Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

 Miss Marjoribanks cover

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant has been languishing on my Classics Club list for years, it was definitely about time that I got around to reading it, and I’m so glad that I did, it’s so well written. This book was originally published in 15 parts in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1865-66. Margaret Oliphant was Scottish, born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh. In case you don’t know – the Scottish surname Marjoribanks is pronounced Marchbanks and indeed by the end of the book Marchbanks does appear – in the shape of an estate and village.

It begins when Miss Marjoribanks, known as Lucilla to her friends is only fifteen years old, and her mother has just died. Lucilla was away at boarding school at the time but she has decided that she will leave school and concentrate on being ‘a comfort to her papa’. Papa is a popular local doctor and he succeeds in making Lucilla go back to school to finish her education, including a finishing year in Switzerland and Italy. By the time Lucilla gets back to her home town of Carlingford she’s raring to go.

She’s a managing sort of female and quickly takes control of the household. She gets the decorators in to transform the drawing room where her mother had died, making sure that the walls are the perfect shade of green to complement her own complexion and re-upholstering the sofa where her mother had died. She couldn’t be called good looking and she’s a bit on the heavy side, but her father is well off and she intends to stay at home with him for at least ten years before getting married, after ten years she thinks she’ll begin to ‘go off’. She very quickly develops what would be called in London ‘a salon’, with every Thursday night an open evening for the local society and very good dinners being served to them, no wonder she becomes very popular. The house becomes the centre of Carlingford society and Lucilla seems to have an abundance of common sense which helps her to manage everyone which could be very annoying – but somehow isn’t.

To begin with it’s her intention to stop any men from ‘speaking’ (proposing marriage) but over the years just as she thinks that the big moment is coming from various eligible bachelors – it doesn’t, and before she knows it her ten years of self-imposed spinsterhood are almost up and she’s sure that her best days are behind her.

To begin with I wasn’t too sure about this book but I really ended up loving it. Miss Marjoribanks’s thoughts and comments often seem so modern. Men were often seen as being rather inadequate and far from perfect and I really had to laugh when she met up with an old favourite from the past and realised that he had definitely ‘gone off’ far more than she had over the years.

Jack read Miss Marjoribanks before I did and you can read his thoughts on it here.

I agree with Jack that Miss Marjoribanks would make a great TV dramatisation and would be such a change from the seemingly constant re-makes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen’s works. It’s about time that TV producers branched out to the less well known writers of the past, but I suspect that they never actually read any of them.

The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

The Fair Maid of Perth or Saint Valentine’s Day as it was originally titled by Sir Walter Scott was first published in 1828 and I believe it was originally in three volumes, but they’re all incorporated in one book in The Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels. I must say that these editions are really excellent as they have so many interesting explanatory notes, a glossary, an emendation list and all sorts. Scott seems to have felt that people might be losing their appetite for chivalric swashbuckling tales, but he was persuaded to carry on although there is an unusual ending – in my opinion. I must admit that the first volume of this book I ploughed through with not much enjoyment, I wasn’t too concerned by that as it usually takes me a while to get into the rhythm of Scott’s very wordy writing style. The further I got into the book – the more I enjoyed it.

The setting is mainly Perth and Falkland so just a stone’s throw from where I live, great for me as I could ‘see’ it all clearly in my mind. It’s 1496 and Catherine is such a beauty she’s nicknamed The Fair Maid of Perth. During a drunken escapade King Robert III’s eldest son Rothsay and his entourage try to abduct Catherine. She’s the daughter of a well-off glover and he is keen for his daughter to marry Henry Smith who is a very successful armourer. He’s also well known for being good at fighting and it’s that that puts Catherine off him. She isn’t into alpha males at all, doesn’t like violence and she already has feelings for a young man who had been her father’s apprentice in the past.

In this book Scott shows that he wants to move on from the days when clan warfare could result in some clans being more or less wiped out completely and looks forward to a more civilised society in the future – I think.

I read The Fair Maid of Perth for The Classics Club.

The Classics Club Spin no. 1 – The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott

The Bride of Lammermoor cover

I was quite pleased to get The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott for my Classics Club Spin book, because I often need my arm twisted a wee bit to get down to reading more of Scott’s books. I don’t know why that should be because I invariably enjoy his work. My copy was published by Richard Edward King and is apparently a first edition, but not worth all that much. Presumably thousands of them were printed. I had to cut a few of the pages so I suspect that I’m the first person to finish this edition. It was first published in 1819 but in its day it was a historical novel, set after King James VII had been deposed.

The story begins with the funeral of the Master of Ravenswood, he had lost his title because he had been on the Jacobite side, and after a protracted battle with a devious lawyer he has lost almost all of his property. Edgar his son and the new laird of Ravenswood is left with only a ruin to live in with a couple of old loyal family servants who would no doubt never have been able to get a job elsewhere.

Edgar despises the lawyer Sir William Ashton, seeing him as the reason for his family’s downfall, and to make matters worse Sir William is now living on the old Ravenswood family estate. While visiting his old nanny in a cottage on the estate Edgar meets Lucy Ashton and becomes infatuated with her. Their relationship develops but when Lucy’s manipulative and controlling mother learns of it she’s determined to put a stop to it.

This story has elements of lots of old tales – Romeo and Juliet being obvious but Scott used a lot of traditional Scottish Border folk tales and ballads in his books apparently. Despite this being a tragic romance there’s quite a bit of humour involved, and I really enjoyed this one.

Lucy keeps rather a low profile for most of the book but this tale seems to have been very popular in many countries and it was even made into an opera by Donizetti in 1835, based loosely on the book.

Classics Club Spin number 17

Well the Classics Club Spin number has been chosen, it’s number 3 so the book that I’ll have to read before April 30th is Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor.

That’s fine by me as I’ve been meaning to read that one for ages. My copy which was published by Richard Edward King Limited originally belonged to Jack’s grandfather so it’s very old, but strangely it has no publication date on the front. The print is very small so although it’s only 316 pages long that probably translates to over 600 pages in a more modern print size. I think I’ll download it from Project Gutenberg so I can read it on my Kindle, or get a more modern copy.

Did you take part in the spin, and are you pleased with what you have to read?

Mistaken by Annie S. Swan

Mistaken cover

Mistaken by Annie S.Swan was written in 1896, it’s a very quick read but it wasn’t long before I had to stop and have a good look at the inside information, expecting to see the words Religious Tract Society as it has that sort of flavour about it, surprisingly though it isn’t an RTS book. Chapter 1 is titled DO THE DUTY WHICH LIES NEAREST TO THEE.

The book begins with two young women friends who have just completed their schooling. Maud is from a rich family and Margaret is the eldest child in a family which is much less well off, but she’s the apple of her father’s eye and he was determined to send his favourite to an expensive boarding school where she has rubbed shoulders with supposedly superior girls.

Maud’s influence on Margaret isn’t helpful to her personality. Maud thinks that they should be Christian missionaries within their own neighbourhoods, and for Margaret that means Hackney in London. Margaret neglects her family because her charitable work is more important to her, and although her mother is ailing and asks her for help with the younger children, Margaret refuses as she can’t be spared from her missionary work in Hackney. The fact is of course that Margaret is having a whale of a time lording it over the poor of Hackney and she’s dodging the drudgery of domestic work within the family home.

So spoiled has Margaret been by her father that even when his wife in desperation asks him to intervene and get Margaret to help, he ignores his wife’s pleas. Nothing is more important than his beloved daughter and her missionary work. It’s only when a doctor tells him that his wife must go to the west of Scotland for a rest cure if her life is to be saved that he takes notice of her.

All this time Margaret has been engaged to her friend Maud’s brother, who happens to be a church minister and he is unimpressed by her treatment of her mother, and also feels neglected by her. Margaret breaks off the engagement when he points out the error of her ways. Nothing is to get in the way of her good works.

The inevitable happens, Mamma dies, despite being taken to the west of Scotland to gain strength. Henceforth Scotland would no longer be only a name to them, but a dear and sacred place, because upon it’s shores was their mother’s grave.

Margaret’s life of atonement begins, taking the place of her mother to nurture the younger children. When her brother leaves school for Oxford University and eventually graduates, he’s full of gratitude to his sister-mother. So sorrow had been sanctified to Margaret Wayland, and she had come out of the deep unscathed, and was now more than ever a burning and a shining light, even in quite places.

She had learned indeed to do her duty nearest to her and her reward was not denied her.

I’ve enjoyed some of Annie S. Swan’s books in the past. Her writing is very sentimental, of the Scottish ‘kailyard’ type, but this one was just a wee bit too much for me to take. I felt like screaming when inevitably the son of the house jaunts off to Oxford to get the makings of a successful life for himself, as he was entitled to do, but his sister should be satisfied with being an enabler.

I know the book was written over 100 years ago, but that sort of attitude hung around for generations after that – in Scotland anyway, for those girls unlucky enough to have brothers. Mind you I think it was much the same in the rest of the UK too.

I read this book for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson

It was Jack who recommended that I should read And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson, he thought it was great, and I have to agree. It was first published in 2010 and it’s quite a chunkster at 671 pages. It’s written in six parts and it involves quite a lot of characters who at times don’t seem to have anything to do with each other but their stories all link up eventually. (You can read Jack’s much fuller review here.)

I loved it because it’s the history of Scotland since the 1950s although it does dip back into some old soldiers’ World War 2 experiences. It brought back so many memories, particularly the unexplained death of Willie MacRae, a solicitor and SNP activist which I had forgotten about (how could I have?) and the rise of Scottish Nationalism in the early 1970s. In reality I’ve always hankered after an independent Scotland, but never thought it was worth one person’s life or any acts of violence at all. There were a few complete nutters who did try campaigns of violence. I remember standing waiting at the station for the train to come only to be told that it wouldn’t be coming because there was a bomb on the line just outside the station – really! Even crazier it turned out that the bomb had been put there by someone I was at school with and his brother, and ‘we’ all knew that they didn’t have three brain cells between them! Since the successful devolution referendum in 1997 there has thankfully been none of that sort of nonsense, not that it ever amounted to much.

Anyway, I digress, although this book is about ordinary Scottish people, it’s also sprinkled with politicians, pressure groups and spies.

It was only recently that some ex high heid yin admitted that even the CIA was involved in dirty tricks during the first devolution referendum campaign, in 1979. Never mind, we’ll get there eventually.

Some blurb from this very good book:

Bold, discursive and deep, Robertson’s sweeping history of life and politics in twentieth century Scotland should not be ignored. – Ian Rankin, Observer, Books of the Year

Brilliant and thoughtful. Eminently readable, subtle and profound
– Independent on Sunday

The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman came up for me in The Classics Club Spin, and I must admit that my heart sank as I know that it’s one of the few books which I’ve given up on. On the plus side that was way back when I was about 12 years old and Christy at A Good Stopping Point commented that she had enjoyed it, so I lived in hope.

I read it on my Kindle because my copy of this book is already packed away in anticipation of a house move which is just not happening at the moment. I couldn’t remember anything about The Talisman as it is over 40 years since I first had a go at it but it wasn’t long before I knew why it was I had given up on it. At the beginning there is a really unappealing bit about cooked severed heads being served up to the people who had come to try to secure the freedom of the owners of the heads – nasty but I struggled on this time.

Scott’s writing style does take some getting used to, this one is written in a particularly archaic way and I could have been doing with less in the way of thee-ing and thou-ing. At around about the 20% mark I was just about losing the will to live. At 50% I was beginning to appreciate it a bit more, there are quite a few humorous moments to brighten the way. By the time I got to 70% I realised that I was really quite enjoying it! The experience was good for the soul, I think. Mind you, I don’t know why it’s War and Peace that people always think of as being a tough nut to crack, it’s an absolute promenade de gateau compared with The Talisman – in my humble opinion.

First published in 1825 this is a story which is set in the Third Crusade. Richard the Lionheart is very ill and it looks like he isn’t going to recover, but help comes in the shape of Sir Kenneth, a Scottish knight who after some conflict ended up striking up a friendship with a Saracen who uses a talisman to heal Richard. The Saracen is none other than Saladin of course.

Apparently there was a BBC mini-series of The Talisman in 1980 but I don’t recall ever seeing it. It’s the 1970s Ivanhoe series which I remember loving. And speaking of Ivanhoe, I’ll be reading that throughout January for Read Scotland 2014 challenge. You’re welcome to join in too – if you feel brave enough!

The Adventures of Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett

This book was first published way back in 1748 and it’s the first one I’ve read by Tobias Smollett. I’ve actually owned a copy of this book for about 30 odd years, it’s in two volumes printed in 1914 but I decided to download it onto my Kindle from Project Gutenberg to read it. You can get it here if you’re interested.

Smollett was a local author as he was born in Dalquhurn (pronounced Dalhurn) just a few miles from where I was brought up in Dumbarton on the west coast of Scotland and I often walked past his memorial stone by the side of the road which leads to Loch Lomond. For some reason I always imagined that he was a sort of poor man’s Walter Scott but I was completely wrong. I think Scott can be safely read by the most prudish of people but this book is quite satirical and bawdy and for something which is over 260 years old it’s surprisingly modern in some of its subject matter. That’s quite depressing when you think about it because the same inequalities in life which Smollett was writing about stil exist today.

Anyway, Roderick Random has had the misfortune to be born to a father who has gone against his own father’s wishes and married a woman of no family or fortune. The consequence is that they are penniless, Rory’s mother dies and his father goes off to find his fortune never to be seen again. Rory’s wealthy grandfather ignores him but allows him to be educated and so when Rory is of age he takes himself off to London to try to better himself.

Surprise surprise, London is full of Scotsmen trying to make their way in the world, and the naive Rory is duped and conned time and time again. Whenever he gets a bit of money he loses it quickly and never seems to learn from his mistakes. At one point Rory is press-ganged into the navy and as Smollett was a surgeon in the navy this part is all written from his own experiences on ship during battles.

I enjoyed this book which apparently influenced Dickens and other Victorian novelists. He got into the nitty gritty details of life amongst Georgian sailors and gamblers as well as the so called high society of the times, pointing out how unfair life was, as it still is of course. I was interested to read that the phrase son of a bitch was used in Georgian Britain as nowadays we think of it as being an American term of abuse.

A lot of the book is obviously autobiographical and towards the end of it we meet a character who has had ambitions to become a writer and he describes his appalling treatment at the hands of publishers and stage managers. Smollett had tried to have a tragedy which he had written for the stage published for years but it never was published. I’m sure there are plenty of aspiring writers nowadays who have had exactly the same experience.

It’s quite amazing to think that Roderick Random was published just three years after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.

I’m going to download Peregrine Pickle next, although I think my next Kindle read will be a Trollope.

Witch Wood by John Buchan

You might have noticed if you look at my Library Thing widget that this book had featured on it for quite a while. The fact is that although I usually stick to reading one fiction book at a time, I was finding Witch Wood to be harder going than the other John Buchan books which I’ve read. So I ended up reading about four other books whilst reading it, just to give myself a wee break from the subject matter.

I think I’ve been reading too much about the religious struggles of seventeenth century Scotland and England recently. This one of course is set in the Scottish border country and is all about the Covenanters and the upheaval in the countryside with the defeated Montrose’s men (for the King) trying to avoid being caught by the supporters of the Covenanters.

There’s romance too of course with the young Presbyterian minister David Sempill falling for Katrine Yester, and if that isn’t enough for you there’s witchcraft going on too. It seems to have been something which afflicted every country at that time, from Britain, mainland Europe and to America, a sort of madness and hysteria which persecuted any poor souls (most often women) who were a nuisance to others, with women being called witches through the jealousy and wickedness of others. There were quite a few ‘witches’ done to death in Fife, near where I live.

Anyway, as you would expect, this is a well written book but the subject matter didn’t grab me as within my own family there were people who were still very much aggrieved that it was not the Episcopalians who won that ecclesiastical battle, consequently they were very bitter towards Presbyterians, (mainly me!) I can’t be bothered with that sort of religious bigotry nonsense.

My copy of the book is a paperback Canongate Classic and it has a glossary at the back – and I can tell you that I needed it, as there were a lot of Scots words in the book which I had never heard of before, the dialogue is very broad at times. Greenmantle is still my favourite John Buchan book.

The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

It was Peggy at Peggy Ann’s Post who put me on to reading this book. She downloaded it from Project Gutenberg but I bought a paperback and, Evee, if you don’t want to download it you can have my copy of the book.

The story is mainly set in the small fictional Scottish town of Barbie which is supposed to be somewhere in the east of Scotland, but not Fife – Lothian-ish I think. The town is aptly named as just about all of the words that come out of the townsfolks’ mouths are barbed comments. There’s one kind character in the whole town, the baker.

John Gourlay is a local businessman who has cornered the market in deliveries at a time when everything had to go by horse and cart. He had cut all his competitors out by delivering goods for nothing until they had to give up their businesses. So you can see he was not a nice chap, he was a real cut throat businessman and his only interest in life seems to have been spending money on his house and making it stand out as the best house in the town.

Gourlay’s favourite pastime was to put other people down at the same time as puffing himself up and he never had a kind word for anyone. As you can imagine he was the most disliked man in town because of his nasty personality, but to be fair the other inhabitants of Barbie weren’t far behind Gourlay in the charmless stakes.

That’s the main problem with the book as it’s difficult to really enjoy a book when it’s full of miserably mean characters. It’s also slow to get going and it wasn’t until about page 70 that I really started getting into it. Although I’m a Scot the fact that it’s written in broad and fairly archaic Scots didn’t help, it takes a while to get into the way of the dialogue.

Eventually I was glad that I had read the book. George Douglas Brown seems to have been doing for small town Scotland much the same as Thomas Hardy did for rural England, in other words captured the essence of the time and place, an honest portrayal, warts and all. As with Hardy, it’s a doom laden read. The moral is pride comes before a fall.

Apparently The House with the Green Shutters was the first book by a Scottish author which was a realistic picture of the times. Previous books had been all sentiment and cosiness and nothing like reality at all, they were known as Kailyard books. It was reading this book which pushed Lewis Grassic Gibbon to write his Sunset Song trilogy, set in the harsh landscape of Aberdeenshire. Anyone reading Green Shutters can’t help but notice that all the women characters are kept very much in the background and I’m sure that must have been an inspiration to Gibbon to write his books with stronger women characters.

There is only one good female character in Green Shutters and she’s only there for a couple of pages – if that. Mrs. Wilson comes from the west of Scotland and has a completely different temperament from the population of Barbie. Ahem – I’m saying nothing!