A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

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This book about the Overbury Scandal, the alleged murder of Sir Thomas Overbury by the Countess of Essex, Frances Devereux nee Howard, who had her marriage annulled so that she could marry the Earl of Somerset, with whom she’d been having an affair, and who’d also been having an affair with James I/VI (keep up, keep up!), would have been very interesting had the author not infuriatingly referred throughout to Frances as “Frankie”.  “Frankie”?  In the 1610s?  Seriously?   It really did annoy me.  Also, it means that I’m now being earwormed by Sister Sledge.

If Lucy Jago had just stuck to “Frances” (I did wonder if maybe she had some school playground-ish aversion to “Fanny”, but even “Fanny” wasn’t really used until the mid-18th century), the book would have been excellent.  It was written from the point of view of Anne Turner, the impoverished widow of a doctor, who was hanged for being an accessory to the murder; and it really was entertaining.  There was so much going on here, much of it aspects of society which haven’t changed very much.  The title of the book reflects the fact that the aristocratic, influential Carrs – who, as the author points out several times, spent more on fripperies in an average month than most people could hope to earn in many years of hard work – were imprisoned for a few years but then pardoned, whereas the four “ordinary” people implicated went straight to the hangman’s noose.

The book gives a fascinating depiction of life both at Court and in the poorer areas of London, and brings in the effects on the Overbury trial of views of women and how they should behave, the Pendle Witch Trials, prejudice against Catholics – even though, or possibly because, the Howards, despite being Catholic, were able to dominate the Court – , rivalries between English and Scottish courtiers, and the difference in culture between the Whitehall bubble and everyone else.

To cut a long story short, Frances Howard was married off to the Earl of Essex, the marriage was unhappy, and she took up with Robert Carr, later Earl of Somerset, the lover of James I and close friend of Thomas Overbury.  She wanted her marriage annulled, Overbury opposed it, the Howards turned on him, and he was imprisoned, possibly for refusing the position of ambassador to Tsar Michael of Russia.   He then mysteriously died.  The annulment and remarriage went ahead.  It was later claimed that Frances had had Overbury poisoned, and that was what a trial found.

Anne Turner was some sort of companion to Frances. She was the widow of a doctor, and mistress of a politician, became well-known because she was the only supplier of a saffron starch used to make fashionable yellow ruffs, and is often said to have been a madam of “houses of ill repute”.  However, in the book, her husband left her with a lot of debts, she genuinely expected her lover to marry her and was badly let down when he said that his position of court meant that he couldn’t be associated with her, and she made money by working as a general dressmaker.

Incidentally, Anne’s lover’s name was Arthur Mainwaring, but Lucy Jago’s changed it to Arthur Waring because she said that the name made her think of Dad’s Army, and sounded too silly alongside Frankie Howard (even spelt Howard rather than Howerd).  Right.  Let’s all change historical figures’ names because they remind us of TV characters.  OK, OK, I would have kept waiting for him to say “Don’t tell him, Pike”, but even so.  And Captain Mainwaring’s name wasn’t even Arthur!  It was George.  The actor who played him was called Arthur.

Anyway, to get back to the point 🙂 … so, Anne’s quite sympathetically portrayed.  They’re actually both quite sympathetically portrayed – Anne as an impoverished widow let down by a man, Frances as a young woman forced into an unhappy marriage by family politics – and they’re shown as having a very close friendship despite their different positions in life, with Frances, at the end, trying to save Anne but being unable to do so.

Lucy Jago’s take on it is that Robert Carr wasn’t involved, and that Anne and Frances did send poison to the Tower but that it was never used.  No-one’s really sure what’s happened.  Overbury had health problems anyway.  There was talk about poisoned enemas, poisoned cakes … and an interesting point’s made that poison was seen as a foreign, Catholic way of bumping people off!  To this day, it’s associated with Lucrezia Borgia (probably unfairly) and Catherine de Medici (fairly).  There was also some talk of witchcraft, which fitted the atmosphere of the times.

So there was a lot going on, and this book reflects this.  It also brings in the death of Prince Henry and how devastated people were about that, and it’s just generally a very interesting depiction of the lives of different people at an interesting time.  Even though the Gunpowder Plot’s one of the best-known events in British history, and even though the Pendle Witch Trials are so well-known too, James I and VI’s reign – and, of course, it was also crucial in that it was the start of the personal union between England and Scotland – does tend to get a bit overlooked, in between the Glorious Elizabethan Age and the build-up to the Civil War.

All in all, a very good book.  But “Frankie”?  Seriously?!

 

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi

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This is about four generations of women living in Jerusalem, from the closing years of Ottoman rule, through the period of the British Mandate, and on into the early decades of Israeli independence.   It’s written in quite a rambling way, and jumps backwards and forwards in time, so it’s not particularly easy to follow; but it’s an interesting portrayal of the life of a family in changing times and under different regimes.  It also makes a change to read a book about a (Sephardi) family who’d been living in Jerusalem for many generations before Ottoman rule ended, rather than an Exodus/One More River type immigration novel.

The women are supposed to be linked by a common thread, which is that they all (except the youngest) marry men who love someone else.   That’s not actually that important to the story, but the context of the different relationships is.  This is a Sephardi family who’ve lived in Jerusalem for many generations, whereas most novels about the British Mandate period feature recent immigrants from either Eastern Europe or Britain or the US.  The first two generations of husbands weren’t allowed to marry the women of their choice because the women were Ashkenazi, and that was an absolutely no-no, no more to be considered than marrying a Muslim woman or a Christian woman.  The third generation husband loved an Italian Catholic woman whom he met whilst serving with the British Army during the Second World War, an interesting reminder of how many men from the “Yishuv”, the Jewish population of Mandatory Palestine, served with the British forces.

The “Beauty Queen” is the third generation woman, badly injured in a bombing during the unrest surrounding the end of the British Mandate, but the book’s no more about her than it is about her daughter, mother or grandmother, and her sisters feature strongly as well.  The family undergoes various financial ups and downs, and it’s always the women who end up having to sort things out.  The book’s about their personal relationships and problems, with the historical events just forming the background, but the historical events are very much there.  The author isn’t very complimentary about the British administration, but I think it has to be accepted that the mandatory periods in the Middle East were not Britain or France’s finest hours.

Much more than being an Israeli book, it’s a Sephardi book.  We see all the traditions, such as naming children after grandparents, and the author’s tried very hard to show how Sephardi women in Mandatory Palestine would have spoken.  She’s actually gone a bit overboard – surely no-one said “may he/she be healthy” after every single name they mentioned – but she deserves marks for effort!  Saying “pishcado y limon” to ward off the evil eye comes up a lot – I’d never heard that before. There are lots of Ladino words thrown in, without being translated: I did GCSE Spanish so I was OK with this, but someone who doesn’t know any Spanish or Ladino might get very confused!

It was quite confusing to read generally, because of the rather rambling narrative, but it was something different and I did enjoy it.

The Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I was an ardent reader of the Nancy Drew books from about 1983 to 1987, and have just been revisiting them for a Facebook group reading challenge.  I found a cheap three-in-one on Amazon, but was confused by the first two, The Secret of the Old Clock and The Bungalow Mystery, as they didn’t feature Nancy’s two friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin.  It transpired that those were two of the first four books, and that George and Bess hadn’t appeared until the fifth book.  The third one (actually the 43rd in the series), The Mystery of the 99 Steps, which did feature George and Bess, was one I read as a kid, and it was amazing how it all came back to me!

I hadn’t realised how complex the history of the series was.  As a kid in the ’80s, I’d just go into W H Smith or wherever and choose a book off the shelves.  Each mystery was self-contained, and everyone stayed the same age, so it didn’t really matter whether you read them in order or not.  I had no idea that the series dated right back to 1930, although it didn’t appear in the UK until the early 1970s, and I certainly had no idea that “Carolyn Keene” was a syndicate, not an actual person.

And I don’t remember being aware that “The Nancy Drew Files” appeared as a spin-off series in 1986.  I may have read a few of those books, as they apparently heavily featured chloroform and I remember that Nancy seemed to do a lot of “blacking out”, but they also, so Wikipedia informs me, did away with Burt Eddleton and Dave Evans, George and Bess’s boyfriends, and I definitely remember them featuring a lot, along with Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.   I loved the fact that Bess, the “plump” girl, not only got to be involved in the cool detective gang but also got to have a nice boyfriend – such a contrast to other “plump” girls in children’s books, such as Alma Pudden, who were basically just figures of fun.

The stories are completely bonkers, of course!  Why on earth would anyone leave their last will and testament in a safety deposit box taken out under an assumed name, and leave the details of the name and location in a miniature notebook hidden inside the back of an old clock?  Would it really be so easy to kidnap an heiress’s new guardian and impersonate him in order to steal all her money – surely someone would have accompanied a young girl to make sure that everything was OK?  Not to mention one of France’s leading financiers believing that an alchemist had found a way to turn everything into gold, and Nancy Drew and her dad somehow getting involved in it all because of a neighbour who remembered falling down some steps at a chateau as a child.

But it’s all good fun!   And the idea of a girl detective must have been pretty groundbreaking in 1930.  In the many Enid Blyton mystery/detective/adventure books I read, written much later, there were mixed gender gangs, but it wasn’t unusual for the boys to go off and do the dangerous stuff, leaving the girls behind.  And Nancy was so cool, driving around everywhere in her “convertible”.  OK, the Five Find-Outers et al were much too young to drive, but even in, say, some of the Lorna Hill books, where the main characters were in their late teens or early 20s, no-one had their own car.

A great deal of debate apparently now rages about Nancy   Not so much in the UK, where she isn’t such a cultural icon – although I was amused to hear Charity Dingle in Emmerdale mention her recently – but certainly in the US.  Does she represent feminism?  Or does she symbolise conservative Middle America, living in well-to-do River Heights?  There are even Nancy Drew conferences, and women from Hillary Clinton to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg have cited her as an influence.  Wow!  I can’t say that I ever thought about the books that deeply – I wasn’t very old when I read them, to be fair –  but I did love all the adventures that Nancy had.  And, of course, you knew that she’d always solve the mysteries in the end.

There was even a TV series about her and The Hardy Boys, in America, in the mid-1970s – starring Pamela Sue Martin, in her pre-Fallon Carrington Colby days, and Parker Stevenson, in his pre-Billy Hazard days.  I didn’t know any of this: I’ve had a wonderful “Wiki walk” this morning!  I don’t think it ever made it over here, though.  I remember there being a film a few years back, but it didn’t sound very good and I didn’t bother seeing it.  But I did love those books, back in the day!  It’s been fun revisiting them.

The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

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  Last week was Autism Awareness/Acceptance Week, and this is an interesting and unusual historical novel with an autistic protagonist, working on a floating theatre – think Show Boat, but on the Ohio rather than the Mississippi, and in the 1830s rather than the 1880s.  The part of the Ohio which they’re on is effectively an extension of the Mason-Dixon line, with slaveholding Kentucky to the south and the free states of Ohio and Indiana to the north, and our girl May inadvertently becomes involved in helping slaves to escape.  So it’s a fascinating combination of themes – May’s “social awkwardness”, life on a showboat, and the Underground Railroad.  It’s just a shame that it’s so short, just under 350 pages long: I think there was the potential to develop the story much more than the book actually did.

May isn’t an actress or a singer: she makes costumes.  She’s always worked alongside her cousin, but, when roles begin to dry up, the cousin accepts a job giving speeches for a wealthy Abolitionist.  There’s no place for May, but the woman gives her some money – but then, when she gets a job on a showboat, demands that she repay her by smuggling slaves to freedom on the opposite bank.

So, really, it’s all a bit cynical.  Neither cousin becomes involved out of conviction.  Both oppose slavery, but, like a lot of us with a lot of things, they haven’t actually been doing anything active about it, because they’re too busy working and getting on with their daily lives.  The boyfriend of one of the actresses is a doctor who moonlights as a slave-catcher, not because he’s got any strong feelings about slavery but because it’s a good way of making a fast buck.  Most of the other people in the theatre company just want to keep their heads down: expressing any strong views on a controversial subject risks stopping people from coming to see them.

And that’s the way most things go, isn’t it?   People don’t get involved.  But May does, because she can’t pay this woman back any other way.  And, obviously, it’s very dangerous.  This is before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but May is still breaking the law under the terms of the 1793 Act, and putting herself in physical danger as well.  The horrors of slavery are really brought home to her when she meets a young girl who’s recently given birth after being raped by her master’s son, and is desperate to get both herself and her baby to a free state.

It’s really getting interesting at this point … but then the book’s cut short.  The showboat goes up in flames after a curtain catches fire, and one of the men on it, Leo, himself the son of an escaped slave, is tragically killed.  May and the leader of the company, after several earlier hints of romance, get together, and plan to get a new boat and continue helping slaves to escape – this time, out of genuine conviction, rather than to pay off a debt.  So, apart from the death of poor Leo, it’s a positive ending, but I wish that the book had been longer.

May is “high functioning autistic”, for lack of a better expression, and I’ve an idea that she’s based on the author’s sister.  The book isn’t about autism: the protagonist just happens to be autistic, although obviously autism had not been recognised in the 1830s so the term “autism” is not used.  She worked brilliantly as a character.  The portrayal of life on the showboat worked well too.  May and her cousin getting involved in antislavery activities purely for financial reasons wasn’t really what I’d expected, but it wasn’t unconvincing.  This isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s worth a go because of the combination of three interesting themes.

 

The Evangelical Books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

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I bought this three-in-one – Nesta Steps Out, Beechy of the Harbour School and Leader in Spite of Herself – for Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completeness: I am *not* in the habit of reading any sort of evangelical books, and, having read Beechy before and found it pretty horrendous, I didn’t have high hopes of the other two books.  However, they really weren’t bad at all, and even Beechy wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered.

For the most part, they were, albeit very short, fairly standard EBD school stories – everyone looking trig and trim, accidents on expeditions, rushing around in the mornings, overly efficient matrons, et al.  It felt as if the preachy religious bits had just been shoehorned in to appeal to the Sunday School prize market, rather like Diana Barry shoehorning a reference to the Rollins Reliable Baking Powder Company into Anne Shirley’s “Averil’s Atonement” 🙂 .

Like Anne’s story, these would have been rather better with the shoehorned-in bits taken out, and I suspect that EBD may well have preferred them that way, but maybe they serve as a useful reminder that, unlike some of their heroines, most of our favourite Girls’ Own authors weren’t from wealthy families, and were writing books to pay their bills.  If that meant shoving in a few preachy comments, or, indeed, accepting that the books were going to be abridged when republished, then that was what they had to do.  Unlike fictional characters, most people do not get swept off their feet by rich doctors or conveniently inherit fortunes from hitherto unmentioned godparents or great-uncles/aunts!

The problem with Beechy of the Harbour School is that the shoehorning goes way overboard.  The basic plotline is a fairly standard story, about a girl, Beechy, whose mother has recently died, starting a new school and inadvertently making an enemy of another girl, Olive.  There’s a thunderstorm, Beechy is frightened, and Olive makes fun of her.  This is followed by what looks like it’s going to be a classic EBD scene – a showdown in which Olive bursts into tears in the Head’s study.  But then the Head gives Olive a lecture on how “your sin against Beechy is far less grievous than your sin against God … you have been dishonouring Christ throughout the term”.  On top of that, Beechy then informs the Head that “If only I had had the courage to tell you all … that I had become a Christian … I ought to have been praying … Next term, I mean to start as I intend to go on, and let everybody know that I belong to Jesus.  I don’t think I’ll ever be so afraid in a storm again”.

Er, yes.  The Head telling Olive to be a bit nicer, and Beechy being embarrassed for making such a fuss, would have done fine!  And been considerably more convincing.

In Nesta Steps Out, we’ve got a girl with a very bad temper.  Unlike Margot Maynard of Chalet School fame, she’s determined to try to control it … rather like Darrell Rivers in Malory Towers.  Also like Darrell, she’s got a bosom buddy called Sally – which is unusual for EBD, who usually prefers gangs to bosom buddies.  And there’s a nasty teacher, who falls into a river … but it turns out that she’s not that nasty, just in a bad mood because she’s being obliged to give up her job to go and keep house for a widowed brother.  Nesta does try to keep her temper, and it only gets a bit preachy, with various references to praying for help.  So this one isn’t bad.

Leader in Spite of Herself gets off to a very preachy start, with one girl bursting into tears for very little reason, like a heroine of a 19th century American religious novel, and a prefect lecturing two girls bitching about a classmate on how all their words were offered up to God so they should be more careful about what they said.  However, it does get better.  Standard plot, nasty new girl doesn’t fit in, classmates dislike her but two of them then decide to make an effort with her, encouraged by our “leader” Rosemary, one of the prefects, and all’s well that ends well.

Replace the preachy bits with simple references to trying to be nice to other people, and it would have been quite a good book.  And that’s how I felt about all of them.  But, whilst I may be wrong, I do get the feeling that, unlike the likes of Martha Finley and Susan Warner, EBD herself would probably have preferred the books to be like her other school stories, with people seeing the errors of their ways without all the overt preaching stuff.  However, these books were presumably commissioned, and, as I said, they’re an important reminder that our favourite authors were living in the real world and sometimes had to play to the market rather than just their own personal choices.

One Thousand Porches by Julie Dewey

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This is a well-meaning book centred on the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium set up at Saranac Lake, New York, in the 1880s for the treatment of TB.  Unfortunately, much of the story makes very little sense.  There are “outbreaks” of TB, which see whole families suddenly wiped out, relatives put into quarantine, homes disinfected, the deceased’s possessions burnt, and people trying to avoid going out and about for fear of contagion.  That certainly fits with epidemics of many diseases in Victorian and Edwardian times, but not TB, which was endemic rather than epidemic.  People “test positive” for TB, as if it could be definitively diagnosed by one test.  Most bizarrely of all, a New York City doctor, circa 1905, advises a pregnant patient with a history of spinal TB to have an termination.  There’s no way that a doctor at that time would have given that advice, whatever his personal views.

The author’s clearly done a lot of research into life and treatment at the sanatorium (spelt “sanitarium” because it was more of a resort than a hospital, but that spelling annoys me for some reason, sorry!), but the rest of it is really rather odd.

And it’s told in the first person, but from the viewpoints of several different characters who all do their bits in the first person, which is even more confusing!

On the positive side, the details about life at this enormous sanatorium/sanatarium/resort is fascinating.  The title of the book comes from the porches in which patients would sit whilst resting in the open air.  We hear a lot about examinations and procedures, and a lot of detail about the food, and also about the fundraising efforts which raised money to enable poorer patients to be treated without payment.  The whole area became dominated by the sanatorium, and the site’s still there, a type of museum.

I’ve had this book on my Kindle for ages, and I can only assume that I got it because the blurb made me think about the sanatoria in the Chalet School books and Elsie Oxenham’s Swiss books!   But it’s important to remember just how rife TB was in Victorian times.  Here in Manchester and the surrounding towns, where you had a lot of people living close together, and a lot of people had lung issues anyway because of the cotton fly and the coal dust in the air, and the climate was, ahem, not the world’s driest, it was the number one killer.

There are better books about it than this, though.  It’s very odd that the author seems to have done so much research into some aspects of it, and yet others make no sense at all.

The Shadow Women by Angela Hunt

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OK, seeing as we’re heading into Semana Santa (or Holy Week, but it sounds better in Spanish) and are already into Passover, a bit of Biblical fiction.  The Bible contains more family feuds, affairs, murders and general drama than any soap opera’s ever done, so Biblical fiction can be very entertaining.  I was once explaining a Bible story to my little cousin whilst I was babysitting him and he had some religious studies homework to do, and he said that I made it sound like EastEnders – and that’s because a lot of it does!  This one’s the story of the Book of Exodus, told from the viewpoints of Pharoah’s daughter (identified here with Merytamon, one of the daughters and, later, wives of Ramesses II), Miriam (the sister of Moses) and Zipporah (the wife of Moses).

Angela Hunt gets a bit bogged down in practicalities at times.  How Moses managed to speak to the Hebrew slaves when, having grown up in Pharoah’s palace, he wouldn’t have spoken a word of their language, is admittedly a very good question, but I’m not entirely sure that the reader needed to see him, on arriving in the Land of Goshen, asking Miriam where the toilets were.

Incidentally, it’s weirdly relevant to today.  No panic-buying (OK, panic-gathering) of manna allowed – you can only take enough for one day at a time (or two, if it’s the Sabbath).  When Miriam’s got an illness feared to be contagious, she has to go outside the camp and quarantine herself for seven days.  And Zipporah first meets Moses whilst she and her sisters are being hassled by some Edomite men, when all they’re trying to do is get water from the well.

Anyway, to get back to the point, whilst I could have done without the bit about toilets, Angela Hunt’s obviously done a vast amount of research into the history of Ancient Egypt, and then tried to tie it into the story in the Bible.  Trying to tie up Bible stories and real history is a historian’s nightmare, because we’ve got no real idea what’s legend, what’s based on fact, and what’s a bit of both, so all credit to her for trying.  And, in some ways, she’s tried very hard to follow the Bible story, even whilst tying it into documented Egyptian history.  Obviously everyone knows that Moses looked like Charlton Heston and was only in his 30s at the time of the Exodus, but the Bible does actually say that he was 80, and that’s what this book says too.  Some bits of the story have been conveniently altered or ignored, but, to be fair, she does explain that in an afterword.

I’ve got mixed feelings about her interpretation of the three women, though.  The story of Pharoah’s daughter finding a baby, in what we still call a “Moses basket”, in the bulrushes, and, even though she knew he was the child of slaves and condemned by her father to die, taking him in and bringing him up as her own, is one of the most heartwarming stories in the Bible … but Angela Hunt’s turned her into some kind of child-snatcher, who was desperate to steal a baby to pass off as her own for fear of being set aside as a barren wife, and deliberately went out looking for one!  And Miriam’s given her proper role as a leader, but, on a personal basis, is shown as being rather bitter and grumpy most of the time.  Zipporah’s the one who comes out with the most credit.  But they all get given a voice here, which they don’t in the Bible.

Merytamon does generally come across fairly well, apart from the baby-snatching bit, to be fair.  The historical figure of Merytamon, the daughter of Ramesses II and Nefertari, and later one of the Great Royal Wives of Ramesses II, did exist.  In Islamic tradition, Pharoah’s daughter was Pharoah’s wife, and daughters of the pharaoh did often end up as wives of either their father or one of their brothers.  The idea in this book is that she actually passed Moses off as the natural son of Pharoah and somehow got away with it for years, which I’ve never heard anyone else suggest, though.

The book’s got her dying long before Moses came back from Egypt, but she’s the main figure in the early part of it, although some of the early part’s also told by Miriam – who’s given a back story here, with the reader being told that she had a stillborn child and that her husband died as a result of mistreatment by the Egyptians.  I’d like to have seen a bit more sympathy shown towards Miriam, especially with that sad back story.  Angela Hunt’s made her very stroppy!

As for Pharoah, people have tied themselves in knots trying to work out who the “Pharoah of the Exodus” was.  Other people claim that the whole thing’s just a story, because there’s no evidence that the Ancient Egyptians used slave labour.  We just don’t know.  I think I must have been told as a kid that “Pharoah” was Ramesses II, because I’ve always thought that, for no obvious historical reason.  And the Yul Brynner Pharoah who’s challenged by Charlton Heston is Ramesses II !  However, even though Ramesses is supposed to have lived into his 90s, if Moses was 80 at the time of the Exodus then it’s pretty unlikely that the Pharoah at the start of the story and the Pharoah at the time of the plagues could have been the same person, so Angela Hunt’s got Ramesses II at the start and Seti at the end.

She does seem to take the story very literally.  Some people do.  Some people don’t.  No-one really knows, so you can’t criticise anyone for what they think.  And a lot of it’s not very clear in the Book of Exodus.  Was the Cushite woman Zipporah?  Or was the Cushite woman someone else?  And what exactly was Miriam upset about?  In this book, the Cushite woman is someone else, a maid called Femi.  Zipporah is unwell and thinks she might not have long to live, so she urges Moses to take Femi as a second wife, which he does, and Miriam gets narky about it all, but doesn’t get on with Zipporah either.  But then they all kiss and make up.

Another thing that’s not clear is what Zipporah’s dad was called.  There are a lot of Bible-isms, with people’s names changing.  In this book, he starts off as Reuel, then changes his name to Jethro.  There’s an interesting suggestion that he was the one who told Moses all the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  If you’re someone who takes it all literally and believes that Moses wrote the Old Testament, then he must have got the stories from someone, and it can’t have been any of the Hebrew slaves because they were supposed to have forgotten everything.  So that idea does work.

All in all, you can drive yourself mad trying to make it make sense from a historical point of view, and probably won’t get very far, but a lot of the stories in the Bible really are entertaining. The horrible Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre is not at all impressed that Jane thinks the best bits of the Bible are the bits with good stories, but Jane is surely right 🙂 .  As I said, more family feuds, affairs, murders and general drama than any soap opera!

 

 

 

 

 

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

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  Mary Anning, whose work as a fossil hunter and palaeontologist in Lyme Regis in the first half of the 19th century had a significant impact on the understanding of prehistoric life, is about to be commemorated on three special edition coins, and, when cinemas finally reopen, we should be able to see a film about her.  She’s the focal point of this book by Tracy Chevalier, although most of it’s written as if from the viewpoint of her friend and fellow palaeontologist, Elizabeth Philpot.

Mary, as a woman, an unmarried woman, a working-class woman and a Nonconformist, wasn’t able to become part of the scientific establishment, and her importance has been overlooked, and it’s interesting to see that come across in the book.  It’s also interesting to see how people struggled to reconcile the finds made by her and others with what we now call Creationism: explanations mentioned in the book include rocks having been created with fossils already in them, and icthyosauri missing Noah’s Ark and so being wiped out by the Flood.

It’s frustrating, though, that the book includes a fictitious tale about Mary and Elizabeth falling out over some smooth-talking bloke whom they both fancied but who wasn’t interested in either of them, and then some rather Gothic melodrama about Elizabeth rushing to London, whilst ill, to defend Mary against allegations of faking her finds, swooning away at the Geological Society and nearly dying of pneumonia.  Would anyone put something like that in a book about male scientists?  And I gather that the forthcoming film centres not on Mary’s work but on a fictitious romance between her and the geologist Charlotte Murchison.  See also “Becoming Jane [Austen]” and “Miss [Beatrix] Potter” – again, because they were women, the focus just had to be on their love lives rather than on their work!

There’s plenty to go off whilst sticking to the truth.  Elements of Elizabeth Philpot’s life actually were rather like the plot of a Jane Austen novel – and the author makes that point several times, as we see Elizabeth and two of her sisters moving to Lyme Regis because they can’t afford to continue living in a genteel, suitably ladylike style in London.  But, as the author points out, not everyone meets a handsome man and gets married.  However, Elizabeth leads an interesting life as a fossil collector, and befriends Mary Anning, then only a child and twenty years her junior.

Mary’s life is even more fascinating.  She and one of her brothers – the joint discover of their first ichthyosaur – were the only two surviving children of ten born to a working-class couple struggling for money, and her father died of TB when she was young.  Most of the fossils she collected were sold to bring in an income – and what started as a little seaside souvenir shop attracted the attention of all the leading lights of British science.  Her fame spread abroad too.   Plenty of drama, as well – she was nearly buried alive by a landslip.

Parts of the book are told from Mary’s viewpoint, with the names of the creatures shortened (which seemed a bit patronising, as if a working-class person would say “ichie” and “plesie” because they couldn’t manage “iccthyosaurus” or “plesiosaurus”), and the narrative in what’s supposed to be Dorset dialect.  It sounds like Yorkshire with a bit of Cockney thrown in to me, but I’ve never been to Lyme Regis, so I may be talking rubbish and it may be entirely accurate!

The story of Lt Colonel Birch, the bloke over whom they fall out in this book, seems to have been that he sold his collection of fossils, most of which he’d got from Mary, and donated the money to the Anning family as an act partly of recognition for their work and partly of charity.  I’m not quite sure why that’s been made into a tale of Mary and Elizabeth both being obsessed with him, Mary seducing him and a lot of gossip, but, hey, I suppose romance, seduction and girly fallings-out make for better novels than fossils do!

This is an interesting book and it’s good to see both Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot getting the recognition that they deserved …. but would anyone writing a book about the collaboration between two male scientists chuck in a plotline about them falling out over a girl and then one of them swooning away at a scientific society?!  It seems unlikely.

 

 

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

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  Hooray, I have finally finished this very long and overrated book!   I don’t know whether there’s something wonderful about it which I just didn’t get, or whether it’s an emperor’s new clothes thing and reviewers just felt obliged to say that it was brilliant because it was supposed to be about environmental issues (deforestation).

It began as the story of two French indentured labourers in 17th century “New France” (i.e. Quebec).  One ran away, married a wealthy Dutchwoman and set up a successful business.  The other one remained a labourer and married a First Nations woman.  Edward Rutherfurd or James Michener could have made an excellent job of telling the history of Quebec through the history of these two families, but this book jumped about all over the place … various different parts of Canada, various different parts of (what became) the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, China and New Zealand.  There were a lot of different characters, and it didn’t stick with any of them for more than five minutes, so it was impossible for the reader to get really involved with any of them.

As for being about deforestation … well, it wasn’t, really.  There was some interesting stuff about forests, especially in relation to the culture of some of the different First Nations groups, but it was all just too bitty.

The characters kept losing track of who was related to whom.  I’m not surprised!   And there was very little political history in it: I appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be about political history, but, given that it covered a 300 year time period with lots of gaps, it was difficult to follow where it was up to without any mention of world events.

It’s a shame, because it was a promising start, and it could potentially have been very good, but I just wasn’t impressed.  However, it has had a lot of good reviews, so maybe it’s just me.  When I get chance, I shall try watching the TV adaptation, and see if I get on any better with that!

 

Mothering Sunday – other mothers

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This is Mothering Sunday – let’s use the correct, historical, term, please 🙂 .  Obviously there are lots of mothers in books, but, especially in older books, there are a lot of children who are brought up by grandmas, aunties, older sisters, stepmothers, female guardians, female cousins, foster mothers, nannies or governesses; and there are also a lot of other women, such as family friends and teachers, who play an important role in characters’ lives. So let’s hear it for all those fictional characters, many of whom gave up their own chances of careers or romance to look after our heroes/heroines, and also for *all* the women who play, or have played, an important role in our own lives.

Sometimes, these fictional ladies get a bad press.  Think about Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, or Jane Eyre’s villainous Aunt Reed.  But most of them are wonderful, and here are just five who sprang to mind:

  1. Madge Bettany in the Chalet School books.  At the start of the series, Madge, aged twenty-four, has sole reponsibility (her brother is unhelpfully working in India) for her twelve-year-old sister Joey, and their guardian’s just died after messing up their finances.  Unable to take a job and look after Joey at the same time, Madge starts her own school – but soon gets two pupils, one in her teens and one aged only six, dumped on her full time as well.  But she just gets on with it – and, happily, her having three kids in tow doesn’t put off Dr Jem Russell, whom she meets and eventually marries, and with whom she has six children.  And they end up looking after four nieces and two nephews as well
  2. Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables.  Marilla and her brother Matthew were looking to take on a boy to help on their farm.  Instead, they end up with Anne – and Marilla becomes a wonderful mother-figure to her.  It’s a lovely, lovely story.  I love the relationship between Anne and the Cuthberts.
  3. Sylvia Brown in Ballet Shoes.  I actually find Sylvia a bit annoying, because she takes freebies from friends and lets her servants go unpaid, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she, a young, single woman, somehow ends up bringing up three girls whom her great uncle bizarrely collects and leaves with her.  Let’s also hear it for Nana and for the two female academic doctors: they too play a big part in helping to bring up the Fossil girls.
  4. Izzie Carr in What Katy Did.  Aunt Izzie is one of many characters in books who go to live with a widowed brother or brother-in-law, act as his housekeeper and bring up his children.  We’re never really told whether or not they’re happy about this.  Maybe, for some of them, it was a good option.  For others, it probably wasn’t.  But a lot of them don’t seem to be appreciated as much as they should have been, and I think that Aunt Izzie’s probably one of those.
  5. Jo March Bhaer in Little Men.  Let’s not go into Louisa M Alcot’st family’s rather “interesting” ideas about life and education, and, instead, focus on the fact that Jo becomes a mother figure to several Lost Boys who end up at her boarding school/home.  Marmee March is often hailed as an ideal fictional mother figure, but she really does get on my nerves.  Sending Jo to a posh party in a burnt frock?  Letting Beth’s canary die?  Nah.  Her daughters do a much better job!  I prefer young Jo to adult Jo, but, even so, I think adult Jo is a great example of a mother figure in a scenario which isn’t that of a traditional family.
    I don’t think we get so many of these Other Mother figures now, because the Victorian trope of the Motherless Heroine has pretty much died out; but, even if there’s a loving mother around, grandmas, aunties and other older female relatives or friends can still play a huge part in a child’s life.Here’s to all the wonderful mother figures in fiction, and here’s too all the women who’ve influenced our lives xxx.