Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

jacket image for The Quincunx by Charles Palliser - large versionThis was the final one of my chosen rereads for 2013, though it did slip over into 2014. A chunky, labyrinthine Victorian pastiche it is perfect for reading on cold winter nights. It's a book you have to throw yourself into wholeheartedly, if you just read a couple of pages at a time it would be very difficult to follow the story. And it would probably take you the rest of your life to finish it. I thought I didn't remember any of it, but as I got into it I realised that it was coming back to me.

The story concerns John Huffam who at the beginning of the novel is a young boy living with his mother in an English village. They are not wealthy, but live comfortably. However John is aware that his mother has secrets. She is very protective of him and he is allowed very little freedom. They don't seem to have any friends and strangers to their door are treated with suspicion and even fear.

The death of a relative John has never even met sets off a train of events which will radically alter John's life. This relative was paying John's mother an allowance and without it seems that they will sink  inexorably into poverty. In early Victorian times of course this was a terrifying prospect, as it probably meant the workhouse, or death. During this time John discovers his mother's secret; a document which is in his mother's possession which could prove vital in establishing the heir  to a disputed fortune. John could be the heir, but so could other people, some of whom are extremely ruthless.

John is thrust into a life for which he is ill-prepared. He has to live by his wits and doesn't know who to trust. Sometimes it is pure luck that keeps him alive. It seems that his life is to be a tragedy. But somehow he keeps going, determined to live.

At almost 1,200 pages it is a book that I find impossible to summarise. But if you've got the time to set aside for it, I would recommend it as an engrossing story.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell

Flappers: Women of a Dangerous Generation
I was looking forward to reading this book from the moment I heard about it. I'm really attracted by this period in history, and I love biographies. My reading about and from the early twentieth century has expanded greatly since joining the Bright Young Things group on Goodreads last year, and I think that group may be where I first heard about this book.

The six women Judith Mackrell writes about are: Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka. I'd heard of all of them but didn't know a great deal about any of them. What they have in common is that they were young women in the 1920s, a time of social upheaval and years in which women were becoming more independent. Of course their lives weren't representative of most women's lives at the time. Most women probably lived lives which weren't very different from the lives of their mothers and grandmothers. But these six, and others like them became famous and young women of the time aspired to be like them. Even if working class women still didn't have many opportunities they could now have aspirations and role models. Tallulah Bankhead in particular had fanatical young women admirers who queued for hours to see her performances.

With the exception of Josephine Baker, all these women came from wealthy backgrounds, though in the case of Tamara de Limpicka she lost everything when she was forced to flee Russia during the Revolution. I particularly admired Tamara. She had led a pampered life in Russia and the change to a life of relative poverty in Paris must've been a tremendous shock. Her husband (and many others) did not have her ability to create a new life.

It was a mystery to Tamara how her confident playboy of a husband could become so unattractively mired in depression.......It was one reason why, when Tamara found the resolve to turn her life around she did so entirely on her own terms and without bothering to consult Tadeusz. Once she had decided to become a professional painter she immersed herself completely in the project, certain that from now on her own ambitions would take precedence over his.

One of things that is made very clear in this book is how hard it is to be a trailblazer. All of these women had ambitions which were way ahead of what society was prepared to accept. Alcohol and drugs feature heavily in a number of these stores, a comfort in lives which were often unhappy. The most successful professionally was Josephine Baker, a woman who came from almost unimaginable hardship to become an international superstar whose fame endures long after her death. She never achieved the stable personal life she craved. In comparison Diana Cooper did have a stable home life, but at the cost of giving up a promising career in the theatre.

I loved this book, just as I loved Judith Mackrell's book about the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova. These were exceptional women and they lived in fascinating times.