Hazel McHaffie

Georgette Heyer

A Scottish mystery

OK, duty done! I duly persisted to the end of Georgette Heyer’s mighty tome on Lord John of Bedford. So I’ve earned the pleasure of reading the book I was itching to get into: The Woman who Walked into the Sea, bought in the Outer Hebrides last month. And memories of those endless golden beaches, turquoise seas, alluring bays, came flooding back.

The author, Mark Douglas-Home, – yep, he is indeed the nephew of the former prime-minister, Alec Douglas-Home – is a journalist turned author, with an interesting career start: as a student he edited a University anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa and got himself deported! Now there’s tale to tell!! He now lives more quietly in Edinburgh and this is his second novel.

The story’s set on the North West coast of Scotland where, on 9 September 1983, a heavily pregnant Megan Bates walked across the sands of a remote beach into the cold Atlantic sea, and kept on walking. She was 33 years old and was wearing a loose white dress and a raffia hat with a broad red ribbon round it. Or so it was said. But the day before the sighting of Megan walking to her death, a baby girl was abandoned at the main door of Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, just before midnight, in a cardboard box, wrapped only in towels. There was no note, nothing to identify her apart from an envelope taped to the side of the box containing a brooch featuring violets, pinned to a small rectangular section cut from a green woollen cardigan. Could this have been Megan’s illegitimate child? Because of the brooch, the staff named the baby Violet.

26 years later, following a tip off from a social worker from Inverness, Violet Wells is searching for clues as to her biological mother’s life and intentions. Her journey takes her to the island where Megan lived and died. But the good people of Poltown give her a strange reception: there’s a local beach-combing farmer who says he loved Megan but who was accused by the police of killing her; a bitter elderly lady who was in service but has been soured by her treatment since the death of her employer; a stranger who attempts to abduct her. It seems the whole community is conspiring to keep its secrets buried and nothing is what it seems. Even Orasaigh Cottage, Megan’s rented home, is stripped of personality and bereft of any trace of her existence. And yet her possessions are preserved in a room in the ramshackle building belonging to a boy/man who believes her still alive.

Cal McGill is a private investigator and oceanographer brought in to locate things and people lost at sea, and currently not at all sure he does families any favours by doing so. He’s intrigued by this young woman who has suddenly left her flat in Glasgow and her four year old daughter, Anna, and come to this far corner, obsessed by her personal quest, reticent about sharing her own story. His knowledge of tides and flotsam makes him question the newspaper and police accounts of that time a quarter of a century ago. But his interest in this woman and her strange history soon leads to his personal safety being threatened as well as Violet’s.

Subtly, little by little, local characters let slip details and together Violet and Cal piece together a fragmented account – a tale of greed and jealousy, cover up and lies – until the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place and the ugly truth is revealed.

It’s been likened to a Ruth Rendell mystery. I wouldn’t personally rank it in that school of writing but I enjoyed the unravelling and of course, the exploration of the parent-child bond as well as the importance of knowing one’s roots; both slot neatly into my own current preoccupations.

A relaxing diversion before getting back into my own novel which is now on the downward slope to a conclusion. Very exciting to be counting down.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Unseen unsung dedication

I was a teenager when I discovered Georgette Heyer, and by the age of 24, I had acquired most of her Regency novels from secondhand book shops  – lighthearted romances set in a particular period of history. A shilling each, as I recall! Sadly, back then, I had no notion of the background research required to make a period novel flow effortlessly. Nor had I recognised that the author was only a lass of seventeen herself when she first began writing.

Best known for her Regency tales, she wrote forty-two romance and contemporary novels, as well as eleven detective stories, relying on her barrister husband to supply the plots for the latter.

I have just found a copy of the last novel this prolific author worked on, My Lord John, and learned that Heyer’s own favourite period in history was actually the Middle Ages: especially late 14th-early 15th Century. She planned to write a trilogy set in this time frame with John, Duke of Bedford, the younger brother of Henry V, as its central protagonist, calculating it would take her a period of five years to accomplish, but circumstances contrived to thwart her good intentions, and she only managed to complete a third of the whole project. In the published version an historical note has been added to round out the story and there has been some editing to present the unfinished tale in this form.

But what is most impressive is her husband’s account of the background work Georgette put into her writing.

Her research was enormous and meticulous. She was a perfectionist. She studied every aspect of the period – history, wars,social conditions, manners and customs, costume, armour, heraldry, falconry and the chase. She drew genealogies of all the noble families of England ( with their own armorial bearings painted on each) for she believed that the clues to events were to be found in their relationships. She had indexed files for every day of the year for the forty years she was covering with all noteworthy events duly entered on their dates. She learnt to read medieval English almost as easily as modern and amassed a large vocabulary. One summer we toured the Scottish-English borderlands, learning the country and visiting seventy-five castles and twenty-three abbeys (or their ruins). Her notes fill volumes.’

Wow! Now that’s dedication to one’s art if ever I heard it. And how many readers appreciate that unseen slog behind her entertaining books? Most like me, I’m sure, just love her feel-good tales as pure escapism.

‘Entertaining’ is not a word I’d use for this last book, however. In My Lord John the cast of characters (with their connections and titles) alone runs to 3 pages!

The language is of the period, the terms for clothes, furniture, food, customs, games, are unfamiliar – indeed, there’s a four-page glossary included. Titles, honours, dukedoms, even crowns, are lost and won on rumour, pique and expediency. Princelings are no older than my teenage grandson; brides are betrothed in the cradle, handed over to their husbands before they reach adolescence. Life, loyalty and allegiance are cheap. We hear today of our own Queen conferring titles, appointing knights to the Order of the Garter, granting folk castles and estates; in the 1500s these actions carried grave responsibilities, oaths were sworn, battles fought, rebellions were to be overcome.

Harsh times. Complex relationships with so many political and strategic as well as domestic alliances being forged. Heyer is to be commended for her diligence and mastery of the period, but given her legendary easy-reading style, I was rather disappointed by the lack of sparkle and pace in this one. It feels to me bogged down with scholarship. Definitely not an easy read; only my stubbornness made me persist to the bitter end. And even so I certainly wouldn’t fare well in the Mastermind black chair on the subject of Lord John of Bedford!

, , , , , , ,

Comments

An overlooked classic

My brain is throbbing with the intensity of creating characters and connecting plot lines for my current novel, so it’s doubly important to build in relaxation to maintain sanity and have the space to engage with real life. A lady called Mary Elizabeth Braddon has helped me wind down this week. Heard of her? Nor me till now – to my great shame. And that in spite of numerous TV, radio and stage adaptations of her work apparently!

Because Ms Braddon (1835-1915) published over ninety books and became a household name in the Victorian era, hugely admired and respected by other famous authors like Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray.

And this particular book, Lady Audley’s Secret, written when she was just 27 and a struggling actress, was the one that made her famous. It was serialised in the early 1860s at the same time as Dickens’ Great Expectations. Braddon quickly became the ‘Queen of the Sensational novel’, and to this day this book remains a classic Victorian spine-tingler. And there it was, amongst my own collection of not-yet-read classics! A hidden gem, but so good that I instantly want to buy all her other writings!

The back cover blurb says:
Miss Lucy Grantham is a newcomer to the parish of Audley. She may be an impoverished governess, but she is also kind and ineffably beautiful. When Sir Michael Audley sets eyes upon her he finds himself in the grip of ‘the terrible fever called love’. Their courtship raises eyebrows, but Sir Audley has set his heart on the sweet-natured girl, and before long they are married.

So, a light-hearted Georgette Heyer romance, huh?

No such thing. This is something much deeper and darker – shades of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, maybe? It’s a cleverly constructed mystery set in a grand country house and involving strange disappearances and duplicity on a grand scale. It’s Sir Michael’s nephew, Robert, who begins to suspect his new aunt is not all she seems to be, and his investigations lead him into a past full of inconsistencies, and very troubling secrets indeed, bigamy, blackmail, arson and murder among them.

Furthermore, below the surface, the tale is also an attack on the suppression of women in the Victorian era and the double standards set for the different classes as well as the different genders, with all their grave injustices and anomalies – hence perfectly timed. Lady Audley’s Secret called into question not only the role of women and the legal, economic and societal dominance of men, but also the insulting (to us) assumption at the time that women were inherently mentally unstable because of their hormonal fluctuations and therefore uniquely liable to insanity; a belief cleverly captured in the ruthless and manipulative Lady Audley’s own defence of insanity when exposed for the criminal she is: ‘the hidden taint I had sucked in with my mother’s milk.’

But the appeal of Lady Audley’s Secret has far outlasted the Victorian craze for melodramas, and goes beyond feminist politics. Why? Well, Professor Robert Giddings believes ‘the continuing fascination might be in the character of Lady Audley herself. Such a crafty, villainous woman is not portrayed in the traditions of the villainess, but as an irresistibly attractive, innocent-seeming Pre-Raphaelite beauty.‘  Her charm, her feathery mass of golden ringlets, her delicate features and her strange deep blue eyes, predispose us to like her; but the portrait Robert and his friend George Talboys see of her reveals the ‘beautiful fiend’ within.

The language is a little OTT and repetitious at times, the speeches run into several pages in places (including one by a dying man!), and I do dislike the frequent references in direct speech to what the characters thought, but for all that it’s a riveting read. I galloped through the almost 500 pages effortlessly and will definitely seek out more of this amazing writer’s work. And it’s all there – the richly interesting characters; the careful backstories; the perfectly calibrated shocks; the interwoven connections – all the things I’ve been working at with my own writing. Seemingly effortlessly woven together. What a find!

, , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Literary drama

Time once again for my annual sortie into the world of play-writing and producing a little drama for my grandchildren – our nineteenth would you believe! The youngsters, as ever, rose to the occasion magnificently, applying themselves to all the activities – from deportment lessons to tasting potions, from sewing bookmarks to deciphering Cockney slang, from picking pockets to exploring archaic texts – with their usual aplomb, and that in spite of half the assembled company still recovering from this really nasty respiratory bug that’s rife just now.

(The stage is a book-filled house and no shots are posed, so what you see is the play as it happens.)

In a nutshell, the story centres on a Johanna Spyri Heidi-lookalike, who is an avid reader.

On this occasion as Heidi loses herself in each book, characters emerge from the shadows and take her into their worlds. Enter The Artful Dodger (Oliver Twist).

… the Black Witch (Hansel and Gretel) and Morgana Pendragon (Merlin).

Titania, Queen of the Fairies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) works her magic and leads the cast to new adventures,

… exercising a softening effect.

Marmee March (Little Women) lulls everyone into a false sense of security with her homespun wisdom and American notions.

But things then start to really hot up. Enter a fabulously rich and imposing Mr Boldwood (Far from the Madding Crowd) who soon falls prey to the Artful Dogder’s pickpocketing skills.

But even Mr Boldwood can only bow in the face of the whirlwind that is Lady Denny, distinction and breeding oozing from the tip of her bonnet to the toe of her boot.

… who sets about improving the marital stakes for all the young ladies.

It’s left to Little John (Robin Hood) to risk the Lady’s wrath, and rescue The Dodger, making his day with some man-to-man gutsy banter, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of flaming arrows.

We happily spanned centuries, social milieu, and fictional genres, and everyone went away with an armful of precious books, quite a number of them collectors’ items.

And the moral of the tale?
What terrific advantages these young people have over children from all those earlier periods; not to be taken for granted or squandered. Not least their literary inheritance: books and stories which can open up times and experiences and worlds in wonderful ways.
Treasures indeed.

PS. If you’re a fully paid up member of the anachronism police please don’t bother listing the errors; we already know we took untold liberties. This was a private members only production; the rules of engagement are fully understood.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Childhood haunts

Wow! It’s not every day your home is on TV described as having the capacity to become ‘an international treasure’. But mine was last Thursday.

Tamar ValleyI grew up in Cornwall on the Pentillie Estate with a grandstand view of the Tamar valley from the back of our house. At the time, a largish chunk of the county as well as Pentillie Castle was owned by the Coryton family – first ‘The Captain’, then young ‘Major Jeffrey’, as we knew them. It was a storybook setting. With its fair share of intriguing characters: the beloved heir to the estate killed in action in 1942; a baby who was neither fully male nor female; a lad with a glass eye (which he occasionally took out for our entertainment/terror); a chauffeur living secretly with a woman not his wife  … they all captured my imagination. But back then we children led a sheltered life, surrounded by loveliness and grandeur.

Some years later the castle underwent a major facelift. Sons joined the workforce alongside their fathers. Modern gadgets crept in slowly. And then in 1980 … the Major died. He was only 57. High drama ensued. His childless widow, Kit, closed the gates to the 400-year-old castle and forbade everyone, even closest relatives, from visiting. She became a complete recluse. Rumours and stories abounded; a veil of mystery hung over the family and the estate. The embargo against visitors remained in force for almost thirty years, and the estate slowly crumbled around ‘Mrs Jeffrey’. Like something out of Dickens, eh? Only this was all too real.

When Pentillie’s Miss Havisham eventually died, Jeffrey’s cousin, Ted Spencer, inherited it. A requirement of his inheriting was that he change his name to Coryton. He did, but as a consequence his father disowned him. (Shades of Georgette Heyer.)

The castle of my childhoodComing into possession of an historic castle and 2000 acres of prime Cornish land might sound like a fairytale, but in this case it came with an outstanding tax bill of £6 million, on top of the burden of the crippling funds needed to get it repaired and restored. The family locked themselves in the castle and seriously contemplated selling it. But somehow the spell of Pentillie was stronger than the emotional pain and financial burden.

They called in Ruth Watson of Country House Rescue fame to appraise and advise. She was typically scathing about many things, but to the camera she admitted: ‘Everything about this estate is magical.’ And watching the programme I realised perhaps more than I’d ever done, that indeed it was. Magical and beautiful and unique. And it was where I grew up; in the shadow of that great castle. Because my father was the head gardener on the estate in its heyday. But as children we took all that beauty and splendour rather for granted. The magnificent Lime Walk, the fragrant American Gardens, the sweeping views of the Tamar valley – they were our norm.

Best WalkThe gardens my father nurtured with such care and skill, in which we children worked in our school holidays, are in a sad state of neglect now, and it was painful enough to see them on film never mind in reality. But Ruth Watson could see their potential and she was bowled over. Yes, the castle could become ‘a national treasure’, she declared, but the gardens had the potential to be ‘an international treasure’, eclipsing even the Lost Gardens of Heligan further down in Cornwall. Wow again!

Watching her in action throughout the series, I wanted to dive in and rescue the Corytons, never mind the castle! OK, to the viewers she lauded the family as exuding warmth and enthusiasm and energy. But Ted’s wife, Sarah, was reduced to tears by her harsh criticism: she was too emotional, too parochial, too limited in outlook. Why shouldn’t the poor woman feel emotional responses to what was going on? Pentillie represented much personal anguish to her. Why shouldn’t she call on local expertise in refurbishing the bedrooms? Good things do come out of Cornwall!

In this week’s programme Ruth revisited Pentillie to see if they had taken her advice. I was on the edge of my seat. But she was impressed. Yes, actually impressed. The refurbished castle looked fabulous. Visiting figures were phenomenal. In just two days they had 5000 people visiting the gardens! My dad would have been incredulous. And horrified. In this state?

Actually I knew already how enterprising the Corytons have been. My Westcountry brothers have been involved in person. And I’m on the mailing list for the regular newsletter. They’ve even organised literary events there. But it was still heartening to see Ruth Watson admitting their decisions hadn’t been wrong even though they’d defied her advice. All power to them, say I.

Nevertheless it still feels weird to have my old home paraded for the nation. We rarely saw anyone on the mile-long drive from the main road. the entrance to the estateThe sign said PRIVATE; private it most certainly was. Sir James Tillie in his monument on Mount Ararat was our preserve. We weeded and trimmed and swept and harvested to please our father and The Captain; not hordes of strangers. But as Ted Coryton said, it would be selfish to keep all this magnificence just for the family; it should be enjoyed by everyone. And the generosity of spirit behind his tireless efforts to redress a great wrong are reaping their rewards.

One day I hope to return. Who knows, there might even be a story there somewhere for me.

, , , , , , , ,

Comments