The Last Runaway by Tracey Chevalier

 Chevalier has a talent for absorbing the reader into the fictional world she has created. Her main tool for doing this is the attention to detail and careful research which she employs. Reading this novel I was convinced that she had been brought up as a Quaker and was an expert at making patchwork quilts. It was only when I read her account at the end of the book of the research she had undertaken that I realised that these matters were as new to her as they were to me.

This is a gentle book which confines itself to a small, local world, though important historical currents run though it. Honor Bright is a Quaker girl who emigrates from England to Ohio in the nineteenth century. Initially she is accompanied by her sister, who is going to marry a man from their community who has set up a business in the small town of Faithwell, but the sister dies before they reach their destination and Honor finds herself cast adrift among strangers. The book centres on her struggle to make a new life for herself and to conform to the conventions of this new society. In the process she becomes involved in the Underground Railroad, an informal organisation which helps runaway slaves to reach safety in Canada. Honor marries, but her husband’s family have good cause to want nothing to do with the Railroad and it is the conflict between her conscience and her wish to conform which propels the plot.

Honor is a sympathetically drawn character and I found myself drawn into her struggle and eager to find out how it would be resolved.

Review of Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

 This novel is set in the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara in the year 1570. Dunant is a mistress of beautiful prose and in the opening pages she creates for us an image of convent life, apparently serene and ordered; but we are immediately aware of the currents of passion and rivalry that swirl beneath the surface.

In an explanatory note at the beginning of the book Dunant explains that at that time the dowries demanded from noble families for the marriages of their daughters had become so expensive that most could only afford to marry off one. The only acceptable alternative for any others was to become a ‘bride of Christ’ and enter a convent.

There are two principal characters. One is Serafina, a young woman, intelligent, talented and in love, who has been confined to the convent because she failed to marry the man her father had chosen for her. It is her desperate distress and fury that wakes the convent on her first night in her cell. The second is Zuana, the dispensary mistress. Like Serafina, she is not there because she has a vocation but out of necessity. As the orphan daughter of a doctor she has nowhere else to go, but unlike Serafina she understands that for her this is the best solution. At least it gives her the freedom to practise the skills she learnt from her father and to develop some of his ideas, though even here she has to keep certain of his books concealed. It is her sympathy for Serafina and ultimately her efforts to set her free that are the main springs of the plot.

For those reconciled to their fate life in the convent is not unpleasant. The nuns can meet friends and family in the ‘parlatorio’ and play with the children of sisters and cousins – the children they will never have. Santa Caterina is famous for the quality of its music and there are services and concerts to which the public are admitted. It is Serafina’s beautiful singing voice which proves her salvation. But even these limited freedoms are under threat. The catholic church, reeling from the threat of Lutheranism and a series of scandals about the loose living of some of the monks and nuns, is determined to clamp down. The abbess, Sister Magdalena, is well aware that she is treading a tightrope and at the slightest excuse the convent may incur the wrath of the bishop and find their freedoms strictly curtailed. It is her struggle to maintain equilibrium between the various factions in the community that forms a second thread in the story.

I found my emotions deeply engaged in this novel but the most heartbreaking discovery comes in an author’s note at the end of the book. Shortly after the period in which it is set the Council of Trent decreed that all convents must be strictly enclosed. From then on the nuns were only allowed to speak to friends and relatives through a grill; all public performances were forbidden; any windows that might give a glimpse of the outside world were bricked up and walls were raised to prevent any contact. For the young women like Serafina who were sent there it must indeed have seemed like a life sentence without hope of remission.

Long overdue memorial

I read in the paper over the weekend that there is going to be a memorial to Archibald McIndoe, the plastic surgeon who rebuilt the faces of young airmen terribly burned when their aircraft caught fire in WWll. It is not before time! He was a great man, who not only repaired their faces but rebuilt their confidence, encouraging them to go out into the world instead of hiding away. He worked at the hospital in East Grinstead and persuaded the people of the town to accept these disfigured young men as the heroes they were. East Grinstead became known as ‘the town that didn’t stare’.
I feel strongly about this as I researched his work for my novels NOW IS THE HOUR and THEY ALSO SERVE. Anyone who is interested in this remarkable man and his achievements might find those two books illuminating.

On My Hobby Horse!

On Thursday last I went to see Under Milk Wood at the Liverpool Playhouse. It is a touring production directed by Terry Hands and has had rave revues; but to be honest I was disappointed. The words were gabbled, especially by the women, and so lost both the beauty of the poetry and the humour. I often make the same criticism of productions of Shakespeare. There seems to be a prevailing theory among directors that unless the words are spoken very fast and very loudly, with lots of movement at the same time, the audience will get bored. It doesn’t work like that! Harold Pinter knew the power of the silent pause. Television has learnt that silence and stillness can speak louder than words, as anyone who has been watching Hinterland can testify. Shakespeare himself was very much aware of the tendency of actors to gabble and flail about. He set out exactly how he wanted his poetry treated in his advice to the players in Hamlet. ‘Speak the speech, I pray you, as pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines….. suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.’ Why have our theatre directors forgotten this?

Letter from Denise Doyle

OPERATION KINGFISHER.
Just finished reading this on my Kindle, could hardly put it down. Will there be asequel to this, I think that perhaps there is a lot more to this story to be told.I am also a big fan of the Follies series and have read & reread them several times. Keep these stories coming please.

Letter from Jen Llywelen

I've only recently come across your books. I have read two of the ENSA ones, and the Leonora trilogy. 

I wrote my PhD on a Welshman and the First World War; obviously I needed to read a lot about the war as research. I'm now trying to write my first novel, about my grandparents and the way the 1914-18 war impacted on them all, their children, and their grandchildren. Lots of love, lots of conflict.

I'm impressed with the accuracy of your wars, but also with the back-stories, the way characters relate to horses, that sort of thing. There is a density of information, but it's great throughout. The ENSA stories conveyed very well the dangerous nature of their work, and their devotion to it. 

You also write so movingly of love, in its many forms. 

So thank you! I read several of these in Lanzarote, having a week away after my mother's funeral. I bought one of the ENSAs at the tiny shop on the complex, and then others on my Kindle. They helped me through a very difficult time. Leonora's just found Lexi - and Sasha! - and all's well at last. But I miss them! And dear Tom.

I wish you well with future novels, and I'll read some more of yours. You've inspired me. Thanks.

Letter from Alison Grady

Two things happened at Christmas that led me to your books:  My husband gave me a kindle, which I have barely put down since, and my Dad told me a story about my maternal Grandfather that made me want to write a book.

I have no writing experience so started reading historical novels just to see how the stories are told.  Your books just grabbed me straight away and I am enjoying the content and method equally.

In fact, your books have inspired me so much that I am simply writing to say thank you.

Letter from Jen Llywelyn

I've only recently come across your books. I have read two of the ENSA ones, and the Leonora trilogy. 

I wrote my PhD on a Welshman and the First World War; obviously I needed to read a lot about the war as research. I'm now trying to write my first novel, about my grandparents and the way the 1914-18 war impacted on them all, their children, and their grandchildren. Lots of love, lots of conflict.

I'm impressed with the accuracy of your wars, but also with the back-stories, the way characters relate to horses, that sort of thing. There is a density of information, but it's great throughout. The ENSA stories conveyed very well the dangerous nature of their work, and their devotion to it. 

You also write so movingly of love, in its many forms. 

So thank you! I read several of these in Lanzarote, having a week away after my mother's funeral. I bought one of the ENSAs at the tiny shop on the complex, and then others on my Kindle. They helped me through a very difficult time. Leonora's just found Lexi - and Sasha! - and all's well at last. But I miss them! And dear Tom.

I wish you well with future novels, and I'll read some more of yours. You've inspired me. Thanks.

Jen

Follow-up letter from Yvonne

I was lucky to find ‘A woman called Omega’ and ‘the  Fidelio affair’ in a second-hand book shop in Somerset and really loved them, again such well drawn characters and great stories. You are certainly amongst the elite for bringing all your characters to life;  they become as real people and one feels as if you know them and can visualise them as well.
I have now bought ‘Aphrodite’s Island’ which I shall keep to read when on holiday in a two weeks, so that will occupy me!

I heartily endorse your comment on regretting not being able to publish the first 5 chapters of ‘Now is the Hour’/ Kindly leave the stage.’ I found these on your web-page and having read them I think, in fact they made The Follies series even easier to understand because they give the backgrounds of the main people.
Much as I have loved all your books, I must admit to having a very ‘soft spot’ for Merry and Felix, very closely followed by Richard and Rose.
I think I am reading faster than you are able to write so I shall have to re-read them all aging whilst I wait for the next book!
Thank you for giving so much pleasure; I am really glad I found you.

Letter from Yvonne Carter

I have read (and re-read several times now) the four Follies books and I felt I had to contact you to say how very much I enjoyed them. I have learnt a lot about the history of  World War ll and you have made the four main people 'come to life' in a way I have not experienced from other writers. In fact, one feels you know Merry, Felix, Rose and Richard better than some of your own friends! Also, it  made me understand how the relationship between Merry and Felix can be such good love . Until I found 'Now is the Hour' I had not read any of your books but am now starting on the First World War books. One question, in the first two books Merry's cottage is in Seaford but in the third book it is at Shoreham, Where is it? I shall look forward to reading many more of your books, keep them coming! Yvonne.