This is one thing I did this week, and where it took me.

I celebrated. It was a modest event, no popping corks, or bubbles.

There was, however, a jubilant, ‘Yes’, as I completed that task I signed up to with Cleo, on Classical Carousel, four months ago. You know, the marathon that seemed hardly possible. Surely you remember my mentioning that I intended reading Ann Radcliffe’s, The Mysteries of Udolpho? Well, I’ve finished. And I’m three weeks ahead of the reading schedule.

You’d be right in thinking that last statement is a surprise development. Just like Emily, I could never be quite sure that things would work out for the best. Well, I turned an unexpected corner.

It happened this way. I’d been avoiding even looking at the hefty tome for several days. It had been hot, I was lethargic, and the story seemed to be lagging. I had a list of jobs needing attention. It was a classic set-up for displacement activity-itous.

I started with taking on boring, mundane chores, that no one but me would notice. I became focused on crossing jobs off.

Days passed. I wrote course proposals, bringing fresh papers and books to the corner of the table that has become a temporary office.

Udolpho and my original list got buried, along with the top of the table. I found some new lines of research and began a fresh list. When that one disappeared, I started another. At some later point the table began to groan under the stacks of ideas.

One morning I walked into the kitchen and found an old envelope on my laptop. Written on the back of it, in large black letters were the words, ‘tidy notes.’ It was the reminder of a dream that I had woken from in the middle of the night. There had been an Alice-in-Wonderland like moment when page after page of a story had rained down upon me, and I had seen, clearly, some perfectly formed and irresistible narrative.

Tenniel’s ‘Alice’

Unfortunately, the form and shape of it had evaporated with the sunrise, as they usually do, even after making notes. But, looking at our mountainous table, I saw some other sense in those two terse words.

Dismantling a paper heap of that size is no simple matter. Things must be re-read, decisions need to be taken on what to save, where to tidy them to, and whether they’re safe to discard. I found several books I’d forgotten about before I resurrected Ann Radcliffe.

I did not pull back in horror, tattered as the cover is, though I may have sighed, a little, as I recalled that neglected schedule. Surely, I thought, I was so far behind by now it would need a marathon to catch up.

Could I have missed the finish date all together? I hunted around for the reading schedule, and perhaps I was half hoping that I might be able to add it to my must-finish-that-one-one-of-these-days shelf. I could not. I put the book back on the emptied table.

So imagine my surprise, later that morning, when I took it up to re-establish my ten-minutes-a-day reading policy, and a moment later realised that I had been reading for over an hour. More astounding still, I was reluctant to leave Emily and make lunch.

I don’t think it was just that I realised the end was in sight, and the pages I’d read far out-weighed those ahead of me. It was that at some point, about half-way through Volume Three, the story took me over.

Perhaps, I was better adjusted to the mindsets of the characters, and the author. It seemed to me that they had all become brighter, and more active. Strands of plot were coming together in interesting and unexpected ways. New characters appeared, and took me to fresh scenes.

There were some things about the plotting that seemed a little conveniently coincidental, but I was enjoying the journey. It seems that, when the writing works, we readers can accept it.

Maybe, the old saying about ‘truth being stranger than fiction’, could be said to apply when the writing doesn’t persuade us to suspend our sense of disbelief. Could it be that because most of us do experience odd coincidences, we’ll accept fictional truths so long as the characters and their world are believable?

The mystery of how I’ve reached volume III of Ann Radcliffe

There has been a lot of weeping, so far. I assure you, though, dark as this journey has been, these tears were not from me. Our heroine, Emily, is the watering can, crying her way through most chapters, now that she has been orphaned.

Oops, sorry for that spoiler, folks. Perhaps I should have warned you that I’m going to be discussing several incidents from the first two volumes. So, if you’ve plans to read The Mysteries of Udolpho, you’d be advised to leave me here. Because, unlike Miss Radcliffe, I’m not going to be coy with my revelations.

Yes, Ann, I do accuse you of deliberately withholding key information, a story-offence of the first degree, in my opinion. Let’s take the example of the veiled picture, first discovered while Emily and her maid, Annette, are trying to find Emily’s new bedroom in the huge and inhospitably drafty castle, in the dark.

Annette is too frightened to stay and lift the veil, she runs off with the lamp. Why wouldn’t she? The other servants have warned her about a range of ghosts and horrors linked to the castle and it’s questionable owner.

Emily though, like me, is driven by an overriding curiosity. The next day she retraces her route to the picture…

…which appeared to be enclosed in a frame of uncommon size, that hung in a dark part of the room. She paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall – perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.

When she recovered her recollection, the remembrance of what she had seen had nearly deprived her of it a second time.

Yes, but what was it? What did she see?

I’m a hundred pages further into the story and I still don’t know, despite several occasions when Emily becomes weak at the knees over the memory.

I’m not too happy about the treatment of Annette, either. She’s full of the kind of sensibilities that allow Emily to demonstrate her superior commonsense and bravery. How does Emily repay this? When she’s too frightened to stay in her room alone she has Annette stay with her. Emily gets the bed, Annette must make do with a chair by the dying fire.

But let me get back to Emily’s weeping. No, wait, it’s never gone away. She’s prone to getting ‘lost in this melancholy reverie, and shedding frequent tears…’

To be fair, this young woman is at the mercy of an unenviable bunch of relatives who are intent on using her to advance their own fortunes. But what else should a female of the 1580s expect? Her role, as she continually reminds us, is obedience to the wishes of her elders, even when she knows that they act wrongly.

Except, hold on a minute, who says that their ambitions are wrong? Why Emily (and Ann Radcliffe).

The case for the defense, surely, is that Emily’s aunts, uncles and neighbours are acting in her best interests, as well as their own, in aiming her towards the most advantageous marriage possible. After all, upper class marriage in the sixteenth century is not about love, it’s a business deal negotiated by family elders.

Her father knew this, but still he decided to bring his daughter up in such a way that she was never going to fit the social scene. What was he thinking? I have some ungenerous thoughts about his selfishness. It was all very well to create a perfect companion for himself, but did he think beyond the limits of the estate where they lived?

In fact, now I come to think of it, this book sets me in a particularly judgmental frame of mind. Hmm, does that mean I’ve entered into the story?

It might. Though if so, it’s not in a way I would usually expect.

I’ve spent a lot of time locked up in dark spaces with Em as she dithers, sobs, faints and waits for things to happen to her. I’ve had to remind myself that, for readers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Emily is daringly independent. She goes alone, at night, to visit her father’s grave. She wanders through Udolpho Castle, a place full of mysterious corridors, rooms and presences, in darkness and daylight, despite her fears of molestation and abduction.

However passive she might be in some instances, she is a young woman without access to transport or uninterested assistance. The constraints of her time mean that she must always be limited by the need to hold onto her respectability. If that is lost, so is she.

What I’m irritated by is the very thing that Radcliffe is drawing attention to, the dangers of having too much sensibility. This is interesting, because it seems that here I am, 226 years after this book was published, reacting in a way that the author probably intended, despite our cultural differences.

The Mysteries of Udolpho summer readalong is organised by Cleo, at Classical Carousel.

Beginning the Mysteries of Udolpho read-along

As soon as I saw Cleo’s invitation, on Classical Carousel, to dedicate a month to reading Ann Radcliffe’s famous novel, I knew I was fated to join in. After all, not only have I got two identical copies on my shelves (certainly bought with the best of intentions, but who could say when?), in classes, I’m frequently given to quoting quotes about the importance of Radcliff to later writers. It is clearly about time I stopped having to admit that I’ve no right to express my own opinions on that.

So, I have begun. My first thought? It’s an awfully big novel, arguably a worthy doorstop for breezy days. It’s certainly been doing sterling work as a paperweight.

“No! Stop this sacrilege: this procrastinating! Get to the first page, why don’t you?”

Okay, so I didn’t say all that to myself out loud, but there was an internal monologue happening, along those lines, for around two days before I settled to the task. Which suggests the book is a hard read.

It’s not. There is, perhaps, more description than the writing I normally aim for, but I like a reading challenge, and variety. So I took another day to work through the first two pages, acclimatizing myself to the period and the locality.

On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St Aubert. From its windows were seen the pastoral landscapes of Guienne and Gascony, stretching along the river, gay with luxuriant woods and vines, and a plantation of olives.

How idyllic it is. What a joy to travel to such a place at any time, but especially now, when ‘real’ travel is a fantasy.

The first paragraph is a geographical orientation. Nowadays, we might think of it as a camera, panning round. To the south are the Pyrenees, described in rugged detail, to the north and east, are plains, while in the west is the Bay of Biscay.

Only then do we move in closer, joining M. St Aubert, his wife, and his daughter. We see the environment through their movements, and thoughts. Their lives happen at a gentle pace, and that’s how the reading feels: I’m drawn on, and into the layers of landscape.

There are momentous incidents, and the novel (the story) is driving forwards, but at walking pace (might I say isolation-pace?), and so far, with modesty and restraint. I’m only 50 pages in, and have yet to experience any sensation stronger than mild curiosity. No doubt I’m being lulled into a false sense of security, but actually, I wouldn’t mind if my reading continued in this gentle vein of wandering along the thyme, balm, lavender and basil scented pathways.

So far, this is an undemanding novel. I’m engaged by the characters, and the journey they’ve now embarked on. I know that they’ll be there, readily accessible and familiar, even if I miss reading of them for a day. Which I have, several times.

The challenge will be, whether I can reach page 632 before end of the month. It all depends, I imagine, on whether I become thrilled (which I think is a suitably dated expression) by developments or anticipation. Though I’m hoping for some inappropriate chuckling too.

Reading styles

I do like the idea I’m multi-tasking, and lately, the closest I’ve managed has been in terms of reading materials. I’ve been recuperating, in a not very interesting way, for about two weeks.

When I first returned home, I binged on a collection of Brother Cadfael mysteries I was gifted last year. Ellis Peters, whose real name was Edith Mary Pargeter, wrote lovely, reassuring pictures of 12th century England.

These novels are set in a time of political upheaval and uncertainty, but within the confines of Shrewsbury Abbey, even murderous threats are unraveled, and set in order with calm good humour. No matter how brutal an attack has been made, how misguided the accusations against the primary suspect, Brother Cadfael can be relied upon to view it with generosity, and usually, play cupid to a romance that seems fated to failure.

In the middle of September of that year of Our Lord, 1140, two lords of Shropshire manors, one north of the town of Shrewsbury, the other south, sent envoys to the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul on the same day, desiring the entry of younger sons of their houses to the Order.

One was accepted, the other rejected. For which different treatment there were weighty reasons.

So begins, The Devil’s Novice. How effortlessly I slip through the doors of the cloisters, to find out who, and which, and why.

These mysteries make soothing nightcaps, and I’ve worked my way through six of them. I had expected this would feel like too much of a good thing, but here I am, preparing to set out on a new adventure with trusty Cadfael.

Meanwhile, progress on my literary read, Snow, by Orhan Pamuk, is slow. After two weeks, I’m halfway through. I’m intrigued, even curious, but it’s a book that I can only take in one chapter at a time.

The first one begins:

The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus-driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called what he felt inside him ‘the silence of snow’.

He’d boarded the bus from Erzurum to Kars with only seconds to spare. He’d just come into the station on a bus from Istanbul – a snowy, stormy, two-day journey – and was rushing up and down the wet, dirty corridors with his bag in tow, looking for his connection, when someone told him that there was a bus for Kars leaving immediately.

My questions, this time, are all ‘who’? It’s not just the (so far) nameless character I wonder about, at first, I can’t figure out the narrator. He’s sidled up to me, getting increasingly close. ‘Our traveller‘, he says, and ‘So let us take advantage of this lull to whisper a few biographical details’.

Whoa, I try to tell him, haven’t you heard of social distancing? I’m not sure we know each other well enough to be so close. I don’t know that we share a common view of this world. But this narrator is pushy, doesn’t allow me to back away. Three pages in and he offers me some reassurance.

…I’m an old friend of Ka’s and I begin this story knowing everything that will happen to him during his time in Kars.

Ka, then, that’s the name of the central character. Something to hold onto, at last.

Ka enters the bus, and the story is properly started. I can ignore the intrusive narrator and focus on Ka, the poet. Something will be happening soon, that’s clear. What it might be is not predictable. Even the weather isn’t.

The road signs caked with snow were impossible to read. Once the snowstorm began to rage in earnest, the driver turned off his full beam and dimmed the lights inside the bus, hoping to conjure the road out of the semi-darkness.

This scene feels like a metaphor for the story. Ka is asked by one of his fellow travellers why he’s travelling to Kars.

‘I’m a journalist,’ Ka whispered in reply. This was a lie. ‘I’m interested in the municipal elections – and also the women who’ve been committing suicide.’ This was true.

What am I to make of this, that Ka is unreliable too?

Perhaps, he is more realistically human than the infallible Cadfael, though it’s hardly fair to draw comparisons. Both fictions do their job, in transporting me to other times and places. The conclusion I’ve reached is that, odd as it may seem, my daytime and nighttime reads compliment each other.

I wonder what other odd partnerships are waiting to be discovered.

Armchair tourism: Wales, with Dewithon 2020

There was a bitter, arctic wind cutting across us on Sunday morning. The sun was shining, but better enjoyed from behind glass.

Our garden, just waking to spring, is a limited, but refreshing pallet of colours. The winter has been grey with rain, but now we have blue sky, bright young grass, and a patch of daffodils.

These are not golden, they’re more like the dainty Welsh ones. Wales is out-of-bounds, at the moment. Britain is in lock-down.

Well, have books, can travel, and these are the last few days of the 2020 Wales Readathon, the month long celebration of Wales related literature, instigated by PAULA BARDELL-HEDLEY on Book Jotter. I turned to my shelves, and the first thing I saw was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewelyn. It’s been there for several years now, as I’ve wondered whether it was a threat or a promise.

I’d been put off by memories of the 1941 film version that I remember disliking, years and years ago. I can’t give you any specific reason for my reaction. When I checked on-line, I discovered that it is considered an American Classic, so maybe I should take another look.

Then again, I’m loving the book so much, perhaps I won’t take the risk. I’m now on chapter 18, which is about half-way, and can hardly bear to be away to write this, despite my desire to share it with you.

The setting is a mining valley in South Wales. The time frame is towards the end of the nineteenth century. It charts a time of political and social change, but the centre of the story is a family, and their loves, songs, faiths and betrayals.

It is a beautifully shaped novel. Opening with the adult Huw describing his preparations to leave his home for good, and then slipping back through memories to describe his childhood in that house, and community. It’s rich with detail, and yet not bogged down with it.

Take the description of buying toffee from Mrs. Rhys the Glasfryn:

She made the toffee in pans and then rolled it all up and threw it soft at a nail behind the door, where it stuck. Then she took a handful with both hands and pulled it towards her, then threw the slack back on the nail again. That went on for half an hour or more until she was satisfied it was hard enough, and then she let it lie to flatten out. Hours I have waited in her front room with my penny in my hand, and my mouth full of spit, thinking of the toffee, and sniffing the smell of sugar and cream and eggs.

My mouth was watering too.

I love the tone and timbre of Huw’s voice. There are moments when I seem to hear him, rather than read the words, such as the section near the beginning when he describes how his parents met:

…she was sixteen and he was twenty. He came off a farm to make his way in the iron works here, and as he came singing up the street one night he saw my mother drawing the curtains upstairs in the house where she was working. He stopped singing and looked up at her, and I suppose she looked down to see why he had stopped. Well, they looked and fell in love.

Mind, if you had said that to my mother she would have laughed it off and told you to go on with you, but I know because I had it from my father.

So far, the story of Huw’s life is full of incident, and he’s only just reached his teenage. I’m captivated by this bright innocent who’s always watching, asking questions, and taking part.

Another draw is the setting, an idyllic green Eden, lyrically described in relation to Huw’s childhood. As he grows older, the shadow of the slag heap increasingly encroaches in a metaphorical and literal form. The industrial revolution happens at a domestic level, impacting on every layer of the family.

This historical novel, published in 1939, seems to offer a warning for our times, as well providing me with an antidote to this strange, restricted moment.

Discovering: The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker

What I liked first about this novel, was the opening paragraph.

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

This is the voice of Briseis, a captured Queen, who ‘heard him before I saw him’, because she and the rest of the women from Lyrnessus were shut in the citadel as Achilles attacked their city.

We all knew the men were being pushed back – the fighting that had once been on the beach and around the harbour was now directly under the gates. We could hear shouts, cries, the clash of swords on shields…

The story of the battle for Troy has been told many times. I can’t remember whether I first met Helen, Paris, Agamemnon and the rest of them in a book or a film, or when. Maybe it was textual references in different genres… So many writers have used Helen, Hector or Paris as a reference point for their characters that it’s probable I first heard of them intertextually.

A gauge I use for judging the popularity of an icon is when it turns up in comedy. In his 1948 novel, Uncle Dynamite, PG Wodehouse gave us Lord Ickenham. At one point, he tells his niece, Sally, ‘You look like Helen of Troy after a really good facial.

Perhaps I’ve always known these characters. They could be part of that collective unconscious identified by Carl Jung. It would explain why they feel so familiar, and it excuses me for having lazily accepting the romantic version of what the characters stood for, and therefore, who they were.

On the other hand, the story has too often been served up in segments that present the point of view of a single key character, or event. In those tellings, secondary characters like Briseis were necessary, but disposable components: moments of pathos interspersed between the big dramatic scenes. When the atrocities happened, the focus was too often on the emotions and actions of the key witnesses, rather than the victims.

After all, the women of this time were passive. Values were different. To judge the events around Troy as a love story (as we understand the meaning) is to apply alien motives to the way society was structured.

In presenting this novel largely from a female perspective, Barker re-sets the story.

We women – children too, of course – had been told to go to the citadel… Like all respectable married women, I rarely left my house – though admittedly in my case the house was a palace…

The blood and confusion of battles are not ignored, or reduced. They’re vivid and bloody, but either off-stage, or witnessed from a distance.

…hearing the crash and splinter of wood breaking, I ran up on to the roof, leant over the parapet and saw Greek fighters spilling through a breach in the gates. directly below me, a knot of writhing arms and shoulders advanced an then retreated…

The main part of this story is set in the Greek camp, after Lyrnessus has been sacked. Briseis, restricted by her gender and her tenuous position as the ‘prize’ of the fight, awarded to Achilles, puts a fresh slant on the Greek heroes, even as she accepts her role.

What can I say? He wasn’t cruel. I waited for it – expected it, even… Something in me died that night.

I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have a perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. that’s what he did to me. He tried me out.

Nineteen year old Briseis had been married, at fourteen, to a man she had never met. This is not a story of love. It is about necessity, and survival. Her gender may have placed her in a passive role, but she is an impressively active narrator.

For me, the heart of this story is about levels and layers of bravery. The women of Lyrnessus are slaves, without autonomy. Their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons have been slaughtered. How do they cope? Take Tecmessa, has lived with Ajax for four years.

Ajax had killed her father and her brothers and that same night raped her, and yet she’d grow to love him – or so she said. I wasn’t sure I believed her. Admittedly, I didn’t want to believe her. I found her adjustment to life in the camp threatening – and shameful. But then, she did have a son, and her whole life revolved around the child.

In passages like this, Briseis foregrounds the parts of the Troy story that have fleetingly unsettled me, and made me think about the significance of just who gets to tell any story. No wonder I’ve found myself thinking back and back to it in the four weeks since I read it.

Fragment of a tapestry probably produced through Jean or Pasquier Grenier of Tournai

Date: ca. 1470–90 (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Course of Mirrors; an Odyssey. By Ashen Venema

Ana’s is a sheltered, privileged, life, but all is not well. Her parents live in separate mansions, on opposite sides of a river gorge. Ana, as go between, must carry their messages across the bridge that connects them.

I cannot recall when I first sensed the unspoken thing that mother kept from me, like an ache she passively resigned herself to. I thought my existence was to blame. The secret’s dark spell imprisoned me more than the walls surrounding Katun Court and mother’s mansion.

In fiction, a secret is a promise. Having planted it, Ana moves away, shows us scenes from her childhood in her fractured family, and tells us about the kingdom they live in. There are lyrical descriptions where personalities are developed and put into context:

…we travelled in all seasons. During winter months, the northern horizon of Kars and Estan was rimmed by snow caps resembling a parade of porcelain elephants…

I was strapped onto a pony so I could ride with him next to mother’s carriage along unbending roads through the rocky terrain of Kars. And onwards through the flatlands of Estan straight and gridded like a chessboard…

Mother was tense and irritable on these journeys. She preferred Nimrich, where narrow tracks circled copses ad lakes and riddled the ancient woodlands.

We are in an alternative reality. As the summary on the back of the novel puts it, the setting is mythical. Since myth includes all kinds of mystery the unfolding story is limitless, as Ana soon proves to be.

The formative years are soon past, and for her nineteenth birthday, Ana’s cousins arrive with an invite, ‘”Let’s climb the Gazal…” Among the mountains behind us, the Gazal was the most daunting…’ This will be her first adventure, demonstrating to herself, and us, her potential to face challenges and dangers.

After that, it’s only a matter of time before her dreams and questions lead to rebellion:

Something in me snapped. a force beyond caring compelled me to confront my father.

Ana sets out on her ‘odyssey’.

There are progressions and set-backs, some bleakly dark. The lone road is a place where Ana learns to distinguish between allies and foes, and to explore the meanings of love, friendship and betrayal.

This is a bildungsroman story, in other words, a journey that mirrors the ‘psychological and moral growth of the protagonist’. It would be tricky to tell you more of the way Ana’s story unfolds without presenting ‘spoilers’, so I’ll leave you with the Cambridge Dictionary definition for Odyssey: a long trip or period involving a lot of different and exciting activities, especially while searching for something.

Ashen says that she was inspired by 1001 Nights, and Ursula le Guin, and I can see how that has worked. There were moments when I recognised the influence of both, and more moments that were entirely Ashen Venema’s. It made an interesting and entertaining journey.

Ashen Venema is a poet, philosopher, writer, therapist, photographer. If you’d like to learn more about her, you might drop by her interesting blog, that is also called, Course of Mirrors, where she reflects on her experiences.

Where Lorna Doone meets The Godfather, & The War of the Worlds.

Go on, admit it, my title has intrigued you, at least a little, hasn’t it?

No, this isn’t a review of a new ‘mash-up’ novel, though I’d be quite interested to see how ‘girt* Jan Ridd’ and his family would measure up to an alien invasion. I’ve not been impressed by his dealings with the Doone ‘gang’, who have been robbing, raping and pillaging the Exmoor neighbourhood for decades, while everyone shrugs and says, ‘Well, what do you expect? Poor things, loosing that rich estate in Scotland, then being banished by the King, it’s not surprising they’re bitter.’

Several of my reading groups have seen parallels with Francis Ford Coppola’s, The Godfather. Sir Ensor, the patriarch of the Doones, like Vito Corleone, is a traditionalist who demands respect and is supported by a crooked lawyer, in this case, his son, ‘The Councillor’.

The Councillor’s son, Carver, is evil. He’s the distillation of all the bitterness in Sir Ensor and The Councillor. Of course, we only see any of these characters through the eyes of our narrator, John (aka Jan) Ridd, who is competing with Carver for Lorna. Despite John’s repeated assurances about his own honesty, I can’t help feeling that there may be some bias in the story he’s telling.

Carver, as his nickname might suggest, lacks the subtlety or charm of Michael Corleone. What he has in spades, is muscle and ambition, oh, and wives. Yes, your read me right, it turns out that Carver has so far strayed from the path of respectability that when the den of thieves finally is challenged, he is discovered to be keeping ‘ten or a dozen‘ wives – so many in fact, John can’t be exact. As for the children, there’s no attempt to count them!

In suggesting these parallels I’m not claiming that Mario Puzo once read Lorna Doone, though I wish I could have asked him. These are outlaw stories, and it could be argued that both rely on stereotypes. I do, however, wonder if Puzo ever saw one of the film versions. His novel, The Godfather, was published in 1969. Four of the six Lorna Doone films had been made by then, and one of the two series for the BBC.

I’ve seen extracts of all except the 1912 and 1963 versions, which don’t seem to exist any more. The rest seem, to me, to say as much about the decade they have been produced in as they do about the original they draw from. That’s not so surprising. To convey all of the events and nuances of this hefty novel would take more hours than have yet been given to it.

Lorna Doone has also been adapted for stage and radio. As has, HG Wells’ novel, The War of The Worlds.

I’ve been watching the latest screen version of that, on the BBC (it finished last night), for the last three weeks. The selling point, for yet another remake, was the claim that it kept closer to the book than others had.

I’m not so sure that’s true, but I’ve enjoyed it. As I have every other version I’ve watched, despite (or maybe because of) the liberties taken.

Wikipedia lists 10 direct screen adaptations, and 14 for radio (including the famous 1938 Orson Welles version). Add to that the musical interpretations (Jeff Wayne’s was not the only one), plus numerous comic books and sequels, that’s a lot of inspiring.

There was no implied criticism in wondering why the story was getting another incarnation, only curiosity. I was reminded that someone funded the 2000 Lorna Doone film only ten years after the previous version had been made. Even in these fast moving times, that surely counts as being within living memory. So,why?

Well, I have a theory. I think both novels foreground plot rather than character. Maybe those kinds of stories leave more room for the adapter, or even the well-known actors.

* Girt: dialect version of great – meaning ‘large’ or ‘very big’.

Chickens, eggs, and travelling through time with RD Blackmore.

Seventeenth century Exmoor has been my virtual home for around seven weeks now, and I feel that my feet are comfortably settled under John Ridd’s table. He’s been an entertaining host, though as a twenty-first century woman, to begin with, I did have some problems adjusting.

It’s hardly my first time in Restoration Britain. I have vivid memories of skating along the frozen River Thames with Virginia Woolf’s, Orlando; and wandering the Welsh hills with Lucy Walter and the young prince who would be crowned as Charles II, in The Child From The Sea, by Elizabeth Goudge.

Antonia Frazer, Jean Plaidy and Margaret Irwin introduced me to some of the key political characters and events for this period. However, apart from Orlando, the main characters in those and other novels, have tended to be strong females.

I’ve been asking myself, ‘do I love history because of historical fiction, or historical fiction because I love history?’ Maybe I might also ask, ‘did those adventures distort my idea of history?’

Although I knew that most women, in those times, were constrained, contained and restricted, I was usually too busy cheering on the rebels to think about what day-to-day life was like for the majority. RD Blackmore’s novel forced me to think of them in domestic spheres.

Women are ideally soft, submissive, and lovely to look at. John describes his sister, Annie, as:

…of a pleasing face, and very gentle manner, almost like a lady, some people said; but without any airs whatever, only trying to give satisfaction.

She’s also a paragon, keeping the kitchen immaculate and constantly cooking up massive delicious meals for the family and all visitors.

Lorna Doone, the woman of John’s dreams, lacks practical skills, but then, she’s a lady.

I could not but behold her manner, as she went before me, all her grace, and lovely sweetness, and her sense of what she was.

She was a different being; not woman enough to do anything bad, yet enough of a woman for man to adore.

I could have grown tired of all these characters, if I hadn’t begun to notice that there was an interesting gap between what John said, and what the women were doing. While they could not be described as active, in a modern sense, it became apparent that they were often at odds with John’s ideals.

John’s mother, for example, when her husband is murdered, walks into the hideout where the criminals are living to ‘speak her mind’ to them.

Now, after all, what right had she, a common farmer’s widow, to take it amiss that men of birth thought fit to kill her husband? And the Doones were of very high birth, as all we clods of Exmoor knew; and we had enough of good teaching… to feel that all we had belonged of right to those above us. therefore my mother was half-ashamed, that she could not help complaining.

It’s a moment that holds a key to so much of this story. A great wrong has been committed, in a time when rights are with the strongest. There is no police-force to turn to, there is only class. The society described is close to feudal. Everyone should know their place. And yet, here is Sarah Ridd, approaching her betters to tell them that she, and her children, have been harmed by their actions.

We’re left to decide whether she’s brave or foolhardy, in making herself vulnerable to a gang well known for rapine, pillage and murder. She may never do anything so outrageous again, but the potential of all women for acts of bravery has been presented.

It may be more than I should expect from a book that was written a hundred and fifty years ago, set in a time a hundred and ninety years before that. Perhaps it signals the beginning of a pattern.

Recent release: You Beneath Your Skin, by Damyanti Biswas.

This week, thanks to Damyanti’s new novel, I’ve visited Delhi. Unlike the average tourist trip, this one included glimpses of family life, walks through some of the seamier areas, plus a ghetto.

I’ve had several guides. First was Anjali Morgan, an American born psychiatrist who has lived in the city with her autistic son, Nikhil, for twelve years, and is about to help investigate a horrific crime.

The story opens with a crisis. Nikhil has jumped out of Anjali’s car, as they were driving away from the shopping mal, because he was not allowed to buy an extra toy.

A worried mother, trapped in a queue of moving traffic and confronted by guards who do not understand the significance of Nikhil’s condition and vulnerability, is a strong story hook. It also allows a great deal of information to be conveyed, economically.

We have setting, colour and context, in the dialogue:

Madamji.‘ A short Nepali guard in a beige uniform hurried up the slope towards her, his whistle shrieking. ‘Yahan parking allowed yihin hai.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Anjali tried to remember the Hindi words, but they’d fled, along with her composure. ‘My son has run away.’

She speaks Hindi as a second language, but as the opening makes clear, to the guard and his supervisor, she is an outsider.

The sight of a light skinned, blond-haired woman, taller and broader than him…

Partial-outsiders, in stories, make excellent guides for a reader trying to settle themselves in unfamiliar territory. They move through the everyday details comfortably, but include things that locals might take for granted. There are, however, some things that an outsider will miss completely, or could be expected to drift off into long explanations.

Damyanti provides us with Several ‘insider’ perspectives. There is an official, and male, view of the action from Jatin Bhatt, Special Commissioner of Crime with the Delhi Police. His side of the story opens in a meeting with his father-in-law, Commissioner Mehra.

Jatin stared at the badge on Mehra’s shoulder… that marked Delhi’s Chief of Police. He wanted it when Mehra retired next year.

A female perspective is presented by his sister, Maya. She’s both traditional and modern. Her role as private detective brings into contrast the modes and methods of the official police-force. Her friendship with Anjali and Nikhil is a key component to the action and outcome of the story.

But there are several other voices too, all providing fresh perspectives on a variety of issues around the crime and the society of Delhi. It’s been an interesting trip, raising lots of questions, even as it resolved the criminal case.

All the proceeds from this novel go to project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks. To find out more, check in with Damyantiwrites.com