A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy

First published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1880-81, A Laodicean; or, The Castle of the De Stancys: A Story of To-Day is one of Thomas Hardy’s lesser known novels and one that I very much enjoyed.

Architect George Somerset is exploring the countryside near the village of Sleeping-Green one evening when he stumbles upon a castle. He learns that this is Stancy Castle, the ancestral home of the De Stancy family which has recently been purchased by the wealthy railway contractor, John Power. Mr Power has since died, leaving the castle to his daughter, Paula, who is planning to carry out extensive renovations on the ancient building. When Paula is introduced to Somerset she considers commissioning him to do the work on the castle, but before the restoration even begins Somerset finds himself falling in love with her.

It seems that Somerset has a rival for Paula’s love, however – Captain De Stancy, an impoverished descendant of the aristocratic family who once owned the castle. The Captain’s son, William Dare, has seen a chance to get his hands on some of the Power fortune and is determined that his father must marry Paula, no matter what.

Paula herself is the Laodicean of the title, described by the local minister as ‘lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot’, like the people of the church of Laodicea in the Bible. Throughout the novel she vacillates between Somerset and De Stancy, attracted to both of them in different ways and unwilling to fully commit to one or the other. This reflects the way she feels about society in general. As an industrialist’s daughter who has installed a telegraph wire and a new clock at Stancy Castle, Paula represents science and progress but at the same time she likes the idea of marrying into an aristocratic family and becoming a De Stancy. The clash between tradition and a new way of life is one of the recurring themes that comes up again and again in Hardy’s novels.

Although Paula irritated me with her inability to make up her mind and give either man a definite answer, I found Somerset’s infatuation with her quite annoying as well – I wanted him to notice Paula’s friend, Charlotte, who I think would have been a much better choice for him! Irritating characters aside, I found the story very entertaining, mainly because of the machinations of William Dare, who will stop at nothing to ensure Paula chooses his father. He uses forged telegrams, fake photographs and all sorts of other devious tricks to try to get what he wants and this makes the book more of a pageturner than I’d expected at first.

A Laodicean doesn’t really have the pastoral feel of most of Hardy’s other novels; in fact, most of the second half is set in Europe where the various sets of characters wander around the casinos of Monte Carlo, the spas of Baden and the busy streets and squares of Strasbourg. Things do become a bit far-fetched in this section, with lots of coincidental meetings, but I enjoyed reading something different from Hardy after so many books set in his Wessex countryside.

Although this hasn’t become one of my favourite Hardy novels, it’s still a very good one. I think I only have three more of them to read, as well as some of his short story collections. Have you read this one? What did you think?

This is book 36/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Classics Club Spin #33: The result

The result of the latest Classics Club Spin was revealed today.

The idea of the Spin was to list twenty books from my Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced by the Classics Club represents the book I have to read before 30th April 2023. The number that has been selected is…


And this means the book I need to read is…

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

An Englishman plans to assassinate the dictator of a European country. But he is foiled at the last moment and falls into the hands of ruthless and inventive torturers. They devise for him an ingenious and diplomatic death but, for once, they bungle the job and he escapes.

But England provides no safety from his pursuers – and the Rogue Male must strip away all the trappings of status and civilization as the hunter becomes a hunted animal.


I’m very happy with this result and glad I’ve avoided some of the longer books on my list! I’ve seen the excellent 1976 BBC adaptation of this book and am looking forward to reading it.

Have you read this? What did you think of it? And if you took part in the Spin which book did you get?

Classics Club Spin #33: My list

I wasn’t going to take part in the next Classics Club Spin as I’ve had a stressful week and not much time to think about blogging, but in the end I couldn’t resist. I’m coming towards the end of my Classics Club list now and would like to finish it by the end of the year, so joining in with the spins will help me to reach that goal. If you’re not sure what a CC Spin is, here’s a reminder:

The rules for Spin #33:

* List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.
* Number them from 1 to 20.
* On Sunday 19th March the Classics Club will announce a number.
* This is the book you need to read by 30th April 2023.

Here’s my list:

1. The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov
2. The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins
3. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
4. Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner
5. Random Harvest by James Hilton
6. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
7. Claudius the God by Robert Graves
8. The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy
9. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
10. Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
11. The Elusive Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
12. Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
13. Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff
14. The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins
15. Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner
16. The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy
17. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
18. Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
19. The Elusive Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
20. Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault


With only 13 books left on my Classics Club list, I’ve had to include some of them twice. I don’t really mind which one I get, but something short would be nice!

The Shadows of London by Andrew Taylor

A new book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett series is always something to look forward to. This is the sixth in the series and another one I thoroughly enjoyed. If you’re new to these books they do all work as standalones, but I would recommend reading all of them in order if possible so you can watch the relationship develop between James Marwood and Cat Lovett.

The Shadows of London is set around six years after the devastation of the Great Fire of London in 1666. The city is continuing to rebuild and Cat Lovett – now the widowed Mistress Hakesby – is working on the restoration of an ancient almshouse. Having taken over the running of her late husband’s architecture business, Cat is establishing a reputation for herself as a talented architect in her own right, and she and her partner, Brennan, have received a commission to rebuild the almshouse and construct new brick houses on the adjoining land. When a dead body is found on the site, bringing the project to a halt, Cat approaches her friend James Marwood to ask for his help in speeding up the investigations so that work can continue.

Marwood is now working as private secretary to the powerful statesman Lord Arlington. When it emerges that the dead man could be a clerk employed at the Council of Foreign Plantations, Arlington instructs Marwood to find out all he can about the murder. As he and Cat begin to investigate, however, they begin to uncover a trail that seems to be leading to the royal court and to Marwood’s old enemy, the Duke of Buckingham.

The investigation also has implications for another young lady, Louise de Kéroualle, formerly a maid of honour to Charles II’s sister, Minette. The King has his eye on Louise and she has been brought to England to serve as lady-in-waiting to his queen, Catherine of Braganza. It will suit certain people in both England and France to have a Frenchwoman in the King’s bed, but Louise has other things on her mind. Her lover, a French tutor, has gone missing – could he be involved in the almshouse murder?

As with the other five books in this series, Andrew Taylor blends fact and fiction together perfectly. Although the story of the dead man on the building site is fictional, it weaves in and out of the government intrigues and court conspiracies in a way that almost convinces you it could really have happened. While it was good to meet Cat and Marwood again, as well as some of the recurring characters I’ve become quite fond of, such as Marwood’s servants Sam and Margaret Witherdine, I also enjoyed getting to know Louise de Kéroualle. It was interesting to read Taylor’s author’s note where he discusses the politics behind Louise’s seduction by Charles II – with letters from the period as evidence – and why his interpretation of her story is more sympathetic than some.

Long-term readers of the series will be wondering whether this is the book where Cat and Marwood finally get together after what has been a bit of a love-hate relationship. Well, I’m not going to tell you that, but I do think you’ll be pleased to know that, unlike in some of the previous novels, there are plenty of interactions between the two of them and they work closely with each other to solve the mystery. I found the ending of the book quite satisfying, but I’m hoping there will be a book seven as I would love to see what’s in store next for Marwood and Lovett!

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 8/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

There are so many Greek mythology retellings around at the moment I thought this one might be too similar to others I’ve read recently (particularly Jennifer Saint’s Elektra) – but I needn’t have worried. With Clytemnestra, Costanza Casati makes a familiar story feel fresh and different, and as a debut novel it’s quite impressive.

Clytemnestra, Helen of Troy’s sister, is most often remembered as the wife of Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae who sacrifices their daughter Iphigenia to summon a wind so he can sail off to join the Trojan War. The heartbroken Clytemnestra takes her revenge on Agamemnon, which in turn provokes their other children, Electra and Orestes, to plot a revenge of their own. Casati’s novel does cover all of this, but a large part of the book is actually devoted to Clytemnestra’s early life as a princess of Sparta, daughter of Tyndareus and Leda, the King and Queen.

Like other Spartan women, Clytemnestra and her sisters are taught to fight, run and wrestle as children and grow up enjoying more independence and freedom than women elsewhere in Ancient Greece. This means that whenever life doesn’t go quite the way they hoped it would, they have the determination and the inner strength to take steps to change things. Early in the novel, a priestess delivers a prophecy that ‘the daughters of Leda will be twice and thrice wed…and they will all be deserters of their lawful husbands’ and over the course of the story we see this prediction begin to come true.

The thing I particularly enjoyed about this novel – and the thing that makes it different from others I’ve read – is that it focuses not just on Clytemnestra and Helen, whose stories are well known, but also on their other siblings. We get to know Castor and Polydeuces (sometimes called Pollux), their twin brothers who go in search of the Golden Fleece with Jason and the Argonauts, their sister Timandra, who marries King Echemus of Arcadia, and the two youngest sisters, Phoebe and Philonoe, who don’t have large parts to play but are not left out of the story either. By spending so much time on Clytemnestra’s childhood and her relationships with her family members, her character is given more depth, so that by the time she is married off to Agamemnon and the familiar, tragic part of her story is set into motion, we have come to know Clytemnestra well and to understand how her environment and upbringing have made her into the person she is.

Something else I found interesting was the portrayal of Clytemnestra’s first marriage to Tantalus, King of Maeonia, shown here to be a marriage made for love, in contrast to her later forced marriage to Agamemnon. Some versions of the Clytemnestra myth don’t make any reference to Tantalus at all, but including him here and showing how Clytemnestra’s life could have followed an entirely different course if he had lived adds another layer to the story.

Clytemnestra is written in present tense, which is never going to be a style I particularly like, but otherwise I found this book very enjoyable. I hope Costanza Casati will write more like this – if so, I think I’ll be adding her to my list of favourite modern Greek mythology authors, along with Natalie Haynes, Madeline Miller and Jennifer Saint.

Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Lady MacBethad by Isabelle Schuler

The character of Lady Macbeth is known to many of us through Shakespeare’s play, but who was she really? What kind of person was she and what were the events that led to her marriage to Macbeth and the beginning of the story we think we know? These are the questions Isabelle Schuler attempts to answer in her new novel, Lady MacBethad.

The book is set in the first half of the 11th century and is narrated by Gruoch, the woman who will become Lady Macbeth. With royal blood in her veins, Gruoch has grown up listening to her Picti grandmother’s prophecies that one day she will be Queen of Alba. When she is betrothed to Duncan, heir to the throne, it seems that the prophecy is going to come true and although she is sorry to leave behind her family and her close childhood friend MacBethad, she heads for Scone to join Duncan’s court. However, she is unprepared for the hostility of Duncan’s mother, Bethoc, the scheming of her pagan friend, Ardith, and the arrival of another young woman, Suthen of Northumberland, who also catches Duncan’s eye.

When a dramatic turn of events leads to her having to flee Scone before the marriage can take place, Gruoch falls into the hands of Mael Colum of Moray and his brother, Gillecomghain. Her chances of becoming queen seem out of reach again, but Gruoch refuses to give up on her dream.

Lady MacBethad ends before Shakespeare’s Macbeth begins, so is not a retelling of the play but more of a prequel to it. Also, the characters in Schuler’s novel are based on the real historical figures rather than on Shakespeare’s interpretation of them, which of course can’t be taken as being particularly accurate! I was pleased to find that she tries to use language appropriate to the period and authentic medieval Gaelic naming, such as MacBethad mac Findlaich rather than the anglicised Macbeth. This was a relief after reading Joanna Courtney’s Blood Queen a few years ago, which renamed Gruoch as Cora and Gillecomghain as Gillespie, just in case the original names were too difficult for modern readers.

Schuler works some quotes from Shakespeare into the conversations between her characters – “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent beneath it” is advice given to Gruoch by her grandmother, for example – but no knowledge of the play is necessary to be able to understand and enjoy this book. It can be read as a straightforward work of historical fiction, bringing to life a fascinating and complex period of Scotland’s (or Alba’s) history. It explores the conflict between Christianity and the old pagan beliefs, the fading culture of the Picts and the warring factions trying to gain control of the throne.

Gruoch (or Groa, as her pagan friends call her) is portrayed as ambitious, determined and driven by her desire to become queen no matter what. Yet her narrative voice feels slightly too young and immature for me to find her completely convincing. I think having read Dorothy Dunnett’s wonderful King Hereafter, it was just too difficult for me to put Dunnett’s Groa out of my mind and fully embrace a different version of the character.

The way the book ends sets things up perfectly for a sequel, maybe incorporating some of the more familiar events of Macbeth. I wonder whether there will be one or whether Isabelle Schuler is moving on to other subjects now.

Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 7/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Passages to The Venice Train

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Passages by Gail Sheehy, a bestselling self-help title from the 1970s. I haven’t read this book and doubt I ever will, but here’s what it’s about:

At last, this is your story. You’ll recognize yourself, your friends, and your loves. You’ll see how to use each life crisis as an opportunity for creative change – to grow to your full potential. Gail Sheehy’s brilliant road map of adult life shows the inevitable personality and sexual changes we go through in our 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond. The Trying 20s – The safety of home left behind, we begin trying on life’s uniforms and possible partners in search of the perfect fit. The Catch 30s – illusions shaken, it’s time to make, break, or deepen life commitments. The Forlorn 40s – Dangerous years when the dreams of youth demand reassessment, men and women switch characteristics, sexual panic is common, but the greatest opportunity for self-discovery awaits. The Refreshed (or Resigned) 50s – Best of life for those who let go old roles and find a renewal of purpose.

I couldn’t think of any way to link this book to anything else I’ve read so instead I’m linking to a book I haven’t read yet, but do have on my TBR – A Passage to India by EM Forster (1). So far I’ve only read Howards End and A Room With a View by Forster and although I enjoyed them both I still haven’t got round to trying any of his others. His 1924 novel set in India during the time of the British Raj will probably be the next one I read.

Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer (2) is a fictional biography of Forster, concentrating on the time in his life when he was working on A Passage to India. I liked Galgut’s writing and the descriptions of India and Egypt, but otherwise found this book boring. I think my lack of familiarity with Forster’s life and work was partly to blame – all the more reason to read more of his books sooner rather than later – but I also felt that Galgut chose to focus too heavily on Forster’s sexuality and romantic relationships, which just didn’t interest me very much.

The Magician by Colm Tóibín (3) is another novel about the life of an author, in this case Thomas Mann. Again, my knowledge of Mann and his work is limited (I’ve only read Death in Venice and some of his short stories), but I’d seen a lot of praise for this book so tried it anyway. The book takes us through Mann’s childhood in Germany, his marriage, his experiences during World War II and his later years in Los Angeles and Switzerland. I found it interesting but didn’t connect with it on an emotional level and I prefer the way Tóibín writes about fictional characters.

The title of the Toibin novel makes me think of a book featuring a character who becomes a magician: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (4). This is the first book in Davies’ Deptford Trilogy and although I enjoyed it, I still haven’t read the other two. Fifth Business is narrated by Dunstan Ramsay, who grows up in the small Canadian town of Deptford. Dunstan suffers from guilt after ducking to avoid a snowball with a stone in it which hits a pregnant woman instead and almost everything that happens to him from this point on can be traced back to that incident.

Another book in which snow plays a significant part in setting the plot in motion is Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (5). Hercule Poirot is a passenger on the Orient Express when the train comes to a stop in a heavy snowfall. When a man is found stabbed to death in his compartment, it seems clear that the murderer must be among the other passengers on the train. I already knew the solution before I started this book, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it and I can see why it’s one of Christie’s most popular mysteries.

Christie has written several other novels set on trains, but I have chosen to end my chain with one by a different author: The Venice Train by Georges Simenon (6). This is one of Simenon’s standalone thrillers, which he described as romans durs or ‘hard novels’. On a train journey from Venice to Paris, Justin Calmar finds himself left with a briefcase belonging to another passenger and, unable to resist the temptation, breaks the locks and looks inside. The rest of this dark and suspenseful novel explores the psychological effects on Justin caused by the contents of the case.

And that’s my chain for March. My links included: the word ‘passage’, EM Forster, novels about authors, magicians, snow and trains. I like to look back and see whether I’ve made the chain come full circle, but the only connection I can find between the last and first book is the theme of journeys – The Venice Train deals with a physical journey and Passages with a journey through life.

In April we’ll be starting with Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run.