The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan by Cynthia Jefferies

Cynthia Jefferies is probably better known as an established children’s author writing under the name of Cindy Jefferies, but she has recently turned her hand to writing novels for adults, of which The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan was her first. It was the title and cover that caught my attention at first, then when I read what the book was about I thought it sounded like something I was almost certain to enjoy.

The story begins in 1660, with Christopher Morgan returning to England following the restoration of Charles II, having spent several years in exile with the others who fought on the side of the Royalists in England’s recent civil war. Christopher no longer has any interest in taking his place at court and intends to start a new life for himself and his family as owners of the wonderfully named Rumfustian Inn in the village of Dario, but his dreams are destroyed when his beloved wife dies in childbirth. Sinking into depression, he is sustained only by his relationship with his baby son, Abel, whom he raises alone with the help of the servants.

As the years go by, the two become closer than ever, but when Christopher makes an enemy of a local smuggler, he and Abel both pay a terrible price. Abel disappears while out riding his pony and Christopher’s only clue to his whereabouts is a mysterious map of Constantinople. Does this show where Abel has been taken? Christopher isn’t sure, but he’s determined to do whatever it takes to find his son. While he continues to search, however, Abel himself is having adventures of his own…

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is best described as a good old-fashioned adventure story – a sort of cross between Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. With smugglers, secret tunnels, sinister villains, pirate ships and action on the high seas, it’s a fun and entertaining read – yet I didn’t love it as much as I felt I should have done. While I had a lot of sympathy for Christopher, I never warmed to Abel at all; I found him quite selfish and some of his actions towards the end of the book made me actively dislike him. As half of the novel was narrated from his perspective, this was definitely a problem for me. I was also confused by the storyline which plays out in Constantinople as it seems to have very little bearing on the rest of the story and a villain introduced in this section didn’t have the impact I expected him to have.

Still, I was kept in suspense throughout the novel, wondering whether Christopher and Abel would ever meet again. The main theme of the love between father and son is handled with sensitivity and emotion and I had tears in my eyes several times towards the end of the book – which I always think is a sign that an author is doing something right! I would be happy to read more of Cynthia Jefferies’ adult novels; her new one, The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne, is out now.

Thanks to Allison & Busby for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

In the author’s note that opens The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Sara Collins remembers reading books like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre on the small Caribbean island where she grew up and asking the questions: “Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex? Why had no one like that ever had a love story like those?’ Frannie Langton is Collins’ attempt to redress the balance and give that Jamaican former slave her very own story in which to star.

The novel opens in 1826 with Frannie – or the ‘Mulatta Murderess’, as she has become known – awaiting trial at London’s Old Bailey for the murders of her employers, George and Marguerite Benham. Frannie, who had been a maid in the Benham household, had been found lying in bed, covered in blood, beside Marguerite’s dead body. She has no idea how she came to be there and is sure she couldn’t possibly have killed her beloved mistress, yet all the evidence suggests that she is guilty. While she waits for her fate to be decided, Frannie looks back on her life and recalls the sequence of events that have led her to this point.

Frannie remembers her childhood, growing up on the Langtons’ sugar plantation in Jamaica (ironically called ‘Paradise’) and describes the circumstances that meant she received an education that would usually be denied to a slave. Later, when Mr Langton returns to England, he takes Frannie with him and she looks forward to new experiences and new opportunities. On their arrival in London, however, she is handed over to the Benhams to become a servant in their home and finds that life is not much better here than it was on the plantation. The one bright spot in her life is her relationship with ‘Madame’ (Mrs Benham), but as we already know from the opening chapter of the book, that relationship will end in tragedy.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is Sara Collins’ first novel and I’m sure it’s going to be a big success for her. It has been given a beautiful front cover, which stands out even amongst the many other beautiful covers that are around at the moment and the book has already been getting lots of very positive reviews since its publication last week. I didn’t love it as much as most other people seem to have done, but that’s probably because it wasn’t really what I’d expected. I thought the crime element would have been a more important part of the story, but the murder and the trial are confined mainly to the final few chapters, and I’m not sure I would agree with the description of the book as a gothic novel either, although I suppose it would depend on what you consider gothic to mean.

I did find Frannie an interesting and engaging heroine with a strong narrative voice and although there were some parts of her story that I felt I’d read many times before (bearing in mind that I do read a lot of historical novels set in the 19th century), Frannie’s background and unusual circumstances mean that we are seeing things from a slightly different angle. Having one white parent and one black, Frannie never really fits in with the other slaves on the plantation – especially when she is given an education and an enviable position as house slave – but she knows she will never be accepted by most white people either. As you can imagine, she experiences a lot of cruelty and prejudice in her life and this is quite a sad story at times – and also quite disturbing, particularly the descriptions of the ‘scientific experiments’ and research carried out by Frannie’s two masters, Langton and Benham.

Sara Collins writes beautifully and I was struck by sentences like “A man writes to separate himself from the common history. A woman writes to try to join it…” and “A good scientist merely searches for the answer to the question posed, but the one whose name history will record reaches for the questions no one has even thought to ask”. And of course, as a fellow book lover, I appreciated Frannie’s love of literature and her determination to read all the books she could get her hands on. But was Frannie really responsible for the deaths of George and Marguerite Benham? You will need to read her confessions to find out…

Thanks to Penguin/Viking Books for providing a review copy of The Confessions of Frannie Langton and for inviting me to take part in their blog tour.

Two books by Marjorie Bowen…or should that be Joseph Shearing?

marjorie_bowenMargaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long (1885-1952) was a British author who wrote many different types of book – ranging from crime and horror to historical fiction and biography – under several different pseudonyms, the most popular being Marjorie Bowen. In December, in an attempt to get up to date with my NetGalley review copies, I read two of her recently reissued books which were originally published under the name Joseph Shearing. Apparently the true identity of Joseph Shearing was unknown for a long time and there was speculation that it might have been another female author, F Tennyson Jesse. The Shearing novels, which it seems were usually inspired by true crimes, do have a different feel from Bowen’s straightforward historical novels (I’ve read a few of those over the last year or so) and I can see why readers at the time might not have made the connection.

nights-dark-secretsNight’s Dark Secrets (first published in 1936 as The Golden Violet, The Story of a Lady Novelist) was the first of the two books that I read. The novel opens with the marriage of Angel Cowley, an author of romance novels, to Thomas Thicknesse, the owner of a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Angel has been busy preparing her latest novel, The Golden Violet, for serialisation in a magazine, but this has to be postponed when Thomas insists that the newly married couple leave England and return to his plantation, Venables Penn.

As soon as they arrive in Jamaica, Angel discovers her husband’s true nature and begins to wonder whether she has made a terrible mistake. Struggling to adapt to life in an unfamiliar country, with a husband she can’t trust and barely sees, and with trouble brewing in the island’s slave community, Angel turns to her neighbour, John Gordon, for the love and friendship she longs for. But is John really all he appears to be or is he also hiding secrets?

Night’s Dark Secrets could have been a great book. The descriptions of the island are wonderful and the historical setting – around the time slavery was abolished in Jamaica in the early 19th century – is an interesting one. However, the level of racism, even for a book from the 1930s, made me feel quite uncomfortable. I’m aware, of course, that it wasn’t necessarily Marjorie Bowen who was racist, but rather the characters, and that the way Angel and other Europeans reacted to the sight of the black slaves on the island would have been consistent with the reactions of many white women who had never seen or spoken to someone with a different skin colour before. Still, Angel’s sheer nastiness, in addition to her general silliness, made it impossible for me to have any sympathy with her situation.

forget-me-notHaving said all of that, I did still find the story itself compelling and kept reading to the end. And I was happy to go on to try a second Shearing novel, Forget-Me-Not. This novel, published in 1932, also appeared under the title The Strange Case of Lucile Clery, and Bowen claimed it was based on true events which led to the downfall of Louis Philippe I, King of the French, in the revolution of 1848.

The novel is set in France and follows the story of Lucille Debelleyme, a young woman who takes a position as governess in an aristocratic Parisian household. Lucille has never lasted long in any job, but she’s determined that this time things will be different. Unfortunately, although she quickly wins over her new employer, the Duc du Boccage, she is less successful with his wife, Fanny. As the governess and the Duc find themselves falling in love, Fanny’s jealousy intensifies and she makes plans to have Lucille removed from her position. Lucille, though, will not go without a fight. As a Bonapartist who was opposed to the return of the monarchy, she longs to see Louis Philippe toppled from his throne – and the events which occur during Lucille’s stay in the du Boccage household play a part in the eventual revolution.

Forget-Me-Not is an unusual story – part romance, part suspense, part historical fiction and part crime. Again, the main character is not very likeable, but she’s obviously not supposed to be. I found her intriguing as I was never really sure exactly what she wanted or what she was trying to do. I’m not very familiar with the period of French history covered in the novel so I didn’t fully understand how Lucille’s actions affected the monarchy, but that didn’t matter too much as the real focus of the story is on her relationship with Fanny and her husband.

Of these two books, I definitely preferred Forget-Me-Not. I’m not sure whether I would want to read any more of Joseph Shearing’s work, though – if I do read more novels by this author, I think I’ll stick to the ones that were published under the name of Marjorie Bowen or George R Preedy (I loved one of her Preedy books, The Poisoners).

Have you ever found that where an author has used pseudonyms, you’ve liked the books written under one name more than another?

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea After finishing a re-read of Jane Eyre recently, I decided that my next read would have to be Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a book inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel and which I’ve seen described both as a prequel and a reimagining. I don’t read this type of book very often as I prefer to keep my feelings for the originals intact, but this one, published in 1966, is now considered a classic in itself and I wanted to find out why.

As I started writing this review it occurred to me that it would be impossible to discuss Wide Sargasso Sea in any meaningful way without giving away some of the secrets revealed in Jane Eyre and spoiling the Brontë novel for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I will assume that if you’re reading this post you’re already familiar with Jane Eyre, so consider this your spoiler warning!

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Mr Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, the ‘madwoman in the attic’. In Jane Eyre, we learn that Rochester was sent by his father to Jamaica where he met the Mason family and married Bertha, a beautiful Creole heiress. Rochester explains that he was unaware of the madness running in Bertha’s family and the fact that her mother was not dead, as he had first believed, but had actually been locked away in an asylum. When Bertha’s own behaviour begins to worry Rochester, he brings her home to England and Thornfield Hall, where he has her imprisoned in an attic room under the care of a servant, Grace Poole.

Jane Eyre only shows us one side of the story: Rochester’s. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys gives a voice to Bertha (or Antoinette Cosway, as she is known here). The first part of the novel, narrated by Antoinette herself, describes her childhood in 1830s Jamaica, just after the Emancipation Act has ended slavery across the British Empire. Antoinette’s own father made his fortune through slavery and since his death the family have remained on their crumbling plantation, Coulibri, where as white Creoles they are isolated and shunned by the freed black slaves and their rich white neighbours alike. As the years go by and Antoinette’s mother descends into mental illness, her stepfather, Mr Mason, announces that friends from England are coming to visit…

In the middle section of the book, we switch to Rochester’s point of view (although he is not actually named in the novel, it’s clear who he is supposed to be) and he relates in his own words the story of his marriage to Antoinette, whom he renames Bertha, and his views on the deteoriation of her mental health. The final, shortest section is set at Thornfield Hall and takes us through the familiar events of Jane Eyre.

I was quite disappointed with this book, if I’m going to be completely honest. Yes, it’s beautifully written but I found the dreamlike, disjointed narrative slightly difficult to follow and while I could sympathise with Antoinette’s situation, I never felt fully engaged with her on an emotional level. I realise that the writing style was probably intended to unsettle and disorientate the reader, but I just didn’t like it. Luckily, my lack of love for this novel has not affected my memories of Jane Eyre or its characters – not even Mr Rochester, despite the negative portrayal, mainly because the character in this novel just doesn’t feel at all like Brontë’s Rochester (not even his ‘voice’ sounds the same).

Wide Sargasso Sea is a short novel (I was surprised when I discovered just how short it was) but it’s also a complex one with lots of layers, symbolism and important themes – including slavery, colonialism, mental illness, race and gender – and I can see why it’s a book that has come to be widely studied in schools and universities. I can recommend the Penguin Modern Classics ‘Annotated Edition’ as an excellent choice for students or anyone who wants to study the story and its background in more depth. There’s an introduction, notes at the end, suggestions for further reading and background information on some of the topics alluded to in the story, such as the Jamaican folk magic known as Obeah.

I did love the concept of giving Bertha/Antoinette a chance to tell her story and I wouldn’t want to put anyone else off reading this book – even though I didn’t find it very satisfying, I know there are many, many other people who have enjoyed it, so if it does sound appealing to you then I would certainly recommend giving it a try.

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island Last year I read The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s novel about life on a sugar plantation in 19th century Jamaica. Small Island is a very different book and didn’t initially sound as appealing to me, but now that I’ve read both, this is definitely my favourite of the two.

Set in London in 1948 but with flashbacks to other times and places, Small Island follows the story of two couples, one British (Queenie and Bernard) and one Jamaican (Hortense and Gilbert). After a brief prologue, the first character we get to know is Hortense. Having been raised by her father’s rich relatives, Hortense is a well-mannered and well-educated young Jamaican woman. With Jamaica still a British colony (it wouldn’t gain independence until 1962), Hortense is desperate to see the ‘mother country’ she has heard so much about and when she marries Gilbert Joseph she has a chance to do just that.

Gilbert, who had volunteered with the RAF during World War II, has found it difficult to settle back into life in Jamaica and is planning to return to Britain where he believes there will be more opportunities. Arriving in London, he rents a room in a house belonging to Queenie Bligh, a white Englishwoman he previously met during the war, and Hortense joins him there a few months later. Queenie’s husband, Bernard, also in the RAF, has still not returned from the war, and Queenie has been taking in lodgers to help pay the bills. But when Bernard finally does come home, he is not at all pleased to find black people living in his house.

Through the eyes of these four very different men and women we watch the stories of life on two ‘small islands’ unfold – Britain and Jamaica. From the perspectives of Hortense and Gilbert we share the disappointment and bewilderment of two immigrants discovering that their new country is not quite what they had expected and facing a level of prejudice and discrimination they were unprepared for. In Bernard and Queenie we see how the attitudes of the white British people towards black immigrants range from overt racism and intolerance in Bernard’s case to a more open-minded attitude in Queenie’s (sadly most of the people Hortense and Gilbert meet tend to share Bernard’s views rather than Queenie’s). While things have changed a lot since the 1940s, these are obviously issues that are still important and relevant today, and it was interesting to read four such different points of view.

I was impressed by the way Levy manages to give each character a distinctive voice of his or her own (though I shouldn’t have been surprised after reading The Long Song, which also has a protagonist with a very strong narrative voice). The book is structured so that each of the four has a chance to narrate their part of the story, going back into the past to talk about their childhood and their experiences before and during the war. My favourite character was Gilbert, though I did enjoy the sections narrated by Queenie and Hortense too. I found Bernard’s section the least interesting, not just because I didn’t like him, but also because the story of his wartime experiences in India didn’t feel very relevant to the rest of the novel.

Apart from being bored with Bernard’s story, my only other problem was the ending, which I thought relied too heavily on coincidences to bring the novel to its conclusion. Other than that, I loved this book! I know Andrea Levy has written three other novels as well as Small Island and The Long Song, and although I haven’t heard much about any of them I do want to investigate at some point.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

When Thomas Kinsman asks his mother, July, to write her memoirs, she agrees on the condition that she is allowed to tell her story the way she wants to tell it:

“Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest.”

The Long Song The island with the lush green trees, raucous birds and hot sun is Jamaica, where July is born into slavery on the sugar plantation of Amity. As a young girl, July catches the eye of her master’s spoiled and selfish sister, Caroline Mortimer, and becomes her maid and companion. Kept apart from her mother, a field slave, and renamed ‘Marguerite’ because Caroline likes the name, life is not always easy for July but the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 brings hope that slavery in Jamaica will soon come to an end. And with the arrival of a new overseer, Robert Goodwin, life at Amity could be about to change forever…

I have read other books about slavery but never one that focused specifically on slavery in Jamaica, so The Long Song was something new for me. With July moving from the slave quarters to live with her mistress, we see how slavery and its abolition affected not just the slaves themselves but also the British slave owners and overseers. I liked the fact that July’s story does not just finish with the end of slavery in Jamaica but goes on to describe what happened after that. It’s easy to imagine that things improved instantly as soon as slavery was abolished but that was not necessarily true and July does a good job of showing us how she and the other newly emancipated slaves continued to face hardships and obstacles.

As you’ll be able to tell from the excerpt I quoted at the start of this post, July has a very strong and distinctive narrative style, which suits her lively, mischievous personality. She frequently breaks off in the middle of a chapter to argue with her son, Thomas, over what should or should not be included and at other times she addresses the reader directly. Sometimes she gives us one version of events, then admits that she is not being honest and begins again with a more truthful account. Most of her story is told in the third person, as if July was just somebody she had once known and not actually herself – maybe we’re supposed to assume this made it easier for the older July to discuss the painful things that had happened to her? She also adds a lot of humour to her story which makes it feel much lighter and less harrowing than it could have been.

At first I was intrigued by July’s unique narration; it felt different and unusual. After a few chapters, though, the novelty wore off and I started to find it irritating. I wished she would stop interrupting herself and get on with telling the story! I like this sort of writing in Victorian novels but in this case I thought it felt like a gimmick that, for me, just didn’t quite work. I did still enjoy the book but maybe I would have enjoyed it even more if it had been written in a more conventional style. I have a copy of one of Andrea Levy’s other books to read – Small Island, which is being reissued in a new 10th anniversary edition – and I’ve heard it’s very different, so I’m looking forward to reading that one.