My Commonplace Book: July 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


He turned his head to smile at her, apologetically; and his face was haggard in the firelight, so that suddenly she cared nothing for kings and wars, nor bishops nor the soul of man, nor for what Thomas did, only for what Thomas was; and she longed to fling her arms round him and hold him close because he was like a lute that was strung too tight.

The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff (1959)


Princes in the Tower

No banners were raised above the company and they wore no livery, anonymity as well as haste their ally this April morning. Where Watling Street cut its blade-straight course towards the Great Ouse, the last of the sentries who had ridden on ahead to silence any word of their coming joined the company and, together, the horsemen thundered towards the small market town of Stony Stratford and the object of their race: the boy who had become king.

Sons of the Blood by Robyn Young (2016)


Nash is a follower of the playwrights and knows their best bons mots by heart, but I am fascinated by the actors themselves. I wonder about the life behind the stage and the precariousness of it. The thought of it gives me a shiver. Perhaps my interest stems from the apprehension that actors, whose calling depends on looks and voices and bodies that cannot last, must confront the same hard laws of life that women do. When the brightness of our beauty dies, we are plunged into the dark.

The Revelations of Carey Ravine by Debra Daley (2016)


Lizzie Burns

And is it any different with love? Isn’t love the reverse side of the same medal? To love is to have, but rare does it happen that what we have is what we love. Love buys cheap and seeks to sell at a higher price; our greed is for gain that lies outside our reach. We desire those who don’t desire us in return.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (2015)


Before him lay the well-kept grounds, the clipped rose trees already beginning to put forth their glossy leaves, the panes of the glass-house gleaming like ice in the moonlight, the fountain where the water splashed in silver threads, hollow-eyed termini set between yew trees. The windows in the side of the pleasure house facing Desgrez were shuttered; he crept along, however, most warily; he did not know who was posted in the gardens nor what sentries might be placed about the house and grounds.

The Poisoners by Marjorie Bowen (1936)



They glided away through the spangled water, and he filled his lungs with the haunting sea air. Other gondolas slipped past with lovers or merrymakers. A delicious languor filled the night, lapping of water, wandering of music. He felt a longing, sweeter than possession, for the indescribable, the unattainable. He would return here someday with her; he would occupy one of these palaces; they would live in terms of color – sapphire and silver – in terms of a casement open on the sea-scented night.

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger (1947)


“Oh, don’t worry, we’re still appalling know-it-alls. We dig things up, but then we photograph and catalogue, record and document, and as often as not we put things back. It’s not the finds so much as the findings. Not the objects but the stories they tell.”

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton (2016)


Magna Carta

Under the shade of the pavilion, he noted a table in readiness, stools around it, and parchment and pens and wax all ready, with clerks and knights waiting. They had at least the grace to stand when he entered and, without speaking, took the stool at the table-head. Before him lay the long charter. He knew it by heart, each clause of it had burned into him with rage while impotently he had listened to these rogues’ demands.

The Devil and King John by Philip Lindsay (1943)


Favourite books this month: Prince of Foxes and The Revelations of Carey Ravine.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Mrs Engels This is another book read for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project and another one that I’ve enjoyed. I don’t think I had even heard of it until it appeared on the shortlist for this year’s prize and I’m pleased that it did because otherwise I would probably never have read it and would never have had the opportunity to get to know Lizzie Burns – the Mrs Engels of the title.

The novel is narrated by Lizzie herself, a working-class Irish woman who becomes the lover and common-law wife of the German philosopher Friedrich Engels. In 1870, when we first meet Lizzie, she and Engels are boarding a train which will take them from Manchester to London, where they will be moving into a house in Primrose Hill close to Friedrich’s friend, Karl Marx. The narrative then moves backwards and forwards in time, so that as well as watching the couple settle into their new home, we also learn something of Lizzie’s early life in Manchester, where she and her sister, Mary, grew up in poverty before starting work at Ermen & Engels cotton mill – something which will bring them into contact with the man who is to become such an important part of both of their lives.

I came to this book knowing almost nothing about Friedrich Engels and his work (other than that he co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx) and I wondered whether that would be a problem. I needn’t have worried, though, because the focus of this novel is very much on the details of his personal life and his relationships with the Burns sisters, first Mary, his partner of many years, and then – after her death – Lizzie. It seems that little is known about the real Lizzie and Mary, so I kept in mind while reading that not everything that happens in the novel is historically accurate and that a lot of it is the product of the author’s imagination.

One thing we do know about Lizzie Burns is that Marx’s daughter Eleanor said she was “illiterate and could not read or write but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet”. I think Gavin McCrea does a great job in Mrs Engels of displaying these different facets of Lizzie’s character. On the surface she’s strong, outspoken and tough – she has to be, to cope with everything life throws at her – but underneath there’s an intelligence, a sensitivity and a sharp wit. Through his choice of words and spellings, McCrea also manages to convey the fact that she is illiterate and poorly educated. The result is a narrative voice which is unusual, memorable and perfectly suited to Lizzie’s character.

Mrs Engels is not a perfect novel – the transitions between time periods are not always clear and the characters, with the exception of Lizzie, feel thinly drawn and difficult to like. However, I found it interesting to read the descriptions of the living and working conditions experienced by mill workers in Victorian Manchester and the challenges faced by a working-class woman who suddenly finds herself moving up the social ladder and trying to manage a London household. It’s a fascinating read – and I loved the fact that a woman who was unable to tell her own story has finally been given a voice.

2016 Walter Scott Prize shortlist

Following the announcement last month of this year’s longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, today the shortlist of six books has been revealed. As I am currently attempting to work my way through all of the books shortlisted for the prize since it began in 2010 (see my progress here), I was particularly interested to see which titles would make the list this year. And here they are:

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet Caress

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Mrs Engels

End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

End Games in Bordeaux

Tightrope by Simon Mawer


Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek

Have you read any of these? If not, are there any you’re interested in reading?

So far I have only read one of the six – A Place Called Winter, which I enjoyed, although I haven’t posted my review yet. I know very little about any of the other books on the list, but I do know that Tightrope is a sequel and End Games in Bordeaux is the fourth in a quartet, which means, with my preference for reading a series in order, I will have some catching up to do before I can start either of those two!

I’m surprised – and slightly disappointed – that there’s no place on the shortlist for A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson or Dictator by Robert Harris, both of which had been longlisted, but congratulations to the six authors above. The winner will be announced in June.