The Mitford Society’s Festive Reads, Part Two

The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan

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Reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Kate Riordan’s novel jumps between 1933 and 1898, as she tells the tale of two women connected by fate. Alice, an unwed mother, arrives at Fiercombe Manor under false pretences to wait out the birth of her baby. The house has an air of mystery, and during her respite she discovers the tragic circumstances of its former inhabitant, Lady Stanton. Unlocking the secrets of the past, Alice realises their lives have become intertwined. An atmospheric read from start to finish.

 

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

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Set in New York in 1895, this is a depiction of the city from an outsider’s perspective. Sylvan Threadgill finds a newborn baby while cleaning out the tenement privies. Odile and Belle Church were part of a sideshow act in a circus. Alphie wakes up in an asylum; the last thing she remembers is blood on the floor and her mother-in-law screaming. Belle was committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors, Alphie knows this young woman harbours a dark secret. These complex characters strive for acceptance in the city’s underworld. Expertly written, this jarring depiction of the misfit’s plight will stay with you long after the show is over.

 

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

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Anita Diamant’s characters are presented with such depth and realism that it’s hard to think of them as fictional. Written as a faux memoir, her latest offering tells the story of Addie Baum, a young Jewish girl born at the turn of the 20th century in Boston in the US, to immigrant parents who have escaped poverty and violence in Russia. Coming of age during the First World War and Prohibition, Addie adapts to fit in with the changing world. Following the pattern of the American dream, she works her way up from typist to successful columnist – in spite of adversity and the menfolk who try to drag her down. One for fans of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Diamant’s narrative is as confident as its plucky heroine.

 

The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements

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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!

 

Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

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The elegant cover of Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow conceals the lives of modern women stripped bare to reveal the turmoil and, sometimes, the unrequited love we feel in all aspects of our relationships. Set in New York City, the fast-paced city life mirrors the swiftness of Heiny’s writing. Fidelity is a strong theme throughout the individual stories, and it bonds the characters to the decisions they make, their connection to other people (also in a non-romantic sense) and how it influences their daily existence. A look at how fickle the human heart can be, Heiny’s flawed characters are saved by her witty observations and subtle use of humour.

 

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester

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Frankie George, a tomboy upstart, is working as a trainee journalist in a world dominated by men. However, where there is trouble, Ebony is never far away. But now she’s the one in trouble and Frankie has landed a gem of a story when Ebony disappears in the middle of a performance. Pulled into a world of tricks, society columnists, corset enthusiasts, suffragettes and circus freaks, Frankie follows the trail of a murderous villain from Fleet Street to the headquarters of the suffragettes. How did Ebony vanish, who was she afraid of, and what goes on behind the doors of the mysterious Hourglass Factory? Lucy Ribchester’s debut novel The Hourglass Factory is a glorious tale encapsulating the London of 1912 set amidst suffragettes and circuses.

 

The Widow’s Confession by Sophia Tobin

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Edmund Steele has fled a failed love affair and arrives at the Parsonage to stay with Theo Hallam. Delphine Beck and her cousin, Julia, have left their London home to save money. The two ladies come originally from New York and Delphine has been exiled by her wealthy family, following a scandal. Miss Warings is an older lady, visiting with her niece, the beautiful Alba. Mr Ralph Benedict is an artist, who has housed his family in a nearby town so he has freedom to work. Mrs Quillian is Theo’s aunt; who establishes herself at the Albion Hotel and then attempts to make the various visitors into a little group, with whom she can arrange pleasant trips. What could possibly go wrong? A girls body is found on the beach with a mysterious message etched in the sand beneath her, and, although it seems suspicious, the local doctor is quick to dismiss her death as an accident. But more bodies are found – young girls seem to wander into the sea. Spooked by this strange incident, the locals turn against the visitors, whom they accuse of bringing with them bad luck. Can this group of outsiders unite to help solve the murders? The atmospheric blend of a seaside resort out of season and the suspicion of murder lingering over the community conspires to give even the most skeptical of readers a chill down their spine.

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The Mitford Society’s Festive Reads, Part One

A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

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Lucia Berlin’s posthumous collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson with a foreword by Lydia Davis, compromises over forty of her best stories. Berlin’s writing was autobiographical, ranging from a childhood in Alaska and El Paso, Texas, to her teenage years in Chile, and her adult life in Mexico, New Mexico, New York City, California and Colorado. Her writing is set in those sprawling landscapes: darkened alleyways strewn with drunks and druggies; a debutante amongst the communists in Chile; backstreet clinics; downtrodden apartments; the drudgery of commuting to work and the weekly visits to mundane laundromats. She writes about her abusive childhood at the hands of her alcoholic mother and grandfather, addiction, relationships, poverty, unemployment, cultural and class differences – Berlin herself could walk through those walls, like a phantom in a way, and the tapestry of her own life was made up of many backgrounds, many subplots. Her work is not a misery memoir, but an insight into human nature.

 

First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill by Sonia Purnell

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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. Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill is a complex character study about a fascinating woman 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.

 

On The Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life edited by Georgia de Chamberet

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Lesley Blanch died aged 103 having gone from being a household name to a mysterious and neglected living legend. She was writing her memoirs before her death, beginning with her unconventional Edwardian childhood. Her goddaughter, Georgia de Chamberet, has now compiled that piece and many others – including pieces that were never published, some published only in French, various letters and Vogue articles to create On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life which captures the essence of a rich and rewarding life which spanned the 20th century.

 

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester

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Alison Jean Lester has created a character who is not only sure of herself; she is sophisticated, clever, and has no qualms about her position in life. Lillian is a mistress. What I loved about this book is that Lillian never plays the victim or bemoans her fate – unlike so many books where the aging mistress is on the brink of suicide and is filled with regret that she has been passed over for the wife. The narrative tells us everything we need to know about Lillian’s view of life, and, working backwards, we are informed of how she deals with the subject in question. This is a lovely tome to dip in and out of, and you don’t have to retrace your steps even if you finish mid-chapter. Imagine!

 

Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modelling Years by Astrid Franse and Michelle Morgan

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This beautiful coffee table book tells the story of Marilyn Monroe’s modelling career at Hollywood’s famous Blue Book agency. Featuring unpublished photographs and drawing on newly discovered letters and documents it explores the rise of an ambitious young woman under the guidance of Emmeline Snively, head of the agency, who kept a record of her client during their professional relationship and beyond. This archive was purchased by Astrid Franse and along with Michelle Morgan’s narrative they have produced a unique book that is a tribute not only to Monroe, but to Miss Snively too. Lovingly executed with stunning photographs it is a must-have for fans!

 

Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street by Anne de Courcy

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Anne de Courcy’s latest study is a shrewd biography about Margot Asquith, the wife of Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith. A member of the dazzling Tennant family, Margot was a society star who had the world at her feet. With her dark looks and acid tongue, she might have been the predecessor to Nancy Mitford – she famously told Jean Harlow, the scatterbrain movie star, that the ‘t’ in Margot was silent, as was the ‘t’ in Harlow. Clementine Churchill, as a young woman, was often on the receiving end of Margot’s insults, and she once (in)famously referred to Clemmie as ‘having the soul of a servant’. Filled with famous characters and witty prose, this biography moves at a cracking pace.

 

A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing by Anna Thomasson

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The unlikely friendship between Edith Olivier and Rex Whistler is the subject of Anna Thomasson’s hefty but engaging biography. Alone for the first time at the age of 51, Edith, a spinster whose life was dominated by her late clergyman father, seemed to have come to a dead-end. However, for Rex, then a 19-year-old art student, his life was just beginning. In the early 1920s they embarked on an alliance that would transform their lives. Edith was a bluestocking, revered for her intellect long before it was en vogue for women to be celebrated for their brains. Surrounded by clever people all her life, she discovered a new lease of life with Whistler, and her world opened up. She became a writer, and her home, Daye House, was a creative hub for the Bright Young Things. She counted Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman, Siegfried Sassoon and the Sitwells among her admirers. Thoroughly researched, with elegant prose and a glittering cast of characters, Thomasson’s account merges Edith Olivier’s Victorian sensibilities with the raucous Jazz Age, giving the reader the best of both worlds.

 

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

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From the author of the bestselling The Paris Wife, Paul McLain’s latest novel is written as historical fiction and set in colonial Kenya. Circling the Sun is a thrilling account of the life of the British-born aviator Beryl Markham, who was abandoned by her mother and raised by her father on a farm. An unconventional woman, she lived by her own rules and mingled with the Happy Valley set. With the notorious Idina Sackville making a cameo appearance – in a marble bathtub, no less – this will appeal to admirers of naughty aristos.

 

The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait

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Written to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, this book, told as historical fiction, chronicles the girlhood of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the much-loved children’s classic. It centres around the family’s governess, Mary Prickett, who dislikes her charges, especially the precocious Alice. Mary’s world is turned upside down when she meets mathematician Charles Dodgson, and although she falls in love with him, his interest lies in the three Liddell girls. Obsessed with his ‘child friends’, and with Alice in particular, Dodgson’s favourite hobby is to photograph the children, often against the wishes of their mother. A rivalry develops between Alice and Mary for his affection. On an outing, he tells the children a tale, which Alice asks him to write down. The rest, as they say, is (literary) history. But the friendship ends abruptly when Dodgson’s letters to Alice are discovered, exposing his romantic love for the child, whom he hopes to marry one day. As Alice Liddell’s great-granddaughter, Vanessa Tait’s insider information and access to letters and diaries give the familiar back-story a new slant. Her captivating book conjures up the topsy-turvy world of Alice – the factual and the fictional girl. It is a story that is both enchanting and disturbing.

 

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

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Set in 1950s England, a chance meeting between Penelope and Charlotte, two rock ’n’ roll-loving teenagers, rakes up the past and brings the present-day struggles of the grown-ups into focus. Penelope and her widowed mother, Talitha, live at Milton Magna, a crumbling mansion, which they neither like nor can afford. And Charlotte’s aunt, Clare, is writing her memoirs and reveals a secret link to Penelope’s family and the influence she had on Talitha. With a foreword by comedienne Miranda Hart, this 10th anniversary edition of Rice’s modern classic is a treat for fans of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Jane Howard. Stylishly written with a touch of whimsical charm.

 

The Mitford Society: Vol. III

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The Mitford Society is pleased to present its third annual with contributions from Meems Ellenberg; Lyndsy Spence; Kathy Hillwig; Jeffrey Manley; Tessa Arlen; Kerin Freeman; Louisa Treger; Kim Place-Gateau; Virginie Pronovost; Leia Clancy; Robert Wainwright; Terence Towles Canote; Anna Thomasson; Sonia Purnell; Barbara Leaming. A must-have for any Mitford fan!