Before the Rains, by Dinah Jefferies

 

Before the Rains
Image from amazon.uk

  Before the Rains is the second book I’ve read by Dinah Jefferies.  This author has a very clever way of transporting her reader to the countries and places that she describes through her highly vivid use of imagery.  While in some books, lots of description can be off putting, this is never the case in Jefferies’ novels.  In fact, for me, it is part of the main essence.  The delicious little nuggets of setting description Jefferies distributes throughout Before the Rains give just enough detail to immerse the reader without slowing the pace of the narrative.

As with The Tea Planter’s Wife, Before the Rains features an English heroine getting to grips with the exciting and colourful culture of an exotic country.  Eliza, a refreshingly slightly older heroine had been living in India until she was ten when her father died.  After that, she and her mother returned to England until, at the age of 29, she returns to India, sent as a photographer to capture images of India under British rule.  Satisfyingly, this leads to intrigue, mystery, forbidden romance and the uncovering of long kept secrets.  This story is more political than The Tea Planter’s Wife, as it deals with the repercussions that happen when one culture attempts to rule over another without enough understanding and, in some cases, compassion.  Sometimes, the way in which Jeffries brings this to our attention is blunt and even brutal.  Sometimes, it takes a back seat to the main romance, but it is always there and forms a poignant backdrop to the action taking place.

The main theme that emerged for me from this story was that of life’s trials and the triumph of hope.  The plot, characters and setting are haunting and provide food for thought long after the novel has been put down.

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Poldark Series Three – a review (with spoilers)

The third series of Poldark dealt with some pretty meaty subjects: The French Revolution, PTSD, marital infidelity and a foot fetish to name just a few.  It also saw the introduction of some new characters and the exit of a few old favourites.  In spite of having so much to fit in, I felt that the pace and narrative only really started to get going during the latter half of the series.  This is when the episodes finally assumed their usual gripping quality.

R and D the sun

 

As usual, the marriage between Ross and Demelza was rocky to begin with and remained so throughout the series, getting worse with the introduction of a new love interest for Demelza – Hugh Armitage.  As Ross returned to form and got up to his old tricks with Elizabeth later on in the series, I found myself slightly rooting for Armitage, even if I did also feel a little disappointed when Demelza finally yielded to his advances.

Hugh

The ending of this series for Ross and Demelza was interesting, with Ross accepting his wife, who has probably been unfaithful, into his arms without a word and without a smile.  Unfamiliar as I am with both the books and the original TV series, I wonder if Demelza and Ross will stay together into the fourth series, or if she will disappear into the sunset with Armitage.  Something tells me she will put being a mother before any desires of her own.

 

 

So that was all very exciting.  Rather less thrilling was the love-at-first-sight romance between Drake and Morwenna.  It was a lovely idea but I would have liked to get to know these characters more before their meeting.  I would have liked to see their romance develop and to understand why they were attracted to one another aside from just their physical attributes.D and M mIRROR  Nevertheless, this also got more interesting with the introduction of the ridiculous Osborne Whitworth and his unhappy marriage to Morwenna.  After this, I finally found myself starting to buy into the love between her and Drake and I hope it works out for them.

Osborne

I thought it was refreshing and unusual to see Dr Ennis returning from his imprisonment in France with PTSD.  We hear a lot about this now and it is sometimes portrayed on screen but rarely in connection with conflicts that go as far back as the Napoleonic wars.  Of course, there must have been people who suffered with it and it was interesting of the writers to bring this to our attention.  Ennis seems to have made a speedy recovery, however, and is now openly celebrating his marriage to Caroline.

Finally, the marriage between Elizabeth and George has been about as tumultuous as that between Ross and Demelza, with George at last beginning to suspect that Valentine may not be his son.  I find Elizabeth a perplexing character and cannot all together dislike her as other people I have spoken to do.  That she is a snob, and values the finer things in life cannot be denied.  Also, that she is weak willed and easily led by those with a lower sense of morality than herself is also obvious, and it is a shame.  Sometimes, it is not too difficult to see the girl whom Ross remembers he was once head over heels in love with.  George was, as usual, smarmy, self-interested, and seemed more ruthless than usual in this series.  A character I really enjoyed watching was Geoffrey Charles, who, after the departure of Aunt Agatha, keeps the Poldark candle burning at Trenwith.  But mostly, I like him because he reminds me of Francis.  Things were better when he was around…

Geoffrey Cgarles radiotimes

Overall, despite its slow start, I enjoyed this third series of Poldark and there are plenty of loose ends to be either tied up or taken in an intriguing direction in series 4.

The Beekeeper’s Daughter by Santa Montefiore

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Image from Amazon.co.uk

The Beekeeper’s Daughter, by Santa Montefiore is, strictly speaking, only partially historical fiction, depending on your definition.  It is set over three different eras – the 1930s (which is the historical bit), the 1970s (arguably historical for some) and the 1990s (hopefully, we’re not considering this historical yet!).

Grace is the warm and unaffected daughter of a beekeeper, who lives in a little village in Dorset.  Her mother has died before the story begins, so Grace’s relationship with her father, Arthur is close and mutually dependent.  I felt that the character of Arthur and the bond that he has with his daughter is one of the sweetest and most heart-warming aspects of this novel.  However, when he dies suddenly, our heroine is left feeling bereft and cannot bear the idea of being on her own.  Very soon after his death, Grace finds herself torn between two men who also hold very special places in her heart: the handsome aristocrat with whom she has been in love since she was a teenager, or Freddie, the faithful friend she has known all her life.  Whatever decisions Grace makes, it is easy to support her.  Montefiore has created a very likable and honest heroine for her novel, to whom it is easy to relate.

These decisions go on the affect the rest of Grace’s life, and that of her daughter, Trixie, whose own love story Montefiore leads us through sensitively and sensuously.  The secrets that weigh heavily on the shoulders of several of the characters in this novel are intriguing and keep you guessing, so that The Beekeeper’s Daughter does not feel simply like a romance, but also like a story of mystery and suspense.

There is a spiritual side to this story that I found surprising, but moving too.  The deceased continue to haunt the living throughout their lives, sometimes as images, sometimes ideas, sometimes as a tangible presence and sometimes simply as memories.  Through this unusual plot device, and through the feelings and actions of her characters, Montefiore gives a clear message in this novel for the soul; love and every person’s basic need for it is unapologetically and unconstrainedly at the heart of this immersive and emotional story.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace
Image from amazon.in

Alias Grace, By Margaret Atwood is a book I have returned to ten years after first reading it for my A-Level in English Literature.  I was blessed with a teacher at the time, who allowed us to explore the novel and highlight parts that appealed to and inspired us, simply because they did, and not because they were in tune with any particular syllabus requirements.  Perhaps that is the reason why I, unlike many others, have been able to recall a text I have had to study with fondness.  A few thought-provoking lines and strong images had remained in my mind over the years and after spotting it still on the shelf of my childhood bedroom, I determined to visit the novel again.

It was better the second-time round for many reasons, the main one being that Atwood’s leisurely pace and attention to detail produce a narrative that is so rich, it needs to be savoured and appreciated.  The novel is based on the largely untold and unknown story of Grace Marks, a Victorian girl, who at the age of sixteen was accused of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery in Canada.  After having her sentence commuted to life imprisonment, rather than death, she spends her days in a penitentiary, and is visited by an idealistic young doctor, Simon Jordan, who hopes to awaken the memories he believes Grace has been unconsciously suppressing of the day of the murder.  More importantly, he hopes that they will reveal just how involved she was.  Through the conversations that pass between the two characters, we learn about Grace’s early life in Ireland, the treacherous voyage she suffered over to Canada, and her years spent in service before the fateful day.  The characters are fully dimensional and layered to keep readers guessing and changing their minds about them.  Grace is, in one sense, incredibly truthful about the realities of lower class Victorian life, and in another, she is wholly deceptive and we, along with Simon Jordan are never sure about how honest she is being with her audience.

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From murderpedia.org

This is a consuming and emotional read that has the power to completely take you in.  As well as having the obvious appeal of historical fiction, it is also a very thought provoking study of psychology.  But be warned that its candid subject matter means that it is entirely different from the escapism of say, a Jane Austen novel.

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

 tea-planter The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies is a beautiful book.  I believe I first came to it because I had seen it on a recommended books list, and although it is slightly more modern than my usual choice, I really enjoyed this novel for its references to early 20th century fashion, to events of the time, but most of all, for its heart rending story.  Apart from a prologue set in 1913, the main parts of this narrative take place in the mid-1920s to 30s.  For those interested in historical fashion, there are plenty of references to the dropped waistlines and hairstyles of the 1920s, through to the butterfly sleeves and two piece suits of the 1930s.

With shadows of a gothic romance, this story concerns a young and naïve heroine, Gwendolyn, who has married a man much older than herself, and who has a dark and secretive past.  The novel is set in Ceylon which is where Gwen’s husband, Laurence owns a tea plantation.  Not having travelled nearly enough, I wondered whether the setting of the novel would put me off – I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to imagine what it was really like in Sri Lanka.  But Dinah Jefferies does such a good  – such an evocative – job of describing the scenery, the foliage, the colours, scents, sounds and the weather that whenever I took this novel out to read, I found myself utterly transported.  Indeed, I think it’s made me want to travel more.

The characters in this novel are very compelling.  Apart from the hero and heroine, there is Verity, Gwen’s petulant and unpleasant sister in law; Christina, a former flame of Laurence’s and Ravi – a charming and handsome Sinhalese man who remains enigmatic throughout.  I have named just a few, but each one is carefully sculpted and thought out and, just like the setting, they are all very physical.

The plot to the story mainly revolves around Gwen’s introduction to her new life as a married woman in a foreign country.  Having grown up in a privileged household in England, she is swept off her feet by the handsome and successful Laurence.  Although it is clear from the start that the couple share a deep love, Gwen later remarks more than once that she was perhaps too young when she married him, especially in light of what has befallen her.  She leaves her family and her home, and goes to live in Ceylon, where she has to get used to running her own household, dealing with new people and to the ways in which different people, races and cultures regard each other.  This, on its own, provides an absorbing narrative, but it is after Gwen becomes pregnant that the plot really thickens and becomes darker, more compulsive and more affecting.

The Tea Planter’s Wife is – in places – not an easy read.  It is emotional and there is a feeling when one reads it of its realism.  There are certain writers whom the reader can trust not to do anything too upsetting; not to throw anything out there that is too unsettling.  Not so with Dinah Jefferies.  But it all fits; it is all believable and it all combines to create a truly absorbing, resonant and edifying novel.

A comparison of the different versions of Far from the Madding Crowd

1967

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image from wikipedia.org

 

This was, as far as I am aware, the first film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.  It was directed by John Schlesinger and is the favourite version of many due to its deeply atmospheric feel.  The role of Bathsheba is played by Julie Christie.  I was not sure about her at first; she has a real ‘60s vibe and look about her even when dressed in her Victorian costumes which messed with my sense of immersion somewhat.  However, she grew on me and Christie plays an endearing Bathsheba who likes to think she knows best yet spends the entire film openly questioning the decisions she has made.  Alan Bates plays a suitably protective Gabriel Oak, though this is not the version in which I feel we see the best or depth of his character.  Terence Stamp plays Sergeant Troy, and again, I did not find him particularly believable in this role at first but the chemistry between him and Christie later convinced me otherwise.  Interestingly, the two actors had a romance off screen too, which is referred to in the Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’.

One of the best things about this film is the music.  It includes the English folksongs, ‘One Morning in May’, and ‘Bushes and Briars’, both of which compliment the story hauntingly, and the soundtrack in general has a very rustic yet brooding feel to it that suits the fatalistic nature of the story.  The main characters are accompanied in true Hardy style by a host of interesting and tangible side-line characters, acted superbly by actors such as Brian Rawlinson and Fiona Walker, who watch as the protagonists make their decisions and their errors.

1998

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image from imdb website

The next version of Far from the Madding Crowd was made in 1998 and starred Paloma Baeza and Nathaniel Parker.  It was a television mini-series, shown on ITV, and was the first version that I saw.  Due to its length and the time that it devotes to the narrative and character development, this is my favourite version.  Baeza’s Bathsheba matures throughout the film, as she does in the book and there is not such a feeling that she has simply settled for Gabriel, as there is in the 1967 version, but rather that she has come to realise her true feelings and to notice the merit of the man who has stood by her throughout the years.  The scene in which Gabriel proposes is particularly touching and is accompanied by the lovely pastoral music that introduces and runs throughout the narrative.  One of the things I like most about this version is, as mentioned before, the attention to characterisation.  Nigel Terry and Jonathan Firth give brilliant, emotional performances as Boldwood and Troy and present us with fully rounded characters whom we can dislike, pity and also empathise with.  Unlike in the 1967 version, the story of Fanny Robin is followed as a side-line plot to the main story and we see something of how she ends up at Casterbridge Workhouse towards the end.

Natasha Little plays a slightly more mature and passionate Fanny, so it is easier to understand what Troy feels for her and how once he wanted to marry her.  This version feels a little more polished than the earlier ‘60s version, which some may feel does not reflect the feel of Hardy’s novel, but if it is the characters that one is interested in, then this is the version I would recommend.

2015

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image from  telegraph.co.uk

The most recent version of Far from the Madding Crowd was released in 2015 and starred Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts.  This is a very pleasing film to look at, with beautiful cinematography and another compelling soundtrack.  However, it is the one I have the least to say about, firstly because I have only seen it once, and secondly because it did not leave a very lasting impression on me.  One thing that did intrigue me was the decision to cast Schoenaerts as a rather dishy Gabriel Oak.  The merits of Oak’s character in the novel and in the two older adaptations have always been his loyalty, his patience, his perceptiveness and his protectiveness.  I therefore thought it would be interesting to see how an Oak who was also notably attractive would work alongside the contrary and impressionable Bathsheba.  The result provided an intriguing contrast to the youthful, delicate features of Tom Sturridge’s Sergeant Troy, suggesting Bathsheba’s transition from girlhood to womanhood in her preference in the end for a ‘real man’.

One thing which disappointed me about this version was one of the key scenes in which Troy returns to re-claim Bathsheba at Boldwood’s party.  In the novel and in the earlier versions, shortly prior to this, Bathsheba has finally agreed to marry Boldwood at the end of six years.  It is therefore a little more fathomable when, at the unlikely reappearance of Troy, Boldwood at last loses his mind and shoots him dead.  The problem is that in this film, that particular conversation is not included and so events seem to escalate from zero to one hundred with no clear reason.  The motivation for Boldwood shooting Troy alluded my partner who accompanied me to see this film and I wondered if it might also do the same for most people unfamiliar with the original story.

This film delivers a version of Far from the Madding Crowd which gives the viewer some lovely scenery, some good looking actors and the gist of the story.  It is worth a watch if you are looking for something romantic, and with a bit of an edge.

 

To Walk Invisible: A Review (contains spoilers!)

 

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Image from Daily Express

I first saw that the BBC was going to make a drama about the Brontë sisters a few months ago, and I have been looking forward to it ever since. The Brontë sisters are some of my favourite authors and reading Jane Eyre at the impressionable age of 15 was, I would say, the beginning of an interest bordering on obsession which has lasted for years.

To Walk Invisible was directed and written by Sally Wainwright, and aired on BBC One on 29th December: a festive TV treat.  It began with a surreal opening scene, featuring the four surviving Brontë siblings playing one of their favourite childhood games, set in their own fictional world of Gondal.  This is pretty much all we see of their childhood and next thing we know, the siblings are grown adults; the girls busy writing and going for walks across the dramatic Yorkshire moors, and Branwell is drinking himself into an early grave.  All of the actors were well-cast for their roles.  I particularly liked Chloe Pirrie as Emily Brontë.  She gave a very earthy yet at times, very impassioned, portrayal of Emily that seemed to reflect the characters from her only published novel, Wuthering Heights.  Charlie Murphy played Anne as she is always shown to be: sweet tempered, gentle and a bit of a pushover.  I did not warm to Finn Atkins’ Charlotte Brontë, but then neither did I warm to the (what I assume to be accurate) account of the real-life Charlotte I have come across in several biographies.  Of course, Jonathan Pryce could not fail to give a compelling and empathetic performance as the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Adam Nagaitis was a pathetic and at times, hateful Branwell.

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Image from radiotimes.co.uk

The first half of this drama was rather slow, I felt, and for those of us who may already know a few facts about the Brontës, it was a somewhat frustrating pace.  In particular, the drama seemed to focus very heavily on Branwell and how he drank.  I felt it was a shame for the drama not to show much of the childhood of these extraordinary people.  It might have added context to the way in which the sisters treated Branwell in their adult life.  I also felt it was something of a disservice to show only this side of Branwell, which sadly is pretty much all he is ever known for anyway.  Given that in one of the final scenes, the famous portrait of the three Brontë sisters is shown, it might have been nice to have had the artist – Branwell Brontë – credited earlier.  His end was sad and untimely and self-inflicted, but that is not all that there was to him and it is interesting to consider what he might have achieved had alcohol and drugs not had such a hold over him.

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Image from wikipedia

The pace picked up a little once the girls began to write their most famous novels and sought out publishers for them.  The scene in which Charlotte tells her father that she is the famous author of Jane Eyre is particularly touching and one gets a real sense of how brave, how thrifty and how ground-breaking these young women were.  The script alludes to the fact that at the time, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre were all viewed as fresh and radical.  It gives an idea also of how celebrated Charlotte was in her own lifetime and how successful.  This is further accentuated in another charming scene when Charlotte and Anne visit London and reveal themselves to their publishers.

After this, the drama moves quickly towards its tragic and, in my opinion all too abrupt close.  Inevitably, Branwell drinks himself to death and the sisters have to deal with the aftermath.  Charlotte and Patrick are shown in tears – a hint of what was to come.  The scenes we then view are from the modern day: images of the Brontë parsonage as it is now with its plastic covers protecting the table at which the novels were written and its bright and airy visitor centre and shop.  I liked the contrast and how tangible it made the history feel.  However, what I did not like was that the end of Emily and Anne’s lives was relegated to some typed text at the bottom of the screen, and the odd choice not to feature the rest of Charlotte’s.  Although sad, I think it a shame that we did not see how Charlotte dealt with the death of her siblings, or how went on to be celebrated further and to marry before she died of pneumonia in 1854.

I do not know if the writer had a specific purpose in showing only this small section of the life of the Brontë family, but as a viewer and a fan, it did seem that several important episodes which might have shed a little more light on the quiet and largely unfamiliar Brontë story, were unfortunately omitted.  That being said, To Walk Invisible was an interesting drama and worth watching for the performances of the actors.

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Image from radiotimes.co.uk