Witch Week 2019 is coming

In two months it will be that traditional witching period of the year, which will mean it’s now time to remind you of the annual blogging event that is due then.

Witch Week is an annual event inspired by a 1982 novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. As always it’s planned to run from Halloween to Bonfire Night, the day celebrating the failure of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. (The ‘mother of all parliaments’ is going through a different kind of crisis just now.)

Inaugurated by Lory of Emerald City Book Review, the week (now in its sixth year) features guest posts and a readalong all under a broad theme; for 2019 this is VILLAINS.

Curated this year, as last year, by Lizzie Ross and myself, 2019’s posts will all appear here on Calmgrove: at present we plan that they will feature selected villains from Shakespeare and in graphic novels, in the Chronicles of Narnia, in Diana Wynne Jones’ Black Maria (also published as Aunt Maria) and in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles.

The readalong will be Cart and Cwidder, from Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy sequence The Dalemark Quartet; you are invited to read this beforehand and join in a discussion introduced by an edited online conversation.

The wrap-up post will then announce next year’s theme, one we hope you will love getting your teeth into!

Two months sounds a long time away but that will give us time to chivvy along tardy guests (including me!) and also give you time to think around the theme as well as to source a copy of the readalong. (HarperCollins Children’s Books have published a new UK edition in the last couple or so years, for example.)

Hope you’re as excited as we are: heaven knows that villains are more acceptable in fiction than in real life…

The Imaginarium by Chris Riddell, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath

Time is. Time was. Time is past.

Medieval manticore

“… a continual reminder of the consequences that can follow a single action.”

The Deptford Trilogy is my first — but not my last – foray into the world of Robertson Davies. How have I not been aware of his work up to now? Like many another convert to his writing I’m recommending him to anyone who will listen, and our household has now invested in two further trilogies of his. Yet how to explain his appeal in a few paragraphs when every page, sometimes every paragraph, offers some new delight?

The basic premise is easily told. This series introduces us to the lives of three men from rural Ontario over some seven decades, through the first world war, the interwar years and on into a Europe at peace. Fifth Business is recounted by one of the author’s alter egos, Dunstan Ramsay, who sees his life through the prism of a childhood incident when a woman gives premature birth because she has been hit by a stone inside a snowball. The Manticore, another first person account, narrates the story of the son of the boy who threw the snowball, as told to a Swiss psychoanalyst. With World of Wonders we’re back with Ramsay, who now reports the conversations which Paul Dempster – the boy born prematurely sixty years before but now, as Magnus Eisengrim, a world-famous illusionist – has with BBC personnel making a drama documentary, in which he plays the role of another great illusionist from history.

The problem the reader has is deciding when a narrator is being unreliable, which could well be most of the time. Reported speech is given in great detail which, if these were genuine memoirs, would require prodigious feats of memory. Nevertheless, such is the author’s skill and stylistic legerdemain we mostly buy into what is being spun, this despite the fact that Davies gives so many untrustworthy clues. In The Manticore David Staunton describes Ramsay’s creed: “history is the mass of observable or recorded fact, but myth is the abstract or essence of it.” This encourages us to doubt Ramsay’s account in Fifth Business, for how can we innocent readers distinguish between what is historical and what is mythical in what Ramsay tells us?

Continue reading “Time is. Time was. Time is past.”

A curate’s egg examined

Oakwell Hall, Birstall, W Yorks

Charlotte Brontë: Shirley
Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1849)

Charlotte Brontë’s follow-up to Jane Eyre turns out to be a curious affair, one in which I found enjoyment and boredom in equal measure. It’s a work that tries to have its cake and eat it and, as a result, fails to completely satisfy. But that’s not to say it’s not worth the effort — on the contrary.

Shirley was first published with the subtitle A Tale, and this I think was to distinguish it from Jane Eyre which had billed itself as An Autobiography. This third person approach proves to be a poisoned chalice (The Professor and Villette were first person narratives, like Jane Eyre) when the omniscient storyteller, unable to maintain a straight face, constantly and self-consciously undermines her ‘tale’ with humorous authorial asides.

But then I think the forced levity may be in reaction to a year of tragedy — her two sisters and her brother all died between September 1848 and May 1849 — and the humour may have been a way to distance herself from the enforced solitude she must then have felt. This dissembling I fancy is a key to unlocking the Chinese boxes which makes up the novel’s construction.

Continue reading “A curate’s egg examined”

Reading Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies

The inaugural Robertson Davies Reading Week is Lory Hess’ dream child, drawing attention to a distinguished Canadian author who deserves to be even better known — I’d certainly not heard of him until recently!

Running from today, 25th August, to 31st August, Lory (Emerald City Book Review) will be featuring guest posts from Lizzie (Lizzie Ross, writer), Naomi (Consumed by Ink), Marcie (Buried in Print) and myself on several of RD’s works, including The Merry Heart, For Your Eye Alone, High Spirits, Murther and Walking Spirits, and The Deptford Trilogy (this last by yours truly).

Lory is publishing a schedule today on Emerald City Book Review, her introductory post telling you all you need to know about why you should investigate this fine author’s works if you don’t already know of them.


A brief preview of what’s in this blog’s pipeline:

  • A review of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) and a couple of companion posts in which I delve a little deeper into the novel
  • A repost of my Robertson Davies piece which I wrote for Lory’s RD reading week and which will appear there first
  • A preview of Witch Week 2019, the annual literary event which is due to take place here from 30th October to November 6th

Lost and found

“It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
— from the Parable of the Prodigal Son

I’ve written before and at length about that sense of bereavement when a treasured book is lent out, who knows when to who knows whom, and is then seemingly forever lost to view.

I felt this about Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World (Routledge 2000), a study which I was certain I’d lent to one friend or other but couldn’t for the life of me remember who; and all enquiries led down dim cul-de-sacs.

Great was the joy when on a recent visit to friends (no names, no pack drill) the long lost volume was discovered sitting snugly between studies on art, architecture and psychology. I can tell you that I did indeed make merry and was glad!

Continue reading “Lost and found”

Vulpine villains

Cover illustration by Pat Marriott for the Puffin edition

Joan Aiken:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Red Fox 2004 (1962)

Though following the grand 19th-century novel tradition The Wolves of Willoughby Chase just lacks suitably teasing chapter headings, whether prosaic, witty, verbose or obscure.

I have taken it upon myself to remedy their absence in Joan Aiken’s mash-up of Dickens, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and a folktale from Jean de Bosschere’s Christmas Tales from Flanders.

<!–more–>

Chapter 1. Bonnie Green awaits her first cousin Sylvia in snowbound Willoughby Chase; but first meets Miss Letitia Slighcarp, her fourth cousin (once removed) and new governess.
Chapter 2. In which Silvia Green leaves her Aunt Jane in London, only to be tempted by confections in a railway carriage and waylaid by wolves.
Chapter 3. Annabelle is startled — the curious case of the portmanteau — a dreamless slumber.
Chapter 4. The precarious incident of the wolves in the twilight — the archer boy in Willoughby Park.
Chaper 5. Sylvia and Bonnie dishonourably spy on Slighcarp, who thereby shows her true colours, and on Grimshaw who, remarkably, has recovered his composure.
Chapter 6. Weeks pass, winter deepens; a note goes awry after unwelcome news and waifs are sent away.
Chapter 7. Herein girls become ciphers, silence is not golden, and the hand of Friendshipp provides no succour.
Chapter 8. Bold Bonnie is locked in a cupboard and Sylvia, ill, locked in the coal cellar, but geese, cakes, cheese and eggs assuage more than hunger.
Chapter 9. In which a ladder to freedom is taken but our doughty trio must beware snakes in the grass.
Chapter 10. A doctor today keeps Jane’s illness at bay; Grimshaw goes for a gander, gets caught unawares and thrown down the stairs.
Chapter 11. Wherein a school of scandal is interrupted by the return of the natives, the fourth cousin is finally removed, and sundry lives are rounded with a sleep.

Can any true lover of literature fail to be thrilled by this synopsis and thus resist the urge to read this for the first, or even a further, time?


A review of the Puffin edition has previously been posted here, but a further perusal (in a different edition) for the Twitter readalong #WilloughbyReads encouraged me to supply the missing chapter headings

For more on this wonderful novel see this post, ‘A Wonderful Year for Wolves‘ by Lizza Aiken, on her mother’s “small masterpiece”, its influences and its reception.

With this review I’ve officially completed my Goodreads goal of reading (and reviewing) 52 books for 2019 … and we’re barely two-thirds of the way through the year. Dare I up my target to 78?!

A minute past midnight

OK, this my final (?) post on the most non-canonical of the Wolves Chronicles, Midnight is a Place (1974) following a series of discussions.

I’ve already discoursed on the characters, the geography, the timeline and themes, and it may seem that I’ve covered everything essential in relation to the novel.

But in truth, apart from the review, these discussions have really only addressed the questions Who, Where, When and What — still missing are some answers to the How and the Why. Here will be the place to consider these in my customary cursory manner.

Continue reading “A minute past midnight”

Necessary to happiness

Charlotte Brontë (restored detail from the Pillar Portrait by Branwell Brontë)

Inverted Commas 12: Necessary change

“Is change necessary to happiness?”

A few choice quotes from Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849), requiring minimal commentary from me.

“Stick to the needle—learn shirt-making and gown-making, and pie-crust-making, and you’ll be a clever woman some day. Go to bed now; I’m busy with a pamphlet here.”

So speaks the Reverend Matthewson Helstone to his niece Caroline.

“I feel there is something wrong somewhere. I believe women should have more to do—better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now.”

Thus Caroline; and again, later, she expresses this belief:

Fathers should “seek for them an interest and an occupation which shall raise them above the flirt, the manoeuvrer, the mischief-making tale-bearer.”

From a conversation between Caroline and her friend Shirley, this cri de coeur:

“But are we not men’s equals, or are we not?”

Caroline again:

“I am making no money—earning nothing. […] I should like an occupation; and if I were a boy, it would not be so difficult to find one.”

Shirley is mostly set during 1812 though it of course reflects much that still applied in the late 1840s.

But has that necessary change of which she writes happened yet, even now?

I think we have more than an inkling of the answer to that.

All we survey

Neptune (NASA image)

John Dickinson: We
David Fickling Books 2010

I found this an utterly gripping novel, especially after the slow and steady start signalled by its opening:

He had asked to be alone when he woke. After all, he had reasoned, from now on he would always be alone.

But are we really, truly alone? Will there be, though we may not be aware of the fact, someone else? Are we, like Cowper’s Alexander Selkirk, wrong in our assumptions that we are monarchs of all we survey, that we’re “out of humanity’s reach” and must finish our “journey alone” even at the edge of space?

This issue is at the heart of this novel, questions about Earth’s uniqueness as a cradle for life. And if there is life ‘out there’, what form will it take?

Continue reading “All we survey”

Willoughby Chase is a place

The fictional town of Blastburn features in these two novels

“The past fortnight I have been to Willoughby again,” as Daphne du Maurier did not write. With a number of other enthusiastic Joan Aiken fans on Twitter I have been discussing this author’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase chapter by chapter. Our genial and generous host Ben Harris got us to consider literary points, to be creative with words and materials, and to ponder related matters.

The last month or so has also seen me blogging about Aiken’s Midnight is a Place, a novel set in the same or a similar universe and, as it happens, also featuring the fictional town of Blastburn. Both these distractions have proved immensely enjoyable and — as one of my parting shots — I pray your indulgence as I share a few thoughts and conclusions.

And if anyone who’s on Twitter is interested in the full range of tweets just search the hashtag #WilloughbyReads to see what the fuss is about.

Continue reading “Willoughby Chase is a place”

Dark deeds and the Devil

Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print
Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print

Philip Pullman:
Count Karlstein
Doubleday 2002 (1982)

Exactly four decades ago this year [2013] as a student teacher I took part in a college production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when I sang in the chorus and took a minor role as Prince Ottokar. First performed in 1821 this was a landmark opera sung in German, adapting native folksongs — the famous ‘Huntsmen’s Song’ has affinities with the traditional English tune ‘Strawberry Fair’, which may even have been influenced by Weber’s tune — and featuring supernatural Gothic horror.

The Gothic horror tradition was also purloined by Mary Shelley when she first composed Frankenstein while sojourning near Geneva in 1816, though the novel wasn’t published until 1818. One of the crucial scenes takes place on a glacier near Mont Blanc — coincidentally, we were holidaying one summer in Chamonix when our son was reading Frankenstein as a set text for school, within sight of the very same Mer de Glace glacier where Viktor Frankenstein is confronted by his monster.

These personal memories came flooding back when reading this early piece of fiction by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman.

Continue reading “Dark deeds and the Devil”

Midnight at midwinter

A grim-looking Grimsby, in the 19th century

We come now to the penultimate post in a series of discussions of Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974). We know to the year and the day when the novel opens — 30th October 1842 — which is explicitly noted in the first few pages by one of the protagonists. This gives us both a starting point for the action and also a hint as to the kind of themes and concepts the author may be including as the story develops.

Over ten chapters I calculate that the plot takes us from the last days of October to the last day of the year. And, if I am correct to assume that Midnight is a Place can be retrospectively included in the series of novels that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) then this 1842 date will prove crucial in determining the chronology of the Wolves Chronicles after the end of Dido and Pa (1987).

Continue reading “Midnight at midwinter”

Seesaw sympathies

Brighton Front (postcard image: Old UK photos)

E F Benson:
The Blotting Book
Vintage Classics 2013 (1908)

Set partly in Brighton and partly in Falmer (on the road east to Lewes, East Sussex) this crime novel — less a whodunit, more a courtroom drama — is a stylish period piece, an Edwardian mystery with just a hint of the supernatural in the guise of a prophetic dream. In a way this novella doesn’t quite make up its mind what kind of genre it intends to be so includes a bit of everything, even including a bit of financial advice along the lines of *the value of your investments may go down as well as up*.

The essential plot is so simple that to do more than recount the basic set-up would be to give the game away. Let me introduce the two lawyer partnership based in Brighton of Edward Taynton and Godfrey Mills. Then let’s meet two of their clients, the widow Mrs Assheton and her son Morris, a young man soon to be of age, a ‘racey’ chap who likes fast cars. Morris hopes to be engaged to Madge Templeton, daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Templeton.

When one of these individuals disappears an Inspector Figgis gets involved, and when matters eventually come to court we finally learn not so much who-did-what as how-it-all-happened, amidst all the to and fro of legal proceedings and timely revelations. Fraud, gambling, blackmail, slander, forgery, murder — it’s all here, but as this involves the upper middle classes rest assured that it’s mostly quite genteel, there’s little or no gratuitous violence and the lower classes know their place.

Continue reading “Seesaw sympathies”

Bibliovore

The briefest of brief updates, but first — an apology.

I’m sorry to be behind in reading and commenting on others’ blogs — mainly for good reasons, but I hate to neglect writers and artists I follow: in a week or three I hope I may have started to catch up. The reasons?

  1. It’s the summer.
  2. It’s the Go-Away-I’m-Reading state of mind.
  3. I have grandparent duties.
  4. I’m trying — and mostly failing — to complete the titles in my official 20 Books of Summer list before the start of September.
  5. I’m mostly on Twitter doing a The Wolves of Willoughby Chase readalong called #WilloughbyReads.
  6. I’m reading. Mostly titles not on my 20 Books of Summer list.
  7. I’m composing posts for another blog and for an event in … autumn.

Anything else? Oh yes, I’m scrolling through past reviews to repost because I’m too busy to compose new ones.

I think that just about covers it. Sorry.

The reader in the midst of the action

sperm-whale

Nathaniel Philbrick:
In the Heart of the Sea
HarperCollins 2001

This is one of those rare non-fiction books that encourages you to continue reading in the same way that a good novel keeps you glued to the page. All the more remarkable, then, that this study gives the background to a true-life saga that inspired one of the great but arguably most difficult novels, Moby-Dick, a work that I’ve always struggled to complete.

In the Heart of the Sea (the title inspired by an extract from Melville’s book, as the end of the epilogue makes clear) has now made me all the more determined to tackle Moby-Dick again, but this time with more understanding, appreciation and stamina.

Continue reading “The reader in the midst of the action”