The Wakeful Guest

When you need some light reading to escape the This and the That of Life, and you find a book that achieves the minor miracle of sucking you out of your current world and into a completely different one, that indicates to me we should value light literature more than we do.

Such was the wonky charm of discovering Ruby Ferguson’s little known book, The Wakeful Guest.image

Ferguson is best known for her series of ‘Jill’ books for young girls, but she also wrote several enjoyable novels for adults. These have been long out of print. One exception—Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary—was highly esteemed by none other than the Queen Mother, and, happily, has been reprinted by Persephone Press. You can read more about it by following the links included.

As mentioned, Ferguson’s novels are what most would call light, but a novel written by a pre-war Oxford graduate is still going to hold considerably more charm than much current fare. A gift for language and narrative, a fair sprinkling of wit and charm, dialogues spoken in crisp English; rich settings drawn from fresh experience in post-war Europe…all this sounded very appealing when I settled in for a good read the other night.

The funny thing is, this novel is rather hard to review or give a synopsis of because I think casual spoilers could ruin it.

And you might want to read it.

The time period is post World War II. Delia is a sheltered young spinster who has lived her entire life with a dominant mother and sister. There is a wealthy godmother, Ida von Mester, in Bavaria, who wants Delia to leave England, and come live with her. Delia is but one of her heiresses.

After a bit of disappointment in the initial sketching out of the main character, I sailed on in hopes that this was going to be ‘the making of Delia’ kind of tale; how she escapes from the suffocating confines of her staid mother-dominated life, finds her true self and develops a backbone somewhere in the mountains of Bavaria. In anticipation of this, I lurched rapidly through many glowing descriptions of Bavarian scenery when we first ‘decanted’ from the train and arrived on scene. (side note of no importance: I always this thought this was an Angela Thirkell-ism, to use the word ‘decanted’ when speaking of leaving a car or train, but Ruby Ferguson uses it, as well)

Ferguson is very good at capturing an atmosphere involving ensemble characters, creating humor, warmth, and color through an intermingling of personalities. (her novel Apricot Sky is a charming example of this)

We are happy for Delia—her new housemates are welcoming, and prove to be an eclectic, if unlikely, assortment of humanity gathered under one roof. All are dependents on the generous hospitality of Ida, an aging beauty who has gained her wealth by investing in a series of rich husbands who then conveniently died.

“But Delia! There are always exciting people everywhere. When you don’t think people are exciting any more you are finished. And if you don’t expect something wonderful to happen it never will.” (Ida)

Then there is Gladys, Ida’s polar opposite, in terms of flamboyance and good cheer. She ‘looks like a Pekinese’ and is Ida’s willing slave. Both are concentration camp survivors who are forever bonded together by experience. Franz is another housemate—a Jewish intellectual who is affectionately called Onkel. He also survived Auschwitz, and is a good-hearted, wise soul. His appearance is described as ‘one of those mild but noble Teutonic faces which one associates with the period of Wagner.’ Still not sure what Franz looked like.

There is loveable Jarzy, a Polish ex-prisoner of war, ‘with an energetic nose’ whom Ida nursed back to health. There is an impossibly lovely, shallow heiress who appears to have a heart of gold—or perhaps stone?—we can’t tell until the very end; a handsome attorney named Gordon whose patently obvious romeo charm aids considerably in dashing our hopes that poor Delia is making progress in developing a backbone; and let’s not forget the overwrought Todor family in the refugee camp who zound like ziz ven they zpik.

It was all very interesting; the nights of singing, the somewhat fairytale-esque trip into Munich, the shopping trip for new dresses, glimpses of Ida’s mad, impulsive personality—all made for a nice diversion.

The late night street cafe encounters with ‘the Bohemian set’ in Munich was amusing.

‘Everybody jabbered at the tops of their voices, and Paul and Mignon kissed between sentences. At last we all got up and moved along to another pavement cafe, and lost Mignon and Paul, and collected Pepin and Harry and Leni and Yacob and George….Then an American called Burt arrived with a girl called Frieda. Frieda took an interest in me and asked me if I’d been to hear Gersib play, and I said no, we’d been to Tosca and she said “Mein Gott!” and lost interest.’

Possibly the most fascinating aspect of the book was the story of flooding the peaceful valley where Ida’s house had stood for generations. Everyone in the valley was forced to leave their ancient family homes and move up the mountain. I’m sure there must be a historical basis for this (post war watershed creation?) but I haven’t researched it. The thought of all those lovely old homes, be they mansions or cottages, being abandoned and then drowned in a watery death was strangely disturbing.

“What a weird feeling, to think this house will be at the bottom of a lake.” (Delia)

Well said, Delia. Ida chose to leave most of her valuable furniture, (some of it hand-painted with Alpine scenes) to meet the same fate. Ida—normally a kind, carelessly generous soul, would not even donate the furniture to a local refugee camp where hundreds of war-weary displaced persons sat on hard ground without a decent chair among them. She wanted the furniture to ‘die’ with the house. All so strange, but I suppose it fit the quixotic, impulsive character of Ida—generous one moment, hard and inscrutable the next. (Thank goodness she had the sense to move the piano to the new home….I might have thrown this book off the verandah if they had let the piano become entombed in a watery grave)

Jarzy has the unnerving habit of swimming down into the house after it is under the lake waters and continuing to retrieve items they left behind and wished they hadn’t.

All in all, it appeared to be a novel of strange enchantment, and I was settling in to enjoy a glass of wine, a bit of romance and Bohemian joie d’vivre, when oddly….the mood of the story changes abruptly.

I sat up and began to read more carefully. What??? Still not sure what’s going on here, but of course I keep reading. Now I can’t put it down.

Delia, while very nice in many ways, is an unlikely heroine to the very end. But perhaps she is supposed to be. Ordinary, salt of the earth Florence Nightingale sort; suddenly finds herself mixed up with someone of a sinister Lovelace magnetism? The serene Bavarian landscape, once so inviting, now becomes dark, medieval, hushed.

By this time Delia is beginning to remind me of another ingenue-super-gullible-nice girl character lost amongst people of uncertain character. I didn’t much care for Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey when I first met her, but she grew on me by the end of the book. The difference with Delia of The Wakeful Guest is she is much older than Catherine, has a gift for sarcastic rejoinders, and should have had a better grip on being able to read people. Well, perhaps that is a bit unfair….

Catherine Morland lived with gothic horrors woven from her own fertile imagination. Delia, in the fictional sense, did not need imagination as real life horrors were actually developing around her.

People she loves begin to die.

So as it turns out, this book wasn’t so much a charming coming of age story, set in a colorful Bohemian household with overtones of The Constant Nymph, but it began to develop into a possible thriller/and or murder mystery.

I say ‘possible’ because I don’t want to give away spoilers, and because, by the end of the book, we’re still not sure. Yes, ambiguity to the very end.

“Are these lovely people actually going to die??” I wondered…well, I can’t tell you any more than that. This story needs to keep its shock value.

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My summation? The novel is interesting, and it surprised me. The writing style, while not riveting, flows. Ruby Ferguson creates characters that are difficult to assess. Good guys or bad guys? A bit of both? Perhaps I’m as dim as Delia, but some of Ida’s compatriots kept me guessing. As with Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, Delia, though much wiser in the end, still retained her innate goodness.

There are weak moments in the story, yes.

‘Zey brew zeir stuff somewheres. So proud zey are in zeir dirty fur coats.’ (Madame Todor)

And the conclusion is unsatisfactory. But in spite of these flaws, or perhaps because of them, once I got into it I couldn’t put the book down until I finished it.

That’s kinda fun.


image Additional Notes:

Comments from The Furrowed Middlebrow were spot on:

‘The Wakeful Guest (1962), which again is set in the immediate postwar period and can’t seem to decide whether to be a murder mystery or an odd social novel about war refugees coming into contact with superficial young girls.’

Ruby Ferguson is often confused with that other Ferguson, Rachel Ferguson—I kept doing it myself—and, truthfully, that is probably how I ended up with this book.

But I hope that more reprints of Ruby Ferguson stories will come along. I enjoyed Apricot Sky even more.

To order Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary, by Ruby Ferguson

Persephone Books has a picture of Ruby Ferguson and brief biography here:

Apricot Sky, by Ruby Ferguson; review by Captive Reader

The Feast, by Margaret Kennedy

‘They told a lot, but of course they didn’t tell everything.
Nobody will ever know the whole truth.’   — [The Feast]

When beginning a novel, and you are given the dramatic conclusion in the first few pages, how is it that the reader keeps reading with growing intensity, to ‘see how it is all going to come about?’

This is the magic of a superb storyteller.

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Margaret Kennedy’s novel The Feast (1949) spins a web of taut suspense that captures a reader from the outset. The atmosphere is lightened at times by some humorous moments, some sardonic wit, yet the unfolding human drama—revealed via letters, journal entries, and some ‘real-time’ scenes and dialogue— builds irresistibly.

‘The book moves with speed and there is amazing suspense — the reader knows what will happen, but not to whom.’ (from the dust jacket)

The coast of Cornwall, and a picturesque old seaside manor house-turned-hotel is the setting. The house sits atop a bluff overlooking a Pendizack Cove. The tide coming in, going out, is the one constant…

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In the beginning it is reminiscent of an Agatha Christie mystery. The guests begin to arrive; they come by train and car…all burdened with dreary baggage of one kind or another, all hoping for a summer escape. It is the kind of scene setting that I love, when a variety of characters are assembled under one roof, and they begin a sort of psychological journey together.

Soon enough the potentially explosive dynamics and the often heart-breaking complexity of human interaction begins to play out, muddled along with the daily routines of emptying slops, burning the toast or serving cold haddock. There is even a romance that begins to brew from an unlikely pair.

The victims, the heroes, the villains start taking shape.

There are sweet children, there are kind people, industrious people, there are some louses and human detritus, but from the beginning we know that seven of these people will die. The cliff that towers so magnificently over the house will tumble down, and seven people will be trapped inside. The house becomes their tomb.

The rest? They will be safe, at The Feast.

‘They dined on mince, and slices of quince
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon….’ [Edward Lear: The Owl and The Pussycat]

I particularly loved the almost Hitchcockian way that Kennedy employed the natural world to heighten the sense of crisis. The widening cracks in the bluff above; the sudden lack of nesting gulls in the cliffside; the mass exodus of scurrying mice across the patio, the intermittent fall of rocks from above…all tell the reader that the disaster is imminent. The household though, at least until the very last, remains pitifully unaware.

It has been described as ‘allegory turned social comedy’ . This was by Margaret Kennedy’s granddaughter, Serena Mackesy, who also described The Feast as her favorite story. (Full interview here.)

The novel is, indeed, well-laced with allegory; but because the story is so absorbing, and the characters so real, their interactions so life-like, the allegorical underpinnings do not distract. Rather, they give you cause to keep thinking about the book after it is concluded.

Reading a novel like this reminds me of what it felt like reading fiction in ‘the old days’; that state of being completely engrossed in the characters and their stories. The feeling that you cannot put down the book until you have finished it. These days, that’s a rare treat.

Thanks to Jane and her lovely reader’s blog for sharing her appreciation for the works of Margaret Kennedy. I have really enjoyed discovering this enigmatic author’s work, and the good news is–I have a lot more books to go!

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Further (long-winded!) notes of interest:

The allegorical spine of the story is, according to the author’s own comments, The Seven Deadly Sins. As the story develops, each of the seven who die in the collapse can be readily tagged with the ‘sin’ that they personify. These characters, we are given to understand, could have changed, could have bettered themselves, but did not. Their character and principal negative attributes harden as the story progresses, and by the end, we have a pretty clear idea who will be the seven who die.  (we actually know one identity from the beginning of the story, it is the other six we are left to surmise).

Their deaths are to be viewed as retributions. Their bodies are utterly buried in rock; unrecoverable. What could be conceived of as ‘an act of God’, is also, the author makes clear, something that could have been avoided. No lives needed to be lost. There were clues as to what was happening to the hillside, and there was even, we find out, a letter from a Government official warning that the cliffside was unstable. The warning went unheeded.

On the other end of allegory there are the Seven Virtues. In the religious thought apparently being referenced by the author, these seven virtues can prevent the seven sins from flourishing. These virtues are represented by the children—there are seven youth staying in the hotel— and principally would apply to the three innocent Cove sisters. They are tragically neglected by their mother, (what a horrible woman….! perhaps a bit exaggerated for effect, but effective for the storyline)…but the girls maintain such a positive, happy spirit, and generous nature, they are truly the heroes of the story. Faith, virtue and love would be my assessment for Blanche, Maud, and Beatrix. Of the other four children, the strong-willed Hebe and her outlandish bravado surely represents Courage.

The death of the seven people in the end is balanced by the life that is now given, is essence, to the deserving, the innocent, who are at ‘The Feast’ when the disaster strikes.

The feast enjoyed at the end is itself allegorical, referencing the Feast of Fools. This is strongly suggested by the tone of childish amusements, the concept of the humble and downtrodden asserting temporary power, and certainly the costumed buffoonery of the Cove children’s party, which makes no sense otherwise!

By this time in the novel, the reader is well aware that this is the most vital scene. Everything has led us to this feast. Nothing, from food to drink to songs sung, was left to chance—not with an author so clever as Margaret Kennedy. She is weaving her strands together into one final, decisive knot.

The tone of the ‘feast’ is styled for a reason. Everyone is to come dressed as an Edward Lear character; even the very modest Mrs. Paley dons an impossibly ridiculous hat, to the scorn of her husband.

“What are you?” he shouted.
“A Quangle Wangle,” she quavered.
“A what? I can’t hear!”
“I’m a Quangle Wangle.”
“And what may a Quangle Wangle be?”
“I don’t know. Nobody knows.”

The oddity intensifies; the singing and dancing spirals to a rowdy crescendo; it all begins to feel increasingly bizarre, yet you know one thing for sure.

Margaret Kennedy is leading you to a very clear moral destination.


Curious about ‘a runcible spoon’? An attempt at definition here:

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Fade In Train Noises: Part Two

‘Safe–in a world of trains and buttered toast
Where things inanimate could feel and think.’  —John Betjeman

Welcome to part 2 of ‘Fade in Train Noises’. (Part One can be found here)

Just to briefly recap: The title is taken from a radio play by Elizabeth Bowen, broadcast in 1945, when England was hungry for nostalgic images of their heritage, and everything that could now be called ‘the days before the war’. In the radio play, the train takes sleepy William on a dream trip to the fictional county of Barsetshire, a shire of Anthony Trollope’s creation. Significantly, much of Trollope’s writing was done while traveling by train, which is why Bowen chose a train in motion as her setting. Plus—she was a lover of trains.

‘Pause: Fade in train noises — rather accentuated, as of train taking up gradient. Gradually fade in, on top of these noises, and in their rhythm, voice saying ‘A picture book, a picture book, a picture book’…the words should gain, slowly, more with each time of speaking, over train noises.’

In my Part One post we made a brief stop at the station in Angela Thirkell’s version of Barsetshire, and explored some other literary references, ending with a slight hint: not all train lore was charming.

‘For time has softened what was harsh when new
And now the stones are all of sober hue’  — George Crabbe

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The arrival of the coal-powered steam trains into the British countryside was vigorously resisted—mostly by women. This is not surprising, given that, in those crude gashes through green pastures, in the hard iron sides, the constant belching of sooty smoke, those loud gushes of alarming steam— women sensed a masculine world encroaching with frightening violence.

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Regarding the ladies of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, Cranford, they had ‘vehemently petitioned’ against the ‘obnoxious railroad’. And sadly, as though validating all their fears, it was the means by which their dear Captain Brown met his end.

Still in the world of fiction, we find similar prejudices echoed in George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch:

‘In the hundred to which Middlemarch belonged railways were as exciting a topic as the Reform Bill or the imminent horrors of Cholera, and those who held the most decided views on the subject were women and landholders. Women both old and young regarded traveling by steam as presumptuous and dangerous, and argued against it by saying that nothing should induce them to get into a railway carriage.’

The sentiments expressed reflected actual circumstances.

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John Betjeman (Sir John) was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death in 1984, but more pertinent to the subject of trains, he loved trains, old architecture, and was nostalgic for anything that harkened back to English life before the war. He was known as a ‘passionate defender of Victorian architecture’. Railway stations were a prime example of the kind of unique-to-a-period-and-function architecture he worked hard to save.

He was chosen to author English Cities and Small Towns, part of a Britain in Pictures series that was produced during the war years, in an effort to bolster British morale. I’ve been enjoying Betjeman’s poetry of late, and his tender, nostalgic view. (I’m in love with this little movie clip of Betjeman here in which he recites some of his poem Summoned By Bells)

In English Cities and Small Towns, Betjeman wrote fondly of the surpassing beauty of even the humblest English village, and then, with supreme understatement:

‘The great change came with the railways.’

Before the railways, people might live their entire lives within the confines of a small valley, never knowing who or what was just beyond the next ridge a few miles distant. While some changes were beneficial, the railway also quenched some of the social apparatus in place that kept small communities thriving and self-sufficient. Business enterprise on a large scale—or the possibilities of such—now entered the picture.

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In other words: Next stop, Suburbia.

‘Thereafter the center of business shifted to the neighbourhood of the railway station. The market square became less important than the goods yard. The old inn decayed and the smart new railway hotel with its gas light and billiards saloon drew the commercials and the Victorian business men. Clumps of houses gathered round the railway…Some towns, especially old country towns whose mayor and council preferred the horse to the steam engine, refused to co-operate with the railways. When they learned the line was coming, they refused to let it near the town.’

Betjeman goes on to elaborate that such a resistance to the railroad more often than not ended up in the death of the village. An opposite effect from that which was intended. Such was the power of the new iron horse.

Would you like to take a train ride in 1910 and see the beginnings of these suburbs? A fascinating trip back in time can be found here

‘When exploring, for the first time, one of these pockets of English history, local pride, and marked character, the approach I like to make is by railway, for from the railway line you get an impression of the surrounding country, undisturbed by the adjuncts of a main road. The space before the station is lined first by a row of once successful shops, now less successful as the station has come to be less used….Few railway stations were built after 1910.’

Betjeman the poet has given me confidence to add ‘puff and shunt’ to my vocabulary. What better way to describe the sound of a steam engine?

“Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,
I heard the old North London puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak.”

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Another favorite reference book is The Echoing Green, Memories of Victorian Youth, by Gillian Avery. It’s a collection of excerpts from diaries and memoirs, that showcase a variety of young person’s lives in the Victorian era.

We return to the sweet and simple memoirs of Henrietta Cresswell. The book is titled Winchmore Hill, Memories of a Lost Village. (It is a regional curiosity, produced in small quantity.) By 1912, when Henrietta picked up her pen to record the vanished world of her childhood, Winchmore Hill had already become absorbed as a mere suburb to London, its identity forever lost as a snug, self-supporting little hamlet. She writes of the railway’s devastation on their landscape. The labor force were ‘invaders’ to be resisted, sometimes by clandestine means of removing a boundary line out and away from a kitchen garden.

‘The pretty row of cottages where the Grandmother lived were pulled down, the great ash arbour ruthlessly destroyed, and the garden devastated; the holly hedge, dense as a wall, was grubbed up, scarcely anything remained but the tall yew and a golden-knob apple tree, which for years after blossomed and fruited, on the top of the cutting Vicarsmoor Bridge. The lane was closed for traffic, and a notice board proclaimed, ‘This Road is stopped time the Bridge is being built.’

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And then there was the village Doctor and his house and garden:

‘It was not till 1 January, 1870, that the Doctor’s house was given over to the invaders and he moved to Grove Lodge. It was then all deep snow, and the cutting was so close to the side of the house that the garden shrubs were constantly slipping over the edge and having to be brought back and replanted.’

Repeated rescue missions of shrubs that had plunged to their doom might have taken more courage than sense, when you look at the depth of some of the sharp gullies that were cut for laying the tracks.

More feared than the effects on the landscape were the ‘navvies’, as they were called. These toughened workers, representing various countries and skill levels, were particularly dreaded by the villagers. The stories of the violence and moral depravity the navvies brought with them to a village were frightening. They plundered, murdered, and rioted, drank heavily and constantly, their drunken exhaustion often leading to horrific accidents. In the earliest days of railroad construction, such workers were little more than lawless armies living in the numerous shanty towns that had sprung up along the route of the torn earth and ribbons of steel.

Gillian Avery concludes:

‘By 1836 the navvies’ way of life had become such a scandal that it was generally agreed something must be done….It was the action of the contractors that at last civilized the armies who worked for them….Working hours were regulated, pay was given in money, not beer and provisions; men no longer worked fuddled with drink and fatigue. Twenty years more and the navvy was transformed in the minds of the British public. He was no longer a bloodthirsty brute who terrorized the district unlucky enough to have railway workings; he was the salt of the earth, the honest English labourer….’

The memoirs of a young navvy, known as Dandy Dick, are quite colorful in recollection. He ran away from home in 1835 to work on the railways. He recalls working in tunnels at times hundreds of feet below ground.

‘There was no day there, and no peace; the shrill roar of escaping steam; the groans of mighty engines heaving ponderous loads of earth to the surface; the click-clack of lesser engines pumping dry the numerous springs by which the drift was intersected; the reverberating thunder of the small blasts of powder fired upon the mining works; the rumble of trains of trucks; the clatter of horses’ feet, the clank of chains…air murky with the smoke and flame of burning tar-barrels, cressets, and torches.’

Getting back to the early twentieth century, train travel was about to pick up nefarious speed and spawn a new era in literature.

Writers such as Agatha Christie were quick to see the potential in a steam engine’s cry that could mask the scream of a woman, or the opportunity for mayhem as the train approached a dark tunnel. Not to mention the convenience of body disposal while the train—and murderer— went hurtling away. The clickety clack of the rails, paired with the click, clack of Miss Marple’s knitting needles, her steely gray gaze missing nothing, is forever paired in my mind.

Graham Greene published his thriller Istamboul Train, which took place on a train that might sound familiar—The Orient Express. (the American version of his book was actually called Orient Express.) About a year later, to the great confusion of reading audiences everywhere, Agatha Christie published her classic of all classic train stories, Murder on the Orient Express. Orient-ExpressHowever, relatively few know of Graham Greene’s book, whereas few today can hear ‘Orient Express’ and not immediately call to mind a certain Belgian detective, a train stuck in a snow drift, and the brilliant twist on ‘whodunnit’.

What I didn’t know until researching this subject, was that Agatha Christie actually was marooned for twenty four hours on the Orient Express. She wrote from her own experience, and even used some of the people on board as inspiration for the characters in the novel. (she was returning from her husband’s archeological dig in Nineveh…I could only dream of such adventures…)

from my explorations on an old Pullman car; a sleeping room with wash up basin

from my explorations on an old Pullman car; a sleeping room with wash up basin

Strangers on a Train, a psychologically terrifying novel written by the equally terrifying Patricia Highsmith, caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. He turned the book into a masterpiece of film noir. (years later it would spawn Throw Momma From the Train!) Hitchcock later made a screenplay from the novel The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White.

The movie from this ‘espionage meets murder on a moving train’ story was called The Lady Vanishes. IMG_8791Apropos of nothing, I will forever link this movie to being marooned in a virtually empty airport while waiting for a late flight, hanging out in the airport bar watching this weird old black and white Hitchcock movie. Later I watched it again with my film student husband—with a bit more appreciation for Hitchcock’s mastery of directing.

But we are emerging from the dark tunnel, all bodies present and accounted for, the scenery flashing past our windows; we’re wondering, idly, how many socks have been knitted on trains…which sounds like the kind of question I would have asked my dad when I was young: (“Dad, how many socks have been knitted on trains since the beginning of time?”…I was always interested in subjects as measured from those hazy beginnings…) My dad, in turn, hero rock star that he was, would have fielded with an even more interesting question that would have distracted me from my original unanswerable one.

What now greets our gaze are ribbons of green meadows, dotted with white sheep, and hills rolling away in gentle undulation as far as the eye can see. The railway station around the next bend is reminiscent of a Swiss Chalet, swathed in a blanket of pink roses, quite out of a Claude Strachan painting.

What idyllic spot is this? Stay tuned for Part 3! Next stop: the fictional Wellscombe Halt.


 

Additional:

Here is another link to a film clip of John Betjeman on a train–it is wonderfully nostalgic, even if (gasp) the train is being pulled by a diesel engine, not steam!

On wiki it notes:

‘John Betjeman Goes By Train is a 1962 short documentary film made by British Transport Films and BBC East Anglia. The 10-minute-long film features future poet laureate John Betjeman as he takes a memorable journey by train from King’s Lynn railway station to Hunstanton railway station in Norfolk, pointing out various sights and stopping off at Wolferton station on the Sandringham Estate and Snettisham station, where he extolls the virtues of rural branchline stations.[1] An early example of a Betjeman travelogue film, a similar idea was later used for his 1973 documentary Metro-land.[1]’

My Sixpenny Book

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‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.’

quote from I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

This belated genusrosa post finds us in the kitchen. Yes—I know. We are usually sharing a walk in the garden together, talking about a good book. And I have a lot of garden walks for us to catch up on!

But today I’m in the kitchen, thinking about pumpkin bread.

Even so, something from a book is at the ready. Shall I leaf through Elizabeth David, or the sublime M.F.K.? Sad to say, I google the perfect recipe for pumpkin bread and fall down the pinterest rabbit hole for two catatonic hours; (cream cheese swirl or chocolate chunk?? baked in a jar for that homespun look or the perfect giveaway gingham loaf pan?)—

Then Cassandra Mortmain [I Capture the Castle] and her delicious six penny writing book comes to mind. Those creative, brilliant Mortmains had simple bread and margarine and eggs for tea.

‘How odd it is to remember that “tea” once meant afternoon tea to us—little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room. Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast…Stephen is lighting the lamp. In a second now, the rosy glow will have gone from the kitchen. But lamplight is beautiful, too.’

Suddenly it is dusk and E.B. White and his Dusk in Fierce Pajamas looms into view… Owen Johnson ‘with his chafing dish’ is never far from my thoughts as I’m scrolling through page after page of awesome wonderfulness and gorgeous autumn inspiration…

‘They are perfect little crystals of being–static, precious.’ [E.B. White]

For now, to celebrate the lovely fall season, one doesn’t just make pumpkin bread; one is expected to make pumpkin bread from specially molded bakeware that mimics the shape of pumpkins, then drizzle them with a delicately spiced sugar glaze that has been colored orange (to suggest the color of pumpkins, I suspect) and then they are to be served on pretty little plates that have been hand-painted with autumn leaves in all the appropriate colors that one associates with fall. Because it is in the fall, you see, that we have pumpkins.

‘for it is dusk…’

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I’m not sure if pinterest is enlivening to the imagination, or enervating to it. Has it replaced, not only imagination, but the actual doing? There are just a few doing, forty five million are watching, scrolling, and dreaming. Have we pin-terested ourselves into a state of catatonic ineptitude? (some day I will yes I will create that super cute jewelry organizer created with a vintage ironing board and two wooden candleholders—how could I not?)

I don’t want to lose my imagination. I think I know what season I’m in. I can still find my jewelry. I can even make jewelry.

‘All I know of her is that she appeared one night at dinner, her beauty set off by the lustre of artificial satin and the watery fire of aquamarine…’

Somehow, with the riches, variety, and opportunities of blogdom; I am just not writing. It’s not ‘the age thing’. I protest that notion. I write in my head constantly. And I still read constantly. But I am not writing. Pen to paper; fluid, articulate shapes appearing. Ideas forming, rushing upon one…

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This lack of writing may not be bad for the world, per se, but it is not a situation I like for myself.

‘All I know of her is she appeared one night at dinner…’

Cassandra Mortmain’s story is told through a series of notebooks; journals, if you will. First, there is the sixpenny book that symbolized the humble reality of her circumstances; yet she made the most of every glint of light on shabby taffeta. Her improving fortunes, as the novel builds, are suggested by the upgrades in her notebooks: the sixpenny book is followed by the ‘schilling book’, followed by the ‘two-guinea book’. She painstakingly teaches herself to write—like her father did, once—by faithfully recording ordinary life as it was. Of course there was nothing ordinary about the Mortmains. (That being said, if this were today, Rose and Topaz would have been the pinterest addicts, and Cassandra the free spirited boho who ran an animal shelter.)

My new resolve, to be celebrated over a glass of white wine and—as it turns out, no pumpkin bread at all but some yummy butternut squash hummus that I intend to eat right out of the container—is to simplify. No more separate blogs for separate interests. This blog will suffice.

I actually kinda love it here.

It’s been quirky and unexpected, and I never know what is going to get the writing juices flowing. It could be a chance encounter with a new book, an odd word, a storied photograph, a curious shimmer of light on my fruit bowl (think Somerset Maugham), a comparison of Homer and Barbara Cartland…(can it be done?? let’s find out!) …you get the idea. Or, as in this post, I return to mine some favorite material.

It always comes back to words for me, whatever the subject. Other words from capable pens that still ring with perfect pitch, and still thrill me, or perhaps my own stumbling toward something elusive I can’t define. We can’t allow ourselves be stifled by the sheer amount of brilliance or choices out there, or feelings of having to fit into a certain ‘category’.

‘Father says the desire for self-expression is pathetic.’ [Cassandra Mortmain]

Ignoring Mr. Mortmain for the moment–but we’ll come back to him later in another post–some of the poetry and favorite quotes, photography, will be moved over from my Pollyanna Press to here. In time. I might write a post about my jewelry making enterprises. On occasion. The only blog to keep her Queen Bee status is my Margery Sharp blog. She–and her writing–has been a happy preoccupation of mine for many years now. Margery deserves her own blog and shall have it.

The genusrosa theme will be switched to a minimalist magazine layout. Well…not too minimalist…that’s just not me. But the idea is to organize the subjects for my readers a bit more efficiently (without the aid of a vintage ironing board and candleholders), so you can pick and choose your way.

However, if you’re looking for the perfect pumpkin bread recipe, I suggest pinterest. If you’re not back in five hours, we’ll come looking for you with our flickering lanterns and beeswax candles. The curiously gentle, ethereally beautiful Topaz might even be there, wearing her black rubber rain boots.

‘Topaz came downstairs just then, in her black oilskins, sou’wester hat and rubber boots, looking as if she were going to man the lifeboat.’

I love the world of I Capture the Castle. It was beautiful, inconsistent, tender, contradictory, achingly sad, heartbreakingly funny. Like life. It was also a reminder that worlds can be created beyond our own. Worlds that are real, nourishing, inspiring, and lovely. But only if we write.

We must keep writing…pen to paper…fluid, articulate shapes appearing. Ideas forming, rushing, rustling, breathing; ‘tamed and shabby tigers‘ spring to life once again.

‘It was…autumn, very gentle and golden. I loved the quiet-coloured fields of stubble and the hazy water meadows. Rose doesn’t like the flat country but I always did—flat country seems to give the sky such a chance. One evening, when there was a lovely sunset, we got lost…’

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Additional notes:

Poetry reference also from I Capture the Castle:

‘Twould ring the bells of Heaven
The wildest peal for years,
If Parson lost his senses
And people came to theirs,
And he and they together
Knelt down with angry prayers
For tamed and shabby tigers
And dancing dogs and bears,
And wretched, blind pit ponies,
And little hunted hares.
[Ralph Hodgson]

My books:

A Garden for Allegra

Composing Molly

Someday…a sequel for those girls!

The Seasonal Mr. Rochester

 “I like this day; I like that sky of steel; I like the sternness and stillness of the world under this frost.…” Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre

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We begin by agreeing with Mr. Rochester’s comments on the weather. We don’t always agree with this turbulent fellow, it is true, but he redeems himself by being sensible enough to fall in love with Jane Eyre.

I remember my first read of Jane Eyre, years ago, and being startled by this unguarded moment in the narrative. It is now one of my favorite scenes. Mr. Rochester, the brooding cynic who liked to talk in cryptic, mocking terms, suddenly reveals a bit of his heart.

I like this day.” For once he speaks as a simple man, with simple tastes.

I also like the color of sky on frosty days. It pairs well with the faded yellow leaves that are still much in evidence in my region. Late November into December has a changing color palette; a definite personality of somber but rich hues in the landscape. Here in the Pacific Northwest our skies do not remain steely for long; there are always new clouds to come billowing in and bring fresh rounds of that wetness we like to call ‘precipitation’.

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No one discusses weather better than the Brontes, so here you have Emily Bronte’s description of precipitation:

‘On an afternoon in October, or the beginning of November—a fresh watery afternoon, when the turf and paths were rustling with moist, withered leaves, and the cold blue sky was half hidden by clouds—dark grey streamers, rapidly mounting from the west, and boding abundant rain…’

Wuthering Heights

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The few leaves left to us you could describe as a ‘heathered’ yellow; flecks of brown and gray embedded in the yellow creates a tone reminiscent of the lovely Scottish heathered wools. It is more than a color; it is a transition. What word best describes this?

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From the poets—actually, from archaic English kept alive by the poets— we have an unusual word that well befits this late fall color palette.

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The word ‘sear’ denotes much more than just a color—it conveys the physicality of it. There is a withering, a decay, in progress that could never be expressed by just saying ‘yellow’, or ‘brown’.

Only sear will do.

“November’s sky is chill and drear,
November’s leaf is red and sear.”
–   Sir Walter Scott

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“The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,

Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sear.”

–   William Cullen Bryant

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Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more

Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,

I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,

And with forc’d fingers rude,

Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.’

– John Milton, Lycidas 

This term ‘sear’ usually brings to mind what we do to a steak. It is the browning of it, and the browning, crisping stage of a leaf that provides the common denominator. Sear (archaic ‘sere’, from where we also get ‘sorrel‘) can also mean withered.

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From my trusty ‘Dictionary of Word Origins’ by Eric Partridge

(At the introduction of the word withered is where we abruptly stop thinking of steak…)

Although sear or sere as a term for color is now considered archaic, it beautifully describes this aging yellow of late November against slate gray skies and frosty rooftops.

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I wanted to capture this color harmony in wool or stone. November was rapidly slipping away and I hadn’t yet chronicled November as a tangible ‘thing’. I have this goal–not always realized–to capture a day, moment, event by creating a tactile object that somehow grounds me to that moment in time. I wanted November to be much more than a passing blur on a calendar.

“You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away….” 

So said Mr. Rochester.

This particularly pleasing combination of shadow and light in the landscape dominated my color imagination. For one thing, my fourth floor windows stare out onto a neighborhood of slate gray rooftops punctuated by yellow leafed trees, so it has been part of my daily vision for some time.

Clearly, not just any yellow would do when one is attempting a Bronte mood for a warm and fuzzy object; when the desire is to capture…

‘steely sky and slow shatter’d leaves.’

Nothing too sulfurous…nor mustardy…not buttery…no golden glow of gingko hues…maybe palest raw cornsilk…?

Then I saw it. A lovely heathered old gold wool, courtesy of Rowan. A contrasting ‘sky’ was found in rich charcoal (alpaca blend for softness) and before long I was happily creating the soft and steely grandeur of my November day.

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‘We will now turn to a certain still, cold, cloudy afternoon about the commencement of December, when the first fall of snow lay thinly scattered over the blighted fields and frozen roads, or stored more thickly in the hollows of the deep cart-ruts and footsteps of men and horses impressed in the now petrified mire of last month’s drenching rains.’

‘I remember it well.’ Anne Bronte; Tenant of Wildfell Hall

As landscape and tempestuous weather fueled the imagination for the Bronte sisters, resulting in memorable characters placed in memorable scenes, I respond to my environment in different ways. As mentioned, I can be slightly obsessed with colors and textures–in beading, tapestry, and crochet. Thus my current landscape might not produce a novel, or a Mr. Rochester, a Heathcliff, or even an Arthur Huntingdon (thank goodness–no more Arthurs, please) ; but there is a good chance I will produce some handwarmers and a scarf. And if Mr. Rochester would let me, I would knit him a cardigan in shades of steely gray. Perhaps the incomparable Jane did so, and he loved her even more. If that is possible.

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As for this November that has just passed? ‘I will remember it well.’

Blue Stockings and Muddy Petticoats

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“The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Henry David Thoreau was a great walker. His walking was directly linked to his ability to think. Directly linked to his philosophy. If Thoreau did not walk, Thoreau could not write.

Thinking about this made me realize why I have been unable to finish up this post from my series that has been given the quizzical name ‘Perambulations.’ A post that was beginning to drag on as long as Ben Jonson’s epic walk to Edinburgh in 1618.

I have not been walking. The ground has been as frozen and inhospitable as a Bronte moor, and the wind has been bitter cold. There are, in this house, enough knitted and crocheted hats and scarves to clothe an army, but I am a fair weather walker.

“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

Yesterday the sun returned with brilliant apologies and warm entreaties. The earth was still frozen, our porch and stairs still a solid pool of ice, yet something of an ambient flow was beginning to stir.

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Encouraged by the dazzling rays of light we immediately ventured out to experience the truth of writer Rebecca Solnit’s observation

‘…walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”

What she said. And what Thoreau said. I began to think about perambulations, pedestrianism, peregrinations; all those lovely, fascinating words relating to the philosophy and exercise of walking. Like sweetmeats to the wordsmith, they animate the curiosity, savor of possibility, and my eager thoughts begin to rise like puffs of steam in warm sunlight.

“The distance is nothing when one has a motive.” Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)

This is the magic of walking; though our steps may be regular, our chosen path familiar, linear or even slightly curved, our thoughts are left free to wander far away from our feet. The same tree on our customary path looks different in all types of light, and radiates new possibilities. In elliptical, soaring patterns, our imagination makes great loops of thought in the sky, connecting philosophical dots, shooting across eons of space to create galaxies of fantastic dimensions and people it with drama, conflict, resolution. Perhaps our thoughts take us back to the past or weave us ever more tightly to the dizzying matrix of the present.

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Our eye catches sight of a beautiful bird, spiraling upward, or a flock of birds forming V patterns etched in thin silhouette, and our thoughts travel with them in after image, chasing similar shapes and spirals, or arcs in fractal waves like starlings.

Wherever we go in our mind, the beauty of it is that our feet are still on solid ground. There is comfort in that; we drop to earth with a soft thud to match our pedestrian gait and soon enough we are back to the warmth of the fireside and the well-rooted chair. Time enough to think about blue stockings and muddy petticoats, and wonder if anyone else would find such a subject interesting? And as to that, have you ever thought about the inherent contradiction in a word like pedestrianism?

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Writer Margaret Lane alluded to this dichotomy of preference. In the foreword to her lovely collection of essays Purely for Pleasure *, she writes:

‘There is no unifying theme to be found in this handful of essays. They are personal excursions indulged in purely for pleasure—perambulations, so to speak, in chosen company.’

A happy life often consists of many small moments like this—curious bursts of pleasure that no one else might understand, let alone anticipate. I was thrilled to see that she thought of ‘perambulations’ in the same way I did. [for more on the wordsmith aspect of this, I refer you to The Curious Word]

In recent months, via this blog we have strolled through several gardens with several writers, taken brisk walks with poets, pondered John Muir’s epic mountain ramblings, and explored why Mary N. Murphree didn’t walk the heights and depths of the Blue Mountains but cleverly wrote as if she did.

Most of the famous walkers from history that come to mind are usually men. But have you met The Bluestockings? As a group, they fascinate. One particular Bluestocking, however, relates more specifically to my recent perambulations. Continue reading