The Secrets of Ashmore Castle by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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  I wasn’t convinced about this at first, because, whilst, the Kirov trilogy, the Morland books and the War At Home books all very much revolved around national and international events, this one was almost entirely about the personal lives of both upstairs and downstairs characters.  I did get into it, though, and will definitely be looking out for the rest of the series.  There were a few references to Edward VII’s coronation and to the Boer War, and – was this a nod to Highclere Castle, with its Downton Abbey connections 🙂 ? – Howard Carter made an appearance, but it was mainly about people’s love lives and finances, which wasn’t entirely what I’d been hoping for.  There were a few middle class characters who got involved with free libraries (which seemed oddly mid-Victorian for 1902, but still) and look as if they may get involved with the suffragettes in future books, though, so fingers crossed for some more meaty historical stuff in future books.  And it was still very enjoyable, and I’m sure it’ll be popular.

There were a lot of characters, the story kept flitting between them, and it was very much a scene setter, start of a series book.  There’s obviously a lot more to come!  The rather Enid Blyton-esque title suggested that there’d be hidden passages behind portraits with strange eyes, leading to secret mines or treasure troves.   There weren’t!   But there were a few hints at mysteries to be resolved in later books.

The basic plot (without too many spoilers – this all happened at the beginning!)  was that the Earl of Stainton had broken his neck in a hunting accident, as you do; and his son and heir therefore had to be summoned home, to Buckinghamshire, from his archaeological expedition in Egypt.  At the same time, the younger son left the Army and also came home.  And there were three daughters, one married, two not yet “out”.  Incidentally, would a Victorian earl and countess really have named two of their daughters Linda and Rachel?  The youngest was Alice, which was a fairly typical aristocratic name at the time, but Lady Linda and Lady Rachel?!   Anyway, it turned out that the estate had been badly run for years, and that the late earl had spent what money there was on his fancy woman and membership of expensive London clubs, so the best bet for the new earl was to find a rich wife.  Off he went to the London Season, where he met a wonderful girl with no money, and her sweet, shy best friend, whom he didn’t fancy but who was rolling in it.  Typical, eh?

Oh, and his grandma was still alive.  And living on Bruton Street.  Obviously this was 24 years before a certain significant birth took place in that neck of the woods, but it was mentioned that the Strathmores were her neighbours 😉 .

It seemed at first that the upper class characters were all going to be either callous or naive and the servants were all going to be either stupid and obsequious or sly and devious, but the characterisation did very much improve as the book went on, and I do want to know what happens to them all.  Don’t be expecting Gone With The Wind, but this is a nice read on a dark autumn night.

 

 

International Women’s Day – 10 influential female authors

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Seeing as it’s International Women’s Day, and seeing as we’re getting a film version of “Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret” and a TV series of the “Malory Towers” books (please, please don’t let them mess them up!), let’s have a list of ten female authors whose books have played a big part in my (admittedly not very exciting) life  These aren’t necessarily my favourite authors, or the authors of my favourite books, but they’ve all been significant.  Starting with Enid Blyton, because most things start with Enid Blyton.  And ending with Helen Fielding, because Bridget Jones shows us that, even once you accept that you’re never going to be Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara or Emma Harte, all women are still heroines in their own way.

  1. Enid Blyton – I did read Chicken Licken and Huckle the Cat and various other things, when I was about 3, but then I got into the Noddy books and the Amelia Jane books, and, for the next few years, it was all about Enid Blyton.  The adventure stories, the mystery stories, and, of course, the school stories.  People can say what they like about Enid Blyton, but she has a unique place in our culture, and (for what it’s worth!) in my life.  She gets kids into reading.  That’s important

2.  Elinor M Brent-Dyer – starting with Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School, when I was 8.   The Chalet School books are the greatest school stories ever.  My first holiday without my mum and dad (unless you count a school trip to Paris) was to Austria.  And, from October 2004 – OMG, that’s over 15 years ago! – onwards, I’ve been privileged to be part of a wonderful online community which I just can’t imagine life without, and that all started with the Chalet School books.  I don’t know where I’d be otherwise, I really don’t!

3.  Judy Blume – as well as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, my particular favourites are It’s Not the End of the World and Deenie, but, between the ages of about 10 and 13, I read most of her books (the ones which were around then).  And, yes, I read Forever.  Everyone read Forever!  I will never be able to meet anyone called Ralph without sniggering.  But Margaret’s the standout heroine … although I did spend several years giving every day a grade, like Karen did!  Judy Blume wrote (and still writes) about all the things which Girls’ Own authors didn’t, but never in a prurient or sensationalist way.  I forget who, but one author said that Judy Blume taught her all she needed to know about being a girl.  I wouldn’t go that far, but her books are definitely important.  Also, Forever was our “naughty book”.  All groups of tweenagers/teenagers should have a “naughty book” – it’s a rite of passage!

4.  Barbara Taylor Bradford.  The transition phase!  Moving on from what are now called “young adult” books to Proper Grown Up ’80s blockbusters.  OK, OK, A Woman of Substance was actually published in the late ’70s, but I didn’t read it until the mid-’80s.  For a lot of people in my class, the infamous Virginia Andrews books were the transition books, but for me it was all about Emma Harte, the ultimate ’80s rags-to-riches heroine, the Northern working-class woman who made it in a man’s world.  None of BTB’s other books are anything like as good, but that one was the first Big Grown Up Book I read, and it was a really good one.

5. Jane Austen – whose books I keep coming back to, over and over again.  They’re over 200 years old and they still say so much.  Helen Fielding could borrow heavily from them in the 1990s and still be completely relevant.

6. Colleen McCullough – I don’t think any other book I’ve ever read, not even the greatest novel of all time (coming up next!) has the sort of emotional and descriptive passages that The Thorn Birds does.  It is incredible.  I’m always quoting bits of it, usually to myself, when I’m being melodramatic … which is quite often.  Oh, to be able to write like that!  I’ve read a couple of her other books, and they’re just not a patch on it, but that one book … what an achievement.  It says so much about how people think and feel, and just how people work.  Meggie’s the heroine, and Justine’s the one who gets to live happily ever after, but the most interesting character is Fee (Fiona).  I often think about things that Fee said.

7.  Margaret Mitchell – because Gone With The Wind is the greatest novel ever written.  No, it wouldn’t be written today, but it wasn’t written today.  The characters, the emotion, the way it draws you in, the strength of the book and the strength of Scarlett O’Hara. And Scarlett and Ashley – the sadness of loving someone with whom you can’t connect.  I once decided to re-read the whole book in a day, and I was in bits afterwards, even though it wasn’t the first time I’d read it, because how do you deal with coming down from that?  And, ultimately, it’s about female survival. Yes, Rhett’s the one who helps Scarlett out in times of crisis – and, weirdly, I quote Rhett even more than I quote Scarlett – but it’s Melanie who’s really got her back, and it’s about Scarlett and Melanie both surviving, in their different ways, when their world collapses.  No Gotterdammerung for either of them.

8. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  Her Morland books and her recent War At Home books are good, but her Kirov Trilogy‘s her crowning achievement, for me, and they’re the best Russian historical fiction books I’ve ever read.  They really took me much deeper into Russia, into Russian history and culture, than I’d been before … and I’ve never really come out!  I think Annette Motley’s Men on White Horses was the first adult Russian historical fiction book I read, and even that was a couple of years after I’d really got into Russian history, but the Kirov books are special.

9.  Jean Plaidy  – not because her books are all-time classics, but because, even after getting a degree in “medieval and modern history”, I still didn’t quite get medieval history until Jean Plaidy’s books showed me how fascinating it could be.  Elizabeth Chadwick, Anne O’Brien and Sharon Penman actually write better medieval historical fiction than Jean Plaidy did, but hers were the ones I came too first.  At school, we had one year of medieval history, which was largely about motte and bailey castles and the lives of monks.  Why would anyone think that 11-year-old girls wanted to know about the lives of monks?!  At university, it was German emperors and Anglo-Saxon peasants.  Hardly anyone signed up for the optional medieval history modules, after that: everyone flocked to the modern history ones.  So thank you, Jean Plaidy, for showing me what all those teachers, doctors and professors failed to!!

and finally … 10. Helen Fielding.  You think that you’re going to be part of the in-crowd at school, and have lots of adventures.  Failing that, you at least think people are going to play fair by you, if you try to be nice to them.  Judy Blume does, to be fair, help you to accept that sometimes they’re not – Blubber is great for that.  Then you hope that’s life’s going to be full of romance, like it is in Jane Austen books, and success, like it is in Barbara Taylor Bradford books.  Or that, even if you’re not destined to be the person who gets it all, at least it’ll be full of drama and emotion, like it is for Jean Plaidy’s royal heroines, for Meggie, for Anna (in the Kirov books) and, most of all, for Scarlett.  And then you realise that you’re getting upset because you’ve put on 2lbs even though all you’ve been doing is lying in bed overnight, and that you’re running late for work again, not that you actually want to go to work, and that everyone else seems to have everything way more sorted than you.  It’s not good.  That is not how heroines’ lives turn out.  But, hooray, there is Bridget Jones, the heroine whose life hasn’t turned out like heroines’ lives are supposed to do either!  So, yep, Bridget shows us that we’re actually all heroines.

And there are always books … to take you wherever and whenever you want to go to.

So hooray for Bridget, hooray for books, and hooray for wonderful female authors.

“Honourable mentions” for Laura Ingalls Wilder, Noel Streatfeild, Lorna Hill, Sue Townsend, Charlotte Bronte, Maisie Mosco, Helen Forrester, Maeve Binchy (because everyone in my class at school was obsessed with one of her books, in 1988), Pamela Belle and Reay Tannahill.   But that would have been another 10, and then I’d have thought of another 10 …

Pack Up Your Troubles by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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This is the final book in the “War at Home” series – taking us into mid-1919, and reminding us that the Great War didn’t end with the Armistice. The Treaty of Versailles wasn’t signed until June 1919, and the treaties concerning Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire weren’t signed until the summer of 1920. It was many months before all the troops were able to come home, and, of course, there was the Spanish flu pandemic to cope with as well.

Many people had lost loved ones. Others had to cope with life-changing injuries and what we now call PTSD. Relationships had changed for ever, jobs that had been left often weren’t there for those coming home to return to, the role of women had changed considerably, and, despite the joy of peace and the return of those who’d survived – and most of those who served did survive – it wasn’t easy for anyone to pick up the pieces of their lives and carry on.

But there was happiness too. New starts. Marriages. Babies. A lot of different aspects of how people dealt with the end of the war are covered in this book, and it’s an interesting read. My main quibble is that, as she did with the Morland Dynasty books, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles created too many characters for her to be able to deal with satisfactorily in a fairly short book, and some of the people we got to know in the earlier books merit little more than a few lines here. Many of the loose ends are tied up, but others aren’t. Most of the characters get happy endings – or happy new beginnings. Others don’t. But that’s pretty realistic, isn’t it?

Although it’s called the “War at Home” series, a lot of the characters haven’t been at home at all for much of it. When the book starts, plenty of them are abroad, on active service or as volunteers. Edward Hunter becomes part of the British delegation to the peace conference – and it’s great to see that included in a historical novel, because it very rarely is. And one thing that often gets forgotten is that a general election was held on December 14th, little more than a month after the Armistice. With the huge increase in the electorate, and that fact that millions of voters were still abroad with the Armed Forces, it must have taken an incredible amount of organisation. It’s good to see that mentioned here, especially in terms of some women being able to vote for the first time – and the Irish Question being addressed as well.

Most of the book is set “at home”, though – with the various different members of the Hunter family, and their servants. I don’t want to say too much in case anyone’s reading this and is planning to read the book and doesn’t want spoilers, but we see a range of issues raised. How will men returning from the war fit back into civilian life? As we sadly know, they’re not returning to “homes fit for heroes to live in”, or really any sort of society fit for heroes to live in: there’s widespread unemployment, and social unrest. What effect will their return on their families? Can marriages damaged during the war be saved? Will couples who got together either before the war or during the war go on to marry? How will women whose lives have changed beyond recognition due to the war adapt to peacetime?  What should be done about war memorials?  I thought that there could have been a bit more about the changes in society as regards the class system, but I suppose that the author could only fit so much in.

That’s the only problem with it, really – the author could only fit so much in. The book really needed to be longer. Some of the characters outside the “core” family featured quite prominently in earlier books, but are barely mentioned at all here. Even Diana Hunter, who was arguably the main character in the first book, only appears here through the eyes of others. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I was left wanting more. That’s a sign of a good book, but it’s a bit frustrating when it’s the end of a series! Maybe a series about the same characters during the Second World War will follow? I’d certainly be up for reading it.

My grandad used to tell me a story about the day his dad came home from the Great War. They were going to meet him at the railway station. Grandad was only a little boy at the time: he must have been just coming up for 4. My great-grandma dressed him in his best clothes, and warned him severely not to get himself mucky before his dad had seen him. They were just about to set off when the door opened and my great-grandad walked in: he’d managed to get an earlier train, but hadn’t been able to let them know. I always liked that story, when I was a little girl. I never really thought much about what happened afterwards – how Grandad, who can only have been a baby when his dad went away, got used to having this strange man around, and how my great-grandad had to adapt back to civilian life, and how they all had to cope with their grief for the relatives – three close family members – and friends who’d been killed. Ask anyone when the First World War ended, and they’ll say it was on November 11th 1918. But its effects carried on. They still do.

The story of this book is that the war didn’t really end.  Its effects – and some of those were good, with the role of the women and the relationship between the social classes changed for ever – continued to be felt by those who lived through it for the rest of their days, and it was well after the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 before people could even start trying to resume any form of normality, or find a new normality.  And this was in Britain – how much harder must it have been for people in areas where the actual fighting had taken place?  This is quite a short book, and it’s bitty because there are so many different characters involved, but there’s a lot to be taken from it.  Well worth a read.

The Long, Long Trail by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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This is the fourth book in the “war at home” series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and I think it’s the most interesting one yet: it seems to be a bit less soapy and a bit more about showing the effect of war on the nation via a particular group of characters.   It’s still not as good as her Kirov trilogy, and I still don’t understand why the publishers pulled the plug on the Morland saga; but it’s a good read.  It’s slow-moving, but there’s a lot going on, as the characters move through 1917.  The war’s raging on, in the Belgian and French mud.  The Americans come in.  The French mutiny.  Russia’s engulfed in revolution.   And, back in Blighty, food shortages are biting (there’s a lot about food in this book!).  And the south coast is bombed.

Some of it’s quite a comedy of manners.  The bossy neighbour who likes it to seem as if she’s doing more for the war effort than anyone else.  The horror at the idea of digging up flower beds, lawns and tennis courts to turn them over to fruit and vegetable production.  The horror at the idea of eating wholegrain bread rather than Proper white bread.  That always works really well in a war book.  It shouldn’t, but it does!

And a lot’s going on with our friends the Hunters, as I said.  The eldest son is struggling to recover from his physical injuries and severe shell-shock.  The elder daughter – this bit is more soapy! – is trying to cope with being a middle-class woman married to an aristocrat.  And she still doesn’t realise that her husband’s gay and has only married her because he needs a countess and an heir.   He wasn’t originally a very sympathetic character, but he becomes far more so as you see how society makes him feel guilty just for being the way he is naturally, and forces him into a life which is all wrong for him.  The younger daughter, who would normally have been leading a very boring and constricted life but, because of the war, is out there doing a job she likes … and being pursued by two different men, neither of whom are the one she really loves.  And the two younger sons, one of whom decides to leave school at 16 so that he can go straight into doing something to help the war effort.

The father’s very involved with the Ministry of Food.  The mother’s also busy with war work … but having an affair as well.  Then there’s the auntie, driving an ambulance over in Belgium, one of the many women who did go out to the Front.  And a female cousin, coping with male colleagues who don’t think that a woman should be in a managerial job.    The cook, who – another soapy bit! – has long since assumed that she’ll always be single, but meets a man because of the war.  The housemaids who leave to work in a munitions factory – although,  in the First World War, many female domestic staff did remain in their jobs.

There are really three main themes that permeate the book.  One is that, after three years of war, the war now is everyone’s life.  That’s total war.  Everything in everyone’s life is about the war.  And there’s no end in sight.  There isn’t even an inspirational leader to talk about the end of the beginning and never surrendering.  It’s just on and on and on.

One is, of course, the losses.  There’s a brilliant scene in Gone With The Wind, in which the casualty lists from Gettysburg have just reached Atlanta, which really gets that across; but I don’t think that anything has ever been quite as bad as the devastation of the Great War, especially at a time when most people lived in the same community all the lives.  Relatives, friends, sweethearts, colleagues, the boys you’d grown up with and gone to school with … all gone.

And the third is the organisation.  The idea of laissez-faire was on the way out well before the Great War, with the Factory Acts, compulsory education, and then the introduction of old age pensions and national insurance, but the state was still not really that involved in people’s lives until 1914.  The war effort at home was a combination of public and private enterprise, but the state increasingly became involved in national life.  And things got organised.  When push comes to shove, things get organised.  Why can’t we do that in peacetime?   Why can’t we pull together, and why can’t the authorities get their act together?   And why can’t the authorities do it in wartime any more?  I’m thinking particularly of the food shortages in Yemen.  Probably because most of today’s wars are civil wars.  Very different.

Random thought.  The Long, Long Trail is, of course, the name of one of the many songs from the First World War. Do kids today know the First World War songs?  Everyone my age, although we weren’t born until most of the Great War generation were gone, knows It’s A Long Way To Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles, Keep The Home Fires Burning, K-K-K-Katy, Mademoiselle from Armentieres, etc.    And Roses of Picardy, which my grandma always liked.  Are they still going?  #oldandoutoftouch 🙂 .

It does end on a hopeful note, with a happy family Christmas and two babies expected in the new year.  But, whilst we know that the war will end in 1918, the characters don’t.   Presumably the fifth book in the series will be the last, then – and presumably that will be out later this year, the year in which we’ll mark the centenary of the Armistice.