The Masterpiece by Emile Zola

 The Masterpiece cover

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola was first published in 1886. My copy was translated by Thomas Walton in 1950 and I must say that I doubt if anyone else could have done a better job. It’s the fouteenth novel in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series, and it’s a great read. I read this one for Back to the Classics Challenge and The Classics Club.

The Masterpiece is Zola’s most autobiographical novel, he based the main characters – a group of artistic friends on some of his own friends and himself. The artist Cezanne was his friend and there must have been plenty of artistic discussions between the two over the years, so Zola would have had plenty of copy to choose from I’m sure. The character Sandoz is based on Zola.

The main character Claude is a serious young artist, his friends think he has great talent and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes his generation’s Delacroix with his art being hung in The Salon and winning prizes. Claude is developing a new style called ‘Open Air’ (Impressionist). However he makes life difficult for himself, painting on enormous canvases and never being happy with his work, never knowing when to stop. His ideas which start off well somehow always go awry and when he does manage to get a painting accepted by The Salon it’s only in the gallery of the ‘refused’ artworks, where everyone laughs at his efforts. However some years later one of his friend’s steals that composition and changes it slightly and the resulting painting and the artist are lauded.

Zola concentrates on Claude’s story and his wife Christine, but his friends are a sculptor, journalist, architect and of course a novelist, and their lives and how they interact with Claude are also a big part of the book.

Germinal has always been my favourite in this series but this one ran it a close thing, although I must warn anyone thinking of reading it – especially in these angst-ridden pandemic times – that it vies with Thomas Hardy for shock and darkness. However there are some lovely descriptions of Paris, especially at night, Claude was in love with the city.

There’s an introduction by the translator Thomas Walton, obviously not to be read until you’ve finished reading the book, but as it happens the one passage that I had marked to quote is in his introduction.

Sandoz (Zola) is speaking to Claude:

“Has it ever struck you that posterity may not be the fair, impartial judge we like to think it is? We console ourselves for being spurned and rejected by relying on getting a fair deal from the future, just as the faithful put up with with the abomination on this earth because they firmly believe in another life where everyone shall have his deserts. Suppose the artist’s paradise turned out to be as non-existent as the Catholic’s, and future generations proved just as misguided as the present one and persisted in liking pretty-pretty dabbling better than honest to goodness painting! …. What a sell for us all, to have lived like slaves, noses to the grindstone all to no purpose!”

Such is life!

I bought my copy of this book in a charity shop in North Berwick one hot summer’s day a few years ago in the glory days of travel. I can’t say that I like the cover though. It’s an Ann Arbor paperback, The University of Michigan Press, and I bought about five other Zola books along with it, all similarly very far from home.

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi

I Belong Here cover

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi is subtitled A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain and is due to be published on the 29th of April 2021 (Bloomsbury) and as it’s tagged ‘Outdoors and Nature.’ I was a bit disappointed that the first fifth of the book the author concentrated on writing about a horrendous experience she had while travelling on the Trans Pennine railway line when she was racially abused at great length by a fellow passenger. Luckily she was able to film some of it on her phone, and she also had good support from the railway staff. This culminated in the perpetrator being taken off the train and handcuffed. Eventually he pled guilty, but the experience haunted/haunts Anita and she keeps returning to the subject throughout the book. This isn’t surprising as the man had threatened to set her on fire. If you live in the UK you’ll probably remeber the case being on the news. I hope writing this book was a cathartic experience for her.

I can only imagine how annoying it must be when people keep asking you where you come from because you have brown skin, as if generations of brown and black skinned people haven’t been born in Britain. When Anita Sethi met Prince Charles he asked her where she came from and when she replied Manchester he said – you don’t look like you come from Manchester. Proving that Charles is indeed his father’s son. To be fair though, I bet that if I ever met him he would have had to make some sort of remark about me having red hair! That’s just another thing that can rile up strange people, as can a Scottish accent as I know myself, having been made to feel very unwelcome by some people while living in the south of England – or even just visiting England. Brexit has definitely emboldened bigots.

I had been under the impression that this was a book about nature and hill walking but that part of the book seemed like a long time in coming, which I found quite frustrating, but when the nature writing began I was impressed by it, and I hope she writes more in that vein. Her descriptions of rock formations and water ‘forces’ as waterfalls are called in ‘the north’ (of England) made me take note of the places she visited with a view to following in her footsteps, when we’re allowed to travel again – if I’m not too old by then!

The author does go off at tangents at times so there are a lot of subjects covered in the book, including grief – after the unexpected death of her friend who was only 28. She writes about the etymology of some words which I always find interesting, immigration and the Windrush scandal, mental health and ‘forest bathing’ – to name just a few subjects.

All in all I enjoyed being in Anita Sethi’s company most of the time, and meeting the people she had had conversations with along the way. I would have preferred less of the angst and more of the nature though.

I was sent this ebook by Bloomsbury for review via Netgalley.

Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag volume 6 by Louisa May Alcott

I recently finished reading Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag volume 6 by Louisa May Alcott. It’s a collection of short stories so it’s obviously a mixed bunch of tales and as always with these things some are better than others, but they were all worth reading. I read it on my Kindle and downloaded it, free from Project Gutenberg here.

L.M. Alcott was a woman ahead of her time. From her writing in these short stories she was obviously anti-slavery but also anti-caged birds and anti-whaling. While reading The Whale’s Story I experienced one of those strange moments when I saw that the tale was being told by a Right whale (deceased) from Greenland. Just a couple of hours earlier I had been reading an article about how a very rare Right whale had been spotted very far from where it should have been. Until then I had never even heard of Right whales!

You can read a wee bit about Alcott’s life here.

A Dutch bulbfield jigsaw puzzle

At last the Dutch bulbfield jigsaw puzzle is finished and I have to admit that if it had been up to me I would have given up on it – that would have been the first time ever, but Jack was absolutely determined to finish it so when I got too frustrated and cross-eyed with the sky he went on with it. There was even an extra piece! You can see that off to the side in the photo.

Completed Jigsaw of Dutch Scene

The actual puzzle looks far nicer in reality than it looks in the photo, it’s very detailed, but the photo makes it look cartoonish to me. It’s definitely the last of the season – even if we do get more snow – which I sincerely hope doesn’t happen.

Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer

Cousin Kate cover

Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1968, so it was the third last of her books and for me it seemed quite different from her other romances. The actual romance part was more or less over by around the middle of the book, and there was a distinct lack of the witty repartee that I enjoy so much about her dialogue.

Kate Malvern has been brought up ‘following the drum’ as her father had been a professional soldier, her mother had died young, so Kate isn’t your average Regency lady. She has had to work as a governess to support herself and when she loses her job she has to move in with Mrs Nidd who was her nursemaid.

Sarah Nidd writes to Lady Broome who is Kate’s Aunt Minerva, asking if she can help her niece and the upshot is that Kate is taken by Lady Broome to stay at Staplewood, her large home. Her husband is Sir Timothy, a much older man and he has more or less withdrawn to his own wing of the house as his wife is an overbearing bully and he just won’t stand up to her. His only friend had been his nephew Philip, but Kate becomes the daughter that he had never had.

Kate realises that her aunt has an ulterior motive for her invitation to Stapleton, she wants Kate to marry her son Torquil. He’s completely in his mother’s control, he’s always had delicate health, but it’s his mental state that worries Kate. He has tantrums and generally behaves like a three year old and his mother employs Dr Delabole to dose him up when he has a turn. His mother is desperate for him to produce an heir, but it needs to be with a wife that would also be under the control of Minerva his mother, she thinks Kate would be the ideal wife. Kate thinks differently.

This book dragged for me a bit although I must admit it got a bit more interesting towards the end, but it isn’t one of her best, mainly because of the lack of humour and wit which I’ve come to expect from Heyer’s writing.

Welsh Rarebit – a Felicity Cloake recipe

Welsh Rarebit

Welsh Rarebit Again

Yesterday I decided to cook something a bit different for lunch, using a recipe from Felicity Cloake’s book. I had never cooked Welsh rarebit before – or Welsh rabbit as it is sometimes known, although I have eaten it before of course. It’s really easy to make and was absolutely delicious although as you can see, despite the fact that we used three bits of bread between us, the mixture still overflowed a lot, next time I’ll use four bits of bread. This is just posh cheese on toast. We used a wholemeal loaf which Jack cut thick slices from.

We didn’t have any stout but I used Newcastle Brown Ale instead, Jack was happy to finish the rest of it, I am not a fan of beer although it is tasty in this recipe.

You can read the Guardian article which appears in the book along with the recipe here.

Bel Lamington by D.E. Stevenson – a book review

Bel Lamington cover

Bel Lamington by the Scottish author D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1961 and to begin with the setting is London although it does move on to the north of Scotland later.

Bel has been in her tiny London flat for 18 months but she doesn’t know any of her neighbours, she had had to move to London to find work after her aunt had died. Her parents had died long ago when she was a small child, so apart from her work in a shipping company the only joy in Bel’s life is her small garden which she has cultivated in containers on a flat roof outside her living-room window. So when she comes home from work one summer evening she’s not best pleased to discover that a strange young man has invaded her wee patch of heaven. It turns out that Mark is an artist, quite a good one and he wants Bel to model for him, which she does, but Mark turns out to be a bit of a flibbertigibbet.

Meanwhile things at Bel’s work aren’t going well, she lives in fear of losing her job as she has no money to fall back on so life is stressful, especially when the women who have been working there for years take a dislike to her. Well, she had been promoted over their heads so that was bound to cause friction. Things come to a head and Bel ends up travelling to Scotland to spend time with an old schoolfriend and her father. The Thames-Clyde Express takes her to Dumfries in south-west Scotland where Bel’s life takes a turn for the better.

This was an enjoyable read, especially when the story moved to Scotland, but I thought that the London workplace stresses and office were very authentic. I knew eventually there would be a happy ending and that’s the sort of book that I’m drawn to at the moment.

Jigsaw puzzle – a Dutch bulbfield

Last week when after a lot of trying the snow began to pile up in earnest outside I decided to crack open a new jigsaw puzzle. I know – so daring of me – others might crack open the beer or wine – but I’m made of more boring stuff I suppose.

Jigsaw, a Dutch Scene

As ever it wasn’t long before I was beginning to wonder why I had succumbed yet again to this version of madness, it’s an addiction I suppose. Normally by now I would either have visited family in the Netherlands or be planning to do so soon, but the closest I’ll get to that this year is this jigsaw puzzle of a windmill and a Dutch bulbfield.

Actually it wasn’t as difficult as I feared it might be but as you can see the sky is almost defeating me, today I only fitted about four pieces in and I have my doubts about them being correct, but it isn’t going to defeat me, or should I say us as Jack has helped now and again. This is definitely going to be the last puzzle of the season though, well the snow has almost all gone!

The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb

Dimsie Goes to School cover

The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb was originally published in 2014.

The author had been annoyed when Andrew Marr had implied that the suffragettes “were not terrorists in any serious modern sense”, the truth is actually very different and Simon Webb set out to put the record straight. He did repeat himself quite a bit but this is still a very informative and interesting read as well as being an eye-opener for me as I had thought I knew a fair amount about the subject, it turns out that I didn’t.

It’s often thought that the years from 1900 to the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 were something of a golden age of peace and prosperity. The truth is that it was a time of upheaval with the WSPU led by the Pankhursts conducting a campaign of terrorism. In 1906 the non-violent suffragists had been hopeful that their campaign for universal franchise would be successful as the Liberals had won a landslide victory, but heigh-ho, the new government was busy with other things such as setting up the welfare state and Old Age Pensions. The suffragettes who were mainly upper-class people who didn’t want ‘votes for all’ only wanted votes for wealthy women, home and business owners, a very small minority of women. At the time most men didn’t have the vote either.

Emmeline Pankhurst was completely in control of her Women’s Social and Political Union which was financed by aristocratic people to the extent that it was awash with money. Her daughter Christabel skipped Britain to live in Paris in luxury. She helped her mother control things from there. The last half of this book seemed to be a long list of terrorist activities that went far further than chaining themselves to railings and breaking windows.

Historic churches were routinely burnt to the ground, many bombs were deployed causing huge damage to people and buildings, trains were bombed, houses were burnt to the ground. St Paul’s Cathedral was almost blown up. A new Carnegie library was completely burnt within less than 24 hours of it being opened, railway stations were popular targets for bombs and for some reason Scotland took the brunt of the campaigns of violence. Dundee seemed to be a hotbed of suffragette violence. In Fife where I live they burnt down Leuchars railway station and parts of St Andrews University. Historic documents went up in smoke. Golf courses and football grounds were routinely damaged, anywhere that would particularly upset men really. The beautiful Kibble Palace in Glasgow was blown up just after it was opened, the list of atrocities just goes on and on. It’s no wonder that their are photographs in existence of furious people going after suffragettes as they had no care for the lives of others and just didn’t care what happened to the general public who had to put up with all the violence.

Interestingly when there was a truce in 1911 the WSPU’s coffers were much emptier than they had been. Apparently the violence pulled in the money from donors. I couldn’t help thinking about that Qanon woman Marjorie Taylor Green who has been pulling in loads of money from donors who agree with her particular brand of madness, the more crazy her speeches are the more money they send her! It seems it was much the same for the suffragettes.

Yes some women were permanently harmed due to being force fed but that didn’t last long as the powers that be were so worried about creating martyrs for the cause that when suffragettes were sent to jail for setting off bombs they just went on hunger strike for three days and were released, no matter how long their sentence had been. Emily Davison of course ended up being their martyr and over the years there have been arguments as to whether she meant to kill herself or not. She had tried to commit suicide on two earlier occasions, breaking her skull in one attempt, she was a poor soul really who obviously had mental health problems despite being highly intelligent and having been to university, she was badly treated by the Pankhursts who refused to give her any money despite the work she did for them. She wasn’t a young woman she was 41 years old and that return ticket to Epsom to see the Derby meant nothing as on the race day the price of the single or return ticket was exactly the same and I suspect that the busy ticket clerks just gave everyone a return ticket.

One thing that did annoy me was that the author remarks at the beginning of the book that the suffragette dcolours of white, green and purple stood for purity, hope and majesty. Of course the purple stands for equality which is why it was used by the Fathers for Justice campaigners in recent years.

Anyway, that was a long one, I had a lot to say but it’s just so interesting the way history can be whitewashed over the years. We’ve always been taught that we women had a lot to thank the Pankhursts for when in reality the public at the time lived in fear of being blown up by them and their very well paid staff, and they had no conscience at all about burning down the workplaces of poor women, leaving them destitute. They never wanted ordinary people to have the vote at all never mind ordinary women. I’ve only listed a small amount of the places damaged and sometimes obliterated by them.

This book has a very comprehensive bibliography. I was sent a digital copy by the publisher via Netgalley.

Dimsie Moves Up by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

Dimsie Goes to School cover

Dimsie Moves Up by Dorita Fairlie Bruce is the second book in the Dimsie series which I started reading recently. It was first published in 1921 but my copy dates from 1950. These books were obviously very popular as this book was reprinted eight times within those years.

In this book Dimsie is unexoectedly moved up a form along with several of her friends, with new girls arriving those who had done well academically the previous year need to move up to make room for them. Some of the older girls in the new form make Dimsie and her friends promise not to give flowers to any of the teachers. It’s something that none of the younger girls had even thought of doing. It’s explained to them that some girls go through a phase of being soppy over their female teachers or older girls. Nowadays we’d call it having a crush. Dimsie and her friends set up an ‘Anti Soppist Society’ as they don’t want anything to do with that sort of nonsense.

Dimsie Moves Up has quite a lot about games in it, but even if like me you were never keen on PE at school this doesn’t detract from the storyline

Nita Tomlinson isn’t a prefect but she has been made games-captain. Giving someone like Nita any power is just madness, she does her best to make trouble all round, stealing away best friends and generally throwing her weight around. I suppose she’s the sort of character that you love to hate, whereas Dimsie is a lovely girl, nothing startling in the looks or brains department, just a girl with plenty of common sense and kindness. She reminds me a bit of Darrell in Blyton’s Malory Towers series but I must say that I think Dorita Fairlie Bruce was a much better writer than Blyton was, although I loved her books as a youngster.

It has been mentioned before that the name Dimsie is an unfortunate choice, her actual name is Daphne and I’d plump for Dimsie any day rather than that. However I googled dim as in dimwitted and it seems that it was first used in that way in 1934. However another source cites it as being used in US colleges first in 1922, which is still after this book was published.