Wednesday, 16 January 2013

trips into history

The year's reading has begun with a handful of trips into history.

Fay Weldon was one of the writers involved with the very first series of 'Upstairs Downstairs' back in 1970. If we're going to get a vogue for Edwardian-set stories in the wake of Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge and the like, then she's eminently qualified to take us back to that era. 'Habits of the House' is a bit more Upstairs-ish than I'm completely happy with. The servants are used merely to comment on the action like a chorus - none of them really have stories that aren't contingent on the upper class cast. Maybe the subsequent volumes will develop them?

This is a family on the brink of ruin - desperate to marry off their son and daughter (he's flaky and flighty, she's busy emancipating herself) - in order to restore their fortunes. Father's a bit feckless with money and won't always listen. Much of the book, once it gets going, is about the efforts to get the son copped off with a visiting american heiress - the daughter of a stockyard owner from Chicago. She's the real life-force of the book - with her murky past and Liberty print scarf (which she loses in a storm as she and her beau conduct a blazing row about pre-marital sex, thundering along in his steam-powered car...)

It's pretty camp stuff and I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out. (I'm hoping the volumes aren't too widely spaced out). I love the way Weldon uses the swift, clipped jump-cutting from one stream of consciousness to another - so familiar from her 70s novels - and transposes it into the past. It's a sweet effect - a kind of ITV Modernism.

Reviews on amazon of this novel are hilarious. I especially liked the cross critic who complained about Weldon's tendency to describe 'the pubic bush of each and every character.' (Which seems nicely dated - if slightly odd - too. As if there were a time in which descriptions of pubic hair in fiction were seen as shockingly daring..!)

Philippa Gregory's YA novel, 'The Changeling' came next - also the beginning of a series (hurray). Perhaps I shouldn't read amazon reviews - but some of the ones for this book mystified me. Had we really read the same thing? Some were suggesting that this was thinly-written and hard to care for. I found the prose meaty and fleshy and involving. Gregory always pulls you along urgently. There's a feeling I get, that she's got more and more story to tell you and you've just got to keep on. This one's the tale of a young Spanish Inquisitioner who's been sent by the Pope to investigate various daemonic irregularities across the span of Europe.

There's a sense in this volume of the building of a fellowship - and the first half of the book sees our hero at cross-purposes with a young abbess and her enigmatic best friend - both suspected of queer, witchy practices -  and we just know that they're all going to be on the same side before long and travelling together. The second half of the book is a shaggy dog tale to do with the trial of a suspected werewolf and it, too, is a satisfying episode in what looks set to be a lovely, picaresque trip through the trickiest corners of the Dark Ages.

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