The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow

  
Title: The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow

Author: Mrs Oliphant

Published: 1890

Challenges: Women’s Classic Literature

Synopsis:

The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow was reprinted by Persephone Books alongside another novella by Mrs Oliphant entitled Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund.  In the first story, Mrs Blencarrow is a respectable widow living with her children in a large house in a country village.  It is the winder and she has thrown a party for the village, one attended by a flighty, spoilt young girl named Kitty.  Kitty is upset because her parents disapprove of her love interest, but she is determined to marry him regardless.  It is during their secret elopement to Gretna Green that Kitty discovers a dark and mysterious secret about Mrs Blencarrow and brings back the news that might ruin her neighbour.  In Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund Mrs Lycett- Landon’s husband ‘disappears’ on a trip to London for work.  Mrs Lycett-Lamdon’s suspicions bring her to London and after checking her husband’s usual haunts – discovering some lies along the way – she discovers him living happily in London…with a new, younger wife! 

My Thoughts

I am going to discuss both novellas separately as I have different views on both of them.  The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow was a brilliant read.  It is shrouded in mystery right from the beginning when a hidden voice calls into a dark room “are you there?” I kept trying to second guess the actual mystery and I wasn’t far off if I’m honest…in fact as soon as Kitty and her lover (whose name escapes me) venture to Gretna Green, the home of quick marriages, I knew exactly what Mrs Blencarrow was hiding.  The characters are perfectly drawn caricatures of a village society, with Kitty’s mother, Mrs Bircham is just a malicious old bat.  She is mortified when Kitty elopes, but the news of Mrs Blencarrow’s secret marriage makes it suddenly acceptable because she feels there is someone or something more scandalous than her daughter in the village.  

On the other hand, I didn’t really enjoy Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund.  I found the story very slow and I wasn’t really very interested in the characters or what happened to them. I know I read it, but I’m pretty certain I didn’t take much of the story in.  I can see why these two novellas were published together and I was quite surprised when I saw that they were published in the Victorian era.  Their content about women and marriage is quite shocking for Victorian times, with the women in the novel refusing to submit to the laws of marriage or to the men in their life that make silly mistakes.  In Mrs Lycett-Landon’s defence, although I didn’t like the story, I did appreciate how she refused to listen to her husband’s excuses and continued to live her life without him.  Mrs Oliphamt’s writing is certainlyahead of her time in that respect, but, whilst enjoyable, this hasn’t been my favourite Persephone read. 

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

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Title: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Author: Winifred Watson
Published: 1938
Challenges: TBR Pile 2015, Reading England, Reading the Twentieth Century
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 l

Synopsis
Miss Pettigrew is on her last chance. She has no position, no income and her landlady is threatening to have her evicted, which for a lady in her 40s with no family is a terrifying prospect. She has two chances at a job; a maid or a governess. So when she knocks on the door of Miss LaFosse’s London flat the last thing she expects is to be swept into a world of glamour, parties and men. From the moment Miss Pettigrew meets Miss LaFosse she is saving her from various men and helping her to cover up their existence when the next one appears. Miss LaFosse is eternally grateful and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing as her new friend, introducing her to her glamorous friends and giving her the make over Miss Pettigrew always dreamed off. It is a tale that takes Miss Pettigrew to a world she never thought existed and certainly a world she never knew she could be a part of.

My Thoughts
It is very rare that I finish a book with a huge smile on my face, yes I enjoy a lot of what I read and a lot of it makes me smile, but Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day left me feeling uplifted and just generally happy. Miss Pettigrew’s journey from a quiet, unassuming and slightly scared woman to a confident woman who finally finds her calling in life was a lovely one. It truly showed how someone’s life could easily change in just one day and change for the better. Miss Pettigrew is a lovely character and although she is only 40 – which is hardly old – she seems much older and reminds me of a lovely old lady and an old lady you want to have around in a crisis. Within minutes of meeting Miss LaFosse she starts helping her out and makes her realise what, or who, she truly wants in life. It made me want a Miss Pettigrew of my own, as I know there are times when I desperately need someone else to steer me in the right direction and perhaps having someone impartial can be hugely beneficial. Perhaps one of my favourite chapters centred on a visit to a party and Miss Pettigrew, who has never really had a drink before, has a few too many strong drinks and tells one young man exactly what he needs to hear. I loved the description of Miss Pettigrew after a few drinks and the confidence she felt; ‘she felt grand. She felt brimming with authority and assurance. It was a marvellous sensation. She thought scornfully of her former timid self.’ . I loved how confident and bolshy the alcohol made Miss Pettigrew and how free she felt having drunk, although she did suffer from the sober guilt of ‘have I offended anyone’ which I also enjoyed.

For me the novel explored the idea that you should take advantage of all opportunities that come your way and that helping others will always lead to positive outcomes and I think this is what left me smiling at the end. Miss Pettigrew got exactly what she deserved, in a positive way and I was pleased for her character. To go from having no one and nothing to having everything is a lovely ending.

Challenges
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day falls into three of my challenges for the year, so I am very pleased; I like books that tick more than one box. This is the second book I have read from my TBR Pile 2015; I am happy with the progress I am making with this challenge especially as I have a bit of a head start with two books in one month. This novel also ticks off London in my Reading England 2015 challenge. I only set the challenge of reading 4-6 counties so I am hoping two counties in one month is a promising sign. Finally, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is another book towards my Reading the Twentieth Century, so all in all a good challenge book.

A House in the Country

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In 1942 Britain was in the midst of the Second World War, with London recovering from the constant bombing and the nation unsure as to whether or not victory was possible, I can imagine an escape to the country and the safety it seemed to offer was an ideal option for many. In Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country it seems that a few ‘homeless’ people have done just that and left behind their previous lives, whether by choice or by force, and have all found themselves at Brede Manor. It is here that Cressida Chance is essentially house sitting for Charles Varley, a man she is in love with and has been since before the war, despite having not seen him since the death of her husband five years earlier. Brede Manor seems to draw a mix of different people and classes and shows just how the war changed the cosy image of the servant run country manor and the lives of those who saw this as the norm. Alongside this narrative is the story of Charles Varley and how he comes to terms with his past and the hold his family estate has on him.

I really enjoyed A House in the Country and I know I always say I enjoy what I read, but this was an unexpected pleasure. I received the book as a present and admittedly I had put it on the list of books I wanted my family to choose from, but when it arrived I couldn’t remember why and I did think about some of the other books on my list that I kind of wanted more. Doesn’t that make me sound awfully spoilt and ungrateful? I like a surprise but I’m guessing I still have favourites in the books I list. However well done to my grandparents for choosing this one as I think it is the Persephone Book I have enjoyed the most.

From the opening chapter I was intrigued. It focuses on a submarine attack on a ship and the immediate aftermath of oil fires on the sea and fatal explosions. And then we automatically jump to Brede Manor and meet some of the characters who live there; as a reader I was drawn into this country lifestyle but still aware of this nagging feeling of wanting to know what had happened on this ship. Luckily the main narrative is put on hold for the occasional chapter on the aftermath of the submarine attack and the end of the novel sees the two narratives collide in an interesting and tied up conclusion.

The main character, Cressida is an engaging and refreshing female who can see that war signifies a huge change in the role of women in the house and in particular that of upper class women with the lack of servants and the need to do their own cooking and cleaning. She is certainly quick to embrace the changes, offering a stark contrast to her elderly Aunt Jessie, who finds eating in the kitchen a far from desirable affair. Cressida brings about a second mystery, the death of her husband, Simon, again with readers drip fed information and snippets about what had happened to him. Many characters refer to Cressida’s kindness and this is clear throughout the novel as she opens the house to those in need and cares for them. However her caring nature hides her loneliness and longing for an unrequited love. After the death of her husband, Cressida appears to have been living on auto pilot, putting her own happiness and feelings on hold whilst she waits for her love to (hopefully) return.

I highlighted a few quotations from the novel, but it think I am just going to share my favourite. Towards the end of the novel, Cressida is reflecting on the idea of falling in love and says:

‘It’s different when you know someone and find that you love them. You can be in love with a mere acquaintance. You can fall in love with a total stranger, at first sight and all that! And the trouble then begins because the moment you’re even a little in love you start idealising the stranger, pretty well making up a character for them which may turn out to be entirely imaginary! You can’t really love anyone until you know them.’

I love this quotation and I know I am not alone in being a little bit guilty of the type of love at first sight and over active imagination Cressida is reflecting upon here. I don’t think this is going to have a dramatic impact as it is fun to daydream, but I will certainly be returning to this section when I am in need of a reality check!

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As with all Persephone Books A House in the Country has a fabulous endpaper.

Challenges

Reading the Twentieth Century

The Exiles Return

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The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal is Persephone Book No 102 and was reprinted and added to the lovely list of dove grey books I lust after last year. It focuses on post war Vienna, more specifically those who return to Vienna after escaping the shortly before the Nazis arrived in the city in the late 1930s. The novel follows five ‘exiles’ in particular; Kuno Adler, a scientist returning to his former post; Theophil Kanakis, a rich man in his late forties of Greek descent who has spent the war years in America; ‘Bimbo’ a 24 year old aristocrat whose anti- Nazi parents were murdered, thus leaving him and his sister Princess Nina penniless, and Marie-Theres Larsen, a teenage girl whose parents also moved to America and raised her there, although she never quite seemed to fit in to the superficiality of American life her mother adores. The novel primarily follows the five of them, how their lives intertwine and how they adapt into life in post war Vienna

As I reflect on my reading now, I am finding it difficult to choose a character who I truly connected with, but then maybe this lack of connection ties in to the idea of exiles and their losing connection with their home country. Or I could be reading way too much in to this and I didn’t feel any connection due to my reading mood. Perhaps the character I felt the least interest in was Adler; my initial intrigue soon petered out after he had arrived back in Vienna and faced his work difficulties. The irony is his story provided one of the more memorable moments, when his superior at the lab admitted to sympathising with the Nazis and hinted at working with scientists who carried out experiments on gypsies. It was quite shocking to read the almost blas√© way he discussed this and his feeble attempts to justify his actions to someone who had fled Vienna due to the imminent arrival of the Nazis.

The lives of all five characters interlink and cross paths throughout the novel, although the most interesting relationship is between Kanakis and Bimbo. When Kanakis first sees Bimbo he is spellbound by Bimbo’s beauty and the beauty of the figurine he is holding. And so begins a relationship that hints at homosexuality, something which certainly would have been shocking in the 1950s, arguably more shocking than the references to those in high profile jobs who openly helped the Nazis. Unfortunately their relationship has collateral damage in the form of Marie-Theres, climaxing in the novel’s dramatic ending, which is quickly swept under the carpet so as not to damage the newly built country alliances.

The Exiles Return was an enjoyable read and it was refreshing to read about an element of the war I know little about (not that I feel I know a vast amount about the Second World War). It has certainly made me eager to read more on this particular area and I think Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes would be a good place to start. Elisabeth de Waal’s writing is beautiful and the ending to The Exiles Returnwas definitely unexpected and quite moving. I can certainly recommend this novel, however it is not my favourite Persephone, which is a shame as I was looking forward to it.

Challenges

Reading the Twentieth Century although this was tricky to pinpoint date wise as it was written in the late 1950s…I am going to cheat slightly and mark it as 1957 so I can add it to the list, even if the original date isn’t quite known. ;

Patience

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I have become addicted to Persephone Books and am very much looking forward to a visit to the shop when I visit London next week. I love their beautiful dove grey covers; they match my DIY painted dining room table and chairs perfectly and they just look so beautiful. To get me all excited about my bookshop trip I picked up Patience by John Coates. It is a book I was given for Christmas 2012 and one I added it to my TBR Pile 2014 to ensure I definitely picked it up this year.

Patience is the story of Patience Gathorne-Galley, a 28 year old woman married to Edward, living in a beautiful house in London with three young girls. Set after the Second World War, Patience is an innocent, somewhat naive wife, who despite having children, finds no pleasure in intimacy with her husband and sees it as more of a wifely duty than an enjoyable act. Patience can be seen as a product of her time in this sense, but at a time when women were arguably beginning to explore their freedom, she is also hindered by her religion and the strong sense of Catholic guilt; a guilt that is fuelled by her sanctimonious brother, Lionel. Patience’s sister, Helen is much more liberal, living in sin with her new husband and it is through Helen that Patience meets Philip and is awakened to what her life could be like.

I loved Patience. In the modern day when novels are often action, action, action, it is always refreshing to read something that goes at a leisurely pace, yet still grabs your attention. It is a novel that explores the difficulties of marriage and divorce, especially for women. and how these can be made so much more difficult when religion and social expectations are thrown into the mix. I enjoyed how quickly I become engaged with the characters’ lives, even though their problems could be seen as slightly trivial in comparison to some of the complicated plots and romances you find in modern literature. I liked the innocence and naivety of the novel, even though the subjects it dealt with weren’t necessarily innocent, Patience certainly was and I found this made her more endearing.

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One of the main reasons I love Persephone Books, and no I’m not back to the beautiful physical aspect again, is how nostalgic and innocent they seem. Yes, people have affairs and marriages end, but it is not the sordid and outrageous controversy that it can become in some fiction. It seems a much simpler time, without the evils of social networking and pointless celebrities to rule the lives of our characters.

Overall a lovely read and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, especially as I have been off work ill for the past few days and was in need of comfort. If this post makes very little sense I will blame the medication I’m taking!

To Bed With Grand Music

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To Bed With Grand Music is the second Persephone book I have read. Having discovered the wonder of Persephone through the blogging world I have become slightly addicted to slowly devouring the catalogue and attempting to decide what book to purchase/read next. To be fair purchase is more my weakness as it takes me forever to get round to reading anything on my bookcase, but the thought is always there. To Bed With Grand Music appealed to me in this instance as it is set during the Second World War and follows the life of a woman left behind whilst her husband moves abroad in a ‘safe’ job; I do love a good wartime story.

The novel begins in the bedroom of Deborah Robertson, who is saying a prolonged goodbye to her husband, Graham, before he ventures off to Cario to undertake his duty to King and Country, leaving Deborah and their young son in a sleepy village. The couple are acutely aware that they might not see one another for years and Deborah fears her husband’s fidelity, but Graham reassures her that whilst he might not be completely faithful, it will be fine as long as he doesn’t fall in love with anyone else. And so Deborah and Timmy wave him off and settle into a life of quiet solitude. At least until Deborah decides this life of domesticity is too dull.

It is in London, whilst catching up with a somewhat promiscuous old school friend that Deborah’s life takes a turn and whilst the first one night stand leaves her sickened and cold, it is not long before Deborah falls in to a life of affairs, parties and lust. Admittedly the first affair, with American soldier Joe, shows signs of genuine love and feelings, as both admit they are missing their spouses, but this does not last long. Deborah then jumps from man to man, party to party and in need of more illicit goods to maintain her glamorous (false) lifestyle, leaving Graham, Timmy and her life in the country far behind her.

To Bed With Grand Music was a lovely, cosy read. Although I started it before school began and then took a short hiatus before finishing it, I found it easy to become re-engrossed in the narrative and wartime Britain. It was an interesting and shocking novel in terms of Deborah’s behaviour and attitude towards men; I’m not sure why I am surprised considering I live in the twenty-first century, but I think it was just unexpected of a woman living in the 1940s. I don’t know why I was so naive, as I always feel that wartime adds an element of romance to any story, the not knowing what will happen next, when the next air raid might be or how long one might live always adds a carefree feeling of ‘live for the moment’ so of course people are going to live by the rule. Maybe it is the fact that Deborah is a woman. Literature and history almost stereotype men as incapable of fidelity in certain situations, but for a woman to be as promiscuous seems a juxtaposition of the popular cultural perception of the loving wife. Not that I agree with this cultural stereotype, but this is a common view. This carefree attitude to love is not the only way Deborah breaks with female conventions; as the novel progresses her feelings towards her son grow colder and harsher. Although she is eager to show Timmy off to the men in her life, it is clear that she is more interested in the idea of this rather than the reality. She soon comes to view Timmy as a burden, an embarrassment who cries during air raids and fails to live up to the high expectations set by his mother. Her attitude towards her only child reminded me of the attitudes shown by Linda in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and the female protagonist in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, both are women who reject their children and show little or no maternal instinct. All three novels are written during a similar time period, perhaps suggesting that some writers were keen to cause controversy by highlighting the fact not all women are nurturing and motherly.

I loved the ending of To Bed With Grand Music as it seemed to arrive full circle, leading the reader to wonder if Deborah, now she has completed her ‘education’, is preparing to pass her new found knowledge on to another naive, young newly wed. Laski’s writing style was so comforting and easy to fall in to that I will certainly be looking forward to another read from her books on the Persephone Catalogue, in fact I added a few to my birthday list and I am hoping to open a few dove grey book shaped parcels when my birthday arrives next week.

April Round Up

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As May begins it is once again time to reflect on the past month’s reading and to be honest I’m a little disappointed in the amount I read, or should I say the little I read in April. Must do better this month!

I began the month continuing on my journey through YA fiction and finished The Hunger Games trilogy and read two more books from the Carnegie Shortlist before rereading a favourite modern novel. And that was it; four books; four and a half if you include my current read.

April Reading

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

In Darkness by Nick Lake

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

One Day by David Nicholls

On the plus side I did watch two films for my Period Drama Challenge in April and as I have already said, I am rubbish at watching films.

Jane Eyre (2011)

Little Women (1994)

Really I’m quite pleased with that achievement at least.

I took part in World Book Night again this year and gave away copies of Victoria Hislop’s The Island. I had 18 copies to give away so I sent an email out at school to see if anyone would be interested and you would not believe how quickly the replies came flooding in; I felt like a book giving fairy/elf! We are organising reading it at the same time so that we can have a mini book club meeting to discuss it, which is exciting.

Technically this is May news, but I ordered a beautiful new Persephone Book at the weekend and it arrived today.

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And it has the most fabulous endpapers and bookmark

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So I am a very happy bean and now I am going to work on improving the book reading for May.

Someone at a Distance

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As soon as I joined the blogging world there was one word that kept cropping up on many reviews: Persephone. And then I saw pictures of these beautiful books and I had vague recollections of seeing some of these when I worked in a bookshop, but I had never really paid them much attention. I knew that Persephone Books published forgotten novels from the twentieth century, mainly by women writers, but that was about it. So several months ago in a lovely little cafe/second hand bookshop I found a copy of Someone at a Distance and for ¬£1 you can’t really say no.

Someone at a Distance, as my blurb tells me, is a novel about ‘a deceived wife and a foolish husband,’ which perfectly sums the novel up. Ellen has been married to Avery for twenty years, they have two teenage children and live in a beautiful house outside of London. Avery commutes to work in the city and Ellen spends her days gardening and caring for her family. Avery’s elderly mother lives nearby, and feeling neglected by her daughter-in-law and the rest of her family, she places an advert for a companion. And then Louise appears. After a love affair ends bitterly in France, Louise journeys to England in an attempt to escape from her past and reinvent herself as a fashionable and well travelled young lady. Before long Louise has taken full advantage of Ellen’s sweet nature and ruthlessly threatens the North’s marriage.

This novel was slow burning yet I couldn’t put it down. The life of the Norths is beautifully and realistically described througut and it is clear they are a loving and supportive family at the start of the novel. Time was taken to explore Louise’s past and the various reasons why she acts the way she does, from being spoilt by her parents to a bitter love affair doomed because of wealth and class. Whipple doesn’t rush the novel, she takes her time setting the scene and developing her characters, so you truly come to know and understand the characters and share in the agonising events that affect their lives.

For me the stand out character was that of Louise, only because I found her a truly hateful character. She is spiteful, selfish and manipulative, she treats those around her, especially her parents and Ellen atrociously, and feels she is far superior to anyone else around her. Why shouldn’t every man she meets fall in love with her? Why shouldn’t she travel first class everywhere? Why don’t people realise now glamorous and sophisticated she is? Goodness she is so self centred. She goes after Avery due to boredom and yet persists in staying with him despite the fact both of them are miserable, purely for money, status and spite.

Sometimes I feel as though I always gush over the books I read, declaring how much I love them and how amazing they are, and lots of them really are. But for me this is probably the most true to life and touching book I have blogged about and I cannot wait to read more work my Dorothy Whipple, and even discovering more Persephone authors.