November 18th, 2012

book and cup

#118 Harriet - Elizabeth Jenkins (1934)

I have had this Persephone book on my shelf for a little while now- bought with some lovely Persephone gift vouchers on my Birthday in May. I was so looking forward to it, although I already knew that the story would be a dark one. It almost seems wrong to say I loved it – but I did. The story is a desperately sad one, all the more so for being based upon real events.

“Harriet came with little bouncing steps towards the tea table and looked into the teapot. “This is do Mama,” she said; she sometimes confused small words, though she could always make her meaning clear. At the age of thirty-two she had a sallow countenance, with strongly marked lines running from the nostrils to the corners of the lips; her chin receded, and her eyes were the glutinous black of treacle. Apart from her expression, and the slightly slurred enunciation of her words, however, her appearance was one of rather particular neatness and cost.”

In real life Harriet Staunton nee Richardson lived and died very much in line with the events in Elizabeth Jenkins’s 1934 novel. Like the Harriet in the novel, Harriet Staunton had what today we would call learning difficulties, she had been well brought up by her mother, who had taught her how to care for herself, but she had difficulty expressing herself and was prone to making sudden unexplained noises and flying into rages. She also had a legacy of about £5,000 – something like half a million in today’s money. Only one photograph exists of Harriet Staunton, taken upon the occasion of her engagement.
Despite being based upon real life events, I must stress that Harriet, is a novel, though there are I believe non-fiction works written about the famous case too. Elizabeth Jenkins was fascinated by what was known as the Penge mystery of 1877. Publishing this novel in the same year as F. Tennyson Jesse published ‘A pin to see the Peepshow’ which was also based upon a famous murder trial, Jenkins decided to take the unusual step of calling her characters by their real Christian names. Harriet Staunton became Harriet Woodhouse, Louis Staunton, Lewis Oman, Patrick Staunton, becomes Patrick Oman, sisters Elizabeth Staunton (nee Rhodes) and Alice Rhodes are in Jenkins novel Elizabeth Oman and Alice Hoppner respectively.
The story of Harriet is a desperate one, and Jenkins telling of it is a masterly piece of subtle storytelling, Jenkins had no need of gratuitous descriptions – the slow downward spiral of this unfortunate young woman’s life is enough in itself. The selfish greed which leads to Harriet falling victim to Lewis Oman’s handsome charms is brilliantly portrayed. A vulnerable young woman, who had previously only been in the company of her mother and step father with occasional visits made to relatives, easily has her head turned by the attentions of a handsome young man. Lewis the elder of two exceptionally close brothers is already becoming close to Harriet’s cousin, Alice when the two meet. Much to Alice’s horror, Lewis’s attentions switch to Harriet when he learns of her fortune. Lewis’s brother Patrick a surly bad tempered artist, is married to Alice’s elder sister Elizabeth. Lewis and Harriet become quickly engaged, Harriet’s mother is immediately on the alert and does all she can to stop her daughter marrying Lewis; however Harriet is over thirty and with Lewis’s contrivance sets herself against her mother, removing herself from the family home when her mother tries to make her a ward of chancery to prevent her marrying. Harriet and Lewis are married, and from there on there is a terrible inevitability to the events that follow, with Harriet isolated from her mother, again thanks to Lewis’s contrivance, and removed to the country to board with Patrick and Elizabeth, she becomes the unwitting victim to terrible cruelty and neglect.
This is a wonderfully readable novel, though it is a terrible story, made so much more poignant by the fact that the reader knows that it is a pretty accurate recreation of actual events. In his fascinating afterward to this edition Richard Cooke discusses the trial verdicts and Elizabeth Jenkins’s career and her obvious fascination with this case.


Book 145: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

UK Cover
Book 145: Bring up the Bodies (Wolf Hall #2).
Author: Hilary Mantel, 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction. 16th Century England.
Other Details: Hardback. 407 pages.

By 1535 Cromwell is Chief Minister to Henry, his fortunes having risen with those of Anne Boleyn. But the split from the Catholic Church has left England dangerously isolated, and Anne has failed to give the king an heir. Cromwell watches as Henry falls for plain Jane Seymour. Negotiating the politics of the court, Cromwell must find a solution that will satisfy Henry, safeguard the nation and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge unscathed from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days. - synopsis from publisher's website.

Almost effortlessly Mantel transports her reader back to the 16th century as an invisible eye-witness to the events leading to the execution of Anne Boleyn. That sense of being present creates an immediacy to the proceedings. Her writing is exquisite as always.

US Cover
Although this is a direct sequel to Wolf Hall and works best read after that novel, Mantel has included enough background for it to work as stand alone. However, in the Man Booker Shadowing group those of us who had read Wolf Hall found its many characters easier to deal with as well as the complex politics of the period. At the start of the novel Mantel does include listings of characters, which does come in very handy.

It is a real triumph for Mantel that managed to be even better than 'Wolf Hall'. It was from the start my favourite in the Man Booker 2012 short-list as it was for the judges when it secured Mantel her second Booker Prize and proved a historic win as Mantel was the first woman and the first Brit to win twice and Bring Up the Bodies the first direct sequel to win the prestigious literary prize.

Mantel is now working on the final book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, that will chart Cromwell's eventual downfall.

Historic Winner!
In terms of presentation, I do prefer the UK cover depicting Anne's falcon to the portrait on the USA cover. It has a golden metallic sheen as better illustrated by this photo of a very happy Hilary Mantel photographed at the 2012 Man Booker Prize ceremony.

The opening of Bring Up the Bodies - from The Guardian's website.
  • maribou

Chill Prairie Windfall; This Ungifted Boy; Cold Night Demons

Chill Factor and Windfall, by Rachel Caine
As mindless and not always self-consistent fluff go, these are AWESOME. Seriously.
(185, 186)

Prairie, by Candace Savage
The text was a bit dry in places - more textbook-y than I was expecting, but in others it shone. And I loved the pictures.

Ungifted, by Gordon Korman
This book is about a trouble-making middle school kid who accidentally gets sent to the gifted magnet school instead of suspended. I feared the didacticism involved might overwhelm the humor... but, it's Gordon Korman. Too zany and full of love for that.

The Boy Book, by E. Lockhart
Ruby Oliver is one of my favorite teen protagonists, and I think this was my favorite of all four books. Inhaled this.

What Really Happened Is This, by Dianne Hicks Morrow
Autobiographical short poems. When I was a little girl, Dianne was one of my favorite grown-ups, so my affection for this book is predictable. :)
(189, O44)

Sleep Demons, by Bill Hayes
Thoughtful mix of memoir and history about insomnia and other sleep disorders. Enjoyable, undemanding, and occasionally transcendent.
(190, O45)

Night Child, by Jes Battis
Fun. Maybe not quite as much my thing as the pop-culture academic non-fiction by the same author - but fun enough to keep me interested in reading more.

The Cold Smell of Sacred Stone, by George C. Chesbro (reread)
All of these mysteries are weird, but this one is especially weird: how to deal with the world when the world has decided your brother is a messiah... anyway, I still loved it - I have such good memories of teenage me sitting in the library reading this series :).
  • Current Music
    watching the Gilmore Girls

# 31-33

#31 - Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles
The story of Achilles, as told by Patrocles. No surprises here (after reading 'The Song of Troy by McCallough), but very beautifully written.

#32 - Geraldine Brooks: Caleb's Crossing
According to the blurb, this is the story of the first Indian to graduate from the Harvard Indian College. I would say it is much more the story of Bethia - a daughter of a puritan preacher, who meets Caleb and thus sets him on the path to European learning. It is rather sad and poignant, but on the other hand very peaceful book. Perhaps, because it is told by Bethoa. Good things happen, bad things happen, life goes on... I've really enjoyed reading it.

#33 - Gail Carriger: Soulless: Tha parasol protection.
A friend recommended this to me. A light-hearted kind of steam-punk with vampires and werewolves. I liked the dark humour and the story, although at some point the amorous advances and rebuffs of the ms. Tarrabotti and Lord Maccon become a bit too much. But I am planning to return to this series on some dark winter evening, perhaps.


I've long admired James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, and commend it to any reader curious what happened in the Civil War whose sesquicentennial is currently in progress.  Professor McPherson recently finished War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865.  Book Review No. 29 is an enthusiastic recommendation.  The subject is likely to appeal more to the dedicated Civil War aficionado, rather than the novice, as the focus is of necessity narrower, and on occasion, obscure.  It is useful, however, for students of the era to recognize that without Ericsson and Farragut and Porter and Welles, the more famous clashes involving Grant and McClellan and Sherman, and Forrest and Johnston and Lee, might have turned out differently.  For it was the western river navies and western armies that developed, respect for the independence of each service's chain of command notwithstanding, techniques of combined arms that secured control of the navigable rivers, as well as the Gulf ports, reducing rebel exporters to moving their goods to the remaining ports over rudimentary roads and railroads.  Furthermore, the very success of rebel blockade runner ships proved to be evidence of the success of the Federal embargo (a blockade being maintained by one country at war against another).  The only ships that could slip past the coastal squadrons were the blockade runners, which, of necessity, had to export high-value cotton and import high-value armaments.  When the supply of anthracite coal ran out ...

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

Book 146: Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

Book 146: Bitter Seeds (Milkweed Triptych #1).
Author: Ian Tregillis, 2010.
Genre: Period Fiction. Alternative History. Occult Horror. War. Spy Fiction.
Other Details: Hardcover. 352 pages.

"Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War, haunted by something strange he saw on a mission during the Spanish Civil War: a German woman with wires going into her head who looked at him as if she knew him.

When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilities—a woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman Marsh saw in Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the present—Marsh is the man who has to face them. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as outright loss would be."
- synopsis from author's website.

Set principally between 1930 and 1941, Bitter Seeds is the opening act for the Milkweed Triptych. In it the Nazis utilise 'super' humans and the British use magicians and their summonings to engage in a secret war.

I had been attracted by the premise of this novel when it was promoted on Goodreads and was very happy to find that my local library carried a copy. It is a relentlessly dark tale but that suited the war-time setting and the events depicted. Characterisation was strong on both sides of the conflict including its female characters. It felt an assured opening for the trilogy and I am now anxious to read the next book that is set during the Cold War.

'Bitter Seeds' on Ian Tregillis website - with links to various interviews and an excerpt.