Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Celebrating Mary Stewart Week

Touch Not the Cat, Mary Stewart

Here we are in the second annual Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Anbolyn of Gudrun's Tights.  Though I have read the first two of Stewart's Merlin books to pieces over the years, I had only read one of her modern suspense novels, which did not inspire me to read more.  But last year Anbolyn's posts about her books did, and I began collecting them.  My favorite, far and away, has been The Ivy Tree (though Nine Coaches Waiting is also pretty amazing).  I think The Ivy Tree has become the standard against which I measure her other books.

In choosing what to read for this week, I was spoiled for choice, with seven on the TBR stacks.  I had originally planned to finish the Merlin trilogy with The Last Enchantment.  But I've had Touch Not the Cat in mind ever since a poll about Mary Stewart's books suggested it as the perfect one for me (now I can't find the link to it).  I was also encouraged by my friend Susan, a fellow Heyer and Wodehouse reader (among many other authors), who told me it is her favorite of Stewart's books. [Correction: it's third on her list, not her top favorite.]  I was glad to hear that, because I had actually started this book once before and given up on it in the second chapter.

I had read nothing about this book, even the back cover of my tattered paperback, but the first line set the stage for the story that follows: "My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him."  The speaker is Bryony Ashley.  The message she receives concerns her father Jonathan, who has been the victim of a hit-and-run accident in Germany - which may not have been an accident.  Bryony arrives too late to see him. She is left with the disconnected words he muttered in his last moments, about danger to her, and about papers and books and keys, and a cat.  She takes those words and his ashes back to their home in England, Ashley Court, "a moated manor that was built piecemeal by a series of owners from the Saxons on, none of whom had heard of damp courses . . ."  Due to an entail, the Court passes to the next male heir, her cousin Howard, whose three sons spent much of their childhood at the Court with Bryony's family.  There is her father's estate to sort out, and her own future, as well as her unease over his death.  Her cousins meanwhile have to decide what to do about the crumbling Court, which even the National Trust won't take on, despite its ancient history.

I found much to enjoy in this book, particularly after Bryony returns to England and settles again into life at the Court - starting with the cozy small cottage where she actually lives, the kind many of Stewart's heroines inherit.  She meets old friends again, including the Vicar of the parish. And there is Rob Granger, the son of a local farmer, who grew up with the Ashley children and now works at the Court.  It was fun to explore the Court, with its moat and maze and grand library.  And I like mysteries that involve complicated family situations, with wills and entails and all-too-convenient deaths.

What did not work so well for me was Bryony's lover.  Normally, I also enjoy supernatural elements to a story, as in Barbara Michaels' books.  Here a strain of telepathy runs through the Ashley family, all the way back to an ancestress who was burned for a witch.  All her life Bryony has had this link with someone, a man around her own age, with whom she shares "sudden blocks of intelligence that are thrust into one's mind and slotted and locked there . . ."  She doesn't know who it is, though she suspects it is one of her Ashley cousins.  He knows who she is, though.  So I couldn't quite work out why she doesn't know who he is.  She used to address him as "Boy" or "Ashley," but now calls him "Lover," because as they matured their connection has changed.  "And if it seems absurd that one should need and offer love without knowing the body one offers it to, I suppose that unconsciously the body dictates a need which the mind supplies."  Huh? That almost makes it sounds like her mind invented this lover!  I was quite willing to take him on faith, so I found the various attempts to explain and define their connection confusing, unnecessary distractions.  It didn't help that every time Bryony called him "Lover," I had this flash of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in "Dirty Dancing" ("How do you call your lover boy?")  On the other hand, I identified the Lover long before Bryony did, even if I had to check ahead to be sure I was right.

This wasn't my favorite of Mary Stewart's books - I don't think it measures up to The Ivy Tree - but I have a feeling I will enjoy it more in the re-reading.

N.B. I am also counting this book in the R.I.P IX Challenge, as the first toward my goal of Peril the First.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Industrial revolution, Discworld-style

Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett

The cover of this, the 40th novel in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, shows a train hurtling through the darkness:

It's such an apt cover, not just because the story deals with the coming of steam power and the railroad to the Disc, but also because the plot hurtles along at almost warp speed.  I was a little concerned sometimes that the wheels were coming off the rails, but Mr. Pratchett kept a steady hand on the controls, bringing his story into a neat terminus.

I'm tempted to see how many more railroad metaphors I can work into this - but I'll stop now.

The last few books of this long series have brought some rapid changes to Mr. Pratchett's world, particularly the great city of Ankh-Morpork. Some have been social, such as the liberation of golems, or the integration of vampires (at least those who forswear blood) and now goblins into society.  Others are technological, like the invention of the printing press and a telegraph system (the "clacks").   Of course there are always those who oppose change, who believe that the old ways are best.  This is carried to extremes in the dwarf community, where ultra-traditionalists preach against the contamination of the modern world.  This includes the female dwarfs who, while looking just like males, beards and all, are coming out as female and even daring to dress differently.  Led by the grags, who wear burqa-like garments, the ultras are putting words into action with attacks on the clacks towers.  More moderate and progressive dwarfs feel helpless in the face of their fanaticism and willingness to use violence.  The parallels to our own world are obvious.

Unfortunately for the grags, even bigger changes are on the way.  The catalyst for the next step in the Disc's Industrial Revolution is steam power, driving an engine running on rails.  When it arrives in Ankh-Morpork, the city's ruler Lord Vetinari is determined to harness this new invention for the benefit of his city.  He assigns that task to an official of the Royal Mint, Moist von Lipwig.  Moist is one of my favorite characters in the entire series (despite his unfortunate name).  He is a con man, the perfect Trickster, whom Vetinari appointed Postmaster General - as an alternative to hanging him - in Going PostalThe Discworld Companion describes him as "A natural born criminal, an habitual liar, a fraudster and a totally untrustworthy perverted genius."  But he's also great fun to read about, as he turns that genius first to remaking the postal service and then the Royal Mint.  Here he is the grease that keeps the wheels moving, as the rail lines spiral out from Ankh-Morpork.  Vetinari orders him to drive the rails all the way to √úberwald, the distant country where the Low King of the Dwarfs is facing off against the ultra-traditionalists.  Meanwhile, the grags have found a new cause.

Obviously, there is a lot going on in this book. There are three major plot lines, and the cast of characters is huge, many of them like Moist returning from earlier books.  There are quite a few new characters introduced as well, starting with the engineer Dick Simnel, whose engine the Iron Girder takes on a life of her own in the story.  Mr. Pratchett has fun with some sly cameos as well, including Mrs Georgina Bradshaw, who begins writing guides to the areas she visits on the railway; and Edith Nesmith, a child who loves stories and might grow up to write one about children and railways someday.

I did wonder about the absence of one character, though: Captain Carrot, a dwarf by adoption (he is well over six feet tall), who has risen quickly in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.  Dwarfs play such a major part in this story, with their deadly disagreements over what it means to be a proper dwarf, and the place of dwarfs in modern society.  I can't quite see Carrot sitting all that out.  For one thing, as the most prominent dwarf above ground, and not just because he's the tallest, he would be a target for the grags.  But then this book isn't exactly lacking in characters, and I suppose Mr. Pratchett couldn't really include everyone from all the books (though it feels that way at times).  Even DEATH only gets one scene, though with the body count in this book, he was presumably lurking in the wings much of the time.

That quibble aside, I did enjoy the book.  However, I would not recommend it as an introduction to the Discworld series.  There is a tremendous amount of backstory, building from the last few books but also on characters like Moist and Commander Vimes of the Watch, which would probably frustrate someone new to his world.

Lord Vetinari has the last word in this book: "And all that anyone can say now is: What next?  What little thing will change the world because the little tinkers carried on tinkering?"  As always, I'll be interested to see what changes the next book will bring to the Disc.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A daughter of two families

Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Last week I read a Book Riot post with some suggestions for diversifying your book group's reading.  It will be my turn to pick a book soon, so that caught my attention.  Then too one of my book-related goals this year has been to read more diverse authors, and I'm looking for recommendations for my own reading - even more now, with the upcoming "A More Diverse Universe" challenge.

Secret Daughter was one of the books listed, and the post's author wrote, "This is a book that that I love so much it’s a bit irrational."  I am always intrigued by books that inspire that kind of passion in readers.  When I checked the library catalogue, their summary of the book also intrigued me:
Interweaves the stories of a baby girl in India, the American doctor who adopted her, and the Indian mother who gave her up in favor of a son, as two families--one in India, the other in the United States--are changed by the child that connects them.
I was particularly pleased that my branch library had a copy, so I could just walk in and pick it up off the shelf.  I love our county library system (no surprise that I scored as a "Library Lover" on the Pew Research Center's Library User Quiz, which you can take here). But most of the books I want have to come from other branches, which can take weeks sometimes, so it's nice to find one ready on the shelves.

I found the blurb intriguing, but it's also a bit misleading.  The mother in India, Kavita, doesn't give up her child in favor of a son, she does it to save the child's life. Her first-born, a daughter, was taken from her at birth.  She knows the infant was killed and buried by her husband's family, though no one has ever told her so.  If the child she is carrying is another girl, she is determined to save her.  Her sister Rupa, who faced the same heart-breaking dilemma herself, found an orphanage in Mumbai for her child, and she agrees help Kavita take the baby there.  At the Shanti Home for Children, Kavita gives her daughter a name, Usha, "Dawn," and leaves her with one of her treasures, a silver bangle.

The American woman who adopts the baby is Somer Whitman, a pediatrician  living in San Francisco.  She is married to a neurosurgeon, Krishnan Thakkar, whom she met in medical school.  Krishnan is originally from Mumbai, where his parents and extended family still live.  They have been trying to start a family for some time, but Somer cannot carry a baby to term.  Finally, at Krishnan's urging, she agrees to consider adoption.  His mother is a patron of the Shanti Home, and through an adoption agency they are offered a one-year-old child, a girl named Asha (which means "hope").  They travel to Mumbai to meet their new daughter, a trip that is also Somer's introduction to India and to Krishnan's extended family.  She finds the city overwhelming, she feels an outsider in the Thakkar family and in the Indian culture, and she is distressed not to bond as easily as Kris does with their new daughter.

The story then takes us through more than 20 years of the two families' lives.  Kavita and her husband Jasu move to Mumbai with the son they finally have, Vijay.  Like Somer, they find the city overwhelming and not especially welcoming to the new arrivals pouring in from the countryside, looking for jobs and a better life for their children.  They land first in a vast shantytown, a slum on the edge of the city where thousands live and work.  Under the most difficult circumstances, they begin to build a partnership, from an arranged marriage that got off to a rocky start, with their new city life.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Somer and Kris raise their daughter, who grows increasingly curious about her birth.  At the same time Kris realizes that his connection to his family and his homeland is slipping, while his daughter has no real connection at all to her Indian heritage. Reading their story, I initially thought that the author had glossed over the complexities of their multi-cultural marriage, let alone raising a child in that situation.  I realized later that's because Somer and Kris had done the same thing themselves.  As a student, Kris melded himself into American culture and ways.  Both he and Somer were focused on their careers, something they had in common, and they married without ever really addressing the wide gaps in their experiences and expectations.  In some ways their marriage had as shaky a foundation as Kavita and Jasu's, and adding a child doesn't automatically make that better. 

This becomes clear in the second half of the book when, Asha, now a sophomore at Brown University, wins a grant to spend a year in India, researching children living in poverty.  Somer is absolutely opposed to this, because it means losing a year of college, but also because she feels that Asha is choosing Krishnan and his family over her.  In addition, she worries that her daughter will seek out her birth parents.  Kris supports Asha, which infuriates Somer.  Under the strain, other long-buried issues begin to surface, driving the couple apart.

I really enjoyed the second half of the book, following Asha as she arrives in Mumbai and meets her father's large family, who welcome her warmly.  She bonds immediately with her grandmother, the matriarch of the family.  With her cousins, she begins to explore the city and her own identity.  Her introduction to Mumbai is much easier than Kavita's many years before, cushioned by her family and her economic security.  But her research takes her to the same shantytown, where she discovers not just the heart-breaking poverty of the residents, but also the grace and strength with which they make their homes and raise their families - as her own birth parents did.

This is a complex story, with a lot going on between the different characters.  It deals with big questions, of identity, of what it means to be a family, through individual stories.  It shifts constantly between characters, and between the U.S. and India, but the different strands of the story are easy to follow.  Ms. Gowda is a very skillful story-teller.  My only quibble is that I found the San Francisco side of the story a little less interesting, a little flatter, than the stories of Kavita and Asha in India.  The sections set in India really come to life, and it was fascinating seeing Mumbai through the eyes of the three different women: Kavita, coming from her small village; Somer, an American on her first visit to India, uneasy, closed in and resentful; and Asha, discovering her homeland for the first time.  Ms. Gowda does not gloss over the poverty and the violence that plague Mumbai and other areas of India, nor the discrimination that women and girls face.  But these problems do not define the country or her characters.

It is hard to believe that this is Shilpi Somaya Gowda's first book.  I will certainly be looking for whatever she writes next.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fall reading

The calendar reminds me that the official First Day of Autumn is September 23rd, the weather is only a degree or two cooler, and we still have another 4-6 weeks of prime hurricane season here on the Gulf Coast. But still, it suddenly feels like we've turned the corner, that summer is coming to an end. And not just because the Halloween candy is already in the stores!

This year September 23rd also brings Deborah Crombie's newest book, To Dwell in Darkness, which I've been anticipating ever since the cliff-hanger that closed the last. The date is marked on my calendar, as is her signing here in Houston later the same week.

In addition, in the next couple of months there are four fall reading events that I'm really looking forward to participating in.  The first, which has already started, is the 9th season of R.I.P., or R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IX, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings.  It runs (appropriately) through Halloween.  This year again I am signing up for "Peril the First," to "Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature," defined as "Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, Supernatural."

Ms. Crombie's new book would qualify.  Here are some others I am considering, from my TBR stacks:
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
  • Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (I'm currently stuck 1/3rd of the way through)
  • Monica Dickens, Closed at Dusk
  • I.J. Parker, The Convict's Sword
  • Mary Stewart, Touch Not the Cat
  • Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Patricia Wentworth, The Chinese Shawl

Next up is Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Anbolyn of Gudrun's Tights.  This will run September 14-21, and it is open to anything related to the author or her work.  I collected quite a few of her books last year, with the first reading week, and I still have several on the TBR shelves.  I am planning to read The Last Enchantment, to finish the Merlin trilogy.  I also have a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain, a source of many Arthurian legends, which Stewart recommended in an afterword to The Crystal Cave - not as history, but as entertaining fantasy disguised as history.  I'd like to read Touch Not the Cat, which a Mary Stewart quiz suggested as the best match for me.  My friend Susan also told me recently it's her favorite of Stewart's novels.  Reading it would overlap with the R.I.P. challenge, but I think that's allowed.  I am also tempted to re-read The Ivy Tree, just because it's so damn good!

The next event is A More Diverse Universe, hosted by Aarti of Book Lust.  It is a challenge to read and review one book by a person of color during the last two weeks of September (Sept. 14-27).   This year it's open to books in any genre.  From a recommendation I read on Book Riot this morning, I picked up a copy of Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, at the library this afternoon.  I know I'm not going to be able to wait to read that one.  I am still making a list for this challenge, but again just from my own TBR shelves I have several possibilities:
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower  [another challenge overlap!]
  • Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace
  • Susie King Taylor, A Black Woman's Civil War Memoirs
  • Gail Tsukiyama, The Samurai's Garden
  • Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy - I couldn't finish this in two weeks, but if I start if early, I might could finish it in time to qualify!

As well as the second month of R.I.P., October brings Margaret Kennedy Reading Week, hosted by Jane of Fleur in her World, running October 6-12.  I consider Jane the one who really introduced me to Margaret Kennedy, with her review of Lucy Carmichael, a book I loved almost beyond words (my review is here).  I already had a couple of Kennedy's books on the TBR stacks when Jane announced the reading week.  I took that as an excuse to find still more, so I have a ridiculously wide range to choose from for the week, including The Feast, Troy Chimneys, Act of God, Not in the Calendar, and The Wild Swan.  I also have a very battered second copy of Troy Chimneys that I'd be happy to share, if anyone is having trouble finding her books.  I will be resisting the urge to buy the new Virago editions, as I have (so far) with the new Angela Thirkell editions.

The next couple of months should be rich in reading!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cats in books

This is not really a bookish post.  I lost a cat this past weekend.  She was 17 years old, and in the first stages of kidney disease, but she'd just had a check-up and the tests showed that she was stable.  Then Saturday night she started having trouble breathing.  After hours at the emergency vet clinic, they told me it was probably a tumor in her chest, which was confirmed by tests the next day.  Apparently these often develop in older cats, which I never knew.  The tumor she had attached itself to her heart, and there was really nothing to do, except let them end her suffering.  It was so sudden that it has kind of left me in shock, reaching for comfort books (Georgette Heyer, P.G. Wodehouse) and comfort foods (malted milkshakes and chai latte).  My other cat refused to eat for a couple of days, but now she seems less stressed.

On that very long Sunday, waiting for the call about the second tests, I started thinking about cats in books. Making a list of my favorites proved a nice distraction, and later I went trolling through the bookshelves, looking for them.

The first literary cats I met might have been in the Little House books, Black Susan in the Big Woods and then Kitty in the Dakota territory, plus the barn cats in Farmer Boy that Almanzo feeds with warm new milk. These aren't really pets, they are working animals on the farms.  The Ingalls get Kitty after Pa wakes up in the middle of the night with a mouse chewing on his hair, and Susan is the best mouser in the Big Woods.  But the cats also help make their homes cozy, as in the Big Woods:
The sunshine came streaming through the windows into the house, and everything was so neat and pretty  . . .  The pantry door stood wide open, giving the sight and smell of goodies on the shelves, and Black Susan came purring down the stairs from the attic, where she had been taking a nap.

I think Elizabeth Peters has more cats in her books than any author I've read.  In the Amelia series, it begins with the matriarch Bastet, a large brindled Egyptian cat, who bonds with the young Ramses:
[John] followed Ramses' every step and scarcely took his eyes off the boy.  He attended to the needs of Bastet, such as they were; the cat required far less attendance than a human child. (Which is one of the reasons why spinster ladies prefer felines to babies.)  Ramses had not insisted on bringing the cat; he had simply taken it for granted that she would accompany him.  The few occasions on which they had been parted had proved so horrendous for all concerned that I gave in with scarcely a struggle.  (The Mummy Case)
When Bastet dies years later, the family keeps pushing kittens on Ramses, but it takes him a long time to connect with another cat.

There is also the cat-filled mansion of Aunt Kate, in Devil-May-Care, one of my favorite of her books:
       The room was enormous - thirty by fifty feet at the least  . . .  The furniture consisted mainly of chairs and tables; the flat surfaces of both types were covered with objects, many of them cats.
      Henry had never seen so many cats.  Fat cats and lean cats. Short-haired cats and cats that looked like animated mops.  Blue cats, White cats, tabby cats, grey cats. Siamese cats, Persian cats, and cats of no determinate species. Kittens. Cats with long tails, cats with no tails at all.
I bet nobody called Aunt Kate a crazy cat lady!  At least not more than once.

Rumer Godden's Benedictine abbey, in In This House of Brede, has cats as well as nuns.  The young postulant Sister Cecily wanted her convent to have box hedges.  Me, I'd pick mine based on the cats.  There is Wimple, "a Benedictine in her black and white, the white running under her chin, which explained her name."
Wimple too had the nuns on a string, as Sister Priscilla would say.  There was a custom in the community for the nuns, on their way to breakfast after Prime, to stop at the statue of our Lady with the Holy Child in the long cloister, to say three Hail Mary's there.  Wimple was impatient for her breakfast, and she would walk among the kneeling figures, giving them small pushings with her head; one hand after another would come out, not to push her away but to stroke her.  Wimple was perverse; she would come into the refectory through the ever-opening service door and walk through the room to the other, demanding to be let out.  Unlike Grock's, Wimple's miaow was piercing and could, at dinner and supper, interrupt the read, so that Sister Xaviera, who doted on Wimple, would get up and let her out.  In a moment or two the little cat would walk in the service door again.
Philippa Talbot says that in coming to the abbey, she gave up "a cat and a clock and some dear little sins."  The cat is a Siamese called Griffon, and after leaving him in his new home, as she prepares to enter the community, "It was better, Philippa found in the the train, not to let herself think about Griffon."

Kerry Greenwood's mysteries featuring Corinna Chapman are also full of cats.  Corinna herself has three: "Horatio, a tabby and white gentleman with impeccable manners and grooming," and the two in the Mouse Police who keep her bakery rodent-free at night.  Her friend Meroe the witch has the night-black Belladona. When a litter of kittens turns up on the doorstep, their neighbors in the building adopt them all, and the mother as well too. One of the kittens was lost for days and discovered shut into an apartment.  When the door is opened,
       [A] very small, very thin black kitten tottered out, climbed the Professor as if every movement hurt, and nestled in his bosom as though she had been looking for him all her short life.  He cradled her in his beautiful long hands.
       'Hello,' he said to the kitten. She put out a little pink tongue and licked his thumb. Then she closed her eyes and gave a short purr.
       From that point on, of course, the Professor was lost.  He was one of the Chosen Ones.  (Heavenly Pleasures)
And then there is J.K. Rowling, who gives us the evil Mrs Norris, prowling the corridors of Hogwarts at night, just looking for students she can squeal on.  But there is also Crookshanks, Hermione's big ginger cat, on whom she dotes.  He's the only one to sense danger in Scabbers the rat.  But my favorite cat in J.K. Rowling's world is the first one we meet, the tabby cat on the corner of Privet Drive, whom Mr Dursley sees reading a map.  How perfect that Professor McGonagall's Animagus form is a cat, when "This animal form is not chosen by the wizard, but determined by their personality and inner traits."

I actually have a few more fictional cats on my list, but I think I'll stop here, and go sit with my real-life furball for a while, and just be grateful for the wonderful cats who've shared my life, especially my Cassie.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A stubbon school-master

Dr Wortle's School, Anthony Trollope

As much as I love Anthony Trollope, reading Castle Richmond earlier this year shook my faith in him a little.  But all the wonderful recent posts from people discovering Trollope - and falling under his spell - have made me want to pull the Palliser and Barchester novels off the shelves again.  Instead, last week I read a book with a child psychopath, a serial killer who tortures animals, a perfect trifecta of ick factors for me.  I abandoned the book, but not before reading enough to feel like I needed a mental palate-cleanser.  Some time in an ordered Victorian world suddenly seemed very appealing.  I decided on Dr Wortle's School not quite at random: it's one of his shorter, later novels.  I wasn't sure I had the stamina for a door-stop (I recently lost interest in The Woman in White about a third of the way through).

Oh, this book was such fun from start to finish.  Let me start with the title character, Dr Jeffrey Wortle.  He may be the Rector of Boswick, a town in the Midlands, but his heart and soul are in his school, an exclusive establishment that prepares boys for Eton (of course I was reminded of the schools that play such a big part in Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire).  His school is a great success, packed with noblemen's sons, despite the stiff fees.  He has carried on his school over the objections of three different bishops, with whom he has waged the kind of clerical war so familiar in Barsetshire.  He also has a running feud with the Hon Mrs Stantiloup, the parent of a former pupil withdrawn in a quarrel over the fees (technically over extra charges incurred).  The editor of my Penguin Classics edition, Mick Imlah, suggests that Dr Wortle is the closest Trollope ever came to creating a literary d√∂ppelganger.  Trollope's own son and his first biographer thought so, nothing that they shared a "blustering amiability, an imperious manner, and a good heart."

All three characteristics, along with the stubbornness of so many of Trollope's characters, are soon on display.  Dr Wortle has hired a new curate and usher for his school, a Rev. Henry Peacocke.  Like the Doctor an Oxford man, he has just returned to England after several years working at a university in St. Louis, Missouri.  There he married his wife Ella, a beautiful American woman, who will serve as the school's matron.  The Peacockes do not fit neatly into the parish, however.  They refuse all social invitations, including some very flattering ones from the students' parents, and Mr Peacocke is strangely reluctant to take up his curate's duties.  People begin to talk, especially the Hon Mrs Stantiloup.

At this point, in Chapter III, "The Mystery," Trollope breaks into the story, in that familiar confidential tone:
And now, O kind-hearted reader, I feel myself constrained, in the telling of this little story, to depart altogether from those principles of story telling to which you have probably become accustomed, and to put the horse of my romance before the cart.  There is a mystery respecting Mr and Mrs Peacocke which, according to all laws recognized in such matters, ought not to be elucidated till, let us say, the last chapter but two, so that your interest should be maintained almost to the end, - so near the end that there should be left only space for those little arrangements which are necessary for the well-being, or perhaps for the evil-being, of our personages.  It is my purpose to disclose the mystery at once, and to ask you to look for your interest, - should you choose to go on with my chronicle, - simply in the conduct of my persons, during this disclosure, to others.  You are to know it all before the Doctor or the Bishop, - before Mrs Wortle or the Hon Mrs Stantiloup, or Lady De Lawle.  You are to know it all before the Peacockes became aware that it must necessarily be disclosed.  It may be that when I shall have once told the mystery there will no longer be any room for interest in the tale to you.  That there are many such readers of novels I know  . . .   Therefore, put the book down if the revelation of some future secret be necessary for your enjoyment.  Our mystery is going to be revealed in the next paragraph, - in the next half-dozen words.

How cool is that?  A Victorian spoiler warning!  And one that the Penguin editors might take to heart, as it happens.  Also, Trollope is considering how stories are constructed, and why people read them.  Is it just for the sense of discovery, of unraveling secrets?  If so, he says, he is "far from saying  . . .  [that] is not the most natural and the most efficacious" kind of interest, but if so, he is going to deprive his story of it.

Well, like the author, I am going to discuss the mystery and its effects, so here is my spoiler warning!


In the author's words: "Mr and Mrs Peacocke were not man and wife." It isn't their fault.  Mrs Peacocke was previously married to a ne'er-do-well, a former Rebel in the Civil War, Colonel Ferdinand Lefroy.  After making his wife's life a misery for several years, he went off with his brother Robert to the Texas border lands, where he was reportedly killed.  Henry Peacocke traveled all the way down to the border and spoke with Robert, who confirmed his brother's death.  Mr Peacocke then returned to St. Louis and married the widow.  One day Col. Lefroy showed up at their house, very much alive, drunk and demanding money.  The Peacockes could think of nothing to do but flee the country.  Mr Peacocke refused to abandon his wife, and she accepted his decision.  They continued to live together and present themselves as husband and wife.  But knowing how society would see them - particularly Mrs Peacocke - they avoid society.  Now with questions coming up, Henry Peacocke had just decided to tell the Doctor everything, when Robert Lefroy shows up, demanding money in his turn.  When he is refused, he begins telling the story to everyone he meets.

Of course the reaction is instantaneous: the Peacockes are living in sin, and their presence is contaminating the school and corrupting the boys.  Mr Peacocke is of course completely unfit for a curate's place.  The Hon Mrs Stantiloup is loud in expressing these opinions.  As the news spreads, parents begin making excuses to withdraw their sons.  The Doctor, however, takes a different view.  He refuses to condemn the couple, because what else could they do in such a terrible situation?  How could a husband abandon his wife under those circumstances, even if she wasn't technically his wife?  And if he clings to her, naturally she must cling to him (as women do).  With quite progressive and heterodox ideas for a Church of England minister in the 1880s, Dr Wortle prepares to defend the Peacockes.  Here the editor suggests that Trollope had in mind his good friends George Eliot and her partner George Lewes, who could not marry because Lewes was unable to obtain a divorce.  The editor notes that Trollope's wife Rose refused to receive the couple in her home, but Trollope visited them in theirs.

Through Dr Wortle, Trollope points out again and again that in transgressions against sexual morality, it is the woman who pays the higher price and is judged more harshly, especially by other women.  The man in the case can usually walk away with little damage to his reputation.  This double-standard is a frequent theme in Trollope's novels, such as The Vicar of Bullhampton and He Knew He Was Right.  Bigamy is also a common theme in the Victorian literature I have read, and it must have represented a real anxiety in people's minds about having to take strangers at face value.  It plays a major part in two other Trollope novels,  Castle Richmond and John Caldigate.

At the Doctor's suggestion, Peacocke sets off for America again, dragging Robert Lefroy along, to look for definite proof about the fate of Ferdinand.  Meanwhile, Dr Wortle insists on Mrs Peacocke remaining in the school, though in seclusion.  Mrs Wortle is not best pleased about this, especially since the other woman is so beautiful.  Gossip again goes to work, eventually reaching the Bishop's ear, setting off another battle.  Dr Wortle is of course convinced that he is right and everyone else is wrong - one of Trollope's stubborn men, like Plantagenet Palliser and Mr Crawley, and even quiet Dr Harding.  But to his own surprise he finds himself riding over to consult the vicar of the next parish.  Each time he gets Job's comfort and plain words.  Mr Puddicombe actually tells him that he is wrong about several things, including his war with the Bishop.  The Doctor resents this, and disagrees, but can't ignore Mr Puddicombe's words. Meanwhile the story alternates between Boswick and the southwestern United States, where Henry Peacocke is on the hunt.  At one point he even has a photograph made of a crucial piece of evidence!

To lighten the story a little, there is a also a quiet romance between Dr Wortle's only daughter and a former pupil.  Like Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, he falls in love with his tutor's daughter.  His parents are not thrilled, but at least Mary is no Lucy Steele.  One reason her father is so attached to his school is that he is determined to give his daughter a dowry of £20,000.

N.B.  I am finding that the publication dates of some Victorian novels can be a bit confusing.  This one was published as a serial in 1880 (the publisher originally objecting to the Peacockes' situation), and then as a book in 1881.  I am using the later date for the Mid-Century of Books.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A dying woman's dangerous secrets

Designated Daughters, Margaret Maron

The publication of this, the 19th book in the Deborah Knott series of mysteries, caught me by surprise.  I've gotten so used to authors announcing their upcoming books, usually months in advance.  But the first I knew of this one was an email from the author on its release day last week.  I immediately made plans to stop for a copy on my way home from work - a prospect that made my day brighter right from the start.

This is a series I really enjoy.  It is set in North Carolina, in the farm country of the fictional Colleton County, where Deborah Knott is a district court judge married to a deputy sheriff, Dwight Bryant.  They are raising his son by a previous marriage, Cal, whom Deborah recently adopted.  Both of their families have roots deep in the area.  Deborah is the youngest of twelve children (and the only daughter).  Most of her brothers have settled around the family farm, raising their own families, as have some of their children in turn.  At the head of the family is the patriarch Kezzie Knott, once the most famous moonshiner in the county, if not the state.  He has supposedly retired, finally.  His son-in-law the deputy sheriff certainly doesn't want to know otherwise.

This story is set in the heart of the Knott family.  Kezzie's youngest sister Rachel is dying, lying silent and still in hospice care at the local hospital.  But one afternoon, she suddenly begins to speak again.  As the news spreads through the family, they gather at her bedside with longtime friends.  Rachel's words are clear, but they don't always make sense, as she moves back and forth in time, with threads of story switching from person to person.  Sometimes she speaks of her brother Jacob, who died more than sixty years ago in a swimming accident.  Jacob's twin Jedidiah was so distraught that he ran off to join the army, only to be killed himself in a training accident.  The twin tragedies have always weighed on the family, particularly their youngest sister.  Rachel also speaks in fragments of an abusive husband, a terrible flirt, someone who didn't pay his debts, and a father unknowingly raising another man's child.  She gives no names to these people, leaving the family to try and puzzle out their identities.

But her words have already threatened someone.  While the family is taking a break out of the room, Rachel is killed, suffocated with a pillow.  As Dwight and the police begin to investigate, they uncover the secrets behind Rachel's words.  They also learn that Jacob Knott's death in a creek all those years ago may not have been the accident everyone assumed.  While I have finally gotten Deborah's family sorted out (with the help of the family tree printed in the front of every book), I found all the secrets and the suspects a little hard to follow at times.  But the two cases are brought to neat and logical conclusions in the end, though the family may not feel that justice has been done.

There is a third element to this story, which is reflected in the title.  One of the cases that comes before Deborah's court is that of a brother suing a sister over their mother's estate.  The sister was the caregiver for the mother, while the brother now shows more interest in the estate than he ever did in his mother's care.  Through the case, Deborah meets a group that calls itself the "Designated Daughters."  Its members have become the caregivers for aging parents or ill siblings or even aunts and uncles, the ones who accept that responsibility for the rest of the family.  Some of the "Designated Daughters" are actually men, but the majority are women.  One of the members has been defrauded by the agent who handled an estate sale, and they want Deborah's help.  I know many people who are in the position of "Dedicated Daughters" (and sons).  My sisters took on that role with my mother; I was too far away in Texas to do more than visit and provide long-distance support.  Though the "Daughters" and through the Knotts, Margaret Maron explores the stresses on modern families, particularly with aging and illness, but also the fluid boundaries of what makes a family.  As Deborah notes of her son Cal, "Maybe not the child of my body, but damned if he's not the child of my heart." 

I always enjoy spending time with the Knotts, particularly Mr. Kezzie, and I sure wish Colleton weren't a fictional place.