Dear Santa, please bring me lots of books

The Rylands Library, home to a lot of books

In one of my notebooks of random jottings I have written the following: ‘In 2018, 63 million books were sold in the run-up to Christmas.’ Not sure where I got this factoid or if it’s true.  But in case it is, and you’re wondering just which of the 63 million to buy, here are my suggestions, spotlighting five authors whose books I particularly enjoyed  this year.

Dear Santa

My first ‘Dear Santa’ book list appeared in 2015, the year I started blogging. It featured three authors, all male, all writing in one particular genre-the detective thriller–and all starring the type of complex, edgy, dodgy, sexy, hero-but-anti-hero homme fatal I have been unable to resist ever since falling for those men in trench coats as a teenager.

This year it’s the ladies who get the laurel wreaths, five of them, not a private eye in sight, each one impressive for different reasons. Sheila Patel made me laugh, Jill Kearney made me cry, Helena Whitbread made me bow my head in reverence, and Pamela Allegretto and Deborah Swift took me on incredible journeys.  Here’s how they did it, starting with the last two. (Click on their names to go straight to the author page).

Roman vista

Cities are fascinating places. I lived in a flat bang in the middle of Toulouse for ten years, until the exhaust fumes and seedy bar downstairs lost their charm. But although home is now a beloved four-house hamlet deep in rural France, the allure of the great metropolis still lingers. Allegretto and Swift bring to life two iconic cities at momentous periods in their history: WW2 Rome and 17th century London. The authors share an ability to conjure up the startling realism that a dreamer sometimes experiences, swept away on a night journey where, as in a film, the perspective shifts between panoramic aerial shots to voyeuristic close ups. From vistas encompassing houses, bridges, spires, monuments, wide rivers, vast skies and surrounding countryside,  the camera zooms in to the tobacco stains on the villain’s teeth, the nuance of grays in a puddle, the whole accompanied by a full-on, sensory onslaught of smells, colours and clamour. As I found out more about these authors’ backgrounds, I was struck by another thing they had in common–the way those backgrounds influenced their work.

frescos unrolling

Pamela Allegretto is an American artist of Italian descent. As I started to read her book, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams, the scenes unrolled like frescoes across the screen of my mind. It’s 1938 and we are in an idyllic cherry orchard in southern Italy, home of the Lombardi family for hundreds of years. But this enduring, bucolic way of life is about to be shattered, signalling the end of an era and the beginning of an exhausting struggle by one woman, Angelina Rosini, to protect her young daughter in a country torn apart first by the poisonous ideology of Fascism, then by the invading armies of the Allies. The action moves from the countryside to the cobbled alleyways and ancient monuments of Rome, where Allegretto transposes her ‘pictorial eye’ to the written page, creating an arresting canvas of a war-torn city where the inhabitants, in particular Jews and resistance fighters, live in constant fear and deprivation. In the foreground, two women battle it out on a personal level in a combat as full of primitive emotions as the classical dramas of antiquity: Angelina, the artist heroine, and her driven, harpy-like sister-in-law, Lidia. Who will be the winner?

The Great Fire of London1666 anonymous courtesy wikimedia commons

From Rome to London, where a different but equally deadly foe, is spreading terror – the plague. In Deborah Swift’s trilogy, Women of Pepys’ Diaries, the famous diarist is getting up to all sorts of mischief and mayhem. The author started her career in the theatre, working as a set and costume designer, and there’s a dramatic immediacy in her writing similar to that we experience at a live performance. Indeed her third book is about a woman who becomes an actress, Elizabeth Knepp, who, like the other strong female leads, is based on a real person mentioned in the diaries. Pepys, the man of the title, and inspiration for the novels, is an inveterate womaniser who gets up to the sort of sexist manipulation and exploitation typical of the time, but the way in which he is portrayed by Swift endows him with a sort of irresistible attraction for the reader, much like that of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.  All the books are terrific reads but my favourite is A Plague on Mr Pepys, with its heroine Bess Bagwell, who sees her ambitions for herself and her husband, Will, crumble under the random blows of fate and the devious machinations of her brother-in-law, Jack. As her circumstances become more and more desperate, she is obliged to turn to the powerful Pepys in an attempt to save herself and Will. The psychology of their relationship, and the way it develops, is gripping. Bess teeters on a dangerous seesaw in which the necessity of reeling in the only man who can help must be counter-balanced by her desire to keep him at arm’s length. Will she succeed?

The Piece Hall, Halifax

From London and Rome to the north of England.  My next two authors hail from my birthplace, the west riding of Yorkshire (chauvinist, moi? Heh heh). Helena Whitbread is the only non-fiction author of the five, and she has already featured here, in my May blog, along with her 19th century soulmate, Anne Lister, who became world-famous this year in the TV series Gentleman Jack. But Anne’s story may never have reached such a wide audience had it not been for the astonishing devotion and talent of the woman who said of her efforts: ‘I was just the back-street scribe.’ In 1983, Whitbread was looking for a research topic for a Ph D. Wandering into the Halifax Archives, she happened upon the diaries of a 19th century local landowner and secret lesbian, Anne Lister. ‘From that day,’ she writes, ‘I … found myself engaged in a literary, historical and cultural adventure…Halifax, for me, became two different towns. Physically I moved around…twentieth century Halifax. Mentally, I lived in the small nineteenth century town.’ She set out to reveal the Anne hidden in the diaries, decoding and transcribing 27 volumes and 4 million words, of which one sixth are in code with no punctuation. She writes: ‘Curiosity, allied to the thrill of an intellectual challenge, gripped me.’ But her achievement does not stop there. The two books which resulted from her research, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and No Priest But Love, consist of her final selections from the diaries themselves linked by explanatory passages and further clarified by detailed footnotes. The sensitivity and justesse of her selections and the lucid passion of her explanatory passages communicate a striking empathy with a woman who lived 150 years previously and who, on the surface, could not have been more different from her 20th century amanuensis.

‘Have you noticed you never see a cow laugh?’ This was one of the more notoriously sibylline pronouncements by my Yorkshire grandmother one Saturday as we took her on a drive through the countryside. Those cows had obviously not come across Sheila Patel’s series of books set in contemporary Bradford, The Magic Vodka Wardrobe.  This is definitely not Bradford as you know it, and definitely not as my Yorkshire grandmother would have known the grimy old mill town.  But, along with the cows, Grandma would have been singing and dancing and shaking from head to toe (or horn to hoof) with mirth at ‘Ar Sheila’s’ depiction of the Singh family and life in their corner shop, backed up by a mind-boggling cast of friends and neighbours who  would make Damon Runyon’s eyes water: Mad Mush Martha,  Tattoo Tony and his Rottweiler, Knobhead, Joginder the goat, Graham the pigeon, Dammit Janet, Gyppo Bob, and Guru the Wedding Horse, to name but a few. They feature in a series of outrageously hilarious vignettes which have the same freshness, originality and addictive surrealism as those of Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in the 70s.

Is there a glitter ball in there?

Patel was the seventh child of a traditional Punjabi family who grew up in the same period as The Flying Circus (is there a link?) 1970s Britain. Her writing, she says, was inspired by ‘all the funny things that Indians do daily to adapt to the British way of life’.  Centre stage are the Singh family: Father, Mother,  her two sisters Lady Fatima and Sheila (‘short short skirts, four husbands’) and the three daughters Kirsty (rich husband), Shaz and Trace ( ‘both accountants, both thin, with no scary moles and nice cars’ but- to Mother’s chagrin- still husbandless).  Another important character is Bachitaar but to meet him we have to step out of the fourth dimension of life in Patel’s Bradford and enter a fifth dimension, accessible only through a magic wardrobe,  consisting of a 70s disco bar complete with glitter ball and non-stop musical soundtrack (Douglas Adams, anyone?). Bachitaar, complete with turban, can be found behind the bar serving up endless vodka shots while lending a sympathetic ear to Sheila, Trace and Shaz who take refuge in the wardrobe when life, love, bamboo bikes, spam samozas and the news headlines all get too much. Until the time comes when Santa can supply magic wardrobes to all of us, don’t hesistate to join Sheila and the girls in theirs!

Finally, after the laughs, the tears. It’s a well-known fact that no Christmas is complete without a Miracle on 34th Street.

Jill Kearney, like Sheila Patel, was inspired to write by her real-life experiences. These included being a dog rescuer and in-home care provider. Her book The Dog Thief and Other Stories, set in a rural pocket of Washington State, features humans who are poor and dispossessed, animals who share a similar fate, and those often-hapless individuals who try to help out. In this divided society with its ‘separate realities’-the affluent owners of oceanside homes at one extreme, the survivalists and hippies running meth labs and puppy mills in the woods at the other – it would be easy to moralise, and hold our noses at people like Beverley, an MS sufferer who rejects the relative comfort of the reservation in favour of a squalid existence in a collapsed trailer with a swarm of feral cats, and who spends her social security checks on alcohol and cat food.  Good Samaritan neighbour, Jim, inwardly railing at her stubbornness, tries to save her from total decrepitude, attempting to fix her broken toilet, hauling out overflowing buckets of excrement while literally holding his nose (‘the smell…smacked him in the sinuses.’). Writing in a deceptively low-key, unsentimental style, Kearney gets her message across by delivering unexpected knee chops. She possesses that rare knack of picking out the perfect detail in a myriad of possibilities, the one tiny raindrop that reflects an entire, staggering world, halting us in our tracks as we read, making us laugh out loud or burst into uncontrollable tears. Her alter ego, Elizabeth, features in several of the tales, driven to desperate devices (such as stealing dogs from abusive owners)  in order to right wrongs, while simultaneously trying to grasp the meaning of her own unorthodox life, where poignant remembrance of time past vies with a recognition of the importance of seizing the beauty of the moment. Like that other quintessentially American writer, Carson McCullers, Kearney the story teller pulls off the magic trick of getting us to empathise with her variety of creatures great and small, to suspend our judgement, to enter into their lives with wonder and humility and vow to do better ourselves.

And what better Christmas message could there be than that?

Happy Christmas from the Cowshed



To bookworms around the world Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année from the Cowshed!


Book news, book news, books news!!!!!!

Terry Tyler published her new book in the Project Renova series, Blackthorn, in November.

Paulette Mahurin has just announced the release of her latest book, The Old Gilt Clock, about WW2 Dutch resistance fighter, Willem Arondeus.

Miss Moonshine is back in her emporium with Christmas goodies…

And John Dolan has been invited to take part in a multi-author boxed set of crime thrillers to release in 2020, Notorious Minds. Watch this space.

Coming on my blog in 2020:

A visit to the magnificent John Rylands library in Manchester, more on the Anne Lister theme with a visit to  Lightcliffe Church cemetery where Lister’s ‘wife’ Anne Walker is buried…. along with twenty or so of my ancestors! Also an update on my abandoned project Christmas at Villa Julia, which is now busy turning itself into a new historical series, The Etcheverrias, starting in 1898 with A Wedding in Provence… too nervous to say any more in case the Muse goes on an extended holiday without leaving a forwarding address 😉


Miss Anne Lister and Mrs Helena Whitbread: a marriage of two minds

Anne Lister Portrait by Joshua Horner – GLBTQ Encyclopedia, Public Domain

In 1983  a Yorkshire woman in the springtime of her fifties dropped in to the Calderdale Archives building hoping to find a research topic about which to write a book. She came out with photocopies of 50 pages of the diary of a 19th century  local celebrity whose ancestors had lived at Shibden Hall, near Halifax, for several generations.

The name of the researcher was Helena Whitbread and the diary she began to read was that of Anne Lister, 1791-1840. What happened next has been well-documented, and the story is set to reach an even wider audience this month with the airing of Gentleman Jack, a BBC/HBO drama series based on Anne Lister’s life.* This multi-faceted personality was a woman of impressive determination and intellect. She set herself a rigorous programme of study and self-improvement (Latin, Greek, algebra, music); she was an energetic, capable businesswoman, helping to manage her uncle’s estate and often joining the workmen in their physical tasks; she was  a keen traveller, adventurer and mountaineer (the first woman to ascend Mont Perdu, 3355 metres, in the Pyrenees) . But her intimate journals (1806-1840) revealed something else. Anne was a lesbian, a charming, charismatic, ardent lover of women, with a strong sexual appetite and ‘a romantic and enthusiastic mind’.

Today’s blog gets passionate not just about Anne Lister, but also her equally fascinating 20th century amanuensis and interpreter, Helena Whitbread, who, as she put it, ‘serendipitously’ wandered in to those archives and emerged with those 50 pages. It was the first step on an adventure into ‘another woman’s time and life’ in which her efforts to elucidate Anne’s complex character and secret loves would occupy her for more than three decades.

Shibden Hall Richard Buck / Shibden Hall / CC BY-SA 2.0 geograph.org_.uk_-_1804046.jpg

I discovered Helena Whitbread’s books,  The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and No Priest But Love, on a visit to Yorkshire last year, thanks to my sister-in-law and her daughter, avid readers and amateur local historians. The main tourist attraction of the area is Haworth, home to the Brontës, but for local families Shibden Hall has long been known as a great place for a day out ever since it was gifted to the council in 1933. Anne went to live there in 1815, aged 24. Born in 1791, two years after the outbreak of the French Revolution, her own accounts of her childhood reveal a distinctly rebellious streak (she describes being whipped every day at school). This exuberant character exploded into the sheltered lives of her Uncle James, owner of Shibden, and Aunt Anne, his sister, bringing a style and a dash which set the local tongues wagging. A ‘tomboy’ in her youth, Anne, in her twenties, was masculine in appearance and behaviour, with a strong personality. Convinced from an early age that she was different from most women in terms of her sexual orientation, she was equally convinced that the difference was entirely natural. This comes across clearly in the journals of 1816 to 1826, on which Whitbread’s books are based. During this period Anne had three serious relationships and numerous flirtations, but, although a regular churchgoer, she finds no contradiction in the way she loves other women and religious orthodoxies. Her ‘difference’ arose from her birth and was thus a part of her nature, bestowed on her by ‘that Almighty Being who had created me.’

Country Lane, West Yorkshire

Anne was also confident about the validity-indeed superiority-of her own feelings as compared with the artificial and inconsistent qualities of ‘Sapphic love‘. Remarkably, she did not suffer the social and familial rejection which one might expect, but was able to discuss her situation (albeit in veiled terms)** with her unmarried aunt and uncle, whose main concern, once they understood that marriage to a man was out of the question, seemed to be that their niece should find a partner with whom she could be happy. Similarly, although the subject of gossip, Anne was accepted into genteel social circles where allusions were often made to her preferences and occasional flirting took place. The only openly prejudicial treatment she mentions in any detail occurred during her encounters with jeering local youths. These seemed to invigorate rather than traumatise her; in one incident, when a man tried to put his hand up her skirt, she was about to hit him with her umbrella when he ran off: ‘I did not feel in the least frightened, but indignant and enraged.’***

Haworth station. Alight here for a visit to The Brontë Museum…

It’s interesting to compare Anne’s accounts of her interactions with other women of her social standing with those of, for example, Jane Austen, who, in her novels (Emma was published in 1815) gives us a very different picture of what ladies discussed when they took tea. Of course that was in genteel Hampshire rather than unpredictable Yorkshire, where the following year, 1816, saw the birth of Charlotte Brontë, who, along with her sisters, would have polite society grabbing for the smelling salts with the publication of Jane Eyre and, worse still, Wuthering Heights just seven years after Anne’s premature death. But all these women shared one important similarity–the limitations of their condition. For women of a certain class without independent means, the future offered few choices: a good marriage, with its attendant financial security and respectability; a somewhat lowly and precarious ‘career’ as governess or teacher; or a life of spinsterhood, dependent on the goodwill of relatives.

Books by Helena Whitbread

But this is merely a bare bones summary of Anne’s life. More will be revealed in the TV series. But my advice (Dear Reader, have I ever mislead you?) is to go straight to Helena Whitbread. Not only do her books contain everything necessary to know about Anne during this crucial, formative period, they are a work of art in themselves, arising from a labour of love in the truest sense. The mere introduction to The Secret Diaries…  had me throwing up my hands and shouting ‘Hallelujah’. The quality of the prose is a delight-clear, cogent, erudite, getting directly to the heart of the matter and luring the reader irresistibly on to the journals themselves. I didn’t stop till I got to the end of the second book and only then did the full import of this astonishing achievement really hit me.

The Piece Hall, Halifax, where Anne saw a balloon ascent in 1824 , an event attended by ‘some said…50 thousand’

So who is this other remarkable lady? Helena Whitbread was born into a poor Halifax family and forced through ill health to leave school aged 14. After marriage and four children, it was only in her late thirties that she was able to fulfil her dream of continuing her studies. Further education, a university degree, a teaching career…this ‘eternal student’ continued to pursue her academic interests, little suspecting what lay ahead when she took home those first pages of Anne’s diary: years of painstaking work and the gradual revelation of a historical figure destined to fire the imagination of readers. From 1816 to 1826 the fascinating minutiae of Anne’s daily life at home and on her travels (dress, food, health, study, finances, walking, riding, social visits) are interposed with the ecstasy and torments of forbidden love, mainly as they relate to Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Lawton, her two most intense affairs at this time, along with Maria Barlow whom she met in Paris. (Her relationship with Anne Walker, whom she ‘married’****, which came later, starting in 1832 and continuing until her death in 1840, is the subject of Gentleman Jack.) Anne’s innermost thoughts in her beloved journal (‘writing my journal has amused & done me good. I seemed to have opened my heart to an old friend. I can tell my journal what I can tell none else’), her romantic and social aspirations, the complexity of her often contradictory character over these ten years are all vividly illuminated through extracts that have been judiciously selected, rigorously annotated and indexed, and linked by passages which not only put events into a larger social, historical and literary context but also continue the narrative as seen through the eyes of Helena Whitbread.

Les deux Amies

Perhaps most moving is Anne’s ‘sentimental education’ as regards Mariana Lawton, with whom she fell in love in her twenties, but was unable to live with due to the circumstances of both women. Anne, even if she had dared to openly cohabit with another woman at the time, did not have the financial independence to do so. The same was true for Mariana, who entered into a marriage with a much older man, Charles Lawton*****, with both women hoping that a conveniently early demise (!) would leave them in a position to be together. The gradual disillusion of Anne is heart-breakingly recounted, leaving her, at the end of 1824, a much-changed person. ‘I always considered your marriage legal prostitution,’ she tells Mariana. Like all romantics, she yearns for more. ‘It must be an elegant mind joint with a heart distilling tenderness at every pore that alone can make me happy,’ she writes in 1823. Mariana, she concluded, was too ‘worldly’, ‘she has not that magnanimity of truth that satisfies a haughty spirit like mine’…‘the chivalry of heart was gone. Hope’s brightest hues were brushed away.’

‘Illustration for The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allen Poe. By Frédéric Théodore Lix – “Модный магазин” (Fashion magazine), 1864, №23 (December), Public Domain,

The journals in total comprise 6600 pages and 4 million words, of which one sixth are in code. Whitbread writes: ‘Curiosity, allied to the thrill of an intellectual challenge, gripped me.’ Even before she got her hands on them, their story reads like a detective novel. In the 1890s, years after Anne’s death, they were discovered and deciphered by two men, John Lister, last of the family to live at the Hall, and his friend Arthur Burrell. What they found-‘an intimate account of homosexual practices among Miss Lister and her many ‘friends’’-so shocked them that Burrell advised Lister to destroy them. Instead, he hid them behind a panel where they remained until his death in 1933, when the Hall and its contents became the property of the borough of Halifax. Whitbread writes: ‘an iron curtain of conspiracy’ then descended over the coded sections of the diaries in the interests of preserving the family reputation.

Since April you can see the code and read Anne’s diaries for yourselves on-line at the West Yorkshire Archives. Amazing…

When she took on the Herculean task of transcribing the diaries, Whitbread not only had to learn how to use the key to the code but also attempt to read the uncoded entries which were written in semi-legible handwriting, with words running together and crisscrossing the pages. (She has an interesting note about how letters in those days were written in cramped writing using every inch of the notepaper in order to reduce the cost of postage.) Apart from these physical and technical hurdles, other concerns arose. Her first obligation, she tells us, was to keep the author’s authentic voice; then, once she had found it and realised its uniqueness, another dilemma popped up–should she put this intimate journal into the hands of the wider public? If so, in what form? ‘From that day (in 1983) I have found myself engaged in a literary, historical and cultural adventure,’ she writes in the introduction to No Priest But Love ‘…Halifax, for me, became two different towns. Physically I moved around…twentieth century Halifax. Mentally, I lived in the small nineteenth century town…

The enormity of the task was staggering, demanding an approach at complete odds with today’s thirst for the instant and the immediate. But the result is a triumph, a passionate engagement, an homage to the slow and the beautiful, to le temps de vivre, time to live, learn, read, enjoy, savour and reflect. Qualities, I’m sure, that Anne Lister would have been the first to appreciate.

‘Oh books, books! I owe you much. Ye are my spirit’s oil, without which, its own friction against itself would wear it out.’ Anne Lister’s journal, 20 July 1823.

Thanks for reading this lengthy blog! I’ve just discovered Helena’s books are selling out fast in paperback, but are available on Kindle 😉

*A previous BBC series was aired in 2010 starring Maxine Peake as Anne Lister

**’No doubt both aunt and uncle drew their own conclusions about Anne’s sex life.’ (No Priest But Love)

***She was however deeply  ‘mortified’  on a trip to Scarborough in 1823 by Mariana’s criticisms of her masculine appearance. (The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister)

****the two women took the sacrament together at the Holy Trinity church in York in 1834

*****Anne contracted a venereal disease from Mariana, which, to her shame, she passed on to Isabella. (Mariana had caught it from Charles.)

Note: Readers interested in finding out more can log on to the archives here