My Commonplace Book: August 2016

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

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

Collins English Dictionary

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Margaret Beaufort

She could have asked, of course, but she would not get any answers. She thought of all the words that went unspoken in the world, throughout time: what happened to them, where did they go? What would happen if they were all spoken? How different would the world be then?

Succession by Livi Michael (2014)

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“Molly, I cannot have you speaking so to Lady Harriet,” said Mrs. Gibson, as soon as she was left alone with her stepdaughter. “You would never have known her at all if it had not been for me, and don’t be always putting yourself into our conversation.”

“But I must speak if she asks me questions,” pleaded Molly.

“Well! if you must, you must, I acknowledge. I’m candid about that at any rate. But there’s no need for you to set up to have an opinion at your age.”

“I don’t know how to help it,” said Molly.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)

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I know very little about my mother, and have no family to help me fill in the gaps. I am an only child and my father’s two elder sisters died several years ago. I am intrigued by this photograph and would like to find out more about the people in it…I hope you don’t mind me asking all these questions. Any information you could offer would mean a great deal to me.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (2011)

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Penny dreadful

Since cheap magazines were traded on street corners, in playgrounds and factory yards, each issue could have many readers. Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale (2016)

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It can’t have been much of a life, can it? for a woman of over seventy, living alone in lodgings, in debt to her landlady, wearing our cast-off clothes, trotting round after jobs that never materialised, writing articles that nobody would publish, and eating bread and margarine for supper. There really was something rather pathetic about that awful room of hers – crowded with papers full of impossible schemes…I don’t suppose there can ever have been anyone whose life was much less important, or who had less influence on anybody else.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)

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It was something he’d learned in the war: only think about what is directly in front of you. No, that wasn’t quite right. He’d had to plan ahead all the time…but not to feel ahead. For a man of Giles’s far-seeing, intricate temperament that had been a hard lesson. But Simon, he could see, knew it by instinct.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore (2016)

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Red Cocker Spaniel

Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been — all that; and he — But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.

Flush by Virginia Woolf (1933)

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“I play,” he once said to me, “for the best musician in the world – he may not be there, but I play as if he were”. I thought to myself that he was always there when Sebastian was playing, but I did not say so, for that was the kind of thing which did not please him.

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell (1925)

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It is quite beautiful, a metaphoric triumph over adversity, with every millimetre of its gnarled trunk proudly displaying its struggle.
I wonder now why humans hate the map of their life that appears on their own bodies, when a tree like this, or a faded painting, or a near-derelict uninhabited building is lauded for its antiquity.

The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley (2016)

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I cannot say – I had misjudged him before – yet I do think, in that moment, he had his battle to fight – one fierce as his fiercest charge. Cosmas waited, devouring him with his eyes. And I waited; a sudden, amazing sense springing up in me, that if he yielded, as I had so desired him to yield, this King who might be would never be the Prince whom I had served and loved.

Rupert, by the Grace of God by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1899)

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louisedelavalliere

“Life, monsieur,” said Planchet, laughing, “is capital which a man ought to invest as sensibly as he possibly can.”

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

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Hélène wondered whether the lady was protesting a bit too much in order to convince her, or to convince herself. Could she start a new life at her age? You can start a new game of cards or redecorate the living room, but life itself, can you do that again?

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat (2013)

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And now? Overseas in England, his brethren in the faith were fighting, were dying, to achieve the freedom which he had sought. Before his eyes rose the grey, thronged sea-port town he knew, the richer fields, the narrower skies; and yet here, in this strenuous bleakness, he had found his soul.

Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1903)

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Love for her was to be a slow, ripening process, the fruit of many meetings and mutual interests. She had never believed in love at first sight. That surely, she told herself, was an invention of novelists, whose business it was to make everything slightly larger than life.

The Jewelled Snuff Box by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1959)

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Fountains Abbey 1

The queen responded a week later. “We are sending a young gentleman up to Yorkshire to resolve the matter. We do not wish to hear from you again.”

It was a measure of Mr Aislabie’s poor standing at court that I was the young gentleman in question.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson (2016)

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Favourite books this month: Wives and Daughters, Flush and Exposure

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

The Wicked Boy It’s July 1895 and Robert and Nattie Coombes could be any two young boys enjoying the hot summer weather. They go to see a cricket match, they play in the park, they take a trip to the seaside and they go fishing. Their father, a ship’s steward, is at sea and the boys tell anyone who asks that their mother is visiting her sister in Liverpool and that a family friend, John Fox, is staying with them while she’s away. However, there is more to the situation than meets the eye and it’s not long before the neighbours grow concerned. Why did Emily Coombes not mention to anyone that she was going away – and what is that horrible smell drifting down from the bedroom upstairs?

When the police are eventually called to the house at 35 Cave Road, they make a shocking discovery: it seems that Emily Coombes has been there all the time, her dead body decomposing in the summer heat. Her eldest son, Robert, immediately confesses to stabbing his mother to death ten days earlier. In the trial which follows, the court attempts to make sense of this terrible crime. Robert is only thirteen years old (one year older than his brother, Nattie); what would make a boy of this age commit such a cruel and cold-blooded act?

This may sound like the plot of a crime novel, but it’s not – it’s actually a true story and the events I’ve been describing above really did take place in London’s East End in 1895. In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale gives an account of the murder, the inquest and the trial, exploring some of the factors which may have led to Robert’s actions before going on to look at what happened to him after he was found guilty.

This is the third book I’ve read (or attempted to read) by Summerscale. I loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which was also based on a true crime, but I found Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, about a Victorian divorce scandal, difficult to get into and I abandoned it after a few chapters. I’m pleased to report that I liked The Wicked Boy much more than Mrs Robinson, though not as much as Mr Whicher, which had a stronger mystery element. There’s really no mystery at all about the Robert Coombes case; we know almost from the beginning what the crime is and who is responsible for it. Of course, this doesn’t mean there are no more questions to be asked. The official verdict was that Robert was “guilty but insane” and no clear motive was ever identified, but Summerscale does devote a large portion of the book to discussing Robert’s childhood and family background in an attempt to understand what could drive a thirteen-year-old boy to kill his mother.

Where the murder and the trial themselves are concerned, Summerscale sticks to the facts and doesn’t resort to too much speculation or personal opinion. However, she also spends a lot of time looking at what life was like in general for working-class Londoners towards the end of the Victorian era. Robert and Nattie Coombes would have been among the first generations to be educated at the new Board Schools which were established after the Elementary Education Act of 1870, but there were many people who believed that making education available to everyone was a bad idea. It meant that more children were able to read and therefore had access to ‘penny dreadfuls’, cheap adventure novels aimed at boys which were thought to be a bad influence on impressionable minds. Robert Coombes had a collection of these sensational stories, something that was seized upon in the same way that people sometimes blame violent video games for encouraging modern day teenagers to commit crimes.

I found all of this fascinating to read about, but was slightly less interested in the second half of the book which covers Robert’s time at Broadmoor, the asylum where he was sent after his trial, and what happened after he was released. I understand why the author wanted to follow Robert’s story through to its conclusion, but I just didn’t have enough interest in him as a person to want to read such a long account of his later life. Apart from this, I did enjoy reading The Wicked Boy and am glad I gave Kate Summerscale another chance after my disappointment with Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

One night in June 1860 a little boy called Saville Kent was murdered at his home in the village of Road, Wiltshire. As it seemed certain that nobody had entered the house from outside, suspicion fell on the Kent family and their servants. When the local police proved to be incompetent, the Home Secretary requested that Scotland Yard send Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher to assist them with the investigation. In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale tells the full story of the case and how it affected Whicher’s career.

This is a non-fiction book based on a true story. Considering the book combines two of my favourite things in literature – mysteries and the Victorians – you won’t be suprised to hear that I thought it was completely fascinating! And although I regretted not reading it sooner (it was first published in 2008), my timing actually couldn’t have been better. Just after finishing the book I discovered that it had been adapted for television, so the story was still fresh in my mind when I sat down to watch it on ITV1 last night (Monday 25th April). I enjoyed the TV adaptation but I’m glad I managed to read the book first.

I appreciated the fact that Summerscale was careful not to give away the solution to the mystery too early in the book, which meant the reader had a chance to study the clues and try to solve the mystery along with Whicher. It was interesting too to see how the vocabulary used in detective work has developed over the years, such as the origins of the word ‘clue’.

Summerscale also explains how during the 19th century people began to place a greater importance on the privacy and security of their homes than they had in the past. Thus a case like the Road Hill one was even more shocking in that it had taken place behind locked doors. The sanctity of the home had been violated and it seemed that the murderer was almost certainly one of the household. This must have made people all over the country afraid that the same thing could happen in their own family home. And with the multitude of new national and local newspapers that had appeared in recent years, detailed reports of this and other horrific crimes could be brought to an even wider audience. This, of course, allowed the public to become ‘armchair detectives’ and come up with their own theories as to what really happened.

The murder at Road Hill House captured the imagination of the British public and inspired a number of fictional detective stories such as The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which I read a few years ago. The character of Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone is thought to be based on Whicher and I can also now see how Collins incorporated some other elements of the Road Hill investigation into his story – the importance which is placed on checking the family’s laundry, for example. I really need to re-read The Moonstone soon because I’m sure that knowing some of the background behind it will help me to get more out of it!

Have you read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher? Are there any other true crime stories that you’ve enjoyed reading?