How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

This month Paula at Book Jotter is hosting Dewithon, a readathon celebrating literature by and about writers from Wales. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to read How Green Was My Valley, a book from my Classics Club list, so I was surprised and disappointed to find that there is some controversy over whether or not Richard Llewellyn can be considered a Welsh author (although his parents were Welsh, he was apparently actually born in England, despite claiming to be born in Wales). I decided to read it anyway and am glad I did because I loved it and it seemed to me that Llewellyn must have identified strongly with Wales and its people, even though he didn’t grow up there.

The book was published in 1939 but is set several decades earlier, towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, which is something else I hadn’t realised at first. Exact dates are not given, but there are a few clues and references to historical events that provide some indication of the time period. The story is narrated by Huw Morgan, whose family live in a coal mining community in the valleys of South Wales. Huw is only a child at the beginning of the novel, watching his older brothers go off to work in the mine with their father; he expects that one day he will follow in their footsteps, but his academic ability opens up at least the possibility of doing something else. Huw’s school days are not easy – despite his success in the classroom, he is bullied both by the other boys and by his teacher – but at home he receives plenty of guidance and advice, of various sorts, from his family and friends.

Huw’s recollections of his childhood are full of nostalgia and affection, but there is always a sense that danger and tragedy could be just around the corner and we know that Huw’s valley was perhaps not as ‘green and bright’ as he remembers it. This is symbolised by the descriptions of the slag heap which is growing larger by the year as more and more of the earth is mined, casting a shadow over the valley as it spreads and threatening to engulf the houses below (it was hard not to think here of the Aberfan disaster of 1966). Mining is an integral part of the lives of the Morgan family and the rest of the community, so while it is a constant source of conflict throughout the novel – Huw’s father and brothers become involved in strikes, the formation of unions and protests against the sliding scale of pay – it is also an important source of employment and income.

Everything that happens in the book feels realistic and Llewellyn adds to the authenticity by trying to capture the patterns and cadences of Welsh speech both in the dialogue and in Huw’s narration (though maybe someone from Wales who has read the book can tell me whether it’s as accurate as it sounded to me). The story itself seems very autobiographical and I could have easily believed that Huw’s experiences were drawn from the author’s own life. I was surprised, then, to find that not only was Llewellyn not born in St Davids as he claimed, he also didn’t come from a mining background and was more likely to have carried out his research for the book by talking to miners rather than by going down the mines himself.

Anyway, this is a beautifully written novel with characters I came to love and care about, particularly Huw himself, his beloved sister-in-law Bronwen, who is such a big influence on him from early childhood onwards, and his sister Angharad, faced with choosing between two different men and two different ways of life. At first I thought it was going to be a long, slow read, but as I gradually became more and more engrossed in Huw’s story the pages started to fly by much more quickly than I’d expected. I’m not sure if I’ll look for any of the sequels, which don’t seem to be as highly regarded, but I’m so glad I read this one and got to know Huw and the Morgan family.

Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini

I love Rafael Sabatini’s books. His classic tale of the French Revolution, Scaramouche, and his two famous pirate novels, Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk, have been some of my favourite reads of the last few years, while Bellarion was a great book too. I’m now beginning to explore his more obscure books and chose this one, Bardelys the Magnificent, more or less at random when I was putting my Classics Club list together. I hoped it would be a good choice – and it was!

The story is set in 17th century France, during the reign of Louis XIII, and is narrated by the wealthy Marquis de Bardelys, a ‘libertine, a gambler, a rake, a spendthrift’ and a favourite of the King. As the novel opens, Bardelys is hosting a party in Paris at which his rival, the Comte de Chatellerault, makes an unwelcome appearance. It is well known that Chatellerault has recently tried and failed to win the hand in marriage of the beautiful Roxalanne de Lavedan and as Bardelys and his friends tease the Comte about his failure, the discussion becomes more heated. Before the night is over, Bardelys finds himself wagering his entire fortune that he can succeed where Chatellerault could not – and he sets off the next day for Languedoc, the home of Roxalanne.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and following a series of misunderstandings, Bardelys arrives at the Lavedan estate under a mistaken identity. When he meets Roxalanne and discovers that he is genuinely falling in love with her, he knows that he should tell her the truth about who he really is, but as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to do this. To complicate things further, Bardelys learns that the man whose identity he has stolen is a wanted traitor. Our hero’s life quickly becomes such a confusing mess that it’s difficult to see how anything can ever be resolved! Will he lose his fortune, his life, or the love of Roxalanne – or will he somehow manage to keep all three?

Bardelys the Magnificent is one of Sabatini’s earliest novels, published in 1906, and although I did find it weaker than the others I’ve mentioned above, it’s another entertaining adventure with all the drama, romance, political intrigue and sword fights that you would expect. As a character, I found Marcel de Bardelys less memorable than other Sabatini protagonists such as Andre-Louis Moreau, Peter Blood and Oliver Tressilian, but he is still interesting and engaging. I referred to him as a hero above, but he is not particularly heroic at all – he is selfish and irresponsible, he makes one mistake after another, and his original reason for wanting to marry Roxalanne is hardly very admirable. Despite all of this, I still had some sympathy for him and wanted him to succeed – and, thankfully, he does also develop as a character as the novel progresses. While concealing his true identity, he finds out what people really think of him and sees himself as he appears to others.

Although I wouldn’t recommend Bardelys as the best place to start with Sabatini, if you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll enjoy this early example of his work as much as I did. I’m looking forward to exploring more of his lesser-known novels and hope my next choice will be another good one.

This is book 11/50 from my Classics Club list.

Jezebel’s Daughter by Wilkie Collins

I love Wilkie Collins but it’s been a while since I last read one of his books, so when the Classics Club recently challenged us to read a classic Gothic novel, thriller or mystery during the month of October, I thought Jezebel’s Daughter would be a good one to choose. Published in 1880, this was one of Collins’ later books, although it was based on a much earlier – and apparently unsuccessful – play of his, The Red Vial. I wasn’t really expecting it to be as good as his more famous novels such as The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name or my personal favourite, Armadale, all of which I read and loved in the years before I started blogging, but now that I’ve read Jezebel’s Daughter, I can say that while it’s not quite in the same class as those other books, it’s still very entertaining and enjoyable.

At the heart of the novel are two very different women who seem to have little in common other than the fact that they are both widows. First, in England, we meet Mrs Wagner, who has inherited her husband’s share of the business in which he had been a partner. Mrs Wagner is looking forward to becoming more involved in running the business and making some changes of her own – including employing more women. As a philanthropist, she also wants to use her money and position to help those less fortunate, such as Jack Straw, an inmate in the Bedlam lunatic asylum. Believing that Jack would benefit from some kindness and affection, she takes him into her own home, determined to prove that her theory is correct.

The action then switches to Germany, where we are introduced to Madame Fontaine, the widow of a French scientist who had devoted his life to the study of poisons. Since her husband’s death, she has found herself struggling financially, so when her daughter Minna falls in love with Fritz Keller, the son of Mrs Wagner’s wealthy business partner, she sees a possible solution to their money problems. Unfortunately, Madame Fontaine has a terrible reputation – she is the ‘Jezebel’ of the title – and Fritz’s father is strongly opposed to the idea of a marriage between his son and Minna. Can Madame Fontaine find a way to ensure that the marriage takes place before her debts are due to be paid?

Jezebel’s Daughter is a great read – it’s suspenseful and exciting and, because it’s a relatively short novel, it’s faster paced than some of his others as well. With a story involving poisonings, stolen jewels, unexplained illnesses, mysterious scientific experiments, morgues, asylums and plenty of plotting and scheming, there’s always something happening and for a long time I couldn’t imagine how it was all going to be resolved! As well as being fun to read, the book also touches on some important social issues, such as job opportunities for women (Mrs Wagner, like her late husband, believes that women should be employed in the office in positions that would normally be filled exclusively by men) and the humane treatment of people with mental illnesses.

The two central characters are wonderful – not the two young lovers, as you might expect, but the two middle-aged widows. They complement each other beautifully, one representing all that is good and the other all that is bad. But although Madame Fontaine can be seen as the villain of the story, Collins portrays her in a way that allows us to have some sympathy; she is an intelligent, ambitious woman for whom nothing has ever gone smoothly and most of the wicked acts she commits are done out of desperation or love for her daughter.

If anyone has read Collins’ better known works and is wondering what to read next, I would definitely recommend this one – or The Law and the Lady, Man and Wife or Poor Miss Finch, all of which I enjoyed too. I’m glad I decided to read this book for the Classics Club Gothic event – it was the perfect choice!

This is book 9/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

I am also counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII Challenge (categories: suspense, Gothic).

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

Today would have been Elizabeth von Arnim’s birthday and she is the next author to be celebrated in Jane from Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Having previously read only The Enchanted April, I had plenty of von Arnim books to choose from, but as my experience of her work is so limited, it seemed sensible to pick another of her better known ones to read next. I hoped Elizabeth and Her German Garden would be a good choice…and it was.

Published in 1898, the book has an autobiographical feel and is written in the form of a diary in which the narrator, Elizabeth, takes us through a year in her life, describing her love for the garden of her home in northern Germany and the changes she sees as the seasons go by. At the beginning of the book Elizabeth knows little about gardening, so there is a sense that she is learning by trial and error as she goes along, discovering which flowers will grow in the soil and climate and which won’t, and trying out different colours and arrangements in different beds. Of course, due to her gender and class, she doesn’t do the hard work herself – she has gardeners to dig and plant for her – but this is a source of frustration to Elizabeth, as the gardeners never seem quite able to bring her visions to life!

Elizabeth is the sort of person who is perfectly happy on her own, as long as she can be outdoors, surrounded by the beauty of nature, and she doesn’t at all regret the city life she has left behind. And in any case, she rarely has time to feel lonely as she has her three young daughters for company. We never learn their names as Elizabeth refers to them simply as the April baby, May baby and June baby (although at five, four and three they are no longer really babies), but it is obvious that she loves them very much – even if she does despair of them at times! The babies provide a lot of the humour in the book, as children often do. Her feelings for her husband are slightly less tender; she calls him ‘The Man of Wrath’, which probably says a lot about their relationship!

Despite her love of peace and quiet, Elizabeth does find herself entertaining visitors now and then, including two who come to stay for the winter: Irais, who shares Elizabeth’s dislike of convention and becomes a good friend, and Minora, a young woman from England who is writing a book on the German way of life and spends most of the winter irritating Elizabeth and Irais with her questions and observations. The women also have some interesting discussions with The Man of Wrath, in which he makes it clear that he thinks a woman’s place is in the home. I suppose The Man is a man of his time, while Elizabeth is a woman ahead of hers.

Although my lifestyle is very different from Elizabeth’s, I liked and understood her almost as soon as I began to read. I’m not much of a gardener myself but, like Elizabeth, I do enjoy sitting outside and reading in the garden on a warm summer’s day and I have always envied those women from years gone by who lived on large country estates with huge gardens to wander in. Elizabeth and Her German Garden is a lovely read; I found it light, entertaining and often funny, with a similar feel to Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. I will be reading the sequel, The Solitary Summer.

This is the last book I will have time to finish and review for my 20 Books of Summer this year. I have managed 15/20 and will post a full summary of the challenge next week.

Classics Spin Review: That Lady by Kate O’Brien

Kate O’Brien’s novel from 1946, That Lady, was the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. I had never read anything by Kate O’Brien before and had only added this one to my Classics Club list because I remembered reading some very positive reviews by Lisa and Kay and because I liked the portrait on the front cover of the Virago Modern Classics edition. The portrait shows Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli and Duchess of Pastrana, and Ana’s life is the subject of the novel.

That Lady opens in 1576, with Ana a widow of thirty-six. Following the death of her husband Ruy Gomez de Silva, one of King Philip II of Spain’s closest advisers, Ana and her children have continued to live on Ruy’s lands in Pastrana in the region of Castile. If you know nothing about Ana, as I didn’t before reading this book, you’ll be pleased to know that O’Brien gives plenty of detail on Ana’s background, explaining how she came to be married to Ruy Gomez at the age of thirteen, how she lost her eye fighting a duel with a page in her father’s household, and the origins of her close relationship with Philip II.

Early in the novel, Philip visits Ana at the Palace of Pastrana and asks her to consider coming back to Madrid. He gives several reasons why she should return, but it is clear that he misses Ana and her children and wants them living nearer to him. Ana is reluctant, but within a year she is back in Madrid and here she begins an affair with Antonio Perez, Philip’s ambitious secretary of state. Needless to say, this was not what the king had intended, and when Ana’s affair becomes public – and, worse still, leads to her becoming implicated in a murder case – she finds that Philip is not such a good friend after all.

That Lady is an unusual novel and at first I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it. The pace is slow and although there is a lot happening, most of it happens off the page; major events including the defeat of the Spanish Armada are covered in a few brief sentences, while dramas which directly affect Ana, such as the murder mentioned above and the circumstances which lead to it, are only referred to in conversation afterwards. The lack of action makes this much more of a character driven novel, which I’m usually quite happy with, but I also struggled to understand and warm to Ana as a character during the first half of the novel.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, though, I began to find Ana’s story much more compelling. I understood why her relationship with Antonio was so important to her, despite the disapproval of Philip and the public – because it was her own choice, something she was doing because she wanted to, and not because she had been pushed into it by her father, by her husband or by the king. I admired her for sticking to her principles and I was impressed by the loyalty she inspired in her young daughter, Anichu, and her servant, Bernardina. Ana also finds herself struggling to reconcile her actions with her religious beliefs and this is another of the novel’s themes, which develops through conversations with her friend, Cardinal Quiroga of Toledo.

I found it intriguing that in her foreword to That Lady, O’Brien states that this is not a historical novel, but an ‘invention’ based on the story of Ana de Mendoza and Philip II, in which the outline of historical events is real but the words, thoughts and emotions of the characters are imaginary. I think I know what she was trying to say, but surely any historical novel contains an element of invention, otherwise it wouldn’t be a novel. Anyway, I was able to learn a huge amount from this book, not just about Ana, Philip and Antonio, but also about the political situation in Spain in the late sixteenth century. Most of this was new to me and the amount of detail made it quite a slow read, but an interesting one too.

I was left wanting to know more about the real woman, so I looked her up online and found a selection of portraits of Ana, with her distinctive silk eye patch (although it seems there could be a less dramatic explanation for the loss of her eye than the duelling story). I couldn’t find any other novels about Ana, but if you know of any, please let me know. And if you’ve read this book, I would love to hear what you thought of it – and whether you would recommend anything else by Kate O’Brien.

This is book 8/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy

Desperate Remedies (1871) was Thomas Hardy’s first published novel, following an earlier manuscript which failed to find a publisher and was later destroyed. I love Thomas Hardy’s books and have been looking forward to reading this one as it has been described as a sensation novel, a genre of Victorian fiction that I’ve enjoyed since I first discovered authors like Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood, in the years before I started my blog.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that our heroine, Cytherea Graye, was named after her father’s one true love, a woman who disappeared without explanation and left him heartbroken. Mr Graye later married and had two children – Cytherea and her brother Owen – whom he raised alone after his wife’s death. When Mr Graye himself dies, having made some poor business decisions in the final years of his life, Cytherea and Owen are faced with making their own way in the world. Owen decides to pursue a career as an architect, while his sister advertises for work as a governess.

Finding it harder to get a job than she had expected, Cytherea eventually accepts a position as lady’s maid to Miss Aldclyffe, a middle-aged unmarried woman who seems to be hiding a number of secrets. Why does she have so much affection for Cytherea, whom she has never met until now? Why does she go to such great lengths to employ the mysterious Aeneas Manston as steward on her estate – and why is she so keen to encourage Cytherea to marry him? Manston is another person with secrets and Cytherea is reluctant to marry someone she feels she can’t fully trust, especially as she has already fallen in love with Edward Springrove, her brother’s friend. Unfortunately, Edward is engaged to another woman – and when Cytherea’s financial situation becomes increasingly desperate, she finds herself drawn into Aeneas Manston’s schemes.

I loved Desperate Remedies! It starts off slowly, introducing Cytherea and her family background and explaining the circumstances that lead to her arrival at Miss Aldclyffe’s house, but it quickly develops into an intriguing and entertaining page-turner with plenty of twists and surprises. I liked Cytherea; there are stronger, more interesting heroines in some of Hardy’s later novels, but Cytherea is by no means a weak and helpless woman and I enjoyed following her story.

I did find two of the novel’s big secrets quite easy to guess, but there were still times when I wasn’t sure where the story was going and when the actions of one character or another left me mystified. The plot makes it feel quite similar to a Wilkie Collins novel, but there are still some elements which make it recognisable as a book written by Thomas Hardy, such as the descriptions of the landscape and the portrayal of a small rural community. This isn’t one of my absolute favourite Hardy novels – I think some of his later ones are better – but it’s still a great read.

The remaining novels I have left to read by Hardy are all books that I know nothing about: The Well-Beloved, Two on a Tower, A Laodicean, The Hand of Ethelberta and The Trumpet-Major. Does anyone have any recommendations from those five? I also haven’t read any of his short story collections, Wessex Tales, Life’s Little Ironies and A Group of Noble Dames, so I still have lots of Hardy to look forward to.

This is book 4/20 of my 20 Books of Summer and book 6/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, edited by Lawrence Ellsworth

After reading Lawrence Ellsworth’s new translation of the Alexandre Dumas novel The Red Sphinx last year, I discovered that Ellsworth was also the editor of the enticingly titled The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure. As a fan of the swashbuckling genre, I knew I would have to read it.

This is certainly a big book, containing eighteen stories and poems written in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Some of them are by well-known classic authors such as Dumas, Arthur Conan Doyle and Baroness Orczy, but some of the others are more obscure – authors who may have enjoyed some success at the time, but have been largely forgotten today. Ellsworth provides a brief introduction to each author’s work, including a short biography and some background information on the story which follows and why he selected it for this collection. All different types of swashbuckling hero are represented: the pirate, the musketeer, the jester, the swordsman, the aristocrat and more.

I’m not going to discuss all of the stories in depth here – there are too many of them – but I will highlight a few favourites and just give the others a quick mention.

One that I particularly enjoyed was Crillon’s Stake by Stanley J Weyman, an author I’ve heard about but have never actually read until now. Set in France in 1587, two men sit down to play a game of dice in which the stakes become higher and higher until they are literally gambling with their lives. The outcome of the game will have surprising consequences, however, as the participants become entangled in a conspiracy against the king.

Another favourite was The Black Death by Marion Polk Angellotti, one of only a few female authors to be featured in the book. This story is part of a series that she wrote about the adventures of the 14th century mercenary captain Sir John Hawkwood. On a journey through the mountains of Italy, Hawkwood tries to protect his men from attack by enemy soldiers, but with the Black Death raging across the country, he could be leading them into a different type of danger instead.

I also enjoyed Pirate’s Gold by H. Bedford-Jones, which was first published in an American ‘pulp magazine’ in the 1920s. George Roberts accepts a position as first mate on a ship sailing to Virginia, The King Sagamore, which is captained by the charismatic Captain Low. It is only when the ship has left port and is out at sea that Roberts discovers his captain is actually the notorious pirate better known as Bloody Ned. This is a much longer story than most of the others in the book – more of a novella, really, which allows more development of storyline and characters – and although I doubt I’ll look for anything else by Bedford-Jones, this was fun to read.

The Sin of the Bishop of Modenstein by Anthony Hope is another fun read, set in the kingdom of Ruritania, the same world as his famous novel The Prisoner of Zenda. In this story, King Rudolf of Zenda gambles away his castle and estate, but when the new owner, Count Nikolas of Festenburg, moves in, he discovers that Rudolf’s sister, Princess Osra, is still there…

I was surprised to find that I had already read some of the pieces in the book. The Cabaret de la Liberté by Baroness Orczy is taken from her collection The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, which I read a few years ago. I couldn’t really remember this particular Pimpernel story, so I was happy to read it again. I did not re-read White Plume on the Mountain by Alexandre Dumas, which is not actually a standalone story, but a reproduction of several chapters from the end of The Red Sphinx.

For the same reason I didn’t bother with Captain Blood’s Dilemma by Rafael Sabatini, and I only briefly looked at The Fight for Black Bartlemy’s Treasure by Jeffery Farnol, which are also the concluding chapters of full-length novels (Captain Blood and Black Bartlemy’s Treasure respectively). It just seemed an odd decision to include these in a collection of ‘short stories’ and will surely spoil the actual novels for anyone who hasn’t read them. On the other hand, Ellsworth does include the opening chapters of Johnston McCulley’s first Zorro novel, turning them into a story titled Señor Zorro Pays a Visit. This seems a much more sensible way to introduce a new reader to an author’s work!

There’s also a second story by Sabatini (Sword and Mitre, a true standalone this time), and one each by Sidney Levett-Yeats, John Bloundelle-Burton and Harold Lamb. I hadn’t come across any of the last three authors and I found their stories entertaining but forgettable (although Lamb’s is slightly different, being set in India). Finally, there’s a story by Arthur Conan Doyle which features his hero Brigadier Gerard, and a Robin Hood adventure by Pierce Egan. The collection is completed by several short poems, Cheerly O and Cheerly O by Jeffery Farnol, The Buccaneer’s Last Shot by Farnham Bishop and The Pirate Sea by Lilian Nicholson. These are interspersed amongst the stories and add a bit of extra variety.

As is usually the case with anthologies of this kind, the stories and the writing are of mixed quality and I found it quite uneven, especially towards the end. With such a variety of different types of story, though, I think there should be something for almost everyone here.