For me it was a story about a man called Mr Flop who was a flower collector. Mr Flop gathered up faded and dying flowers and whisked them off on a flying apple-tree branch (sort of prototype of Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000) to the Kingdom of Flowers where they ‘regained their lost beauty and perfume and became more beautiful than ever’.
I loved the idea, but even more appealing was that Mr Flop whisked off the young heroine for a magical visit to the Kingdom on his flying branch. And what was the young heroine’s name? Alice? Dorothy? Wendy? No, they’d already had their fun. It was Laurette.
Last weekend, taking a break from romantic sagas and all things Basque, we headed off to the village of St Antonin Noble Val in the neighbouring department of the Tarn-et-Garonne. Though a mere hour’s drive away, the countryside soon began to change, the hilltop villages and high plateaux reminding us we were approaching the towering limestone cliffs of the gorges de l’Aveyron.
A quick read of the local history before setting off brought to mind Montaigne’s gloomy pronouncement that ‘of all the animals in the world, man is the most fearsome’. In the 13th century the village of Saint Antonin was a Cathar stronghold, earning the wrath of the Holy Roman Church and its crusading army (The Albigensian Crusade), including a sack of the town by the troops of the devil himself, Simon de Montfort. You can read more about him here including his well-deserved demise in 1218 at the hands, it is rumoured, of an early feminist from Toulouse who launched a rock at his head from the roof of Saint-Sernin.
In the 14th century the village was fought over at length by the two opposing sides in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453, House of Plantagenet v House of Valois), then, after a bit of a breather in the 15th century, things turned nasty once more when the Wars of Religion (1562-1598) broke out and the village became a bastion of Protestantism. A massacre of Protestants by Catholics in 1561 was followed by a massacre of Catholics by Protestants in 1568. (Everybody following? Good. Nearly finished.)
King Louis XIII intervened in 1621 (he had come to lay siege to the neighbouring town of Montauban) destroying the village walls and re-baptising the place Saint Antonin Noble Val.
There was a happy codicil to this page of horrors in 2014, when the village was chosen as the setting for a rom-com starring Helen Mirren and Om Puri The 100-Foot Journey.* ‘It behoveth man more to make love not war,’ as I’m sure the Mighty Michel would have written if he’d been around to comment.
The village layout has remained authentically medieval as we soon realised when stupidly following the satnav into the narrow streets leading to our chambre d’hôtes. We were forced to a halt three times, unsure whether it was possible to continue further without leaving a couple of Peugeot wing mirrors embedded in priceless ancient monuments, finally helped by a kind local who, we later discovered, was the baker, and who relayed to our hosts the news of our impending arrival long before we’d scraped through the labyrinth and managed to find a parking place safely outside the ancient centre.
Having abandoned the car, we found ourselves in Kodak heaven.
But before indulging in a point and click fest, we checked in at our lodgings, the Auberge Lion d’Or, an 18th century coaching inn whose sign advertises ‘Un bon logis à pied ou à cheval’–‘a good lodging whether on foot or on horseback’, words which held a particular resonance for us. (Next time, remember to bring Dobbin). Since January this year the establishment has been run by the felicitously named Mr and Mrs Shakeshaft (no I’m not making it up), more commonly known as Renée and Paul, whose hostly qualities have evidently contributed hugely to the establishment’s success.
The inside is as atmospheric as the outside, but though the beams may be black with age and the stones ancient, the beds are 21st century comfortable, the bathrooms are en suite, and on this wet and chilly November evening, a black stove resembling a lion couchant roared away in the comfortable salon topping up the blissfully warm under-floor heating.
We decided to leave our explorations until the next day (hopefully sunny) and, on the recommendation of our hosts, sallied forth to dine at Le Carrée des Gourmets. The Muse, obviously miffed at being abandoned, decided to give a nudge: the restaurant was decorated with strings of Espelette peppers and the wine list featured Irouleguy, which naturally we sampled, saying ‘Vive le pays basque’ as we ate an excellent meal of chicken and gambas for me, and sweetbreads in a snail sauce for the Maître de Maison.
Saturday dawned damp and misty, giving us a moody view of the roc d’Anglars from the bedroom window and encouraging us to linger over the copious breakfast during which we discovered, thanks to our host, that some scenes from The 100-Foot Journey had actually been shot in the auberge.
As the weather cleared we set out with map and guide book, starting with the little alley next to the inn, curiously named Carriera Bombacuol, (rue Bombecul in modern French). ‘Stick out ze bottom??’ In spite of our limited knowledge of Occitan we got the message as we teetered down the treacherous slippery slope of Bum-in-the-air Street * in a hunched, waddling, semi-crouch. Later our hostess explained that this was where the horses were taken down to the stables underneath the auberge, the valets doubtless adopting the same inelegant posture as ourselves in order to avoid Bums-on the-cobbles.
From then on it was merveille after merveille in this village out of time where ancient archways invite the visitor to wander into the past through crooked twisting streets. Arriving at the Place de la Halle, the market square, there was a more open vista from which to admire one of the most impressive facades, that of the Maison des Consuls, the old town hall, built in 1125 and reputedly the oldest civic building in France. Restorations were carried out on the tower by Viollet-le-Duc, the man who restored the city of Carcassonne to its former glory and set off lots of architectural arguments.
In Rue Guilhem Peyre, the narrow street which winds down as you step under the tower archway, is the Caserne des Anglais. English troops occupied these barracks in the 13th and 14th centuries, during the Hundred Years’ War and judging by the amount of English we heard, several descendants have since returned, this time however in a spirit of entente cordiale. One of the places I’d hoped to drop in to was The English Bookshop, opened 20 years ago, which I was looking forward to raiding. But like many other commerces it was closed, one disadvantage of an off-season trip here, but offset by the fact that, away from the squares and cafés, we virtually had the town to ourselves.
What a treat. Drinking in the atmosphere of the silent streets with shuttered facades, lingering before buildings with fascinating histories: the Maison du Roy, a gift to King Louis IX, ‘Saint Louis’ as he became after his death, from Guy de Montfort, brother of the infamous Simon, in 1227 and whose first floor has 6 ornately decorated Gothic windows; the Maison de l’Amour (a former brothel?) whose 15th century arcade is surmounted by a carving of a couple exchanging a kiss, peculiar carvings and corbels such as the one showing a naked upside down woman held in the jaws of a lion-like monster.
Our wanderings were accompanied by the sound of underground streams rushing beneath grates; occasionally we crossed placid canals. Saint Antonin is a watery town, an important tanning industry flourished here in the 13th century.
Sunday was our last day. We’d been eagerly anticipating exploring the famous weekly market which extends from one edge of the town to the other. But as the rain pelted down with a vengeance, shoes began to squelch and drops began to seep under collars, we finally abandoned the attempt and headed to the car. Hurrying over the cobbles we were halted in our tracks by mouth-watering smells coming from one stall. We ended up returning to The Cowshed with the spoils of our trip into the Middle Ages, half-a dozen freshly baked naan breads and a bag of onion bhajis.
More Om Puri than Simon de Montfort. But we’ll be back to try the saucissons…
*In 2001 the village also featured in Charlotte Gray, the film adaptation of the book by Sebastian Faulks.
** In French bomber = to stick out cul = arse
PS We ate lunch at a tiny café called Le Citron Bleu, highly recommended!
BEFORE YOU GO….
Bookworms! Hot from the press…Don’t miss Legacy, the latest in the Project Renova series by Terry Tyler andTwo Rivers, one Stream, Book 2 of Karma’s Children by John Dolan (more about these authors here)
Also, to make sure you have plenty of books to see you through the Turkey Season, Books 1 and 2 in the French Summer Novels are FREE to download this weekend.
Todays blog gets passionate about book series and in particular two Indie authors I’ve recently discovered who have got me well and truly hooked and dangling, Terry Tyler and Jonathan Dunsky.
You know the feeling. You’re reading a book, totally absorbed in the writer’s world, you suddenly realise there are only a few pages left, character-separation angst starts to hit, panic sets in– and then you remember – hey, there’s a Book 2! And 3. And 4 , and…(anyone interested in veering off course for a minute, this link gives some statistics, there’s one series called Longarm (no, I’d never heard of it either, but it’s a successful adult western series), which has 370 books and is still going. 370 books!!!)
My respect for such writers has increased mightily this year, having finally put to bed Villa Julia, the last book in my own series, (still on revision loop). There is now a poster on the wall saying ‘NEVER TRY TO WRITE A SERIES AGAIN.’ How do they do it, these people? Keeping a host of characters on simultaneous simmer, remembering all the personal trivia so essential for continuity (‘Anouk was wearing her signatureperfume, Diorissimo…’ wait, was it Diorissimo? Miss Dior? Arpège? ‘His hand was trembling as he poured himself a hefty shot of his favourite…his favourite…’ Laphroaig? Glenfiddich? Where are my notes?) while forging ahead with other matters, like writing the damned story. Authors like George R.R. Martin must have computers in their heads the size of Deep Blue. Either that or a wall covered in a million post its. But I digress. Back to the two authors who inspire today’s piece.
Being an equal opportunity writer I’ll start with the gent. As blog readers will know I have a bit of a soft spot for Private Investigators. December 2015’s blog was in praise of three terrific Indie authors– John Dolan, Matt Abraham and Mike Faricy– who have invented very different but equally unforgettable sleuths. It’s not yet got to the point where there’s a blow-up doll in a corner of the study wearing a trilby and a trench coat, but it’s close. So when I was trawling the ‘thriller/hard-boiled’ category of Amazon e-books this year and glimpsed a hunched silhouette smoking endless packs of cigarettes on a tiny balcony in 1947 Tel Aviv, I just knew I had to find out more.
Meet the man with the haunted green eyes, the aptly named Adam Lapid. Distinguishing features: Hungarian ex-cop, chain smoker, caffeine addict, reader of Westerns, solitary chess player. Hero of the Israeli army, assassin of Nazi torturers. Also, unlike his wife and two daughters, Auschwitz survivor. He’s the archetypal 6ft 3-inch tough guy, but one who closes his window at night so the neighbours don’t hear his nightmare-induced screams. Those green eyes have seen the worst of human nature, leaving him a man obsessed, driven by a desire for vengeance. Starting a new life in a new country as a private investigator, his mission now is to help those in despair, those who have suffered loss, those who seek justice. A mother looking for a long-lost child, a man trying to find his sister’s killer, former inmates of concentration camps apparently driven to suicide…Working his different cases, Adam struggles to keep himself in the land of the living. His day-to-day life is a battle with recurrent nightmares, bouts of dizziness and disorientation and, worst of all, terrifying ‘hunger attacks’, a residue from his time in the camp, sending send him into uncontrollable ‘bestial trances’ where he crams himself with food like a starving animal.
His lifestyle gives new meaning to the terms ‘minimalist’ and ‘no frills’. In his tiny third-floor apartment on Hamacabbi Street is a battered bed, a set of mismatched furniture and a wardrobe containing four shirts, three pairs of trousers, a jacket, a coat and two pairs of shoes. In his kitchen are four plates, two soup bowls, two cups and a pan missing a handle. Oh, and a packet of margarine, some black bread and a tin of sardines. He does his job the old- school way, the only way, pounding the streets of the city, knocking on doors, calling in favours from his detective friend Reuben, travelling to far-flung desert towns on trundling buses, checking hotel registers, interviewing neighbours and employers, placing calls from drugstore phones, observing crime scenes, making notes, doggedly hunting down predators, sadists, torturers, the frightening inhabitants of the Tel Aviv underworld.
Contrasting with this starkness is the clamour, vibrancy and excess of his adoptive city. Tel Aviv takes on a shape, a smell, a feel, becomes real enough to touch. The scorching heat of summer, the lashing storms of winter, the inky, star-studded night sky; the crowded streets where all is noise and tumult, voices speaking in a ‘cocktail of languages and dialects and accents’, the blare of car horns, the cries of watermelon vendors, the clip-clop of horses and carts, the cacophony of radios and gramophones coming through open windows. The humid air is saturated with smells, landladies frying onions, street vendors selling sausages, housewives baking rugelach, the briny odour of the nearby sea. This is a café society, not the chic cafes of Paris or Rome with their gold-rimmed tables set elegantly under striped awnings, but dark, smoky places serving up whatever food can be got with rations or on the black market, goulash, chicken soup, powdered eggs. They are places where workers go to eat, where customers ‘starving for their lost families and their memories for culture’ gather to reminisce, to listen to music like that of the violinist of Auschwitz at the Café Budapest, taking his listeners ‘to another time and place’, drawing such emotion from his instrument that clients weep openly and Adam’s heart hammers in his ears.
It is in one such café that Adam has his unofficial office and second home, Greta’s café. Here reigns the eponymous owner, big-boned, big-bosomed, big-hearted. In a series full of characters as vividly portrayed as those in a Dickens bestiary, Greta stands out. She appears in every book, solid and steadfast as a rock in the torrent of Adam’s life, his loyal friend, spiritual mother, confidante and moral compass. It’s here that our anti-hero can drink the best coffee in Tel Aviv, beat himself at chess and, as night falls and the customers depart, take a seat opposite Greta. From the darkness of Allenby Street, the two of them can be glimpsed through the lighted window, figures in a Hopper painting, talking about the news and the weather, discussing Adam’s latest case, reflecting on life, on loss, on love.
Ah, l’amour, l’amour…Adam’s terrible grief at losing his family has prevented him from moving on emotionally, finding someone else to love, to build a future with. It has enabled him to resist the women Dunsky throws in his path– long-limbed athletic warriors, soft, rosy-lipped widows. All of them except one. Sima Vaaknin is another stand-out character, an unforgettable, double-barrelled, double-capitalled Femme Fatale. Her seductive beauty, mysterious allure, troubled past and unfathomable soul draw Adam to her scented boudoir like a moth drawn to a flame. ‘She was the ultimate temptation, a woman no man should be able to resist.’ Only in her arms can Adam forget for a moment the ghosts of his dead wife and daughters. The two damaged characters enter into a tension-ridden relationship which becomes increasingly troubling, ambiguous and unpredictable as the series progresses.
Dunsky is a bold, unafraid writer. With seemingly effortless ease he switches between passages of highly-coloured emotional and psychological intensity and black and white cinematic actions scenes featuring anything from good old Philip Marlowe style punch ups to shocking violence. The series combines elements of vintage noir– sharp dialogue, pounding rhythm, high-octane suspense– with bigger themes, treated in a more passionate, dramatic style. Historical notes–the memory of the Holocaust, the birth of Israel– are an essential backdrop to the action taking place centre stage.
It’s thrilling, intoxicating stuff. So far the series has four books, but scanning the comments from readers, I am not the only one eagerly awaiting more. Checking out the author’s Facebook page yesterday I read that Adam will be back in a Book 5, 6, and maybe 7…Will he get as far as Book 370? Who knows. Although Adam doesn’t mention Longarm, we do know that he is a fan of Clarence Mulford, creator of the Hopalong Cassidy westerns, of which he wrote 27…
From the past to the future. From 1940s Tel Aviv we boldly go to 2024 and a small seaside town on a small island just off the Continent. This is the UK, but definitely not as we know it. Tipping Point, Terry Tyler’s first book of three in the Project Renova series, certainly starts out looking very familiar and Bill Brysonish. We’re in Shipden, on the Norfolk coast, where, in a pretty house overlooking the sea, live Vicky, her daughter Lottie and a rather dodgy boyfriend called Dex, one of those silly conspiracy theorist types who’s always banging on about government plots. The band is playing, folks are socialising and drinking pints in pub gardens, eating ice-creams and flippin’ the burgers in the back garden. It’s all so normal.
But hang on, why is the hair on the nape of our necks starting to prickle? What are those funny-looking clouds up in the innocent blue sky that look a bit like mushrooms? What’s this tummy bug that’s going around? There’s not a ripple on the sea, so why are we getting the distinct feeling there’s something out there, a Mega-Jaws tunnelling through the murky deep and heading straight for the whitewashed cottage? The unease builds, the pace accelerates and with unnerving speed the oh-so-normal degenerates into ghastly nightmare. The tipping point has been reached. Society breaks down and the world we believe in is turned on its head.
It’s a wonderful opening by a masterly writer. The series is listed on Amazon as ‘science fiction/dystopian/post-apocalyptic’. Again, readers of this blog will know this is largely unchartered territory for me. I’ve had a bit of a dabble in Asimov, flicked through some Philip K Dick, but anyone visiting our house and looking at the two ‘libraries’ would immediately spot the difference between His and Hers.
So why did I start Tipping Point, read it non-stop, grab Book 2, gallop to the end, then grab Book 3?
It began with a Twitter discussion in spring this year with readers raving about the series and pointing out what had just happened in the UK with the Cambridge Analytica revelations. My views on the digital revolution can be described in two words, delight and horror. The horror reflex had me changing all my passwords and sticking a post it over the computer camera in the wake of Cambridge Analytica. Whew, safe! But I thought I’d have a look at what Terry Tyler had to say in fictional form about data collection and its use by faceless organisations.
First, this series contains no robots, no aliens bursting out of people’s stomachs, no little green men landing at the bottom of the garden and (despite the author’s avowed predilection for TheWalking Dead) no flesh-eating zombies crashing through the living room windows. There are just people, terrifying people, unbelievable-yet-all-too-believable people. People behind the latest social networking site, Private Life, who, unknown to its innocent subscribers, have come up with an idea called ‘targeted depopulation’, a vision of a new world order in which some members of society are not only less equal than others but are simply disposable, like razor blades or Tampax. It’s like Hannibal Lecter, smiling his smile and waving ‘Ta Ta’. It’s the Orwellian type of science fiction, the stuff that can get you, like Adam Lapid, remembering the horrors of the past and screaming in your sleep at night. But this time the baddies have a Super-Weapon, the good old Internet, already comfortably installed in most people’s homes, just waiting to betray them, allowing the self-appointed elite to choose who to save and who to kill off when they unleash–wait for it–Super-Weapon 2, a deadly virus (no guesses as to who’s got the vaccine.)
Conspiracy theorists have come in for their share of mockery in which I have often joined. But the laughter soon stops as we’re caught up with Vicky and Lottie, facing a world where the water’s gone off, the electricity’s gone off, the phone, TV and radio have all stopped working, the service stations have run out of petrol, the supermarkets are running out of everything and the neighbours are dying horrible deaths. Terry Tyler doesn’t proselytise or preach, she doesn’t get all hysterical and loud-pedal the exclamation marks, she is, quite simply, a brilliant story-teller who knows just what elements of description have most impact, just how manage the rhythm, upping the pace here, slowing it there, adding a touch of humour, a bit of optimism to lull and soothe, then scaring us to death with a spine-chilling baddie jumping out of the pages like a nightmare-jack-in-the-box. It all drips on the psyche like a form of Chinese water torture so that in the end you are totally convinced that this is a future which is definitely possible, and even worse, just around the corner. Like in 2024.
Throughout the series there are beautiful evocations of the world of ‘before’ which now seems so idyllic; pastoral landscapes symbolic of all that is familiar, safe and grounded in a country that hasn’t been invaded since 1066. You can almost see the haystacks and the millrace and the muslin-frocked damsels. These landscapes are now changing, becoming ruined, ravaged, despoiled by marauding gangs. We see them through the eyes of Vicky, our narrator and, as with Adam Lapid, we swiftly empathise with her as a character, sharing her fears, her disbelief, her hopelessness, her moments of fleeting happiness. From the beginning we are drawn into her world, where she and Lottie struggle to come to terms with an unthinkable truth, the realisation they must first escape the picture-perfect village where the death toll mounts, then try to reach ‘the safe house’ which has been organised by the not-so-stupid-after-all Dex. The difficulties and dangers they encounter, the glimmers of hope followed by despair as groups form and splinter, as odds are overcome and new ones arise, all make enthralling reading.
As each book ends, it’s impossible to resist the lure to find out what happens next. When the group arrives at the island of Lindisfarne and relative safety, different characters are added to the cast and different challenges, both practical and psychological, must be faced. The narrative viewpoint shifts and voices vary, giving added texture and richness to the bigger picture, reminding us yet again of how skilled this author is, how in command of plot and character development. The worst has been avoided, it seems, but has it? The human animal is a complex and unpredictable creature, as Tyler shows us so convincingly; difficulties arise as individual differences clash with the interests of the group as a whole, and as members of the fledgling community begin to realise just how hard it is to establish ‘a society of free and equal human beings’ while sustaining notions such as civilisation and democracy in extreme circumstances.
The third and final book so far is set two years after the first. Without revealing too much, let me just say that UK2 (my favourite book in the series) gives us a closer look at what’s going on with the masters in the south and their promised paradise; the tension, amazingly, rachets up even further; a bit of karmic come-uppance is satisfyingly doled out, and two secondary characters move heroically to centre stage.
The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, fascism and stalinism, sought to establish ‘slave empires’ (to borrow Orwell’s expression) where some were oppressors and others oppressed and where dissent and difference was punishable by death. In the Lapid series, we see a world emerging from six years of unspeakable horror, but where the fascist regimes of the thirties and forties have finally been overthrown and where a cautious spirit of optimism is in the air. Project Renova gives us the opposite, the disintegration of the relatively stable and democratic world we have come to take for granted in the west over the last seventy years, and the rise of a new form of totalitarianism controlled by an elite with the technological means to monitor the most intimate details of our lives, deprive us of our freedoms, and order society as they wish. But Book 3, UK2, reminds us also that humans are capable of extraordinary resilience in the face of adversity, and that history has many times shown us, to quote that great master, Victor Hugo, that ‘même la nuit la plus sombre prendra fin et le soleil se levera’. Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
Will it? And how much more will the group have to endure before they see the first of those golden rays? To all Terry Tyler fans, I bring glad tidings. The Epilogue in Book 3 is not really The End. There WILL be a Book 4, as Kendall Reviews confirmed in a recent interview. Whew! .
Happy hard-boiled, post-apocalyptic reading to one and all and have a great literary weekend!
PS For anyone courageous enough to have read this blog to the end, a reward awaits: Biarritz Passion is FREE to download for three days 6,7 and 8 October! (Yes, I know you’d have preferred a £50 Marks and Spencer gift voucher. We do what we can.)
This weekend my feet may be in the Tarn but my head (and heart) is in northern England, more particularly in West Yorkshire where, 200 years ago, one of the greatest British writers was born. Wuthering Heights, her only novel, marked me profoundly as an adolescent and has continued to mark me ever since. She was one of the first feminist writers I read, along with her sisters, and George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell; she was an unrepentant rebel (Wuthering Heights hit the literary scene like a bad smell, it ‘revolted many readers’, was criticised for its ‘coarseness of tone’) and she wrote a stunning, tempestuous, enigmatic love story with the kick of a triple Moscow Mule on an empty stomach. Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that when Cathy cries ‘I am Heathcliff!’ she is uttering the cry of every woman in love.
‘For many born in Yorkshire’s West Riding, the Brontë legend enters our lives as naturally as the air we breathe.’
Inseparable from the Brontës and their writing are the moors:
It’s hard to explain the fascination of these ‘high, wild, desolate’ places, chillingly bleak in winter when ‘the four winds of heaven seemed to meet and rage together’, but which, in late summer, are transformed into ‘long swells of amethyst-tinted hills’, ‘all glorious with the purple bloom of the heather’ contrasting with ‘the tawny golden light…of summer evenings’.
After the death of all her siblings, Charlotte suffered from acute loneliness. Writing of her solitary walks across the moors, she said ‘everything reminds me of the times when (the) others were with me… My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet, but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon.’*
In my last book, The Passage of Desire, there’s a scene where Juliet and her son Oliver take their guests, Alexandra and seven-year-old daughter Caroline, to visit the Brontë Museum
“Caroline had been pestering for a visit to the museum. And so, one bright morning, they found themselves in the shade of the village churchyard on their way to the parsonage. The tower of St Michael and All Angels was just visible as they stepped into a forest of graves, wedged into every available inch of space, the headstones standing shoulder to shoulder like chessmen, some with pointed tops, some shaped like mitres, others representing stars or fleur-de-lys, or crowned with ornate pediments…..Thousands of bodies, it was said as many as forty thousand, lay together in this confined space, a reminder that the now pretty village of Haworth had once been a grim and insalubrious place, home to workers in the textile mills that spread across the valley, fed by the plentiful water pouring down from the rain-soaked moors.
This was not a peaceful resting place, like some (Alexandra) had visited. In spite of the fine day it was dark and chilly under the tall trees where rooks cawed. The graveyard was full of rustlings as the wind passed through the high branches and shook the stands of yew and ibex. White dandelion clocks floated in the unkempt grass. “
Fortunately, beyond the churchyard is the parsonage itself. It may seem rather cramped and primitive by today’s standards, but it is a magical place, full of history, enchantment, inspiration, compassion, imbued by the spirit of those children who lived there and who gathered in the dining room to create their own imaginary universe.
They inhabited a self-contained world, mixing rarely with others, drawing, sketching, inventing plays and fantasy worlds. Voracious readers of whatever they could lay their hands on, from contemporary magazines to the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron and the novels of Sir Walter Scott, they created stories and poems of their own, their fertile imaginations fed by the written word and the ‘purple-black’ moors…
When Branwell’s decline into alcoholism and dementia forced the three sisters to find a way to maintain the family finances, it was in this same room that they sat to work on the novels of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell:
“In the dining room stood the table where the three sisters sat to write.
‘Charlotte and Emily were the famous ones, but Anne wrote two fine books as well. They were all talented. They used to sit here and work together, then walk round the table reading out what they’d written that day.’
‘They really loved each other, didn’t they?’
‘They did. And their brother too, in spite of his problems. He was a talented artist and a poet. We’re going to see some of his paintings.’
Juliet decided to omit the part of the story where three of the siblings had died in quick succession, Branwell and Anne in 1848, Emily in 1849. Nor was she going to recount (to seven-year-old Caroline) the sad reminiscences of Tabby, their faithful servant, describing how, after the other three were dead and buried, she used to listen with an aching heart to the footsteps of Charlotte in the room above, ‘walking, walking on alone’.”
Today the memory of the Brontës burns bright through the work they left behind, but also through the remarkable efforts of one of the world’s oldest and proudest literary societies, the Brontë Society, celebrating its 125 birthday this year, responsible among other things for running the fascinating 91-year-old Brontë Parsonage Museum.
This year the focus is on ‘Brontë 200: Emily 1818-1848’, with a rich and diverse programme of literature, music, visual art, exhibitions, talks, children’s activities, workshops, author interviews, walks, films and numerous other events.
And so, dear readers and fellow-passionates, to finish today’s blog, I’m going to put on my commercial hat and invite book lovers and especially Brontë lovers to think about joining The Brontë Society (no, I don’t get a discount or a free bag of chips), and of taking advantage of the numerous perks that membership confers: free admission to the Museum for one year, regular issues of the members’ magazine, priority booking for events, access to the dedicated area of the website and access to many Brontë-related documents (not to mention a warm glow as you sign the cheque). Yearly membership is between £12.50 and £25 depending on age… how many skinny lattes is that exactly? ) And if you’re feeling generous you can add a donation and the glow gets brighter.
Best of all, take a trip to those ‘glorious wild moors, which in after days (the children) loved so passionately’ and see for yourself what it’s all about.
Let’s keep those literary lights burning!
*many quotations in the January blog exerpts (in blue) are from the wonderful Elizabeth Gaskell
The Passage of Desire is the prequel to The French Summer Novels, and is set in Haworth.
The stunning painting above is by artist Gordon Seward, currently exhibiting at the Espace Bouquières in Toulouse. Gordon’s work has been shown at prestigious venues around Europe, as well as in the UK and the US, and has been the subject of glowing articles by critics and collectors. But Toulousains are specially blessed (hooray!) as Gordon, for the last fifteen or so years, has returned each summer like a swallow to his adoptive city, thrilling locals and visitors alike with his latest creations. The fact that it was pouring down on the first morning did not deter devoted collectors from queuing up early in order to rush in and bag a goodie.
Bursting with beauty and emotion, luminous, vibrant, dramatic, bold, dancing, joyful, fluid, free–these are some of the expressions that spring to mind as you stand before the paintings. Swiss soprano Brigitte Hool, on a visit to the pink city to perform in The Magic Flute, stepped into the gallery one day and looked around. ‘Can I,’ she said to the surprised artist, ‘sing for your paintings?’ Which she then proceeded to do, celebrating them with a Puccini aria.*
What a perfect reaction.
Lacking the adequate tessitura to do a Mme Hool, or the springy calves to convey my admiration through a series of Nureyev-like leaps, I will try to express my own feelings in this short blog. (Obviously, I’d like to write a long blog, a very long blog, but…)
Art critics have described the artist’s work as ‘an ode to life’, ‘a source of constant pleasure’. Seward is ‘a colour magician’, a ‘new Fauvist’, ‘his explosive painting (bringing us) the fearless Mediterranean spirit and freedom.’ Gordon himself, in his autobiography Why I Paint, talks about the importance of first learning the rigorous craft of drawing, then describes ‘letting go’, allowing free rein to his intuition as a way of spurring the paintings ‘to bubble and sing’. He cites Matisse (one of his idols) as someone who ‘determined in contemporary painting the fundamental elements of joy and humility’ which ‘seem to me now more revolutionary and necessary than ever.’
This year, along with his wife and constant Muse, poet, lyricist and translator Cécile Toulouse, he has been working on an exciting new concept, a limited series of signed ‘Digigraphies’, high-quality lithographs using a technique which allows a dazzling range of colours. The theme chosen for this first series is ‘Toulouse’, in particular the city’s historical connection with some of the most amazing chapters in French aviation.
Readers of this blog will be only too familiar with my own attachment to la ville rose where I lived for many years, as well as my enthusiasm for this period of its history**. In the 1920s and 30s, Pierre-Georges Latécoère developed what was to become one of the world’s most legendary airlines (which incidentally will celebrate the centenary of its birth at Montaudran this year).
His aviators and mechanics were a larger-than-life bunch of daredevils, poets and writers, who risked their necks on every mission. Passionate about their vocation, they also had an appetite for life which included l’amour, toujours l’amour, prompting Didier Daurat, head of operations at the airline, to arrange for these ardent young men to lodge at the Hôtel du Grand Balcon on the corner of the Place du Capitole, a respectable boarding house run by the three genteel Marquez sisters. This, he assumed, would keep them in check (it didn’t–the sisters were pussy cats who adored their lodgers).
Both of the Sewards are keen historians, also fascinated by the city’s association with these fluttering starts in aviation. Gordon first set up his easel in Saint-Exupéry’s former quarters at the hotel, Room 32, many years ago, before the place was renovated.*** His canvases show the view looking out from the window towards the famous 18th century Capitole building. In January 2015 he returned to paint the moving scenes as people gathered on the square to hold a vigil after the Charlie Hebdo massacres (this is the subject of one of the ‘Digigraphies’).
This obligation of the artist to keep the flame of art burning more brightly than ever in ‘the heart of darkness’ recurs in his autobiography. He talks of Matisse, refusing to leave Nice during WW2, continuing to paint as bombers roared overhead.
‘To hold in your hand a brush or a gun. To arm yourself with a pen or a dagger. A choice brought before us every day, as it always has been.’
And so it was, dear readers, that this weekend the Maître de Maison and myself sallied forth on our annual pilgrimage to the Espace Bouquières (alas we have missed a couple over the years), treating ourselves to a day of joy and nostalgia in la ville rose, soaking up the dusty heat and southern ambiance, strolling arm in arm through the narrow streets, past café terraces and fountain-splashed squares packed with locals and tourists.
Toulouse has changed dramatically. It continues to change with terrifying speed: the gigantic aerospace industry, the ‘Silicon Valley’ IoT (Internet of Things), the sci fi projects for flying taxis, driverless buses, the Hyperloop tunnel which will shoot trains between Toulouse and Montpelier in 20 minutes. Buying lamb chops at the Maison de l’agneau in the Marché Victor Hugo (opened in 1892), we exchanged reminiscences with the butcher.
Twenty thousand new arrivals each year, he told us, making neat wax paper packets. A far cry from the ‘old days’ when chansonnier Claude Nougaro penned his famous hymn to the city of his birth, ‘a flower of coral watered by the sun’ (have the Kleenex ready as you listen):
Celebrating the old and the new at the Espace Bouquières, the artist and his Muse welcome visitors, answer questions, talk about art, music, history, literature and life in general, including the trendy barber doing hipster haircuts just down the street. They are always, unfailingly, ‘disponible‘, at the disposal of all who come to buy or simply to look. And all around, on every wall, is a joyous ‘ode to life’.
What a treat.
The exhibition finishes on June 16th, but the four ‘Digigraphies’ will continue to be displayed in Toulouse at the Magasin Trait, 4 rue Vidal. There are also permanent exhibitions in Marseilles (Galerie Grossi), Lille (Atelier Kolorma), and Montauban (Art et Patrimoine).
Unlucky mortals far from these cities can amuse their bouches at:
PS: For the last several weeks I have been going through the elephantine birth pangs of finishing off Villa Julia, the last book in the French Summer series. In this I have been helped by a kindly fairy godmother who popped up from cyberspace and offered to help. Her name is Paula Heron Phillips(I hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning her in this blog) and she has been reading drafts, wielding sticks and carrots and giving excellent feedback. All through the sheer goodness of her reader’s heart. Every Indie author should be so lucky. I am so grateful. Merci Paula!!!!!xxxx. Anyway, I was happy to escape from the maternity ward for a day, put on my city togs and swan off with the Maître de Maison to see the Expo Seward. Especially as, along with the formal card, there was a more personal (and cheekier) invitation (see below) from the little bird which features in many of the artist’s paintings in various forms. I like to think this one was the nightingale the ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’ which had serenaded us in our garden all through May, charming many a magic casement and causing us to hold up the mobile phone countless times in an attempt to record its magic notes (all we got was crackle). Here it is.
PPS Villa Julia will be out in …the future….
*recounted in Why I Paint (available from the artist’s website)
We bookworms are peaceful creatures, caring and sharing, communicating our joy and enthusiasm for a good read via book blogs, book clubs and book reviews. One of the biggest platforms for reviews is Amazon (where many bookworms spend zillions buying their fodder). But Amazon has recently introduced a rule which, like Rouget de Lisle singing the Marseillaise, has got us rampant. May is a month for revolutions. Even a worm can turn.
Today I’m reblogging an excellent post from author/blogger Barb Taub, of great relevance to all book lovers who buy from Amazon and leave reviews on their site. This is something I do myself: it helps other readers and of course helps the author (and as an Indie author I can tell you those reviews are important ). My policy is to leave a review on various sites-Amazon US (com) Amazon UK, Amazon France etc. But two days ago I tried to leave a review on the US site and it was refused. Why? because Amazon has a new rule, as Barb explains in her blog: ”You must have spent at least $50 on Amazon.com in the past 12 months’ in order to leave a review.’
What???? So customers like myself, who since 2007 have spent thousands of euros (I live in France) on Amazon products, not to mention the Maître de Maison, who is on Amazon Prime and whose credit card is even more dented than mine, are now being told we have to spend $50 on the US site just for the privilege of being able to review, for absolutely free, a book bought from another Amazon site? As one commentator, S. K. Nicholls, said ‘Amazon won’t post a paid review…but demand payment for your RIGHT to review.’
This is clearly nonsense. It becomes even more nonsensical when Amazon won’t let you buy something on its US site, but re-directs you to the country where you live. I am a member of the excellent Kindle Unlimited scheme whereby I pay 9.99€ per month to ‘borrow’ 10 e-books at any one time but see on the left what happens if I go to the US site to browse? Talk about Catch 22…
Here’s what Barb Taub says:
An open letter to Amazon:
I should be your Holy Grail. I’m the real deal, an actual reader who goes through books carefully, thinks about what they mean and how they’re written, and then writes a considered, thoughtful, and hopefully helpful analysis—in other words, I’m a book reviewer.
Writers, potential customers, publishers, and oh yes—you, Amazon—should be jumping for joy and giving thanks that I’ve taken hours to read and yet more hours to craft reviews for hundreds of books. Instead, Amazon, you’ve decided to punish reviewers like me.
In the name of discouraging “fake” reviews, your new policy requires reviewers like me to spend $50 on Amazon’s US site and even more, £40 on Amazon UK before I can share my review. Have you thought about other solutions, or the effect this will have on legitimate reviewers?
The full article is here: do please read it and add your voice to the protest by sharing and commenting.
Millions of internet fans will doubtless have been scratching their heads over the untypical silence emanating from deepest Tarn over the last few weeks. A bout of dysphonia? A fit of the sulks? The delivery of the latest series of ‘Game of Thrones’ by an Amazonian drone?
I can now reassure them. The Maître de Maison and I have been on holiday.
The trip, however, did not start well.
First stop, Blagnac, the airport of Toulouse, la ville rose, capital of Occitania. This ever-expanding gigantic aeronautical hub (9 million passengers in 2017) has changed since I first saw it, but I’m still pretty familiar with the place. Its control tower holds no secrets: have I not, over the years, taught generations of its controllers and technicians to say ‘Roger Over and Out’ in an impeccable Yorkshire accent? Have I not driven back and forth 923 times, ferrying aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours, and other visiting dignitaries? Have I not flown in and out of it myself at least 482 of those 923 times, on one momentous occasion seated next to an ex-member of Wham? (Wake me up before you go-go. I have the T-shirt).
In theory, I should be able to do the journey with eyes closed and, as they say locally, ze finger in ze nose. This is unnecessary, however, because the Maître de Maison has a top-notch hyper-smart GPS system in the car which, its finger in its nose, tells it exactly where to go. There’s just one problem: the seven dwarfs of Blagnac keep nipping out at night and moving parts of the infrastructure around without ringing the satellite and telling it. Old familiar bits get blocked off by giant pieces of LEGO; new, confusing bits get added on. And so it was that on a sunny April morning, the MDM and I, having waved goodbye to the farmhouse in the Tarn, swung on to yet another of the 372 roundabouts on the airport approach, preparatory to swinging off into one of the 101 car parks in plenty of time to park up, trudge 5 kilometres to the terminal, and catch our flight to the UK, destination Edinburgh.
Seconds later, guided by the trusty GPS, we found ourselves heading back to the Tarn, sucked into a mighty ocean of cars on the Toulouse Ring Road from Hell. Being one of the famous ‘Transport Strike’ days in my adoptive country, it all looked like the opening scene in ‘La La Land’. The only difference was nobody was dancing from bonnet to bonnet. As we were forced to crawl inch by inch back whence we had come, we contemplated with horror, across the solid concrete central reservation, the jam of hooting cars all trying to go the other way–that way being, of course, the one we had just left and needed to get back to in order to catch our plane. It was at this point that I started screaming hysterically that I would never get to Scotland to see the latest Great Nephew, born in January, never mind the Monet haystacks and the Reverend R. Walker in the Scottish National Gallery. (When we arrived, the Monets were on loan. Probably in France. )
The Gare Matabiau, railway station of la ville rose, was just hoving into sight when the MDM, who had been dreaming of haggis and single malts for weeks, wrenched the steering wheel violently to the left and in a daring Formula 1 manoeuvre (which I missed, having shut my eyes and stopped breathing) we veered across the Canal du Midi and several lanes of stalled lorries to find ourselves miraculously, if not moving, at least facing the right way.
Oh happy day. Two hours later we boarded our Flybe flight and let somebody else do the driving.
Edinburgh. We had been there briefly, on flying visits. This time we had the leisure to get to know the place. First stop, Sainsbury’s, for a packet of chocolate digestives. We joined the checkout queue. No-one, alas, was wearing a kilt. But they were all wearing big smiles.
Checkout clerk: Good afternoon to you. Are you enjoying yourselves today?
Me: Good afternoon. Yes, thank you. We’ve just arrived.
Clerk: Where are you from?
Clerk: Really? I love France. Do you have any special plans for your visit?
Me: We’re going to visit Holyrood House.
Clerk: That’s a grand place. You’ll enjoy it. Wish I was going with you.
Me: Ha ha. What time do you finish tonight?
By the time I’d paid for my packet of biscuits I’d learned the young man was a student at ‘Uni’, his exams were coming up, he was juggling bouts of revision with supermarket shifts, his girl-friend was called Mia, all his family had red hair, and life was grand and Edinburgh a fine place to live.
The queue of customers waiting behind wished us well as we departed.
A similar scenario was repeated later at John Lewis where I was buying a pair of reading specs. This time it involved three assistants, one of whom gave the glasses a 15-minute polish while we exchanged life-histories and travel plans, then two others who scoured the place looking for different styles of glasses cases, whose relative merits were discussed for half an hour until we all reached a verdict on the red one and agreed how wonderful life was.
The next day the elderly gentleman queuing behind me for the toilets at The Royal Botanic Gardens informed me he was a regular visitor and wasn’t he lucky to live near such a marvel? Over the flushing of the loos we agreed the weather was perfect, not too cold, not too hot, just right, and the blossom trees were a wonder to behold, had I see the Japanese cherry by any chance?
By now I had concluded that Edinburgh was the Mindfulness Capital of the world. Even the motorists just sigh and shake their heads gently when someone bumbles into their lane, doubtless distracted by the romantic skyline and the statue of Sir Walter Scott.
There was just one rub: we had been looking forward to making people mad with jealousy by posting on social media the 300 photos taken on the MDM’s brand-new, top-notch hyper-smart smart phone, bought specially to take superb photos liable to make people jealous. But the phone wouldn’t let us. Something about the ‘wrong codes’. The ‘right codes’, obviously, were back in the Tarn, on a post-it.
Still, at least the thing didn’t explode in mid-air on the flight back, so I can now share some of them on this blog.
Have a lovely day, wherever you may be, and don’t forget to take the time to look at the cherry trees.
PS The newest great nephew was adorable, just like his big three-year-old brother. Aw.
A leg of lamb– gigot d’agneau–is a firmFrench favourite for Easter. Stick it full of garlic slivers and rosemary leaves, cover with butter (yes) and roast on high heat until pink in the middle. But this year I’ve gone for something more complicated, in honour of the tender new vegetables just coming on to the market– a navarin d’agneau, lamb stew, but with class.
First, a trip to the market. Here are Claudie and Caroline at the wonderful market in Biarritz. They’re shopping for lamb to make a tagine, but the basic principle is the same. Forget your list and throw yourself on the mercy of He–or She–Who Knows Best…
“In spite of the early hour there was a bustle. Caroline felt her spirits lift as they stepped indoors. The tiny bars with their zinc counters were doing a brisk trade in strong espressos. A din came from the produce stalls, where the market sellers, on raised platforms, vaunted the quality of their wares interspersed with rapid-fire banter with the customers in a mixture of languages, French, English and Spanish.
‘Deux kilos de saucisse pour la belle dame à la robe rouge!’
‘Et vous Monsieur, qu’est-ce qu’il vous faut? Un bon pied de porc pour ce midi?’
A long queue had formed at one stall where three men in Basque berets were nimbly dodging and dancing past each other reaching for hams, duck legs and trays of charcuterie…
It took a good half hour for Claudie to drag Caroline to thestall which sold the lamb.Laid out behind the glass were different cuts of lamb chops, shoulders of lamb, gigots, racks of lamb, lamb sausages. Caroline tried to take it all in. Presiding over the proceedings was lady of a certain age with a regal bearing. Under her white apron she wore a fluffy angora top in Barbie pink. Rubies glittered in her ears, the same colour as her Chanel red lipstick. Her blonde hair was sprayed into an immaculate golden helmet.
Caroline nudged Claudie.
‘It’s Catherine Deneuve.’
‘That is la patronne. The owner’s wife. She has to keep up appearances. Look at that diamond, you can see it through her plastic gloves. Le patron is doing well.’
Madame, on her raised platform, was playing the crowd. She spread her arms theatrically and apologised graciously to the steadily growing queue.
‘They are busy with the orders,’ she said, indicating her husband and a team of assistants who were cutting, sawing and packing meat into Styrofoam boxes.
The way she imparted this information indicated the customers should be honoured there was any meat left for them at all. They nodded respectfully, an eye on her flashing knives.
Finally it was their turn.
Claudie began to order.
‘What are you making?’
‘A tagine.’ (NB: Or, for today’s dish ‘un navarin’ -Ed)
‘I will choose the meat,’ she said, putting away the cuts that Claudie had asked for. Her manicured hands in their plastic gloves hovered over a tray of shoulders. She paused, dived on one piece of meat and held it up for Claudie’s inspection, turning it from side to side like a jeweller showing a rare gem.
‘Perfect,’ said Claudie.
They watched as Madame selected a long thin knife and deftly removed the bone, holding that up for inspection too.
‘This will be good. For the flavour.’
She made a neat wax paper package.
Her eyes travelled over the other trays. ‘The fat.’
She chose three pieces of neck and weighed them.
‘Perhaps one more?’ ventured Claudie.
Madame complied graciously.
Caroline looked behind her at the waiting customers. They all had solemn expressions on their faces. No one moved or complained.
Five minutes later they had a basket full of packages and Claudie had handed over a lot of money.
‘Bon appétit,’ said the patronne. ‘And give my regards to your mother.’
She tilted her head in a nod of acknowledgement.
‘She knows the family,’ said Claudie under her breath, adding ‘Merci Madame. Bonne journée.’
‘Merveilleux, truly merveilleux,’ said Caroline as they left.
(Biarritz Passion: French Summer Novel #1)
After the lamb, a visit to the veg stall to buy the tenderest baby carrots and turnips, tiny onions, dwarf green beans, spring potatoes (grenailles) and peas. (OK, I cheated. The peas were frozen). All the vegetables must be lovingly prepared and added to the lamb for the last hour of cooking, then left overnight so that the flavours mingle. NB don’t forget to treat yourself to bouquet of spring flowers along with the dwarf beans.
For the recipe*, I use a combination of Julia Child’s classic and the inspiration du jour , but an essential thing to remember is that the lamb, as you are browning it, must be caramelised with sugar in order to acquire the beautiful amber colour typical of the dish.
For amateurs of the French Summer Novels, Caroline and Claudie will be at the market again, discussing life, love and the best olives in town in ‘Villa Julia’, the last book in the series, currently under, ahem, revision. Imagine a vast shapeless onesie with long arms and short legs being painstakingly unpicked, re-cut, tucked in here, let out there; add a few sequins, a flounce, a bow and with a bit of luck it might end up as a haute couture ballgown on next season’s catwalk…But while ‘Villa Julia’ is being cut to ribbons in the atelier, you can always hop over to the beautiful Basque country for less than a fiver! Let yourself be carried away to the Atlantic rollers via Biarritz Passion and Hot Basque . Go on, you’re worth it… 😉
On February 14 2016 I published ‘Love Story… or the big doggy poopoo’. This was a billet doux to the newest member in our four-house hamlet in the Tarn, Indie (or Indiq in Breton), a small black and brown puppy with a lolling pink tongue and caramel eyes.
This tiny waif, whose mother had died, had been abandoned by her step-mother, a farm dog. After roaming the countryside in search of a crust and a kindly word, her little paws were worn and bleeding (talk about Dickens…) But Sirius, her own special star 😉, had been watching over her. She ended up winning the jackpot – her very own 5-star hotel and restaurant, otherwise known as ‘the neighbours’.
We watched her grow from a cute little waif into a Very Large Dog. Fortunately, as her size increased, so did her affection. Indie was a dog with a big heart. But just over a year ago, on a routine visit to the vet, it was revealed that Indie’s big heart was not perfect. Last month, after a short life in which she enslaved us all, she left us. The neighbours, her beloved Maman and Papa, are bereft, and so are we all.
Indie was a great hostess who loved having lots of humans and animals visit her home; she was an inveterate socialite, dropping by the other houses in the hamlet to check everyone was up and dressed and ready to throw sticks (or, even better, frying up a bit of Toulouse sausage); she was a nature lover, fond of sniffing the flowers and watching the sunsets. She tripped us up, stood on our feet, bruised our shins and made us laugh. She brightened our days and enriched our lives and we miss her.
Au revoir Indie, maybe one day, passing by Sirius….
Her full story can be found below, in the February 2016 blog.
For this first piece of 2018, I’d like to wish a very sincere Bonne Année to all readers. The year started with a wonderful surprise…
On January 8thareadersreviewblog published their list of Top Reads of 2017. Included was ‘The Passage of Desire’. Tina Williams had already reviewed the book, and I’d said a word or two about why her comments had touched me so deeply. But the real answer is longer and more complicated.
This third book in the series is different from the first two. As a prequel, it’s meant to tell the story of Alexandra’s secret affair, revealed at the end of ‘Hot Basque’. Who was the mystery man? How did their paths cross? What were the consequences? In line with the French theme, I’d envisioned a passionate meeting between strangers in a foreign hotel, a Brief Encounter à la française. It would be in novella form, a quick write.
That was the plan. But alien forces took over. A part of my own life sneaked in and I found myself abandoning the pays basque in favour of my own purple-blue remembered hills, tipping my hat to the places, the people and experiences that helped to shape me. The Muse, ready for another holiday in the Basque country morphed into a wing-flapping Raven. ‘Be afraid,’ she croaked ‘be very afraid…’
When I started this blog in January 2015 I asked readers ‘Can you remember the first book that really captured your imagination as a child?’ I didn’t actually have any readers at the time, but a few friendly bookworms wrote in enthusiastically to share memories of ‘Heidi’, ‘Bunny Blue’, ‘Phantom Tollbooth’, ‘The Story of Ferdinand’, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, ‘Where’s Wumpus’, ‘The Faraway Tree’, ‘Little House in the Woods’…
Writing today, I’m thinking about books that marked me as an adolescent. I’d devoured ‘Jane Eyre’, shaken by the heroine’s suffering at Lowood School, thrilled by her meeting with Mr Rochester, shocked by the secret wife in the attic. Then I read ‘Wuthering Heights’. It was like undergoing an anaesthetic. I lost consciousness and emerged completely disoriented, unable to put the experience into words. It was as though there were two books in parallel, one a passionate tale of doomed love set on the Yorkshire moors, and a second, more subterranean, full of shadowy elements which I only half-intuited. (It was much later that I read that even greater shocker, with its domestic violence and desertion, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, but some of its themes would creep into my novella.)
For many born in Yorkshire’s West Riding, the Brontë legend enters our lives as naturally as the air we breathe. It’s not the most picturesque part of England, no honey-stoned thatched cottages in bucolic villages, but it has its own unique, strong personality, its culture, its ‘folk’, with their keen sense of humour, ‘independent, ready ever to resist authority which was conceived to be unjustly exercised’, as Elizabeth Gaskell* put it .Crucially, although the former mill towns were grim-looking places, they were a mere hop and a skip away up the hills to something else: the spell-binding, other-worldly landscape of the moors. It’s hard to explain the fascination of these ‘high, wild, desolate’ places, chillingly bleak in winter when ‘the four winds of heaven seemed to meet and rage together’, but which, in late summer, are transformed into ‘long swells of amethyst-tinted hills’, ‘all glorious with the purple bloom of the heather’ contrasting with ‘the tawny golden light…of summer evenings’.
Inseparable from the fascination is the haunting story of that family, who came to live in the village of Haworth in 1820: the Reverend Patrick Brontë, his wife Maria, and their six children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne.
The moorland landscape ‘sloping upwards beyond the parsonage’ was to become an essential part of their lives. For one of them, Emily, it was literally vital; on the rare times she was forced to leave it, she became physically ill. ‘I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home’ wrote Charlotte when the decision was taken to remove Emily from Roe Head school.
Illness and suffering were things the Brontës knew well. The list of family deaths on the memorial plaque in Haworth church is sobering: Maria Brontë, the mother,1821. The two oldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth, 1825. Branwell and Emily 1848, Anne, 1849.
Charlotte, the last surviving child and the only one to marry, died nine months after her wedding day, taking her unborn child with her. The villagers, who in the June of 1854 had flocked to congratulate the bride, looking ‘like a snowdrop’ in her white muslin gown and bonnet decorated with green leaves, would return the following March ‘thronging the churchyard and the church’ to see her ‘carried forth’ to lie ‘beside her own people’.
Only the father and the husband remained.
Trying to put everything I’d like to say about the Brontës into one short(ish) blog is like Jill trying to squeeze into her Speedo in ‘Hot Basque’. There are bulges and bits hanging out. I’ve put some of them into footnotes for readers interested in knowing more. The basic facts of their story are well-known. Thousands of visitors travel to Haworth each year, visiting the moors and the museum, reading about the Dickensian childhood of the six little Brontës, their ailing mother confined to bed, their remote father working and eating alone in his study or out visiting his flock. The children were left to their own resources, with seven-year-old Maria making sure her younger siblings made no noise to disturb the invalid upstairs, taking them out for walks ‘hand in hand, towards the glorious wild moors, which in after days they loved so passionately.’ They inhabited a self-contained world, mixing rarely with others, drawing, sketching, inventing plays and fantasy worlds. Voracious readers of whatever they could lay their hands on from contemporary magazines to the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron and the novels of Sir Walter Scott, they created stories and poems of their own, their fertile imaginations fed by the written word and the ‘purple-black’ moors. Patrick Brontë observed ‘I frequently thought that I discovered signs of rising talent, which I had seldom or never before seen in any of their age.’
Three years after Mrs Brontë’s death, Maria, then Elizabeth, died from tuberculosis contracted at the school they attended. Maria’s sufferings there made a lasting impression on younger sister Charlotte, feeding her imagination for the Lowood scenes in ‘Jane Eyre’. The children were looked after by Aunt Branwell, the late Mrs Brontë’s sister, an unwilling expatriate from the tropical climes of Cornwall. There was also 53-year-old Tabby, servant, cook, confidante, story-teller, and honorary grandmother. Nine-year old Charlotte took over as eldest of the little community of four who drew together even more closely.
All would become famous, the sisters as novelists, the brother for his tragically wasted life of debauchery, alcoholism and opium addiction. But literary fame came late, after bitter struggles, keen disappointments, the exhaustion of constant ill health and persistent worry over the uncontrollable Branwell.
The sisters’ first literary venture was a collection of poems put together under the pen names of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. Failing to find a publisher, Charlotte took matters into her own hands, establishing what might be considered as the first Indie Writers’ Co-op. She managed to ‘pitch’ her idea to the firm of Aylott and Jones in 1846, proposing to meet the costs of publication herself, but giving specific details about the format. Having bought ‘a small volume from which to learn all she could on the subject of preparation for the press’, she sent her instructions: ‘one octavo volume of the same quality of paper and size of type as Moxon’s last edition of Wordsworth’, ‘a duodecimo form… with CLEAR type.’ If Amazon self-publishing had been around in 1846, Charlotte would have been the first client.
The little volume of poetry, though it had no commercial success, was the first step on the road to fame. It was, however, a road full of obstacles, which are sometimes forgotten today. For Charlotte, Emily and Anne, writing was as essential as breathing. But for some time, ‘an indistinct dread…was creeping over their minds’. They were living with a ‘Shadow in the house’. Branwell, that ‘boy of remarkable promise’, the former hope of the family, was entering his final decline. The sisters needed to write, needed to earn a living, in order to stay together and keep the family going.
For the next three years, until Branwell’s death, they would continue to work while witnessing the details of his descent into hell. His attacks of delirium tremens were so frightening that ‘he slept in his father’s room, and he would sometimes declare that either he or his father should be dead before the morning.’ Patrick Brontë’s health was poor, he’d only been saved from blindness by a cataract operation, but he undertook his responsibility as a father with stoicism. The sisters, ‘sick with fright’, ‘listen(ed) for the report of a pistol in the dead of night.’
Another obstacle they faced was their sex. Like others, such as George Eliot, they felt they would be taken more seriously if they adopted ‘the sheltering shadow of an incognito’. ‘Authoresses are liable to be looked upon with prejudice,’ wrote Charlotte. She had previously entered into correspondence with Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, sending him some of her poems. He replied in a courteous and kindly manner, praising her ‘faculty of verse’, but also, suspecting she was a woman, urging her to seriously consider ‘whether literature was, or was not, the best course for a woman to pursue’…‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.’
The three were also up against literary conventions regarding subject and style. When their first novels were finally published in 1847, one reviewer commented:
‘It is not only the subject of this novel, however, that is objectionable, but the manner of treating it. There is a coarseness of tone throughout the writing of all these Bells [Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë], that puts an offensive subject in its worst point of view….’
Things only got worse when their identity was discovered, and the ‘great unknown genius’ behind ‘Jane Eyre’ turned out (shock, horror) to be a woman. Victorian political correctness stipulated that women, if they did take up the pen, should write about ‘proper’ subjects. ‘In certain instances, authoresses (have) much outstepped the line which men (feel) to be proper’ was one comment, while a fellow author confided to Charlotte: ‘You know, you and I Miss Brontë have both written naughty books’
A worthy model was to be found in ‘Miss Austen’. But the Brontës were not Miss Austen*** They came from a different world. The accusations of coarseness continued. When in 1858 ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ was published, the esteemed Charles Kingsley praised it as ‘powerful and interesting’, but noted ‘the fault of the book is its coarseness’.
Charlotte suffered keenly from such criticisms of her work, or that of her sisters. She felt they were unjust and in this she was warmly defended by her biographer and friend, Mrs Gaskell. ‘(The Sisters) could not write otherwise than they did of life’ she says, noting Charlotte’s strongly-held principle concerning. ‘the duty of representing life as it really is, not as it ought to be.’ Anne was even more explicit, saying:
‘When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear.’
In particular Mrs Gaskell launched into a rant against the ‘stabbing cruelty’ of an article about ‘Jane Eyre’ in The Quarterly Review of December 1848. ‘Everyone has the right to form his own conclusion respecting the merits and demerits of a book’ she says, but when an anonymous reviewer ‘desirous of writing ‘“smart articles” which shall be talked about in London’ (ouch!) starts to make conjectures about the author, she lets rip with the following:
‘Who is he that should say of an unknown woman: “She must be one who, for some sufficient reason, has long forfeited the society of her sex?” Is he one who has led a wild and struggling and isolated life–seeing few but plain and outspoken Northerners, unskilled in the euphemisms which assist the polite world to skim over the mention of vice?’
Go, Mrs G, go!
And she does, alluding to the terrible trials of the preceding years, which ended with Emily’s death in that very month, and which left Charlotte bereft***. ‘Cowardly insolence’ is her verdict on the unknown reviewer, who was by then probably skulking round the capital in a false beard and dark glasses.
Of course, it wasn’t just women writers who came under attack. Across the Channel, the great Flaubert was put on trial for offence to public morality after the publication of ‘Madame Bovary’. His scorn for society’s self-appointed ‘correct thinkers’, ‘les bien-pensants,’ is set out in deliciously satirical form in his ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’ where ‘Imbécile’ is defined as ‘ceux qui ne pensent pas comme vous’ (those who don’t think the same way you do).
‘Wuthering Heights’ received even greater censure than ‘Jane Eyre’. It ‘revolted many readers’, it was hardly respectable. Charlotte knew only too well ‘the dark side of respectable human nature’, she’d seen enough of it as a governess, as had Anne, and their own ‘dark side’ was living in the parsonage. ‘Who is without their drawback, their scourge, their skeleton behind the curtain?’ she asks. She leaped to her sister’s defence, but Emily, that ‘free, wild, untameable spirit’ was in any case ‘impervious to influence’, a creature of passions, true to herself. (Monsieur Hegel’s remark**** ‘She should have been a man’ is telling in more ways than one.) ‘A spirit more sombre than sunny’, Emily drew her inspiration from what she saw around her–‘natures so relentless and implacable…spirits so lost and fallen’, blending the rhythms of her dramas with the rhythms of the landscape she herself was so attuned to. Charlotte, in the preface to the second edition of ‘Wuthering Heights’ after the death of the sister she called ‘the nearest thing to my heart in the world’, said the book’s ‘power fills me with renewed admiration’.
‘Wuthering Heights’ is still revolting readers today. The biggest internet site in the world for readers, writers and reviewers is Goodreads. Launched in 2007, its stated mission is ‘to help people find and share books they love’. It has a staggering 65 million members, 2 million books listed, and 68 million reviews rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.
Wuthering Heights has 27,202 reviews and 1,042,590 ratings (i e number of stars awarded without giving a review). Its overall rating, combining the two, is 3.8 stars. Below is a link to an interesting review which awards the book 5 stars, describing it as ‘epic’:
but which begins with the words: ‘I understand why so many people hate this book. Catherine and Heathcliff are monstrous. Monstrous.’
When I’d finished ‘The Passage of Desire’, the Muse’s dire warnings were still ringing in my ears. The book was too personal. It was an unabashed, chauvinistic Hymn to Yorkshire. It was a blatant publicity campaign to ‘Like’ those sisters, ‘coarse and revolting’ to some, but an inspiration to many; feminists before the hour, independent, principled, who overcame suffering and prejudice to follow their vocation. My characters, frail, innocent, vulnerable creatures, had somehow got involved with them, read their books, fallen victim to moor-fever, been buffeted by the winds of fate. Wanting to protect them, had I laid them open to ‘stabbing cruelty’?
Moreover, the innumerable re-writes had given me a constant headache, indigestion, and mouse elbow. Spiders had taken up residence in the dust-covered house, the garden was full of weeds, the lavender needed cutting back. All that was left was to emigrate to Outer Mongolia.
How wonderful then to read in the first review: ‘…imbued with the dark passions of Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. Indeed the Brontës float in and out of the story, both literally and metaphorically, and the tale is something of a homage to romanticism’.
Others followed, of a mixed nature. I intoned Charlotte’s words ‘Censure, though not pleasant, is often wholesome.’ But some, like the first, spoke of reactions that made me cancel the ticket to Outer Mongolia:
‘Spellbound and lost in the beauty of Long’s words, the picturesque moors and passion of the characters, transported me to another time. Her writing made melancholy feel dreamlike, passion feel like a burning fire, and friendships feel like a shady oak.’
‘If the human heart has a voice, it is certainly portrayed through the lovely words author Long has set to the page.’
‘This reminded me of reading the classics in high school and not really understanding the emotional drama of the story, then re-reading them as an adult and thinking, wow, because Long has captured that ‘WOW.’.
Those reviews were my highlights of 2017.Thank you to those who took the time and trouble to write them. Thank you again to Tina Williams, working indefatigably with her fellow-elf, Caroline Barker, to ‘help people to find and share books they love’
*Mrs Gaskell’s biography ‘The Life of Charlotte Brontë’, 1857. Many of the quotes in the blog come from this fascinating book; which includes numerous letters written by Charlotte.
**Charlotte wasn’t a fan of Jane Austen. She wrote in a letter to G. H. Lewes ‘I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.’ However, she agreed to think about Lewes’ advice about writing in a more ‘subdued’ manner, but without making any promises since she believed that authors did their best work while under ‘an influence… which becomes their master, which will have its own way…dictating certain words…whether vehement or measured in their nature…new-moulding characters…rejecting …old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones.’ ‘Can there be a great artist without poetry?’ she asked.
*** After the death of her sisters, Charlotte suffered from acute loneliness. Writing of her solitary walks across the moors she said ‘everything reminds me of the times when others were with me… My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet, but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon.’
*** ‘I think, however long I live, I shall not forget what the parting with Monsieur Heger cost me,’ wrote Charlotte. At the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, Charlotte fell in love with her teacher Constantin Heger. She was there with Emily (one of the rare times that Emily managed to overcome her ‘moor-sickness’ and ‘rallied through the mere force of resolution’). Heger considered both of them to be extraordinarily gifted though ‘he seems to have rated Emily’s genius even higher than Charlotte’s’. ‘Her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty’ he said, obviously regarding such qualities as being of a ‘masculine’ nature.
It’s one of those days when you’re driving home through a countryside washed fresh by melting frost, the sun just starting to pierce the mist. The narrow road dips into hollows shrouded in swathes of dense, rolling fog, then rises, emerging into uplands of sparkling brilliance under a sky so blue you make a grab for your sunglasses. Across the valley a curl of smoke floats above the chimney of a house perched on a hilltop. Inside the car, the classical music station has decided to go Nordic in celebration of the wintry morning and a blast of fjordian Grieg makes the windows vibrate. There’s a faint smell of chlorine, you’ve spent an hour jumping up and down in a swimming pool with a group of aquagym friends, somehow managing between puffs and pants to argue the relative merits of Guinea fowl versus capon for the traditional Reveillon meal on December 24th.
It’s one of those eureka moments when you suddenly realise you’re happy.
Happiness is a warm puppy, Lucy famously told us, while Charlie Brown went for jelly babies (no green ones) and going to the pictures to see films with cowboys and Indians and no kissing. Socrates (like many other Big Thinkers) said the secret to happiness was not seeking for more but developing the capacity to enjoy less. Buddha said it was the journey and not the destination. ‘There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.’ Thoreau (or was it Nathaniel Hawthorne??) used the image of a butterfly: ‘The more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.’
The main protagonist in ‘The Passage of Desire’, Alexandra, is an unhappy person. Emotionally distant from her six-year-old daughter and her devoted husband, she’s not an immediately sympathetic character. If asked to explain this lack of feeling, she’d probably struggle to put it into words (if she ever understood its nature and the possible reasons for it in the first place). But in the magical grace of a summer holiday with an old friend, the mist rolls away and for a brief interlude Alexandra is transported to the sparkling uplands of happiness and emotional connection. Those who have read the book know what happens next. Those who haven’t – wait for it – it’s FREE, yes FREE to download this week: 21st, 22nd and 23rd December (starting as always at midnight Pacific Standard time). Take that, Grinch!
Yesterday I was the one behind the wheel of the car, getting my very own Son et Lumière fix to add to the aquagym endorphins, joining my dum de dums with the rhapsodic piano of Mr Rubinstein, recklessly braving the hasards of veering into roadside ditches in return for the inestimable rewards of staring at the dramatic spectacle outside the window, light and shadow flitting across the undulating hills of ‘little Tuscany’. Definitely a Buddha’s path moment in more ways than one, and though I couldn’t see the butterfly, I could definitely feel its wings caress my cheek.
Ours was the house on the hill, with the smoke curling from the chimney; when I finally got back, came down to earth and checked my emails it was to discover a cherry had landed on top of my happiness cake. ‘Areadersreviewblog’, run by Tina Williams and Caroline Barker, is one of my favourite haunts when looking for new books to read. Their banner proclaims ‘To read is to escape, to write is to release!’ And yesterday the book they were reviewing was my very own novella, yes, dear readers, ‘The Passage of Desire’, which, as recounted in previous blogs, had given me such birthing pains it almost joined the smoke going up our chimney. It’s always a huge thrill to get a good review, but the thing that struck me about this one in particular was that the author, Tina Williams, seemed to know intuitively what I’d been struggling so hard to write about:
‘The author delves deeply into the emotions of two women and their families…It touches on all which makes us human; the different stages of life; family dynamics; intimate relationships and unexpected desire…The setting…the wild and untamed Yorkshire moors… is a metaphor for the tale itself.’
Ouf. Thank you so much, Tina. The things that make us human, and the ‘life-changing repercussions’ that ensue when those very human hearts of ours become a battlefield. In the words of William Faulkner:
‘…the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself…only that is worth writing about.’
Joyeuses fêtes to booklovers everywhere, and may that butterfly land on all your shoulders!
I have yet to read the series of contemporary romances that comprise the French Summer Novels, but having read the observations of Caroline, my co-blogger, I jumped at the chance to review this prequel. The Passage of Desire is the story of Alexandra, the mother of the sisters, Caroline and Annabel, of the later novels Biarritz Passion and Hot Basque.
In the book Juliet, Alexandra’s childhood friend invites her and her daughter Caroline to stay with her in her family home on the Yorkshire moors. Alexandra, whose husband is away on business, is going through a low point in her life but soon begins to bloom again and under the summer sun, with her friend’s easy going attitude and the healthy country air, she begins to heal herself.
Indeed, there is much to distract her with Juliet’s own offspring: Cath, who has a young child and a volatile partner and Oliver who is about to leave the family home and go away to study. Alexandra’s own daughter is also deeply absorbed by the tangled relationships she witnesses as their visit draws to a close – I loved how the author reflected what is going on through her young eyes.
Throughout the read the author delves deeply into the emotions of two women and their families. It touches on all which makes us human; the different stages of life; family dynamics; intimate relationships and unexpected desire. The book is flawlessly written, with insight and sensitivity as the events, which will have life-changing repercussions for some, unfold.
The setting for the story, the wild and untamed Yorkshire moors, where emotions become freed and passions can often come to a head, is a metaphor for the tale itself. The reference in the book to Alexandra’s recollections of a teenage visit to The Passage of Desire in Paris is also allegorical, and its meaning reveals itself as the plot unravels. The descriptions of the various settings in the book, particularly the countryside, are vivid and beautifully written in a way that powerfully reflects the emotional journey of the characters.
I don’t want to reveal any of the plot as it would spoil the read, but suffice to say that I enjoyed the read immensely and thoroughly recommend it.