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Category Archives: Books

Book Corner – August 2017 (2)

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities – Bethany Hughes

If I was pinned up against a wall and asked what was my favourite city break, I would probably say the one I went on to Istanbul about two decades ago. I fell in love with the city with its magnificent buildings – the wonderful Hagia Sophia is just breath-taking – and, as the Americans might say, you are surrounded by a sense of history. And it was fun walking over the Galata bridge from Europe into Asia and evading the attentions of the street sellers desperate to sell us carpets, plying us with fragrant apple tea, and the boot polishers offering us a ten year guarantee on the shine they would apply to our dusty shoes. Alas, I fear I will never return.

Still, as compensation you can immerse yourself in this lengthy but light history of a city that can legitimately claim to have been at the centre of the world. Hughes’ style is at times gushing but she has a wonderfully poetic, dare I say it, Homeric turn of phrase. The book book benefits from the latest archaeological finds following the construction of the Istanbul metro.

The site of the city, as any visitor will attest, has enormous strategic importance. The original settlement, founded in 657 BCE by Byza of Megara, from which its name Byzantion was derived, positioned between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, was easily defensible and the waters were full of fish. The Chalcedonian settlement built on the eastern side of the Strait of Bosporus was called the land of the blind by the ancients because they had chosen to eschew the obvious attractions of Byzantion. But, as Hughes reveals, a coffin with the remains of woman dating back some 8,000 years has just been unearthed  – possibly the earliest ever found – which suggests that the site was already taken and the Chalcedonians didn’t fancy a dust up. The Megarians, fortified by an oracle from Delphi, according to Tacitus, were made of sterner stuff.

Byzantion was at the centre of many of the key clashes of the ancient world, being the point where the Persians sought to launch their invasion of the Greeks and the Greeks fought to hold them back. The citizens of Byzantion often changed sides, depending upon which way the wind was blowing. It was then absorbed into the Roman Empire and over time became the acknowledged capital of Rome’s eastern provinces.

The first major transformation in its fortunes was when Constantine, the newly converted Christian emperor, declared it the New Rome and vowed it would become the greatest, wealthiest and most cultured city in the world. Justinian and Theodora took up the baton and some of their buildings, including the cathedral, now mosque, Hagia Sophia, still stand today. Remnants of less fortunate buildings can be found almost wherever you look. Hughes revels in describing the dowdy surroundings in which some of these marvels rest.

The growth of Islam meant that Constantinople, as it now was, was in their sights but such were the strategic advantages and the strength of the defences of the site that it took them 800 years to storm the city, convert the Hagia into a mosque and rename the city Konstantiye. It became the capital of the Ottoman empire and a magnet for European travellers keen to sample the exotica of the east.

One of the underlying themes that comes through the book is that following the collapse of the western Roman empire and the establishment of Constantinople as the head of what remained and even under Ottoman control, the city was just hanging on, waiting for the next crisis. There was little attempt to expand further and, indeed, the last 150 years or so of the Ottoman empire saw its territories whittled away. The empire collapsed after the First World War.

Oddly, Hughes finishes her story in 1923 when Kemal Ataturk established the neutral Ankara as the capital of the new republic of Turkey. I can see why. Its domestic influence had waned but to most non Turks the wondrous city of Istanbul has no peer.

Book Corner – August 2017 (1)

The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker – Roger Hutchinson

The national census, which we are required now by law to complete every ten years – the next is scheduled for 2021 – is a boon for genealogists seeking to compile a family tree and desperate TV producers trying to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear aka Danny Dyer. It gives a comprehensive snapshot of the population in the country – names, ages, professions, addresses, religion, ethnic make-up etc – at a given moment in time. But have you ever wondered how, when and why it started?

Me neither until I picked up Hutchinson’s intriguing book. In the late eighteenth century, when Britain was limbering up to do battle with Boney, no one knew for sure how big the population of the country was nor how many were of an age to be dragooned into the forces. There were conflicting theories. Thomas Malthus believed that the population was growing at such a rate that it would soon be no longer sustainable. Others, consulting the records of births and deaths in London only – a big mistake because people were mainly born elsewhere and came to London to work and die – thought that the population was decreasing at a phenomenal rate. The consensus was that the population was as low as 4 million and as high as 6.

The editor of the Commercial, Agricultural and Manufacturers Magazine, John Rickman, wrote an essay in the June 1800 edition suggesting that the answer to the question was to count the population. Having friends in high places, the idea found favour and he was given the task of getting on with it. The 1801 census, the first, was a bit of a haphazard affair and was by no means comprehensive but it allowed Rickman to suggest that the population was around 15 million – a shock to many.

The 1821 and 1831 censuses were better organised, more comprehensive and began to show the significant change in the shape of the country as the industrial revolution took hold and prompted a migration from country to town. What was particularly fascinating in Hutchinson’s entertaining survey of the history of the census is the change in the nature of work and some of the today obscure jobs that people owned up to. Indeed, some were so recherché that the census takers were provided with a lexicon of jobs.

Some of the job titles were euphemisms for other trades and shine a light on the mores of the times. Seamstresses were invariably sex workers and billiard-markers in a time when sports were mainly amateur were often professional sportsmen given sinecures in billiard halls. From around 1851 there was a noticeable trend amongst respondents to inflate the importance of their job – a curious form of one-upmanship.

The census also reflected the tragic events of the previous decade. The 1851 census showed a drop in population in Ireland of 1.6 million, because of the potato famine. The 1921 census, whilst showing a modest population increase from 1911, showed a marked drop in the male population and a significant increase in the number of widows.

As the census became an established part of the nation’s furniture, it was an obvious target for protest groups to hijack. The suffragettes organised a concerted campaign and many women declared their profession as slave. This was dutifully recorded by the census takers, perhaps with a tut and a shake of the head.

A fascinating study of the development of the nation from an unusual perspective.

Book Corner – July 2017 (2)

Victorians Undone – Kathryn Hughes

Biography is a tricky literary genre and one of the key challenges is to find a new angle for your treatment of someone whose achievements and feats of derring-do are familiar to the reader. One of the features of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, which made it stand out from the crowd and shock the more genteel reader was his glee in pointing out the physical characteristics and deformities of his subjects. Hughes follows this approach. Her thesis is that standard biographies reveal the life story and achievements of the subject – after all, that is what biography is – but apart from some air-brushed paintings and carefully posed photographs and sniffy remarks from contemporaries, we have little idea of what they were like as human beings.

I had never given this much thought, always believing that Bob Dylan had got it right in It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), “even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked” – a troubling thought with the present incumbent, for sure.  As human beings I took it for granted that they belched, farted, smelt, had runny noses, coughed, sneezed and may have had some minor physical deformity.

I was delighted to read in Hughes’ book that Charles Darwin was a martyr to the wind and always had to leave a meal early so that he could belch and fart to his heart’s content. His digestive system was clearly not the acme of evolution. To make matters worse the scientist suffered from severe acne and blubbery lips which is why he grew his prodigious beard. But do these facts make us think more or less of the man’s achievements? More interesting to me was that his conversations with his hair dresser, a keen dog breeder, helped him formulate his evolutionary theories.

Although I have severe doubts about the validity of Hughes’ underlying thesis that knowing about the physical characteristics of someone enhances our knowledge of them, there is no doubt that this is a rip-roaring read with interesting facts on pretty much every page. Hughes’ style is bright and she writes with considerable verve. What we have is a collection of five essays dealing with the Victorians’ attitude to and preoccupations with the body.

The book opens with the shocking account of the young Queen Victoria’s persecution of Lady Flora Hastings whom she alleged to be pregnant, although she was in the final stages of a painful and mortal stomach cancer. The recent ITV series seems to have omitted that – I wonder why.

Then Darwin and his beard, followed by for me the most interesting, the discussion of George Eliot and her enlarged right hand. Eliot lived on a farm and possible worked in the dairy. Milk maids were sought after because of their fair complexions, their exposure to dairy products gave them a natural immunity to smallpox, a disease which scared survivors and was no respecter of class or position. But the downside of pulling on teats was that your dominant hand increases in size. The tittle-tattle at the time was Eliot’s larger right hand enlarged because she was engaged in manual work in her youth? Tut, tut. Revealingly, her right hand glove, found recently, is the second smallest size so it may all have been a storm in a milk churn.

The book concludes with two Fannies – Cornforth, the courtesan, whose bee-stung lips inspired Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Adams, whose body parts were scattered throughout an orchard in Alton, prompting a discussion of Victorian attitudes to children as sexual objects.

If nothing else, this book shows that the Victorians were humans but then, why wouldn’t they be?

Book Corner – July 2017 (1)

The Four Just Men – Edgar Wallace

I have drunk in the Edgar Wallace many a time but had never read a word of this prolific author – England’s answer to Georges Simenon – until I picked up this book, his first. The old joke was that someone rang up to speak to him, only to be told he had just started a new book. “Oh, I’ll hang on until he finished”, came the reply. It was a phenomenal best-seller upon publication in 1905. It is remarkably well written in a taut style and Wallace is able to paint a picture of place and time using very few words.

In construction, it is the antithesis of a traditional whodunit. We are introduced to the perpetrators of the proposed crime right at the start – three wealthy vigilantes, George Manfred, Leon Gonsalez and Raymond Poiccart who have recruited a fourth, Thery, who has the special skills required to carry out the assassination. What those skills are we are not told. The mission of the four just men is to punish those they regard as wrongdoers who appear to operate outside of the law.

Their target, rather curiously, is the British foreign secretary – now there’s a thought – Ramon, who is determined to push through Parliament legislation aimed at extraditing a Spanish freedom fighter which would result in his almost certain imprisonment and execution. The would-be assassins are open as to their intentions. They send notes and threats detailing what they are going to do and precisely when the assassination is to occur.

Unlike crime writers before him, Wallace does not use an amateur sleuth. The whole of the resources of the Metropolitan Police are deployed to protect the Foreign Secretary who is determined to see through his legislation. They lock Ramon in a room. It is impossible for anyone to enter or leave – a classic feature of crime fiction, the locked room murder. But at the appointed hour Ramon meets his maker and the question is how it is achieved. I will not spoil that for you.

There are some twists in the plot. The pocket book of one of the Four Just Men is stolen by a small-time pick-pocket, Billy Marks. When he is arrested, the book is taken to the head of police leading the operation. Will this enable to force of law and order to thwart the crime? And then Thery, who is an unwilling participant in the venture, is tempted by the reward offered to hand himself in and give information about his colleagues. What happens next adds extra dimensions of tension and drama to the story.

The Four Just Men are shadowy characters and we are never allowed to get too close to them. Is this because Wallace realised that there was a danger that he would make these terrorists attractive and sympathetic to the reading public? After all, the overriding dilemma presented to the reader is how to react to a group of psychopaths and how is it right that they should be allowed to take the law into their own hands? The police are rather ineffective and there is a sense that the system is in some sort of crisis, almost powerless to intervene when two stubborn parties – the terrorists and the minister – collide. There is a feeling that the system is in crisis and the moral compass has been mislaid.

A short novel which can be read in an evening, it is witty and well-paced and the characterisation of Billy Marks is sympathetically handled. I’m not sure, though, that I will read too much more of his phenomenal output.

Book Corner – June 2017 (2)

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Cabin Fever – B M Bower

If I hadn’t been so concerned about my mortality – yes, this is one of the 50, or rather, 150 masterpieces to read before you die – I wouldn’t have read this charming and impressive book. Bertha Sinclair (1871 – 1940) – B M Bower was her pseudonym – is not an author I had come across before and her genre – sort of Western – is not normally my bag. But, hey, it would be terrible to shuffle off this mortal coil having missed this gem.

Bud marries but soon after the birth of his child quarrels with his wife and leaves home. He gets a job as a driver but soon realises that the vehicle he is driving is stolen and that his passengers have carried out a jewellery heist. In the middle of the desert, he stops the car, ostensibly the check the tires but manages to disable the engine. The car won’t start again and Bud persuades his colleagues to let him go to the nearest town to summon assistance. When he gets to the town he alerts the cops to their whereabouts and sets off on his own to seek his fame and fortune. He hooks up with a prospector, but is beset with bouts of depression, going on alcoholic benders in the nearest town some 15 miles away.

It was as he was traipsing through the snow en route to the town that he came across a squaw carrying a child. He takes the child in and part of the book’s interest is in how the two hardened prospectors, who by this time couldn’t stand each other, take to sharing their Spartan accommodation with a lively and demanding infant. Marie, Bud’s wife, had been alerted to her errant husband’s whereabouts and sets out to find him. In a surprising twist to the story – I won’t spoil it – all the characters find happiness and find that they are linked with each other in ways that they, and the reader, hadn’t imagined.

Bower has a direct, unadorned style. She moves the story along with the minimum of fuss, spending enough time to develop her characters and to make them interesting enough to engender the right emotional reaction. There are moments of humour – she has a playful, light-hearted touch about her – and moments of pathos. Her turn of phrase and sentence construction make her prose a joy to read.

Perhaps it is a reflection of the time in which she wrote but many a critic thought her novels were the product of a man. Some couldn’t make their mind up and used gender-neutral pronouns. Not that the sex of the writer matters a jot, in my view, but she has a sharp observational style and is at ease exploring the psyche of her male and female characters. It was not what I expected, although I’m not sure what I expected, and despite the ups and downs that the main protagonists go through, has a feel-good feeling to it. It is well worth seeking out.

Book Corner – June 2017 (1)

The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers

The title of Ben Myers’ latest novel reminded me of the Led Zep track of the same name on their third album. In the song, the protagonist’s attempts to delay the hangman from doing his ghastly duty until friends and family ride to the rescue come to naught. And likewise in Myers’ book, despite all the efforts of David Hartley’s family and extended gang, the self-styled King of the North cannot avoid the noose.

The book is based on a true story and tells of the Cragg Vale Coiners who operated in the Calderdale valley region of West Yorkshire. They collected coins, often using violence against those who refused to co-operate, and would remove their genuine edges, milling them down and collecting the shavings. From the shavings, they would make new coins which the gang would put into circulation again. As well as providing a modest return to the counterfeiters, the fake coins destabilised the local economy. Counterfeiting coins was a hanging offence and once the authorities got wise to what was going on, they took steps to eradicate the gang.

The story tells of how the authorities curtailed the gang’s operations and along the way we are treated to a tale of intrigue, violence, intimidation, betrayal and revenge. In some ways Myers would like us to see the gang in a rather idealistic light, bringing succour and money to the local communities who supported them and fighting against the imminent threat that industrialisation brings to their traditional way of life – the book is full of references to the factories that are on their way and the canal and turnpike that are to scar the landscape – but for me it was hard to get past the idea that they were just vicious thugs on the make.

Stylistically, the book has two narrative strands running through it. The main story is told in a third-party narrative and is well-paced. His description of the scenery brought the area, with which I am vaguely familiar, to life – a gloomy, desolate place where nature is elemental. There are some oddities though – Myers is a master of the convoluted simile and his frequent listings of all who turn up to meetings became as tiresome as those choruses that plague folk songs.

The other strand to the narrative is provided by italicised excerpts from David Hartley’s diary. That no such document exists is no matter. It enables us to get a sense of Hartley’s thoughts and despair as he realised that he has been betrayed and abandoned and a record of his indomitable spirit. For the reader, the phonetic, dialectical, unpunctuated stream of consciousness, whilst enlightening, proves hard going.

Myers’ tale is light on characterisation. I would have liked to have known more about William Deighton, or Dighton as he seems to have been in the historical records. What made him tick and why was he so determined to stamp out the coiners? At the very least, his ghastly end warranted that. And the most intriguing character is the rather ethereal Grace Hartley who has the good sense to stash some of the money away and after her hubby’s demise is able to move from the area and buy a new farm, cash on the nail. This is a man’s tale and, indeed a man’s world – women just serve the ale and provide sexual companionship – but it would have been nice to get things from her perspective.

All that aside, it is a riveting read and rather like the Zep song after a slow start it builds up to a crescendo. But I did miss the banjo!

Book Corner – May 2017 (2)

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The Black Cat – Edgar Allan Poe

One of the advantages of feeding my reading habit via a Kindle is that there is a lot of literature that is available free and gratis because it is out of copyright. I downloaded one of those collections – 50 Masterpieces you have to read before you die – there are three volumes of 50 books which rather defeats the premise I would have thought – and whenever I feel that my immortality is imperilled I dip into it. You can never be too careful.

Poe is not an author that I have really sampled before but the Black Cat is an astonishing piece of work by anybody’s standards. Published on August 19th 1843 in the Saturday Evening Post it runs to little more than twenty pages but it provokes in the reader a wide range of emotions. On one level we have animal cruelty of the foulest kind and a savage example of uxoricide coupled with a desperate attempt and seemingly successful attempt by the murderer to cover his tracks. I won’t spoil the denouement but his undoing is masterfully accomplished with a fine twist and the reader cannot help feeling a sense of satisfaction in the way Poe pulled it off.

On another level it is a psychological study of someone wracked with remorse for the horrific crimes that he has committed and charts his descent into madness. It is also a fierce attack on the evils of the demon drink. There is so much going on for the reader to ponder and yet at the same time it is a thoroughly entertaining, if somewhat macabre, tale. Wonderful.

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The Murders In The Rue Morgue – Edgar Allan Poe

I have already confessed my addiction to detective fiction and what I find most interesting is how the genre developed and the conventions and what are by today’s standards clichés developed. Those who argue about how the first fictional detective was have to take the claims of Auguste Dupin very seriously.

First published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841 this story has some of the features that are typical of this genre of fiction. There is a crime – in true Poe fashion it is gruesome with the elder woman decapitated and the body of the younger woman stuffed up a chimney – which is performed in seemingly impossible circumstances and in a locked room to boot. The case centres around window shutters, some strands of unusual hair and an unidentified language but interspersed amongst all this the author lays down a trail of false clues or red herrings which by modern standards may be somewhat telegraphed but are nonetheless diverting.

Dupin, of course, solves the crime – I won’t spoil the story – but he does little more than sit on his backside and deploy his phenomenal powers of analysis and intuition – the forerunner to the intellectual sleuth and both Dickens and Conan Doyle doffed their respective caps to Poe for his creation. Naturally, Dupin has a faithful sidekick who gasps in wonder at his comrade’s brilliance.

A word of warning, though. The tale starts off with a lengthy explanation of ratiocination, explaining that for the card player quality of observation is vital. It is a rather low-key and turgid opening that almost put me off but it all made sense in the end. And if you wanted to be hypercritical the story violates one of the unwritten rules of detective fiction that the reader should be able to deduce who the culprit is as they go along and the twist at the end is somewhat left field. Be that as it may, it is a great tale and one I am glad to have discovered.

Book Corner – May 2017 (1)

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Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow

This is a tome of a book and not one for the faint-hearted. At times it is heavy going – for a non-American the detailed analysis of Hamilton’s Federalist papers which played a major part in defining the constitutional arrangements that define the workings of the government in the States to this day almost persuaded me to give the book up. But perseverance is well rewarded and the reader comes away with a profound understanding of what made one of the most colourful characters of the post-revolutionary United States tick.

For those who like to see such things, there are some astonishing modern parallels. Hamilton was born in the West Indies and he could never free himself from the jibes of his critics that he was a foreigner and had no right to hold high office in the States. He possessed incredible amounts of energy and as soon as he was appointed to the position of Treasury Secretary by George Washington he unleashed a flurry of orders and initiatives that would have made the Donald blanche. He was a prolific writer of pamphlets and articles. He would have been inexhaustible on Twitter.

Hamilton’s greatest achievements were in establishing the American economy on a firmer footing, nationalising debt, binding the rather fractious individual states together and establishing banks, stock markets and credit, the familiar instruments that fuel a modern economy. In many ways Hamilton’s legacy is the thriving and influential country that the States is today.

But Hamilton was clearly a Marmite character – you either loved him or loathed him – and he had the unerring knack of rubbing powerful enemies up the wrong way and rarely knew when to back down. He hitched his horse close to that of Washington – he was effectively Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War and was rewarded for his efforts with high office – but he had an uneasy relationship which became toxic with Washington’s successor, Adams. Worse still, Jefferson, the third President, represented much of what he abhorred – land owning, slave-owning and enamoured with the French Revolution – and their feud ultimately wrecked Hamilton’s political ambitions. Even worse, both Adams and Jefferson outlived Hamilton by decades and had plenty of time to tarnish their opponent’s reputation and burnish their side of the story.

Mind you, Hamilton made his own significant contributions to his own downfall. Bizarrely, he had a dalliance with a married woman which exposed him to blackmail. Equally astonishingly, he decided to make a clean breast of it by publishing a detailed account of the affair, to the mortification of his long-suffering wife, Eliza, to whom Chernow takes quite a shine and to the gratification of his enemies. And then there was the simmering rivalry and feud with Aaron Burr who by the time of the fateful duel was Vice President, albeit effectively sidelined by Jefferson.

The fateful duel occurred on July 11th 1804 at Weehawken. Chernow makes a convincing case that Hamilton intended to waste his shot, hoping that Burr would return the compliment. It is not clear, though, who fired first. Hamilton’s shot was way off target which might have meant that he fired first and was true to his word or it may have been an involuntary shot after he had been winged. The awful tragedy was that he never signalled his intentions to Burr and paid for it with his life. The reintroduction of duelling would certainly brighten up our politics.

For all its length and wearisome passages and at times Chernow is too close and defensive of his subject, I came away with a better understanding of a remarkable man. I can’t believe they have made a musical out of it, though.

Book Corner – April 2017 (2)

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The Red Thumb Mark – R Austin Freeman

I have a confession to make. I have a penchant for detective stories and mysteries. I find them a light relief from the heavier fare that normally makes up my reading list. I like to go slightly off piste from the usual detective novelists – Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayer, Simenon et al – and I was encouraged to try Austin Freeman, not someone I had read before. He wrote 27 novels featuring Doctor Thorndyke and for no better reason than you need to start somewhere, I decided to read the first of the series, published in 1907.

On opening the book I wondered whether I was reading a Sherlock Holmes manqué. The protagonist is a clever sleuth, Dr Thorndyke, who specialises in medico-legal enquiries and has the brain power of Conan Doyle’s creation minus the neuroses. The account of his exploits is written by his faithful friend and unemployed doctor, Doctor Jervis. The real culprit is neither arrested nor brought to justice nor really named, although there are enough clues in the latter part of the book for the diligent reader to be pretty sure of their identity. There is some love interest, although it is done in the rather prim and proper manner you would expect from an Edwardian novel, as the loyal Jervis falls under the charms of Juliet Gibson. The real object of her affections becomes clear as the book concludes.

The mystery is simple enough. Reuben Hornby is accused of stealing some diamonds deposited in his uncle’s safe. He has one of the few keys to the safe – his uncle, John, and cousin, Walter have the others – and it seems a fair cop when a piece of paper with a bloody thumb print matching Reuben’s distinctive dabs is found in the safe. Reuben has his collar felt and languishes in jail ahead of his trial, protesting his innocence. His aunt and Juliet are convinced of his innocence and Thorndyke is brought in to resolve the case.

There are moments of comedy – the aunt is portrayed as a bit of a dotty character and her appearance in the witness stand is the comedic highlight of the book. There is the usual sexist language and treatment of women that went with the age. Polton, Thorndyke’s amanuensis, tidies up the rooms prior to a visitation by the fairer sex because he “evidently appreciated the difference between the masculine and the feminine view as to the proper appearance of working premises”  – a difference of view that persists to this very day, if the discussions between TOWT and I about my office are anything to go by. And there is an intriguing moment when Juliet asks Jervis whether he considered Thorndyke “a dear”. Perhaps the modern habit of trying to determine hints of sexuality makes too much of it.

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The solving of the mystery involves the aunt’s Thumbograph. This was akin to an autograph book where family and friends signed and dates a box on the left hand of the page and left their thumb mark on the right. I’m sure it brightened up many a dull dinner party. It also makes an appearance in The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, published in 1938 and was important as finger prints were the DNA of the modern police force. But, as Thorndyke demonstrates, finger prints are not infallible and need to be seen in context.

It is an entertaining read but perhaps seemed more dated than, say, Sherlock Holmes. The scientific explanations of Thorndyke’s methodology can grate but overall, it reflects well on an author who has rather gone out of fashion.

Book Corner – April 2017 (1)

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Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte

Of the astonishing Bronte sisters, Anne, the youngest, is the forgotten one. She is the one you struggle to remember in a pub quiz. Of the three she was the only one who held down a job, living a miserable existence as a governess, one of the few occupations open to an unmarried woman in reduced circumstances, and the only one to be buried away from Haworth, in Scarborough.

For many these days the upstairs-downstairs world of 18th and 19th century England has a strange fascination – witness the inexplicable success of Downton Abbey. The governess, though, existed in a sort of mezzanine world, not good enough to spend much time with her betters (natch) but too good to be hobnobbing with the servants. The result was that the governess often led a miserable and isolated life, at the mercy of the spoilt brats she was supposed to keep out of mischief, if not actually educate.

Agnes Grey, published in 1847, is autobiographical and tells the story and struggles of the eponymous heroine as, in order to make a financial contribution to her hard-pressed family after the death of her father, the parson Richard Grey, she finds employment as a governess firstly to the Bloomfields and then the Murrays. The Bloomfields were horrid brats and led Agnes a merry dance, forcing her at times to restrain them physically. The Murray sisters were a notch up the social scale.   Rosalie, the elder, has ideas above her station, enjoys flirting and makes a socially improving disastrous marriage which she instantly regrets. The younger, Matilda, is besotted with her horses, wanders around with a whip in hand, swearing like a trooper.

Agnes is a rather passive voice relating the trials and tribulations that her charges bring on her. Although we are urged to see this as an early feminist novel – it is about a woman and written from the woman’s perspective but that doesn’t mean it is feminist in my book  – you can’t help thinking that Agnes is a bit too prim and proper, a little too whiny and annoyingly infallible. She is the epitome of a vicar’s daughter. Her beacon of hope is the kind, worthy curate, Mr Weston, with whom she eventually settles down. But it is not a tempestuous love affair, merely one acknowledged by the bumping of elbows together. It is an interesting period piece about the role of a woman trying to make a living for herself but I think it would be wrong to read too much into it.

The style is easy and the book is well paced. There is one unsettling image. Tom Bloomfield has brought a nest containing some small birds into the garden and is proceeding to torture them, much as a cat does with its prey. Agnes puts them out of their suffering by dashing them to death with a large stone.  But it is hard to say we get to know Agnes by the end of the book, what made her tick. She is slightly aloof from what is going on around her. Nonetheless, it is an interesting read and confirms what a literary powerhouse the parsonage in Haworth really was.

Anne’s relative obscurity is partly down to her big sister, Charlotte. Agnes Grey was accepted by publishers whereas Charlotte’s first effort, The Professor, was rejected but Anne was unfortunate in her choice of publisher and sales were poor. Charlotte’s second effort, Jane Eyre also dealt with the life of a governess in a rather more vigorous and romanticised style. It sold like wildfire and whilst Charlotte’s publisher took over the publication of the other sisters’ works and they were republished in 1847, Anne was destined to remain in her elder sister’s shade, not helped by Charlotte’s decision, after Anne’s death, not to allow the republication of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Sibling rivalry, eh?