Friday, 30 November 2012

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

When I found a copy of Dragonwyck in a bookshop the other day I couldn't resist re-reading to see what I thought of something last seen in my early teens, when it was one of those must-reads passed around at school. It's funny, but in the late '60s there was no sense that this book, first published in 1945, was in any sense dated, but the rate of change was slower in those days, certainly in a small town in the Scottish Highlands, where my scarlet tights were looked at askance when I walked down the High Street, even though they were much more seemly than the gap of cold blue flesh that showed above other people's stocking tops (my father, used to dancers from his theatrical days, couldn't understand why tights took so long to catch on there!) But there was nothing especially provincial about our reading matter and schoolgirls at the time existed on a diet of Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin, Mary Stewart, Anya Seton -- all to be found in both school and local libraries. We may not have known who were the parties in the Treaty of Versailles, but we could produce a lengthy list of kings' mistresses and we knew that Lucrezia Borgia was more likely to be a political pawn than a hardened poisoner.

Seton wrote a number of well-regarded historical novels, such as Katherine and My Theodosia, focusing on real people and events, as well as romantic novels with a historical setting, such as The Turquoise and Dragonwyck which owe a good deal to the full-blown gothic novel, but aren't as dark. Actually, Dragonwyck was rather less dark than I had remembered it (it turned out to be a poor candidate for an RIP read, with very little chance that it would raise as much as a shiver), despite the back-cover blurb which begins:
Dragonwyck is waiting for you, as eerie and splendid as when Miranda came up from the country in 1843, expecting fairytale happiness.
Growing up on the family farm, seventeen-year-old Miranda dreams of romance and the distant glories of New York, but she can't see any prospect of leaving home. Her parents expect her to marry a local farmer and settle down to having a family, just like her younger sister is about to do. But when a letter arrives from her mother's cousin, Nicholas van Ryn, inviting one of the girls for a visit, Miranda is determined to go. And her first impression of Dragonwyck lives up to her hopes:
She stared at the fantastic silhouette which loomed dark against the eastern sky, the spires and  and gables and chimneys dominated in the centre by one high tower; and it was as though the good and the evil, the happiness and tragedy, which she was to experience under that roof materialized into physical force and struck across the quiet river into her soul.
So you see, we know from the very start that things aren't going to go smoothly, and when she arrives at the house, Miranda finds that her handsome cousin has a grossly fat wife who immediately takes against the beautiful girl. Johanna expects Miranda to act as governess to the unprepossessing Katrine, who it is obvious will grow up just like her mother. Nicholas, meanwhile, pays erratic attention to Miranda, including her in social occasions but ignoring her much of the time. Nonetheless, she becomes aware of a growing attraction to him.

The story happens against a background of real-life events. Update New York at this period had a complicated system of land ownership dating back to the Dutch control of the area, and which was leading to growing resentment amongst tenant farmers. Like the Rebecca Riots in Wales, disaffected farmers dressed up, in this case as "Indians", in order to disguise themselves while they attacked the Dutch patroons. The landowning families around the van Ryns are real ones: the van Rensselaers, the Astors, and so on, and literary figures appear as well. One of the more truly gothic moments is a visit to the bedside of Edgar Allen Poe and his dying young wife.

So, how did Dragonwyck fare 40-something years from my first reading? Well, it's a very quick and easy read -- I'm sure that if it had been written today it would have been much longer. For a start, more would have been made of the old retainer, Zélie, and her predictions, and Katrine, and even Johanna, would have been more fully-developed characters, too. I say "written today", but I found myself wondering what Dragonwyck would have been in the hands of, say, Daphne du Maurier -- much more brooding and oppressive, with a real screwing-up of tension before the first death occurs, and then to the subsequent events. I'd remembered Seton as a more consciously gothic writer, but it's much more that she evokes a portrait of the gothic. There's a lack of the self-indulgence which tends to characterise the genre, an absence of the purely histrionic. Seton's rather benign humour keeps creeping in, so that the reader is all too aware of the nice healthy young Dr Turner, where there should be a morbid fascination with Nicholas van Ryn.

Part of the problem comes from Miranda herself. She's no Jane Eyre, nor a fainting young heroine from a sheltered background, she's a resourceful farmer's daughter, capable of killing a chicken even if she doesn't like to do it. So, even at her most isolated within the household, she is too practical to be completely overpowered by Nicholas. The other problem is the occasional foray into Nicholas's point of view, which simply doesn't work -- and shouldn't: we need no more information about him than Miranda can infer for herself. This isn't a major flaw, though, as it's abandoned quite early.

All in all, it's very suitable reading for teenage girls looking for a first "grown-up" novel -- much easier reading than the aforementioned Jane Eyre, which so many people come to too young. This time round I found the interest lay in the history on offer, which took me off to explore Wikipedia -- riverboats figure largely, too, and turned out to be quite interesting, and I spent some time retracing Miranda's route to Dragonwyck. I'm glad to have ventured on a re-read, though, and would quite happily return to some of Seton's other novels, although I doubt if I'll actively seek them out.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Excitement this week with the republication of the first two of Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels by Virago Modern Classics: High Rising and Wild Strawberries. There's a lovely review of High Rising by Claire at The Captive Reader, so I won't talk about that here, except to say that the cover is lovely, amd to warn you that Claire does talk about the whole book, so if you want to avoid spoilers, save it until later. I shall try not to give too much away about Wild Strawberries here.

You could argue, of course, that since nothing very much happens in AT's books, spoilers don't really matter too much, and most people who enjoy them re-read them endlessly - there are groups on both Yahoo and FaceBook who are working their way through in chronological order and, once the end is reached, we all go back to the beginning again. At a book a month it takes 2 and a half years to get through them and I find that's too infrequently to revisit some of my favourites. And the moment I start talking to other enthusiasts I realise how woefully inadequate my knowledge of the books is, so I have to rush back to whichever was under discussion. There are societies both here and in the US, by the way -- just one of the advantages of being a member, in the UK at any rate, is the secondhand booklist circulated to members. Some of my treasured AT collection came from there.

On to Wild Strawberries itself. Rushwater House (whose "only outward merit is that it might have been worse than it was") is home to the Leslies, and sees lots of coming and going amongst the extended family, all lovingly and exhaustingly overseen by Lady Emily. The family is first seen arriving at church, where the long-suffering vicar is waiting to begin the service, and knowing that not only will they be late, but that chaos will ensue with their arrival. The family party consists of Lady Emily herself, her husband Mr Leslie, their surviving sons John and David, their daughter Agnes Graham with her three children, Emmy, James and Clarissa, their grandson, Martin whose father was killed in the Great War and, of course, Nannie and Ivy, in attendance on the small children. To that number will shortly be added young Mary Preston, Agnes's niece by marriage, on an extended visit while her mother goes abroad for health reasons. Unfortunately, another arrival coincides with Mary's, that of the disagreeable Mr Holt, who has invited himself to see  over the garden. Mr Leslie is furious, because Mr Holt is crashingly dull, sycophantic yet demanding, not only arriving with the minimum of notice but expecting to be driven to his next destination whether it's convenient or not. In his youth he had been much more popular, as something of an expert on horticulture, but illness has made him deaf and irritable, so that Mrs Thirkell tells us:  "It would be easy to be sorry for Mr Holt in his unhonoured old age; but he is so conceited and irritating that compassion melts to bored anger." On this occasion, Mr Holt is not to be allowed the occasion to demonstrate his knowledge -- he's thwarted at every attempt by Lady Emily, who needs to rest after lunch, and Agnes, who is much too preoccupied, in her vague and placid way, with her children.

As the summer begins the vicarage is let to a French family, with whom Martin is to take lessons. Mary, meanwhile, has been enjoying herself doing very little beyond going for long walks with David when he comes down from Town -- which he does frequently, being a charming wastrel with no occupation and no ambition. If he's aware at all that Mary is rather beginning to fall in love with him, he pays it no heed, but it provides the opportunity for a wonderfully funny lunch date in which Mary and another young woman are at daggers drawn over the self-absorbed David:
David mentioned a ballet which Mary hadn't seen. Joan had seen it in Paris. David mentioned a symphony which Joan hadn't heard. Mary had heard Toscanini conduct it, though she omitted to say it was on a gramophone. Joan mentioned a banned book. David knew a man who had bought fifty copies in France and smuggled them over on an aeroplane, but Mary was here inspired to say that she had read it in typescript and found it simply dull...
I might add here that David is one of my least favourite characters in the Barsetshire books, and I'm always delighted to see his ego dented, not that it ever is for long. If ever anyone was born with a silver spoon in his mouth it's David. Mind you, in real life Lady Emily too would drive me to fury in about five minutes flat, as she sheds scarves and possessions, disrupts everyone's plans and interrupts all conversations. But although it can almost be a relief to turn to the broader comedy offered by Nannie and the housekeeper vying for supremacy, or the infuriatingly bossy Madame Boulle, for whom everything English is inferior to what may be obtained in France (which is, as we all know, just plain ridiculous!), there is just so much to enjoy here.

Finally, VMC has issued both books for Kindle, as well as the lovely print editions. In  addition, Wild Strawberries and Pomfret Towers are available as very affordable and beautifully read audiobooks in mp3 format, from Rockethouse Publishing, and High Rising will be released later this year -- if you prefer to buy them on CD they are available from Amazon.

Later: I hadn't really finished this when it published itself, and I had another link I wanted to add. Readers of High Rising who are curious about the quotations and "relusions" they find within the text may enjoy the list of them compiled by members of the Angela Thirkell Society. There are Relusions for a further eighteen books on the website. I find them immensely useful -- I may spot references to Dickens fairly reliably (though I'm not always sure which book, or if it's misquoted) but there's one in High Rising to a character by Meredith, and I can't imagine I would ever have got round to tracking that one down!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Rosslyn Castle

This time eight years ago we spent a weekend at Rosslyn Castle, south of Edinburgh, and right beside the wonderful Rosslyn Chapel, which featured, I gather, in That Book...but this post is about the Castle, which dates back to the 14th century. The castle was destroyed during one of those typical bits of Scottish history, known as the Rough Wooing, which was a euphemism for something else entirely, and the ruins which are there today are mostly those of the rebuilt castle, although there is one stretch of 14th-century wall remaining. In 1622 the building was renovated, and an attractive Renaissance house incorporated within the walls, though it got bashed about again by Cromwell's lot. Despite that, it has been almost continuously habitable throughout its history, though I've heard that it got pretty dilapidated before its most recent restoration began in 1982 - there were stories that people used to drive down from Edinburgh to hold illicit parties in the big lower rooms (popularly referred to as "dungeons", which they weren't). Sadly, no one ever invited me, but I was probably too law-abiding, though I believe that at one time there was an eremitical caretaker who might have facilitated such events, probably in return for a bottle or two of whisky. At any rate, both castle and chapel became objects of desire in my student days, for their romantic settings, for their associations with the Knights Templar, and the chapel for one of the most remarkable interiors I've ever seen, with a proliferation of Green Men who peer from every nook and cranny. So when I discovered that the castle was now managed as a holiday let by the Landmark Trust (who do tremendous work in restoring and making wonderful buildings accessible), I was determined that I was going to stay there one day. My 50th birthday seemed like the perfect occasion.

The castle sits on a rocky promontory. It was originally approached by a drawbridge, but later a breach was made in the rock to create a chasm across which a narrow stone bridge with an alarmingly low parapet was built - I wasn't at all sure that my son's car would fit crossing the bridge and breathed in sharply!

The bridge safely negotiated, the house lies ahead of you - actually, we arrived after dark, which was a strange sensation. Would the key work? Could we find the light switches? Did we remember which box the dogfood was in? Unpack first, and then explore!

We quickly discovered, to the enormous delight of the two dogs, that there were two staircases, an elegant main one (I loved the figures in the hallway):

and a spiral stair in the little tower (which you can see on the left-hand-side in the picture of the house). The dogs did happy circuits until we firmly closed the door to the tower and unpacked their food. The tower was the exclusive retreat of younger son for our stay. The fireplace in his room had some interesting original stonework in it - a rainspout, perhaps:

The house is very modestly sized, with just two main rooms downstairs, dining room and drawing room. We cooked elaborately in the minuscule kitchen (both OH and elder son arrived with a battery of cooks' knives, knowing holiday lets of old!), which opens out onto a minuscule private garden, within the curtain walls, which would be perfect for picnics in warmer weather.

Did I mention weather? That weekend was the start of a real cold snap, the sharpest there had been that year. That fire was more than cosmetic, it was vital! If you peer at the right side of the fireplace, you can see the most splendid chainmail fire curtain. There's a guest book in the drawing room which makes very entertaining reading, but one thing which stands out is that everyone who has been there in winter has commented on how icily cold the house is. Some speculate about ghosts. I put it down to this:

Photograph by supergolden

That's the drawing room and dining room, with the big windows. Below them are three floors of nothing, with little or no window glass -- those are the so-called dungeons, actually the original kitchen and more service rooms, but pretty grisly nonetheless. And cold. Because you may remember from the first picture of the house that it's only two storeys high. It's actually perched on the edge of the promontory, and the lower floors descend into the glen below, a drop of 60 feet. This is the kitchen, where those parties used to be held. There was a single lightbulb in the centre of the ceiling at this level, and no incentive to linger. Reluctantly, because it seems very pathetic at this remove, this was as far as I got. Well, someone had to stay with the dogs, and there was no way I was letting them carry on down to the unlit depths.

A floor down, another kitchen and another enormous fireplace. And no electricity. Good thing we'd brought torches for taking the dogs out last thing.

We wondered what lived here. Judging from the heap of sticks on the floor they had been in residence for a long time. Owls? Ravens?

Someone else who'd been in residence for a long time. Younger son said this was the biggest spider he'd ever seen. There were obviously going to be a lot more of them, judging by the size of the bundle of eggs she was guarding.

At the end of the day there was a very sleepy puppy (don't tell the Landmark Trust! but we did take lots of blankets to protect the sofas). It was a pity she needed to go out at 3am -- as I stood on the frost-rimed lawn in my nightie and greatcoat, I was horribly conscious of all those ruins around me, the yawning gulf beneath my feet, the ghosts -- including a ghastly hound who bays. Do spectral hounds have the same habits as living ones? In which case, my two girls were going to be like magnets...but actually, the only howling likely to be heard that night was mine, as I recalled the 3-storey nursery for giant spiders!

Only OH was truly unmoved by the possibility of ghosts, I think, he has no imagination at all. Possibly he was preoccupied with trying not to die of exposure and add to their number, as were we all. I have never been so cold in my life. It was a mistake, too, to underestimate my fear of heights. The bridge terrified me, and I found it hard to trust to the dogs' good sense after hearing that the river in the glen has claimed a number who fell in. The Bolter was only a puppy, and not misnamed, although unlikely to take off in strange surroundings. In retrospect, I'm not quite sure whether it was a magical experience or a nightmare -- perhaps it was as magical as our family does! It certainly offered some insight into the life in a country house in, say, the 18th century, though thankfully, we didn't have to manage with candles as well. OH would have been glad, I think, of a television, but he did have the most awful cold. Actually, the most 18th-century bit was that we all rushed for the shower the minute we got home -- it had been too cold to shed any garments in order to wash while we were there. The castle did have a shower, at the top of the stone steps down to the basement kitchen! But even the "proper" bathroom was arctic.

 Rosslyn Castle by Vic Sharp

One of the things we did during our stay, of course, was to visit the chapel. This was during the period when work was being done on the roof, so we didn't take views of the outside, but we did go up on the scaffolding for a very different view of the building:

Sadly, photography is no longer allowed inside the chapel -- I would love to be able to spend hours in there with a camera, although it always seems to be busy now, even on the gloomiest of days. Even busy, I think it's the most remarkable church I know, and it's no wonder that so many stories have grown up around it. The castle, too, is a wonderfully romantic place, and it's gratifying to stay in such a building and know that while doing so you are helping to preserve it. And honestly, they are not always freezing - we were unlucky with a weekend when the frost on the ground didn't melt all day but just sharpened with each night. But I'd certainly recommend hotwater bottles, just in case!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

My Life in Books

I was very flattered to be asked by Simon at Stuck in a Book to take part in My Life in Books, it's such a lovely idea and I've so enjoyed reading the responses in the first two series. I had great fun doing it and trying to guess what sort of reader my fellow participant, Laura, is. Our answers are here.

I was struck by how often Jane Eyre comes up in the answers to Simon's question about first "grown-up" books - I'd wondered whether to include it myself. I then went off into a long mental ramble about whether we divide into two groups: those who'd chose JE and those who'd pick Wuthering Heights. It seems to be one of those genuine either/or questions, and I've met relatively few people who adored both, with the Eyre-ites loathing WH and the Heightists heaping scorn on the Jane lovers. I thought about it again as I irritably turned off a radio dramatisation on WH at 4-ish this morning, so I thought I'd mention in here...