It’s a Mystery: A Death in the Small Hours, by Charles Finch

In this sixth entry in the Charles Lenox series, many changes have occurred in his life. For one thing, Charles is now a member of the House of Commons, and finds himself flooded with the demands of his new position. Perhaps more importantly, he and wife Lady Jane are now the parents of Sophie, with whom Charles is charmingly besotted. When chosen to give the opening speech to the Parliament, he decides that this great honor deserves his full attention, and to escape the distractions of London, he takes his family to visit his uncle, who lives in the countryside. But the quiet village of Plumbley will soon besiege Charles with distractions of a different sort, of the type that lead to murder.

Death in the Small Hours is a very mannerly novel, rich with the conventions of upper class Victorian society. The mystery itself is tightly constructed and multi -layered, and Charles is delighted to have the chance to flex his investigative muscles once more.There are plenty of suspects, but little hard evidence, and it isn’t until his uncle is kidnapped that the various threads start to come together in a surprising fashion.

Charles himself is somewhat prissy, in a Poirot-ish sort of way, and Lady Jane is a model Victorian wife and mother. All of the characters, in fact, could have been invented by Agatha Christy herself, such typically English types are they. As a result, the story comes across more as drawing room performance than sharp edged suspense.

History News: “Demon Traps” and King James I

How interesting!

A number of 17th century demon traps, the so-called “witchmarks” intended to keep evil spirits away from a member of royalty, have been discovered at Knole House, Sevenoaks, Kent.

Knole House – now located in a medieval deer-park – originally was an Archbishop’s palace, the house passed through royal hands to the Sackville family – Knole’s inhabitants from 1603 to today.

The marks were found under the floorboards and surrounding the fireplace of a room which was built for King James I, in anticipation of his planned visit to Sevenoaks.

The etchings, also known as apotropaic marks, are described to be interlocking, chequered and v-shaped.

They have been hidden for centuries and are believed to be linked to the  plot in which some Catholics, most famously Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up James I, the first of the Stuart kings of England.

 

“A few months before the marks were engraved, the infamous plot caused mass hysteria to sweep across the county. Accusations of demonic forces and witches at work were rife.

The etchings, also known as apotropaic marks, are described to be interlocking, chequered and v-shaped.

They were thought to form a ‘demon trap’, warding off demonic possessions and have been dated back to 1606 by archaeologists who used tree ring dating methods,” according to Kent Online.

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Experts from the National Trust believe the markings were carved by craftsmen working for the owner of Knole house, Thomas Sackville, in anticipation of a visit from the King – a visit he never made.

These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century.

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“King James I had a keen interest in witchcraft and passed a witchcraft law, making it an offence punishable by death and even wrote a book on the topic entitled Daemonologie,” said James Wright, an archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).“These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century.

“To have precisely dated these apotropaic marks so closely to the time of the Gunpowder Plot, with the anticipated visit from the King, makes this a rare if not unique discovery.

“Using archaeology to better understand the latent fears of the common man that were heightened by the Plot is extremely exciting and adds huge significance to our research about Knole and what was happening at that time.”

 

Excerpts from MessageToEagle.com

 

Monday Morning Poem: The Old Stone House

by Walter de la Mare

Nothing on the grey roof, nothing on the brown

Only a little greening where the rain drips down;

Nobody at the window, nobody at the door,

Only a little hollow which a foot once wore;

But still I tread on tiptoe, still tiptoe on I go,

Past nettles, porch, and weedy well, for oh, I know

A friendless face is peering, and a still clear eye

Peeps closely through the casement

as my step goes by.

Modern Lit: Our Picnics in the Sun, by Morag Joss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our Picnics in the Sun is a quiet, deeply introspective book, one which, for the first half, creates the impression that it is little more than a slice of life tale. The focus is the life that Howard and Deborah Morgan have tried, quite unsuccessfully, to build for themselves by living in tune with nature in a tumbledown cottage on Exmoor, aptly called Stoneyridge.  Their son Adam, now grown, rejected his parents’ philosophies, and decamped as soon as possible for a job that could provide him with all that was missing from his childhood. A picture of this family’s strained relationship is related alternately by husband, wife, and son. Howard emerges as a virtual dictator with iron clad ideals, and Deborah as his often unwilling minion. They are as poor now as when they so hopefully set off on their life together so many years ago.

Then, while practicing yoga in the pig shed, Howard suffers a stroke. He survives, and Deborah is left to care for him alone. While this gives her somewhat more autonomy, the couple is more poverty stricken than ever, and she can’t possible manage the house, chickens and sheep along with her patient, who can speak only with halting difficulty. From this point forward, the novel turn from prosaic to masterful. The depiction of Deborah’s struggles as caretaker is brilliant, restrained yet so vivid that the reader can feel what she’s feeling. When Adam fails to return home for a long awaited birthday celebration, her anguish is palpable. This may be one of the most effective evocation of loneliness ever written. Rescue comes in the form of a visitor,  a young man by the name of Theo, whose neediness is immediately evident to Deborah and provides an outlet for her frustrated maternal urges.

As the second half unfolds, there is a growing sense of isolation and a vague sort of menace. The moors, upon which the eponymous picnics took place, are a splendid metaphor for the reality of the Morgans’ existence. Suspense builds, although there are no overt threats of any kind. But Deborah, encouraged by Theo, begins to question all the choices she has made. The memories that she recounts are striking, especially the one she most painfully regrets. Perhaps the novel’s conclusion shouldn’t be so startling, but I never saw it coming.

Its darker overtones notwithstanding, Our Picnics in the Sun is  lovely and memorable, lyrical in many places and dramatic. It will linger in my mind for a long time.

The Classics: The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

Ethelberta Chickering grew up determined to raise her status in the world, and when the son of the house where she served as governess proposed marriage, she agreed with alacrity. Her mother-in-law is snooty, but when Ethelberta is suddenly widowed while on her honeymoon, she takes the young woman under her wing. When the old lady dies, Ethelberta’s sole means of support is gone, and, frantic about losing her social position, she determines to marry as soon as possible. Granted the use of the family townhouse in London, Berta recruits her entire family, bumpkins all, to pose as her servants until she can snag herself as husband.  She is young, beautiful, and conniving, and has no trouble attracting suitors. The plot thickens.

This is far from Thomas Hardy’s typical moralistic, tragic tale of woe. Subtitled “A Comedy in Chapters”, the novel is not funny in the modern sense of the word,  there are some remarkably droll moments. Rather, it lacks his signature tragic ending. But one of the themes prevalent in most of his work concerns problems of sexuality and marriage, and that is the case in Ethelberta. It also focuses upon Victorian restrictions upon women, and social inequalities, and some critics characterize him as an early feminist in his leanings, which seems to be the case here. Ethelberta is not a vacuous woman, but one torn between her dread of returning to her humble origins and her genuine concerns for the welfare of all the members of her family.  While she does have her flighty side, so do her male acquaintances, and she is determinedly singleminded. Romantic love is a notion that she rejects;  although she is powerfully attracted to Christopher Julian, an impoverished music teacher, she never considers him an acceptable match. In her pursuit of what she views as happiness, she is not unlike many of her modern contemporaries.

Hardy, of course, writes in a 19th century style, with 19th century sensibilities, which in places becomes tedious. But his books revolve around timeless themes, and Ethelberta is no exception. As for the ending, for Hardy, it’s a surprisingly happy one.

 

Historical Fiction: The House at Tyneford, by Natasha Solomons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I felt the shadows draw around the house. They went up with the blackouts while I was sleeping, but when Mrs. Ellsworth unfastened the blinds, the shadows remained.” Elise Landau, main character.

1938 Vienna. The Landau family is Jewish, and they had a lovely, almost idyllic life, full of music and literature,   until the Nazis interfered. Now they must endure a painful separation, fleeing to safer places for the duration. Eighteen year old Elise must go to Tyneford, England and work as a housemaid to the Rivers family, of the landed gentry. Her change in circumstances is difficult and trying, but when Kit, the heir to the estate, comes home on a visit from college, he and Elise fall in love, much against convention. To marry one’s maid, and a Jewish one at that, is simply not done. But the Mr. Rivers is kind to Elise, selling a valuable painting to acquire the funds to bribe Austrian officials into issuing  exit visas for her parents.  Then war, at last, breaks out, and each day becomes a waiting and hoping game.

There are two story lines in this novel, both centering upon the massive changes that war imposes on “life as usual” for civilians.  The main thread concerns all the heartache and obstacles that young Elise must endure and overcome, and the other, the struggles faced by the Rivers family and their staff as they helplessly watch their traditional way of life crumble around them.  This is a character driven book, in which the butler and housekeeper, Kit’s social companions, and various villagers are drawn as palpably as are Elise, Kit, and his father. The plot is simple and unfolds slowly. Natasha Solomons is truly gifted in her ability to conjure evocative, often poetic images, the atmosphere as a whole  charming but decidedly melancholy. And she deserves credit for preventing the elements of romance from overwhelming the story and obscuring its  themes.  True to form, the ending is bittersweet. While some reviewers have criticized it as unrealistic and too convenient,  for me, it hit the right note. Though quite different from Austen’s Jane Eyre, in some places I found Tyneford somewhat reminiscent in terms of location and the plight of the heroine.

An interesting side note: Tyneford, and much of the novel’s plot, are based upon an actual Dorset village, Tyneham, where remnants of both the manor house and the village now comprise a museum of sorts.

Historical Fiction: Martha Peake, by Patrick McGrath

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

English author Patrick McGrath has been hailed as the master of the neo-gothic, but he prefers to describe himself as the creator of “stories of love and madness”.  I haven’t read his other novels, which have generally been highly acclaimed, but having devoured Martha Peake, I can say that the gothic and romantic certainly blend seamlessly here. Told by two unreliable narrators, decades afterward, Martha’s tale plays out in four  18th century settings, each equally dark and threatening. Harry Peake makes his first appearance in  Cornwall, where he’s a good looking, hard drinking smuggler who loses his wife and most of his family in a fire that he caused. His own injuries have left him a bitter, hulking hunchback. He removes with his one loyal daughter, Martha, to London,where, crazed by guilt and grief, Harry tries to expiate himself through humiliation, by displaying his spine nightly to strangers in a seedy bar room. He draws the attention of macabre anatomist Lord Drogo, who employs his own personal resurrection man and displays misshapen human bones at his mansion in the marshes.  Martha, who loves her father dearly, becomes terrified about what Drogo might have in mind for Harry. When an unspeakable calamity befalls her, Martha has no choice but to flee alone to America, which is on the brink of revolution.  But she can’t forget her father, who was alive when she fled, and the choices she makes as a result will make her a symbol of  the revolution itself.

The extremes of grotesquery and madness are there, along with injustice and poverty, sordid backstreets, crumbling estates, and foggy cliffs, but what is also there, for those who care to look, are the issues and philosophies of the era. It may even remind you why the war for independence was fought, both the noble and the selfish reasons. To McGrath’s credit, he manages to deliver a satisfactory ending while also leaving a sense of mystery about some of the tale’s most vivid images (no spoilers, so I won’t elaborate).  Martha Peake is a finely crafted, multilayered novel, one that deserves to be savored and considered rather than rushed.