Frost in May

This is the story of 4 years in the life of Fernanda ‘Nanda’ Grey. It opens in 1908 when Nanda is 9 years old and being taken by her father to her new school. Lippington is a convent school of the order of The Five Wounds and home to girls of old European, wealthy Catholic families. Nanda is singled out from the beginning for being middle class and the daughter of a ‘convert’. The school is on the outskirts of London but could be anywhere, ‘catholicism isn’t a religion, it’s a nationality’ says one of the older girls and a Lippington girl is a Child of the Five Wounds for the rest of her life.

The cold, clear atmosphere is described through Nanda’s eyes. The school commands absolute authority, every child is under constant observation, not allowed to walk about in two’s or form close friendships.

‘Some of that severity which to the world seems harshness is bound up in the school rule which you are privileged to follow . . . We work today to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.’

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I’ve saved my favourite ’til last, I’ve had some great reads on my 10 books of Summer list but this is my dearest because it’s about freedom, love and gardens.

Jennifer Dodge has been looking after her widowed father, an eminent author for 12 years, working as his secretary as well as general housekeeper He dislikes her because she doesn’t look like one of his ‘consumptively thin’ heroines and he hates being shut up with a spinster daughter – despite the fact that he is the reason. Selfish to his core he has never thought of anyone else’s thoughts, needs or desires and Jen spends her days cautious and on guard. Until he announces he’s going to be married and Jennifer realises what this means for her – freedom.

As soon as she can, with the help of her small legacy from her mother, she sets out on an August day to look at two cottages for rent that she’s found in The Churchgoer. Setting out from London and Gower Street to the hot dry countryside of Sussex, she feels alive. After years spent in a house where fresh air was kept out and all her movements were watched, her body and spirit relax and dissolve into happiness. She’s open to adventure and determined to prove that she can live well and comfortably on her £100 a year.

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Much Dithering

First published in 1938, this is just lovely. The Ditherings, Much and Little are villages known for their peacefulness. Kept firmly in the past by the Honourable Mrs. Augusta Renshawe, there isn’t even a petrol pump and that’s the way the villagers like it. Our heroine is Jocelyn, a mild mannered 25 year old who has lived with her aunt in Much Dithering all her life. Tutored as a child with Augusta’s son Lancelot, the two fall into marriage at their families request and just get on with their lives hardly noticing any difference to their routines. Lancelot keeps up with his stamp collection and rare tulips and Jocelyn can be counted on to deliver the parish magazine and play the piano at social gatherings. Even when Lancelot dies, Jocelyn’s life doesn’t change. Her small circle includes the vicar’s wife, her aunt and her mother in law, and the grumpy old Colonel Tidmarsh who they’ve decided she should marry.

But then a new family arrive, parvenus they can be up to no good, and Jocelyn’s mother, Ermyntrude Lascelles, who ‘despised her daughter for her lack of initiative and fondness for good works’, but needs a bed now that her husband has died and low and behold the rich young man she’s got her eye on has given his address as . . . Dithering Place!

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The Murder At The Vicarage

First published in 1930, this is the first Miss Marple mystery and is narrated by Leonard Clement the rather meek clergyman of St. Mary Meade who lives with his much younger racier wife, Griselda and 16 year old nephew Dennis.

Through him we get to know the local characters. Colonel Protheroe, the pompous curmudgeon who lives at Old Hall with his second wife Anne, ‘a remarkably handsome women in a rather unusual style’ and his daughter Lettice, a wraith-like creature in a yellow beret; Dr. Haydock and the gossipy cats, as Griselda calls them. When the cats meet for tea and scandal, Leonard seats himself between Miss Marple and Miss Wetherby and introduces us to Miss Marple:

‘Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous.’

Into this quiet village comes an archeologist, Dr. Stone and his secretary, Miss Cram. The enigmatic Mrs Lestrange and Lawrence Redding, a young artist who paints Lettice in her bathing dress and causes a sensation. And then Leonard comes home one day to find Colonel Protheroe dead in his study. Enter Inspector Slack and Colonel Melchett and everything’s in place for a classic whodunnit.

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Princes In The Land

If Summerwater shows that families have no idea what each other is thinking in 2021 then Princes in the Land shows that they didn’t in 1938 either! Patricia and Hugh Lindsey and their three children, August, Giles and Nicola are the family, living in Oxford where Hugh is now a Professor of Poetry.

When the book opens, Patricia is going with her sister Angela and their unbearably snobbish mother, Blanche, to live with Lord Waveney, their paternal grandfather, on his estate. It’s a life of privilege and Pat grows into a tall, thoroughbred countrywomen. She’s the favourite of her grandfather but disliked by her mother for her unruly behaviour, muddy knees and aversion too balls and dresses. Her marriage to Hugh, the son of a builder, and according to Blanche ‘not really a gentleman’ takes her to Glasgow and a new way of life with three children. Stoically she cancels her subscription to Horse and Hound and substitutes it for Women and Home,

But when the children are older, there comes the move to Oxford and for Pat a return to country living, horses and dogs. Life is just as she wants it and her children grow up to love the pony club (Nicola), girls who wear pearls (August) and writing poetry (Giles). But as August wryly observes ‘It’s one’s parents’ attitude that forces one to tell lies . . .

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The Cornish Coast Murder

Another fun mystery from John Bude and I see from the introduction that The Cornish Coast Murder is the debut novel from Ernest Carpenter Elmore writing under his crime novelist pseudonym.

It begins with a really good idea for a book club. The vicar, the Reverend Dodd meets his friend, Dr. Pendrill in his comfortable home near Boscawen, a village ‘clustered about a sandy, rock-strewn cove’. After sherry and an excellent dinner the two bachelors settle in front of the fire with their coffee and open a crate containing six crime novels that has arrived from the library

They each take three novels to read and then swap with each other a few days later before repackaging and returning to the library. They’ve carried on with this ritual for years, each vicariously living the life of a crime buster until an actual murder actually happens in their own quiet village one stormy night and they get to put their ideas into practice.

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A Time Of Gifts

In 1933, 18 year old Patrick Leigh Fermor decides to leave London and England and set out on foot across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, living as a tramp or pilgrim.

Written in 1977, A Time of Gifts tells the first part of his journey from the Hook of Holland to the middle Danube. Starting with his original diaries and notebooks he expounds on the history of Europe, through its artists and music, architecture, languages and dialects and the movement of its tribes and sects.

Able and willing to talk to anybody and sleep wherever he could, it’s his encounters with other people that I enjoyed the most. There are lots of barn floors covered in hay and a blanket for the night, sent on his way with a cheery wave and a thick slice of black bread and butter and drunken evenings in bars and on boats with the locals. Or my favourite, Konrad, who he meets in the Salvation Army hostel in Vienna, when he notices him reading Titus Andronicus and for a while they become as tight as (almost) thieves! But he also has a letter of introduction to a Baron in Munich who then goes on to write letters to his friends across Europe, so that every so often Paddy has a bath and a dressed up night on the town. And we get the wonderful contrast caught in lines like:

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A Film For April: It Happened One Night

What a gorgeously fabulous film this is. Directed by Frank Capra in 1934 It Happened One Night set the tone for screwball comedies to come and was the first film to win all five of the big academy awards. Best director, actor, actress, picture and adapted screenplay.

Spoilt heiress Ellen (Ellie) Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has eloped with King Westley, a fortune hunting rogue. Her father who sees King for what he is wants the marriage annulled and Ellie escapes his control on a Greyhound bus to New York where she plans to meet her new husband. But on the bus is an out of work newspaper reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who recognises Ellie and gives her a choice. Either she can give him an exclusive story and he’ll help her get to King or he’ll tell her father where she is. Obviously Ellie agrees to his demand and fun and adventures ensue.

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A Moment of War

This is the third part of Laurie Lee’s autobiography that started with Cider With Rosie, looking back at his childhood in the Slad Valley. At the end of the first volume in 1934, he leaves his home on a bright Sunday morning in early June. He’s 19, ‘still soft at the edges, but with a confident belief in good fortune’ and jumps straight in to the second volume, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, (which I read but I’m afraid never got around to reviewing). With a tent, a change of clothes and his violin he ends up in Spain in 1935 and wonders through the country, a hapless young troubadour until he returns to England on board a Naval destroyer in 1936, just as the civil war is spreading.

At home, ‘deep in the grip of a characteristic mid-thirties withdrawal, snoozing under old newspapers and knotted handkerchiefs’ , he begins to feel shameful at having left Spain so readily and decides to return as soon as possible. He begins his journey on foot and steps straight in to volume three.

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Random Thursday: Pick Up A Penguin

In 1934 when a young Allen Lane was working for his cousins publishing company The Bodley Head, he attended a conference on ‘The New Reading Public’. After a weekend in Devon with his friend Agatha Christie he was at Exeter St. David’s station waiting for a train to Paddington when he realised that the only books on sale were ‘shabby reprints of shoddy novels’. What was needed for the ‘new reading public’ were good quality paperbacks, in a size that could fit into your pocket and at a price everyone could afford.

He took the idea back to the office and ideas were rattled out around the table. He wanted to sell a brand, publishing in batches of 10 books, each with a recognisable cover and with a name that was easy to say and remember. To sell them where people gathered and for sixpence, the price of a packet of 10 cigarettes. Allen’s secretary, Joan Coles suggested a penguin and Edward Young, a junior in the editorial department designed the logo. After much wrangling Lane was able to buy the rights for paperback editions of his first 10 books and by using the offices and imprint of The Bodley Head, in 1935 the first batch of 10 Penguins was published.

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