Festive Reads: Honnish Holidays

33848298These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

Set to the backdrop of a Parisian summer, this contemporary novel tells the story of the tenants of an apartment block. The fast-paced narrative, intertwined with the characters’ personal histories, their failed lives, love affairs, and secrets hold the readers attention. A landlady searches for her lost youth; another lives in her childhood apartment, remembering her privileged past; a young mother is frustrated with her life and is losing her mind; a young man wrestles with his faith; and another campaigns against a Muslim couple moving in. Meanwhile the divided politics and anti-Islamic threats rage through the city, risking livelihoods and lives. A timely issue, the book does not shirk from examining the varying ideologies at play. This is best displayed when a mild-mannered tenant deceives his wife and negotiates his place within the Far Right, a step that goes too far. A realistic character study of many humans existing together with their private lives worlds apart, Fran Cooper has written a Ship of Fools for the modern reader. Sharp and engaging, she brings forth the poetry and pathos of everyday lives and scenarios. A strong debut that is certain to appeal to, and strike a chord within, all readers.

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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

In this sparkling prequel to Practical Magic Alice Hoffman brings the Owens family back to life, this time focusing on the upbringing of three siblings, Franny, Bridget ‘Jet’ and Vincent. The setting is New York City in the 1960s, and the children are raised in a conventional household by a child psychologist father and a mother whose background is quite mysterious. Through their mother they are blood witches and related to Maria Owens, a scarlet woman whose heartbreak turned into a curse, so whomever they fall in love with is destined to die. However when they spend the summer in Massachusetts with an aunt, they soon learn the rules of magic. Its charming imagery of eccentric aunts, black cats and spell books are balanced with the social issues such as the Vietnam war, Civil Rights, and the rise of hippy culture. And the narrative incorporates the subject of seventeenth-century witchcraft with discreet nods to authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. The combination of magic and the universal themes of love – romantic love and sibling love – allows the reader to have one foot in a magical world and another in real life. Much like the bewitching heroines of this book.

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A Letter From Italy by Pamela Hart

It is 1917 and Rebecca Quinn, an Australian journalist, has come to Italy with her husband to report on the Italian war campaign. Given her profession and determination to make her own way in the world, she is an anomaly amongst her gender and colleagues. She is also confused by the language barrier, and the welcomed advances from an American-born Italian photographer, Alessandro. Recalling a time in both Italian and Australian history, Hart conveys the inner conflict of not only her protagonist, but of women from that era and the challenges they faced both politically and morally. Based on the real life war correspondent, Louise Mack, it brings to life WWI and journalism from a woman’s point of view. An inspiring read.

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The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

An evocative and atmospheric novel set in the 2000s, even though it feels like a 1950s mystery: with the dramatic backdrop of the barren landscape of Kansas, much of the action occurs in a mansion whose walls contain too many secrets. Lane, a girl from New York, harbours a romantic vision of her family’s estate, Roanoke – despite her unstable mother’s warnings that it was hell. After her mother’s suicide, 15-year-old Lane goes to live there with her maternal grandparents, whom she does not know. At first, she senses a strange atmosphere, which she blames on her aloof grandmother and rebellious cousin Allegra. Both girls have come to Roanoke to be raised by their ageing grandparents, and they are bonded by decades of secrets trickling down the generations. From the opening page until the last sentence, the plot is packed with suspense and danger, and an unsettling feeling radiates off the characters. With its vivid visual imagery, this is a book that stays with you.

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Histories by Sam Guglani

In this striking collection of short stories Sam Guglani reveals the inner-workings of a hospital along with the private observations of those who work in it. From a consultant, a junior doctor, a porter and a domestic, each individual seems to exist only in a medical environment and the stretch of corridors, wards, medical apparatus and patients make up the fabric of their lives in that moment. A doctor is struck by the beauty of a woman, even though her body is dying; a janitor fades into the background; a domestic is harassed by youths; a chaplain comforts the dying; an oncologist sees what the body hides. Throughout the interconnected stories morals are questioned, common sense is often overruled by literature, the hierarchy of roles within the hospital are taken for granted, and a patient fights for their life. With his vivid prose Giglani examines the fine line of mortality, and the role that each human plays throughout the discourse of the narrative. His background as a doctor at an NHS hospital and talent as a writer merges the two worlds to offer a unique look at a system under stress but one where humanity prevails. For fans of Lucia Berlin.

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Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay

Although there has been various books published about Daphne du Maurier this is the first biography to be written as fiction. Originally translated from French and written in the present tense, the author’s handling of her protagonist is aloof; she relays facts without adding context, and the setting jumps around. It feels cinematic, as it slowly offers snippets of information to relay the fundamental qualities of what made Daphne tick. In that sense the biography is a clever one, and entirely original. Rosnay also draws on Daphne’s French heritage, and explores how this shaped her as a writer. The author manages to capture the balance between a courageous young woman, in both her private and public life, and the barrier she put up when around others who were not part of her world. An insightful and endearing book, it’s a must read for admirers of Daphne and her work.

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Ava: A Life in Movies by Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski

In this illustrated book on Ava Gardner, film historians and authors, Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski reveal the layers of Gardner’s life, amidst her Hollywood fame and tumultuous romances. From her impoverished upbringing, to the highs and lows of a career spanning several decades, to her fabled marriage to Frank Sinatra, the authors, although respectful to Gardner herself, leave no stone unturned. Through their meticulous research and rare photographs we meet the woman behind the smokescreen, whose talent has become overshadowed by scandal and second-hand tales. What the reader will come away with, is a sympathetic portrait of a woman who was, perhaps, too human for Hollywood. A biography Gardner herself would be proud of.

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Ghosts of Christmas Past edited by Tim Martin

Ideal for those (such as myself) who dislike the hype surrounding Christmas but still enjoy a little festive cheer. A collection of brilliant short stories written by past and contemporary authors. Drawing on big houses, mystery and scandal it is the ideal stocking-filler for those who the macabre. The perfect companion for the dark winter nights.

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Festive Reads: Fiction

Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones

51HlIU41pWLBeginning in the early 2000s and working backwards to 1950, this is a story of a marriage told in reverse. Milly and Jack meet in San Francisco at the age of 21; he is a war hero, and she a secretary. When she marries and has children, Milly begins to feel as though her identity has been stolen. Jack is working in a job he hates and is frustrated at how his life is panning out. And so the conflict begins, and escalates as the years go on. As they examine their lives, they realise they have simply settled for less – she fights her inner thoughts about her children and how they do not fulfil her, and he feels short- changed by the American Dream. But the experiences they have shared over 60 years ultimately bind them together. Told from both of their perspectives, with a dash of black humour, it is an insightful book that reveals home truths about love. A compulsive read.

Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato 51KoJDpxHCL

Marina Fiorato is an expert at creating stories out of fascinating women’s lives, either factual people or fictional characters, and her books transport the reader on a journey to faraway places, and Italy is a recurring theme. Her latest offering does not disappoint. Here, she tells the story of a pregnant, suicidal prostitute, Annie Stride, who is saved from jumping to her death by Francis Maybrick Gill, a promising painter. From their chance meeting on Waterloo Bridge, her life changes forever and Francis transforms Annie from a fallen women to an artist’s muse, and she becomes the darling of the art scene. Capturing 1850s London in her prose, the dark underworld of the city is brought to life, as is the beauty of Florence and Venice set to the backdrop of the desperate situation Annie has found herself in and the secret she uncovers. Far from a saviour who has put her on a pedestal, Francis’s sadistic tastes spell danger, and Annie cannot escape her past, especially when Francis’s dark deeds are exposed. A dark and brooding tale of survival, Fiorato expertly handles the complexities of the plot, the locations, and her characters to deliver a thrilling tale of love, lust, and revenge.

51WpV1adJELThe House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy

Using dual narratives and time-frames this book follows the ordinary lives of Oliver and Kate, whose lives are forever changed when she inherits an old family estate, and he quits his job to prepare the house for sale. It is then, through Oliver’s discovery of an old diary, that Sophia is brought to life and the story shifts to the 1920s. Written in an engaging way, McCarthy effortlessly brings her characters together to explore the complexities of their relationships, and how the past haunts both themselves and their families. A slow burn with an unexpected end, it is a captivating read.

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A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

This novel, set in 1939 on-board an oceanliner headed for Australia, is reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes. With an insight into life on the ship, we see everything from Lillian’s point-of-view. Bright, beautiful and brave, she is both heroine and suspected murderess. Her new friends, passengers from both tourist and first class, are a mixture of rich Americans, oddball siblings, and Jews fleeing the rise of Hitler. They each have a story to tell and a secret to keep. With nods to Agatha Christie, the complexities of the characters, combined with a suspenseful plot, make this a perfect mystery novel.

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The Daughter of Lady Macbeth by Ajay Close

Freya is a modern woman, advancing in her forties, and happily married. She has everything she wants except her mother’s love, and a baby. Lillas, a former actress, makes no secret that she didn’t want Freya, and loathes anything to do with domesticity. But Freya embarks on a course of IVF and, falling pregnant with another man’s child, her life becomes a tangled web of lies. Through Ajay Close’s engaging writing, she manages to get under the skin of her characters and the reader becomes caught up in their story. Her portrayal of Lillas: brittle, glamorous, and desperate to stay relevant reads like a factual portrait of any given star. Behind the artifice of Lillas’s stories of ‘Redgrave, Olivier, Gieguld’ et al, we realise her life is an empty place, and yet she is her own worst enemy. Freya, as independent as she is, clings onto the hope that her mother will fix everything about the past, and each time she is disappointed. Their pain springs off the page, as they each confront the demons from their youth. Close has written a gripping read about redemption, love, and self-discovery.

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Yuki Means Happiness by Alison Jean Lester

Diana, a young nurse from Boston, answers an advertisement to work for a Japanese couple, Naoki and Emi, who have travelled to America to await the birth of their first child, Yuki. However, under the close scrutiny of Naoki (often from afar), Diana senses something is not right, but she ignores her instincts and assumes her uneasy feelings are the result of a learning curve. Then, a few years later, she is offered the job of nanny to Yuki, who is now three, and she moves to Tokyo. The household is, again, controlled by Naoki and Emi is gone, her disappearance is not explained, and the silence surrounding her abandoning Yuki evokes Diana’s old feelings. She finds herself trapped in a world that is filled with secrets, and discovers the truth about why Emi left. With Alison Jean Lester’s beautiful prose, the simplicity of the narrative, and the uneasy complexities of her characters bubbling to the surface, the plot is much more than what the nanny saw. It is a character study of a young woman adapting to a new life and culture while trying to come to terms with her own past and struggling to step into a future that has not been tainted by familial issues, unresolved feelings about love, and it is those factors which drive her instinct to protect Yuki. In that sense the character study of Diana did remind me of Lillian, as the narrative, written in Diana’s voice, draws the reader into her experiences of Japan (the author lived in Japan), and her descriptions of its pop culture, the underground, the food, and daily rituals offered a glimpse of a young woman’s life, albeit fictional. Like Lillian, she exposes the intricate detail of a woman’s life and, as before, she has the Midas touch.

 

 

 

 

Festive Reads: Non-Fiction

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Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Using biographical information, press snippets, and relying on his own imagination to invent scenarios which may or may not have (90% of the time) did not happen. From anecdotes about her upbringing in the shadow of Lilibet, to her rebellious teen years, her love of showbiz, and failed affairs and marriage, Craig Brown puts a new slant on the queen’s glamorous sister. Divided into 99 short chapters, it is an ideal book for dipping in and out of. Put this title on top of your Christmas list!

 

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The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice by Judith Mackrell

This group biography focuses on a trio of women who once owned and inhabited the Palazzo Venier. Luisa Cassati, a mad aristocrat with dyed orange hair and live snake jewellery, turned the palazzo into a piece of living art. Doris Castlerosse, known in other echelons as Doris Delevingne, acquired the palazzo after her divorce from Viscount Castlerosse and subsequent lesbian fling with a rich American. She hosted lavish parties on the eve of WWII and fled when war became more than a whisper. Peggy Guggenheim, its last owner, filled the palazzo with fascinating people, works of art, and today it is home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Of course the book is more than a potted history of the three women; it focuses on their backstories, their triumphs and failures, and the hold which Venice had over them. A dazzling read.

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How They Decorated: Inspiration from Great Women of the Twentieth Century by P. Gaye Tapp

Focusing on sixteen iconic women this stylish book looks at how these rich and affluent individuals decorated their homes. From Irish designer Sybil Connolly to Anglophile Fleur Cowles, to Truman Capote’s ‘swans ‘Babe Paley and Bunny Melon, to European aristocracy, the aesthetic tastes are examined to offer a glimpse of their personalities and the techniques they used. The influential touch of famous interior decorators is also apparent, most notably Syrie Maugham’s trend for white rooms, and their keen eye for upholstery, art and antiques. Gloria Vanderbilt said: ‘Decorating is autobiography’ and Tapp, who has effortlessly cultivated a historical guide as well as a visual treat, proves this to be true. A delightful piece of arm-chair travel.

35166885Too Marvellous for Words by Julie Welch

This memoir is filled with hilarious anecdotes of student life in a bygone world 1960s boarding school. While England was springing to life with rock & roll the girls’ were kept in line by strict disciplinarians – the science teacher was prone to throwing objects at them, another girl was punished for wearing an Alice band. Although it focuses on Welch’s time at school, it’s very much a social history and a collective biography of her schoolmates and the teachers, too. She recalls the inedible food, the horsehair beds, the dorm ghost, midnight feasts, writing to boys (one girl subscribed to a boys’ magazine and masqueraded as ‘Charles’ in order to receive a letter from the opposite sex), and the fast girls who were expelled. Written as though she were telling an old friend of her experiences, she maintains a sense of adventure as she recounts those days, and an air of pity for those narrow-minded teachers who were stuck at the school. An insightful look at tradition and eccentricity, the like of which we’ll never see again. Perfect for those who loved Ysenda Maxtone-Graham’s Terms and Conditions.

diana petreThe Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley (Slightly Foxed reprint edition) by Diana Petre

Diana Petre was a natural writer and confidante to many, and several times she killed a book on purpose. Born in 1912 to a bewitching woman named Muriel, she knew nothing of her mother’s life except that she drank at night-time and that she was a nurse during the two World Wars, for which she was given an OBE. When Diana was eighteen, Muriel told her that ‘Uncle’ was her father. Uncle was Roger Ackerley, a banana merchant known as ‘the banana king’. Before she had learned the truth she always felt ashamed, and wondered if Muriel was a divorcee – her only explanation for this secrecy. But then Muriel vanished one day, and the children were left with an elderly housekeeper, to re-appear, years later, when Diana was ten. Written without an ounce of self pity and in a witty and engaging way, Diana attempts to piece together her mother’s mysterious past, while confronting her own demons. What we are presented with is a portrait of Muriel, a woman who suffered greatly for falling in love with the wrong man, but who had the conviction to live as she pleased. An inspiring read which gives life to an unlikely heroine.

28965132In The Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary

This is the first biography written about Margaret Wise Brown, whose children’s book Goodnight Moon has captivated readers for years. Amy Gary is a Brown enthusiast and had access to her unpublished manuscripts, personal letters, and diaries. Born in 1910, in New York, Brown had a difficult childhood: a depressive mother who was fascinated with spiritualism, and a father whose expectations she could not match. After school and doing odd jobs, she found herself moving at the centre of a publishing revolution within the children’s genre – this gives the biography a lot of scope when exploring the writing scene of 1940s New York. Not only did Brown write unique books, she lived the life of a nonconformist and had affairs with both men and women, including the ex-wife of John Barrymore. Within the text one can sense the exploratory process Gary has undertaken, in not only the prose but in her subject too, and, as she had been in life, there is a distance between Brown and the reader. What is certain, is that Brown was a forceful character who knew her own mind and she reaped the rewards in the end, albeit too briefly. A revealing portrait of a mysterious woman.

35667650Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick

This is the first biography of Joan Leigh Fermor written by Simon Fenwick, archivist to the Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor papers. He retraces her rambling life across the British Isles, the Continent, Russia and America, delving into her guises of debutante, muse, photographer, and lover of Paddy. Famous names of the twentieth century make an appearance: Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, and one of her first paramours, Alan Pryce-Jones. With access to Joan’s archive and having conducted interviews with her loved ones, Fenwick leaves no stone unturned. The text is bulked out with information about her family, and the various places she called home: a country manor, a Parisian finishing school, and Crete. Bringing a forgotten individual to life is always tricky, but Fenwick has succeeded in his challenge. A riveting biography.

34100964The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler

‘Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you’re dead,’ is the opening line of Christopher Fowler’s new book, a collection ninety-nine great authors who have fallen into obscurity. Amongst his potted histories are Lesley Blanch, whose posthumous memoir/essays were published to acclaim last year; Georgette Heyer, still the unrivalled queen of Regency bodice rippers; and Barbara Pym, whose reissued fiction has attracted a new generation of readers. Aside from those names, recognisable to bookworms and history aficionados, the tome is packed with forgotten names, whose work can be instantly recalled even if the authors are not i.e. Bambi, The Rainbow Children, Ruthless Rhymes, and Bridge Over the River Kwai. Apart from its biographical merits it’s packed with anecdotes offering literary trivia, as well as evoking pure nostalgia for childhood reads, as well as old classics. Not only that, it explores literary criticism and the stylistics of what is deemed a popular novel, and how history will remember it. More than a book of essays, it reminds the reader of the importance of words, and the stylistic approach to literature, and how something can or cannot stand the test of time. A book to jog the memory, or an excuse to revisit an old favourite. It is, as Nancy Mitford would have said, a bibliophile’s dream.

 

A.B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan As a Modern State : Letters Home

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Much has been written about the Mitfords girls’grandparents, with anecdotes peppering the many biographies and volumes of letters published on the family. Both of their grandfathers were eccentric men who sired children with their mistresses, and they each led adventurous lives – Tap Bowles on his yacht, sailing the Orient with his mistress, Snell; and Bertie Mitford travelling to Japan in the mid-1800s, at a time of political uncertainty and dodging an assassination attempt. They each dabbled in politics, and worked in some capacity in the publishing industry – Tap in his founding of The Lady magazine, and Bertie with his travel writing and introducing Japanese literature to Britain. He wrote introductions for H.S. Chamberlain’s books on philosophy, the most prominent being Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which was said to have influenced Hitler’s ambition for an Aryan race. Bertie’s friendships would mirror the choices his granddaughters Diana and Unity would make decades later, whether or not that was intentional remains to be seen. And, like his granddaughter Diana, his mother was a bolter who left her husband and comfortable marriage to set up home with a Mr Molyneux. It seemed the girls inherited many aspects of their characters from their grandfathers, for a traditional life befell their parents, David and Sydney Redesdale.

A fascinating individual such as Bertie Mitford, First Baron Redesdale, deserves a biography or at least an extensive study of his life. Robert Morton’s clever book brings to life all elements of his personality; his upbringing, his marriage, his place in society, and his thirst for adventure. He was prone to brilliance but he was also selfish and foolish; he built Batsford Park and its Japanese gardens, and squandered his inheritance. Morton brings forth the facts to present a complex man who, in his own way, played a part in nineteenth century history. I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to know more about the Mitford girls’ forebears, outside of ‘Muv’ and ‘Farve’.

You can read more about Bertie Mitford here.

 

The Disappearing Act of Miss Muriel Perry

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Image of Muriel Perry, courtesy of the J.R.Ackerley Estate

Seldom do we encounter a living person who appears to have dropped from nowhere. Granted this introduction was partly by accident, and part of a literary study, but the circumstances of which are entirely exceptional. Diana Petre’s compelling memoir, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley tells the story of her unusual childhood, and explores the enigma that was her mother, Muriel Perry. Diana was the illegitimate daughter of Roger Ackerley, a director of the fruit-importing company, Elders & Fyffes and was known as ‘the banana king’; he was called Uncle Bodger by his children (twin daughters Sally and Helen, born in 1909, as well as Diana, born in 1912), and during his lifetime they did not know the truth of their paternity. Muriel informed the children shortly after his death in 1929 – Diana, told after the twins, was delivered the news in a luxurious hotel room in Vienna, the tickets having been purchased before his demise and Diana accompanied her mother in Ackerley’s place. ‘Are you pleased?’ Muriel simply asked her, after delivering the news. Yes, she replied. Finally, the fragments of her life appeared to be slotting into place.

From an outsider’s perspective Muriel was a beautiful, glamorous woman, with almost black hair, dark expressive eyes, alabaster skin, and an enviable wardrobe. ‘Anyone could tell she was full of secrets. You only had to look at her to feel the mysteriousness of her. She was a fascinator: one of those creatures who seem to come from nowhere and to be going nowhere, but who permeate the mind as a serum gets into the bloodstream,’ Diana wrote in her memoir. Those who knew of Muriel’s predicament, and there were not many at the time, would have agreed she was a woman who had accepted her lot in life. Always the mistress, never the wife. But life is not as simple as that, and although little is known of Muriel’s background, her situation with Ackerley was a complex one.

From the beginning, having met him when she was barely out of her teens, Muriel believed there was a Mrs Ackerley, who was the mother of his three children: two boys and a girl, a generation above his children with Muriel. Still, despite there being a so-called wife, Muriel began to refer to herself as ‘Mrs Perry’ and on her children’s birth certificate a Mr George Perry was listed as the father. Incidentally, when Sally married Gerald Grosvenor, who became the fourth Duke of Westminster, her biography in Debrett’s repeated much of the aforementioned. In those days illegitimacy was a social taboo and, although it was rife in high society, Muriel felt ashamed. Aged twenty and pregnant, Ackerley had placed her in a small flat with a nurse to care for the twins (a stillborn son had been born the year before). She took her exercise after dark, and never became friendly with her neighbours. Perhaps they thought her aloof – she looked the part – and she hoped they would mistake her for a widow or a divorcee. She was soon pregnant again, this time with Diana, and now the father of six children with two separate families (his secret orchards), Ackerley had had enough. His mistress, although still young and beautiful, was not as attractive when up to her elbows in baby paraphernalia. A friend, who was living a similar lifestyle, advised her to forget the children and to devote herself to Ackerley; she wouldn’t want to lose him, would she? And so, despite loving her infant children (she was fond of newborn things), she left. It was a means of survival, rather than neglect. But the children did not view it that way.

When questioned about her background Muriel would dissolve into tears, and protest that Diana was wicked to pry. She was born Muriel Haidée Perry, around 5 March 1899, or so she told Diana, but there was no such record of her birth at Somerset House. She abandoned her middle name when she was old enough to make up her own mind. It was believed, by Diana, that she had dropped the Haidée for fear of mispronouncing it. Adding to this fictional childhood, Muriel said she spent her youth in Clifton and was raised by her step-brother, an artist named Henry John Foster, who had known many famous painters. Diana dismissed Muriel’s statement, claiming she showed no appreciation for art, and there were no traces of a well-known artist by that name. When her research rendered fruitless, she concluded Muriel had grown up in an orphanage. However, Muriel had offered Diana a snippet of information: she had come to London in her teens and, according to Muriel herself, found work in an office. Another story presented itself, when Muriel let slip she had no choice but to move to London, after she and Ackerley were spotted in a box at a theatre in Bristol. Later, when she was old and infirm, she spoke of a pub within a hotel, The Tavistock, at Covent Garden, and claimed to have been its bookkeeper. Diana pointed out that Muriel could barely do sums, so this seemed to be another one of her fantasies, or embellishments. Her job was to stand at the desk and tick off the patrons who came in late, and to ensure the scuttles in the bedrooms were stocked with coal. On one occasion a gentleman checked in and teased her relentlessly. It was Roger Ackerley, and she did not take kindly to his teasing. She went to his room to check the scuttle, and found him in bed. As she stood in the doorway, he said: ‘Why don’t you come in and get warm?’ And she did.

For the greater part of Diana’s childhood she did not know her mother, nor could she recall any memory of her. Muriel left for ten years, four of which were spent helping with the war effort. The children were placed in the care of an elderly Scottish governess, known as Auntie Coutts, who hoarded the money Muriel sent via Ackerley to care for the children. Thus, Diana and her sisters were undernourished, poorly clothed, and somewhat feral. Their mother, however, was having the time of her life; she claimed to love the war, to have thrived when under pressure, and somewhere along the time-frame of 1914-18 she founded the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Free Buffet at Victoria Station, in which servicemen were fed at the cost of one penny. While operating the buffet, she had also fallen in love: the man in question was Pat de Bathe, a war hero, husband and father. Despite being married, he proposed and she accepted. Muriel failed to mention her connection to Ackerley, and her children, but de Bathe was a jealous man prone to obsessions and he discovered her secret family and their whereabouts. A scene on the platform of Victoria Station ensued, and he seized her hand to remove the engagement ring and broke her finger in the process. Then, in disgrace, Muriel drove a motor-kitchen to the Front, in aid of the Italian Red Cross. In Italy she fell for Emanuele Filiberto, the Duke of Aosta and a scion of the House of Savoy, whom she met after being one of two women presented to him. A short while later she wrote him a letter, and uncertain of how to address royalty, she wrote ‘Dear Man’ and this charmed him. Although he was old enough to be her father, and married, their romance appeared harmless and he placed Muriel in a convent in Trieste after she developed dysentery. Several weeks later, she returned to London but not to her old life. It was 1919, and the war was over, but Muriel’s career was not, and she went to Belgium to organise a rehabilitation centre for wounded soldiers. The relationship with the duke faltered, but her reputation did not and she was decorated seven times for her war work, which included an OBE.

After the war Muriel returned to London but not to her children. She shared a flat with Doris Delevingne, then a wily courtesan determined to scale the social ladder one bed at a time. It was unclear how they had met, and perhaps their paths had crossed when Doris, then an ambitious eighteen-year-old, was working as a scullery maid on behalf of the war effort at a London hospital. The wandering came to a halt around 1922, the year Doris moved in with Laddie Sanford, an American millionaire, and that must have been Muriel’s cue to leave. Knocking on the door of her children’s home she was greeted by her identical twin daughters, standing six-feet-tall and looking bedraggled. Diana, small and fair, had no memory of her mother. Each of her three girls treated her with disdain, although it was Diana who was the more inquisitive of the trio. It was a feeling that was short-lived, for she was sent to a series of schools, none of which Muriel ever entered, and she was seldom allowed to bring a friend home. Although she had never been warned to keep secrets, she instinctively knew her mother and their lifestyle were not the same as others. There was no mention of a father, but they had a house and an income, and so her worldlier schoolmates assumed Muriel was a divorcee. Diana asked her mother, and was greeted with: ‘Why can’t other people mind their own business?’ The family moved again, this time to a home in south London, bought by Ackerley in Muriel’s name. He had also taken a substantial sum from her bank account to pay for his eldest daughter’s wedding, and had promised to replace the money but he never did. Muriel sensed the money pit was running out, but she continued to receive payment, which she spent on the children but in general was a bad manager. She had also begun to drink heavily; always at night, always when the children were sleeping. Stalking the landing after the midnight hour, she resembled a sort of Lady Macbeth, with her make-up dissolved by tears and streaked down her face, tripping over her feet. The children raided Muriel’s wardrobe and behind the expensive gowns they discovered bottles of booze. She went to a clinic and dried out, but Muriel could never exorcise her demons.

It was after the move that Ackerley had fallen ill with cancer of the tongue. The twins had run away, and when Muriel appealed for the authorities to return them she was told that illegitimate children came of age at eighteen, not twenty-one. Again, Diana remained oblivious to this clue of their parentage, and was dismissed by Muriel with a flimsy statement that some children had different circumstances. This left Diana and Muriel alone in the house, and it was a dynamic that appeared to work. Caught up in nursing Ackerley, she seldom had time for her daughter, and the three went to seaside hotels for Ackerley to take the cure. During this stint of hotel living his grown-up children visited their father, and Diana was introduced to her half sister and brother (another brother had been killed in the war) for the first time, but not as their sibling, although, owing to a family resemblance, they solved the clue. Nancy was a divorcee with a young son; Joe was a writer and editor, and openly homosexual with a boyfriend who often accompanied him to visit his father at the hotel. They had little time for Muriel, who would make herself scarce when they arrived. Joe, the friendlier of the two, took Diana to a pub and asked her an array of questions, but she was too struck by Joe’s joie de vivre to engage in conversation. Despite these fleeting visits, it was Muriel who was by Ackerley’s side when he took his last breath.

After the death of Ackerley in 1929, Muriel discovered two significant things: the money he had put aside for her had dwindled away and there was no Mrs Ackerley, as he had led her to believe. Although she had loved him, despite her view that all men were wretched, she must have felt a sense of freedom in the wake of his demise. The children now knew the truth, the twins were long gone, and Diana’s curiosity had been piqued. It also began a period of ill-health for Diana: she was prone to vomiting, fainting, and fatigue – this, years later, she self-diagnosed as a result of her deep unhappiness – and she, too, copied the twins and ran away. Muriel, now alone, met and married Lt.-Colonel Alfred Scott-Hewitt, a rather dull gentleman whose focus centred around the home. But adventure was on the horizon, and the Second World War gave her the opportunity to escape England, her husband, and the troubles surrounding her grown-up children. Being abroad suited Muriel, and she thrived on nursing the wounded and dying. Hotels replaced a permanent residence, and she draped her pretty clothes around the furniture to give a sense of homeliness. The chambermaids became her confidantes, and she liked to drink brandy with her friends – she never overcame her alcoholism. After the war, she was, at least in the traditional sense, widowed once more and the death of her husband had little effect on her. ‘Never let a man know you care,’ she often told her daughters. However, she had given up on men.

In her later years Muriel lived with a female companion, who doubled as a nursemaid and, from Diana’s point-of-view, a jailer. It was a strange dynamic, but it filled a void during the periods in which she was estranged from her children. When she was dying, Sally took charge and Diana helped as best she could, though she harboured resentment for Muriel, and failed to make a dent in her familial research. ‘Why did you hate me?’ she asked Diana, shortly before she died. The question took Diana by surprise, but she was grateful for her mother’s honesty. There was no direct answer; the past was too complicated to dissect during the limited time between spells of lucidity and the finality of death. Discreet until the end, Muriel offered only one nugget, perhaps a hint of her origins: ‘I think I should be a . . . prostitute. Of course I’d be very choosy; I wouldn’t take anyone.’ She died on 5 May 1960.

The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley (ISBN: 978-1-906562-85-4, RRP £17.50) by Diana Petre is published by Slightly Foxed 

This feature was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol V

Death in the Stars: A Book Review

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I am fairly new to Frances Brody’s mystery novels, having only read the previous one Death at the Seaside, so I have a lot of catching up to do! In the past I have ran extracts of Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver mysteries. Needless to say, if you enjoy those stories then you’ll love Brody’s work. The covers are always a treat, very Mitfordeseque, and the content inside does not disappoint. This latest instalment, Death in the Stars, draws on the eclipse of 1927, an unsettling and exciting period when people thought the world was going to end (nothing new there!) or that some form of witchcraft was at work. The perfect setting for things to go wrong! Super sleuth Kate Shackleton is invited to accompany Selina Fellini, a theatrical actress, to a viewing party at Giggleswick School Chapel. As you can tell, the names are often what the Mitfords would call a tease; a real homage to 1920s and 30s detective novels, whilst still retaining the integrity of the story. Of course it is during this natural phenomena that a death occurs – Billy Moffatt, Ms Fellini’s co-star vanishes and is later found dead, and soon two other members of the theatrical troupe die under mysterious circumstances. Is there a murderer in the company? It seems likely. But when Ms Fellini’s husband, a war hero prone to mood swings and violent behaviour, emerges on the scene everything changes. Who will be next? With nods to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ethel Lina White, this neat murder mystery has all the touches of a gripping thriller along with a lighthearted narrative to hold the reader’s attention. Although such contemporary books can often be dismissed as quirky tributes to the aforementioned crime authors, it is wrong to assume they are frivolous stories. Frances Brody’s background is in television writing, and this is apparent in her effortless touch when forming the plot. It is a witty, suspenseful novel, and a perfect companion for those who love a bit of glam with an atmospheric touch.

Yuki Means Happiness by Alison Jean Lester

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Some of you might recall my review of Lillian on Life, a faux memoir written by Alison Jean Lester which has become one of my favourite books. I revisit Lillian every summer, and own the hardback and paperback versions (both covers are a work of art and ought to be gazed at!). When Alison suggested her publisher send me a copy of Yuki Means Happiness I naturally jumped at the chance to read an advance proof. She told me that her latest book, a work of fiction (and not a memoir, as she warned) was a ‘different animal’ from Lillian, and she was right. It is the story of Diana, a young nurse from Boston who answers an advertisement to work for a Japanese couple, Naoki and Emi, who have travelled to America to await the birth of their first child, Yuki. However, under the close scrutiny of Naoki (often from afar), Diana senses something is not right, but she ignores her instincts and assumes her uneasy feelings are the result of a learning curve. Then, a few years later, she is offered the job of nanny to Yuki, who is now three, and she moves to Tokyo. The household is, again, controlled by Naoki and Emi is gone, her disappearance is not explained, and the silence surrounding her abandoning Yuki evokes Diana’s old feelings. She finds herself trapped in a world that is filled with secrets, and discovers the truth about why Emi left. With Alison Jean Lester’s beautiful prose, the simplicity of the narrative, and the uneasy complexities of her characters bubbling to the surface, the plot is much more than what the nanny saw. It is a character study of a young woman adapting to a new life and culture while trying to come to terms with her own past and struggling to step into a future that has not been tainted by familial issues, unresolved feelings about love, and it is those factors which drive her instinct to protect Yuki. In that sense the character study of Diana did remind me of Lillian, as the narrative, written in Diana’s voice, draws the reader into her experiences of Japan (the author lived in Japan), and her descriptions of its pop culture, the underground, the food, and daily rituals offered a glimpse of a young woman’s life, albeit fictional. Like Lillian, she exposes the intricate detail of a woman’s life and, as before, she has the Midas touch.

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington

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In recent years there has been a real sway towards biographies that are not ‘cradle to grave’ studies of a person’s life. Granted, a little chronology is often needed when a subject is larger than life. Joanna Moorhead’s study of British artist and writer Leonora Carrington fits into the former category and, despite the title, the narrative is formed from her experiences and  impressions of Carrington, her distant cousin known as ‘Prim’. Her famous relative’s name was often mentioned in hushed tones of disgrace while she was growing up, but Moorhead’s knowledge was scant and often wrong, thanks to family legends and second-hand tales. A chance meeting, at a party, put everything into perspective and she managed to track down an elderly Carrington, in Mexico, and what developed was an unusual friendship, sparking Moorhead’s quest to learn more about her.

This biography has the makings of everything I enjoy: an upper-crust family, a restless debutante, scandal. Leonora Carrington was never going to be conventional, despite her father’s self-made millions and a country manor – she was a freak among the girls from landed families, and always an outsider. After her deb season she ran away to Paris with an older lover, Max Ernst, and her father never spoke to her again. The lovers moved at the heart of the surrealist movement of 1930s Paris, but the Second World War divided their loyalties, and Carrington was briefly incarcerated in a Spanish asylum. Afterwards, she ran away to Lisbon and married a Mexican diplomat (to secure a Visa – some might call it self-sufficiency) and settled in Mexico, where she remained until her death.

Moorhead’s introduction to Carrington’s life has inspired me to seek out this anomaly, who threw caution to the wind to live by her own rules. This biography, although not at all in-depth in the sense that we know all of Carrington’s skeletons, keeps the reader at arm’s length, intensifying their longing to know more, but maintaining the mystery of her life.  It is how Carrington would have wanted it, I think.

The Wild Air: A Book Review & Interview with its author, Rebecca Mascull

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‘There is nothing so dangerous as a headstrong girl who knows her own mind,’ said Mary Yellan, the fearless heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. The same can be applied to Della Dobbs, the protagonist of The Wild Air, the latest novel by Rebecca Mascull. Female pilots from the early days of flying are experiencing a renaissance (in the literary world), and having read a few books based on real life pilots and works of fiction it takes a book to stand out. Although Mascull has drawn on the inspiration of aviatrixes such as Lillian Bland and Beryl Markham, the creation of Della Dobbs is entirely her own.

Set during the Edwardian era, Della Dobbs does not fit the mould of femininity, she likes to ride her bicycle and fix it herself. She’s also a loner, and she channels her love of machinery and engineering (as in the cycle) into the latest craze: aeroplanes. When her widowed great-aunt returns from America, Della is intrigued by this outspoken woman of whom her father disapproves. She realises that a life, quite unlike her mother’s burden of housework and childbirth, awaits her. Against the odds, and with her great-aunt’s encouragement, she learns to fly and falls in with a group of male pilots, much to the fury of her father. But Della fights against his, and society’s, prejudice to fulfil her dream. World War One interrupts Della’s fledgling career and her husband goes to France, but when he is reporting missing she takes to the skies to rescue him. This subplot of the novel, in the adventures of Della from shy girl to brave aviatrix, is an example of Mascull’s writing and the marriage of her characters and their vocations – she did a similar thing with Song of the Sea Maid but I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the plot. The character development of Della is almost biopic, as though she were a real historical figure. It is a brave novel which piques the curiosity of the reader, but it is also a reminder of how far women have come.

  1. How much did Lillian Bland and other female aviators inspire your character?

The real lives of these early aviatrixes inspired me – and Della Dobbs – hugely. Their exploits were quite astounding. They fought against prejudice and expectations and forged a path for themselves in a male-dominated, dangerous pursuit. In the pre-WW1 days they were engaged in all the same challenges as their male counterparts, such as aerobatic flying and cross-channel flights. Some, like Hilda Hewlett, had their own aeroplane manufacturing companies. Melli Beese, a German aviatrix who appears in the novel, was an aircraft designer, as well as a great pilot. Katherine Stinson toured the Far East with her plane. They were fearless and determined. I admire them enormously!

  1. You mentioned, last year, that you flew in a small aeroplane to get a sense of your character. How important is primary research to you?

It’s become more important the more I write, actually. I used to think you could imagine it all (and I think to a certain extent you still can) but I realised that if you can do primary research, you certainly should. I found the brilliant pilot Rob Millinship through the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire and he was incredibly helpful with my research. When we first met, he said very soon into our conversation that he would take me flying in a light aircraft, at which I immediately baulked and said, Oh well, maybe, having no intention of really doing it! I was too afraid! He said that really I had no business writing about flying if I wasn’t going to do it. I thought, I can use research and my imagination – it’ll be ok. He asked me several times and I kept putting him off. Then one day I suddenly thought, Oh blimey, stuff it. I’m gonna do it! And I did. I can honestly say it changed my life. And it made for a much, better, truer book. He was absolutely right, too. I had no business writing about such an extraordinary thing as light aircraft flight if I hadn’t experienced it myself.

  1. How do you choose your subjects and what inspires you?

It’s all delightfully random. I’ll see something that grabs my interest, just catches my attention, a chance encounter, something on Radio 4 or on TV. It’ll present me with a situation, often a What if? kind of thing. With my first novel, it was the idea of how on earth it would feel inside your mind if you were both deaf and blind and you had no way to communicate. With my second, it was what would happen if you had a brilliant scientific idea but nobody was interested in listening to you? And with this one, it was the obsession with flight in those incredibly dangerous early days – what would make anyone want to go up in a kite with an engine, with no seatbelt, no parachute, no safety whatsoever – why would anyone want to risk it, let alone an Edwardian woman? It just grabbed me! Then, once I start doing a bit of research, I’m hooked and I won’t rest till the story is told.

  1. Can you tell The Mitford Society about your writing process?

I start with a notebook and fill that with thoughts about the story. Once that’s finished, I know I’m ready to start the research. I read a heck of a lot, watch documentaries and movies, visit key locations (whenever possible) and engage in other primary research, such as flying! Or visiting a hop field and running my fingers along the bines so I know what they feel like, for example. Then I write a detailed synopsis (yes, I’m one of those curious creatures who actually enjoys writing synopses!) and a chapter plan. I then work from this as I’m writing the chapters. The story always evolves beyond the planning as I’m going along, but I like to have it there as a foundation. This is my process for an historical novel, anyhow. I’m thinking of maybe writing something totally different next and I might alter my method for that. I might just write and see what happens! I fancy a change.

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

The Crime Writer: A Review

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Jill Dawson has a knack for writing about factual people but in a fictional way, she takes fragments from people’s lives and works them into a novel. The Great Lover is a brilliant example of this, and she manages to capture her protagonist’s unique tone in the narrative while maintaining a seamless writing style.

I was intrigued by Dawson’s latest book, The Crime Writer, mostly because I fell in love with the cover. Based on an episode of Patricia Highsmith’s life, during which time she lived in Sussex and was having an affair with a married woman, Sam. It is the mid-1960s and period of excitement and progression, but Highsmith’s life seems stuck in a rut, an empty place filled with promises from her married lover, being let down, clandestine meetings, and angst filled phone-calls. A nosy journalist comes to interview her, and Highsmith’s reluctance only fuels her curiosity. But then one night changes everything between Highsmith, Sam, and the lover’s husband, and her life begins to imitate her crime novels.

I wish I knew Dawson’s writing technique, for she has layered the story with a light touch and the complexities of a Hitchcock plot. The words creep like shadows across the page, and the reader is kept in suspense despite being let in on the crime. You will hold your breath until the last page, it is that good!