The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter,
Virago Press 1981 (1967)
Bluebeard’s Castle hides a puppeteer of humans who defy their fate
Though this is an early work, I found it a much more engrossing read than some of Angela Carter’s shorter stories in the collection The Bloody Chamber. One of the fascinating things about humans is their propensity for confounding expectations, and while it was possible to see where the narrative generally was going, I was drawn to these grotesques (despite their very obvious failings) by their surprising resourcefulness as they tried to cope with Uncle Philip’s cruel and despotic regime and almost overpowering psychic vampirism.
In fact, despite their clearly delineated and sometimes unforgivable vices (unsavoury habits, voyeurism, unmitigated cruelty, incestuous relationships and acquiescent victimhood) you can’t help admiring their positive, mostly creative attributes: Finn’s painting, Francie’s musicianship, Margaret’s jewel-like cooking, Jonathan’s model-making, Melanie’s needlework, even Uncle Philip’s sheer inventiveness and craft.
Rumer Godden: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita Introduced by Anita Desai
Virago Modern Classics 2015 (1963)
Speaking as someone who has holidayed there, I can confirm that Lake Garda is a jewel, one of Italy’s many natural delights and the largest of its lakes, nestled at the foot of the Dolomites. When viewed from Limone on the western shore the picturesque town of Malcesine is dwarfed by the bulk of Monte Baldo rising behind it two kilometres into the sky, but in Malcesine itself the eye is drawn by the waters, to the craft which ply its surface and the changing outlook determined by the time of day and the weather. It was so in the nineties, and it was so in the early sixties when this novel is set. But for one of the main characters in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita trouble is looming, just as Monte Baldo looms above the seemingly impregnable castle of Malcesine.
Fanny Clavering is unhappy in her Home Counties village of Whitcross: she rattles around her home, her army officer of a husband is often abroad, her children preoccupied with their own lives. She finds herself attracted to Rob Quillet, who is directing a film in the vicinity, and they begin a chaste affair, meeting clandestinely for quiet meals and outings. There comes the inevitable moment when, rejecting her husband Darrell’s advances, she escapes, divorcing her husband and eloping with Rob to the Villa Fiorita near Malcesine. Here she discovers an idyllic existence on the borrowed property, one she had hardly ever dreamed of. But, like the sudden squalls that sometimes buffet the lake, a tempest is on its way to the villa in the persons of her two youngest children, Hugh and Caddie.
The cover is scarred and dog-eared, but no matter. I fall on it with delight, hand over my change, squirrel it away to peruse at leisure. Pre-owned or pre-loved but then discarded, I hope to offer it affection in my turn. I scurry home to begin the conversation.
Henry James: The Spoils of Poynton Edited with an introduction by David Lodge, notes by Patricia Crick
Penguin Classics 1987 (1897)
This is an extraordinarily intense novella: intense in its use of language and intense in its unremitting focus on just two or three characters. First and foremost in the cast list is Fleda Vetch, a young woman whose superior quick-wittedness and taste are balanced by her apparent plainness and moral rectitude; next is the manipulative Mrs Adela Gereth, a widow to whom the unmarried Fleda becomes a companion. Owen Gereth, Mrs Gereth’s son, has lately inherited Poynton Place, thereby becoming a most eligible if rather vapid bachelor. Further down the cast list come Mona Brigstock, a philistine but strong-minded young woman, as manipulative as Mrs Gereth, and her mother Mrs Brigstock. Fleda’s sister Maggie and a scant handful of other individuals have even more minor parts, either walk-on/walk-off or completely offstage.
I use the phrase cast list intentionally: James apparently used his failed attempt at writing for the stage to better effect here. We have set ‘scenes’, played out on a limited number of stage sets; and — in the manner of Ibsen, for instance — all the attention is placed on the psychological drama. The main crises of the narrative, and the final climactic incident, essentially take place ‘offstage’; foregrounded are the ever-evolving to-and-fro of relationships and interactions.
And what are these relationships and interactions? Essentially they’re founded on the fact that Mrs Gereth’s impressionable son Owen has fallen for the pretty but rather vulgar Mona, who it soon becomes clear will have no intrinsic appreciation for the antique treasures that the elder Gereths have accumulated over a lifetime at Poynton. Under the terms of her late husband’s will Mrs Gereth will be forever separated from both the house and its possessions unless she can persuade Owen to fall for a more suitable young woman, one with taste and sensitivity, one who can cajole Owen into letting his mother continue in residence; in short, one Fleda Vetch.
Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Illustrated from drawings by Pat Marriott
Puffin Books 1968 (1962)
The action of this book takes place in a period of English history that never happened — shortly after the accession to the throne of Good King James III in 1832 …
Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fits into no one category. From the introductory note one might assume it belongs to the genre called Uchronia (“no time”) in which it becomes clear that at some stage in the past history diverged from its familiar course; in this case the Jacobite rebellion succeeded and the Stuarts continued to reign in Britain from the middle of the 18th century. It is also on the frontiers of Utopia (“no place”) in that the England described includes places and distances which only by a large stretch of the imagination co-exist in our own world: Willoughby Chase House and the town of Blastburn seem to be located somewhere around Humberside, and yet we’re told the walking distance from Blastburn to London is about four hundred miles (in reality from the Humber to the capital is only around 200 miles by modern roads).
On another level the novel is a Dickensian parody: orphans (real or assumed) have to cope with bitter winters, reversals of fortunes and conniving villains with quirky names only to — one hopes — overcome their plight with a mixture of natural cunning, kind helpers and a measure of good luck. But this is also a children’s book and, as such books usually confirm, events are seen almost entirely through the eyes of youngsters. It lingers somewhere on the continuum between fairytale and fantasy, albeit that there is no magic involved, but with a large pinch of Gothick thrown in for good measure, complete with secret passages and rambling suites of rooms.
Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands:
a Record of Secret Service
Penguin Popular Classics 1995 (1903)
I don’t normally seek out thrillers, even classic ones such as The Riddle of the Sands, and though this has historic interest – set just before the Second Boer War and scant years before the death of Victoria – it’s not a period I’m particularly interested in. Add to this that it’s about sailing on the North Sea coast of Germany when dismal autumnal fogs abound and it sounds like a novel I would normally pass over. But after an initially slow but deliberately drab beginning the story picks up, starts to tease the imagination and, even for the recalcitrant landlubber, sparks admiration for the enthusiasm and bravery of the two protagonists. Continue reading “Confounding expectations”→
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.