The Captain’s Girl by Nicola Pryce

 

Captain's Girl
Image from Amazon.uk

Set in Cornwall, in 1793, The Captain’s Girl had all the right ingredients for my ideal read.  Although unashamedly narrow minded in my reading habits (all novels should be set no later than the 1950s; they should feature a heroine, preferably with some sort of tragic back story; they have to include romance as the main narrative thread) I decided to try a new author.  Nicola Pryce has written four books of the historical romance genre, three of which have been published and one which is coming soon.  I find she has a light and easy way of writing which is not too heavy on the description, but still gives you just enough of a sense of character and setting.  It was this which, when I read the first few pages, deceived me into thinking that this was going to be an enjoyable but pretty trashy read.  However, a few pages on and the story seemed suddenly to get richer and more – for want of a better word – intellectual, dealing with subjects such as the French Revolution, spies, a kidnapping and a court case, all of which were full of suspense and kept me reading for hours past my bedtime.

At the heart of this novel is a suitably unhappy heroine who longs for adventure but is trapped by the rules of society and the family into which she has been born.  Celia is surrounded by a large cast of characters, many of whom have their own interesting stories.  After finding out that the man to whom she is engaged at the beginning of the novel is cruel and unloving, she decides at last to take her life into her own hands and runs away from home.  Then the adventure begins, along with some Frenchman’s Creek style romance.  The Captain’s Girl was a joy to settle down to each evening, and I look forward to reading other books by Nicola Pryce.

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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 review of Poldark (contains spoilers)

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Image from The Independent Times

Poldark combines two of my greatest loves – Cornwall and, of course, period drama.  This second series was long awaited, as it had been over a year since the end of series one when the first episode was finally aired.

The first series saw the return of Captain Ross Poldark to his home in Cornwall after three years of fighting in the American War of Independence.  Here, he is dismayed to find that his father has died, his home is neglected and his former love, Elizabeth, has become engaged to his cousin, Francis.  He nevertheless picks himself up and between marrying his kitchen maid, Demelza and re-establishing his home, also becomes a figurehead to the people of his land by helping them to regain control of their homes and their tin mines from the greedy aristocratic Warleggan family.

When, in 2013, it was first announced that there was to be a remake of the classic and hugely popular Poldark (first shown in the 1970s) there was outrage from fans who believed that nothing could be better than the 1975 BBC version.  However, since then, this modern version has also enjoyed great success, fetching in an audience of 5.1 million viewers for the first episode of series two.

I cannot comment on the comparison between the two productions, as I have never seen the 1975 version.  Nor can I comment on whether Aidan Turner’s Poldark is true to the original character in Winston Graham’s series of novels.  However, I can review the series simply as I have seen it.

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Image from BBC website

The music and the scenery in this drama are both stunning.  The opening sequence gives me goose pimples each time it is shown, and I particularly liked the way that folk songs, usually sung by Demelza are woven into the soundtrack of many of the episodes.  This drama celebrates its location as much time is devoted to showing the breath-taking beauty of Cornwall –  its rugged, untamed cliffs, the glittering sea, the grand, elegant houses…they all combine to make this programme a pleasure to watch –  a treat for the eyes.  Let’s not forget the stunningly good looking cast too; they’re equally as indulgent to watch.  Aidan Turner, who has now become almost as famous for his topless Poldark scenes as Colin Firth became for his ‘wet shirt scene’ in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, plays a character who is very human and full of faults, despite being the hero of the piece.  In series two, I think we see more of this than in the first when, as far as I can remember, his good-guy status was pretty well fixed.  Now that he has been married to Demelza for some years, this series switches focus somewhat to examine Ross’ relationship with Elizabeth and those feelings which we cannot shake that he has never completely gotten over her.  This is, of course, is what lead to the controversial episode which caused all the outrage – the one in which he finally seduces Elizabeth, or perhaps it was the other way around.  Whichever it was, the only outrage I felt was at Ross’s betrayal of Demelza and I think the emotional fallout was played superbly by all the actors involved, particularly Eleanor Tomlinson.  The scenes in which Demelza toys with taking revenge on her unfaithful husband by sleeping with Captain McNeil were horribly believable to watch, but luckily her character was restored to form for any viewer who loves Demelza for her loyalty and innate goodness.

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Image from Daily Express website

There is also the relationship between Poldark and George Warleggan which takes precedence in this series.  After George effectively tries to get Poldark hanged in episode one, the tension understandably grows between the two, to the extent that George seems to be after everything that Ross holds dear – his mine, his family and even the supposed love of his life, Elizabeth.  This enmity between the two provides a gripping narrative for the second series that sees many of the other characters harmed or sometimes elevated in the viewers’ eyes.

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Image from BBC website

Poldark is not a cosy, reassuring period drama to watch on a Sunday night as, for example, a Jane Austen adaptation might be.  But it is exciting, visually stunning, passionate and engrossing.  This second series has certainly persuaded me to go back and re-watch the first series (which did not capture my imagination quite as much) and I am looking forward to series three.  Let’s hope it’s not such a long wait this time!

My Cousin Rachel Review

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In recent years, I have been growing fonder and fonder of Daphne du Maurier as an author.  My first encounter with her work was, I fear, a little too early, when I was too young to appreciate it and I found the long, descriptive passages that introduce her novel, Frenchman’s Creek, impossible to get past.  However, in recent years, I have had another go, not with this particular novel, but with possibly her most famous work, Rebecca and then with Jamaica Inn.  I loved them both, especially Jamaica Inn which I now regard as one of my favourite novels.

My Cousin Rachel has been sitting on my shelf for quite some time now.  I was saving it for when I would at last have some proper time to really get stuck in to another exciting, gripping and romantic story.  I took it down and skimmed the blub on the back.  Certain phrases jumped out at me: ‘orphaned’, ‘resolutely single’, ‘mysterious woman’, ‘grand house’, it was already ticking all of the boxes.  The actual experience of reading this novel was, however, far from what I had expected.  First of all, this story is not a romance.  I did suspect it might be for a few pages when the aforementioned ‘resolutely single’ and sardonic protagonist and narrator, Philip Ashley first meets his cousin Rachel after weeks of hating the thought of her.  Such a plot structure is used in novels such as Pride and Prejudice, North and South, etc.  I thought that was where this was going.  But this idea was quickly extinguished by the rather stronger strain of mystery that runs through this book.

Just as with Rebecca, in My Cousin Rachel, we as readers are at the mercy of the narrator and the way that he perceives things.  Thus, we are drawn into his claustrophobic, old fashioned, male-dominated world from the start.  No matter how well we might know Florence in Italy, or how many pictures we might have seen of it looking just lovely, when we go with Philip, we want to leave as soon as possible, because there is something very sinister about it.  Back in his large, lonely, dusty house in Cornwall, we breathe a sigh of relief, for we are home. Du Maurier paints a vivid picture of her settings, just as she does in her other novels, yet all the while, we feel somehow detached, perhaps because we are never told specifically when this novel is set (references to Philip’s cravat and Rachel’s dresses would suggest that it is sometime during the nineteenth century).  We are never given the name of the Ashley estate or even the location.  And all we have to rely on for what is happening and how people are behaving is Philip’s account.  Even this is, at times such as when he becomes very ill, made blatantly untrustworthy.

Philip Ashley is a complex character and, as with Rachel, my opinion of him was tossed and turned about several times throughout the novel.  In general, because he is the protagonist and seemingly harmless, I was disposed to like him, or at least to sympathise with him when it looked like things were not going his way.  Rachel always seemed like a much more confident and controlled character.  She did not need my support.  Even in those moments of weakness that du Maurier allows her, I could never fully trust in her because of the seeds of doubt that Philip had already planted.

When one reflects on the plot of this book, not much actually happens.  After Philip’s trip to Florence in the first few chapters, the rest of the action all takes place in Cornwall, in and around his house.  So much of what is described is the characters’ day to day lives: their visits to church, their walks around the gardens, the occasional trip to the bank.  Nevertheless, this story is just as compelling as that of Rebecca, and just as mysterious.  It is the characters who engage our interest.  The ways in which they speak, the expressions which Philip perceives and reads into in Rachel’s face and movements, the emotions that he describes – these are the tools that du Maurier uses to keep us hooked and to keep us guessing as to who can really be trusted in this novel.

The ending felt very abrupt to me – I think that that is what du Maurier probably intended.  It was so abrupt that I had to re-read that final page at least three times before I could conjure up any emotions about what had happened.  Then, of course, I tried to unpick it.  Had there been any clues as to what was about to happen?  Were we meant to expect this?  Was it in fact an accident?  But in the end, I was left to keep on guessing.  Even the repetition of the opening two lines to the novel used so effectively to end it proved more to tantalise than to explain.  Perhaps that is why My Cousin Rachel, first published in 1951, continues to be such a successful and widely read mystery novel.  Du Maurier leaves it open to the reader to form their own opinions of Rachel, though everyone I have spoken to has come to the same conclusion as myself.  It will be interesting to see what spin the upcoming film adaptation (directed by Roger Michell and due for release in 2017) will put on it.