House of Secrets

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Nina Bawden: The Secret Passage
Puffin Books 1979 (1963)

After an idyllic upbringing in Kenya three young children — John, Mary and Ben Mallory — suddenly lose their mother, only to be sent to a bleak seaside resort in England to stay with their ‘disagreeable’ Aunt Mabel, the landlady of a boarding house. To the trauma of losing one parent is added the mysterious disappearance of their father, a complete change of environment and the ministrations of a relative who is not only distant but seemingly resentful.

Bewildering as their new life is, there are further mysteries: how does Aunt Mabel survive when lodgers are few are far between and the two she does have appear not to pay rent? Why did their aunt have to move from a grander house next door, and are the rumours of a secret passage between the two buildings based on reality? And does one of the children truly see a face at the attic window next door or is it their imagination?

This, the earliest of Nina Bawden’s books for children, has an assured touch and a strong narrative, the action tipping over from one fraught incident into another until the final resolutions bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, even though it’s a close-run thing. This Puffin edition has a note that when republished in 1979 the opening chapters were shortened, but nothing essential appears to have been lost in the condensing.

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Yorkshire lasses

Les Sœurs Brontë 1848

An intriguing photographic image, with Les Sœurs Brontë written on its reverse, was found earlier this decade in a private Scottish collection by Robert Haley from Lancashire while he was researching for a book on Victorian photography.

As Haley explains in detail on his Brontë Sisters website this monochrome picture of three young women, two of them facing a third who is looking directly at the camera — and at us — can tell us a lot about when and where it was taken, what processes the portrait went through and, most importantly, who these women really were.

Haley makes a convincing case that the woman with the very frank gaze (possibly because she’s short-sighted) is Charlotte Brontë and the other two her sisters, Emily and Anne. Equally, he argues — using visual evidence — that the woman in the middle with the Jenny Lind hat is Emily, and the figure with the aquiline nose Anne.

The collodion image is likely to have been copied from a daguerreotype taken between the death of their brother Branwell and that of Emily in, he calculates, late 1848, at a studio in York.

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Not so jolly

Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon

Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun
HarperCollinsPublishers 2014 (1941)

The Jolly Roger Hotel on Smugglers’ Island is run by the ‘refayned’ Mrs Castle. Not unnaturally she is extremely anxious when a murder in high season threatens the establishment’s reputation as a place for relaxation, clearly unaware that in future years murder mystery weekends may enhance its attraction and increase visitor footfall.

Luckily, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is in residence, ready to help the local police inspector and Chief Constable when perpetrator and motivation elude their investigation.

An island setting of course increases the chances of the murderer being one of the select company on holiday at the hotel, and this being an Agatha Christie novel we have the usual panoply of colourful characters on display as potential suspects.

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Attention to detail

1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont

Robertson Davies:
World of Wonders (1975)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin 2011

‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ — From the Letter to the Hebrews

Davies’ Deptford Trilogy is completed by this, World of Wonders, and like the New Testament phrase from the Epistle to the Hebrews, is about the evidence of things not seen. As is reiterated a couple or more times in these pages, “Without attention to detail there is no illusion,” and true to this epigram we focus a great deal of attention on establishing how illusion is created, maintained and, ultimately, dispelled when the eye of faith is put to the test.

Here, after the hiatus of the second volume — in which the focus is on David Staunton — we return to the first volume’s narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, ensconced in Schloss Sorgenfrei in the Swiss Alps near St-Gall. It is the early 1970s and our attention is held by the illusionist Magnus Eisengrim, who’s taking part in a BBC drama documentary about the historical illusionist Robert-Houdin (from whom, incidentally, Houdini took his stage name).

Ramsay is recounting the conversations that took place after filming each day, between Eisengrim, the BBC producer, director and cameraman, plus Eisengrim’s colleagues Dr Liselotte Naegeli and, of course, Ramsay, conversations that later continue in London. Through these prandial and post-pradial chats we hear a lot of history, learn a lot of secrets and discover how illusion can fool the eye of the beholder.

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Smugglers’ Island

I’m nearing the end of a seaside holiday in Devon, reading, lazing, reading, sightseeing and reading.

Now I thought that I’d share a few images with you, specifically of the resort where Agatha Christie set her 1941 novel Evil Under the Sun which, not uncoincidentally, I’ve been chugging through while soaking up the local ambience.

Burgh Island, facing Bigbury-on-Sea, is thinly disguised as Smugglers’ Island, Leathercombe Bay, while the Burgh Island Hotel stars as The Jolly Roger Hotel.

Here is where Hercule Poirot and an assortment of guests are vacationing towards the end of August in the late 1930s. Strange to relate, murder seems to follow the Belgian like a faithful hound.

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Murgatroyd’s mansion

East front of Burton Constable Hall, E Yorks, in the 19th century

As part of a series of posts examining aspects of Joan Aiken’s Dickensian alternate history Midnight is a Place (1974) I want now to come to the mansion that is suggested in the title, Midnight Court, the stately pile formerly owned by the Murgatroyd family and now, as the result of a wager, in the grubby hands of Sir Randolph Grimsby.

The author gives us several details of its appearance and history in the text which I shall be attempting to fill out with speculation and suppositions. Even if you haven’t read, or don’t intend to read, the novel, don’t despair—there may still be material here that could entrammel your natural curiosity!

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The banshee’s exile

Edvard Munch 1895 lithograph of The Scream
Edvard Munch’s 1895 lithograph of The Scream

Joan Aiken: The Scream
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

Edvard Munch’s expressionist work The Scream is justly famous for its haunting quality: a figure shrieks in the foreground while in the background of the original painting a lurid red sky is reflected in the waters of a Norwegian fjord. Two figures are strolling along a walkway away from the figure, intent perhaps on the two vessels at anchor or the port which can just be discerned by the steeple of the church.

Munch’s painting has not only given its title to Joan Aiken’s children’s book but also furnished one of the many themes that run through its pages. An iconic image that has found its way onto objects as mundane as a whoopee cushion given to the author transforms into a screech that causes a fatal traffic accident, a shriek that recalls a banshee’s cry which in turn inspires a composition by obscure composer Ronald Runaldsen, and a howling storm that produces a wave fit to swamp the puny boat of any owner who foolishly ventures out.

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