‘Maharanis: The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses’ by Lucy Moore

Jit asked Indira why she looked so sad.  If she was about to be married, he said, she ‘should be over the moon’.
‘I’m miserable because I’m getting married,’ she replied.
‘Well, why don’t you marry me?’ came Jit’s reponse.

This Bollywood-type romance underpins Lucy Moore’s Maharanis:  The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses.  The year is 1911 and the location the Dehli ‘durbar’ to celebrate the coronation of George V.  Jit (or Jitendra) is the second son of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, a small province in north east India, whose ruling family are easy-going, westernised and very friendly with the British Royal Family.  Indira is the only daughter of the Sayajirao Gaekwad, Maharaja of Baroda, who favours Indian independence and who has just insulted King George by bowing once, instead of three times – and turning his back on him – when paying homage at the durbar ceremony.  Although Sayajirao ran a well-ordered and liberal state in Baroda, he and his wife, Chimnabai, have arranged seventeen year old Indira’s marriage, to the rich, thirty-five year old Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior, in full knowledge that she would be the second wife and live her life behind the purdah curtain, in the zenana.

Map of Princely States in India Before and After Partition
Attrib: https://image.slidesharecdn.com/integrationofprincelystates-130406081849-phpapp02/95/integration-of-princely-states-3-638.jpg?cb=1365236381

This feels like the stuff of romance and chick lit.  I can feel a lump forming in my throat already, but it was real, Dear Reader.  Shenanigan followed shenanigan, with Jit’s mother, Sunity Devi, a great friend of British Queen Mary and daily celebrity fodder for the British newspapers, egging the lovers on.  Meanwhile, the Indian princely families could not resist the high life in Europe: gambling, horse racing, balls, cricket, polo, motor cars and alcohol.  Particularly alcohol.  Jit would die of alcoholism, together with several of his own and Indira’s brothers.

Lucy Moore’s book Maharinis recounts the lives of three generations of princesses in Baroda and Cooch Behar.  Lucy describes life in purdah, in the zenana (the women’s quarters) where mothers, wives, daughters lived, unseen, only venturing out to visit their husbands for sex.  When Chimnabai, then aged fourteen, arrived in Baroda as a bride, her carriage was curtained, so she saw nothing and – more importantly, from a Hindu religious point of view – nobody saw her.    Many zenana women were never acquainted with the outside of the buildings where they would spend the rest of their lives.  They watched, intently, everything that went on in the palace, but their lives inevitably gravitated inward, taken up with squabbles amongst themselves.  This all changed during the course of the book, even in Chimnabai’s lifetime, and – without giving away any spoilers – Indira would never suffer purdah, although Indira’s daughter, Ayesha, chose to go into partial purdah when she became the third wife of Jai, Maharaja of Jaipur – because she was madly in love with him.

This book, although starting in 1911, at the height of the British Raj, covers the period in which Indians challenged British rule and eventually gained independence.  All the princes supported independence, but not realising how much Nehru, Gandhi and the other grandees in the Congress Party, who called themselves Socialist and, at various times, courted the USSR, were opposed to the idea of Indian aristocracy.  The Congress Party reduced them to nothing.  Ayesha, emerging from the zenana  (rapidly becoming an anachronism) becomes involves in politics, vigorously opposing Indira Gandhi.  Mrs Gandi, with whom Ayesha had been at school, throws her into jail.

As as a student at Cambridge in the 1930s, my father remarked to an Indian student friend that it was ridiculous that men and women in India got married in their early teens, and, surely, now that his friend had spent some time in England and observed the British way of life, he would never do such a thing.  The Indian friend replied, “‘No and yes.”

Rosemary doesn’t do non-fiction, does she?  Well, she did and she thoroughly recommends ‘Maharanis:  The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Sapphira and the Slave Girl’ by Willa Cather

slavegirlThis, Willa Cather’s last novel, published in 1940, is unique in that the action takes place in Virginia, the place of her birth and where she lived until ten years old, rather than in Nebraska which she regarded as her home.

Sapphira, a middle-aged white woman, has inherited black slaves from her father and sees nothing wrong in keeping them as domestic servants and as workers in the mill run by her husband, Henry Colbert.  This is despite Henry being uncomfortable about this arrangement and the intense opposition of her youngest daughter, Rachel.  Having suffered from dropsy for a number of years and now confined to a wheelchair, Sapphira has become increasingly bitter and has taken against Nancy, the young mulatto girl, working as a maid in her house.   Henry and Rachel are well aware of Sapphira’s tendency to be rude and sarcastic to those she doesn’t like, but Rachel is shocked when her mother invites a relative who is a known rake into their house, tells Nancy to see to his room and virtually invites him to rape her.  Nancy is distraught and the only person she can appeal to is Rachel.

If you enjoyed Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, you will enjoy ‘Sapphira and the Slave Girl’.  Even though the action in Mockingbird takes place some eighty years later and was written over a century later, the same sorts of characters appear and the same sorts of issues, because, as we are all familiar, the Civil War and freedom for slaves only resolved a few of the issues for black people in the South.   Preserving the southern ‘way of life’ (think ‘Gone with the Wind’) is mentioned repeatedly, even though, in the introduction to the book, we are told that Willa Cather found these sorts of attitudes sentimental.

Sapphira’s slaves are domestic servants, rather than cotton pickers driven into the ground, and, the way the book is written, their lot appears no worse than that of other domestic servants.  Till (the housekeeper and Nancy’s mother) is devoted to Sapphira, and views her relationship with her mistress as more important than her daughter.  Henry offers Samuel, his senior millhand manumission and a possible position in a Quaker mill in Pennsylvania (not a slave state), but Samuel refuses, implying that Henry is betraying and forsaking him.  The slaves love Sapphira because she is grand, and how they expect a mistress to be, whereas for liberal Rachel they have less respect.  Willa wrote from her own memories of Virginia in her childhood, of her family and of neighbours, and, in the last chapter, when Nancy returns, she interposes herself, as a sick child in bed.  It is difficult to work out how true a picture she is conjuring up, whether it has mellowed over the years or whether Willa, as a child, only saw one side.  I doubt if it is a white apology, because, in all her other books, Willa tells it as it is.  However, she frequently refers to the slaves as ‘darkies’; we in the twenty-first century would regard this as shockingly politically incorrect, but we have to accept that things were different in the 1930s when Willa was writing.

The uncluttered storyline moves gently, with frequent flashbacks, to Sapphira’s youth, to Till being in Winchester with her mentor, Mrs Meacham, to Jezebel being captured in Africa and taken on board a slave ship, and to Rachel’s brief sojourn in Washington.

This is great stuff.  Do read it.

Saffira and the Slave Girl can be obtained from various sources online, including antiquarian booksellers, The Brick Row Bookshop.

‘The Key to All Unknown’ by Kathryn Weller

Dr Tilda Moss is a brilliant life scientist, working at the University of Newcastle. She is single, nerdish, and totally wrapped up in her work. When she meets Michael Cameron, a marketing manager for the company that supplies her instruments, she falls greedily in love, even though Michael is asking intrusive questions about her research, paying for their restaurant meals on his expenses account, and probing her virulent atheism.
For all except the prologue, Tilda is in hospital, in a persistent vegetative state, following a unexplained fall at her house. Everyone around her assumes that she is not conscious, but, even though she is unable to move, even an eyelid or a finger, she is fully aware of everything going on around her, her father and brother’s arguments, reports of the investigation into her death by Inspector Lake, visits by her flatmate, Kiki, and the mysterious Allegra, who claims to be a ‘friend’ and wants to try out new age therapies on her. Tilda cannot communicate. She is just an observer, as everyone around her tries to make sense of the last few weeks of her life. She hears that there has been financial fraud at her place of work and that she is supposed to be in involved, but of course she cannot defend herself.

Tilda is frustrated, angry and terrified. One of the strengths of this work is that the author manages to get inside the mind of someone in persistent vegetative state, the indignities, the boredom, the pain and discomfort which she cannot draw anyone’s attention to, insensitive and impersonal medical assessments, and occasional abuse, along the lines of you-shouldn’t-be-taking-up-a-bed-that-could-be-given-to-a-child-with-cancer. Then there’s the deluded, batty cleaner, Claude, who comes in singing Jesus songs and telling her he’s her guardian angel. As time goes on, she realises that he is.

The story unfolds. When it comes, the explanation for Tilda’s accident is perhaps a disappointment, or is it the book’s greatest strength? The storyline takes some unusual turns, which surprised me. Certainly, there were a few hooks which might have led me there, but they were perhaps a little too understated. The Christian theme is always in the background.

Characterisation is good, but, for me, the person who leaps off the page is gauche but well-intentioned Pauline, a minor character.

Some of verbal imagery is excellent, for instance, ‘The late afternoon – plump and golden as a pear – is swollen with pollen.’ This is taken from the first page, and, by itself, works well in conjuring up a splendid summer day, but some of the other prose in the prologue is too flowery for my liking, such as, ‘The shadow from the tree is creeping over me like a bruise, a dark longing, slow, inexorable.’ Thankfully, the literary stuff does not continue throughout the book. Why are we writers always made to feel we have to use literary style (or die)?

A main character who is in a persistent vegetative state is a bit of a shock to the system. I would understand readers who gave up after the first few thousand words, but it’s worth your while to continue, Dear Reader. ‘The Key to All Unknown’ is a compelling read.

I’m writing this post on the iPad, on the train from Delhi to Shimla, which set off an hour and a half late and has since crawled through a lot of fog. The train carriage is not the cleanest, the squat loo unspeakable, but very nice nice young men keep pressing upon me tea in ancient, bright red, plastic cups and hot vegetable croquettes (think Linda McCartney).

This book is published by Instant Apostle. I was asked to review by the author.

‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’ by Willa Cather

I often come back to Willa Cather when I’m feeling stressed and in the need of the literary equivalent of a sweet hot chocolate, which is very unfair to this versatile and perceptive American author.

Published in 1927 and possibly the most well-known of Willa Cather’s works, this is a collection of short stories, definitely not a novel, despite what other reviewers might say.  Certainly, its pages are concerned, consistently, with two main characters, Bishop Latour and his friend, Father Valliant, Roman Catholic missionaries sent by Rome to New Mexico, to rekindle and redirect the Catholics faith amongst the Americans, the Mexicans and the Indians, many of whom live in remote settlements,  without sight of a church or or a priest for generations.  When the two missionaries visited these people, whose religion was intensely-felt but wayward, they were seized upon to take confession, marry cohabiting couples, baptise children and say Mass.  Maria, who finds Bishop Latour lost in the desert, exhausted and dehydrated, runs back to her family, crying, “A priest!”

The bishop (as he is for nine-tenths of the story) and Father Valliant’s job is to correct errors which have come about through forgetting, when people have had no contact with their church, and deliberate misunderstanding, like that of the priest who tells the Bishop that lexical celibacy is irrelevant in the Americas and in the nineteenth century.  The bishop’s response is always gentle remonstrance, and sometimes he lets things lie, because the good that the person concerned is doing offsets his canonical error.  In fact, this book reads more like a collection of memoirs of a real person than a work of fiction.  Although each chapter follows through a set of incidents, there are no real story arcs and no obstacles in the technical literary sense.

Bishop Latour and Father Valliant are both saintly characters, the bishop more scholarly, reserved and dignified, whereas Valliant is a compulsive and courageous man of action, venturing even into the gold fields of Colorado when in late middle age, putting himself in danger, wearing himself out and driving himself into an early grave.

What I admire so much about Willa Cather is how well she gets herself into a Catholic mindset, when much of her other work concerns non-conformist Protestants.  She enters into the Catholic way of thinking in full measure, showing us how the two main characters venerated the Virgin Mary and saw visions of her and the Holy Family.  It is clear that she too was moved by these very Catholic things.  My only reservation is whether a ‘real’ Catholic would be as ready to allow digression from received Roman doctrine, as Bishop Latour was.

Do read ‘Death Come to the Archbishop’.  I love older literature.   Everybody should get into older literature from time to time.  Gives you a sense of perspective.  I’m sorry I can’t give you a link, but this very old iPad refuses to copy  and paste, and I’m battling with chancy (and expensive) internet in Indian hotels.   It’s very easy to find on Google.

I’m trying to put together a travel blog but am failing, for the reasons above  – hotel Internet, ancient iPad (and no access to ‘proper’ computer)  and lack of time.  I suspect it won’t happen.  Oh well.  Nice thought.

 

 

 

‘The Jazz Files’ by Fiona Veitch Smith

Jazz Trumpet The Jazz Files starts with a death, at a railway yard in Slough, on a cold Guy Fawkes Night in 1913.  The characters we’re meeting are Suffragettes (or Suffragists) and already we are learning about terrible secrets contained a cedarwood box.

Immediately afterwards, we meet Poppy Denby disembarking from a train at King’s Cross Station in June 1920.  She has just travelled from her home at the Manse in Morpeth, Northumberland, to London, to become a paid companion to her disabled Aunt Dot, a long-standing Suffragist.  However, on her arrival at her aunt’s house in Chelsea, Poppy learns that Dot has more ambitious plans for her.  After applying for numerous jobs, Poppy ends up working as an editoral assistant for the editor of The Globe newspaper.   On her first day, one of the reporters, Bert, falls down the stairs at the newspaper offices in mysterious circumstances and so begins a trail which Poppy has to follow and which weaves in and around the Suffragist movement and her aunt’s group, the Chelsea Six, one of whom is a mole.  From almost the outset, we know who the villains are.  The questions are how, when and who with.

Jazz SaxophoneFiona, a lecturer in media and scriptwriting, takes us straight into the delicious world of pre-computer journalism, where reporters were proper reporters who used notebooks, wore braces, smoked and drank, and into an office with a lattice-gated lift and where old paper files, containing useful information, but not quite enough for a story, are stored in ‘The Morgue’.  The most tantalising of these, the ones pertaining to high society, are the Jazz Files.   Although the ghosts of World War I linger, this is the Jazz Age, of jazz clubs where Poppy drinks champagne (as she doesn’t know about any other drinks), of Charlie Chaplin and Lillian Bayliss at the Old Vic.

The reader is also taken to the darker side of the Roaring Twenties – to the lunatic asylum, a convenient place to hide away an inconvenient female relative, especially if she’s a Suffragist.  Elizabeth Dorchester has been imprisoned in an asylum for six years.  Only her steadfast Christian faith gives her hope.  Fiona, also the author of the Young David and Young Joseph picture books on Bible-based themes for pre-schoolers, blended the Christian element into the story as part of real life, by far the best way to do it.

Do I recommend The Jazz Files?  Definitely.  As former readers of reviews on my older blog, Write On, know, as a rule, I don’t review unless I can give a good review, and, if I can’t, my silence must speak for itself.   However, I did read The Jazz Files some weeks ago, but Christmas got in the way of my review, Dear Reader, Christmas and family and friends.  You can’t be on your computer all the time (although I am normally).  I hope, shortly, to review my other recent reads.

The Jazz Files, which was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Endeavour Historical Dagger award, 2016, is available from Lion Hudson here.   A Poppy Denby sequel, The Kill Fee, is currently for sale in North America, but not yet in the UK, and a third book, The Death Beat, is due to be published later this year.

 

‘After Jessica’ by Morgen Bailey

Car on level crossing
Wikimedia Commons

When train driver, Andy, spots a little red car on the level crossing, he knows he can’t stop the train.  Just before the inevitable happens, the young woman driver catches his eye and mouths ‘Sorry’.

The young woman is identified as Jessica Price, and her brother, Simon, is the one who has to sort out her affairs after her death.  Jessica comes from an ordinary decent family, who are grieving for her, and her flat is the epitome of order and tidiness, but, as Simon rapidly finds out, her life is anything but.  He is plagued with calls from random people who he cannot place:  Veronica, the manager of a ‘human resources’ company; a seedy businessman called Daniel; Nate, a petty criminal, and his girly, pregnant, wife Emma; Rick, a dodgy private investigator.  Most mysterious of all is Alexis Starr, who seemed to be sharing Jessica’s flat, as all her clothes were hanging in Jessica’s wardrobe – but it was strange that neither Simon nor his mother, Marion, had ever met her.  Also… how was it that Jessica had so much money in her account, and £3000 in cash left lying about in her house?

Morgen writes, in the third person, from several points of view, with Simon – just about – emerging as the main character.  Each character is distinctive, well-developed, believable and interesting.  This is a story about real people in a real situation.  However, two things we learned about Simon in the last few pages surprised me, changing my perception of him.  I think I would have preferred to have known these quite important facts about him towards the beginning of the story.

The story, only a novella, is well developed, with a clear story arc, from which it does not digress.  Although I can see why Morgen did not start the work with the main character (Simon), many other characters are introduced into the story before he is – an interesting use of technique.

Morgen is well-known to us as a writing-related blogger at MorgEn Bailey – Creative Writing Guru, which, by the way, is a treasure trove for all writers, including several ongoing (ie permanent) competitions, lists other organisations’ competitions, writing courses, advice on self-publishing and editing.  She has also been a judge for many comps.

‘After Jessica’ is thoroughly recommended.

Available from Amazon here.

‘Champion of the Chalet School’ by Adrianne Fitzpatrick

Picture of chalet
wikimedia commons

You’re thinking that Elinor Brent-Dyer wrote the Chalet School series, aren’t you?  Write On readers with good memories will recall that I mentioned, a couple of years ago, that I visited the small plaque erected to Elinor Brent-Dyer in the library/tourist information centre in Pachenau.   You may be interested to know that, in addition to the sixty books written by Elinor, more Chalet School books have been written by other authors, many (but not all) of them published by Girls Gone By.   The author of this one, Adrianne Fitzpatrick, I know very well, through the Association of Christian Writers and it was she who told me about this cornucopia.  I bought this book at the ACW bookstall at the ACW Writers Day last month and Adrianne has autographed it for me.

‘The Champion of the Chalet School’, set in 1946, at the time when the Chalet School was in Wales, has twelve year old Betsy Lucy as its main character.  Adrianne writes in the introduction that she feels that puckish Betsy, who has older and younger sisters, is under-exposed as a character, and she picks up on events referred to in passing by EBD, about poor morale and indiscipline caused by an ineffectual head girl, Marilyn Evans, who neglected her duties for her academic work.  Like the vast majority of other Chalet School books, The Champion covers the events of one term only, recounting how Peggy Burnett, the new head girl, tries to set things back on course, and, in particular, how young Betsy attempts to support her, by doing things, not for herself, not for her friends, not for her form, but for the school.  To anyone involved in education at the current time, it seems inconceivable that discipline should rest on the head girl and the prefects to such a large extent, but I know that my husband, who was at one time head of house in his school, had a lot of responsibility.

An interesting subplot concerns delicate Anne, who is not allowed to do games or, indeed, move about much at all.  Whereas, as I know from my own experience, contemporary children would be very supportive of a disabled colleague, Anne gets bullied because it’s felt she’s skiving.  In the best schoolgirl tradition, Betsy sticks up for her.  The kids I taught recently have, of course, grown up amongst Equality and Diversity legislation, whereas the Chaleteans hadn’t, so the scenario Adrianne describes rings true – for 1946.  It also demonstrates how far attitudes have moved on.

Adrianne picks up the voice, the tone and the underpinning worldview of the EBD Chalet School perfectly: the delicate girls, the many rules which were all abided by as a matter of course, the girls’ interests and pursuits (Betsy did a lot of knitting), the piety, the general understanding that, on leaving school, all pupils (except a few who became teachers) got married (normally to doctors) and produced further Chalet School girls.  You know me, that I’m a stickler for authenticity, and I would’ve been shocked if the girls had been more uptodate in their outlook, but, because of this, The Champion is, in truth, a story for grown-up girls – like me.  My mother read the Chalet School series before me, and the reality is that the stories always were old fashioned, even at the time they were written.  It’s noticeable that, whereas the Enid Blyton school stories, which I also used to read as a child, are still in print whereas many  Chalet School stories aren’t.

Adrianne, who is a professional editor, also runs the small publishing company, Books to Treasure, which specialises in children’s and young adult fiction and non-fiction.  I’m just going to double-check my grammar and punctuation in this post,  because I do hope she’ll read it and won’t find too many mistakes!

‘Champion of the Chalet School’ is available from Girls Gone By Publishers.