Saturday, August 31, 2013

The importance of a good bookshop can't be underestimated

It's been quite a while since I've had the chance to browse in a half way decent bookshop, months in fact. The small remaining branch of Waterstones in Leicester is at best adequate, at worst a terrible place for a browse - it's size means that it's mostly bestsellers, books that are being pushed to be bestsellers, and 'dark romance' - in short they don't sell much to tempt me. W H Smiths is basically the same and The Works is far to hit and miss to fill the gap, that bar a few charity shops comprises the choice on my local high street. Today I went to Nottingham which has a decent sized branch of Waterstones with a satisfyingly eclectic selection of stock. It was soul food.

A couple of steps in I found the first book I could want, an hour later I had a whole new wish list and a nice new paperback. It's not that I haven't been enjoying reading recently, I've had a great time working through my Georgette Heyer stash (I noticed today that Jennifer Kloester's Biography of a Best Seller is now out in paperback) but it's a while since I've had the pleasure of picking up a new book (new to me at any rate) and been excited by it and I've missed that feeling.

When people say that amazon will be the death of the traditional bookshop I'm always doubtful and today is exactly why - I spend a reasonable amount of time on amazon just having a look at what they recommend but what they think I might like very rarely captures my imagination. I like the cheap prices, I love the wish list function, and as long as it's legal I'm basically indifferent to their tax and employment shenanigans (which is not the same as saying that I think it should be legal to dodge tax and exploit employees) but I find it a poor place to discover new things. A good bookshop on the other hand can easily persuade me too spend far to much money on a whim (oddly never regretted in the way that clothes purchases can be) and fills me with inspiration and enthusiasm. It doesn't have to be a big bookshop, there are plenty of excellent small independents out there where I never fail to find something interesting (just a pity that none of them are within my city limits) but it does need some passion behind the buying and room for the books that will probably never be best sellers but which inquiring, intelligent, readers (and me) will likely buy enough of to make stocking worthwhile.

A good book shop enriches the community it's part of, a browse round it's shelves is as invigorating as the most satisfying conversation, the internet is great for finding what I want but nowhere near as good at directing me towards the things Ion't know I might need. A shop that's filled with ideas's on the other hand is beyond perfect for that and I miss having easy access to one.  

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Faro's Daughter - Georgette Heyer

My Georgette Heyer binge shows no sign of abating, there's a direct correlation to what's going on at work with this, the last 3 weeks have been crazy, we've been busy, under staffed, and there have been a number of extra events to organise over and above the everyday stuff I already didn't have time for... Work wise I like to be organised, if I'm not or if things I can't control (other people) get in the way of that I get ridiculously stressed, disorder at home doesn't bother me in anything like the same way and I can deal with a crisis when it arises without getting in a flap but I really don't thrive under the pressure of to much to do and not enough time to do it in. 

When things do get out of control my coping mechanisms are books and giant chocolate buttons (or similar, but giant chocolate buttons are a bit of a favourite and probably better for me than gin which I'm also partial to). A crappy day can very quickly disappear when you have a good book to absorb yourself in. It does have to be a good book though, not necessarily a great book, not even a book that calls for much thought - which is one reason why a bad book won't do. Bad books make you think about why they're so poor and irritate you further as you notice the authors tics and inconsistencies or lousy research. Georgette Heyer doesn't write bad books, and they don't generally demand much thought from the reader, just a general inclination to enjoy what's in front of you. 

'Faro's Daughter' (Faro was apparently a very popular 18th century card game along with Bassett, despite being described as easy to pick up I found a description of the rules totally baffling, but then I'm rubbish at card games generally). The plot has a young and reasonably well off Lord falling in love with a girl he's met over the card tables (not the thing at all). His older cousin is sent to break up this undesirable relationship which rather offends the girl seeing as she had no intention of taking advantage of the young mans infatuation in the first place. There are some adventures and misunderstandings before a happy ending is worked out for all involved. This never used to be a favourite of mine but I found reading it this time that I enjoyed it rather more. One of the things that's struck me as I've worked my way through a reasonable pile of Heyer's over the last couple of weeks is that so many of her 'romances' have very little romance in them - they're just as likely to be whodunnits as anything else. 'Faro's Daughter't is rather more a romance than anything else albeit one with a bit of kidnapping and skulduggery (which I suppose is rather more in keeping with the 18th century idea of romance) and a remarkably feisty heroine. 


Monday, August 26, 2013

A Good Cause

On Friday night a helicopter making a routine trip back from an off shore platform went down a few miles south of Shetland, most the passengers were rescued but 4 lives were very sadly lost. That it wasn't a greater tragedy is due to the prompt action of the emergency services; there are two things about the R.N.L.I. that hit me fresh every time I think about them - the first is how often they must go out when the thing you'd be more inclined to do is stay safely at home, and the second is that they're volunteers.

I've mentioned Ruth Brownlee before, she's an extraordinary painter who currently lives and works in Shetland and she's decided to auction a painting and try and raise some money for the R.N.L.I. She says:

 "Like many folk in Shetland and Scotland, I'm still quite affected by the Friday's helicopter tragedy south of Shetland which has sadly claimed four lives.
I have nothing but respect for all the emergency staff that were involved in the recovery operation and would like to do my bit, by auctioning this painting for the RNLI, which is run purely by volunteers and they have worked tirelessly all weekend, risking their lives to help others. 
This painting, finished this morning reflects the melancholic mist over Shetland this weekend as the recovery operation was carried out. The painting is 20 x 20 cm and will come mounted.
Starting bid will start at £40 and auction will close on Friday 30th. Just leave your bids in the comments and I'll take note. Many thanks".
This painting, finished this morning reflects the melancholic mist over Shetland this weekend as the recovery operation was carried out. The painting is 20 x 20 cm and will come mounted.
Starting bid will start at £40 and auction will close on Friday 30th. Just leave your bids in the comments and I'll take note. Many thanks".

Her face book page where you can bid is here, she's also set up a just giving page here where you can donate directly to the R.N.L.I (remember you can gift aid too). Ruth says she might do a second painting to raffle for the same cause (I have a couple of her paintings, they're what I would grab in a fire). Do have a look and please consider donating to such a good cause)  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Pots and Pans

As a change from Georgette Heyer, and because I've spent much of my morning off trying to impose a bit of order on my kitchen (basically a waste of time because it never stays ordered for very long but sometimes I feel like I should make the effort).

Of all my many kitchen obsessions the most expensive is without doubt my passion for Le Creuset and their cast iron products. I love them. Sometimes after I've struggled up the stairs with another newly acquired and long to be cherished piece I get a vivid flash back to when I moved in (the much smaller collection I had back then was enough of a pain to haul upstairs, I frankly dread trying to move the stuff out again one day). I've been lucky with my Le Creuset, my mother had a clear out when she moved house not long after I graduated and decided that orange wouldn't do for her new kitchen so I got all of her old volcanic range (bought in the early 1980's when all I ever remember seeing was orange, and still as good as new).

Had I not liked cooking with these pans it would most likely have stopped there - even though more tempting colours kept appearing on the market, but I do like cooking with them. Initially it was the case that the pots suited the way I cooked but as time has gone on the way I like to cook has probably been more influenced by the pots I love to use than the other way round. An old house mate commented on this when I was making risotto one evening. After a long, slightly critical look at what I was doing she commented that it was no wonder I liked making that dish so much as I got to use all my favourite kitchen things (I recommend a shallow casserole dish for the operation but more of that another day). She was annoying but right.

The rest of my collection has been carefully bought in sales, from the outlet shops as slight seconds, or heavily hinted for as Christmas presents. I have different favourites on different days but a kiwi green casserole that I picked up a couple of years ago from Bicester village. It was an impulse buy based on it's shape which I liked and the assumption that it would probably come in handy for something. It does come in handy and is easily one of the best uses of £40 I could have found. (Le Creuset fans will know that's a bargain). It's a lovely size for making enough of something for 2 - 4 people and is good for any soup or stew. What it's turned out to be best for though is cooking rice. (Rice, an equal amount of water, a knob of butter, bring the lot to the boil and then turn off the heat and leave for 15 mins or until the rice is satisfactorily steamed through and fluffy.) The heavy lid and small heat source to surface ratio make it perfect for this and anything else that might want to be cooked in a similar fashion. I think it also looks good bought to the table. It's a nice looking thing that works very well and will last me forever - basically the three things that make me happiest with any gadget or utensil.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Grand Sophy - Georgette Heyer

Still engrossed in Heyer (I might consider reading someone else in a  day or two) and it's on to 'The Grand Sophy'. This one was a favourite when I first discovered Heyer and I must have read it a dozen times or more. Reading it this time transported me back to long summer holidays in Shetland and gave me a moment of intense homesickness.

One of the criticisms leveled at Heyer is that she only writes one story over and over again, I would say that she has more like half a dozen that she re-works in various ways or where she mixes in different genres. 'The Grand Sophy' is romance mixed with a good bit of comedy and has one of Heyers best action heroines. I also think this is Heyer at her most feminist and the reason that she's such a good writer to discover when you're a teenage girl. 

Sophy is a twenty year old force of nature, the daughter of a diplomat she turns up on her aunts doorstep with a monkey and a parrot for her young cousins, a magnificent horse for her own use, splendid jewels, and a small pistol. Sophy has been used to wandering around Europe in the vanguard of Wellington's army (hence her handiness with a pistol) is independent, has a filthy temper, and a desire to organise everybody around her for their own good. Before long she's annoyed her older cousin Charles by setting herself up with a sporting carriage - which naturally she can drive with considerable skill, dealing with her fathers bankers - instead of relying on a handy man to sort out her finances for her - and starting to sort out the tangled affairs of yet more of her cousins. Charles has a horrible fiance called Eugenia who makes a nicely interfering villain for the piece - we can easily dislike Eugenia (who reminds me strongly of a line manager I once had and could not stand) but still keep just a little bit of sympathy for her when Sophy keeps managing to make her look as small minded and foolish as she is. 

It's not Sophy's driving expertise, or her ability on horseback, or her prowess with a pistol that makes me think of her as a good and mildly feminist role model however, it's her talent for organising and for getting the information she needs to deal with a situation. There is a very funny scene where she goes to visit a money lender (the politically correct might quite reasonably object to this man's portrayal), half of it is comedy, but Heyer has Sophy know the law when it comes to lending to a minor, and how items pledged for security should be treated and I find this capable business like attitude encouraging (horses frighten me, getting good advice however is always useful).

This is classic Heyer, not without the odd fault, but overall warm, witty, and clever my 14 and 40 year old self look on it with equal approval. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

If it wasn't for Georgette Heyer...

Yes, here it is, another Heyer related post (better get used to it, as I'm happily rediscovering more and more of her books)... I sometimes feel a bit self conscious about my love of Heyer - people can be a bit sniffy about her so it's tempting to think of her as a guilty pleasure,  but then I'll be damned if I feel guilty about reading a writer who has given me so much pleasure over the years. I've always been interested in History, always loved reading,  a complete lack of skill in trying to learn other languages would always have pushed me to British history and I would always have discovered Jane Austen (although it was very specifically Heyer's mentions of Austen which led me to discover her when I did). My degree was in History of Art, my undergraduate dissertation about the rival art collections of Wellington and Napoleon (the difference is that Wellington as the victor got to keep his booty including a 3 meter high statue of a naked Napoleon holding an orb with a winged victory on it by Canova. Hard to imagine that Wellington would have really wanted such an object, but it still stands in a stairwell in Apsley house) was in partly the fruition of an interest sparked by reading Heyer's army based novels. For me, and doubtless very many others she's been a gateway novelist, not to the endless 'Regencies' which are so often second or third rate imitations of what she dis so well, but to the classics that she was undoubtedly familiar with and many of which she mentions in her novels.

A quick trawl around my shelves has resulted in a sizable pile of books which owe their place on my shelf because of Heyer, I haven't included non fiction, and could have included Elizabeth Gaskell who I started reading when I was looking for a Heyer replacement. I haven't read all of these books but one day I will (well maybe not 'The Monk' which I started once and didn't really get on with). I did actually read Richardson's 'Pamela' - I don't particularly recommend it, Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth are both terrific and it occurs to me that I really should read 'Vanity Fair' again. It also occurs to me that no other writer has had quite such an influence on my book buying habits as Heyer has had. (I'm also thinking that finding the books was considerably more fun than putting them back will be.)  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Back in the garden

The one thing that I don't like about my city centre flat is it's lack of a garden, I adopted D's garden about
five years ago which partly fills the gap but the time and energy to do much in it is limited to occasional weekends based around my work schedule. This time it was only a couple of weeks between visits as opposed to the good 2 months since it had any real attention last time because between us we hadn't really had a weekend to spend at home together for that long (4 of those weekends were spent on holidays - this isn't really a bid for sympathy).

I'm a very amateur gardener and not much of a planner, when our work hours coincided somewhat better it didn't matter to the garden so much - there was plenty of time for fiddling around in it and for finding more plants- it's much more tempting to spend money when you can enjoy the results and when there are still gaps for plants, but over the last couple of years it hasn't worked out quite as neatly and I know D won't water properly... We also cut down a tree which was getting out of control in one corner which has changed a shady dry corner into a really sunny one which retains water a little better. All sorts of things that had been struggling under there unnoticed suddenly went crazy (violets, a particularly unappealing aquilegia, something that might be a type of chamomile, a small bush, and a leafy green thing I can't remember the name of but is unbelievably persistent all refuse to be budged). A really impressive rosemary has sadly decided to die in incremental stages, that it has a blackberry growing through it that could likely only be shifted with dynamite (which isn't at all practical) probably doesn't help.

Prodding things with a fork this weekend has made me aware of how much work I need to do, and of how many plants a couple of hard winters have seen off. At the moment I have a mass of overgrown things and roses with appalling blackspot along with any number of self seeded nuisances. The garden needs time and a bit of money spent on it (although I have spent a lot of time moving things around and potentially that'll look great next spring). It also badly needs some late summer colour (though anything in yellow through to red doesn't much appeal to me). Also there is a cat that's been sneaking in and crapping in the middle of the lawn, I have never been a cat person and this sort of behavior hardly makes me warm to them.

The bright spot is that a white wisteria rescued from my windowsill 5 years ago has finally decided to flower - I couldn't be more pleased, also a pale yellow jasmine (it should have been white, labels lie) has really come into it's own next to it. the combination is quite pleasing and the scent of the jasmine almost strong enough to drown out the cat mess. Gardens can be expensive, exhausting, full of perils (scratched arms, muddy fingernails, aching back) and frustrating - but they're magical when something glorious finally comes into its own.    

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Regency Buck - Georgette Heyer

My Heyer odyssey continues, I've read 4 since Monday and wish I'd bought a 5th away with me this weekend. It's about 4 years since I started blogging, it's something which I think has basically been good for my reading habits - I certainly read more and with more discipline which means I tackle books I probably wouldn't have bothered with before and make myself finish things (I had a terrible habit of getting half way through a book and then abandoning it because I was distracted by another book). Another thing that's changed is that I don't often re read books, I guess this is one of those downsides of growing up - earning a living means I can buy a quantity of books but doesn't give me nearly as much time to read them. Back in my teens I owned a few hundred books (a fairly even mix of Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, Dorothy Sayers, and Terry Pratchett) which I read over and over, favourite books were very familiar friends. 

Generally speaking I'm too caught up in the excitement of discovering books which are new to me to spare much thought to what I might be missing by not re reading more but this week with Heyer is making me consider it more. 'Regency Buck' is a Heyer which I liked well enough back in the day and have certainly read a few times, but not one which was a particular favourite. Reading it then I would have considered it mostly as a romance because that's how I'm inclined to remember all of Heyer's historical novels. Reading it over the last couple of days I'm more inclined to think of it as more of a thriller albeit on with quite a lot of romance in it. Sadly I remembered the twist, although that gave me plenty of opportunity to appreciate how Heyer misdirects the reader, something I'm sure she enjoyed doing. I think we know from the start that we are being misdirected but it's still done neatly. For a romance she also spends a lot of time describing boxing matches, racing, and cock fighting (the last in quite off putting detail). I also noticed, again, how much trouble she takes over developing the character of her heroine, yes she's rich, attractive and spirited, but Heyer also gives her the temper tantrums and general bloody mindedness that are likely to characterise a girl just out of her teens - it's a nice touch.

I'm lending 'Regency Buck' to D, he says he might read it if he gets the time (he sounded like he wanted to find the time) I hope he does - it'll be interesting to see what he thinks of it, I suspect he'll enjoy it if he does read it.         

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Convenient Marriage - Georgette Heyer

Having finally noticed that Arrow Books had re-jacketed six Georgette Heyer titles I got mildly excited,
certainly excited enough to make a cheeky request for review copies and the charming lady at Arrow was kind enough to oblige. I've said it many times before but I love Georgette Heyer - her books have never failed me and I think she is in her way a writer of rare genius.

I do already have a complete set (suppressed novels excluded) of Heyer's fiction, the romances all being the pan editions from the mid 1980's (I am half minded to collect the slightly earlier pan paperbacks which I judge to come from the late 60's early 70's because they're gloriously camp) which was partly why I felt cheeky asking for new copies but I really wanted to have a good look at these new copies. I think the new cover designs are great and hope that they get rolled out to the rest of the series - the last lot of jacket designs are inoffensive but convey none of the fun of a Heyer book, these new ones do. The cover for 'The Convenient Marriage' with it's rococo blue and gold and bold black silhouettes seems to me to reference both the 18th century setting and the original 1930's publishing date as well as looking suitably contemporary - in short it looks like a job well done. 

Another reason this selection attracted me is that (with the exception of 'The Grand Sophy' none of these titles were particular favorites when I was first reading them which makes it easier to approach them now without any particular prejudice. Settling down with 'The Convenient Marriage' was a treat. After reading a pile of M C Beaton's regency romances I can appreciate all over again the quality of Heyer's writing. She might deal in cliche's and stereotypes - her hero here is handsome (in a tall dark smoldering way), handy with a sword, intelligent, is conveniently wealthy, and has a sense of humor (like so many of the men I meet...) her heroine is small, dark (with heavy eyebrows) a stammer, a gambling habit, and a no nonsense attitude. It could all be rubbish, but it isn't, because Heyer makes me laugh. She also makes me feel safe and convinces me that all is well with the world. I am a more sophisticated reader now than I was at 13 when I first discovered these books but the joy i get from them is just the same - happy escapism. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Peacock Spring - Rumer Godden

After a whole pile of trashy romances reading something where a happy ending wasn't the whole purpose of
the book felt good. This book doesn't have what you could really call a happy ending (sorry if that's a spoiler, but a for a book that's been around since 1975 I don't feel bad about giving away spoilers). I think most of the Rumer Godden I've read has been from earlier in her career, and though there was nothing particularly specific to tie this one to the 1970's it still felt very much like a book from the later part of the 20th century rather than the middle part. Curiously the plot is based on an incident from an earlier part of her life. Pre war Godden had run a dance school in India where she had been unusual for accepting Eurasian pupils, amongst the students there were two English girls accompanied by a Eurasian governess between whom Godden sensed a certain amount of tension, there seems to have been gossip about the girls wandering around the bazaar unaccompanied and eventually it transpired that the older girl had fallen pregnant after a relationship with one of her fathers servants.

This is basically the plot to 'The Peacock Spring'; Una and Hal Gwithiam have been pulled out of school in England to live with their respictivley widowed, and divorced father in Delhi, he's something quite grand in the united nations and although the girls and their father have always been close they sense that there's something not quite straight about this move. When they arrive they find that the governess they've been provided with is a stunningly beautiful Eurasian women - Alix Lamont - about whom there are whispers and suspicions. Alix and Una both fear and distrust each other, Una because she soon comes to understand what Alix is about, and Alix because Una is far more difficult to cope with than she had expected.

Una at 15 is in the odd inbetween stage between child and woman, old enough to see and understand more than she might like but still to young to understand the consequences of all her actions, including her affair with the poet gardener Ravi. Alix is seizing a chance for security with Sir Edward and has no intention of letting anything get in her way least of all a couple of schoolgirls but her ambitions and dissembling make her vulnerable. Alix is a difficult character, she ought to be the villain of the piece but despite her behavior she isn't quite - that role is reserved for Sir Edward.

It's Edward who pulls his daughters out of a school where they're safe, happy, and where given a chance Una could achieve her ambition of getting into Oxford to drag them across the world to lend face to the fact that he's installed his mistress in the house as their governess - a role she turns out to be basically under qualified to perform. Having got his way he's far to taken up with work and love to see what's actually happening in his house or to appreciate the effect his selfishness is likely to have on the lives of his daughters. It is, in the end, Edward who has the adult power in the family, his uxoriousness which will cause him to misuse it. Altogether it's a remarkable portrait of the point in a family's development when the child begis to understand the fallibility of their parents, begins to see the double standard between philosophy and actions and starts to judge accordingly. I'm really pleased this is back in print, Godden is to good to lose.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Story of Busta House - Marsali Taylor

Busta house is apparently the oldest continually inhabited house in Shetland the original bits date from 1588 (but it has been much added to - a good portion of what you can see in the photograph is an extension from the 1980's after it became a hotel in the late 1970's) and in that time it's gathered a few peculiar stories (and some bomb damaged gargoyles from the house of commons).

The most peculiar story is the history of the Giffords of Busta, I've heard a few versions of the tale and even a suggestion that the Gifford case was a model for Jarndyce v Jarndyce. I was curious enough about a possible Dickens connection to follow that up but I think it's probably fantasy, though as the law suits dragged on through the courts for almost a century and ruined the estate it has a very Jarndycen feel to it, and even if Dickens didn't use the story Eric Linklater does in 'The Dark Of Summer'.

The rough bones of the tale are this... In the 1730's Busta belonged to Thomas and Eizabeth Gifford, Elizabeth was by all accounts a proud hard woman, and Thomas a ruthless man in business, he had the mortgage of a neighboring estate and seems to have blackmailed it's owner into handing over the property after he'd been heard expressing Jacobite sympathies. The dispossessed man took to visiting Busta at night to shout curses at Gifford, until he was found dead some miles away after one of these nocturnal visits in 1744. Thomas and Elizabeth had 14 children so the future of the family line looked secure but in 1740 the family was struck by smallpox and (if I count correctly) 5 of their children died. this still left 4 sons though and everything should have been fine but then one calm May evening in 1748 all 4 headed out in a boat with the younger boys tutor the Reverend John Fiskin, and a servant to visit family on the other side of the voe. They never returned. Next day a search party was sent out, the boat was found and eventually the body of John the eldest son dredged from the water and was taken back to Busta.

The Giffords had a house guest - Barbara Pitcairn, who had been living with them for over a year and at this point she announced that she was John's wife and pregnant. John Fiskin had performed the ceremony and 2 of the other brothers had been witnesses. In short there was nobody to back up Barbara's story - or deny it, and legend has it that Lady Busta nabbed the wedding lines and hid them, determined not to acknowledge Barbara as a daughter in law. Regardless of this Barbara's son Gideon Gifford was recognized by Thomas and Elizabeth as their heir and bought up by them - Barbara was sent packing and only saw her son once more in her lifetime. 

Gideon inherited the estate with the general consent of the family and everything seems to have gone well with the Giffords for some years, in the 1790's there were stories that the original marriage certificate had been found, but if it was, it was speedily lost again, and then possibly found and used to try and blackmail Gideon into giving up some property to his cousin. Nothing much came of it until the 1830's however when the next generation came to blows over who the estate should rightfully belong to - on and off the case lasted until 1925.
It's a great story, and though I must admit I like the more fanciful versions which come with various supernatural elements woven in (selkies, ghosts, and premonitions abound, as well as the curses showered on the house) the much more scholarly and factual 'The Story of Busta House' is a welcome addition to the mix. There are plenty of people with ghost stories about Busta, the assumption being that it's Barbara Pitcairn who haunts the place, but as most the odd occurrences seem to take place in the part of the house built in the 1980's I find it easy to be rational about them. Of the two women central to the story I don't know whether to pity Barbara, who may have lost her husband and who gave up her son, or Elizabeth who outlived 13 of her 14 children more. What I can say for sure is that Busta house hotel does a great fish and chips at lunch time and has a fabulous whisky list.   

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Queen Victoria's lost recipe collection

If I had more disposable income I would subscribe to more journals, as it is I confine myself to 'Slightly Foxed' and 'PPC' both are money extremely well spent (I really love the book reviews in PPC where they are not inclined to pull their punches if they don't like something, and are most inspiring when they do). In the latest PPC there is a really intriguing request for information which I'm copying here on the very remote chance that somebody somewhere might have a an answer or a clue to help unravel the mystery.

PPC were contacted by Mary Williamson from Toronto with the following enquiry: 'Over ten years ago I became intrigued by the contents of a paragraph in Roy Shipperbottom's introduction to the reissue of Elizabeth Raffald's The Experienced English Housekeeper (Southover Press, 1997). "Such were the quality and popularity of the instructions in this extraordinary book, written by a working confectioner and containing trade secrets of the day, that they were widely copied, and recipes from it are found in many family manuscript recipe books - not least one compiled by Princess (later Queen) Victoria. She entered several Raffald recipes in her own handwriting including King Solomon's Temple in Flummery, signing it Victoria." Shipperbottom doesn't give the source of his information, and because he had died before his reprint was published I inquired with the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. I was told that no such manuscript exists there.

'Just the other day I picked up my copy of Court Favourites by Elizabeth Craig (Andre Deutsch, 1953) and it seems that her collection was based on recipes in the same elusive manuscript together with another recipe manuscript that belonged to Princess, then Queen, Victoria. In her introduction Craig tells us how she acquired the recipes. It would have been around 1933 that she became acquainted with an Irishwoman who regularly dined with an 'English Princess'. At some point the Princess showed the Irishwoman "an old scrapbook which had been given to Queen Victoria when she was a young girl." It had originally belonged to Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV. "Hand bound in vellum, with a crown stamped on every page, it was one of the most interesting volumes I have ever perused." She estimated the recipes ranged over fifty to eighty years. Another book was produced. Bound in Russian leather it contained "many recipes cut from old books and papers, alongside recipes evidently copied by Princess Victoria from some ancient, perhaps forgotten, books on domestic subjects. On the first page someone had penned 'Given to Victoria on her birthday - 1831'. The entries in the book date from 1831 to 1887."

'I have written about, and given lectures on Mrs Dalgairns and Mrs Rundell, and like many researchers would be fascinated to know whether Princess Victoria copied the recipies of my culinary heroines. Does anyone know where these two manuscript collections might be, and whether there is any likelihood that they have been digitized and made accessible? If we knew the identity of the "English princess" of 1933 it would help.'   Mary Williamson: <>   

Does anybody know anything?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Chocolate Chip Cookies

The only job I could find after graduation was as a cook in a nursery, I was there for a little under a year and learnt more than I ever expected to about chicken nuggets and fish fingers, but there was also room for something more like real cooking and I got to bake a lot of birthday cakes and biscuits. It's also where  first became really interested in food politics. I worked there for most of 1997 and as would have been the case in all the homes of the 80 or so children a day we cooked for meals were a mix of things made from scratch and those good old standbys like the chicken nuggets. When we cooked from scratch we weren't allowed to add any salt at all at any point to the food (something which has done me good in terms of my own salt consumption) but the chicken nuggets and turkey bites were stuffed with salt - it didn't make much sense then and makes less sense to me now. It was also where I really learnt about the economics of scale and how poor quality some of the things we used were.

My favorite biscuits were these chocolate chip cookies (I wonder what the difference between a biscuit and a cookie is? I think of these as very definitely cookies) which I haven't made in years. Back in nursery days the baking fat was a particularly nasty margarine (with pockets of oil and water in it - there was a slightly superior version for spreading but it was still pretty foul) and the cooking 'chocolate' was that odd stuff that isn't really chocolate. Because of the margarine the biscuits spread like mad on the baking tray, the 'chocolate' chips tasted slightly greasy, and the cookies always went really soft and broke apart very quickly but me and the kids were all fans and I always made extra so I could take some home.

Made with proper butter and proper chocolate chips however (not, I find, the same as chipped up chocolate) these are really really good (I'm wondering about adding a few oats or some chopped nuts another time). Squidgy in a good way and no longer prone to ripping apart they're just really pleasing and simple, they are also egg free which is great as I have a friend with an allergy. I bought a huge tub of chocolate chips in a foray to costco so can make loads of them (there you have the economics of scale again - small manageable packets of chocolate chips are prohibitively expensive, buy a kilo of the things and they cost a fraction of the price - you just have to hope they don't all melt together in their bucket on a hot day... I am very keen to find things to do with them mow I have them - other than eat them straight from the bucket of course)

I think this recipe originally came from an old Be-Ro flour book or something similar, I used to make it in industrial quantities but this amount is sensible - you get about a dozen digestive sized biscuits from it.

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 5/180 degrees C. Beat 4 ounces of butter with 2 tablespoons of golden syrup and 3 ounces of soft brown sugar until light and fluffy, add 6 ounces of self raising flour and up to 2 teaspoons of milk if the mixture is very stiff. Throw in 4 ounces of chocolate chips and mix those in too. form into roughly circular dollops and put on a baking tray (probably with grease proof paper on it) and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, allow to cool thoroughly before eating or you get melted chocolate everywhere. They keep well for a few days in something reasonably air tight and have improved both my post gardening Sunday evening and Monday back at work. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A weekend in the garden

I don't have a garden of my own but D very kindly lets me do all the work in his... Because we've been away a bit and the way work shifts have fallen though it's probably been a couple of months since I've been in it and maybe longer since I did any actual work - sometime in May I moved bits around, and they seem to be alive still so that's nice but sadly most of the herbs have gone over and I missed all the really nice roses and in the meantime slugs, greenfly, and weeds have all been thriving. Really thriving. 

Over the last couple of months there have been no shortage of anxious calls on my part asking if everything has been watered and demanding rhubarb before it goes over which got the response 'yes I've watered' uttered in a tone of voice which suggested I'd better pray for rain (I did, it obliged) and 'I'm not bringing bloody rhubarb to work' interspersed with 'I might not
cut it properly'. What he did do was send me dozens of pictures of things looking there best which in it's way is even better than getting sent actual flowers and never fails to make me happy.

I was warned this weekend that there might be a bit of weeding to do, turned out there was, I've never seen the garden look so wild (or trodden on so many thistles - the lawn might need a bit of attention) but after two days of hacking and up-rooting things are sort of under control (apart from my back - my back doesn't feel like my own at all) and there's a young hay stack of weeds waiting to be disposed of. On the upside we managed to rescue a reasonable haul of cherries from the birds and wasps and I got my rhubarb with the promise of plenty more (it's also really nice to know that something other than lemon balm and the mint I don't like really thrives in that garden - it's a fairly solid clay which not everything appreciates). 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Eustace Diamonds - AnthonyTrollope

It was interesting reading Harriet Devine's thoughts on Trollope's 'The Prime Minister' a few days ago because they came close to my own reaction to 'The Eustace Diamonds'. If I hadn't been determined to finish it I would possibly have given up in the first quarter of the book - which would have been a loss because in some ways this is my favorite Trollope yet, on the other hand it's the first time I've really come to grips with his misogyny and anti-semitism; the first time that I've thought of him as a man I might really have quite disliked if I'd met him and it was a bit of a shock.

The plot centers around the machinations of one Lizzie Greystock, soon to be Lady Eustace. Lizzie is the daughter of a spendthrift and disinterested admiral who dies leaving her penniless and basically friendless. She settles on life with an exceptionally unsympathetic and poor relation because she's a Countess with a townhouse and this will give Lizzie her best chance of finding a husband. In due course she lands her man, Sir Florian Eustace, Sir Florian is youngish, handsome, exceptionally wealthy, and generous with it, but is perhaps not a very intelligent man, nor does he enjoy the best of health. Trollope soon disposes of him - one assumes a mixture of hard living before his marriage and a broken heart after it dispatches him to an early grave leaving Lizzie as a well endowed widow with a child on the way and £10,000 pounds (almost half a million in today's money) worth of diamonds in the form of a family necklace.

Now Lizzie is unwilling to let go of the diamonds despite knowing that they don't really belong to her. The Eustace family lawyer is however determined that he will get them off her come what may. Lizzie in turn seeks a husband who she hopes will protect her and her interests, the serious contenders are Lord Fawn who proposes to her and then tries to back out when the question of the diamonds seems likely to embroil him in scandal, her cousin Frank who is both a barrister and a member of parliament and would find her money most useful, and a Lord George who Lizzie feels might share her piratical nature. All the men who pursue her are primarily interested in her money.

Inevitably the diamonds are stolen and from that point on the tissue of lies that Lizzie has woven are likely to be exposed in such a way that social ruin seems inevitable for Lizzie and likely for anyone closely associated with her. My problem is that I liked Lizzie and Trollope clearly does not. My previous experience with him, and the source of a great deal of his charm as a writer, is that he finds redeeming features and sympathy for even the blackest of his villains - not so poor Lizzie Eustace, he constantly reminds the reader that she's manipulative, dishonest, a compulsive liar, a thief, and generally a degraded sort of woman. 

Perhaps by Victorian standards Lizzie's actions deserve a harsher judgement but for this reader it was hard to understand. As a girl she'd clearly had a poor example set by her father, left penniless she pawns some jewelry that hadn't been paid for (this must technically have been her fathers debt as I doubt an under age girl would have been allowed to run up a serious bill on credit with a jeweler) so that she can pay her maid and for some other basic necessities not available on credit. That her husband didn't take the time or trouble to learn more about his wife's character before he married her should surely reflect on his character rather than hers, and indeed many of Lizzie's 'lies' are unwittingly made when she doesn't understand what she's talking about - especially when she's talking about the property her husband left her and the conditions attached to it. True it's not very admirable that Lizzie marries a man purely for his money, but none of the men who consider Lizzie for the much smaller fortune she will bring with her as a widow are criticized quite so much, not even cousin Frank who neglects to tell her that he's engaged to another woman whilst definitely encouraging her affections. Trollope makes a few excuses for Frank, but seems to regard it as perfectly acceptable that his family should encourage him to court Lizzie who they do not like whilst he's engaged to a girl they do like, but don't consider good enough for lack of cash. And really - who would want to give up a fortune in diamonds once they had their hands on them? Especially diamonds one arguably had a right to wear of not dispose of...

Just occasionally it feels like Trollope might be relenting towards Lizzie, I think if he'd relented just a bit further, or had made it harder for me to sympathize with her (loving parents who had left her well provided for and a few friends to offer support would have made the lies and fraud harder to overlook) this would be an undisputed masterpiece. As it stands it's certainly Trollope at his most readable - so much is happening that there's very little room for page filling repetition, and so much of it is interesting. The double standards between acceptable behavior for men and women is fascinating - Wilkie Collins would have made this the center of the novel, I'm not sure Trollope is even really questioning them which speaks volumes about the society he's portraying.      

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Give me some romance

Oh it's hot and I do not like the heat. It makes me sluggish and lethargic at work when I need to be busy and efficient. It also makes me impatient of questions which is unfortunate as it's really my job to answer questions, even silly ones, and to maintain an air of calm interest when I'm penned against a wall by elderly men determined to tell me how the company should be run. To be fair the elderly party in question wasn't without insight because half way through his 20 minute harangue about what was wrong with the cafe in John Lewis (absolutely NOTHING to do with me or my job) he said 'I know I'm boring you'... 

My preferred reading for the summer is normally something Victorian suitable for use as a doorstop when it's not being read but I'm to hot to concentrate on what's going on or to have the patience with Trollope style repetition - basically it's time to break out something undemanding but absorbing enough to hold my attention. It might have been Georgette Heyer (or J K Rowling, Harry Potter books suit me very well in this mood) but in fact I found myself back from holiday and at the bus stop on a Monday morning having forgotten to pick up a book on my way out. Panic, burying myself in a book over lunch and on the bus is how I keep sane for a whole day at a time.

Happily there is a charity shop by the bus stop, it's not really a booky one but it was an emergency and in it I found a pile of M C Beaton's Regency romances, they looked like my best bet so I bought one. I've heard of Beaton's Agatha Raisin books and enjoyed Hamish Macbeth when it was Sunday night television years ago though I hadn't realized it was the same person at all until I saw the long, long, list of all the things Beaton has written and can't knock these romances because I've read 8 of them in a week. 

They're not as good as Georgette Heyer - the research isn't there and there's a slapdash approach to the way inheritance laws worked  - none of that really matters, these books aren't keepers but they have been fun and at 50p a hit a feel I can afford this slightly guilty pleasure.