Historical Musings #51: The Long Take – and a question of perspective

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

Let’s start with the winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, which was announced yesterday at the Borders Book Festival. Congratulations to Robin Robertson who has won the prize with The Long Take, a book written in a combination of prose and verse. I haven’t managed to read this book yet, but here is what the Walter Scott Prize website has to say about it:

Walker is a Canadian veteran of the Normandy Landings and this extraordinary and exceptional prose/verse narrative tracks the progress of this damaged but decent man through the bleak and violent streets of post-war America. While New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are in a state of constant change and reinvention Walker is trapped by his searing experiences; his devils too present for him but to remain an outsider. Illustrated with grainy black and white photographs and inviting comparison with cinema The Long Take defies conventional literary boundaries but is a moving, memorable and wholly original work of writing.

The other shortlisted books were:

After the Party by Cressida Connolly (my review)
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (my review)
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (my review)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (not yet read)
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (not yet read)

The Long Take was probably the book that sounded least appealing to me from this year’s list, so I will be interested to see what I think of it when I get around to reading it. If you have read it, did you enjoy it and do you think it is a deserving winner?

~

On a different topic, I came across this interesting quote in one of my recent reads, The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie:

Mr Quin shook his head gently. “I disagree with you. The evidence of history is against you. The contemporary historian never writes such a true history as the historian of a later generation. It is a question of getting the true perspective, of seeing things in proportion. If you like to call it so, it is, like everything else, a question of relativity.”

Alex Portal leant forward, his face twitching painfully. “You are right, Mr Quin,” he cried, “you are right. Time does not dispose of a question – it only presents it anew in a different guise.”

What do you think? I think the opposite argument could be made – that it could be the contemporary historian who writes a truer history because they are actually experiencing the period and events which they are writing about and will understand them in a way a later historian can’t. On the other hand, somebody in the modern day writing about an earlier period will be able to look at that period in the context of what happened afterwards, has a wider range of sources to study and can draw on research and information that has come to light more recently (such as the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in 2012).

To give an example from the world of fiction, would we learn more about the Regency period from reading Jane Austen, who lived and wrote during that time, or from an author like Georgette Heyer, who was writing in the 20th century but researched the Regency thoroughly? Which gives us a more accurate idea of Victorian society – Bleak House by Charles Dickens or Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters?

What are your opinions on this?

The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie

Have you met Mr Satterthwaite and his mysterious friend, Mr Harley Quin? I hadn’t, until I saw that the book selected for Read Christie 2019 this month was The Mysterious Mr Quin, a collection of short stories published in 1930 and featuring a very unusual sort of detective. In fact, he is not really a detective at all, but more of a catalyst who “has a power – an almost uncanny power – of showing you what you have seen with your own eyes, of making clear to you what you have heard with your own ears…”

There are twelve stories in the collection, all of which originally appeared separately in various magazines throughout the 1920s. They all stand alone as individual mysteries but reading them in the order they appear in the book is very effective as each one seems to build on the one before – and the twelfth story, Harlequin’s Lane, should definitely be read last.

The first story, The Coming of Mr Quin, sets the tone for the rest of the book. It begins with Mr Satterthwaite, an elderly English gentleman, attending a New Year’s Eve party at a country house when conversation turns to the suicide of Derek Capel, the former owner of the house. The suicide took place several years earlier, but is still unexplained. In the middle of this discussion, there is a knock at the door and Mr Satterthwaite’s friend Harley Quin appears, asking for shelter while his broken-down car is repaired. Mr Quin joins in the conversation and, by prompting Satterthwaite to ask relevant questions and to think carefully about the sequence of events, the truth behind Mr Capel’s death suddenly becomes obvious – and has important implications for some of the guests at the party that night.

Most of the other stories, with one or two exceptions, follow a similar format: Mr Satterthwaite is at a house party, an opera, on holiday, or attending some other sort of social gathering with his upper-class friends, when he becomes aware that one or more of his companions is hiding a secret – a criminal past, a thwarted love affair or an involvement in a murder. Mr Quin then makes a sudden appearance (sometimes in person and sometimes by leaving a message or cryptic clue) and steers Mr Satterthwaite in the right direction, enabling him to solve the mystery. Some of these mysteries have been unsolved for many years and Mr Quin claims that he is acting as an ‘advocate for the dead’, getting justice for long-ago victims of crimes, while also helping Mr Satterthwaite to influence people’s lives in the present.

Although Mr Satterthwaite is a rich man, with a comfortable, privileged lifestyle, I found him quite a sad and lonely character. He has never married and despite his busy social life his friendships seem to be mainly on a superficial level. He describes himself as a ‘looker-on at life’, someone who observes other people’s dramas without being involved in any himself. If it wasn’t for the fact that other characters in the book see and interact with Mr Quin, I could have believed that Mr Satterthwaite had invented him as an imaginary friend. There is certainly something surreal and otherworldly about Mr Quin, with his unexpected arrivals and departures, and the way his appearances are usually accompanied by a strange trick of the light – he is seen silhouetted against the setting sun, standing in front of a stained glass window, or illuminated by the sun shining through the trees.

This is the only collection of Mr Quin stories, although I think he and Mr Satterthwaite do make one or two appearances in other books or stories. I found this book quite different from anything else I’ve read by Christie and I’m loving the way taking part in this challenge is encouraging me to pick up titles I might otherwise have ignored in favour of the more popular Poirots and Marples.

The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick

One day in 2004, thirteen-year-old Fenella Brightwell is on a school trip to Lydiard House in Swindon when she becomes separated from the rest of the class. Following a disturbing encounter with a drunken old man who appears to be dressed in period costume, Fen manages to find her way out of the stately home to rejoin her friends – but not before picking up a beautiful golden dress left carelessly on a chair and pushing it into her bag. Fen doesn’t know why she keeps feeling such a compulsion to take things that aren’t hers, but perhaps it is a way of coping with her difficult home life. She hasn’t seen her father for years, and with her mother away on a series of archaeological digs, Fen has been left to care not only for herself but for her alcoholic grandmother, Sarah, as well.

In the present day, Fen is now a woman of twenty-seven trying to build a new life for herself as an antique dealer after leaving her abusive husband. Sarah has recently died and has left Fen a package containing the gold dress, which Fen has never even thought about for years, along with a cryptic message warning her to be careful. Fen has no idea what her grandmother means – how can a dress be dangerous? – but now that she has it in her possession she becomes aware of the strange, almost supernatural powers it wields.

To understand the history of the dress and the secrets it holds in its fabric, we need to follow another storyline, this one set in the eighteenth century. In 1765, Lady Isabella Gerard is surprised when she receives a lovely golden gown as a gift from her husband. Eustace, Lord Gerard, is a cruel and manipulative man and doesn’t usually show her any generosity. She doesn’t really want to accept his gifts, but tells her maid, Constance, to take the dress away and keep it until the day comes when she feels like wearing it. Constance, however, is later approached by Lord Gerard, who seems to have changed his mind about the dress and tells her to destroy it. Who should she obey? What is so important about the golden gown? And what effects might it have on Constance herself?

This is the third Nicola Cornick novel I’ve read (The Phantom Tree and House of Shadows are the previous two) and it has many of the things I’ve come to expect from her books: multiple narratives set in different time periods, a big country house, objects from the past finding their way into the present, and a touch of the supernatural. The house in this book is based on a real place, Lydiard House, set in beautiful parkland in Swindon, Wiltshire, and can still be visited today. In reality, it was home to the St John family, rather than the Gerards in the novel, although one of its residents – Lady Diana – was apparently the inspiration for Isabella Gerard. A mixture of fact and fiction, then, but with the emphasis more towards the fiction.

I preferred the historical storyline to the modern day one, although I can’t say that I liked either of our historical narrators, Isabella and Constance. They had both been treated badly in various ways, so I felt that I should have had more sympathy for them, but I just didn’t – I found Isabella self-absorbed and Constance bitter and spiteful. Having said that, the story probably wouldn’t have worked if they had been different sorts of people. I did appreciate the fact that neither of them revealed everything about themselves too early in the book, which meant that there were secrets to be discovered later on.

As for Fen, I never quite warmed to her either, but I did enjoy seeing her storyline tie together with Isabella’s and Constance’s as the book headed towards its conclusion. There are lots of little snippets of information on Swindon’s history which helps to form links between the two periods and I particularly loved a subplot involving a gang of ‘Moonrakers’ (smugglers). I couldn’t help feeling that there were too many things left unexplained, though. The time travel that seemed to occur in Lydiard House at the beginning of the book never happened again, which was disappointing, and I didn’t fully understand why the dress exerted so much power over the present day characters either – except to add a spooky, Gothic element to the story.

I found more to like than to dislike about The Woman in the Lake, but if you’re new to Nicola Cornick I would recommend starting with The Phantom Tree.

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

This is book 2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

One of the things I love about reading is that it gives me the opportunity to learn about places and cultures I would otherwise be likely to go through life knowing little or nothing about. Before reading Lisa See’s latest novel, The Island of Sea Women, I had never heard of the haenyeo communities of Jeju in South Korea, but now I have been enlightened!

The haenyeo, for anyone else who doesn’t know, are female divers who gather seafood such as abalone, octopus and conch from the waters surrounding the island of Jeju. The Island of Sea Women is narrated by Young-sook, a haenyeo whom we follow over a period of many years, from the 1930s to 2008. It’s a story of friendship and betrayal, war and suffering, and the importance of forgiveness – but most of all, it’s a fascinating study of a society of ‘sea women’ and how their way of life changes as the decades go by.

At the beginning of the novel, we see Young-sook joining her village’s diving collective, of which her mother is the leader, and starting to learn the skills she will need in her career as a haenyeo. Although she is excited about taking her first dives with the other women, she is also nervous about the many dangers lurking in the depths of the sea. Fortunately for Young-sook, she has a friend the same age – a girl called Mi-ja – with whom to share her experiences.

Mi-ja is the daughter of a ‘Japanese-collaborator’, at a time when Japanese colonists are disliked and resented across Jeju, but Young-sook loves and trusts her and is closer to her than to her own brothers and sisters. The friendship between Mi-ja and Young-sook endures through loss and tragedy and political turmoil, through marriage and motherhood, through times of peace and times of war, until the day comes when one of the women is faced with a difficult choice – and the decision she makes that day means that nothing will be the same again.

I enjoyed The Island of Sea Women, but it wasn’t always an easy or pleasant book to read – Young-sook and her family live through a very eventful and turbulent period of Korea’s history, including Japanese colonialism, World War II and the Korean War, and Jeju’s strategic location means it is often at the heart of the action. The most memorable part of the book for me was the section covering the ‘4.3 Incident’, the horrific massacre of protesters by police and government forces that took place in April 1948. Although I’d felt that for the first half of the book, the balance between fact and fiction wasn’t quite right and that we were being given a lot of information and detail at the expense of characterisation and plot, from the 4.3 Incident onwards, the story became much more compelling and the characters began to feel very real to me.

Lisa See writes so well about female friendships. Like Pearl and May in Shanghai Girls, Lily and Snow Flower in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and the three girls in China Dolls, Young-sook and Mi-ja have a special, unbreakable bond, yet they also go through some very dark and difficult times that stretch their bond to its limits. As I read, I kept thinking about how important perspective is; we only see things from Young-sook’s point of view in this novel, but had we been given Mi-ja’s side of the story it would have become a different book entirely.

The haenyeo culture is fascinating to read about and See weaves several of their myths, legends and proverbs into the story, showing us the importance haenyeo place on praying to the goddess of the wind and attending religious rituals led by their female shaman. It is in many ways a matriarchal society where the women are the ones who go out to work and provide for their household, while the men stay at home to look after the children. In the haenyeo community, the birth of a girl is welcomed as much as a boy because she will eventually be able to earn money and feed the family, yet it is only men who can perform the ritual of ‘ancestor-worship’ and who are allowed to inherit property.

I thought it was interesting that Young-sook’s husband is insistent that their daughters should be sent to school and given the same opportunities as their sons, while Young-sook, illiterate herself, can’t see the need for female education because it won’t be necessary for a life spent diving into the sea. There is logic behind her viewpoint, because when the story comes up to date in the 21st century, we see that with improvements in education, many of the island’s young women are leaving Jeju for less dangerous jobs on the mainland. Most of the remaining haenyeo are aged over fifty-five – and some are in their seventies and eighties, still spending hours each day submerged in cold water, holding their breath for more than two minutes at a time.

If you would like to find out more about these amazing women and their work, Lisa See has a collection of photographs and videos of the haenyeo on her website.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 1/20 of my 20 Books of Summer

The Adventurers by Jane Aiken Hodge

I’m enjoying working my way through Jane Aiken Hodge’s novels but, as I suppose is the case with many authors’ work, I’m finding that the quality varies a lot. The Adventurers (first published in 1965) is certainly much better than the last one I read, First Night, but not as enjoyable as Marry in Haste, Watch the Wall, My Darling or Strangers in Company.

The novel is set towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars when, following the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the defeated French army begin their retreat through Germany. The von Hugel castle lies in their path and seventeen-year-old Sonia von Hugel hides in the hayloft as her family and servants are massacred around her. When the violence is over, Sonia escapes from the castle disguised as a boy, intending to make her way to her aunt’s home across the mountains. Stopping at an inn along the way, she has an encounter with the mysterious Charles Vincent, who makes her an offer which causes her to change her plans and agree to accompany him to France instead.

In England, meanwhile, we meet Lord Denbigh and his nephew Philip Haverton, who are preparing to travel to France on diplomatic business. What will happen when their paths cross with Charles and Sonia’s? What is their connection with Sonia’s friend, Elizabeth Barrymore? And, most importantly, where does Charles keep disappearing to without explanation?

As this novel, like many of Aiken Hodge’s, is set in the Regency period, it’s difficult not to make comparisons with Georgette Heyer. The opening sequence, with the heroine dressing as a boy and meeting the hero at an inn – and the misunderstandings that follow – is exactly the sort of storyline that will be familiar to Heyer readers. After this promising beginning, though, the story becomes much less Heyer-like, with very little humour and lightness and a more serious, sombre feel. The politics of the period also form quite an important part of the novel, with Napoleon facing defeat and a plot to restore the Bourbon monarchy gathering pace.

I have described Charles and Sonia as the hero and heroine – and it did seem that way at first – but I quickly began to lose interest in them, especially as Charles was absent for such long sections of the novel (for reasons I found too easy to predict). It was disappointing that their plan to travel across Europe as ‘adventurers’, making their living from winning money at cards, didn’t really come to much and there was far less adventure in the book than I had hoped for. One character who did interest me was Elizabeth Barrymore; I felt that it was her story rather than Sonia’s that the author really wanted to tell. She is given a romantic interest of her own and although I found the way it develops predictable as well, I thought it was more engaging and more moving than Sonia’s – a story of mistakes, regrets and second chances, a bit like Anne Elliot’s in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Aiken Hodge wrote biographies of both Austen and Heyer, so it’s not surprising that their influence can be seen in her work.

The Adventurers is not a favourite by this author, then, but I did enjoy getting to know Elizabeth and learning a little bit about the political situation in Europe in the aftermath of the Battle of Liepzig.

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

Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough – A book for the Persephone Readathon

This week Jessie of Dwell in Possibility is hosting another of her Persephone Readathons. My choice of book this time proved to be very different from any of the other Persephones I’ve read, for several reasons. For one thing, it is one of only a few Persephones written by a man. With an original publication date of 1858, it must also be one of the oldest books they publish – the majority are from the first half of the twentieth century. Finally, it is written in verse, something which filled me with trepidation as I’m not really a fan of narrative poems (although, to be fair, I haven’t read all that many of them).

Anyway, Amours de Voyage follows a group of people who are visiting Italy during the political turmoil surrounding the fall of the short-lived Roman Republic in 1849. Their story is told in the form of letters written in hexameter verse and divided into five cantos. One of the letter-writers is Claude, a young man who is spending some time in Rome as part of his ‘grand tour’ and keeping a friend, Eustace, updated on everything he has seen and experienced. It seems that so far Rome has entirely failed to impress him:

Rome disappoints me much; I hardly as yet understand it, but

RUBBISHY seems the word that most exactly would suit it.

And then:

What do I find in the Forum? An archway and two or three pillars.

Well, but St. Peter’s? Alas, Bernini has filled it with sculpture!

I love Rome and ‘rubbishy’ is certainly not how I would describe it, but Claude is the sort of person who appears not to like or admire anything or anybody. This includes his fellow tourists, particularly the Trevellyns, who find Rome ‘a wonderful place’ and are ‘delighted of course with St. Peter’s’. This is Claude’s initial impression of the Trevellyns:

Middle-class people these, bankers very likely, not wholly

Pure of the taint of the shop; will at table d’hote and restaurant

Have their shilling’s worth, their penny’s pennyworth even:

Neither man’s aristocracy this, nor God’s, God knoweth!

As he gets to know the family better, however, he changes his opinion slightly and the tone of his letters to Eustace starts to suggest that he has fallen in love with Mary Trevellyn. Through Mary’s own letters to her friends Louisa and Miss Roper, we learn that although her own first impression of Claude was that she thought him ‘agreeable, but a little repulsive’, she is also beginning to change her mind:

Yes, repulsive; observe, it is but when he talks of ideas

That he is quite unaffected, and free, and expansive, and easy.

Unfortunately, before a romance has time to develop, violence breaks out on the streets of Rome and the Trevellyns leave the city just before it becomes besieged by the French. Claude has no intention of fighting for or against the Roman Republic (he doesn’t have a musket, he tells Eustace, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know how to use it) so he sets off in search of the Trevellyns instead. Due to bad luck and a series of misunderstandings, they keep missing each other as they move around Italy. Will Claude and Mary ever be reunited – or has the opportunity been lost forever?

I found Amours de Voyage much easier to get through than I had expected; it hasn’t become a favourite Persephone but it was still an enjoyable one and the rhythm, structure and colloquial language make it very readable. Despite Claude being such an annoying character, the way his story plays out is quite sad and moving as he begins to regret not speaking to Mary and telling her how he felt while he had the chance. Mary could have made the first move, but she knows that Claude ‘thinks that women should woo him; Yet, if a girl should do so, would be but alarmed and disgusted.’

The poem’s historical background is interesting too. Arthur Hugh Clough himself was in Rome in 1849 during the siege so was writing from personal experience, which explains why the parts of the poem that deal with the conflict – such as Claude’s account of witnessing a priest being killed and Mary’s description of Garibaldi riding into the city – feel vivid and authentic. I know nothing about Clough as a person other than the little I’ve been able to find online so I don’t know to what extent the rest of the story is autobiographical or how much of himself he put into Claude’s character.

Amours de Voyage endpapers

Because Amours de Voyage is in the public domain, it is available as a free ebook from sites like Project Gutenberg, but the Persephone edition has an introduction by Julian Barnes, illustrations, and gorgeous endpapers, taken from a woven dress silk from 1850. It isn’t a Persephone that gets much attention, so if you’ve read it (in any format) I’d love to hear your thoughts!

After the Party by Cressida Connolly

When I saw the list of titles shortlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, After the Party was not one that particularly appealed to me but I have set myself a challenge of reading all of the shortlisted books since the prize began in 2010, so as my library conveniently had a copy available I brought it home and gave it a try.

The story is divided between two time periods. In 1938 we meet Phyllis Forrester, who has just returned to England with her husband and children after a long absence abroad. The narrative takes us through the events of that year and the wartime years which follow. There are also some sections set in 1979 with Phyllis looking back on that earlier time and on the choices and mistakes which led to her imprisonment. Yes, we know from the beginning that she has been to prison – but we don’t know exactly how or why that happened because the reasons are deliberately kept quite vague throughout most of the novel.

The 1930s storyline follows Phyllis as, back in England for the first time in three years, she occupies herself by helping her sister, Nina, to run a summer camp for young people. The camp is part of a new political movement which Nina and her husband are very enthusiastic about and they are hoping that the charismatic man they call ‘The Leader’ will visit at some point that summer. Unless I wasn’t paying attention, the name of this political group and its leader are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the book – certainly not until near the end, anyway – but with a little bit of knowledge of the period it’s easy enough to guess who they are.

If you believe that Phyllis is being honest with the reader, it seems that she has little idea of the true nature of the group or the values it represents. There’s a sense that her involvement has happened mainly because she has been at a loose end and looking for something useful to do to fill her days, and because she likes the idea of ‘belonging’ somewhere. For a while it all seems quite innocent; the main aims of the organisation appear to be to promote peace and avoid another war and it’s quite understandable that many people at the time would have supported those aims, with the horrors of the recent Great War fresh in their minds. Gradually, though, we start to see some uglier ideas being expressed and we can only assume that Phyllis must be aware of these views and agrees with them or at least can see nothing wrong with them. I thought it was quite an effective way of showing how people can become slowly indoctrinated into dangerous ways of thinking, something which is still as relevant today as it was in 1938.

I’m not sure how much sympathy we were intended to have for Phyllis but, although the circumstances of her arrest and the descriptions of her time imprisoned in Holloway are certainly horrible, I struggled to warm to her at any point, and I didn’t like any of the other people in her family and social circle either. They were the sort of people that, if I knew them in real life, I wouldn’t really want anything to do with; people who move in a world of snobbery and gossip, thinking they are better than everyone else. That was maybe the point – that the superiority and sense of status that these characters feel is partly why they are so open to the views of The Leader – but I didn’t particularly enjoy reading about them and their lives. I also felt that the incident at the party which is made to sound so dramatic in the novel’s blurb – the incident where Phyllis ‘lets down her guard for a single moment, with devastating consequences’ – was not as significant as it sounded and after reading so many pages waiting for that moment to come, it was an anti-climax when it did.

For the reasons above, this is not my favourite of the books I’ve read so far from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist but I can see why it has been nominated as it’s a much more interesting and layered novel than I had initially thought it would be and one that left me with a lot to think about after reaching the end.