s father).

Some of the endings seem a bit too rushed and convenient, but you can say that about Jane Austen’s books as well, to be fair! Much as I love them, I think it’s only really Pride and Prejudice in which nothing comes to a hurried conclusion and everything is completely convincing!   I think it was very clever of Sybil Brinton to concentrate on the lesser characters, because characters such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy are so iconic that trying to write plotlines or even long dialogues for them would have readers huffing and puffing that their favourites would never have done this or said that, and there were no continuity errors at all (don’t get me started on that horrendous sequel to Gone With The Wind in which, as well as the plot being utter tripe, two of the Tarleton sisters are mixed up!).

All in all, a very entertaining read. Purists may still object to the idea of anyone but the author who created them presuming to write about such well-known characters, but there’s some very good fanfic about and this is a prime example of it.

A Countess from Canada by Bessie Marchant


Word PressAh, that wonderful feeling when you serendipitously stumble across a book by an author you’ve not encountered before, thoroughly enjoy it, and then find out that the same author’s written many more!   This is really good stuff, if you like old-fashioned stories (and are willing to overlook a few things of a less-than-politically-correct nature).  Think a fair bit of GA Henty but without the military bits, a bit of Elinor M Brent-Dyer but without anyone taking months to recover from their daring escapades, a bit of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and a touch of Jane Austen … if it’s not too unfair to talk about a very good author in terms of a list of others.

It’s a classic Victorian adventure story, set in a dramatic location (a backwoods/fishing community on a remote part of the Hudson Bay), with plenty of action and derring-do and few well-placed reminders of the need for honourable behaviour at all times.  However, where it stands out is that the main character is female.  The wonderful Katherine, never stopping and never complaining trudges through the snow, rows her boat through storms and ice floes, deals with all manner of people and does all manner of back-breaking labour as she keeps her family’s store going in order to support herself, her ailing father and her siblings and young nieces.  And, of course, there are the daring rescues.  She first meets the man she will eventually marry when she rescues him from a watery grave.  How cool (no pun intended) is that – she rescues him :-).  Then, later on, she rescues him again, and rescues someone else into the bargain!  Not to mention the time she catches two men trying to steal her provisions, and ends up rescuing them from wolves.   However, she never comes across as being too perfect, or at all annoying: she’s a character whom you find yourself genuinely liking.

The romance is interesting too, involving a lot of misunderstandings about exactly who’s interested in whom – not quite Jane Austen, but still quite well done.  Then there’s a sub-plot about her father and the wrong he imagined he’d done one of their neighbours, and there are various minor sub-plots involving other neighbours.  It’s all set against the backdrop of a hard-working and sometimes difficult existence, which comes across very well.

One gripe, though – how utterly daft to give the ending away in the title!  Whilst it was fairly obvious that Our Hero was not destined to spend his life being a subsistence fisherman, and also fairly obvious that he wouldn’t find out about his inheritance until after Our Heroine had already agreed to marry him and made a romantic speech about love being more important than money, there were no actual hints in the text about a title until almost the end.  So why give the game away in the book’s name?!

Oh well!  Lovely book even so, especially considering that it was free.  Sadly, only a few of Bessie Marchant’s books are available for free download from either Amazon or Project Gutenberg, and I really can’t justify spending any more money on books until my TBR pile is a bit less Everest-like, but I look forward to discovering more of them in the future.  Smiley faces – 🙂 🙂 🙂 !

The Trade by Fred Stenson


Word Press“The Trade” of the title is the beaver fur trade in Canada, and this book, based on the lives of real people involved in it, is set between 1822 and 1867, when the trade was going into decline.  It’s an ambitious and panoramic novel, covering 45 years and many different aspects of life at that time, but it’s all too bitty.  It jumps from one set of people to another,  from one person’s viewpoint to another’s, and there are some big gaps in time, and unfortunately it all ends up feeling rather disjointed.  I never felt as if I got to know any of the characters properly.  It was interesting, but it didn’t go into enough depth for me and I wasn’t able to feel that I’d really got into it.  Oh well, never mind!

Away by Jane Urquhart


Word PressJane Urquhart did the same in this book as she did in The Stone Carvers, which was to juxtapose two very different themes and try to make them into one story.  Again, I don’t think it really worked.  This book was supposed to be about the experiences of Irish immigrants in Canada, and some sort of way of enabling Irish-Canadians to discover their heritage; but all it really was was the reinforcement of two rather unhelpful stereotypes.

The first was the stereotype of the fey (not that she ever actually used the word “fey”, come to think about it) red-haired (why are fey people always depicted as having red hair?) Irish girl in a remote part of the countryside.  That’s where the title “Away” came from – the lady in question, when she started acting strangely after coming across a drowned sailor, was apparently literally away with the fairies, and all her family and friends apparently believed this.  It’s the romantic-ish idea that some people, although most of them in late Victorian and Edwardian times rather than in the 21st century, had of Ireland, and indeed the Scottish Highlands and some other parts of the British Isles, as being full of myths and legends and the wee folk and people who believed in it all.  Writing a book about that sort of thing can work, but not when set alongside the harsh reality of people emigrating to Canada because of the Potato Famine.

The second was the stereotype of the feckless Irish male sitting around in the pub all day, doing very little work, ranting and raving about the injustices done to Ireland by England, and then getting involved in violence at a political meeting.  It’s not exactly a positive stereotype, and I was quite surprised that someone with Irish ancestry would have chosen to use it.  However, it then turned out that Mr Feckless Ranter was actually a spy, who was just pretending to be like that in order to spy on the Canadian Fenians – in between seducing the daughter of Mrs Fey Away With The Fairies, who then went away with the fairies herself.  However, he then did a bunk, and the book then ended rather abruptly.

Somewhere in the background were the husband and son of Mrs Fey Away With The Fairies, the father and brother of Miss Fey Away With The Fairies.  The former tried to educate children in poverty-stricken rural Ireland, before making a new life for himself in Canada.  The latter worked hard, married a hard-working woman, had children, and generally fulfilled the much happier image of an immigrant settling into a new country and making good there.  That’s a story that’s been told many times before, but it would still have made a much better story of Irish immigration to Canada, and of Ireland generally, than being away with the fairies or getting drunk in the pub.  Very odd choice of storylines.

Who Has Seen The Wind by W O Mitchell


Word PressThis is supposed to be a great Canadian classic … but it felt like one of those books which you’re told you ought to read, and which feature on recommended reading lists provided by teachers and all those “100 books to read in a lifetime” lists which are always floating around on the internet, but which, after reading, you end up rather guiltily wondering what all the fuss is about.  It was OK, but it was very slow.  It was supposed to be a deep and meaningful exploration of a young boy’s struggle to understand the meaning of life, and a deep and meaningful insight into life in Saskatchewan during the Depression, but it wasn’t actually very deep – mainly because most of it was told through the eyes of a young boy.   Maybe the whole idea was to see issues such as illness, poverty and racism through the eyes of the young boy, but it didn’t really work for me.  Oh well, never mind!