Lily by Rose Tremain

From the opening pages of Rose Tremain’s new novel, we know that Lily Mortimer is a murderer and that she expects to hang for what she has done. What we don’t know is who the victim was and what drove a young woman like Lily to commit such a terrible crime. To find the answers we have to go back in time, to a cold winter’s night in 1850 when policeman Sam Trench finds a baby abandoned by the gates of a London park. Sam takes her to the London Foundling Hospital where she is given the name Lily and sent to live with a foster family in the countryside. This is only a temporary arrangement – children are expected to return to the Hospital once they reach the age of six – but Lily’s foster parents, Nellie and Perkin Buck, grow to love the little girl and they are all heartbroken when the time comes for them to separate.

Back at the Foundling Hospital, Lily feels trapped and unhappy; she and the other children are badly treated by the women who are employed to take care of them and Lily herself seems to be singled out for the worst punishments. As the years go by, Lily becomes an adult and starts work as a wigmaker at Belle Prettywood’s Wig Emporium – but even though she has left the orphanage behind, she is still haunted by the events of her childhood.

After being disappointed by Rose Tremain’s last book, Islands of Mercy, I found this a much more compelling read. It took me a while to get into it as the timeline jumped around so much at the beginning, constantly moving from Lily’s present to her past and back again, which felt disjointed and confusing – and the absence of chapter breaks didn’t help – but eventually things settled down and I was drawn into the story. There are shades of Jane Eyre, particularly in the parts of the book that deal with Lily’s relationship with another orphan, Bridget, and I was also reminded of Stacey Halls’ The Foundling, another novel set partly in the London Foundling Hospital (although this book has a very different plot).

The Hospital – also known as Coram, after its founder Thomas Coram – is vividly described and comes to life as a grim, forbidding place where the abandoned children are made to pay for the ‘sins of their mothers’. Although Lily is occasionally shown some kindness by people such as her benefactress Lady Elizabeth Mortimer, most of the treatment she receives at Coram is harsh and cruel. It seemed such a shame to me that the children weren’t allowed to stay with foster families who loved and wanted them, although I understood that the idea of returning them to the Hospital was so that they could learn the skills that would equip them for life in Victorian society.

This is a bleak novel, but also quite a moving one and despite knowing that Lily considered herself a criminal, I had a lot of sympathy for her from the beginning and hoped that her story would have a happier ending than the one she was expecting. I would recommend Lily not just to Rose Tremain’s existing fans, but also to anyone looking for a dark Victorian tale to immerse themselves in this winter.

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

Book 49/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

I’ve found this a difficult book to write about because, although it is undoubtedly very well written and has a lot of the elements I would usually find interesting, for some reason I just didn’t like it very much and have struggled to explain why. It was particularly disappointing as I’ve enjoyed the other Rose Tremain books I’ve read – Restoration, Merivel and The Gustav Sonata – so I had high hopes for this one too.

Anyway, Islands of Mercy begins in 1865 in Bath, ‘a place where very many rich people assembled, to take the waters, or simply to take their leisure’. Jane Adeane is the twenty-four-year-old daughter of a renowned Bath surgeon and works with him as a nurse, gaining a reputation for herself as The Angel of the Baths. She has caught the eye of her father’s fellow doctor and business partner, Dr Valentine Ross, but his attentions are unwelcome to her and she decides to go to London for a while to stay with her Aunt Emmeline, an artist. Here she meets one of Emmeline’s friends, the beautiful Julietta Sims, and feels an instant attraction to her. Soon, Jane finds that she is falling in love with Julietta, and when she returns to Bath she must decide whether she wants the security that marriage to Dr Ross could give her or whether she would prefer to be free to pursue her relationship with Julietta.

Jane’s story alternates with that of Sir Ralph Savage, an eccentric Englishman who lives on the island of Borneo with his servant and lover, Leon, and calls himself ‘the Rajah of the South Sadong Territories’. Leon is an ambitious and resourceful young man who is always coming up with new money-making schemes, but he is also a jealous man and is not at all happy when Edmund Ross, a naturalist who has come to Borneo in search of new species, arrives on Sir Ralph’s estate.

Edmund is the younger brother of Valentine Ross and this provides a link between the two storylines – however, it is a very weak link and for most of the novel they seem like two completely different, unconnected stories. Borneo is certainly a fascinating and unusual setting, but I didn’t have any interest in Sir Ralph and Leon and felt that their chapters could probably have been left out entirely as they added very little to the overall plot of the novel. This made the whole experience of reading this book feel disjointed and every time the narrative switched to Borneo I couldn’t wait for it to return to Bath again.

Although I found Jane’s chapters much more compelling, I was disappointed by the character arc Valentine Ross goes through; I did have some sympathy for him at first after Jane’s initial rejection of him, but he quickly becomes so unpleasant and controlling that he feels like a stereotypical villain rather than a believably flawed character. I didn’t doubt Jane’s love for Julietta, so I don’t really think it was necessary to make Valentine so needlessly cruel and selfish – in fact, I think it would have been more interesting if Jane had faced a choice between the woman she loved and a man whom she at least liked.

There is a third thread to the novel that I haven’t mentioned yet and this follows the story of Clorinda Morrissey, a woman from Dublin who opens a tea shop in Bath, where she gets to know Jane and her father. Clorinda was the one character in the book I really liked and would have been happy to visit for a cup of tea and a cake! I wished we had spent more time with her rather than some of the other less engaging characters.

I will continue to read Rose Tremain’s books as it’s only this one so far that I haven’t enjoyed. Luckily there are plenty of her earlier novels left for me to explore.

Book 2/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

I don’t think I’ve read enough of Rose Tremain’s books to really describe myself as a fan or as any kind of expert on her work, but I’ve enjoyed the little I’ve read by her – Restoration and Merivel, her two novels set in 17th century England and France, and The Gustav Sonata, set in Switzerland before, during and after the Second World War – so I decided to give her recent memoir, Rosie, a try.

Judging purely by the cover and the subtitle Scenes from a Vanished Life, I was expecting something light, charming and nostalgic, but the reality was very different and the book left me feeling quite sad. It’s a slim book covering only the first eighteen years of the author’s life and I think it’s fair to say that Rose – or Rosie, as she was known when she was younger – didn’t have the happiest start to life. Born into an upper-middle-class family, with all the privilege and opportunity that comes with that, the one thing Rosie lacks is parental love. She is ten years old when her playwright father, Keith, leaves her mother, Jane, for a younger woman. Jane quickly remarries and sends Rosie and her sister, Jo, to boarding school, an incident Tremain thinks of as ‘The Great Casting Away’ and which she describes with both resentment and an attempt to understand:

When we were safely away in our cold dormitories at Crofton Grange, she and her friends could forget all about their children’s future. Instead, they could go to plays, go to films, go to restaurants, get drunk at lunchtime, flirt, shop, swear, take taxis, waste money, go dancing, have sex, and wander through London in the dawn light, laughing, determined to forget the war that had stolen their youth and so many of the people they’d loved.

The child Rosie is often hurt and confused by her mother’s actions, and not much has changed by the time she reaches adulthood; when her first play is broadcast on BBC radio in 1976, Jane says she is too busy to listen as she is going out to lunch that day. Rosie does acknowledge, however, that her mother’s lack of affection for her could be partly due to her own upbringing. Many of Rosie’s childhood memories revolve around holidays spent at her maternal grandparents’ home, Linkenholt Manor, but it quickly becomes clear that it is the house that holds a special place in her heart and not her grandparents themselves. Mabel and Roland Dudley, Jane’s parents, are depicted as cold, stern people who have struggled to move on from the loss of their two sons and see their daughter as a poor substitute; their granddaughters interest them even less. I found this so sad because my own childhood relationship with my grandparents was completely different – warm and loving and full of fun. The only love Rosie seems to receive comes from her nanny, Vera Sturt, and I was glad that she had at least one person who cared about her, although even this relationship was lost when she was sent away to boarding school.

As the title of the book suggests, the world of Tremain’s childhood is a world that has now largely vanished. Her account of her school days, of beliefs and attitudes and of society in general could only have been written by someone growing up in the 1950s and belonging to a certain class. As Rosie becomes a young adult and sets her sights on attending Oxford University, she sees her dreams shattered yet again when her mother insists on sending her to a Swiss ‘finishing school’ instead. Jane doesn’t see the need for her daughter to continue her education when all a woman needs to do to succeed in life is to find a rich husband.

Despite her privileged background then, Tremain still had obstacles to overcome as she grew from Rosie into Rose and embarked on her writing career. Because her memoir ends before the publication of her first book, she doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing her writing, but she does give us a few insights into how incidents, people and places from her early life later found their way into her novels. I’m sure this would have meant more to me if I had read more of her work! The book ends very abruptly, which was disappointing as I would have liked to have continued to follow Rose through her adult years. Still, it was interesting getting to know the young Rosie and her world. I will have to read more of her books soon; if there are any you would recommend please let me know.

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

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

“So you see,” she said, “you have to be like Switzerland. Do you understand me? You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.”

Switzerland is well known for its neutrality during the Second World War but, as we see in Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, even remaining neutral didn’t mean that Switzerland and its people completely escaped the effects of war. The Gustav Sonata explores some of these effects, as well as looking, on a more personal level, at other meanings of neutrality and of courage, separateness and strength.

The novel is divided into three parts, presumably to resemble the movements of a sonata. The first is set just after the war, in 1947, and introduces us to Gustav Perle, a five-year-old boy who lives in the fictional Swiss town of Matzlingen with his mother, Emilie. Gustav’s best friend at kindergarten is Anton Zwiebel, but when he brings Anton home one day, he is confused by Emilie’s reaction. It’s obvious that she disapproves of Anton, but why? Is it because he is Jewish – and if so, what is her problem with Jews? These questions won’t be answered until later in the book, but in the meantime we continue to follow Gustav and Anton throughout their childhoods and into their teens.

As Gustav spends more and more time with the Zwiebel family, he becomes aware of how different Anton’s life is from his own; he senses that Anton’s parents really seem to care about their son’s future, unlike his own mother who can be so cold and distant. Anton, however, is having trouble of his own – as a talented musician he dreams of a career as a concert pianist, but his ambitions look set to be threatened by his debilitating stage fright.

In the second section of the book, we go back in time to the 1930s and the early days of Emilie’s relationship with Gustav’s father, Erich Perle. At last we can begin to understand Emilie’s behaviour and the reasons for her animosity towards Anton’s family. Finally, for the third part of the novel, we return to the stories of Gustav and Anton, who are now middle-aged men, and we find out what has been happening to them in the intervening years. I don’t always like books which jump around in time like this, as they can sometimes seem disjointed, but Rose Tremain handles the structure very well. My only slight criticism is that I thought the Gustav and Anton we meet in part three feel too similar to the Gustav and Anton from part one – I found both characters convincing as children but not so convincing as adults.

I particularly enjoyed the wartime section in the middle of the book, dealing with the relationship between Emilie and Erich and showing how a decision made by the Swiss government changed both of their lives. As I’ve said, the neutral stance taken by Switzerland during the war is only one type of neutrality examined in this novel – there’s also the neutrality of one person towards another (‘staying separate and strong’) and the question of how far it is possible to remain neutral when faced with a moral dilemma which requires a choice to be made. I’m sure we can all think of times in our own lives when doing nothing was as bad or worse than doing something!

This is the third Rose Tremain novel I’ve read, the others being Restoration and its sequel Merivel. I found the writing style and overall tone of this one very different from the other two, which reflects the very different subject and setting. The Gustav Sonata is one of the shortlisted titles for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Of the books I’ve read from the list so far, this isn’t my favourite, but I did enjoy it and won’t be at all disappointed if it wins.

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

merivel I wasn’t planning to read Merivel so soon after finishing Rose Tremain’s Restoration, but when I saw a copy on the library shelf a few days later, I couldn’t resist bringing it home so I could catch up with Robert Merivel again and see how he was getting on. I didn’t expect this book to be as good as Restoration, as sequels written many years later often aren’t, so I was surprised to find that I actually preferred this one. Looking at other reviews, I can see that I’m in the minority with that opinion, but I think the reason I liked this book better was because I liked Merivel himself better.

At the beginning of Merivel, our narrator, Robert Merivel, is back at his Norfolk estate of Bidnold, where he returned at the end of Restoration. It’s 1683 and sixteen years have gone by since we last saw him; he’s now a middle-aged man, very aware that time is slipping away and bringing changes to himself and the people around him. His faithful servant, Will, is getting old and is struggling to carry out his duties, while his little girl, Margaret, is now a young lady and planning to spend Christmas in Cornwall with friends. Facing the prospect of being left at home alone, Merivel decides to make the most of the time remaining to him and sets off to Versailles – with a letter of introduction from his friend, King Charles II – in the hope of finding some excitement and intellectual stimulation.

Unfortunately, Versailles fails to live up to Merivel’s expectations; he finds little to admire at the French court and it’s not long before he’s on his way home to England. Apart from a brief romance with an attractive botanist, Louise, and an invitation to visit her at her father’s estate in Switzerland, the only thing Merivel has to show for his time in France is a large bear called Clarendon whom he has rescued from captivity and brought back to Norfolk. On arriving at Bidnold, however, Merivel discovers that he has more to worry about than Louise and his bear: his daughter, Margaret, is seriously ill and requires all of his skills as a physician if she is to survive.

Although there are some humorous scenes in this book, I found this quite a sad and sombre novel, especially in comparison to the liveliness of Restoration. The passing of time is a major theme (it’s no coincidence that Merivel shares lodgings in France with a clockmaker) and there’s always a sense that things are coming to an end, that Will, Merivel – and even the King – won’t live forever. Merivel is not so much searching for his place in the world as he was in the previous book, but trying to understand himself and come to terms with his own nature. He still gets things wrong sometimes, he still makes some poor decisions, and has a tendency to neglect the things that are most important, but he also has a good heart and I found him completely endearing! I remember thinking he was a very frustrating character in Restoration, but in this book I had more patience with him because I could see that he was doing his best.

Merivel is a book with many layers, giving the reader a lot to think about. Even the headings of the four sections – The Great Enormity, The Great Captivity, The Great Consolation and The Great Transition – have a significance which is worth considering. But this is also a very entertaining novel. The pace is quite leisurely, but there’s always something happening: a duel, an encounter with highwaymen, an illness, or a visit from the King. The mood of the late 17th century is captured beautifully; Tremain even gives some of the nouns capital letters to enhance the feeling of authenticity, something which I thought might be irritating at first but which, after a few pages, I decided I liked.

The ending, when it came, was not entirely unexpected, but I was still a bit surprised because I think a lot of authors would have chosen to end Merivel’s story in a different, happier way. Considering the themes of this novel, though, I thought it was the perfect conclusion. I loved revisiting Merivel’s world and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who has read and enjoyed Restoration. It could probably be read as a standalone but I think you’ll get more out of it if you’ve been following Merivel’s story from the beginning.

This book also counts towards my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project. It was shortlisted in 2013.

My Commonplace Book: October 2016

A summary of last 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


“Most people only want a quiet life,” I said. “Even those of us who were once radicals.” I smiled wryly at Roger. He nodded in acknowledgement.

“Fanatics on both sides,” old Ryprose said gloomily. “And all we poor ordinary folk in the middle. Sometimes I fear they will bring death to us all.”

Revelation by CJ Sansom (2008)



“Books,” the driver resumed. “I’m a great reader. I am. Not poetry. Love stories and murder books. I joined one o’ them” – he heaved a long sigh; with vast effort his mind laboured and brought forth – “circulatin’ libraries”. He brooded darkly. “But I’m sick of it now. I’ve read all that’s any good in it.”

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946)


“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But – what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (2014)


In his masterwork, The Landscape of Criminal Investigation, Atticus Pünd had written: ‘One can think of the truth as eine vertiefung – a sort of deep valley which may not be visible from a distance but which will come upon you quite suddenly. There are many ways to arrive there. A line of questioning that turns out to be irrelevant still has the power to bring you nearer to your goal. There are no wasted journeys in the detection of a crime.’

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)


“But seriously Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to -” his voice sank to an appreciative purr – “an easy chair in front of a wood fire in a long low room lined with books – must be a long room – not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port – and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read.”

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie (1947)



“Watch and wait,” says Burghley. “You have a valuable nugget of information, but that is all it is at this stage. Watch the lady; watch and wait.” Cecil is reminded of being fleeced by a card trickster once, who had said the very same thing – watch the lady. He lost all the gold buttons from his doublet. That was a lesson learned.

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle (2015)


Sometimes I would like to cry. I close my eyes. Why weren’t we designed so that we can close our ears as well? (Perhaps because we would never open them.) Is there some way that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids?

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)


Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)



And as the seconds and minutes moved on, I pondered Man’s efforts at the representation or ‘capture’ of Time, and I thought how, for Clockmakers like Hollers, the very Commodity with which they were trying to work was a heartless and capricious Enemy, who stole from them all the while and never rested.

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain (2013)


A Gothic gate, richly ornamented with fret-work, which opened into the main body of the edifice, but which was now obstructed with brush-wood, remained entire. Above the vast and magnificent portal of this gate arose a window of the same order, whose pointed arches still exhibited fragments of stained glass, once the pride of monkish devotion. La Motte, thinking it possible it might yet shelter some human being, advanced to the gate and lifted a mossy knocker. The hollow sounds rung through the emptiness of the place. After waiting a few minutes, he forced back the gate, which was heavy with iron work, and creaked harshly on its hinges…

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)


I could not possibly go home, I reflected, and add as a serious contribution to the study of women and fiction that women have less hair on their bodies than men, or that the age of puberty among the South Sea Islanders is nine — or is it ninety? — even the handwriting had become in its distraction indecipherable. It was disgraceful to have nothing more weighty or respectable to show after a whole morning’s work.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)



Not everyone can write as legibly as I; Father made me spend hours at my tablets, saying that my poems must be written down by me as I myself have composed them, so they will not be distorted in later years by other singers. “For you have great gifts from the Muses,” he said. “I would not have them lost to the world that comes after.”

Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart (1974)


“I ain’t in the habit of picking other folks’ roses without leave,” said she.

As Rebecca spoke she started violently and lost sight of her resentment, for something singular happened. Suddenly the rosebush was agitated violently as if by a gust of wind, yet it was a remarkably still day. Not a leaf of the hydrangea standing on the terrace close to the rose trembled.

“What on earth -” began Rebecca; then she stopped with a gasp at the sight of the other woman’s face. Although a face, it gave somehow the impression of a desperately clutched hand of secrecy.

Small and Spooky edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)


Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)


“You don’t think there’ll really be a war, do you?” she asked anxiously, as her work was for the maimed wrecks of men left by the 1914-18 war – and I could understand her horror of another. But when I looked at the Green Cat I was not sure and I did not reply.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (1959)


Favourite books read in October: Revelation, The Moving Toyshop and Magpie Murders

Restoration by Rose Tremain

Restoration Rose Tremain is a new author for me, but I’ve been meaning to try one of her books for a long time. Her 1989 novel Restoration seemed like my sort of book and knowing that I need to read the sequel, Merivel: A Man of His Time, for my Walter Scott Prize project gave me the motivation to pick it up and start reading. It also counts towards my Ten from the TBR project, which has been sadly neglected this year!

Restoration is set in 17th century England in the years following the restoration of the monarchy; the title refers not just to the time period but also to the personal restoration of a man’s self-respect and his place in the world. That man is Robert Merivel, a glovemaker’s son and trained physician who, near the beginning of the novel, obtains a position at the court of Charles II as surgeon to the king’s spaniels. Merivel is quickly swept away by the fun and frivolity of the court, making himself popular by playing the fool and entertaining the king.

It’s not long, however, before the king comes to Merivel with a request for help. Charles requires a husband for one of his mistresses, Celia Clemence – someone who will be a husband in name only, giving Celia a form of respectability while the king continues his affair with her. Merivel agrees to marry her and at first is delighted with the country estate in Norfolk which he is given as part of the deal. Everything is going well until Celia comes to join him there and Merivel discovers that he is falling in love with his wife…something he has been strictly forbidden to do.

Restoration is narrated by Robert Merivel himself and I found him both a fascinating and a frustrating character, more anti-hero than hero. Irresponsible and immature, you get the impression he is stumbling through life from one disaster to another, with no clear purpose in sight – and yet, despite his flaws and his failures, you can’t help feeling for him as he falls out of favour with the king. While I can’t say that I actually liked Merivel, he is an engaging narrator and his story is told with such an appealing mixture of humour and sensitivity that I was captivated by him and hoped that he would find a way to restore his fortunes.

Rose Tremain’s lively writing style perfectly suits the time period in which the novel is set. I always enjoy reading about the 1660s and I liked the contrast here between the descriptions of Merivel’s life as a country gentleman, his adventures at court and his time practising medicine in London. Merivel is in London during the Plague and the Great Fire, which are both vividly recreated. However, there is a long section in the middle of the book set in an asylum run by Merivel’s Quaker friend, Pearce, and I found my attention starting to wander during these chapters. I could see the importance of this section to the plot and to Merivel’s personal development, but I struggled to feel any interest in the new characters we meet at the asylum and I thought the whole episode went on for far too long.

Overall, though, I was impressed with this book and with my first experience of Rose Tremain’s writing. I’ll be interested to see how Robert’s story continues in Merivel, which I’m hoping to start soon.