Books read, and to be read
I'm not often a reader of non-fiction, but do love it when I find a history book that picks me up and carries me along with it. This one was recommended to me by my dear friend Dace, who loved its gossipy expose of the immoral, upper-class wasters of England between the world wars.
Such a book has to be a sharp mix of well-researched fact and subtle embroidery, which demands an author bold enough and sure enough of her material to liven things up with a little conjecture. Stella Tillyard did that so phenomenally well in Aristocrats (1995), about the Lennox sisters, and in this book, The Viceroy's Daughters (Orion Books, 2000), Anne de Courcy pulls off a similar feat.
You'll know many of the scoundrels and layabouts in this recent history: the Curzon sisters, Irene, Cimmie (Cynthia) and Baba (Alexandra), were the daughters of Lord Curzon, a highly intelligent aristocrat whose career included a period as Viceroy of India and in Westminster. He was one of those aristocrats who married brilliant and wealthy American heiresses, the better to get their hands on the sort of fortunes necessary to maintain the extravagances of the stately home lifestyle.
Curzon's choice was Mary Leiter, whose hard-working immigrant father had co-founded the Chicago department store, Marshall Field, made obscene amounts of money and groomed his daughter to marry well. Beautiful, well-educated and connected, Mary was so wealthy that when she died young, at 36 in 1906, she left her three daughters so great a fortune, with 10,000 pounds a year each (over a million in today's money) until they came of age, that their trustees insisted they be made wards of court. Their father had to seek legal permission to dip into their funds for 'housing, upkeep, education and general maintenance of the Curzonian style of living'.
This proved a bitter bone of contention, particularly so when Curzon re-married.
Much of this book describes and details the privileged lifestyle of the girls and the crowd they moved in, who included Nancy Astor; one or two of the Mitford girls; the narcissistic fascist, Tom Mosley; the wastrel prince of Wales (later king Edward VIII, the bolter) and his coterie of toffs, the oddly-named 'Fruity' Metcalfe among them. They were rich, often obscenely so, but were they happy?
The action takes place in the maelstrom years from before the Great War to the 1930s, in a ripping yarn of parties, adultery, hunting, houses, jewels, trips to Paris, lavish overseas holidays, betrayals, messy relationships, rows and shifting alliances. Recommended (despite the occasional shabby sentence!).
:: From history to historical fiction.
It seems like so long ago now, having brekkie at the Subi Hotel last month, that Shelley gave me this book, The Solitude of Thomas Cave (Bloomsbury, 2007). I'd never heard of book or its author, Georgina Harding, and this is her first novel. Very impressive, too. I loved it.
In 1616, Thomas Cave, a seaman on board the whaler, Heartsease, makes a bet with his fellow crewmen that he can survive alone on an island off the coast of Greenland through an entire winter, until the ship returns the next season.
Reluctantly, the ship's men do as he tells them, and the Heartsease sails off as Thomas prepares to settle down in the wilderness not just for months of solitude and icy Arctic darkness, but also for months of intense introspection with the occasional twinge of madness. He also finds himself up against the odd polar bear — and a ghost.
Ms Harding deals well with the alien landscape around her hero, and his reaction to it, and the sights, sounds and smells seem so real. Thomas's months on the ice are just part of the book: what happens to him changes him irrevocably.
This is an original and stylish read, and parts of it have stayed with me through the weeks since I read it. Highly recommended.
:: I'm a very happy camper to have received two lovely books this week to review.
The first of these is Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found, by Marie Brenner (Sarah Crichton Books, 2008), a memoir about her strange and difficult relationship with her brother.
Marie Brenner is an acclaimed writer and journalist who has written for some of the best publications in the US. I've just started reading this and it's wonderful, I'm totally absorbed. This is just my sort of book, with a crisp narrative and plenty of fascinating family and incidental history. I'll come back to it when I've finished.
The second book, which arrived this morning, is Marie-Therese, Child of Terror: the Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter, by Susan Nagel (Bloomsbury, 2008).
Marie-Therese-Charlotte was the only one of Marie Antoinette's children to survive. She spent three years in prison after the Revolution, then was returned to the throne of Restoration France — where she reigned for twenty minutes. So looking forward to getting stuck into this one!