Monday, 19 November 2018

Illustration - Margaret Tempest

Margaret Tarrant
I was book-obsessed from the start, and some of my earliest treasures were the Little Grey Rabbit books by Alison Uttley, illustrated by Margaret Tempest. I adored the characters within these pages and the beautiful watercolours which depicted their daily tasks and amusements. They are probably largely responsible for the pleasure I take in middlebrow literature, where the mundane is of equal, if not more importance, than events on the world-scale.

Both Uttley and her illustrator understood this. The foreword to all the Little Grey Rabbit books is as follows:
Of course you must understand that Grey Rabbit's home had no electric light or gas, and even the candles were made from pith of rushes dipped in wax from the wild bees' nests, which Squirrel found. Water there was plenty, but it did not come from a tap. It flowed from a spring outside, which rose up from the ground and went to a brook. Grey Rabbit cooked on a fire, but it was a wood fire, there was no coal in that part of the country. Tea did not come from India, but from a little herb known well to country people, who once dried it and used it in their cottage homes. Bread was baked from wheat ears, ground fine, and Hare and Grey Rabbit gleaned in the cornfields to get the wheat.

The doormats were plaited rushes, like country-made mats, and the cushions were stuffed with wool gathered from the hedges where sheep pushed through the thorns. As for the looking glass, Grey Rabbit found the glass, dropped from a lady's handbag, and Mole made a frame for it. Usually the animals gazed at themselves in the still pools as so many country children have done. The country ways of Grey Rabbit were the country ways known to the author.

(The Foreword to the Little Grey Rabbit books by Alison Uttley)

The pictures are actually quite simple, but you feel as though there is lots of detail. Here, for example, is the lace border that Little Grey Rabbit made for Mrs Hedgehog, with its bees and flowers, and you can see the lace-making pillow with its bobbins on Grey Rabbit's lap.


Margaret Tempest was born in Ipswich in 1892 and lived until she was 90. She was trained at Ipswich Art School and Westminster School of Art, graduating just as WW1 began. After the war she and a group of friends founded The Chelsea Illustrators - women artists sharing a studio to work, teach and sell art - the studio ran successfully until 1939. 

During the twenties she began work on the Alison Uttley books, a partnership that lasted 40 years although artist and author didn't like each other (but Uttley does seem to have been extremely difficult - amazing that she could write such enchanting books, but I think she was probably happier while she was writing than the rest of the time). She wrote and illustrated her own books too, like the ABC below, and designed cards for Medici (78 in all) - the postcards are particularly fine, as the whole story has to be told in a single image.

Medici postcard  



The illustration below, probably from Little Grey Rabbit and the Weasels, has a lovely William Morris sort of background. Apparently the distinctive coloured border that surrounds the LGR illustrations was Tempest's idea, and it is wonderfully effective, framing the miniature world of the animals - there's always a sense of being close to the ground.


The borders made the dustjackets equally distinctive too, and even modern editions retain a strong sense of the originals. Here's the 1986 version of Little Grey Rabbit Makes Lace:


It lacks the lace-making detail that I liked so much and the lacy border, replacing them with the coloured border of the text illustrations which is the most easily recognised feature, along with the grey dress, blue pinny and crisp white collar and cuffs that Grey Rabbit (nearly) always wears. Even later illustrators of the series kept to these conventions. I particularly like this one, where her grey dress is kilted up, showing her delicious white petticoat below - she's actually hanging her pinny on the washing line.


I can see the beginnings of all lots of my own character traits when I look at these little books, which are ideally sized for small hands. The original editions had endpapers showing the little house in the woods with washing gaily dancing in the breeze. I suppose many of the things I learnt to prize are deeply unfashionable these days - homemaking, pretty clothes, care for small creatures, country lore - but the books are still in print, though whether they please small children or nostalgic grandparents I don't know.


Margaret Tempest married her cousin Sir Grimwood Mears, a former Chief Justice in Allahabad, in 1951. They lived in Ipswich at 3 St Edmund's Road, where there is a blue plaque in her memory. She was an enthusiastic sailor and became Commodore of the Pin Mill Sailing Club. 


A website about Margaret Tempest lists her books and shows some of her other illustrations, but she will always be best remembered, I think, for Little Grey Rabbit and her friends.


Friday, 16 November 2018

The Ice King by Helen Slavin

I haven't been reading many new books recently - since the advent of ebooks there is so much being reissued from my favourite period (roughly 1930-70) that I can barely keep up. There is a small and select band of authors who get bought automatically, though: Ben Aaronovitch, Jodi Taylor, Alan Bradley and Jasper Fforde get pre-ordered, and Nicola Slade and Linda Gillard are close behind. Pretty much anyone else will languish on the to-be-read list, sometimes picked up from the library, but it may be years and a growing sense that I really ought to read a particular work before I get round to it. I've said before that I'm very resistant to the books absolutely everyone is talking about, unless it's an author I already know I like. So making it onto my radar is quite difficult. But I do get newsletters from some publishers (usually the ones with long reissue lists) and I do actually read them. I also, of course, read blogs, but I'm aware that everyone else's taste is necessarily as idiosyncratic as mine, so although they may rave about a book, that doesn't mean that I'll like it. I'll probably wait for a consensus by several people whose views I really trust before forking out some of my limited book budget.


Which is a long-winded way of saying that someone new got through the barbed wire fence and the pack of guard dogs and the attack squirrel and shinned up to my tower window (yes, I do have a very small tower...). And that author is Helen Slavin, who has written a novella, The Ice King, that I'm eager to talk about.

First off, isn't that a seductive cover? I'd certainly have picked it up in a bookshop. That eye is full of promise - is it a threat? or what? there's both danger and candour in that gaze. And what happens to the main characters is like that too.

The story is in three parts and focuses on three different people. The first we meet is Hettie Way, the Gamekeeper. That capital initial is important. The extent of her role isn't divulged here, but we know that she protects Pike Lake and the wood around it, and her link with the land and what lives in the lake is important. It's not entirely clear whether she's protecting it, or protecting everyone else from it. She's certainly trying to protect her 9-year-old daughter, Vanessa, who is drawn to the lake despite being told that she should stay away, and must not, ever, go into the water. Being drawn to something is a guarantee that orders will be disobeyed, and Vanessa does, in a spirit of scientific curiosity, go into the water.

Part 2 takes up the story of Lachlan Laidlaw who, in the early years of the twentieth century, is in love with a girl who's a bad lot. She wants him to take her to the Goose Fair (echoes of Lud-in-the-Mist and Stardust, two of my favourite books). It doesn't go well, but Lachlan has a brush with a fortune teller.

Part 3 takes up the story of the grown-up Vanessa, now a scientist on an expedition to the northern wastes of Norway with her supervisor and a bunch of exceedingly unlovely male scientists. Echoes of all sorts of things here, since a research station is pretty much just that - claustrophobic and vulnerable to weather and communications failures and all that those entail. And bears. Vanessa discovers a body in the ice and things don't go well from there.

How the lives and stories of the three people we've met entwine to make an atmospheric and scary whole is the stuff of folklore and legend and our most atavistic fears. The Ice King has some genuinely heart-in-the-mouth moments and leaves unanswered lots of intriguing questions, which is fine as it's the prequel to further books about the Way family. I found myself impatient to know more about the Lake and woods and how the magic within them works: what it costs its Gamekeepers, how it's inherited, whether it can co-exist with Vanessa's science? This is exactly the sort of book I like, the kind you find yourself thinking about after you've finished. And the kind where magic is woven into the natural environment and isn't something to be learnt by going to wizard school or reading a grimoire or whatever - not that I can't enjoy some of that too, but this feels like the Real Thing.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

All for Love by Jane Aiken Hodge

All for Love was originally published as Savannah Purchase in 1971 and seems to have been out of print for a little while. I'm very glad that Agora Books have brought it back, and kindly allowed me a copy via Netgalley, because it was a real romp of a read - I stayed up late and then finished it in one blissful gulp this morning, as part of my mini Aikenfest.



Juliet and Josephine are cousins so alike that they've often, in childhood, swapped roles. They've been apart for some years, though both have moved to Savannah from France, where both had been involved in the French-English war that saw Napoleon exiled to St Helena. As their story begins their circumstances are very different - Juliet has just lost her father and is living in miserable poverty, while Josephine has married a wealthy landowner, Hyde Purchis. (This is in fact the third book in a Purchis family saga but since, I think, it introduces Juliet and Josephine as new characters, can perfectly well be read as a standalone.)

Josephine, we learn, was rescued by her husband from an unspecified-but-dire situation in France where they conducted a mariage de convenance. Thus she has little compunction about persuading her cousin to take her place while she sets off on a wild scheme to rescue her hero Napoleon. Juliet reluctantly allows herself to be drawn into this plot on condition that she will be able to return to France to start a new life. Once in the Purchis household, of course, she faces a series of challenges, since however alike the cousins look, it is impossible to predict all eventualities. Josephine's wayward habits and extravagance contrast with Juliet's quiet and caring manners, though at times she manages a bravura performance as her selfish cousin. How it all plays out I leave the reader to discover (you know I don't like plot summaries!)

Having just read and reviewed Maulever Hall, a typically English Regency bit of gothic fun, I enjoyed the shift to Southern Gothic in All for Love. It's a sort of Georgette Heyer-meets-Anya Seton kind of book. Some years ago I re-read Dragonwyck, which I had remembered from my teens as a dark and brooding sort of affair, and on re-acquaintance was struck by how much the hot southern sun kept intruding to lighten the atmosphere. It's the same here - to my surprise I almost wanted more histrionics. Perhaps you can't do Southern Gothic without vampires? But that notwithstanding, I enjoyed All for Love very much, and boy, but I'm loving some of the Agora reprints - through them I've discovered such writers George Bellairs and Richard Hull, filled some Allingham gaps, and have a feast of Jane Aiken Hodge's books still to come. In fact, I have a feeling that their list is going to keep me pretty busy for the next 12 months or so, and use up most of my book budget. Thank goodness for the Crime Classics Review Club!

Monday, 12 November 2018

Sisters

I have a terrible tendency to muddle up the Aiken sisters: Joan Aiken (she of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fame) and Jane Aiken Hodge. I guess I was reading both in my late teens and early twenties, they both wrote some regencies, their writing styles are not dissimilar, and while Joan wrote some Austen sequels, Jane wrote a biographies of Austen and Georgette Heyer... so when I thought last week that the book I was enjoying was by the Other One, I didn't feel I was entirely to blame for my confusion.


I started the week with The Embroidered Sunset, by Joan Aiken. Lucy, born in England but brought up by her uncle in the US after her father ran off leaves school to discover that her expensive education has apparently used up all her money so that her planned career as a concert pianist looks unlikely. However there's a chance that a famous pianist who is dying of cancer might train her, if she can earn enough to pay for lessons so she decides to work her passage to England as a ship's stewardess. Her loathsome uncle agrees to her plan as she can also check up on his elderly sister, who may or may not have died - if she has, he wants to stop paying her an annuity, and besides, he has an idea that her pictures just may be valuable. While most enjoyable, this turned out to be quite a dark little novel, and I'm still not at all sure what I make of the end. Lots of gothic overtones, deserted houses and rain though - you can never have too much of them, right?

What I did know, however, was that Aiken's writing was pleasing and was holding my attention, and I felt that I could do with more of it. So I turned to another of her books, only to discover that it was in fact by Jane. It was on my Kindle because Agora Books have been reprinting quite a number of authors I like - Michael Innes amongst them - and I'd spotted it on one of their emails. Well, I'd spotted the Aiken bit, at any rate...



Maulever Hall has a lot of Georgette Heyer about it - resourceful heroine, in the case suffering from amnesia after a carriage accident, eccentric aristocrats, cross-country chases (so much more fun in a coach and four!), murdered heirs, dangerous suitors... what more could one ask? Marianne has no idea why she is fleeing in terror on a dark night with a child she doesn't think is hers. And where is she going? She's not even sure what her name or status is. Does she have a guilty secret? She manages to be at once both capable and gullible, and I thought this quite convincing - the one thing that is clear from what she can/can't remember is that she's country-bred, and has no experience of the ways of the city or the ton. And she has only her own feelings to tell her who and what can be trusted, and her memory of fear and pursuit. There's plenty of rain in this one too.

Which did I prefer? Well, actually, I was very happy with both, and as the nights here grow longer, am going to immerse myself in the gothic worlds of both Aiken sisters. Next up, Castle Barebane, by Joan - now there's a promising title!


Sunday, 7 October 2018

A Night of Errors by Michael Innes



Michael Innes' A Night of Errors was first published in 1947 and is the eleventh in the series which features his detective, John Appleby. As so often in this series, it's a country house setting, this time full of triplets, arson and madness. Innes' plots are always convoluted and baroque in construction, but Appleby - as ever - seems to sort out the solution while not appearing to do anything much except think.

Michael Innes books are a bit of an acquired taste: his writing is full of literary jokes and flamboyant verbiage (never use one word when five or six will do instead) and there's a tendency for the action to happen off-stage. And to be absolutely truthful, this wasn't one of his very best, so I wouldn't recommend starting with it. If you haven't read Innes, go for one his absolute classics, like Hamlet, Revenge! and then, if you love that I'd recommend reading Appleby's End before A Night of Errors - the cheerful insanity of the former will prepare you for the outright lunacy of the latter. By the time you've worked your way through all three there's a good chance you've fallen for Innes' style and will want to read all the rest. On the other hand, if you've already made the acquaintance of Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen, and are a fan, you'll probably be quite comfortable with Appleby.

My thanks to Netgalley and the Crime Classics Review Club for a copy of this book (and my apologies to the latter for having a whole pile of reviews to catch up on!).

Thursday, 30 August 2018

The Bookshop

I went with a friend to see Isabelle Coixet's The Bookshop on Tuesday. Two people have asked me what I thought of it. So I'm hauling myself out of exile to report.


Looks idyllic, doesn't it? So easy to identify with a lead character who wants to open a bookshop. Don't we all?

It's a very quiet, low-key film which leaves a lingering sense of sadness. It's based on a novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I read a couple of years ago, and it leaves quite a bit out, choosing to place greater focus on an ultimately doomed love affair. You know it must be doomed by the agonising silences.

Florence Green, widowed for 16 years, arrives in a Suffolk village having found a derelict house that she thinks she can turn into a shop (what's she been doing up until then? we never learn, though we are told that she and her husband met in a bookshop). She moves into the house, which has been empty for some time. But there's a problem: the local lady of the manor, Mrs Gamart, wants the house too, to turn it into an art centre; after all, she says, there are other empty properties in the village equally suitable. Florence doesn't hesitate - she marches off to her solicitor and tells him to hurry up and finalise details. If I sound a bit unsympathetic, I'm not really: Mrs Gamart is horrible, I'd have reacted the same way. But looking back, I do find myself wondering why Florence is quite so recalcitrant. If she'd for a moment considered compromise, the subsequent events may not have occurred. But she forges on, with help from the local sea-scouts, and a precocious child called Christine who helps out for 12/6d a week, and with whom she forms a touching relationship. Even though Christine doesn't like to read they find a rapport through their shared work. Her only other real ally is Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), a recluse who buys books from her.


So far, so good. There's a lot to admire - the substitution of Co. Down for the Suffolk village works well and offers opportunity for lots of windswept shots of Emily Mortimer sitting on the beach. There are some excellent performances, and Mortimer and Nighy manage a kind of chemistry-despite-themselves which is very tenderly observed. As I've said, there is much from the book which is left out, and from a directorial point of view that's a good thing (it's why short stories make the best adaptations). Sadly though, much of that detail is what makes it such a fine and subtle book, and its loss makes it just a "nice" film.

Driving home after the film we shared our quibbles: immaculate period cars (it's set in 1959) - not a speck of rust in sight. William Morris wallpaper - how could Florence possibly afford it? Despite the film's opening, in which Florence is acquiring a frock for Mrs Gamart's party and ends up looking completely different from everyone else --


all the costumes look as new as the cars. No-one has frayed cuffs, the handmade knitwear is all straight off the needles and Florence's wardrobe is both extensive and stylish. In fact, for a woman who's supposed to be middle-aged and insignificant-looking, Mortimer is altogether too charismatic. Actually, Co. Down is a bit lush for the Suffolk coast, though the late summer trees are made to look faintly oppressive, full of restless movement in the ever-present wind. And whatever happened to the ghost?

To sum up, then - The Bookshop is worth a trip to the cinema, but don't think that, having seen it, you needn't read the book. You'd be doing yourself, and Fitzgerald, a disservice.





Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Illustrators - a belated Introduction

Don't you love the horse's expression?
I have started an occasional series of posts about illustrated books here. As usual, it's purely idiosyncratic and based solely on what I like myself. As a child I was always surrounded by illustration, and we had copies of various classics - for instance, the "proper" versions such as Alice illustrated by Tenniel: anything else was heresy, although I rebelled later and bought other editions as well. But they are a big part of my heritage, and we still give each other picture books as presents (and my brother has recently brought out a wonderfully illustrated fish book, as much for the pleasure of sharing his delight in them as for anything else, I think, though it still has a powerful conservation message - I should add that the words are his, and the photos by someone else).

Pictures in books have always been immensely important to me and I'm always delighted when I come across an "adult" book which is decorated, even if it's only with pretty swatches or, even better, with little vignettes at the beginning of each chapter. It's one reason why, however convenient it is, and however much easier on the hands, the Kindle will never replace real books for me. Another is cover art, which I also regard as important, even if you can't judge a book by it! We may have the odd post which focuses on covers...

To date in the series I've talked a little about the fashion during the 20th century for woodcuts and lithographs in books, something I'm bound to go back to again, because it was such an important trend. And especially when, as in this Lathrop illustration, it echoes another artform - tapestry - so evocatively. Children's illustration is a major interest, particularly in books for older children - that's in part because there is just so much fantastic art in picture books for little children that it's impossible to keep up (there's a lot of absolute rubbish as well,  but we won't go there...). As for the classics, well, if I could afford Folio Society books I'd probably have a complete library of them for their artwork alone, but I can't, so my look at them will be very selective.  But I'm really glad they are there, and producing illustrated books for people who can afford them. As well as reproducing classic editions, they commission new artwork as well.

Then there are the picture books which are both for small children and for everyone else - the subject of my second post falls into this category. They are works of art in themselves, so beautiful that you go back to them for the sheer delight of handling them, looking at the detail in the pictures, savouring the (usually short) text. I find some of these quite irresistible.

I'm putting a link at the top of the page to this series, and also have a Pinterest board which includes more artwork from the illustrators I've talked about. The board's a bit disorganised at the moment because it's been going for a while, and started before I decided to write about them here, but I'll tidy it up at some stage. And that's it - on with the series, and I hope people enjoy it.