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.

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

Years before I started this blog – sometime in the 1990s, anyway – I read The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett’s epic novel about the building of a cathedral in the English market town of Kingsbridge during the 12th century. I found it much more exciting than it had initially sounded and I was soon gripped by the evil machinations of William Hamleigh, Prior Philip’s battle against the ruthless Bishop Waleran, and the seemingly doomed romance between Jack and Aliena. I’m sure I would be much more critical of it if I re-read it today and more likely to be bothered by the historical inaccuracies, but I loved it at the time. I wasn’t expecting a sequel, but one was published in 2007 – World Without End, set in the same fictional town (or city, as it has now become) more than a century later. I enjoyed that one too, although in some ways it felt to me like the same story being told again.

A Column of Fire, published in 2017, takes us back to Kingsbridge again for a third story, set this time in the 16th century. As the novel opens in 1558, Ned Willard is returning home to Kingsbridge from Calais, where he has spent a year working in the family business. Ned can’t wait to be reunited with his mother, Alice, who runs the Kingsbridge branch of the business, but there’s also someone else he is looking forward to seeing again – Margery Fitzgerald, the young woman he hopes to marry. Unfortunately for Ned, things have changed during his absence and Margery is now betrothed to Bart, the heir of the Earl of Shiring (and those of you who have read the other Kingsbridge novels will remember exactly what those Earls of Shiring are like). Margery would prefer to marry Ned, but her parents won’t allow it – the Fitzgeralds, like the Earl and his family, are Catholic, but the Willards are suspected of having Protestant sympathies.

While Mary Tudor still sits on the throne of England, families like the Fitzgeralds and the Shirings may have the upper hand, but Ned knows that one day things will change. Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth, promising greater religious tolerance, is waiting for her turn to wear the crown and, when she does, she will need men like Ned to be her trusted servants and spies.

Across the sea, meanwhile, France is also experiencing a period of religious conflict and turmoil as the ambitious and staunchly Catholic Guise brothers, whose young niece Mary, Queen of Scots has married the heir to the throne, engage in a power struggle with Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France. In Paris, we meet one of the villains of the novel, Pierre Aumande, a man who believes he has Guise blood and will do anything to inveigle his way into that family – including hunting down French Protestants and sending them to their deaths.

So far, I have only touched on a few of the characters and storylines this novel contains. There are many, many more. We follow the adventures of Ned’s brother Barney in Spain and then the New World. We meet Sylvie Palot, a French Huguenot who works in a Parisian bookshop, buying and selling forbidden literature. We see the story of Mary, Queen of Scots play out as she returns to Scotland and eventually becomes a prisoner on the orders of Elizabeth I. And we witness the Siege of Calais, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot. The novel has a huge scope, and that, I think, was a problem. There’s too much happening – far too much for one book – and that made it difficult for me to become truly absorbed in the lives and struggles of any of the characters. There’s no depth, no passion, no emotion; I didn’t really care about Ned and Margery’s romance, and I didn’t hate Pierre and the other villains as much as we were probably supposed to either.

That doesn’t mean I found nothing to like about this book. It’s certainly a fascinating period of history to read about and I can understand why Follett didn’t want to leave anything out, even though I would have preferred a tighter focus on just a few of the historical figures and incidents, rather than everything and everyone! The main theme of religious change and conflict was handled well. I really enjoyed the first half of the book but my interest started to wane as characters were abandoned for long stretches while others were introduced and as we spent more time in France, Spain, Scotland and the Caribbean, almost losing sight of Kingsbridge entirely.

I’m not really sure why this book involved Kingsbridge at all; I’m assuming it was probably done for marketing purposes, to pull in readers who enjoyed the previous two novels, but I think if it had been written as a standalone with no connection to the other two I would have had different expectations and might have judged it less harshly. One of the things I liked about The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End was that they were set in and around Kingsbridge Cathedral itself. We get to know the people who live and work in the city and there’s a strong sense of community as they come together to confront their enemies and face the threats of the outside world, but A Column of Fire is a different sort of story with a different feel. If anyone else has read this book I would be interested to know what you thought of it and how you felt it compared to the first two books.

The She-Wolf by Maurice Druon

First published in French in 1959 as La Louve de France (The She-Wolf of France), this is the fifth novel in Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series. The series – which began with The Iron King – tells the story of Philip IV of France and his descendants, a line of kings “cursed to the thirteenth generation” by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, whom Philip sent to burn at the stake. So far, the curse seems to have been very effective, as in the first four novels we have seen poisoned kings, strangled queens, failed marriages and family feuds.

In this book, the action switches to England for a while, where Isabella – Philip’s daughter – is unhappily married to the English king, Edward II. Feeling that her husband cares more for his favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, than he does for her, Isabella has turned to Roger Mortimer for comfort. As the novel opens, Roger escapes from imprisonment in the Tower of London and flees to France, where he hopes to gain support to return to England at the head of an army.

Meanwhile, Isabella’s brother, Charles, has just become France’s fourth king in eight years following the death of their elder brother, Philippe V. The new Charles IV proves to be a weak king but others who surround him at court continue to plot and scheme, looking for ways to gain power for themselves. But unknown to Charles, the person who could pose the biggest threat to his reign is far away, growing up in the care of Marie de Cressay, his existence known only to a select few.

It’s been a few years since I read the fourth book in this series (The Royal Succession) and I worried that I might struggle to remember what had happened in the previous novels. Luckily, the prologue gives us a reminder and then fills us in on the details of the reign of Philippe V the Long, who had just taken the throne at the end of The Royal Succession and is dead before this book begins. I was sorry that we weren’t able to spend more time with Philippe in The She-Wolf as I thought he was a much more interesting character than his brother Charles, but I’m sure Druon must have had his reasons for not writing much about that period and moving quickly on to the next king.

So far, most of the history covered in this series has been new to me and the books have given me a good introduction to the reigns of the Capet kings of France. With The She-Wolf I was on more familiar ground as there was more focus on English history and Isabella is someone I have read about several times before (both in non-fiction such as Helen Castor’s She-Wolves and in novels including Isabella by Colin Falconer and, indirectly, Susan Howatch’s Cashelmara which I’m currently re-reading). I was a bit disappointed that Isabella isn’t really given a chance to shine in this book; despite her strength and intelligence, it is Roger Mortimer who is shown to be in control and making all the decisions. Having said that, I did like the fact that she and Roger are portrayed as being genuinely in love; this helped me to believe in their characters and their relationship.

Edward II comes across very badly in this book (which does usually seem to be the case and I can’t really think of any positive portrayals of him in fiction). Druon takes the view that Edward’s relationships with Piers Gaveston and then Hugh Despenser were of a homosexual nature, although there is some debate about this today, and he also sticks with the traditional story surrounding the method of Edward’s death, which again has not been proved. The book was written in the 1950s, though, and I assume they were probably the accepted theories at that time. I can’t comment at all on the accuracy of the French sections of the novel, but I think it’s clear that Druon did his research – as with the other books in the series, there’s an extensive section of historical notes at the back which are referenced throughout the text. And as ever, Humphrey Hare’s English translation is clear and easy to read.

I was disappointed that the battle of wits between the scheming Mahaut d’Artois and her nephew Robert, which has played such a big part in the previous novels, was pushed into the background and I was also sorry not to see more of two other recurring characters, Marie de Cressay and Guccio Baglioni. For those reasons, although I did enjoy this book, it’s not one of my favourites in the series, but I’m still looking forward to reading the final two and finding out what happens in the next one, The Lily and the Lion.

Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin

I loved Young Bess, the first book in Margaret Irwin’s Elizabeth I trilogy, so I didn’t want to wait too long before picking up the second. I was hoping for another great read but, although there was still a lot to like about this book, I didn’t think it was as good as the first one.

Published in 1948, Elizabeth, Captive Princess, continues the story of the young Elizabeth. The novel begins with the death of Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward VI, leaving the succession to the throne of England in doubt. We then follow the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey, queen for nine days before eventually being beheaded after Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary comes to the throne. This is a fate that Elizabeth could face herself as she also becomes linked with plots and conspiracies during Mary’s reign, leading to her imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Before the novel ends, two very different men have entered Elizabeth’s life: one is Robert Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland and another prisoner in the Tower; the other is Philip of Spain, who has come to England at last to marry Queen Mary. I would expect Elizabeth’s relationships with these two men to form the basis of the final book in the trilogy, Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, but this particular book concentrates on the stories of Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary. We actually see very little of Elizabeth herself in this book, which I thought was strange as she is the title character, although I suppose it’s not too surprising as a lot of the drama during this specific period was taking place elsewhere.

The lack of focus on Elizabeth wasn’t really a problem for me in itself; after all, in Young Bess it had been the secondary characters that I found most interesting anyway, particularly Thomas Seymour and his brothers Edward and Henry. But the characters in this book just don’t come to life in the way that the Seymours did and I struggled to connect with any of them on an emotional level. This made the novel feel a bit slow and flat, which was disappointing for me after enjoying the first one so much.

I don’t want to sound too negative, though, because I did like this book and the quality of Margaret Irwin’s writing still makes it a worthwhile read. I love her descriptive writing and the way she recreates Tudor London:

It was seven o’clock as they entered the city of London. The sun was setting in a fury of flame and storm-clouds. All the dark rickety wooden houses leaning top-heavily across the streets as though they were nodding to each other, all but rubbing each other’s foreheads, all seemed to have put on scarves and petticoats, so many bright cloths fluttered from the windows, while the gaily painted shop signs flaunted and creaked and clattered in the breeze.

Away from the main storylines, I enjoyed all the other little details of 16th century life and 16th century history. For example, I was interested in the account of the Edward Bonaventure’s voyages to the White Sea and the ‘strange land of endless snow’ which I first read about in The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett.

Having come this far, I will be finishing the trilogy with Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, but will then look forward to reading some of Margaret Irwin’s other books. I have The Galliard, her novel about Mary, Queen of Scots and the Earl of Bothwell on my TBR and would also like to read The Stranger Prince, about Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd

Savage Magic, published in 2014, is Lloyd Shepherd’s third historical mystery to feature Charles Horton of the Thames River Police. The books all stand alone, so if you’ve never come across this series before you could easily read this one first without having read the previous two. Having said that, I found the other two – The English Monster and The Poisoned Island – much stronger and wouldn’t recommend starting here.

After a brief prologue, Savage Magic opens in London in 1814 with Abigail Horton entering Brooke House, a ‘private madhouse for the deranged’. She has made the decision to do this voluntarily as she has been suffering from visions of a wild, savage woman, haunting her dreams and pursuing her through her waking hours. Afraid she is losing her sanity, Abigail hopes she can receive the help she needs at Brooke House, but her husband, Constable Horton, is hurt when he discovers that she has done this without confiding in him first.

Meanwhile, Horton’s superior, the magistrate Aaron Graham, is also concerned about his own wife, who has left him to go and live with her new lover, taking their young daughter with her. Graham has heard some very disturbing rumours about Thorpe Lee House, where his wife and daughter are now living, and he sends Horton off to investigate. Horton has barely left London when a murder takes place, under the strangest of circumstances. A wealthy, aristocratic gentleman is found dead in his own bed, wearing a satyr’s mask on his face. This is only the first in a series of similar murders in which all of the victims are from the same social circle and all disguised by a mask. With Horton gone, Graham is left to investigate the killings himself.

At first, the separate strands of the story feel quite unconnected, with Graham trying to solve the London murders and Horton, miles away, becoming embroiled in accusations of witchcraft and hauntings at Thorpe Lee House. Eventually, everything begins to fall into place and we see how they are linked – and how the key to the entire mystery may lie in the events which occur behind the walls of Brooke House Asylum.

Reading back over what I’ve written above, I know this sounds like the sort of book I would usually enjoy…and yet I was disappointed. It’s possible that if I hadn’t loved Lloyd Shepherd’s first two novels so much, I might have liked this one more, but I’m not sure. The English Monster combined an investigation into the Ratcliffe Highway Murders with a pirate adventure in the Caribbean, while The Poisoned Island featured the story of a Tahitian prince. By comparison, I found this book less exotic, less exciting and lacking the originality of the previous two. It seemed like a much more conventional novel and, although I was pleased to see Abigail given a larger role to play, the asylum storyline is something I feel I’ve read several times before.

I do still like Lloyd Shepherd’s writing (despite the annoying use of present tense) and I love the way he creates atmosphere – the scenes which take place at the supposedly haunted Thorpe Lee House are particularly good and, knowing how Shepherd has used supernatural elements in his other books, I was kept wondering whether there really were witches at work or whether there was a more logical explanation. There was too much switching between one storyline and another, though; there were too many different threads to keep hold of and it took too long for them to start coming together.

The fourth book in the series, The Detective and the Devil, sounds more promising. I haven’t been put off reading it, but I’m not in any hurry either.

Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

This is the first book I’ve read by Sarah Moss, an author I had never really thought about trying until I saw so much praise for her latest novel, Ghost Wall, last year. Bodies of Light is apparently loosely linked to an earlier book, Night Waking, but I didn’t feel that I’d missed anything by reading this one first.

The setting for Bodies of Light is Victorian Manchester where, as the novel opens, a newly married couple – Elizabeth and Alfred Moberley – are moving into their new home. Even this early in their marriage, there are clues that suggest they might not be very happy together; Alfred is a painter who appreciates the finer things in life while Elizabeth is passionate about social reform and women’s rights. Their two daughters, Alethea (Ally) and May, grow up trying to please both parents, being asked to model for their father’s latest portrait one day and accompanying their mother on one of her missions to help women in Manchester’s poorest areas the next.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book; after a slow start I found that I had become completely drawn into the lives of the Moberley family. Each chapter starts with a description of a portrait painted by Alfred or one of his circle, giving an idea of what will follow in the pages to come, and I thought that was a nice touch. As the novel progresses and the children grow older, we see that Elizabeth, despite her good deeds in public, can be a harsh and unloving mother; to explain this, Sarah Moss spends some time at the beginning of the book showing us what made her the way she is, focusing on Elizabeth’s relationship with her own mother and the depression she suffered after Ally’s birth.

The second half of the novel is devoted mainly to Ally, as she goes to London to study medicine at the first medical school to accept female students. She is pushed into this career path by her mother, who believes very strongly that women – particularly ‘fallen women’ – should be entitled to request treatment from a female doctor and who likes the idea of her own daughter becoming one of these doctors. Ally is an intelligent young woman who loves learning, so she throws herself into her studies, but there is always a sense that she is doing this mainly to make her mother happy – and yet, whatever she does, it seems that Elizabeth is never happy.

I felt so sorry for Ally, who self-harms and suffers from nightmares as she is growing up, longing for some comfort and compassion from her mother but receiving only criticism and impatience instead, told that she has no right to complain about anything ‘because there is always someone else worse off.’ Interestingly, her younger sister May, who has the same upbringing, doesn’t seem to suffer from Ally’s anxiety-related problems, possibly due to the fact that Ally, as the eldest, has always felt under more pressure.

Once Ally had left home to begin her medical studies, I found the story a bit less compelling but still interesting. It certainly made me appreciate the educational opportunities that are open to women today and how difficult it must have been for those who were among the first to try to enter a field dominated by men. This is a fascinating book and I do like Sarah Moss’s writing, so I now want to read the sequel, Signs for Lost Children, as well as the earlier Night Waking, which I think tells some more of May’s story.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

This new historical mystery – Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s first novel – deals with one of the darkest subjects in our history. Set in 1781, it follows the investigations of former army officer Captain Harry Corsham into the disappearance of his friend, the lawyer and abolitionist Tad Archer. It seems that Tad had been about to uncover a secret that, once exposed, could damage the reputations of those involved in the British slave trade. Could someone have killed Tad to prevent him from telling what he knows?

Captain Corsham is determined to find out what has happened to his friend, but to do so he will need to continue Tad’s enquiries into a shocking incident which took place onboard a ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic. This brings him into conflict with some very powerful men who could destroy his hopes of a political career. But Harry Corsham is a man with principles and even when he, like Tad before him, begins to receive threatening letters and warnings, he refuses to walk away until he has discovered the truth.

There are many things I liked about Blood & Sugar. The setting and atmosphere are wonderful; with the action taking place partly in London, where Harry Corsham lives with his wife, Caro, and their young son, and partly in the nearby slaving port of Deptford, we see Harry move between both locations in search of answers to his questions. I loved the contrasting descriptions of Deptford, from the elegant homes of the wealthy slave merchants to the notorious dockside alleys with their brothels and opium dens.

We also meet a wide range of characters from very different backgrounds, including magistrates, politicians, mayors and surgeons, prostitutes, innkeepers, sailors and servants. Many of the latter group are black, which is interesting because I think we tend to forget (or are not aware of) how many black people there were living in eighteenth century Britain. It is estimated that there were more than twenty thousand in London alone, yet they rarely appear in fiction set during that period. As for the slavery aspect of the story, there are parts that are not easy to read, as you can probably imagine – particularly when we hear about what happened on the ship, something which is based on a real incident. But unpleasant as it is, we can’t ignore the fact that slavery did happen and I think it’s important that we remember and learn from it.

I was very impressed with this book at the beginning. I liked Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s writing, the mystery seemed intriguing and I was starting to draw comparisons with one of my favourite historical crime authors, Andrew Taylor. However, as the plot continued to develop, I thought it became far too complicated and I struggled to remember who had said what to whom and what the various motives of the characters were. Towards the end, there were so many threads to tie up that everything seemed to take forever to be resolved (and there were one or two revelations which added very little to the overall story and weren’t really necessary, in my opinion). I also felt that as there were so many characters to keep track of, they really needed to be better defined – instead, I thought they were thinly drawn and not very memorable.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would at first, but I still think there were more positives than negatives and as this is the author’s first novel I would be happy to read more.

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