The Girl and The Inn Keeper and Cornwall

Jamaica Inn” was part of my December reading event for Goodreads Women’s Classic Literature Enthusiasts. I already was extremely disappointed with “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier and I had hoped that since my opinion of her work was based on only one book, I should keep an open mind and re-read this one.

The book is set in 1820 in Cornwall around a pub house that apparently still exists or at least used to when Daphne Du Maurier wrote the novel. Mary Yellan has recently been orphaned and her mother’s dying wish is that she sells the farm and goes and stays with her aunt Patience who lives with her husband Joss Merlyn, an Inn Keeper at Jamaica Inn. Mary sells her farm at Helford and travels to reside with her uncle and aunt. She soon discovers that her happy once happy aunt has become a dithering, scared and silly fool under the constant treat and bullying from her husband Joss Merlyn. Mary soon discovers that under the guise of Inn keeping Joss Merlyn actually does illegal smuggling by wrecking ships of Cornish cost. She realizes that her uncle is completely ruthless when one night she over hears him giving order of a murder of one his team members who disagreed with him. Worried about her aunt’s safety and eager to get out of her uncle’s clutches, she concocts various plans to escape from Jamaica Inn; but these go awry as she discovers kinship with Jem Merlyn, the younger brother of her uncle. Confused as to whether to trust Jem or not, she turns for advise to Francis Davey,Vicar of Altarum, an Albino gentleman with all kinds of unforeseen results!

Where do I begin??!! The cast in itself is really bad and clichéd. Mary Yellan enters Jamaica Inn for the first time and is immediately scared of her uncle, then before you can blink your eye, she is defending her aunt? Where does this courage come from and if it was there, why was she so scared in the beginning? She is constantly confused – like Jem/don’t like Jem!! Ye Gods!! Joss Merlyn is the arch-typical villain who has more strength than brains – no prize there for any originality; nor is there any real charm in Jem Merlyn except he is a crook of lower order – his brother kills people( heinous of course!) and Jem steals horses ( a much less horrific crime), but a lesser crime is no excuse for committing it none the less! The worst was characterization was Francis Davey – nonsensical, clichéd and without any foundation. The plot drags and drags and at one point you just want Mary to die or something instead of sitting through another chapter of her traipsing through Cornwall moors. The only redeeming feature of the book is the description of Cornwall and the dark mood that Ms. Du Maurier is able to create through inclement weather and the planning and execution of horrific crimes. That alone provides relief in an otherwise very ordinary work.

Daphne Du Maurier just does not improve on closer acquaintance. I am glad this re-read is over and I am NOT touching a Du Maurier for some time!

By the Cornish Coast….

After many days of waiting and never finding the moment, I finally managed to start and finish Susan Howatch’s Penmarric. As has been evident from my previous posts, this was one book I had been waiting to read for some time, but time and other matters intruded ; however I was determined not to let this year go without reading this one and I am very glad to say atleast that’s one tick mark against my very abysmal 2014 accomplishments!

The book is divided into 5 parts and commences in 1890 with the narrative of a young Mark Castallack who introduces us to Penmarric, an estate in Cornwall which was to be inherited by his mother Maud, but which instead went to her cousin Giles who in turn had warmed his way to Maud’s father affection, after the death of her brother. Maud herself was separated from her scholarly and gentlemanly husband Laurence Castallack and instead resides in London and spends her life in a legal battle to secure Penmarric for her son. Mark Castallack who is not fond of his mother and feels more kinship to his father’s quiet and scholarly taste has no interest in Penmarric, but rather hopes to become a historian like his father. He works hard and goes to Oxford to read history, while his mother continues to wage a battle for Penmarric which she ultimately loses. However with the death of Giles’s only son, Mark suddenly becomes the heir to Penmarric. It is at this time that his father closes his own house, an estate, in North Cornwall and comes to reside near Penmarric is a small farm which he inherited from his mother. While visiting his father, one day Marc meets a widow of a farmer, Janna , who is 10 years his senior, but with whom he is instantly taken. Janna however is not interested in Marc and angered by her rejection, Marc goes away to a sea side resort, where he meets, Rose, a daughter of a doctor who works as a Nanny after her father’s death. Spurred on my Janna’s rejection, he sets out to seduce Rose and then returns to his father’s farm. Rose however soon becomes pregnant and things come to a head as Laurence dies while seeking reconciliation with Marc, after a bitter argument, when the former comes to know about Rose. With the death of Laurence, followed soon by demise of Giles, Marc takes over Penamrric and sets out to conquer Janna, with turbulent results that reverberate through two generations of the Castallack family, spanning over 60 years.

The book from the very beginning calls out that it is more of a modern retelling of history of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and the rise and fall of the Plantagenet family.  Each book begins with a brief synopsis of the Plantagenet family history, which vaguely gives the reader the idea of the premises of the chapters which would follow. It is the credit of the author that despite this synopsis, which kind of lays bare what is about to unfold, the grip of the plot is never lost and as a reader, you would keep turning pages to see actually what does happen. This fine balance of marking out the premises without giving away the solution to the suspense is a fine a delicate art and Ms. Howatch manages this with mastery and great finesse. Her characters are all capable of being generous, liberal, and honest and brave at the same time also behave in an unworthy manner. They are all well drawn out and each character stands independently and distinctly of each other and makes the plot more taut. However there are some inconsistencies – there is a sudden turning of really bad to really good without enough explanation; for one instance you are blackmailing your own father and next minute the same person is revered as a local hero. While I understand that man has many facets, goodness is often well rounded and while we all have moments of weakness, rarely have I seen a nature so contradictory. Having said that, these inconsistencies, do not take anything away from the story and the narratives plays out beautifully, doing ample justice to the lovely beauty of Cornwall as well the very unsettled history of England, 1890-1945. In fact this is another master stroke by Ms. Howatch, many historical novels have a tendency to become history books where history and not the story is main stay of the novel; but in this book, there is again a very fine balance where, one is constantly aware of the changing dynamics in the history and society of Engalnd without taking center stage. Breakdown of the old social order is brought out more by the conduct of the characters rather than a linear narrative. For instance, at the very onset it is clear Marc Castellack favors the traditional idea of women in vogue then where “intellect’ was not a lady’s forte, but rather home and hearth should be the core of her existence. Yet the same Marc Castellack some 35 years later supports his daughter’s education and sends her to Cambridge. This kind of story telling slowly and distinctly unravels the changes in the history while marrying it skillfully with the core theme.

I cannot say I am absolutely fond of this book, in fact I felt it would make a better film than a book, considering the father against son, brother against brother, blackmail, adultery etc. However I am extremely glad to have read it once and if nothing else, as a reader, you will be left breathless, with most glorious description of Cornwall that you could see, breathe and even feel Cornwall.

Meeting Lucy!

Basis the review by Fleur about Margaret Kennedy’s Lucy Carmichael, I picked this one up.

I had many reasons NOT to pick this one up –
• It was set in a time period that is not my idea of historical piece; I mean its post 1950 and everyone knows that my idea of history ends in 1945!
• It is about a girl who is jilted on her wedding day and her triumphs …well that’s a pretty regular plotline – heroine faces a challenge and comes through in a winning haze
• It’s about a small industrial town in England – no grand castles, no Cornwall, no carriages and characters a la Catherine De Burgh

But then Fleur had written some great reviews and I have never gone wrong with her taste in books; besides she was very emphatic that of all the Margaret Kennedy’s she read, including her most famous, The Constant Nymph, this is her best work! Besides something about the character about Lucy Carmichael was enchanting; this is how Michelle, her friend describes her – “She taught me how to enjoy myself … Lucy forced me to believe that I might be happy. I don’t expect I’d have had the courage to marry you, to marry anybody, if it hadn’t been for Lucy.” That’s a very different way to introduce the heroine than saying lovely eyes, brown lush curls and yada yada yada!

So I went to Amazon Kindle and requested to read a sample – within 10mins I had bought the book! It is one of my best read ever and I am so glad to have read and own a copy!

The book is set in post-World War II England and a major part of the story is set in a small industrial town of England. Lucy Carmichael is about to be married to Patrick Reilly, a very famous travel author, whom Michelle (A very likable and practical character) does not particularly trust or like but is happy for her best friend’s sake! Lucy as predicted is left at the alter and to get away from the pain and trauma, applies and gets a job at drama school and makes a huge success of it. She gets along very well with most of her colleagues and tries to innovate the regular affairs and bring excitement to the proceedings. Just as she is making a success of herself and is looked up kindly by Lady Francis, the patron and High God of the Council of the Institute, the politics and personal ambitions of people lead to some unfortunate incidents and Lucy resigns. She then moves to another small town and gets a job re-organizing a community center and makes a great job of it until, something else comes her way!

It’s a wonderful book with some simple story telling with much warmth and humor. There are many wonderful characters including Lucy and her friend Michelle, Lady Francis who embodies nobles oblige as well as some intriguing characters like Inthane and Angera Heim. The story telling is marvelous and the sensitivity is handled very well – there is no mopping wailing heroine, though her pain is just as real and very powerful; there is a careful detailing of transition of human emotions – how Stephen, Lucy’s brother, whom she always treated with scorn and scolding tries to be the man to look after his elder sister and how their relationship evolves. Then there is friendship that subsists and transmutes and still subsists between Michelle and Lucy – as one’s life changes and from the other and “first in confidence” position is given away willingly. The way one fears for a friend and yet may not always sees things clearly and all the ups and downs of friendships. And among all this, there is a gentle portrayal of a 1950s society with all its wonderful aspects – Lady Francis could always be generous and gracious, but her children caught between the old world of aristocrats and the new emerging society of equality and laborers unite, struggle between and try to find a foothold where they can be comfortable in their own skin. The class war is depicted at some many levels, but always subtly in the background without making the reader lose focus on Lucy, but at the same time driving home some truths of the society.

It’s a wonderful book and a great read! Would not miss it for the world!

World War II, Victorian Art…some highs and some lows

Recently I read two back to back works of historical fiction set during World War II. The period of 1900 1950 has always fascinated me and any work set in that era, predisposes me to like the book, even before I read it. It’s a kind of a blind spot with me. Therefore with some pleasant anticipation I set out to read –

Let me first tackle The Shell Seekers. Most of the circumstances were in favor and had me predisposed to really like this book – it seemed like one of those epic family saga, with a story interwoven between present and the World War II era, with a lot of emphasis on paintings and the Bohemian era of British artistry. Besides, it was in my Lecito List and is part of BBC Top 100- The Big Read, along with such noteworthy works like The Great Gatsby and Catch 22 etc. How could I not possibly like the book??

Well there is an old adage – never judge a book by its cover! I have invented a new one – never judge a book by reading its inlay cover: it’s completely misleading.

The Shell SeekersDon’t get me wrong, the book was all that the inlay cover claimed – it traces the life and times of the Keeling family as they plan to make their way in the world by selling the last remaining works of their grandfather – Lawerence Stern, a great Victorian artist, whose popularity was getting revived again. However standing between their grand ambitions and the works is their mother – Penelope Keeling, the only daughter of Lawerence Stern and the primary protagonist of the book. The book evolves through her memories, each chapter focusing on an important figure in her life, sweeping between past and present. The past takes the reader back to the bohemian childhood of hers and then through the war time romance and brings the reader back to present where she develops a strong bond with two young strangers over her avaricious children.  The book ends with Penelope’s death and the disclosure of her will which leaves her inheritors astounded.

The book has some absolutely marvelous description of Cornwall and like many before makes the reader go and settle there for good and never come back.  There are some very fine details of costumes and food of the bygone era. It’s an easy read and will not stress the reader out too much.

But that’s where all the good stuff of the book ends!

This book is singularly one of the most disappointing reads of my life. I started it off with such expectation, but it was a letdown. I am not sure how this book came to be termed as one of the big reads of all times!!

The novel had so much potential, simply because of the historical backdrop and the subject of Victorian paintings, but it all seemed wasted.  To begin with, the book had such a superficial narrative of World War II: the heroine joins the war effort because she is moved by the story of some Jewish refugees from Germany. But she promptly then meets a man, gets pregnant and marries him, only to discover, Alleluia, the marriage is a disaster! Her parents are supposed to be completely free-spirited and are ready to accept her and her unborn child, but she still goes ahead and marries this man, for no clear reason. Then of course, during the course of the war she has a clichéd love affair with the perfect man – a man who understands art and reads poetry and can play with her daughter and is a paragon of virtue! (Do such men really exist? Also would it not be boring to be constantly with a man who is so PERFECT!!!! Besides shouldn’t opposites attract?) Not only she has an affair, but the town seems to bless it and by then 18th page of this chapter, you know this affair is doomed and when you reach the end of the chapter – surprise surprise – it’s doomed!! She is supposed to be this strong independent character, but until she becomes an old woman, I do not see any independence in her – she is constantly dependent on her parents and friends! Then come her children who all are supposed to be greedy and materialistic, except one Olivia and she also does not seem completely human and is constantly reminding herself to be human! I mean Duh! The day I have to remind myself to be humane and kind, well then there is something wrong with mankind. Even the references to the Victorian arts are artificial and inconsequential – with such prodigious material available on the paintings of that time, a little more depth would have helped the book.

In the end, I do not think it’s a work to be handed down to posterity nor should it stand with the likes of The Lord of the Rings and War and Peace. It’s one of those novels that you read on a flight and leave it on the plane!

The only impressive thing was not related to the book, but the author – Rosamunde Pilcher. She had written since 1950’s in various Mills & Boon Romance publications, but it was at the age of 60 that she wrote The Shell Seekers and gained worldwide fame. It’s remarkable how she shed her comfort zone at a very late age in her life and of course the risk paid off – though I still do not like the book!

No review of mine can be short and I bid adieu on this blog with a faithful promise that I will inflict my readers again with my take on The Baker’s Daughter.