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Friday, 30 March 2012

Classic Film Review: Monkey Business (1952)

I have to preface this review by saying that I really can't remember when I watched a film that made me laugh as hysterically as this one. Starring Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe and Charles Coburn, Monkey Business tells the story of absent-minded professor Barnaby Fulton (Grant) trying to come up with a formula for the fountain of youth. His boss Mr Oxley (Coburn) is very interested in the idea while Fulton's wife Edwina (Rogers) just has to deal with her husband being a little more scatty than usual. Barnaby thinks he's got the formula right and tests it on himself - what he doesn't know, however, is that instead of his formula working one of his chimpanzees has turned scientist and mixed another version of the formula into the laboratory water bottle... Chaos ensues.

There were so many hilarious scenes in this that I can't list them all. For instance, Edwina's first effects from the formula lead her to put a fish down Mr Oxley's pants. Rogers's comic ability really shines through in this film, particularly when she uses a slingshot to hit secretary Miss Laurel (Monroe) on the rear end. In fact, even popping gum is hilarious when Rogers does it. Not to be outdone, Cary Grant dresses up as an Indian brave in order to scalp a love rival and flies down a laundry chute when he loses his glasses. Miss Laurel is the only one never polluted but Marilyn Monroe is at her lightest comic best. The effect of all this is one of the best comedy films I've watched in years. Not bad for 1952.

Film buffs also might be interested in the fact that while Monkey Business co-stars Monroe and Coburn prior to their success together in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), it also has a small appearance by child actor George Winslow as a little Indian. Winslow played, of course, Henry Spofford III in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the young man who helps Monroe's character out of a porthole amongst other things. He may only have a few lines in Monkey Business but he makes them count.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Book Review: Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah

I'm a big fan of Sophie Hannah's novels, as any regular readers of this blog will probably know. Kind of Cruel had one of the oddest premises yet. Amber suffers from severe insomnia after the death of her friend in an arson attack two years earlier which landed her as guardian of her two children. She finally visits a hypnotherapist and the words 'Kind, Cruel, Kind of Cruel' come back to her for no reason she can think of. She accosts a woman she saw writing just before her appointment to ask her if she'd seen the words in her notebook - unfortunately, this woman happens to be police officer Charlie Zailer and Amber suddenly finds herself embroiled in a murder investigation. The words happen to be the only clue that the police have in the investigation of another murder, that of primary school teacher Kat Allen. However, these things aren't the only ones worrying Amber: she periodically wonders why her sister-in-law and her family disappeared on Christmas Day in 2003 before returning the next day without a word.

That explanation is as succinct as it gets, I'm afraid! The plot is so tightly wound that you really need to be awake to follow it but, as I've found with all of Hannah's books, it's a satisfying one. The 'who' gradually becomes clear but the 'why' is still up for grabs right until the final pages. Amber's scenes with hypnotherapist Ginny were intriguing and well-researched, raising some excellent points about memory and lies. Equally, the serial elements of the books were not neglected - the relationship problems between Charlie and Simon Waterhouse are as potent as ever. What I wasn't expecting, though, were the laugh-out-loud scenes involving DI Giles Proust at the beginning of the novel. I don't think I've ever laughed so much at a crime novel of any variety. The character's become something of a legend in these books but this time he really surpassed himself. I get the feeling Hannah likes writing him as much as her readers enjoy the finished result.

All in all, I think Kind of Cruel is close to the top of my list of Hannah's fiction. It had a brilliantly intricate plot combined with forward-movement of serial elements and made me think: what more can you ask for in a book?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

To Lose Momentum or Not?

One piece of writing advice that I've always tried to recall at moments of despondency is 'push on'. That's right: don't stop and think for an instant or you'll lose your enthusiasm and the first draft of whatever you're writing won't get finished. That attitude has got me through two NaNoWriMos in one piece and with a completed draft at the end of them. I've been working on a little something new (nicknamed 'horrible mad story' in my head) and had just crossed the 6,000 word mark yesterday when I realised a fundamental aspect of a primary character wasn't right. A combination of research and common sense told me I needed to change it because it affects what's been and what's to come. But my instinct rebelled against going back and rewriting at this early stage. What to do?

Well, it needs to go. How can I write the rest of the novel with consistency if I know there are bits to change earlier on? The best case scenario is that it'll be a bit disjointed; the worst case one is that it'll lead to something completely fragmented and I'll have to rewrite it excessively anyway. I really might as well do it now, right? Sort out the basics and then I can move on and hopefully finish a first draft quickly.

Trouble is, I'm nervous. If I slow down and retreat I could easily lose the momentum for this story and believe me when I say I HAVE to write it for the sake of my own sanity. But I know I can't justify writing lots of stuff that I know I'll have to completely alter later. I don't have time to play around like that. So I have to rewrite it. Oh, good!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Power Cut Fun

Some regular readers of this blog might recall that since late last year we've been struggling with some doggy anxiety-issues. Fortunately, we worked out a solution that at least kept her calm - we leave the dining room light on for her twenty-four hours a day (it's a good thing we're on energy saving bulbs!). The last vet we saw seriously mentioned that she may have doggy dementia. She's getting a little old so we want to just try and keep her calm. All well and good. Until the power decided to cut out at six o'clock on a Saturday morning!

I was woken suddenly, not really grasping what was different in my room (turned out there was no light coming through from the landing). Then I heard the usual banging as she threw herself against the door then the anxious pacing as she circled the room. I waited to hear it again before I moved. Downstairs, I realised why she'd been panicking but I originally thought the bulb in the dining room had finally blown because I was too bleary-eyed to realise I'd walked down the stairs in the dark and that I couldn't turn the kitchen light on. It took me a good few minutes to realise I was being idiotic trying to find a fresh bulb.

So what could I do? I couldn't leave her there because she'd kick off and wake my father up so my only option was to stand with my eyes half-open in the kitchen staring at the garden through the window. Three hours sleep does nothing for my sanity. Luckily, the lights came back close to seven o'clock. I left the dog with Sky News to calm her down (yes, doggy abuse) and went back to bed. But once I'm up, I'm up. Not sure I got more than an hour of sleep and I feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience. If I'd found out the power cut was down to cable theft I would've gladly tracked down the culprits and strangled them with their own ill-gotten gains. However, I think it was just a plain old surge. No violent retribution for me then, just irritated sleepiness.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Classic Film Review: River of No Return (1954)

River of No Return tells the story of Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) reunited with his young son Mark (Tommy Rettig) in the Rocky Mountains after being released from prison. Mark has formed an attachment to singer Kay (Marilyn Monroe) while waiting to be collected. The trio later meet again when Kay's gambling partner Weston (Rory Calhoun) nearly crashes the raft the pair are on and Calder saves them. Kay and Weston are trying to file the deed for a gold mine Weston won in a poker game. When Calder refuses to give up his precious rifle and horse, Weston steals them. Kay elects to stay and look after an injured Calder but the pair along with Mark are forced to flee when Indians attack. What follows are lion and Indian attacks and the trials of the treacherous river they travel on.

I was a little underwhelmed by this one. Monroe really wasn't at her best (for 'best' see There's No Business Like Show Business (1954) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)) and seemed out of place in a Western. There was little chemistry between her and Mitchum, although both the leads had a good rapport with Tommy Rettig as young Mark. That - along with the beautiful scenery - was the film's saving grace. The few songs were instantly forgettable and only served to show off Monroe's body. This was unnecessary, I thought, since later on she was forced to adapt to her rustic setting and male fans got more than eyeful then. The Indian scenes were as stereotypical as in any 50s Western and the script was a little bland. Monroe, especially, seemed to struggle with her but, then, her character had more to say than Mitchum's brooding one. 

I can forgive bad performances or a bad script but rarely both in the same film. This film was spectacular for the on-location shots but forgettable for almost everything else. 

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Book Review: Nella Last's War

I've wanted to read these diaries since I saw Victoria Wood's adaptation Housewife, 49 a few years ago. The diaries chronicle WWII as seen from the perspective of a middle-aged mother in Barrow-in-Furness. Nella Last suffered a nervous breakdown before the war but the renewed purpose she gets from various war-related activities separates her from her old self. She has a no-nonsense work ethic that permeates everything she undertakes but she still suffers from war fear and especially the fear that her youngest son, Cliff, will die when sent abroad. She becomes more than just a housewife and, even while the war wreaks damage everywhere, Nella's personal story is a revolutionary one.

It's easy to understand why these diaries are so compelling. Nella's voice is an everyday one in many respects but her attitude seems to contrast with some of the people around her. For instance, she wants to do everything she can and really isn't interested in getting involved with the 'politics' of which woman does what. This wins her short-term disapproval but long-term respect. She also refers to her marriage in stark terms, particularly towards the end of the war when she dreads going back to the existence where she stays in with her husband constantly. Much of the discourse I've read around WWII sees it as revolutionary for younger women, helping to set a new order for the years to come. However, Nella's story is one of an older woman grasping a fresh image of herself and her purpose. It's a very heartening book in that respect. She chronicles the good alongside the bad, the horror alongside her trips to a nearby tranquil lake. The voice that comes across is intelligent and thoughtful but rarely maudlin. There are some entries that are shocking, particularly the one where she admires Hitler for the killing of mentally ill people. Her argument is not one I'd accept today but I can see where she's coming from in the context of the day.

One thing that irritated me about this book was no fault of Nella's. Entries spanning over a year between the beginning of 1944 and May 1945 were lost when the Mass-Observation collection was moved. It interrupted the flow of the work and meant that a lot of domestic things we'd been following suddenly jump along a few paces. We don't get to read about Nella's first impressions of her daughter-in-law or how she reacted when her other son was injured and returned to her. However, the beauty of these diaries is that the gaps can be filled in because there is so much of Nella in her entries. I almost know how she would've reacted and, while it doesn't make up for it, it's a nice thing to be able to say after reading a book of diaries. I'm looking forward to reading the next collection that looks at Nella's life in the 50s.

The book contains some helpful explanatory notes at the end, including a list of people and a glossary. It also includes an afterword penned by Cliff Last which sheds light on Nella's later years and the lives of the main players in the diary. I'll leave you with Nella's final paragraph from her entry celebrating the end of the war in the early hours of 15th August 1945:

"I feel disappointed in my feelings. I feel no wild whoopee, just a quiet thankfulness and a feeling of 'flatness'. Dear God knows what I'd imagined it would be like. I think I'll take two aspirins and try and read myself to sleep." (p298)

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Classic Film Review: Primrose Path (1940)

Primrose Path tells the story of a young woman, Ellie May (Ginger Rogers), whose family comes from the 'wrong' side of the tracks. This family includes an escort mother (yes, I'm being euphemistic), a failed alcoholic father and a mouthy little sister who is under the spell of her selfish maternal grandmother. Ellie May is a bit of a tomboy, deeply upset by her father's failings and disapproving of her mother and the gifts she brings back after she's been away. Encountering a man near the beach (and stealing his wallet in the process), Ellie May falls instantly in love. Ed (Joel McCrea) marries her after she spins him a lie about her family disowning her. When this secret comes out it threatens their marriage but things at the family home are about to take a tragic turn.

Rogers was fantastic in this. When she first appeared in pigtails she was extremely cute (think Doris Day in On Moonlight Bay (1951) and she passes through trying to be feminine to attract Ed, being a ballsy waitress at his diner and, finally, evolving into a strong woman who is comfortable in herself and beautiful to boot. Here are the before and after shots:

Quite a difference! The supporting cast worked very well, particularly Miles Mander as the drunken father. Queenie Vassar played the manipulative grandmother with few redeeming features better than anybody else could've and even the actress playing Ellie May's younger sister was less irritating than most child actors (and went on to play Agnes in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Overall, I think this film was well-written and well-acted though I don't think Ed is a particularly enticing hero. This film was my first experience with Joel McCrea so I'm not too sure about him. Ginger, however, has cemented her place at the top of my favourites list: pigtails or not.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Classic Film Review: Kitty Foyle (1940)

Ginger Rogers won an Oscar for her portrayal of Kitty in this film and I'm not surprised. It's subtitled 'The Natural History of a Woman' and is based on an 1939 novel by Christopher Morley. The script was slightly sanitised; Rogers was apparently reluctant to play the sexually explicit character of the book who has an abortion. Nevertheless, the character remains a strong one and Rogers's performance is wonderful.

The story opens with Kitty receiving a marriage proposal from Mark, a doctor. She accepts him and rushes home to pack, only to find an old (and now married) flame, Wyn, waiting for her. She ends up telling Wyn she'll meet him at the same time she's supposed to be meeting Mark. As she packs she thinks back on her relationships with both Wyn and then Mark to decide who she should choose. Wyn was the first man she fell in love with but his Philadelphia family was far too wealthy to accept her while Mark is a man who tricks her into a first date and then plays cards at her apartment because he can't afford to take her out.

I found myself shouting 'pick the doctor' at this from the very beginning, whilst still being pretty unsure who she'd pick or whether she'd pick at all. Rogers surprised me in this very emotional role, playing both a sassy woman who won't take any rubbish and a vulnerable one who is open to being hurt. There's one heartbreaking scene where the director keeps the camera on Rogers's face while she receives some terrible news: the subtlety of her performance is painful to watch but it was completely the right choice. In fact, the whole thing was artistically shot (even the opening segment that showed the progression of woman since emancipation in a silent film format) and the script was fairly sound. Even the characters who only had a few scenes were memorable, especially Kitty's two flatmates who put cream on their faces to try and intimidate Mark into leaving the apartment on his first date with Kitty. Although Rogers was clearly the star, there was a ensemble feel to it, with every character being portrayed wonderfully. I don't think they could have gathered a better cast together.

The story didn't unfold as I thought it would but that was rather a pleasant surprise. I can't find much bad to say about this one. Ginger Rogers certainly deserved her Oscar!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Don't Read - You're Too Old!

Since she moved into the sheltered accommodation my grandmother has been complaining of boredom. She still does the crossword every day and watches a bit of television but, for the most part, she sits all day looking out of the window. She used to read years ago but she doesn't these days. Me and my father decided to pick her up a cheap book and just see if she liked it. We took it to her and she didn't look too enthusiastic but we left it there anyway.

The next day she was visited by her daughter ('dismissive daughter' would be an appropriate descriptive term). The daughter stuck her nose up at the book, saying that she doesn't want to start reading a book and she'd be better off with short stories. I think I went a funny colour when this was relayed back to me. This is a woman who has been reading for a good eighty years. How patronising can you get? Is there a cut-off point whereby people just think the elderly regress back to being children? I'm amazed she didn't suggest picture-books or pop-ups. Is it any wonder older people feel so unwanted when we treat them like little more than pets to be admonished and dictated to?

However, I did appreciate my grandmother's reaction to being told she should read short stories. The next day she picked up the novel and started reading - and then found she couldn't put it down. It was a wartime romance (I avoided anything with tragic themes when I was picking it out) and apparently she loves it. I feel rather smug. Then again, who doesn't appreciate being right?

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Book Review: Trumpet by Jackie Kay

The premise of Trumpet fascinated me when I picked it up in the bookshop. Joss Moody, famous jazz trumpeter, has revealed a huge secret on his death - he was actually a woman living as a man. His wife, Millie, has taken herself off to a village in Scotland to get away from the prying eyes and gossips but their adopted son, Colman, is left in London to deal with the fallout.

I really enjoyed the first few chapters of this. The first lengthy chapter is told from Millie's perspective, flicking back and forth between the present and past as she struggles with her grief. It's a poignant portrait of sorrow and love, serving to remind the reader that things aren't always black and white. Interspersed with the 'real' narrative are chapters that look at proceedings from people who deal with the aftermath of the lie - the doctor, the funeral director, the registrar. I liked those three chapters and I liked Millie's chapters. What I disliked, however, were the chapters that focused on Colman, Sophie the journalist who has talked him into a book, and the small bitty chapters that look at people on the periphery of Moody's life. I understand that Kay wanted to portray how the lie affected everybody associated with Moody but the result is a little too disjointed for my tastes. That said, none of the chapters are badly-written and all are evocative in one way or another.

Colman, though, is a thoroughly irritating character. In all honesty, his masturbation scene was certainly something I could've lived without reading. He's not just being an idiot due to the lie, both he and his mother freely admit to themselves that he's been that way all his life. His pact with journalist Sophie seems completely in character for him. As for Sophie herself, I think she was caught between being a stereotypical journalist (the implications of which are even more repugnant now than they were in 1998) and Kay trying to portray her as something more. I honestly don't think the exposition regarding Sophie was necessary and the chapters in her viewpoint felt a little redundant. 

As you can tell, I had mixed feelings about this one. Very well-written, very human and very descriptive. Kay's poetic tendencies certainly shine through in the prose. However, my enjoyment was marred by the difficulty in keeping up with where you were in each chapter. I'd still recommend it, though, mainly for the sensitive treatment of the subject matter.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Love On Coronation Street

I don't often drift into Coronation Street philosophising on here but bear with me for one post. There's something niggling me about one of the storylines - and I bet it's not the one you think either.

I love Rita Sullivan. Definite Corrie legend and one of those characters who you feel deserves a bit of happiness. After all, she's had two husbands die on her, been pursued by a madman through the streets of Blackpool and had a tram dropped on her head: let her enjoy a few years of peace, eh? Well, the producers may have had a similar notion (I say 'may' with deliberate cautiousness because this is Corrie, after all). Rita has just become engaged to Dennis Tanner, following a year of friendship that always implied it would become something more. Now, I love Dennis as much as I love Rita. He's a neat link to a bit of Coronation Street history and he's a funny character, always having a pop at Norris in The Kabin. Ah, there lies the problem - Norris.

Quite a while ago - in a post about longing - I suggested that I wanted Rita and Norris to settle into a happy retirement strangling each other. Part of me still does. I'm torn between enjoying the couple actually on screen and wishing that irritating curmudgeon Norris would get the woman he so clearly loves. My prevailing memory of the tram crash isn't linked to a death but is Norris plainly saying 'all I care about is you' when Rita's brought out of the rubble. But now Norris is trying to hide his emotions under a thick layer of sarcasm as Rita and Dennis celebrate their engagement. I just find the situation difficult to watch! How can you like two couples with equal weight? And, more to the point, how can the engagement of a pair of pensioners be trumping the drama of murders, affairs and family meltdowns for me? I really am a funny one. And I'm looking forward to the wedding.

One final point about the engagement episode - I was really impressed with the script and the whole 'where were you when JFK was shot' conversation. Set aside from the mayhem of the current murder plot, the party was a gentle reminder of Corrie's comic capabilities, a hat tip towards its past and a demonstration that wonderful characters can still be sensitively written. It's odd the things that I look for in my soap viewing.


Friday, 9 March 2012

Classic Film Review: Jane Eyre (1943)

I became interested in Joan Fontaine after watching her with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937). To put it bluntly, I was bewitched. When I saw that she was in Jane Eyre opposite Orson Welles I was fairly excited.

The film does have the melodramatic feel of the era but also manages to recreate some of the foreboding atmosphere of Lowood and Thornfield. Fontaine - despite her beauty - makes a very good plain Jane because they don't glamorise her as much as I feared they would. As for Welles as Mr Rochester... Well, that was just an excellent bit of casting. He's got the presence of Rochester, the humour lingering beneath the surface and I felt he had real chemistry with Fontaine. The supporting cast was pretty good as well: Margaret O'Brien's pre-Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) French accent as young Adele was much better than I expected, though I'm not a huge fan of her. Agnes Moorehead was the perfect Mrs Reed while Henry Daniell played the terrible Mr Brocklehurst to perfection. The plot is slimmed down from the book and misses out some interesting scenes (I'm assuming Orson Welles wasn't keen on dressing up like a gypsy). Nevertheless, this was a good adaptation and one that never pretended to be more than the entertainment it was.

If I had to pick one favourite scene it would probably be Rochester's horse being spooked by Jane on the moors. Wonderfully shot and a nice precursor to the movement of their relationship. All in all, thoroughly enjoyable and, yes, my obsession with Joan Fontaine is growing.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Sometimes when a book is given as much attention as The Help has been I grow wary, wondering if it'll live up to the hype. I was the same with Wolf Hall. Fortunately, this proved to be as good as they said it was. I can see why it's a best-seller and I can see why the recent film was so popular. I can't wait to see that.

The Help tells the story of a small town in Mississippi and focuses on three women within it - black maids Aibileen and Minny and Skeeter, the white daughter of a fairly standard family. Aibileen is something of a child specialist, raising her seventeenth white child and trying to instil some colour-blind principles into her charge. Minny is tough-as-nails with a propensity to shoot her mouth off. Skeeter had a fantastic childhood relationship with her own maid and comes home from college to find her gone with no explanation. Skeeter begins to notice the arbitrary lines between white and black and comes up with a plan to interview maids and get their perspectives written down and put into a book.

The novel flicks between the three viewpoints for the most part. Chapter twenty-five deviates from this as it describes a scene that none of the viewpoint characters could have viably reported on. It was worth the slight jolt from the fictional world to get a full overview of that scene. The dialect of Aibileen and Minny is easy to get used to but certainly sounds authentic while Skeeter's chapters display the impetuousness and uncertainty of an intelligent woman trying to find her place in the world. There are many strands running through the novel - Skeeter's burgeoning relationship with Stuart, Minny's odd relationship with her new boss, Aibileen's touching moments with her young charge - but it doesn't feel overpopulated. It all matters in the end because every event and encounter feeds into the characters.

There were so many aspects of The Help that I loved (and so many characters I wanted to wallop). Stockett doesn't shy away from showing the downright terrible alongside the touching moments. Hilly Holbrook is technically the villain of the piece, a woman so disgusted with black people that she starts an initiative to have outside toilets built for the maids so they don't have to share with the white population. Hilly is all about barriers and keeping her place at the helm of...well, everything. Her punishment is extremely fitting and will get you laughing and cringing at the same time.

I suppose the run-up to the climax of the novel is absurd, but not in the way that it's illogical. It's absurd because it builds on everything we've come to learn about the characters and depends entirely on those characters being true to form. It's absurd because I felt as though I should've seen it coming - but I didn't. I'm not usually one for visible reactions to whatever I'm reading but one moment in The Help had me clapping my hand over my mouth in public and generally looking mad. That's an endorsement if ever there was one.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Significance of a Key

Having read Angela Barton's poignant post about grief, I began thinking about the odd things human beings do/say/keep in the name of preserving a memory. Mine borders on theft, I'm afraid, but I'm certain the council changed the locks when they renovated the house...

Anyway, my maternal grandmother lived in a small but character-laden house on a council estate. I say character-laden because it reflected... I don't know what it reflected actually but it was certainly a special house. The kitchen was a hideous (I have to admit it) shade of yellow; the sideboard in the living room had a cupboard full of odds and ends (when we cleared it out we found a decade old bottle of medicine); the carpet had a square gap located conveniently underneath the sofa; the wallpaper on the far wall didn't quite dip below the long television stand; there was ant powder in the corners; the furniture in my bedroom came from the neighbour across the street who married a nice man and lied about her debts... Once you open the door to one memory a host of others follow. It's incredible how responsive the mind is to a theme tune or a smell or an overheard phrase.

My grandmother was the giving type. She used to buy me presents all the time, even though some of them were a little eccentric. She brought me a doll back from her first-foreign holiday (which my sister promptly smashed - not out of spite, I hasten to add); she bought me CDs from my favourite seller on the market (Eartha Kitt, Rose Marie); she brought me back a keyring with my name on it from her last holiday in Blackpool. I clipped that onto my keys the day she gave it to me and only reluctantly took it off when it became likely it would disintegrate if I didn't. I still have it. However, there is one thing of hers I still carry around with me to this day: her house key.

It's a clunky thing, one of the long types that opens a 'proper' door to my way of thinking. It's in remarkable condition (unlike her own in the end) because she had it cut especially for me when I was in college. I remember the occasion that prompted it: she was taken out for a meal by one of her sisters and I arrived after college, as I did every day. I sat in the garden reading Antony and Cleopatra for my English Literature class while the neighbour came out periodically to check I didn't need to use their facilities. I really did need a key considering the amount of time I spent around there.

When she moved from her home of fifty years to sheltered accommodation (then it was a short time to the home and then...) I didn't think about the key. I was too caught-up doing what needed to be done and stripping my grandmother's house of its life. I remember standing in the almost-empty house and wanting to cry at how easily the past had been erased. No plates on the wall, no brass figures on the mantlepiece, no vase with fake petals in the bottom that was in need of a clean. It was more than just empty, it was dead. When I finally realised that I had the house key on my keyring it was too late to give it back. But, on those days I do believe in some kind of fate, I think it was meant to be that way. Now I have a permanent reminder of my grandmother on my person at all times. More than that, though, I have a permanent record of how much she trusted me and how much we meant to each other. That's pretty special for a key.

Me and my grandmother at Bournemouth in 2005:

Monday, 5 March 2012

Book Review: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Slammerkin, I had high hopes for my next foray into Donoghue's historical fiction. I wasn't disappointed. The Sealed Letter is a fictionalised account of the Codrington divorce case of the 1860s, a scandal that was heavily reported in the press at the time and every salacious detail lapped up by the public. As Donoghue notes in her interview at the end of the book, the case feels modern because of the urban setting and - I believe - because the same sort of salacious gossip pleases the public now as it did 150 years ago. However, aside from being an enjoyable read, it's an educational one that reminds us how far we've come in terms of marriage and, perhaps, how similar we are to our Victorian ancestors.

Emily 'Fido' Faithfull encounters her old friend Helen Codrington on a busy London street after years apart. She finds herself drawn back into Helen's world and, much to her displeasure, finds herself involved in Helen's affair with a young army officer. Helen's husband Harry finally grasps what's going on and tries to divorce his wife - but Helen won't be silenced easily. Fido herself becomes integral to the outcome of the case.

The Sealed Letter utilises all three major viewpoints, although Fido is arguably the most important. The three protagonists are well-defined and explained, something which could've been difficult considering the historical context. First and foremost, this is an enjoyable novel, though the author's note at the end explained a lot of the detail around the case that I'd been wondering about as I progressed through. Donoghue uses the present tense, something I don't always find easy to deal with, but after a few pages the story took over and I barely noticed the tense. Her descriptions rival those of Slammerkin and are equally invocative - the foray of Fido and Helen into the Underground during their first reunion meeting feels so oppresive and vile, even to a reader with 150 years distance. I think that's one of the chief features of this novel: the immediacy of the present tense combines with the expert descriptions to create a Victorian England the reader does actually feel a part of.

Fido is one of those exceptional Victorian women, someone who prefers to work for her living than find a clergyman and settle down like her family wished her to. She is very involved with early women's movements which leads to cameos from people like Bessie Parkes and Emily Davies. Occasionally these scenes feel documentary-like, with characters speaking lines their real-life counterparts probably wouldn't have said because they were too obvious, but they serve a purpose. Helen is a twisted character, understandable in some areas of her life but deeply manipulative. Her reaction to her separation from her children is easily her most redeeming feature. Finally, Harry slowly shrinks in his own estimation as his married life becomes public knowledge. It's difficult to read about and I did eventually pity the man who was being manipulated by almost everyone around him.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. Read it if you like Victorian fiction, fictional accounts of real-life cases or intricate divorce proceedings. We're still as interested in the latter as the Victorians themselves were.