Summer Reads

Following the advice of a fellow Mitty I bought Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and spent three glorious days reading it. There is something about a fabulous book that leaves one somewhat perplexed when it has finished. Thank goodness I had a few review books to fill the void. The books mentioned below are a step away from what I usually read (family sagas with Mitfordesque characters…) but I’m trying to venture out of my comfort zone…

 

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Adele Park’s crossed over to historical fiction last year with the publication of Spare Brides, a tale of upper-class women left on the shelf following the shortage of men who had been killed or injured in WWI. This tome, set again during WWI, centres around Vivian, a bright young debutante who (without revealing any spoilers) behaves very badly with a man who has no intention of marrying her. With her reputation in tatters, she is married off to an older man whom she does not love, and when war begins, he goes off to fight and sends her to the family’s country house in the middle of nowhere. Miserable and lonely with only her baby daughter for company, Vivian befriends a kindly lady whose son, Howard, is a playwright. A conscientious objector, Howard escapes imprisonment by agreeing to work on Vivian’s farm. The two begin an affair, and having fallen in love with Vivian, he realises what is worth fighting for. With her husband off at war, and now Howard abandoning his stance and enlisting, Vivian is left alone wondering which man (if any) will come home to her. Renowned for her chick lit novels and ‘telling it like it is’, Adele Park’s latest offering is a slow-burning read which, like the war itself, picks up its pace halfway through.

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Being a massive fan of Margaret Lockwood and her iconic film, The Wicked Lady (1945), this book was a treat to read. It is based on the real life heiress, Lady Katherine Ferrars, whose privileged world is crumbling under Cromwell’s army. Married off for the sake of money and breeding, she discovers an exciting life with the roguish Ralph Chaplin, and the pair become highway robbers in a bid to find excitement and escape poverty. She knows if she is caught there is only one way it can end: death. But that excites her all the more. The Silvered Heart is Katherine Clements’s second novel – her debut, The Crimson Ribbon, was published to much acclaim. A wizard of a storyteller and master of the genre, Clement’s follow-up novel does not disappoint. In fact, I loved it!

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A Year of Marvellous Ways, set in 1947, can be described as a fairytale for adults. Except for the war and Francis Drake’s life in London, nothing about the book seems real or logical. Marvellous Ways, a ninety-year-old woman who lives in a remote creek, rescues Drake when he, quite literally, washes up in the creek. The pair forge an unlikely friendship, the cold and crass Drake, and the whimsical old lady whose mother was a mermaid. I hadn’t read anything by Sarah Winman before so I was unsure what to expect. At first glance, the book seemed bizarre, but as it progressed, I got into the story of Drake and Marvellous. It is written in a unique style, for example there are no speech marks to indicate a character is talking. So that, in a way, threw me. The parts detailing Drake’s life are explicitly written, which was a bit unnerving, but like the character’s demeanour, you become used to it. What struck me was Winman’s gorgeous imagery, beautiful passages and imaginative storytelling. Quirky and slightly harebrained, A Year of Marvellous Ways is an unforgettable book.

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A metaphysical thriller beginning in 1984, The Bone Clocks chronicles teenage runaway Holly Sykes who encounters and elderly lady offering a small act of kindness in exchange for asylum. However, decades pass before Holly understands what sort of asylum the woman is seeking. We follow the twists and turns of Holly’s life from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to old age on Ireland’s Atlantic coast as Europe’s oil supply dries up – a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality. For Holly Sykes – daughter, sister, mother, guardian – is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon. The Bone Clocks is a bewitching tale of time-travel, human frailty and flawed characters.

18273521And finally the book that has left me so bedazzled…..I can’t say anything because I’m at risk of revealing spoilers (just as Meems!) so I’ll leave you with the synopsis:

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill

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Without Churchill’s inspiring leadership Britain could not have survived its darkest hour and repelled the Nazi menace. Without his wife Clementine, however, he might never have become Prime Minister. By his own admission, the Second World War would have been ‘impossible without her’.

Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill brings to life the complex women whose identity has been overshadowed by her husband, Winston Churchill. Commenting that she would have pursued a career in politics had she been ‘born with trousers and not a petticoat’, it was her calming influence, ability to read people and determination that influenced Winston and encouraged him during the murkier times of his political career. As the biography attests (something that is, perhaps, white-washed in history books), he wasn’t always well liked or respected.

Chronicling Clementines life from her eccentric and often impoverished childhood, born to a feckless father and reckless mother, Purnell brings to life the everyday occurrences of her mother Lady Blanche Hozier, namely her affair with a Dieppe fishmonger and how she, the fishmonger and his wife would argue at the fish-stall, causing a scene on the street. Her mother’s gambling and drinking cast a dark shadow over Clementine’s life, and the death of her beautiful sister, Kitty, the eldest of Blanche’s children, marked her for life. She was obsessed with order, everything had to be just so, and if it wasn’t, she became irritated. This obsession with neatness would mark her all her life. Also touched upon was her inferiority complex, beginning in childhood, and how she would have to teach French and take in sewing for pin money. Her rival, Margot Asquith, said she had ‘the soul of a servant’. Adding to this misery, her paternity was questioned, and she herself was never certain who her father was. The Mitford girls’ grandfather, Bertie Redesdale, was said to have been her real father, and Bay Middleton was also a strong contender. Regardless of the adulterous world of the upper-classes, Clementine was the target of gossip and snobbery, and among her contemporaries she was known as ‘the Hozier’. She never got over the shame she felt as a young girl.

Marriage seemed to give Clementine the stability she craved as a child, and having thwarted at least two engagements, she fell in love with Winston, an insecure young man who shared her complexities. She believed he came first, second and third in her life, and demanding so much of her attention, she was happy to leave her children in the care of staff to bolster his ego. The strained relationships with her children, especially as they aged, are touched upon, and stormy encounters with staff are revealed. Although Clementine was praised as having the ‘common touch’, she demanded complete loyalty (she disliked finding and training new staff) and certain standards were to be maintained.

Exploring Winston’s political career, with Clementine at the helm, we learn of a headstrong woman who pushed her husband to excel. On the arm of Winston, especially during wartime, she was instantly recognisable and famous in own right, but her work for the Home Front and the Red Cross (not to mention numerous charity appeals) gave her a singular purpose away from her husband. Even then, at that time, she was overshadowed by him. This battle of the sexes is apparent throughout the book, with Purnell exploring Clementine’s forward-thinking views and her sympathy for the Suffrage movement, even if Winston did not share her views. She knew she was as intelligent as any man in his Cabinet.

Mary Soames, Clementine’s youngest daughter, wrote candidly of her mother’s battle with depression in an age when little was understood about it. Purnell reveals Clementine’s hysterical outbursts, her emotional instability and, at times, her frequent rages toward Winston and her staff. And her physical health, too, was not strong. This, combined with Winston’s experience with the ‘Black Dog’ (as he called his depression), often makes for volatile passages in the book. As well as her health plaguing her, she constantly worried about money and their future together, and after he died, as a widow. I don’t think Clementine ever experienced the stability of a permanent home or being comfortably well-off. Winston’s love of gambling and extravagance contrasted with her frugality, something she was mocked for. As an old lady, she sold her paintings to fund her living expenses, but was embarrassed when pensioners began to send her tea bags because they thought she was ready for the poor house. I enjoyed the tidbits about this so-called gilded life, born into the aristocracy, and yet they were in dire straits. The concluding pages are quite touching as they detail her life without Winston and how she formed relationships with her children, and experienced the sorrow of outliving three of them – Marigold died in infancy, Diana committed suicide and Randolph died of a heart-attack.

Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill is a complex character study about a fascinating character as equally interesting as her famous husband. Through her meticulous research and sympathetic prose, she brings the allusive woman to life as a dynamic figure at the forefront of twentieth-century politics.

Church of Marvels Blog Tour: A Piece by Leslie Parry

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Like many children, I longed for superpowers. I wanted to fly, to conduct electricity, to breathe underwater. But most of all I wanted travel back in time. Conveniently enough, there was a time travel machine in my neighbor’s hedge – a crude, unfinished doorframe – and if I scurried quickly beneath, it could transport me to Travers’ London or Wilder’s Kansas prairie. (It could also revitalize my strength in the event I was hindered in an alien-robot battle.) Then there came a time when I could no longer trot out into the garden and lose myself in reverie. I was a grown-up: working in an office, riding the subway, eating potato chips for dinner while balancing my checkbook. In this new life, writing fiction – something I’d always done in one fashion or another – took on a different role. It became a way of immersing myself, sustaining myself, keeping that merry and curious part of me alive. As an adult, I found it was far too easy to lose that sense of play, to stray from the wild fields of imagination. So the world of Church of Marvels was not so much a deliberate choice on my part – I didn’t set out to research and write a piece of historical fiction – but rather, a natural, outward-growing expression of those necessary returns to daydreams.

Most of the novel was written in the small back room of my apartment, at a desk with a view of the alleyway. Staring out at that alley, with its trash bins and hopeful bird feeders, its snow drifts in winter and fizzled firecrackers in summer, the landscape began to take on a unique, otherworldly quality – it became the hairpin lanes of the Lower East Side, the corridor of Blackwell’s asylum, a misted stretch of sea. How do you write of a time you haven’t experienced? I’ve often been asked. And how do you know if you’ve done it well? Honestly, it isn’t easy. Historical fiction poses certain challenges of scope and philosophy – I wanted to honor the characters, to faithfully evoke to the world that they lived in; at the same time, I had to accept the fact that research could only take me so far (before it became a distraction, a crutch, an impediment). So I tried to read for pleasure as much as for information. I read about the history of magic lantern shows, bareknuckle boxing, medicine and opiates, hustlers, superstitions, the social and economic aftermath of the American Civil War. I read to understand the circumstances these characters would face, the backdrop and color of their everyday lives – but ultimately I had to create the New York they lived in. (Sometimes I wonder if I’ve lived more deeply in the city of my imagination than the city I’ve known for half my life.) It was a high-wire act, in the best sense. In the end, I relied on the research that was relevant, interesting, and meaningful – then I had to trust the characters to guide me the rest of the way.

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Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has received an O. Henry Award, a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2013. Raised in Pasadena, California, she now lives in Chicago.

An Interview with Louisa Treger, Author of The Lodger

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Louisa Treger’s stunning debut novel, The Lodger, is an account of Dorothy Richardson and her affair with H.G. Wells. Louisa has very kindly answered some questions for The Mitford Society to mark the UK release of The Lodger. You can visit Louisa’s website here, or ‘like’ her author page on Facebook by clicking here.

How long have you been writing for?

I’ve been writing for most of my life. I was the sort of kid who always kept a diary and scribbled short stories and plays. But it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started writing in a serious, disciplined way.

Clearly Dorothy Richardson and the Bloomsbury set inspire you, but what led you to turn her story into a novel that reads like fiction and not a traditional biography?

I was fascinated by the emotional lives of these characters, and so I wanted to make use of the extra licence fiction affords in order to explore this aspect. What did Dorothy feel like betraying her oldest friend (HG Wells’s wife, Jane) by sleeping with her husband? Or realising she was bisexual at a time when this was absolutely forbidden? Biographical fiction is a genre I am strongly drawn to, because there’s a framework of interesting facts on which to hang the story, yet enough wiggle room to be creative.

Did you research her story as though you were planning a biography, or did you to take liberties with the plot and embellish some things? Is it entirely factual?

My novel is a melding of fact and fiction, broadly following the known biographical outline of Dorothy’s life. I did take some liberties with the facts, and I have talked about this at greater length in the Afterword to the novel. For example, in real life, Dorothy’s friendship with HG Wells developed into a love affair over a ten year period, but I felt that narrative impetus would be lost if I stuck to this time scheme. And so I fast forwarded and had him seduce her during the course of one spring. There are several episodes in Dorothy’s life she was coy, or utterly silent about, as though they were too painful, or shaming, to be voiced. Most striking among these is her mother’s suicide, which she never referred to directly in any surviving writing. Another is the sexual nature of her relationship with Veronica Leslie Jones. Dorothy was never explicit about this; she simply referred to nights spent together. These omissions – or repressions – formed a significant part of my novel. In fact, bringing them to life was one of the most interesting parts of writing about Dorothy’s life.

Biographies written as historical fiction were a huge trend last year. How easy was it for you to get an agent and get published? Can you describe your journey as a writer?

I always wanted to take the traditional path to publication. It was a long journey! Rejection letters from both agents and publishers were part of it. I’m a living example that persistence pays off! Signing up with a good agent was a turning point. His editorial input transformed The Lodger, shaping it into something that publishers were willing to consider. To tell you the truth, I don’t feel that my struggle has ended with publication of The Lodger. I am always striving to be a better writer.

What is your next novel about?

My next novel is about a girl who was part of the Kinderstransport – the rescue mission that brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to England from Nazi occupied Europe. They left their families to go to the care of strangers, in a foreign country whose language they only had the barest grasp of. They didn’t know what would happen to them, or if they would see their parents again. The novel describes how the girl and her descendants adjust to English life.

And last but not least, I know you’re a fan of the Mitfords. Who is your favourite? And whose story would you like to adapt into a novel?

My favourite was Jessica. She was funny and irreverent; she was the most rebellious of the sisters and she was also very brave. She embraced communism and rallied against racial discrimination, she eloped with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly, and married him despite her family’s disapproval, she became a crusading journalist in the USA. She was rather inept at domestic tasks, which I find endearing. She hated housework, rarely cooked and raised her children in a spirit of “benign neglect”.

Evelyn Waugh & The Mitfords by Jeffrey Manley

Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. I. Copyright of Jeffrey Manley/The Mitford Society

Evelyn Waugh was a close friend of two of the Mitford sisters (Nancy and Diana), and an acquaintance of a third (Deborah). Waugh met Nancy in the late 1920s in connection with his courtship of, and marriage to, Evelyn Gardner (“She-Evelyn”). Nancy was, at the time, a close friend of She-Evelyn and was present at the 1927 party in She-Evelyn’s flat to which Alec Waugh (by then a successful novelist) brought his younger brother (“He-Evelyn”). It was there that He-Evelyn met his future wife for the first time. Nancy was also She-Evelyn’s companion during the periods in 1929 when He-Evelyn left their marital flat in Islington for extended periods to write Vile Bodies. It was in these absences that She-Evelyn started her affair with John Heygate, which resulted in the dissolution of her marriage. Nancy was said to have been unaware of the affair prior to the break-up. Nancy ended her friendship with She-Evelyn after the separation but remained on friendly terms with Waugh.

It has been suggested that it was Waugh who encouraged Nancy to write, and many of her early novels resemble Waugh’s own early comic works. Some literary scholars have also described two of Nancy’s post-war novels (Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love) as having been inspired to some extent by the success of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It is also widely accepted that Nancy’s husband Peter Rodd, to whom she was unhappily married for over 20 years, contributed heavily to the character of Basil Seal, who appears in several of Waugh’s novels. In addition, Waugh’s 1948 novel The Loved One is dedicated to Nancy and she was godmother to Waugh’s daughter, Harriet. Nancy dedicated her 1951 novel, The Blessing, to Waugh.

Nancy and Waugh engaged in an extended correspondence which began after they had both established themselves as writers. Their regular correspondence dates from the last years of the war and concludes with Waugh’s death in 1966. During this period they commented on each others work, sometimes seeking and offering advice on works-in-progress. Waugh’s friend, novelist Anthony Powell, commented that Waugh “got more from Nancy about upper-class life than he would probably have cared to admit.” (Anthony Powell, Journals: 1900-1992, London, 1997, p. 98) Most of their correspondence has survived and was published in 1996 where it is described by editor Charlotte Mosley in her preface as, “like overhearing a conversation between two quick-witted, provocative, very funny friends, who know the same people, read the same books, laugh at the same jokes and often share the same prejudices.”

Waugh was also, but more briefly, a close friend of Diana Mitford, whom he met in 1929. Waugh knew her first husband Bryan Guinness from Oxford. After the break-up of his marriage, Waugh lived for extended periods during 1929-30 with the Guinnesses. He wrote the last part of his novel Vile Bodies while visiting them, and most of his travel book Labels was written while he stayed by himself in their summer house in Sussex. Both of those books are dedicated to them, and he gave them the original typescript of Vile Bodies when it was published in January 1930. (This typescript was sold by their son, Jonathan, in 1984 for £55,000.)

Waugh also seems to have become infatuated with Diana while visiting with them in their Paris residence during the confinement for her first pregnancy. After the child (Jonathan) was born, she resumed a more active social life, and Waugh felt neglected. He was godfather to Jonathan, but after the baptism they maintained a more distant friendship, meeting infrequently. They each were married a second time, he to Laura Herbert and she to Oswald Mosley.

Just before Waugh’s death, their correspondence resumed, and they effectively sought each other’s forgiveness for the rupture that had occurred in 1930. In this late correspondence, they also acknowledged indirectly that Diana to some extent contributed to the character of Lucy in Waugh’s novel fragment Work Suspended. Waugh’s last published letter was on this subject. It was sent to Diana on 30 March 1966, and he died a little over a week later.

Waugh met the youngest Mitford sister, Deborah, at a drunken Christmas party in Wiltshire near where her husband, Andrew Devonshire, was stationed during the war. The first impression was not a favorable one, as Waugh’s debauched behaviour rather shocked Deborah, who seems to have shared her negative impression with her sisters. In her memoirs (p. 116), Deborah recalled that at one point Waugh “poured a bottle of Green Chartreuse over his head and, rubbing it into his hair, intoned, ‘My hair is covered in gum, my hair is covered in gum,’ while the sticky mess ran down his neck.” When Waugh learned of her discomposure, he made an effort to repair his reputation by sending her a hat from Paris shortly after the war.

Waugh’s standing was sufficiently restored to merit an invitation several years later to Chatsworth House, but he again put his foot in it by complaining that a chamber pot in his room had remained un-emptied. This was probably intended as a joke but engendered more correspondence among the Mitford sisters in which Deborah expressed her chagrin at his behaviour. On this occasion, Waugh seems to have restored himself by sending Deborah a presentation copy of his biography of the Roman Catholic theologian Ronald Knox. It was accompanied by a letter assuring Deborah that nothing in the book “would offend her Protestant persuasion.” When she later opened the book, she found that the copy she had been sent consisted of blank pages. In this instance, she got the joke.

Jeffrey Manley is a retired lawyer and member of the Evelyn Waugh Society. He lives in Austin, Texas. Visit the Evelyn Waugh Society at evelynwaughsociety.org

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

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A ravishing first novel set in the vibrant, tumultuous underworld of late-19th-century New York, about four young outsiders whose lives become entwined over the course of one fateful night.

New York City, 1895, the island of Manhattan is a melting pot of culture, much like modern day NYC, without the seedier aspects being swept underground and exploited as ‘niche’ to those who wish to indulge. My great great great grandfather, David Saqui, was in Manhattan around this time, the son (and black sheep) of Italian-Cuban parents, working as a singing waiter. I know he grew up on Chelsea’s ‘golden mile’ in an apartment above his father’s cigar and port wine shop. So, this era of life in New York has always fascinated me. Set during the Gilded Age, this is the city from an outsider’s point of view.

It is on a warm night that Sylvan Threadgill, a young night soiler finds a newborn baby girl whilst cleaning out the privies behind the tenements. An orphan himself, Sylvan takes pity on the baby and is determined to find out where she belongs. Odile Church is part of a sideshow act in a circus that has long lost its magic. She and her twin sister, Belle, were raised on the stage, performing in their mother’s theatre, the Church of Marvels. The theatre burns to the ground, and their mother, Friendship Church, perishes along with it, and Belle escapes to Manhattan. Alphie wakes up in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum, the last thing she remembers is blood on the floor and her Italian mother-in-law screaming. She had once been a prostitute and a penny-Rembrandt, cleaning up drunken revelers, but now she’s the wife of Anthony, an undertaker from a respectable home. Belle was committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors, Alphie knows this young woman harbours a dark secret that will alter the course of both of their lives…

Leslie Parry offers a tight-knit cast of characters, luckless and destitute, and striving for acceptance, whether it is in love, in their profession or in society. She shows us the secret worlds of children living in the gutters and tunnels, underage prostitutes, the filthy tenements on the Lower East Side and the regular haunts of misfits. Her knowledge of the streets, the undergrounds and the shortcuts throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, is impressive. Each twist and turn, the rattling of the carriages, the stench of the river and the hustle and bustle of Coney Island, leaves us breathless. The freaks of the circus, the language of the guttersnipes, the imagined scenarios and flashbacks, are crass and startling. As is the barbaric treatment of the inmates of Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum, and the desperation of unmarried, pregnant women, suffering shame and selling their babies.

Expertly written and jarringly realistic to the plight of the misfit, Church of Marvels will stay with you long after the show is over.

At The Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

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In her stunning new novel, Gruen returns to the kind of storytelling she excelled at in Water for Elephants: a historical timeframe in an unusual setting with a moving love story. Think Scottish Downton Abbey.

After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1944, young couple Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off by his wealthy father. The only way for Ellis to regain his father’s respect is to succeed in a venture where his own father failed: he will hunt the Loch Ness monster. Along with Ellis’s best friend, Hank, they hitch a ride on a ship across the Atlantic and head for the highlands of Scotland. Spoilt, uppity and unaccustomed to the real world, they struggle to adapt to their new surroundings in the spartan inn where they have taken rooms. Maddie, we’re told, suffers from a nervous disorder, and is encouraged by Ellis to self-medicate and to shirk physical activity. However, having never put a comb through her hair or bought anything ‘off the rack’, she soon revels in the normality of a day’s work and fending for herself. Ellis is neurotic and brutish, and has escaped conscription because he is colour-blind. Hank is flat-footed and he, too, has not seen battle. The camaraderie between the two men suggests their feelings run deeper than friendship, but that would have been too predictable. It is Maddie who is our underdog and unlikely heroine of the story. Maddie is accustomed to snubs, her own childhood was tainted by scandal when her mother, a bolter, ran off with another man and returned to her father when the affair ended. When she learns the skill of self-sufficiency, she gains respect from others, and respect for herself, and she is determined not return to her old, frivolous life. Having realised she is stronger than people think, and with Ellis trying to convince her that she is mentally unstable (a gaslight theme emerges), Maddie finds refuge in the unlikeliest place. Where the two men flounder, she thrives.

 Gruen’s impeccable historical research brings the plot down to earth and grounds the larger-than-life characters. Her narrative speaks directly to the reader and is without fuss or ceremony. Intriguing and, at times, suspenseful, At the Water’s Edge is a compelling tale of love, loss and the resilience of the human spirit.

The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

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Of all the Mitford eccentricities, it is Unity’s obsession with Adolf Hitler that lingers longest in the national consciousness. Even now, the story of the young British aristocrat who followed Hitler to Germany and eventually attempted death rather than leave him, is the most memorable of all the sisters’ stories. So it’s interesting to note that Unity caused just as much amazement among the men in Hitler’s circle as she did among any of her compatriots.

The arrival of Unity, and later Diana, in Nazi Germany provoked deep suspicion among the men at the top of Hitler’s hierarchy. Himmler, Goebbels and Goering all failed to understand why the Führer was so taken with these two upper-class English girls, and they suspected that their Führer’s judgment was fatally swayed by them.

When I was writing The Winter Garden, the second of my novels featuring Clara Vine, an Anglo-German actress in pre-war Berlin, I was keen to explore the way in which the Mitfords managed to discomfort those at the very top of the regime. The novel is set in 1937, a time when Hitler still held out the possibility that some Grand Alliance between Great Britain and Germany could be formed that would allow him to proceed with extending the German Lebensrum eastwards. In the Autumn of that year the recently abdicated Duke of Windsor and his new wife Wallis Simpson chose Nazi Germany, of all places, for their honeymoon – a choice which left the British government fit to be tied. British Embassy officials in Berlin were instructed that they were not to offer the ex-King anything at all “not even a cocktail sausage”, but the Nazis stepped in to fill the gap, rolling out the red carpet at Friedrichstrasse station and providing the Duke with a packed schedule of opera evenings, factory visits and other PR opportunities for the Third Reich. The fact that Unity and Diana should be in Germany around the same time as the royal couple made it the perfect backdrop for the novel’s spy mission and murder.

Of all the Nazi ministers, it was Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, who was closest to Diana and Unity, largely through the friendship between his wife Magda and Diana. The Goebbels had even lent Diana Mitford and Sir Oswald Mosley the use of their Berlin home for their wedding in 1936, with the reception held at the family’s country villa in Schwanenwerder, a short drive away through the Grunewald, where the newly-weds were presented with the complete works of Goethe, and the Goebbels children attended carrying posies of flowers. The following year, in 1937, Diana made another visit to Germany, soliciting funds for a Fascist radio station to be set up in Heligoland, and in between watching Mickey Mouse with the Führer at the Reich Chancellery, she again met up with the Goebbels.

In the end, Joseph Goebbels decided that the Mosleys were a busted flush, and should receive no more Third Reich funding. Yet for the Nazis, Diana and Unity remained an enigma. Were the British ruling-classes really like that, or were the Mitfords eccentric one-offs? Although Magda Goebbels, Joseph’s unhappy wife, was friendly with Diana, Goebbels himself was far less seduced. In his diaries of the time he questions whether the Mitfords truly “spring from the soul of the British people”. It mattered, because if the sisters could be considered true representatives of the English ruling-class, then it meant that Hitler’s dreams of an alliance with Great Britain might be fulfilled. In The Winter Garden there is a scene in which Clara Vine, who as well as an actress is a British agent, is quizzed by Goebbels about the precise nature of the Mitfords. Clara fills him in on some of Unity’s eccentricities, including the fact that she was given to greeting English shopkeepers with the Nazi salute, that she had brought her pet snake to Germany with her, and that a live rat sometimes travelled in her handbag. The bourgeois Goebbels was, in fiction as well as in reality, predictably appalled.

Himmler, the pathological head of the Gestapo, did not concern himself so much with social nuances. As far as he was concerned a woman like Unity was a security risk, and he had her tailed by an SS agent who would follow her round, disguised as a photographer. Even when Unity wrote a piece for a National Socialist newspaper about why she was learning to shoot so that she could kill Jews, Himmler still had his suspicions. Unity’s home-made storm-trooper outfit also failed to sway him.

The feelings of the other Nazi power couple, the Goerings, were equally cool. Unity had eyes only for Hitler so Hermann Goering took little interest. Emmy Goering, a former actress, would refer to Unity as “Mitfahrt” meaning the travelling companion, and made cruel jokes about her ankles.

Perhaps one reason we are so interested in the story of the pro-Hitler Mitfords is because they are rare English examples of a phenomenon that was all too well-known in Germany – the fascination with the Führer. It was a fascination that afflicted women in particular. Each year Hitler received many thousands of fan letters and daily offers from women to bear his children. Every birthday and Christmas an avalanche of cakes as well as embroidered cushions, gloves, and other clothes were sent in. In more eye-catching evidence of devotion, there were incidences when women waiting for Hitler’s car to approach would tear open their blouses to bear their breasts as he passed. Others threw themselves at his car, attempting to do themselves some injury in the hope that the Führer himself would emerge to comfort them.

Hitler, in turn, did not underestimate the importance of women to maintaining the Nazi state. He said: “In my Germany, the mother is the most important citizen.” And he recognized that it was women, not men, who were central in passing on the ideology of the Third Reich to their children. Thus, women attending the National Socialist Bride Schools, which feature in The Winter Garden, were taught a special prayer to say to their future children, in which the words “Our Führer” replaced “Our Father”. They were also instructed to tell fairy stories with the correct, Nazi ideology, which was all about racial consciousness. In the National Socialist Cinderella, for example, the Prince rejects the Ugly Sisters not on aesthetic grounds, but because they are Slavs.

Ultimately, Goebbels’ question about the Mitford sisters – do they spring from the soul of the British people? – was an acute one. Not because they typified the views of the ruling class, but because despite their political differences Unity, Diana, and the others did embody a profoundly British quality. The ability to hold polarized beliefs, while retaining an underlying affection for each other. To thumb their noses at convention. To see each other’s point of view, even while despising it. In their eccentricity, imagination, humour and originality they epitomized Englishness. Goebbels should have paid more attention.

The Winter Garden is published by Simon & Schuster.

Jane Thynne was born in Venezuela in 1961 and grew up with her parents and two brothers in London. After school in Hampton, she spent a year working at the Old Vic Theatre before reading English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She joined the BBC as a production trainee, but after a few years succumbed to a hankering for Fleet Street and moved to The Sunday Times. Jane spent many cheerful years at The Daily Telegraph as media correspondent, but her single most exciting moment in that time was getting a publishing contract for her first novel. Her novels have been translated into French, German and Italian. Black Roses will be published in France by J.C Lattes in 2014 and the second in the Clara Vine series, The Winter Garden, in 2015. The third in the Clara Vine series, A War Of Flowers, was published in the UK by Simon & Schuster in November 2014. It will be published in the US and Canada by Random House in 2015.

As well as writing books, Jane is a freelance journalist, writing regularly for numerous British magazines and newspapers, and also appears as a broadcaster on Radio 4.

She is married to the writer Philip Kerr and they live with their three children in London.

Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. II

Pamela’s Irish Castle by Stephen Kennedy

m1mThere is something terribly romantic about Tullamaine Castle in Fethard, Co. Tipperary, as it lies in the sleepy ‘Gallant Tipps’ country. Autumn is the most special time of year when the hunt gets into full swing for another season and when Tullamaine plays host to an opening meet, the castle seems to emerge from the trees as each leaf falls onto the majestic manicured avenue. One can imagine that this is what attracted Pam and Derek Jackson to Tullamaine, with the large estate to indulge Derek’s passion for hunting and Pamela’s love for all things rural. Another fact which might have swayed their decision to relocate was that Ireland didn’t have the post-war tax issues that Britain imposed on the landed gentry to pay for WWII.

Initially, Pam and Derek loved their time at Tullamaine, with Pam’s sister Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire, chatelaine of Lismore Castle in Co. Waterford, taking residence every April for the fishing on the Blackwater River. Alongside Debo, their guests ranged from Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Leigh Fermor and ‘Uncle’ Harold Macmillan. Around the same time, Pam’s other sister Diana, the infamous Lady Mosley, came to Ireland having bought Clonfert Palace in Galway. After Clonfert burnt down, Diana and her husband, Sir Oswald Mosley, bought a beautiful Georgian property, Ilecash House in Fermoy, which is only a short drive to Lismore.

The early years at Tullamaine were a wonderful time for Pamela. Here she could be completely at home in her surroundings with her beloved dogs, horses and vegetable garden. It was in this renowned garden that Goldie Newport recalled in The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life to seeing for the first time ‘purple sprouting broccoli’. Amongst the hunting fraternity, Pam and Derek’s friends would include: Sivver Masters MFH (Debo remembered her great dinner stories at Tullamaine over two or three large brandies), the Earl and Countess Donoughmore, Bourkes and Ponsonbys, as well as the local community of Fethard.

Derek Jackson, an amateur jockey, loved all things equine but it was his passion for science and the lure of the lab at Oxford which drew him further and further from Tullamaine Castle, Pam, and, eventually, Ireland.

In 1950, Pam and Derek decided to separate and sell the castle. As a testament to her love for Tullamaine, Pam was persuaded to stay on as a tenant for another eight years but not before having the new landlord install electric lighting. An example of her shrewd and somewhat loveable, but naughty, behaviour – typical of a Mitford girl – Pam told her new landlord she ‘had no milk for the workmen’s tea’, and as they had re-wired the house, she must ‘have a cow for them’. The landlord duly obliged and sent ‘a marvellous four gal. cow in a lorry from cork (70 miles). Of course, the men only used a pint a day’, so Pam bought four piglets which she ‘brought up on the milk’ and the rest she sent to the creamery and received a cheque for £10.

Miss Giuditta Tommasi was a frequent visitor to Tullamaine during Derek’s time there and after he departed. As an ardent equine lover she, too, rode out with the Tipps’ and is fondly remembered for bursting into Newport’s shop looking for a pig’s face. In her broken English she had meant to ask for a pig’s head.

I, having met Pam as a young boy, now regret that she did not decide to live her life in Ireland but instead moved to Switzerland and eventually to Gloucestershire, the country of her early childhood. But the memories of this twinkling old lady with sky blue eyes and snow white hair will forever live with me. I also remember she had a voice so soft that it would melt a glacier and she had aroma of fresh air with a hint of lavender. I can only assume this loveliness was a combination of the fresh outdoors which she enjoyed, her kindness toward animals, and her love for the countryside.

A Man Called Ove

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Ove is almost certainly the grumpiest man you will ever meet. He thinks himself surrounded by idiots – joggers, neighbours who can’t reverse a trailer properly and shop assistants who talk in code. But isn’t it rare, these days, to find such old-fashioned clarity of belief and deed? Such unswerving conviction about what the world should be, and a lifelong dedication to making it just so? In the end, you will see, there is something about Ove that is quite irresistible…

Ove is a 59-year-old Swede with traditional values. He says very little, he thinks a lot and he is the odd neighbour in a gentrified street. Simple pleasures appeal to Ove: the reliability of his Saab motorcar, the hard graft of his job on the railways and the spartan state of his house – until it burns down. Life has not been kind to Ove, but he refuses to become a victim. An orphan by the age of 16, a widower, and stitched up for theft, he storms through life with his integrity intact. When a young family move in next door, ‘foreigners‘ to be exact, Ove is suspicious. He takes a dim view on almost everyone, including a stray cat who appeals to his good nature. When an attempt to kill himself turns into a comedy of errors, Ove realises he must press on with life, only if he can live it his way. Shades of Farve appeared in Ove, and I rather warmed to this curmudgeons gent who hates the world and offends just about everyone. He’s spiky and lovable, and in the space of three weeks – the amount of time we spend with Ove – he affirms himself as the hero of the piece. Written in a no-nonsense style and peppered with black humour, Fredrik Backman’s portrayal of Ove reminds us that a little compassion can go a long way.

Fredrick Backman is a well-known blogger and columnist in Sweden. His debut novel’s protagonist was born on his blog, where over 1000 readers voted for Backman to write a novel about Ove. In 2011 he became an overnight success when one of his blog entries, “Personal message to stressed blond woman in Wolkswagen”, about reckless driving and parental love, became the most linked entry on Facebook ever, with 600,000 shares.