Sixes

It was Jo’s idea, ten years ago now, and it’s become an annual event – mark the end of the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

It’s not quite as simple as that sounds, but working out what book might go where is a lovely way of looking back.

I haven’t done it every year, but as I seem to be out of the habit of writing about books I wanted to do something to round up what I have read.

I have read much more than I used to because a lot of things that I used to be able to do have fallen by the wayside, and I do miss writing about them but I start writing a little but never seem to finish because another book is always calling.

As usual, I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and to make sure that this is a celebration of books I’m happy to remember.

My favourite book of each six is starred.

SIX BOOKS BY AUTHORS WHO HAVE NEVER LET ME DOWN

‘The Corner that Held Them’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Summer Visits’ by Margery Sharp
‘In This House of Brede’ by Rumer Godden *
‘Miss Mole’ by E H Young
‘The Spring of the Ram’ by Dorothy Dunnett
‘The Bird in the Tree’ by Elizabeth Goudge

SIX BOOKS THAT DREW ME BACK INTO THE PAST

‘Ariadne’ by Jennifer Saint
‘Mrs England’ by Stacey Halls
‘The Lady Tree’ by Christie Dickason *
‘Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams
‘Pandora’ by Susan Stokes-Chapman
‘Matrix’ by Lauren Goff

SIX BOOKS WRITTEN BY WOMEN IN THE 20TH CENTURY THAT FELL OUT OF PRINT AND WERE LATER REISSUED

‘One Fine Day’ by Mollie Panter Downes
‘Strange Journey’ by Maud Cairnes
‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins
‘The Woods in Winter’ by Stella Gibbons
‘Frost at Morning’ by Richmal Crompton *
‘A Harp in Lowndes Square’ by Rachel Ferguson

SIX BOOKS HOLDING TALES OF MYSTERY AND INTRIGUE

‘The Crossing Places’ by Elly Griffiths *
‘The Moving Toyshop’ by Edmund Crispin
‘The Victoria Vanishes’ by Christopher Fowler
‘Death of a Bookseller’ by Edward J Farmer
‘Who Killed Charmian Karslake?’ by Annie Haynes
‘Through the Wall’ by Patricia Wentworth

SIX BOOKS THAT ARE WORKS OF NON-FICTION

‘One Woman’s Year’ by Stella Martin Currey
‘Seed to Dust’ by Marc Hamer
‘Parallel Lives’ by Phyllis Rose
‘The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop’ by Lewis Buzbee
‘All the Books of my Life’ by Sheila Kaye-Smith
‘Victoria the Queen’ by Julia Baird *

SIX BOOKS THAT HAVEN’T FITTED A CATEEGORY THAT I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE OUT

‘A Woman of Independent Means’ by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
‘The Ghost and Mrs Muir’ by R A Dick
‘A Single Thread of Moonlight’ by Laura Wood *
‘Dombey and Son’ by Charles Dickens
‘Bird of Passage’ by Catherine Czerkawska
‘The Long Road from Kandahar’ by Sara MacDonald

Do try this –  if you haven’t already – working out what book might go where really is a lovely way of looking back.

Trees: A Collection

‘From the attic window, high as a watch tower, from farm kitchen and dairy, from bedrooms set in the gable, we looked out upon trees, we gazed into their green depths and layered branches. The kitchen window hung level with the top of the beech trees on the slope below, and birds flew across the narrow neck of air to the shadowed hiding places. Trees pressed their bodies close to the stone wall around the fields, and gazed over the land. Great trees, sentinels and guardians, stood solitary in the meadows, free-growing elegant creatures, each of which had a special character of its own. They were our familiars, whom we knew very well.

They were part of our life, loved in an intimate way, watched and considered and talked about as if they were steadfast old friends, braving all weathers, sharing our way of living. Indeed, they were far more than ordinary friends to me, for they were my confidants and companions, and sometimes my enemies.

A tree should be regarded with such intensity that it reveals itself as a sentient being. So we contemplated the leafy trees in hedges and lanes, by the roads, and in the fields, and we knew them and would have recognised them anywhere if they had walked away. We saw the upward sweep of the fine trunks, the curling strength of the branches, and the lacy pattern of the twigs, year after year, and they were close to us as our own family. This realisation of trees has stayed with me, so wherever I go I make friends and nodding acquaintances, and the country is populated with these acquaintances.’

Alison Uttley

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‘Field Edge Track’ by Kathleen Caddick

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‘At the woodland edges, the purple finery of birch branches is slowly being replaced by lime green brightness. Winter-bare larch branches are being outfitted in bushy costumes as needled tresses sprout in jade and green and, at last, the solemn brown buds of ancient oak trees are opening, burnishing branch tips lightly and joyously in copper. On the peaty moorland, dark russet and chocolate stems of bog myrtle are painted bright orange as their flowers burst open with scents so fragrant and resinous that they are at once uplifting and healing.

In the heady, scented airs and currents, even when this lemon posset of spring newness is hurled about yet again by biting winds and snow flurries, the sap-rising rush of change is upon us, light-impelled, undeterred. And, above it all, the choruses of larks and cuckoos, undaunted by the frowning, still-winter-white tipped mountains. Spring has arrived in the Highlands.’

Annie Worsley

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‘Tannenwald’ by Gustav Klimt

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At Loschwitz above the city
The air is sunny and chill;
The birch-trees and the pine-trees
Grow thick upon the hill.

Lone and tall, with silver stem,
A birch-tree stands apart;
The passionate wind of spring-time
Stirs in its leafy heart.

I lean against the birch-tree,
My arms around it twine;
It pulses, and leaps, and quivers,
Like a human heart to mine.

One moment I stand, then sudden
Let loose mine arms that cling:
O God! the lonely hillside,
The passionate wind of spring!

Amy Levy

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‘Golden Tree’ by Annie Ovenden

* * * * * * * * *

‘In the spring, a year ago, I was wandering with a friend in Savernake Forest. I cannot tell how early or how late in the spring, for the season had poured down  rain and sun in absent-minded fashion, so that some of the flowers had been dilatory in appearing and others had hastened along sooner that was reasonable, though not too soon for welcome. Therefore on that glorious morning, wood anemones and primroses and violets and the first bluebells were all out together. conquering the green moss; the branches is the trees, not yet impenetrable with foliage, allowed the sun to pass through and slide softly down the tree-trunks into pools and puddles of golden light. I cannot remember that any birds were singing; my impression was that this delectable wood lay around us in clear silence. My companion remarked that it gave her a lovely slippery feeling of something not beyond but beside its own beauty, as though the whole scene was about to vanish at any moment; and I exclaimed, led by this remark to sudden discovery: “Of course. It’s Act III, Scene IV. It’s another part of the forest!” ‘

From ‘Another Part of the Forest’ by G.B. Stern

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‘Bluebell Woods’ by Emma Haworth

* * * * * * * * *

‘And then we all laughed exceedingly, as though the most splendid joke had been made, and before we had done we were out of the village and in the open country beyond, and could see my house and garden far away behind, glittering in the sunshine; and in front of us lay the forest, with its vistas of pines stretching away into infinity, and a drive through it of fourteen miles before we reached the sea. It was a hoar-frost day, and the forest was an enchanted forest leading into fairyland, and though Irais and I have been there often before, and always thought it beautiful, yet yesterday we stood under the final arch of frosted trees, struck silent by the sheer loveliness of the place. For a long way out the sea was frozen, and then there was a deep blue line, and a cluster of motionless orange sails; at our feet a narrow strip of pale yellow sand; right and left the line of sparkling forest; and we ourselves standing in a world of white and diamond traceries. The stillness of an eternal Sunday lay on the place like a benediction.’

From ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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‘Volterra’ by Mary-Louise Martin

* * * * * * * * *

‘It was English, and the wych-elm that she saw from the window was an English tree. No report had prepared her for its peculiar glory. It was neither warrior, nor lover, nor god; in none of these roles do the English excel. It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness, and the girth, that a dozen men could not have spanned, became in the end evanescent, till pale bud clusters seemed to float in the air.’

From ‘Howard’s End 

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‘Apple Tree Branches’ by Elizabeth Boott Duvenec

* * * * * * * * *

The green elm with the one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one, —
The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,
Harebell and scabious and tormentil,
That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,
Bow down to; and the wind travels too light
To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;
The gossamers wander at their own will.
At heavier steps than birds’ the squirrels scold.
The rich scene has grown fresh again and new
As Spring and to the touch is not more cool
Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might
As happy be as earth is beautiful,
Were I some other or with earth could turn
In alternation of violet and rose,
Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.
But if this be not happiness, — who knows?
Some day I shall think this a happy day,
And this mood by the name of melancholy
Shall no more blackened and obscured be.

Edward Thomas

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‘Trees’ by Léon Spilliaert

* * * * * * * * *

‘When she went out into the dark kitchen to fix her plants for the night, she used to stand by the window and look out at the white fields, or watch the currents of snow whirling over the orchard. She seemed to feel the weight of all the snow that lay down there. The branches had become so hard that they wounded your hand if you but tried to break a twig. And yet, down under the frozen crusts, at the roots of the trees, the secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one’s heart; and the spring would come again! Oh, it would come again!’

From ‘O Pioneers’ by Willa Cather

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The Final Novel of a Beloved Author

I thought that I had given up writing book reviews, but even though I gave up a more than a year ago – when my health became a problem and something had to give – I missed it and continued to think of what I would write about many of the books I have been reading.

When I read this book, I had so many thoughts whirling around my head that I knew I had to write about it. That wasn’t because it is a great book. It is some way from being a great book but it is by one of my favourite authors and it is a book that doesn’t entirely deserve the bad reputation that her very late work has.

When I ordered ‘Summer Visits’ from my library’s reserve stock it wasn’t with high hopes but because it was the only one of Margery Sharp’s novels for grown-ups that I hadn’t read. I try not to be a completist, but in this case I had to know for myself what exactly this book was.

I knew that it was her final novel, published in 1977, when she was 72 years old; and it was dedicated to her husband, as so many of her books were.

‘Summer Visits’ is a family saga centred on a big house in the country, telling the story of the family and the house from late in the reign of Queen Victoria to the days immediately after the second World War. The plot is wonderfully subversive, but it lacks the wit and the sparkle to be found in Margery Sharp’s earlier works. It is just as well written, wonderfully engaging and much of the time I really couldn’t predict what was going to happen.

The story begins with the purchase of that house in East Anglia by John Henry Braithwaite. He immediately changed its name to Cotton Hall; a tribute to the industry in which he had made his fortune. John Henry had two sons – an heir and a spare – who had both established themselves as lawyers, married well and were raising families of their own. He also had two daughters: one had married an architect and one remained at home with her father. She was far from devoted to him but she was philosophical about her situation, and only a little perturbed at the possibility of a fuss when her siblings made their summer visits and discovered the relationship that had blossomed between their father and his young housekeeper.

‘Mount House and Garden’ by Marianne North

They didn’t find out until John Henry married her, in the belief that he was the father of the two young children that she presented to him. He wasn’t, and the truth was quite complicated. There was two different mothers and two different fathers and in time the story would reveal what happened to all four of them.

His two sons and his elder daughter took the news better than his younger daughter had expected; but the family fractured when John Henry revealed that he had made a new will. They were disinherited and everything was left to his infant son. He stated, not unreasonably, that he had established his grown sons in the world but would probably not live long enough to do the same for his youngest boy, and so he would need an inheritance to establish himself.

That was the end of summer visits to East Anglia and the beginning of seaside holidays for three young families, which they found they rather liked.

The story follows those three families and the inhabitants of Cotton Hall. In time the younger generation comes to the fore, and the changing times are caught wonderfully and bring unexpected changes in the ownership and occupancy of Cotton Hall. None of the younger generation learn the secrets of the older generation, so they don’t see as the reader does that the ownership of Cotton Hall moves back on track at the very end of the book.

One strength of this book is its plot construction. The story was wonderfully unpredictable but I never doubted that the author knew  what she was doing, that she would forget nothing and that she would pick the right moments to stop and share details and the right moments to keep things moving along.

Another is its wide case of characters. Some of them live to a grand old age, some meet unusual ends and the family is completely reshaped by losses in the Great War. Two women – one a life-long spinster and one who became a widow when she was very young – took turns at the centre of the story. I loved the author’s appreciation of them, her understanding of two young men who didn’t follow the paths marked down for them, and her drawing of the more conventional family members.

‘Summer Visits’ is definitely not the book for anyone looking for a conventional or cosy family drama set in country house. I also loved the references to the author’s earlier novels. Sometimes it was a familiar theme but often it was the reuse of a name of a character I remember well. That made me wonder if Margery Sharp knew as she wrote that this would be her final novel.

Its weaknesses are some plot points that stretch credulity a little too far, and some errors of judgement by the author. I read those errors as mistakes by an elderly author who was trying to adapt to the tastes of the modern age but misjudging what would be palatable and what would not. We often say that we should evaluate books in the context of the era when they were written. We say less often – if at all – that we should consider the point in the author’s life or the arc of their writing career when the book was written.

This would undoubtedly have been a better book if it had been written when the author was at the height of her powers, but I think that it does gain something from being written at the very end of her writing life.

The ending was a little rushed, but it was right.

This is not one of the Margery Sharp novels that has been reissued, and now that I have read all of them once and some of them twice I can say that publishers have picked the right books and only missed ‘The Sun in Scorpio’ which is one of her best.

The other books that are out of print are not essential, I wouldn’t recommend investing time and money in tracking them down, but I would say pick them up if you have loved her other books, if you spot copies and can approach them with understanding.