Friday, June 18, 2021

The Jumper Journey Continues

I can't believe it's Friday again, but it is and so it's time to update my jumper diary - very much for my own benefit, so bear with if knitting isn't your thing.


I'm really pleased with how visible progress is. The thing I thought might be an issue working on something this big would be motivation. I'm not a particularly fast knitter but seeing my jumper grow makes me really keen to add a few more rows each day, and whilst it's not happening quickly, it's happening more quickly than I hoped. I think this is partly because with so many repeats in each row the pattern is easier to memorise and I'm not constantly checking back to the pattern to see what to do next. 

On a less positive note, I've found my first serious issue with Mati Ventrillon's pattern writing style; the expected finished length of the jumper isn't given, so it's really hard for me to work out how much longer I need to make it. She does give the desired gauge, and if I'd swatched I would have probably been able to work out from my tension what I was going to get so it's partly on me, but a quick check of other patterns I've got shows that it's routine to indicate length as well as width.

I'll take responsibility for being lazy and not swatching, but an indication of length is the most useful measurement I can think of on a jumper because I'm almost always going to want to knit them longer than the pattern shows and without it, it's hard to work out how much extra yarn I might need. It wouldn't matter so much in a top-down jumper, but now I'm going to have to take this one off the needles and dress it at some point before starting on the arm holes. I'd already added an extra round of pattern at the bottom, but I don't think it will be enough, and keeping track of where I am is going to get harder.

It's not really a big issue though, just something that I'll be aware of in the future. It's also made me think more about how the motifs are working together in this pattern - I like the rhythm and change they have but the colours I chose are not best suited to this layout. If this jumper turns out okay it won't be the last one I knit, I'm already thinking about how I'll do it next time - which is another motivator to keep going. 

My knitting is also gaining weight and mass, so I'm really glad the weather turned cold and wet today - I should get a lot done tonight, and be grateful for the warmth of it on my lap whilst I work, instead of cursing it inwardly as I was the other day. In terms of having a warm jumper for autumn now is a great time to be knitting, but when the temperatures nudge 30 degrees it's not much fun. 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Gelupo Gelato - Jacob Kenedy

One of my favourite kitchen gadgets is an ice cream maker - and if I had more space and cash I'd get myself a really decent one. The cheap (and not even so cheap) ones don't tend to last very well - I'm on number 4 as after a summer or so they've all ended up leaking. The current version was an Aldi special and freezes exceptionally badly, but it sort of does the job, and until I have space and the money at the same time, the sort where the bowl is the main event and is small enough to live on the freezer is more or less the only option.


I love them because I love ice cream, and if I don't necessarily think it's better than the sort you can buy, I do know what's in it, and I don't tend to get the massive sugar crash after the homemade sort. I'm not alone with the ice cream love either, more and more recipe collections are likely to include a handful of recipes (Diana Henry has some excellent ones) and there's an increasing number of dedicated ice cream and gelato books. Gelato is beyond doubt my favourite sort of ice cream, I learnt to love it at an early age in Edinburgh's Italian deli's and that was that.

Gelupo Gelato is this years title - and whilst I haven't made anything from it yet, its recipes are so significantly different from the last gelato book I bought that I'm putting a lot of faith in it (so much so that I've consigned the last book to the pile to clear out).

The difference between homemade and shop-bought ices is generally a textural one. What you gain in flavour you often lose in texture, and homemade doesn't keep well in my experience either. Which is fine, it means I only make it when I'm going to have company, and don't end up trying to live off it all summer. There are Rowntree's fruit pastille lollies for the rest of the time. 

The difference with Jacob Kenedy's recipes is that they specify 2 forms of sugar. He says that when it's being made professionally they might use 4 or 5 to get consistent consistency across the range. He also uses a stabiliser - these are the things that go into the base bianca which also needs to be made ahead of time so that it can be properly chilled. The good news is that it'll keep well in a fridge for up to 5 days so if you get through a lot of gelato you can make double quantities and have it ready to go. If you're making it for an occasion bits you can do in advance are a bonus, and if you want ice cream in a (relative) hurry there are other recipes around, including no-churn versions that will see you right.

The main sugar in the bianca recipe is plain old caster or granulated, the second is glucose (aka dextrose) which is fairly widely available - any big supermarket will normally have it in the baking section (although there are a lot of gaps at the moment - I'm hoping this is still true). If glucose is unavailable a light runny honey is suggested. The stabiliser is locust bean gum powder which is new to me, or you can use arrowroot or cornflour. He also uses powdered skimmed milk along with whole milk. 

Next time I'm in something bigger than a Tesco Metro I'll pick up all the necessaries and report back on the quality of the Gelato, semifreddo, and granita's in here. The flavour combinations are a decent mix of grown-up classics, definite crowd-pleasers, and the slightly unexpected (chocolate tea and biscuits sounds like a fun flavour). The theory behind what you're doing is explained and there are handy hints on flavour combining, tables to help you upsize quantities easily, a list of the vegan recipes, and the instructions seem admirably clear.

Altogether it's a properly inspiring little book that I hope is going to help me raise my gelato game to a whole new level. Whisky and Vanilla might be the first flavour I make. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Peach and Elderflower Buns and a New Chair

It's been a busy couple of weeks with quite a few deadlines in it, heat which I don't cope well in to contend with, and the great jumper project to take up a quantity of my knitting time. I need to read more, sleep more, and sweat less. The jumper may well be less of a distraction from reading until it cools down though, as it's now advanced enough to have some weight to it, and a heap of wool on your lap isn't great as the temperature crawls into the high 20's.

Despite the heat, I did make the fragrant elderflower and peach breakfast buns from 'Amber and Rye' and they are everything I hoped they might be and more. It's one of those really useful recipes that looks like it will be endlessly adaptable both in terms of how you make it and what filling you use for it. It also comes in a usefully small quantity - there are enough breakfast buns here to make a good breakfast for 3 - 4 people. The recipe says it makes 6-8 buns, but they're not big, and there's every chance you might want 2 - any leftovers will go in the afternoon. 


I used 1 packet of instant yeast (7g), 50g of caster sugar, 100ml of milk with 25g of butter melted in it, a pinch of salt, and 200g of plain flour. I let the milk and butter cool a little whilst I put everything else into a bowl and then used a dough hook to knead the lot for about 10 minutes (I used to love kneading dough by hand, but tendon problems in my elbow and wrist have put me off doing it the old fashioned way). When the dough is silky smooth and nice and elastic stick it in a bowl covered by a clean, damp, tea towel and leave it to double in size (about 40 - 50 mins).

Whilst the dough does its thing if you can get freshly foraged elderflower heads that aren't full of black bugs and have nothing better to do then take about 10 of them, rinse them under a cold tap, and stick in a pan with 3 tablespoons of white sugar, the finely grated zest of a lemon, and 200ml of water. Bring to the boil and then simmer for about 15 mins, then turn off the heat and leave to infuse for another 10 mins or so before straining the syrup through a fine sieve and discarding the elderflower. 

Honestly, this is a nice thing to do on a cool day in late spring when the elderflower is fresh and you don't mind having the oven on. On a blazing June morning, I would cheerfully have used cordial if I'd had any - but the elderflower bush in the park was closer than Tesco metro. Homemade has the advantage of only making what you need and letting you know exactly how much sugar you've used - but I'm not convinced that it makes much odds in the flavour stakes by the time everything is assembled. 

Once the syrup is ready add in a couple of chopped peaches and boil again, turn down to a simmer and give the fruit a good 10 mins, or until it's disintegrating - the 'perfectly ripe' peaches I had bought on Friday were still rock hard on the inside but wrinkled on the outside by Monday - they really were only good for cooking with. Add 1/2 a teaspoon of vanilla extract and stir it in. The original recipe says to sift in a spoon of cornflower and stir for another 10 minutes or until the mixture begins to thicken. My peaches were so hard that by the time they'd sufficiently softened there wasn't much syrup left in need of thickening so I think this is a matter of discretion.

Find a roughly 20cm round cake tin, and line the bottom with greaseproof paper.

By now the dough ought to have risen, in which case knock it back and then roll into a rectangle roughly 1 cm thick. Spread with the filling, leaving a good border clear around the edges, and then roll into a long sausage. Cut into 6 - 8 rounds, and arrange in the tin. Cover with the damp cloth again and leave to rise for another 20 minutes (they should be filling the tin).

Whilst they're doing that make a crumble mix with a tablespoon of brown sugar, a tablespoon of plain flour, and a tablespoon of butter. I had some praline mix in the freezer which I also chucked in, and would actually have been a perfectly good crumble substitute on its own. Heat the oven to 180c. Once the buns have risen, glaze the top of them with an egg, sprinkle the crumble over, and bake for about 25 mins until golden.

The possibilities for this are endless - you could use basically any jam you wanted for the middle, although I think it's the perfect use for any otherwise disappointingly hard, under-ripe, stone fruit and Zuza Zak also suggests using pears - I'm wondering what quince would be like too - the freshness of the fruit in the bun was the real treat here for me. 

The new chair, or indeed New Chair, because I'm very excited about it is a vintage Lloyd loom number that someone had left by the side of the road with a whole mix of other chairs and wanted rid of. There was a note that said please take me, and so I did. Structurally the chair was in excellent condition, the paintwork not so much. The correct thing to do would be to spray it with primer, than paint, then lacquer. I used emulsion and a small paint brush. 


I've done nothing for it's value in the process, but it looks fresh (if patchy in real life) and is protected somewhat until I can find a suitable outdoor space to do the job properly in. It really did look to manky to leave as it was in my small flat and in some places I wouldn't have wanted to even try a light sanding - now all I'll take off is my own paintwork which is fine. I've wanted a bit of Lloyd Loom for a very long time but it's horribly expensive hence my current excitement. A very small amount of guilt about not knocking on doors and checking the person doing the garage clearance realsied what they were getting rid of is offset by a strong belief that what goes around comes around. It was my turn for some god luck, and will be there's next.  


Friday, June 11, 2021

A Knitting (and Book Clearing) up date

I don't know if it's my age, general state of mind, the last year and a bit, the influence of my partner - who does not care for clutter - or just that I've comprehensively tun out of space, but I'm very keen to have a proper clear out at the moment. An overabundance of possessions in my small flat feel oppressive, and with books, it's a constant reminder of how much I haven't read.


A younger version of myself really disliked letting things go, especially books, but I can honestly look at all the earnest doorstop on feminist theory that I bought in my twenties and know that I'm never going to read them now. If I find I really want to know what Camille Paglia thought about something I can google it. I'm clearing out a lot of miserable memories about how awful the first world war was too - it's not just that I've read too many of them, it's that I also have a better understanding of what awful actually feels like. There are also duplicate books on the pile, books I loved but probably won't read again, books bought by a version of myself I hardly even recognise anymore, and books I'd still quite like to read but know I won't (The Count of Monte Cristo - I don't have the patience to sit through the film never mind tackle this doorstop). 

The good news is I have a much better idea of what's sitting on my shelves now, and it feels a bit less daunting. My yarn stash is a more complicated story, but there's a similar abundance of actual yarn as there are books. 

I have already learnt something really important about knitting a jumper - and although this is probably obvious to every other knitter ever, I hadn't properly appreciated it before now. The planning stage for a larger garment needs to start with buying the yarn, and buying a whole lot of yarn 9 months previously and leaving it in a bag somewhere has not cut it in this case. 

I knew I wanted to knit something in reds, I made a Fisherman's Kep a couple of years ago that I was thinking of as a swatch, I liked the slash necked jumper in Mati Ventrillon's book which I got my hands on when I was in Shetland last autumn, and I already had a good bit of Jamieson's Sunrise (which I like) so that seemed like an obvious main colour. I clearly remember happy sessions in Lerwick choosing more colours, but not how I anticipated them going together. I think I must have had an ombre effect in mind, but I'm not sure. 

I also realise belatedly that I hadn't really considered how much extra yarn I might need for the alterations I had in mind for the pattern. Looking at my progress so far there are issues with how some of the reds sit together - the pattern is lost. I'm not over bothered by this, I'd already accepted there would be problems and I'm treating this as one giant swatch to judge all future jumpers by. Overall the reds are working more or less as I hoped and that's enough. It doesn't make sense to buy more yarn when I can hardly fit the stash I do have in my flat, and no sense at all to spend more money right now. 


What I should have better considered is just how much more yarn in any given colour I would need for a large jumper than I would for a hat to a pair of mitts, or even Fair Isle socks. I have an impressive choice of colours in my stash, but not often more than 3 or 4 balls in any one shade and that's not enough for this project. 

When I'm done and have a better idea of exactly how much yarn of each shade I can expect to use (diligent notes are being kept) I'm going to have a think about how best to buy yarn for the next jumper I might want to make, ideally I can see and squish the yarn before making a final decision, it's also cheaper to buy yarn in Shetland than from Shetland - the delivery charges aren't bad but it all adds up.

If I can settle on a couple of good all round shades I would quite like to buy them on cones from Jamieson and Smith. They're a really good value way of buying and would mean there's always a lot of something to plan around - but they'd also be quite a commitment so they have to be the right colours. 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Amber and Rye - Zuza Zak

It's been a strange sort of week, full of distractions, deadlines, stress, and to balance it all a few nicer things as well. I have almost caught up with myself - certainly to the point that I'm going to spend a couple of hours with this book tonight - something I've been promising myself I'll do all week. 

I really liked Zuza Zak's first book, Polska, despite not having used it much in the 5 years since it came out. I know I really like it because I've been going through all my books with a view to having a real clear out. I have about 160 marked to go and am hoping to get to 200. A good yard of cookbooks are going, lots of Nigel Slater and a little bit of River Cottage along with some Grub Street titles - they're great books but not only am I not using them, I can't imagine using them. Someone is going to get a bargain. Meanwhile, I'm hoping the edited collection will be easier to negotiate.


'Amber and Rye' is a beautiful book - beautiful to look at, beautiful to read, and in this case it arrived beautifully packed (a double perk to getting a review copy). It concentrates specifically on Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and as a generalisation the food is contemporary but based on tradition. The recipes are well chosen to be the kind of thing you want to cook at home, and with the possible exception of Sea Buckthorn, and the definite exception of Latvian green cheese (a recipe to make an approximation of it is given) most of the ingredients are easy to source, especially if you have access to Eastern European shops which most of us do. Brexit had better not mess with this.

The first thing I want to cook, and really need to get to fast are Elderflower and Peach breakfast buns. The elderflower was late this year because of the cold, and now that its appearance has coincided with a heatwave it's come and is going really fast. With luck, if I buy peaches tomorrow they'll be sufficiently ripe to use by Monday and I can forage some elderflowers from somewhere shady in a hedgerow whilst I'm dog walking to bring home with me. 

After that, there are some curd cheese pancakes which look great too - for some reason the breakfast chapter is really striking a chord with me. There are other buns and pastries in it that I really want to make as well. Not that it's just the breakfasts that look great - there's something for every time of day, and a whole lot of ferments as well for if I ever get myself together enough to try making them. I suppose the minimum would be to get a sourdough starter going again - although it's a big commitment to bread eating for one person to undertake. 

'Amber and Rye' is also a guide of sorts to the region it describes, with the recipes interspersed with proper essays about the places visited. I really love this trend in food writing to include travelogue, more now than ever, when the possibility of travel is quite remote. This is a part of the world I want to go to, but if reading books like this, and cooking from them is as close as I get, the way they capture my imagination is enough to be going on with and a lot to be grateful for, 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Shetland Wool Adventures Journal Volume 2

The second volume of the Shetland Wool Adventures Journal has landed with me today (I've been scanning the post for this for the last week partly because I have 2 pieces in it and am really excited to see one of them in particular in print). I haven't had time to read it properly yet, but I've had a good look through - and honestly, if you knit or like Shetland, you want this.


The first volume was good but I feel like there's even more in this one - even though it's the same length, maybe I'm just over-excited. The 6 knitting patterns are attractive - 3 slipovers, a Gansy, and 2 sets of mitts of which there's a pair of mitts (Ella Gordon's Hesti mitts) a slipover - the lace-edged Atlantic Waves by Ann Eunson, and Rachel Hunter's Up-Helly-Aa Gansy that I'm putting on my project list. 

There are quite a lot of suggested walks in here with plenty of photographs to show what you'll be enjoying if you plan on taking them. I like this - the Shetland countryside is fairly accessible so when the weather suits your clothing it's good to have a list of possible walks to suit the time available, your level of fitness, and where you find yourself. Even if you live there or have visited a lot, there will be new places to see. 

There's a lot of history in this volume too, plus recipes, a couple of interviews with local artists and craftspeople, one with Kate Davies about starting up her business, a preview of a book that Misa's 60 North Publishing is bringing out later this year, and also my bits.

These are a set of 6 book reviews that I spent an absolute age trying to put together so that they would offer a good cross-section of history, inspiration for places to visit, a good overall sense of Shetland, pleasant armchair travel, enjoyable holiday reading, and hopefully offer something for everybody. Coming up with reading lists rather than reviewing whatever is current is definitely more fun, but not nearly as easy - so I hope people like the suggestions.

There's also a bit I wrote about the history of the Lera Voe phone box, early versions of which first appeared on this blog back in February last year. This is the one I was excited to see in print, mostly because I really wanted to see what images would be chosen to go with my words (there's a novelty in this for me). Looking at the finished article I'm really pleased with the combination.

I started researching the phone box about a month before the first UK lockdown, since then dad has acquired another one and handed it over to its immediately local community to work on. A box not far from the Sandness woolen mill (Jamieson's) has been taken on, and there are attempts to buy the one outside the shop at Bixter underway. They feel like a symbol of the more positive parts of the last year to me; something that's still holding communities together albeit in a different way to that first intended.

The Journals can be ordered HERE, and represent really good value for the knitting patterns alone. 

Friday, June 4, 2021

Another Knitting Post

This time it's about beginnings rather than the finished object. For a very long time - two, maybe three, years I've been dithering about starting a fair isle jumper - or frankly any sort of jumper. Fair Isle has won out because although it comes with its own set of challenges seeing the patterns grow will keep it interesting and it's going to be a big jumper.


This really should have been a better incentive to lose enough weight to go down a size. As well as being quite round I'm also long in the body and short in the leg (a genetic inheritance from the wrong grandfather - the other one was long-legged and lean - he bequeathed me his startling ability not to hang on to money and a taste for good port. The short fat one was excellent at making and keeping cash but had no palate at all. I would have chosen a slightly different combination of attributes from them both). The short boxy jumpers that everyone seems to be designing at the moment are hopeless on me. It all adds up to a real difficulty in finding a good base pattern and extra knitting.

I've bought the yarn to start on a jumper twice, and have half used the first lot for another project now. I'm no longer sure about the colours I chose really carefully last September and am wondering what I have to change them with - more dithering.

The closest I've found to the right pattern for me is Matti Ventrilon's Slash necked all over in 'Knitting From Fair Isle' to which I plan to add a couple of pattern repeats to give it the length I want. However, I also find I'm between sizes so after a lot of faffing around with tape measures and trying to guess which way to go I'm taking the risk of a smaller size, but on slightly larger needles. I did some swatching but on the whole, found it inconclusive - the answer would be to do a bigger swatch, which would be a good plan, so instead, I've just decided to start.

I like a plan, and at this point I'm not clear how much yarn I'll need, or exactly what the final colour combination will be which is the opposite of having a plan (I'm cocktail testing as I write this, with a rum and whisky version of the same drink on the go, which has the upside that I'm steadily caring less about everything). On the other hand my learning style is to have a go and work it out from my mistakes, and whatever happens, this jumper will fit someone (I really hope it's me). Getting started on it is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome (I also need to learn to crochet by the time I get to the arm steeks). 

Wish me luck. 


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Due to a Death - Mary Kelly

I loved Mary Kelly's The Spoilt Kill, and quite liked The Christmas Egg (I think I might need to re-read The Christmas Egg again given how impressed I've been with the other two books - I don't remember it being as impressive as the later additions to the Crime Classics series, but I might see much more in it a second time around). 'Due to a Death' moves my admiration of her writing up another level. I think there could well be a debate as to whether this book better belongs with crime classics, or in the women writer's series.


There is a crime, and people do die, but the female narrator and the nature of the crime and who it concerns make this feel like a bit of an outlier, I don't think it's an easy book to pigeonhole in a single genre. 

We start near the end with a bleeding woman in a man's car which for a moment we think might be being chased by the police. They have other business as it turns out. A woman's body has been found on the nearby marsh. Naked, dead, and bloody. The girl in the car is Agnes, her wounds are superficial, and the man driving her is Hedley Nicholson - the same private detective from 'The Spoilt Kill'.

Agnes is the bored wife of Tom. He works in the local museum and they don't much like wives having their own jobs. She's spent her summer flirting with Hedley and drifting along in a sort of dream, but the discoveries of this particular afternoon are forcing her to cast her mind back over the last weeks and days to work out what's been happening around her. How her husband and his friends, her friends, fit into it.

Slowly, painfully, we follow her on that journey, suspecting first this, and then that, before it all comes together at the end in a way that's simply devastating in its wastefulness. What follows will be in the nature of spoilers, so if you don't want to read on I'll say now this book is excellent, unusual, potentially upsetting dealing as it does with quite a thorny subject, and absolutely worth reading.

'Due to a Death' was published in 1962, the contraceptive pill became available, for married women only, in England in 1961, and only married women were meant to get it until 1967 when abortion was also legalized. Before 1967 plenty of unmarried women must have managed to get hold of the pill, but not, I suspect, those living in rural towns where they were well known to their doctors. For those who had enough money, there were semi-legal forms of abortion which would have been considerably safer than the back street or home versions that plenty of desperate women tried. 

Kelly had been an auxiliary nurse working in the East End, and it's clear that she's got a good deal of anger to work off - and rightly so. The body of the book is dreamlike but ominous - Agnes is preparing for her driving test, aware of some odd undercurrents but mostly wrapped up in her own infatuation with Hedley (and Kelly is masterly in the way she flips the tables from The Spoilt Kill to show him as an unflashy but convincing object of desire). Agnes is a difficult character, but honest enough about her faults to be relatable. It's only in the last few chapters that everything comes together and the dream definitely becomes a nightmare. 

There is a slightly sensational element to this, but it's handled well and as the stakes are quite high the tragedy that unfolds is feasible. The subject matter is sensitive, but for the most part it's sensitively handled, and Kelly is brilliant at maintaining her atmosphere and delivering her judgement. I honestly recommend this book - as an unconventional crime thriller, and for it's feminist slant. 


Monday, May 31, 2021

The Toll Gate - Georgette Heyer

This is the latest book the Georgette Heyer Redalong has finished and the first one where I've really felt my opinion of the book has been challenged by a slow reading. I like this relatively late Heyer (1954, so more than halfway through her writing career) and have long considered it a favourite. That hasn't changed, but reading 3 chapters a week and discussing them at length has shown flaws that are less apparent when you zoom through a book in an afternoon.


The Toll Gate is sort of atypical for Heyer in that the mood stays really quite dark throughout, the only other example that I can think of that's quite as grim as this one is Cousin Kate from 1968. There are other elements that are unusual, but all of them appear in other books - it's the combination of things that makes this one stand out.

It seems that when Heyer started 'The Toll Gate' she had quite a different book in mind - the opening chapter introduces us to Captain John Staple and his extended family, but that's the last of the extended family we see. Eventually we end up in quite a masculine adventure - Captain Staple (Jack, or Crazy Jack to his friends) finds himself not quite lost in the rain and rapidly drawing in night, he seeks shelter in the first habitation he finds - a toll house being minded by a clearly terrified young boy.

The boy's father has disappeared, there's a nighttime visitor he's very afraid of and Jack senses a mystery, the solving of which will alleviate his boredom. In quick succession he loses his heart, meets a highwayman, a bow street runner, and some likely villains. Nell, the woman he's lost his heart too is in dire straights - and unusually for a Heyer heroine seems at something of a loss - she's brave and capable but Heyer is unrelenting in showing us how bleak it can be for a single woman against the world. 

The adventure comes to a conclusion, the right people end up together or disposed of, and it's more or less a happy ever after even if the heroine of the piece is largely absent from the action. As a romance it arguably falls short of expectations, but as a thriller with romantic elements it works well enough for me. As a novel that has things to say about the early 1950's I think it's got  a lot going for it. 

There's the vague sense of a lingering post war austerity, of values which are all but gone, of the boredom that could afflict young men who had spent 6 years at war and don't quite know how to adjust to peace time. There's also the depressing reality for women that careers are thin on the ground again as jobs go to men and they're expected to be home makers regardless of how capable they are. 

So, a mixed book - there is also a lot of early 18th century cant which can be tiresome if yu don't enjoy it (I kind of do here, but that might make me the exception). It's also worth comparing this one to the slightly later 'The Unkown Ajax' (1959). Ajax is a much more typical Heyer - but there's a sense that the two books might have started with the same character. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

The Chianti Flask - Marie Belloc Lowndes

This is an odd mystery from the Crime Classics series - it slightly defies categorisation, it's not quite a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit, it is arguably a romance, although the romance is the least interesting part of the book. It is however a compelling look at what happens to one woman after she's tried for her husbands murder. 


Laura Dousland falls on hard times as a young woman when her father dies having lost all the family money. She hasn't been educated to do much but makes a reasonable living as an old fashioned sort of governess who can be relied upon to teach the daughters of the more recently rich to behave like old money. 

Laura's last employer, the benevolently despotic Alice Hayward, persuades her to marry a school friend of her husbands who is infatuated with he much younger woman. The age gap is a good 30 years and Laura does not much like Fordish Dousland. but he is persistant, as is her friend, and her options aren't great so she does indeed marry him.

We learn all this along the way, when the book opens Laura is on trial, Fordish Dousland has been poisoned, and there's an odd mystery around a disappeared chianti flask. The rat poison that did for him was almost certainly taken with the wine, but what happened to the bottle?

Laura is quickly acquitted and the body of the book deals with her attempts to come to terms with all she's been through. At the same time she's falling in love with a well to do doctor who gave evidence on her behalf and is now treating her, he's falling equally hard in love with her. The twist at the end isn't entirely surprising, but it's a good one nonetheless (and at the slight risk of this being a spoiler, the biggest mystery about the Chianti flask is why anyone tried to hide it in the first place).

'The Chianti Flask' was first published in 1935, but feels as if it belongs to a slightly earlier time, but then Marie Belloc Lowndes was well into her 60's when she wrote this, and maybe that's why Laura and Mark's romantic interludes feel somewhat old fashioned. His parents reaction to their relationship has the same touch of melodrama about it, but rings true for their age and class.

Class is a theme throughout this book, most of the characters are upper class, and there's a good bit of discussion about how a woman who has stood trial for murder can fit back in socially now that she's notorious. It's interesting to compare this with Dorothy L. Sayers, Harriet Vane books. Strong Poison came out in 1930, Have His Carcass in 1932, and Gaudy Night the same year as The Chianti Flask (1935). Laura and Harriet are more or less of an age, and it seems reasonable to assume that Marie Belloc Lowndes would have been familiar with Sayers work. These are very different books, but both have a feminist slant that makes a comparison worth while.

It's the portrayal of women, their lives, and the limitations they face - especially in Laura's case that make this book so interesting. Laura, Alice Hayward, and Mrs Scrutton - they all jump off the page. All are flawed, human, and compelling - Marie Belloc Lowndes was a vaguely familiar name before I read this, now I'm really keen to try and read more of her work - or see some of the films based on it.