Sunday, July 31, 2005

Guernsey garden & Edinburgh/Tuscany novel

In today's blog :

A Guernsey garden and an Edinburgh/Tuscany novel
Four appalling women
Mr Beck's map of the London tube system
A French fan letter to Fay Weldon
Geoff Nicholson and the 50-page test
A thank you note

A garden and a novel

Last weekend, because I was on my own while my husband was walking through the magnificent scenery of the coast-to-coast walk across the north of England, I went to visit one of the many beautiful gardens on the island of Guernsey which their owners open to the public for one afternoon during summer.

Arriving early, when most people would still have been digesting their Sunday lunches, I had the Feremina garden almost to myself. Feremina is a delightful Victorian Gothick house overlooking the sea.

The lawns, herbaceous borders and paths, one shaded by magnificent old beech trees, slope down in the direction of Fermain Bay. But before I explored the garden, I browsed at the book stall where my eye was caught by an immaculate hardback copy of A Way of Forgiving by Eileen Ramsay, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £18.99 in 2004 but, on the book stall, inexplicably, on sale for 30 pence.

The author and I haven't met, but we know each other as members of the Romantic Novelists' Association who both post to the RNA's private online forum. Last year I bought the paperback of Eileen's best-known book Someday, Somewhere.

I went to Feremina not only because I was missing my husband after a week without him, but also because I have a novel in progress set partly in Guernsey. A visit to a beautiful garden would fit into the action. Had I thought to take a backpack, I could have bought some of the plants on sale. But the walk home included a steep hill and the hardback and my discarded jacket, a rainy dawn having changed to a hot afternoon, were weight enough.

Readers often tell me they enjoy the snatches of poetry I quote in my books. Eileen Ramsay has an untitled poem by Caroline E S Norton [Lady Stirling-Maxwell 1808-1877] on p 91 of A Way of Forgiving.

The page of acknowledgements is interesting. It includes her agent Teresa Chris [no website] and her editor Carolyn Caughey who, next Friday, is speaking at the 63rd Worldcon at Glasgow. Scroll down the page or use your Edit/Find facility to see details of Ms Caughey's talks.

Two appalling women

A Way of Forgiving is recommended by Hodder on the front inside flap of the jacket thus – "Eileen Ramsay's latest novel will enchant and captivate".

This seems a rather sugary puff for a book which, basically, is a study of four obnoxious women : an exasperating mother, a mother-in-law who dotes on her son, a jealous elder sister and a tiresome aunt. Like Joan Fontaine's portrayal of Jane Eyre, which I watched on TV this week, the heroine of Eileen Ramsay's novel is too prone to tears for my taste. But I greatly enjoyed the portraits of the four nasties.

The hero, a famous and aristocratic Italian pianist, makes his entrance on page 2 and I fell for him as a reader should. But his expertise as a lover was all off-the-page – not that I like the kind of unoriginal explicit love scenes one has read a thousand times before, but there is a happy medium – and then he fell short of a hero's standards in what, in my view, was an unforgivable way. At a critical moment in the action, he sided with his mother rather than his wife.

Of course if he hadn't done so, an important part of the plot would have evaporated. As a writer I understood the need for him to be flawed. As a reader, I found the flaw too serious to be ignored. The first duty of a husband is to side with his wife, even if the person hassling her is his much-loved mother.

However though I fell out of love, so to speak, with Raffaele de Nardis, I read on, enjoying the Tuscan background and the snippets about Italy during WW2, and riveted by the author's insight into the minds of four exceedingly difficult women.

Eileen Ramsay's name caught my eye at
Michelle Styles's blog
. In the opinion of M S – "Eileen Ramsay is far closer to my memories of what I enjoyed in RosemundePilcher than [to] Santa Montefiore." I agree. I've been re-reading The Shell Seekers and Ramsay and Pilcher do have a lot in common, though when I checked Who Else Writes Like…? at the public library earlier this week, neither was listed under the other's name.

On Friday I had an email from Mrs Mary Ashworth, LISU Adminstrator at Loughbrough University, to tell me that a fifth edition of this useful book has been published. I'll be writing more about it next Sunday.

Mr Beck's map of the London tube system

"BBC2 7 p.m. Map Man. Nicholas Crane travels the Tube to discover how electrical engineer Harry Beck created his diagram of the London Underground in 1931, a design classic which has become an icon of the capital. He also delves into the reasoning behind Beck's choice of colour for each line."

Although a lot of television tends to be tosh and drivel aimed at pea-brained couch potatoes, occasionally there's a gem such as this programme.

Next morning I went in search of Mr Beck on the web. I've added Ken Garland's book Mr Beck's Underground Map (Capital Transport, 1994) to my to buy list.

A Frenchwoman's fan letter to Fay Weldon

For some time I've been a silent member of a Fay Weldon discussion group. Judging by the number of discussion group emails which drop into my Inbox, it's not very active. But last weekend there was an email which must have delighted Ms Weldon if she keeps an eye on the group. I have the sender's permission to quote it in full and to reveal or not reveal her name as I choose. Because it is rather a personal letter and blogs are open to the world, I feel it is better not to disclose the writer's name here.
Dear Fay, It’s now been months since I’ve wanted to thank you. I’m awfully glad I’ve finally discovered this forum (and all the people on it). I’m 31, French (hence my poor English), a primary school teacher and mother of a 5 year-old.

The first novel I read by you was “The Hearts and Lives of Men”. It was in November 03, and I was fighting over the custody of my son with my ex-partner. It seemed almost miraculous that you had written such a story. You were talking to me and rarely before had I had that sensation in reading.

The second one was “Worst Fears”. It was in February 04, just after the judgement had been issued, stating that we were to share our son’s time, so I was to see him only every other week. He was away at the time, and I was very depressed. Your book cheered me up so much that I went to WH Smith Paris and bought another three. Which I did not read in a rush. I knew by then I would need you throughout my life. When I finished those, eventually, I went for another round of three, and discovered that, though you had taken care of writing many, a good half of them were not in print anymore. So I began chasing your old ones in second hand shops. In Paris, with some small success, and in London, where I found five but only bought three: just to make sure that once I would have finished those, I’d still have some others waiting. Plus the ones you may have written by then. Please never stop !

After the first ones, I thought : “she never changes subject; it’s always about women going through, going on”. Thank God, or whoever. I kept on reading, of course, and you were always “ ni tout à fait la même, ni tout à fait une autre” : faithful. You have given me not only great pleasure and subtle support in hard times, but also many laughs, many ideas to reflect upon, and a new view on life altogether: positive, and observant. You’ve also given me the strength to write. I had long wanted to do it, but never seemed to find the time or will. You taught me those were only excuses, and also there was no way I should be doomed in my inconsequence.

Above my desk, among other stuff, one sentence: “morality tends to be what you can afford”. Thanks for having been able to afford so much ! An admiring and grateful sister, [name withheld by Anne]

Geoff Nicholson and the 50-page test

Since September 2000 an uncorrected advance reading proof from Gollancz has been sitting on my summer bookshelves unread. Earlier this month the banana-yellow spine and VG colophon caught my eye and I put it on my bedside stack.

Last week, with my husband away from home, I didn't sleep as soundly as usual and spent a lot of small hours reading. The blurb on the back of the proof copy of Geoff Nicholson's Bedlam Burning, suggested it probably wasn't my kind of book. But there were laudatory reviews at Amazon UK so I thought I should give it the 50-page test.

By page 50 I was riveted, but then I came upon something that didn't make sense. Thinking it might be a mistake which had been corrected before publication – after all this was an uncorrected proof copy – I went to the Guille-Allès Public Library to check their copy. To my surprise none of Nicholson's 11 novels was listed in the library's catalogue.

Anyway, after page 50 the book's hold on me grew progressively weaker which just goes to show that the 50 page test isn't infallible.

A thank you to…

Michelle Reid who, last Sunday, posted a comment here. She wrote –
I do hope you enjoy The Laskett. Sir Roy Strong is a wonderful writer, and gardener. The garden that he created with his late wife is truly magnificent. His book A Country Life brings together the pieces he wrote Country Life between 1989-1994, a truly delightful read as well.

Michelle has just had a book called The Gladiator’s Honour accepted by Harlequin Mills & Boon, but it isn't her first.. You can read about that at her website.

Coming next Sunday [probably]

A Working Life : Jeremy Treglown's biography of V S Pritchett
Advice from a New York literary agent
Arabella [Does My Bum Look Big In This?] Weir
Fifth edition of Who Else Writes Like…?

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