The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

This is Katherine Clements’ third novel set in 17th century England, but it has a different feel from the previous two. Rather than being a straight historical novel like The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart, The Coffin Path is a ghost story with a lonely rural setting and this time there is much less focus on the political and social events of the period.

It’s 1674 and there are signs that spring is on its way to the Yorkshire moors. The first lamb of the season is about to make its appearance, but it is a difficult birth and requires human assistance. Mercy Booth of Scarcross Hall, who farms the land and tends the sheep for her elderly father, helps to deliver the lamb into the world but its mother dies in the process – the first of several bad omens. Next, three ancient gold coins go missing from her father’s collection and reappear in unexpected places – and then Mercy begins to hear noises coming from a disused bedchamber upstairs.

Around this time, a stranger arrives looking for work. His name is Ellis Ferreby and although the local people are slow to trust him, he soon proves himself to be a good shepherd and a reliable worker. Ellis, however, is a man with secrets and it seems that he could have reasons of his own for coming to Scarcross Hall.

We slowly get to know both Mercy and Ellis as their stories alternate with each other throughout the novel. We hear what Mercy’s life has been like, growing up without a mother, with only her eccentric father, Bartram, and the servants for company – and we learn of her hopes for the future, which centre around the knowledge that one day, as her father’s only heir, she will inherit her beloved Scarcross Hall. As for Ellis, his background is shrouded in mystery and the truth about both his past and his purpose in being at Scarcross is only revealed later in the novel.

The 17th century is obviously a period which interests Katherine Clements and of which she has a lot of knowledge: The Crimson Ribbon was the story of a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell, while The Silvered Heart was about a highwaywoman in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The Coffin Path is set just a few decades after those two books yet I felt that the story would have worked just as well if it had been set in almost any other period, either an earlier century or a later one. Although the effects of the recent Civil War do still linger in the lives of our characters, this only has any real significance towards the end of the book – otherwise, perhaps because Scarcross Hall is so isolated from the wider world, there is a general feeling of timelessness.

However, what the novel lacks in sense of time is made up for in sense of place. There are some wonderful descriptions of the moors surrounding Scarcross Hall, bringing to life this harsh but beautiful landscape. We also explore some of the old traditions and beliefs which survive in this remote part of England: the White Ladies is an ancient stone circle which the villagers associate with evil, while the Coffin Path of the title refers to the old track down which coffins would be carried from the moors to the church for burial. It’s no wonder that in a place like this, people like Ellis and Mercy are viewed with suspicion and distrust – Ellis because he is an outsider and Mercy because she is an independent, unconventional woman, still unmarried in her thirties and doing ‘a man’s work’ on the farm.

I enjoyed following the personal stories of both main characters and I liked the supernatural elements too: they were suitably eerie, but at the same time subtle enough to keep me wondering whether there really were ghosts involved or whether something else was happening. My only problem with the book (other than the fact that, like many novels these days, it is written in present tense) was that there were times when the plot seemed to be moving forward very slowly. It didn’t help that the first few chapters are devoted to describing, in great detail, the birth of a lamb; I would have preferred a stronger opening to pull me straight into the story.

Of the three books by Katherine Clements I have read, I think I liked both of the others better than this one, but it’s good to see that she has tried something slightly different here. What will she write next, I wonder?

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

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (re-read)

Since I started blogging in 2009 (which seems so long ago now) I have discovered lots of great books, have tried genres I had never thought about trying before, and have been introduced to some wonderful new authors. One thing that has been sadly neglected, though, is re-reads of my old favourites – something that used to form such an important part of my reading life. Making more time for re-reads has been a goal of mine for the last few years, but I have never actually done it; I’m determined that 2017 will be different! I have re-reads of Rebecca and The Count of Monte Cristo coming up soon for the Classics Club, both of which I’m looking forward to, but before I get to those two, I’ve been revisiting a book I first fell in love with as a thirteen-year-old: Emily Brontë’s 1847 classic, Wuthering Heights.

For those of you who have not yet had the unforgettable experience (in one way or another) of reading Wuthering Heights, here is a quick summary. The novel opens in 1801 with Mr Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire, paying a visit to nearby Wuthering Heights to meet his landlord, Heathcliff. Lockwood is hoping for some peace and quiet in which to enjoy his stay at the Grange and at first he is happy with what he sees in Heathcliff. It’s not long, however, before he discovers that what he had mistaken for quiet reserve hides a cruel and violent nature. After passing an uncomfortable night at Wuthering Heights, in which he is treated with hostility by the inhabitants and tormented by strange dreams, Lockwood retreats to the safety of his own lodgings, where he begs his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to tell him what she knows of Heathcliff and his household.

Most of the novel is narrated by Nelly Dean, as she relates the story of Heathcliff’s first arrival at Wuthering Heights, a child brought back from Liverpool by old Mr Earnshaw, and raised alongside Earnshaw’s own children, Catherine and Hindley. As the years go by, the childhood friendship between Heathcliff and Catherine begins to develop into something more, but when Edgar Linton from Thrushcross Grange enters Catherine’s life, Heathcliff finds himself pushed aside. He devotes the rest of his life to causing misery for the Lintons – as well as taking revenge on Hindley who, unlike his sister, had never accepted Heathcliff as one of the family.

It seems that a lot of people who dislike Wuthering Heights approached it for the first time expecting a romantic love story and in that case I can understand why they would be disappointed. The relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is hardly a conventional romance and although there is love, it is an obsessive and unhealthy love. When I first came to this book as a young teenager, though, I had no idea what it was about and no expectations whatsoever, so none of that bothered me. At that age, I loved it for the darkness, the melodrama and the passion. The blurb on the back of my old Penguin copy (not the one pictured above) describes Wuthering Heights as “perhaps the most passionately original work in the English language” and I think I would agree with that. Who could forget the moment Catherine declares her love for Heathcliff:

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

Another reason people have for not liking Wuthering Heights is the unpleasant, unsympathetic characters. Well, I can’t argue with that. They are certainly unpleasant – not just Heathcliff and Cathy, but most of the supporting characters too, from Nelly herself, who puts the child Heathcliff “on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow”, to the elderly servant, Joseph, “the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours”. And although I’ve always had a soft spot for Hareton Earnshaw, Hindley’s son, I struggle to find any sympathy for any of the others. But again, not liking the characters has never been a problem for me where this particular book is concerned.

This is not the first time I’ve re-read Wuthering Heights but it is the first time for quite a few years. I was worried that I would feel differently about it, but I’m pleased to say that I still loved it. I did find different things to notice and appreciate this time – with more knowledge of Emily Brontë herself than I had during previous reads, I could think about the ways in which she may have drawn on her own life for inspiration in writing her novel (the descriptions of Hindley’s drunken behaviour, for example, were surely influenced by Emily’s experiences with her brother Branwell). I also found myself constantly noting down favourite passages and phrases, such as the wonderful description of Cathy’s relationship with the Lintons as “not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, but the honeysuckles embracing the thorn”.

I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read and am looking forward to re-reading more old favourites during the rest of the year.

What do you think of Wuthering Heights? Do you love it or hate it?

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson

a-death-at-fountains-abbey I first met Thomas Hawkins two years ago when I read The Devil in the Marshalsea, a murder mystery set within the confines of a debtors’ prison in eighteenth century London. Last year Antonia Hodgson brought him back again for another adventure in The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. And now we’re off to Yorkshire for the third book in the series – A Death at Fountains Abbey. Like the first two, this one could be read as a standalone, but I would still recommend reading all three in the correct order so that you can watch the characters develop throughout the series and avoid spoiling any aspects of the previous mysteries for yourself.

The plot of this third novel is inspired by real historical events and real historical figures, including John Aislabie, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who was held responsible for the South Sea Bubble of 1720, a financial disaster in which thousands of people were ruined. It’s to Studley Royal, Aislabie’s estate in Yorkshire, that Tom Hawkins is sent on a mission for Queen Caroline (wife of George II). The Queen wants Tom to investigate some death threats received by the disgraced former Chancellor, while secretly searching for a hidden ledger which lists the names of several prominent public figures who were involved in the South Sea scandal.

On arriving at the estate, Tom immediately discovers a whole host of suspects, all of whom could have reasons for wanting Aislabie dead. To complicate things further, a young woman has recently arrived at Studley claiming that she is Aislabie’s long-lost daughter, believed to have been killed in a fire at his London home many years earlier. With the help of his lover Kitty (posing as his wife for the sake of appearances) and his young ward, Sam Fleet, Tom begins to investigate both the death threats and the whereabouts of the ledger, a search that will take him all over Studley Royal and neighbouring Fountains Abbey.

Tom Hawkins is a wonderful character; while he’s a bit of a scoundrel – and admits to being a bit of a scoundrel – he’s a decent person at heart and I can’t help liking him. His relationship with Kitty moves forward in this book and we also see a lot of Sam Fleet, the London gang leader’s son whom Tom is trying to educate and turn into a gentleman. I enjoyed the brief insights we are given into Sam’s own thoughts and feelings, showing how desperately he wants to feel valued and loved – and thankfully both Tom and Kitty are beginning to see the good in him. There are some great secondary characters in this novel too, many based on real people.

As for the mystery itself, it’s quite a good one. There were plenty of clues from the start, but it would have been difficult to put them together correctly without knowing certain facts which are withheld until much later in the novel. I certainly wasn’t able to work out what was going on before the truth was revealed.

I enjoyed this book, but it does feel slightly different from the first two Thomas Hawkins novels. The London prisons, slums and taverns which provided the setting for The Devil in the Marshalsea and The Last Confession have been replaced here by the fresh air and open spaces of the Yorkshire countryside. I have visited Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey twice (they are now National Trust properties) and this really added to the experience of reading the book as I could clearly picture the ruined abbey, the water gardens, the follies and the statues. I’m now hoping there will be a fourth book in the series and wondering where Tom’s adventures will take him next.

By the way, if you were expecting to see my monthly Historical Musings post today, I promise it will be coming soon!

Your Beautiful Lies by Louise Douglas

Your Beautiful Lies It’s 1984 and British families and communities are being torn apart by a miners’ strike. While miners clash with the police and tensions grow between the government and the mining unions, in the small Yorkshire town of Matlow Annie Howarth is facing trouble of a different kind. Her former boyfriend, Tom Greenaway, has just been released from prison after serving a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. Meeting Tom again after such a long separation, Annie finds that she still has feelings for him – and that she’s not at all convinced he was guilty of the crime of which he was accused.

A lot of things have changed during those years apart, though. Annie is now married to police chief William Howarth and they have a young daughter, Lizzie. Leaving William for Tom could mean losing Lizzie, as well as the expensive house and comfortable lifestyle William’s salary provides. When a woman is murdered on the moors near the Howarths’ home, suspicion falls on Tom again and this time Annie must try to separate the truth from the ‘beautiful lies’.

This is the third Louise Douglas novel I’ve read and while I didn’t love it as much as The Secrets Between Us or In Her Shadow, I still enjoyed it. The backdrop of the miners’ strike is not a setting that I’ve seen used in fiction very often and yet it was a hugely important time in British history from both a social and political perspective. By making Annie’s husband a policeman and her father a miner, the author shows how loyalties were divided not just within towns and villages but within families too.

The story also has a strong mystery element, with the police investigating the murder on the moors and the question of who Annie can and can’t trust, but this is where I thought the book was less successful in comparison with The Secrets Between Us and In Her Shadow. It’s a very atmospheric novel (the bleakness and claustrophobia of Annie’s life is perfectly portrayed) but I found it less suspenseful than the previous two books and had my suspicions as to the likely identity of the murderer long before the answer was revealed. The ending was not entirely surprising, but very abrupt and not entirely satisfying either!

I didn’t like Annie very much – it seemed to me that she was being unnecessarily reckless and irresponsible – but I did think Douglas did a good job of depicting the boredom and loneliness of her daily existence and the reasons why her marriage to William was not a happy one. Because we see everything through Annie’s eyes, however, we can never be sure that we’re getting a fair and balanced picture of either of the men in her life. I think the only characters I did actually like were Annie’s brother, Johnnie, who remains cheerful and optimistic despite having some terrible things happen to him over the course of the novel, and William’s mother, Ethel, struggling with dementia but still aware that something isn’t quite right in the Howarth household.

I’ve been very impressed with all three of the Louise Douglas books that I’ve read, despite the few problems I had with this one. They are difficult to classify as belonging to a particular genre, being a mixture of crime, romance, suspense and domestic drama, but it’s a mixture that I love and that’s why I’m already looking forward to her next book, whatever that may be!

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

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

The Land of Green Ginger is the second Winifred Holtby book I’ve read, the first being South Riding, which I read (and loved) in February. This one was published a few years earlier than South Riding, in 1927.

It’s the story of a missionary’s daughter, Joanna Burton, who is born in South Africa but raised in England by her aunts. As a young woman, Joanna is a lively, high-spirited person who dreams of travelling and visiting faraway lands. Then during the First World War she falls in love with Teddy Leigh, a young man on his way to fight in the trenches in France, and they get married.

When Teddy returns from the war to their home in Yorkshire, he is in poor health and Joanna finds herself caring for an invalid husband, managing a farm, and trying to look after their two small children, Patricia and Pamela. Life is hard for Joanna and the only person she can rely on for help is their Hungarian lodger, Paul Szermai. But Joanna has never been popular with the neighbours and when people begin to gossip about her relationship with Szermai, things become even more challenging for the Leigh family.

There are some interesting subplots too, including the tale Paul Szermai shares with Joanna of his life in Hungary and other parts of Europe and how it was affected by war and communism. We also see the attitudes of the local people to the group of immigrant workers who have been employed in Joanna’s village and for whom Szermai is acting as interpreter. Holtby does a good job of portraying a small rural community who are suspicious of outsiders and of anything that might change their way of life.

Although I found Paul Szermai and Teddy Leigh difficult to like, Holtby still managed to make me feel some sympathy for all of her main characters: Szermai, because of his tragic history; Teddy, frustrated by the sickness that is keeping him confined to his bed; and of course, Joanna who has had to abandon all her earlier dreams and ambitions, yet still shows a lot of naivety and innocence. Joanna seems to be unaware of how she is perceived by other people and as a result she never quite manages to fit into life in a small village where everybody knows everybody else’s business.

So The Land of Green Ginger is a dark and emotional book, but the ending leaves us feeling more hopeful. It doesn’t have the same depth and scope as South Riding, but I really like Winifred Holtby’s writing and this is still a compelling story. And finally, I want to mention how much I love the covers of the new Virago editions of Holtby’s books!

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

I read South Riding in February and managed to finish it just in time to watch the recent BBC adaptation. I’m glad I was able to read the book before watching the series as I like to be able to form my own images of the characters before seeing someone else’s interpretation of them. I also think if I hadn’t read the book first I would have found some parts of the adaptation quite confusing.

I first came across Winifred Holtby in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (she and Brittain were close friends) but this is the first time I’ve read any of her work. South Riding, as well as being a wonderful story, is also a realistic and insightful portrait of a community, which reminded me of Middlemarch by George Eliot. It also shares some plot elements with Jane Eyre – one of the main characters even remarks on this herself!

So what is the book actually about? Well, it’s about Sarah Burton who is appointed headmistress of Kiplington High School for Girls and who begins to fall in love with troubled gentleman farmer Robert Carne. It’s also about Lydia Holly, the brightest girl in the school, who is forced to abandon her education and stay at home to look after her younger siblings after their mother dies in childbirth. And it’s about…no, I won’t tell you any more – South Riding is about so many different things I would rather leave you to discover them for yourself. But at the centre of all these storylines is the South Riding council, which makes the important decisions that affect the lives of every character in the book. And there are a lot of characters! When I first opened the book and saw the huge character list at the front, I was slightly overwhelmed: would I be able to keep track of who was who?

The answer is yes, because every one of them is well drawn and memorable. I really admired Sarah Burton. She was a woman who thought she could make a difference and she was prepared to take action to make things happen. But even some of the minor characters (such as Miss Sigglesthwaite, the nervous science teacher and Lily Sawdon, the innkeeper’s invalid wife) get their turn in the spotlight and I was very impressed that Holtby was able to give such a large number of very different characters so much depth. They all feel like real, believable people, people you might live or work with in real life.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed was the portrayal of Yorkshire in the 1930s. Holtby paints vivid pictures and images, from the crowded streets and alleys of Kingsport to ‘The Shacks’, a cluster of huts and converted railway carriages where the poorest families live. The ‘South Riding’ doesn’t actually exist – the North, East and West Ridings are the three historic subdivisions of Yorkshire – but the setting feels completely realistic (Holtby apparently used the East Riding, where she grew up, as her inspiration).

I admit that South Riding hadn’t previously sounded very interesting to me and I hadn’t expected to love it as much as I did. It was a book I looked forward to returning to every day and I was sorry when I reached the final page.