Category Archives: England

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller

With this book I struck gold–an absorbing historical mystery in the English country house genre with great characters and atmosphere. It takes place just after World War I in Wiltshire, at a crumbling old manor house with the spooky name of Easton Deadall. The story is told from the point of view of Laurence Bartram, a World War I veteran and architectural  historian whose specialty is church architecture. Bartram’s been called in by an architect friend to consult on the creation of a maze to honor the village men who died in the Great War  and on the restoration of the old church on the property.

Right away Bartram’s drawn into the family tragedy: the disappearance, 13 years earlier, of 5-year old Kitty Easton, daughter of  Lydia, widowed owner of the manor. Kitty’s unsolved disappearance is still fresh and wounding; the Easton family is riven with subterranean anger and jealousies. Bartram’s own life is haunted by the loss of his wife and unborn child and he’s suffering from the aftereffects of his horrific trench warfare experiences in France. The spectre of the war hangs over the novel–almost all the village men were killed in a single battle in France, leaving the village in the hands of grief-stricken women and men too old or unable to fight.

In good country house mystery tradition, there’s plenty of intrigue, gossip, and secrets (personal and architectural) revealed, as well as dead bodies. I found that  many of the characters stepped off the page: besides Bartram, the architect William Bolitho and his wife Eleanor were especially compelling. Speller has all the elements right. If you’re not entirely clear on the outlines of the country house mystery, there’s a good explanation here. This is the second Laurence Bartram mystery–I’m eager now to read the first one, The Return of Captain John Emmett.

Penelope Lively

Family Album by Penelope Lively
Lively has been one of my favorite authors through the years; she never disappoints me with her stories of the emotional turmoil  at the heart of her characters’ relationships. The family in question here is the Harpers, 6 children, two parents, and the au pair who stays on after the children are grown. Their large Edwardian house, Allersmead, is meant to be the gracious center of a warm and loving family, but harbors a shocking secret and painful heartaches. Lively shifts the point of view from one character to another and we get to know them all quite well. There’s no plot to speak of, just the rubbing together of a set of complex personalities,  which is quite engrossing enough.

A Piece of the Action

Harold Evans’s autobiography My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times carries the reader along with the velocity of a reporter on deadline, which of course Evans was for most of his career. As the former editor of the London Sunday Times and The Times of London (along with many other accomplishments on both sides of the Atlantic), reporting the news has been his lifeblood. As a child he met survivors of Dunkirk on the beach at Rhyl in North Wales. Their accounts were at odds with what he read in the newspapers and so started a lifelong interest in the role that journalism played in exposing propaganda and special interests. As a boy from a working class family in Manchester, he had to work hard to finesse the English school system in order to get the college education he knew he would need to become a reporter. 
He began working at newspapers in and around Manchester in the late 1940s, at a time when local newspapers competed fiercely for readership. It’s hard to summon up that time when print was the primary source of news; it was important for a paper to have a distinct  “voice” that would drive circulation. Evans was always looking for the scoop, the crusade, the expose, the local advocacy that would distinguish his newspaper from the rest.
Evans tells terrific stories about those scoops and crusades, but what I enjoyed most is his writing about the reporter’s craft and how rough facts and reportage are translated into print by “subs” (copyeditors in the U.S.). Evans himself admits that he is “addicted to print,” by which he means the actual sight of words on a page. In the front of the book is a full-page graphic called “The Vanished Newspaper Office” a wonderful representation of  how a newspaper used to be written and produced in the days of the linotype machine. He loved the pulse and flow of the newsroom, “…a news hub, a big central arena where people could be seen at work to the same clock and you could feel news rippling across the floor, a place for newspaper shoptalk and gossip, a place where directions could be defined, instructions shouted, enthusiasms raised, arguments concentrated, layouts examined, and disputes resolved by crossing a few feet to another desk.”
There’s something fascinating about that frenetic newsroom culture–and its hard-bitten, eccentric, often boozy participants–that’s why we love movies like The Front Page and Citizen Kane. There are several other memoirs about the newspaper business that capture some of that excitement of hunting down the story. Katherine Graham’s Personal History and Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures are both about the Washington Post and both cover the story of the Pentagon Papers. Bob Green’s Late Edition: A Love Story is another paean to the joys of newspapering as does Edward Kosner’s It’s News to Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor.

Very English Childhoods

I was snowed in this past weekend–we had an unusual 2 feet of snow–and I was lucky to have several fat novels and memoirs waiting for me. I chose to read A.S. Byatt’s new novel The Children’s Book, which weighs in at 675 pages; it kept me completely absorbed for 3 days. It’s a sprawling historical and family saga, set in England in the period from 1895-1919 and filled with a huge and diverse cast of characters–artists and writers; bankers and anarchists; upper and lower classes; children and adults. 
Byatt does a wonderful job juggling their intersecting lives and tying them together with the fairy tales Olive Wellwood writes for her children and to support her family.  At the beginning, the Wellwoods, their extended family and friends all seem like a warm and welcoming clan, but, like Olive’s fairy tales, things are not what they seem. Some of the characters will break your heart, some will make you angry. Pottery, puppetry, madness, the rights of women, and a devastating war all mix together in this absorbing tale. I sensed echoes of the Bloomsbury group–the shifting relationships and fondness for country house parties with elaborate costumes and playacting.  Byatt, the omniscient narrator, provides a running commentary on the cultural and social changes in this era. 
If you want to know more about this period, I would recommend  The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson. It’s an engaging romp through social, cultural, and political events in England in a pivotal season.
Byatt’s story exists very much within its time period and it made me think of memoirs I’ve read of English childhoods throughout the twentieth century. Click here for an annotated list of titles.