The Changing of the Leaves – Part Five

autumn

Missed the last instalment? The Changing of the Leaves – Part Four

Maria barely slept that night. She lay on her bed, listening for a while to Celine weeping in the bedroom above that she shared with Daniel, to Daniel’s soft placations as he apologised for upsetting his wife. When Celine gave in and forgave him she buried her head in the pillow, blocking out the sounds that followed.

Breakfast the next morning was taken in her sitting room, a little alcove off her bedroom that had been built as a gentleman’s dressing room. Sam had never shared her room for more than the odd night and so she had turned it to good use. Sally brought her toast and a pot of coffee each morning at eight, never later.

She was just draining her cup when Sam called on her looking sheepish. She had never removed the second chair from the table, more to stop the maids gossiping rather than out of hope that Sam would join her more regularly. She gestured for him to sit.

‘I came to apologise.’ He sat down and poured himself coffee, unable to meet her surprised gaze.

‘Thank you.’

‘I’m tired.’ He shook his head. ‘All of this…if it is affecting you even half as much as it is me then I pity you. I don’t know why I was so angry last night, only…it is a strain, having the pair of them rely on me. I love Daniel like a brother, but I am never free of him!’ He laughed but the sound was not true.

‘They’ll be gone soon enough. I think that Celine is desperate to set up home.’

‘Yes.’ He took a sip of coffee and she knew he was steadying himself to speak. ‘Maria, I know that this is an odd situation for both of us. I, for one, am set to make this work as best it can, for the good of our child if nothing else.’

‘And what does David say?’ Maria asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m no fool, Sam. I see how you are and I see how he looks at me, like he’d like me to disappear. Or perhaps he hopes that childbirth will prove costly for me.’

‘Maria, he means you no ill harm, I’m sure.’ He did not look convinced. ‘Perhaps we could go away, just the two of us. I will leave David here in London, you can leave your maid, Sally, is it? We can go down to Ramsgate for the week, and get to know each other properly. We could talk for once, properly, like we are now. We used to be friends, Maria, and it seems that we never talk like we used to.’

‘Do you mean it?’

‘Yes. I can make the arrangement s today and we can leave in two days’ time, as soon as I can ensure that all is taken care of at the Olympia.’

‘I would like that very much.’ She smiled, and it felt strange, unusual, her facial muscles surprised.

Sam looked pleased with himself and hurried off to put his plan into action. Maria took her cup to the window and looked out, pressing her forehead against the cool glass of the window pane. Below her in Eaton Square the trees were brown and gold, their leaves casually falling as they saw fit and creating a carpet beneath them.

 

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (2016)

By the time this book was published in the UK it had built up quite an anticipation. My copy came with a promotional bookmark that listed quotes from Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, the New York Times. It was an Oprah Book Club Pick and a NYT bestseller. Quite a lot to live up to, but for the most part I felt this novel lived up to those high expectations.

Cora is a slave on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia. She has been an outcast, even among her fellow slaves, ever since her mother escaped years before. Caesar has recently arrived at the plantation, bought after his previous owner, an elderly woman, died. Used to an easier life, he struggles with the brutality of the Randalls. When he hears about her mother’s escape he sees Cora as a good luck charm and convinces her to run away with him and find the Underground Railroad.

Whitehead imagines the railroad as a real physical rail system, run by abolitionist station masters who hide station stops beneath their barns and houses, or make trips to hidden location to pick up passengers. Each stop offers a different experience and different dangers to Cora as she travels through. She meets many friends along the way, along with her main foe, a slave catcher named Ridgeway. He has his own vendetta against Cora – her mother Mabel evaded his capture years before, the only slave to do so, and he is determined to take his revenge.

The structure of the book is that inbetween Cora’s travels we have short chapters focusing in on various other characters that we encounter along the way. The book begins with this, introducing us to Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother, and her capture and transportation by boat on the slave triangle that ran between Britain, the African continent and across to the Americas. Unlike many novels on slavery, Whitehead has no drawn out scenes of torture, using matter of fact prose to outline the evil treatment that is used on the slaves, and those who try to help them. He leaves it to the reader to imagine the horror rather than spelling it out, and this is an effective method.

One criticism I have of the novel is the characterisation. Even by the end of the book I didn’t feel that I knew Cora well. I knew various things that happened to her both before the reader meets her and during her journey, but I found her a bit aloof. We got her thoughts on what she saw and experienced in the moment, but not much else. I suppose this was an illustration of her psyche after the traumas she’d been through, but she was lacking a little in personality. I had the same issue with Caesar, especially as he seemed to only appear to serve a purpose. Ridgeway, the intrepid slave catcher, was probably the best drawn of the main characters. We saw his pride dented by failing to catch Mabel, his determination not to let her daughter thwart him, his twisted humour at using a more psychological torture against Cora. I just wanted to care about her a little more.

This is a bold novel, creating something close to fantasy but rooted in the horror of the American deep south pre-Civil War. It is both entertaining as well as thought-provoking, and it is new, offering something different to those other great novels set in the era. There is so much to take in, each state offering a different, impeccably drawn landscape with new pitfalls and promises. It is worthy of its many accolades.

The Changing of the Leaves – Part Four

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The husbands arrived back late on a Wednesday, their arrival heralded by Celine’s happy laughter as she ran downstairs to greet Daniel. Maria had not thought to bother going downstairs but did not want David to look upon her with that look of his. Her husband’s valet was far too overfamiliar with him, and thought himself worse off to have saddled himself with such a useless wife. Not so very useless, she thought. At least she could provide Sam with an heir.

‘Daniel, you will never in a thousand years guess what I have done,’ Celine told him proudly.

‘Something incredible I am sure.’ He let her lead him into the drawing room where the maid was frantically laying a fire.

‘I have found us a cook! For our new house.’ She was dressed in her nightgown and robe, and when she perched on the sofa she looked like a child, her hair in a long plait that almost reached her waist.

‘And what new house would that be?’ Daniel joked. ‘I have been gone not two weeks and you have been busy without me.’

‘Well, obviously there is no new house as of yet, but our cook can wait for us, and we won’t have to wait too long will we, my love?’

‘Who is this cook?’ Sam asked. ‘In my experience any staff worth having are like gold dust – they do not wait around for houses to be rented.’

‘Ah, well that is the beauty of it,’ Celine informed him. ‘She is from the Magdalen! They have said that she can stay so long as she is gone by year end.’

‘The Magdalen?’ Maria could feel Sam’s eyes on her as he spoke. ‘Maria?’

‘Well, why on earth not? It is a good cause and those poor women are in need our forgiveness, not our judgement,’ she retorted.

‘What is this place?’ Daniel asked Celine, who sat back suddenly.

‘Well it is a place for women who have fallen on hard times,’ she told him.

‘It’s a charity for whores,’ Sam corrected her. ‘Your wife has secured the services of a former streetwalker as your new cook.’

‘How dare you!’ Celine was suddenly furious. ‘You have not even met her. Ruth Simpson is a kind and meek woman and she has excellent cookery skills. We tried her meat pie, Maria and I, and it was as good as anything that I have tried from your own kitchen.’

‘Do I understand this correctly? Sam, your wife took mine to a whorehouse?’ Daniel stood and Maria took a step back when she saw the look on his face.

‘It is not such thing!’ Celine stood herself. ‘Don’t you dare blame Maria. She has been my only friend since you left me here on my own.’ She stormed off, Daniel in close pursuit of her.

Maria breathed a sigh of relief. She had thought Celine to be just the usual easily swayed upper class girl that she had grown up with, but she had proved herself on several occasions now.

‘What is wrong with you?’ Maria turned to look at Sam in surprise. There was a vehemence in his voice that had never been there before.

‘She was lonely. She felt shunned and I thought that she would be cheered to see that there were women worse off than her. And look – she was happy until you went and made her feel that she had done something wrong!’ Maria turned to leave but he grabbed at her arm.

‘Don’t you dare blame me for this, though you do everything else.’ She tried to wrench away from him but he was too strong, pulling her so close that she could smell brandy and tobacco on his breath. ‘I helped you when no one else would and all you have done is punish me. You are an unhappy woman. You have always been so, and I would not be surprised if this was not some malicious attempt to bring Celine down with you, to drive a wedge between her and Daniel.’

‘Your good intentions are like the leaves on the trees, Sam. They look so fresh in the spring, unfurling and new, but it is only so long before they shrivel and die, getting trampled underfoot.’ He let go of her suddenly and she staggered backwards, catching herself on the arm of the sofa.

Maria pulled herself upright as Sam left without giving her another glance, his valet David at his heels like a faithful old dog. She would have best described the look on David’s face as triumphant.

 

 

Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

PAUL ROBESON, circa 1920s.

Paul Robeson circa 1920s (Granamour Weems Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

Paul Robeson rose from near obscurity to become a blip on the radar once more two years ago when famed director Steve McQueen announced that he planned to make a biopic of the actor’s life. Like his fellow countryman, Ira Aldridge, Robeson was an African American actor who worked often in Britain, even working with Aldridge’s daughter Amanda.

Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of an escaped slave. He showed a talent for sports as well as acting, his sport of choice being football. When Robeson became only the third black student to be accepted into Rutgers College, he managed to win a spot on their football team, despite the alleged attempts of others to force him out of the reckoning through excessive on-field violence. Perhaps he had inherited his father’s determination and resilience: Robeson was not one to give up easily. He attended Rutgers on a scholarship earned through his academic ability and was also lauded for his singing talents.

Robeson met his wife Eslanda Goode (Essie) while reading law at Columbia. They married a year later and she later helped push him in the direction of the stage when his law career faltered due to racism within his company. In 1924 he won two roles which brought him fame: the lead role of Jim in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and Brutus in the revival of The Emperor Jones (the pair also worked on The Hairy Ape also)Essie gave up her job to tour and manage her husband’s career.

Showboat at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1928 was a highlight of Robeson’s career. His rendition of Ol’ Man River  is still lauded today and the production was a massive success, running for over 350 performances. The Robeson’s bought a house in Hampstead and settled down with their young son, Paul Robeson, Jnr. Robeson’s next great role was to take on Othello, the first black moor to walk onstage in Britain since Ira Aldridge almost one hundred years earlier. Amanda Ira Aldridge saw him perform and presented him with the gold earrings which her father had worn to play the role. Interestingly, although the play ran at the Savoy Theatre, adjacent to the Savoy Hotel, Robeson was not welcome at the hotel, and in fact was once refused entry to the Savoy Grill.

Robeson was not faithful to his wife, and his most infamous affair was with his Desdemona, Peggy Ashcroft. She was astonished to receive hate-mail for appearing opposite a black actor and upset by Paul’s treatment by the Savoy Hotel. Essie left her husband for a short time after discovering the affair (publicly the pair kept their private life hidden but their son later revealed certain facts in a memoir).

Robeson was offered a steady stream of work between the US and Britain, and also studied several African languages at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). Paul and Essie were both politically active. Robeson met with President Truman in 1946 to request legislation to end lynching. He was vocal about ending exploitation of African states by colonising powers, and supported the Welsh miners in the late 1920s. He also had many friends in the Soviet Union and it was his perceived status as a Communist sympathiser that ended his career.

Both Essie and Paul were forced to testify before McCarthy committee in 1956 and were from then on condemned. Robeson was blacklisted in the US, and with his passport revoked was unable to work abroad. His crime was to refuse to confirm that he was not a member of the Communist party, despite there being no proof that he ever had been. His attempted comeback on the return of his passport two years later faltered and he attempted suicide in 1961. He survived but was in poor mental and physical health. Essie died in 1965 and Paul became almost a recluse. He died in Philadelphia in 1976.

 

The Printer’s Coffin by M.J. Carter

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The Printer’s Coffin by M.J. Carter (2015)

A few weeks ago I reviewed the first of the Blake and Avery novels (The Strangler Vine – M.J. Carter) and I finally had a chance to follow up with the second. In contrast to the first novel, the action in The Printer’s Coffin moves from India to London. It is now 1841 and Captain William Avery has returned to England with his wife. Made moderately famous from their escapades in the first novel, Blake and Avery are brought back together at the request of Viscount Allington. Two printers have been brutally murdered in very similar circumstances and strangely the cases have been ignored by the still new Metropolitan Police. Allington is well known as a philanthropist, and for his keen work with religious organisations.

Chartism is on the rise in London, and our intrepid duo find themselves wondering if there is a link between the local Chartists and these murders. I knew next to nothing about Chartism but Carter manages to weave this movement into the plot effortlessly without it seeming like a history lesson. Class almost replaces the issues of race that were a feature of the first novel, Avery the Tory trying to reconcile his views with Blake’s far more liberal beliefs. Avery’s discomfort at being forced to frequent the less reputable districts of London perfectly illustrates the realities that the Chartists were railing against. The dynamic of this pair is retained from The Strangler Vine: Blake is able to move easily through those streets and talk to those who Avery would not even have noticed; Avery can talk to those higher up who would otherwise dismiss Blake and his theories.

Early Victorian London is beautifully recreated here as we traverse the city, from the upper echelons of Mayfair to the disreputable streets of Seven Dials. To Avery, a Devonian who has only been to London once before as a child, we discover the city through his wide eyes, travelling by train for the first time. Trafalgar Square is new, the Houses of Parliament still unfinished. It is like visiting a London that is not quite our own but is still recognisable. Alongside Avery we are also shocked by the poverty that existed in those times, with no government intervention and only the workhouse as an option, is shocking to read. One scene takes place in the gaol at Coldbath Fields, a young boy locked up for stealing, kept in appalling conditions with the sentence of transportation over him. Even a man who can be so judgemental, with his determination that the man and master tradition should be upheld (in marked contrast to the Chartists), is shown to feel sympathy.

Compared to the first novel, this is a rather simpler and more straightforward murder mystery, but just as well written.  For me, I enjoyed the exploration of the history and the location just as much as the actual business of investigating the crime. With all series the reader has the comfort of returning to characters that are already known. The next Blake and Avery adventure will be published on the 27th October in the UK.

The Changing of the Leaves – Part Three

autumn

Missed the beginning of this story?

The Changing of the Leaves – Part One

‘Can you imagine it? Every day the same for the rest of our lives?’ Maria put down her tapestry and addressed Celine. Like every other morning that week they were sitting quietly in the morning room.

‘Well, it won’t be, will it?’ Celine pointed out. ‘You will have the baby in a few months. I hope that Daniel will find us our own home soon and so I will have my own household to arrange.’

‘Your own household,’ Maria repeated, watching Celine carefully. Where did the girl imagine the money was coming from for her new house, her new employees? ‘Has Daniel had any luck with his search?’

Celine shook her head. ‘No, he needed to collect the money for this engagement in Liverpool first. It should pay well enough that we can look at a proper house, not just lodgings.’

‘A good plan. You don’t want to feel that a place is not your own. There is nothing worse!’ Too late Maria realised that her words must sound to Celine as though she were no longer welcome. ‘I mean to say, living with strangers of course.’

‘Of course.’ Celine nodded. ‘And once we are settled I thought it an idea to become involved in a charity. Mrs Harper was on the committees of several and it always seemed such a social enterprise as well as doing good.’

‘Charity,’ Maria mused. ‘Yes, what a good idea! Why do we not get started immediately?’

‘Now?’ Celine looked at the clock. It was five to eleven, almost time for morning tea.

‘What about post luncheon? I have a place which may be happy to see even such outcasts as us.’

And so it was that the intrepid two women arrived at an address in St George’s Fields at three o’clock that very afternoon, not very far from the Olympia theatre.

‘What is this place?’ Celine asked.

‘Forgive my strange sense of humour, but since we are seen as little better than fallen women, I thought that we should perhaps aim to help those who are genuinely in that position.’ Maria saw that Celine looked confused. ‘This is the Magdalen Hospital. They aim to save unfortunate women from prostitution and set them on the right path.’

‘Oh.’ Celine was taken aback. ‘These women, are they…they are safe to be around?’

‘My dear, these are poor women driven into a wretched profession through poverty. They are glad to be here rather than on the streets and shall not harm you.’ Maria took her friend’s arm and walked her up to the front door, pulling on the bell.

A young woman answered, dressed smartly in a black uniform. ‘Good afternoon, can I help you?’

‘Hello there. My name is Mrs Maria McCarthy, this is Mrs Celine Johnson, and we wish to speak with whomever is in charge here.’

‘That would be Doctor Marsden,’ the girl replied, looking the pair up and down in suspicion.

‘And is he available to speak with?’

Wordlessly the girl stepped back to allow the visitors to enter, gesturing for them to take a seat on the ancient sofa which had been placed in the dark hallway. ‘The doctor is very busy but I shall see if he can meet with you.’

‘Well, she doesn’t seem very grateful,’ Maria huffed once they were alone.

‘You think she is one of…them?’ Celine asked in a hushed voice.

‘A former prostitute? Almost definitely. They take the women in and nurse them back to health, teach them skills for the workplace. The more regular workplace I mean, rather than their former profession. The idea is that these women will find work and be able to leave here once they are reformed,’ Maria explained.

‘Ah. It seems a sensible endeavour, ‘Celine agreed. ‘But what is our purpose then? Are we here to offer money?’

‘Actually, I was thinking that this would be the perfect place to acquire you a cook for your new abode. You worry that you know nothing about running a household, Celine. Why not take advantage of this place, full of women who are eager to start afresh, have been trained for service, and who cannot possible judge you?’

Perhaps because these women scared her a little, Celine thought, though she kept her silence, and when the girl returned to escort them to Doctor Marsden’s office she dutifully followed Maria into his office.

The Changing of the Leaves – Part Four

Mary Seacole (1805-1881)

From the depths of historical obscurity, Mary Seacole has risen to great prominence in recent years. With fame often comes controversy, and there have been several attempts to play down the influence of Mrs Seacole’s endeavours. Certainly her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, was the first to be published by a black woman in Britain, an achievement in itself. However, this is a woman of undoubted resilience and determination, unique at a time when women had few rights.

 

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Mary Seacole’s autobiography, published in 1857

Today we would consider Mary to be mixed race. She called herself Creole and was proud of her Scottish heritage. She was born as Mary Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, her father a soldier and her mother the keeper of a boarding-house. Her mother practised Creole medicine – Mary calls her a ‘doctress’- and passed on her knowledge to her daughter once she was old enough. Mary travelled to London as a young woman (coyly, she refuses to give any dates in case they give away her age) and writes the following of her first trip:

Strangely enough, some of the most vivid of my recollections are the efforts of the London street-boys to poke fun at my and my companion’s complexion. I am only a little brown – a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all admire so much; but my companion was very dark, and a fair (if I can apply the term to her) subject for their rude wit.

That wasn’t enough to put Mary off and she spent a good amount of time in London, also visiting Haiti and Cuba on her travels. She married Edwin Seacole in 1836 and the pair set up a store together. Edwin suffered from poor health and Mary nursed him as best she could but he died in 1844. She describes this as her first great trouble and talks of the dull stupor of despair that came over her at this time.

 

In 1850, Mary’s brother moved to Cruces in Panama. When Mary visited him the following year she witnessed an outbreak of cholera and was on hand to help treat the victims, charging those who could afford her services but nursing the poor for free. There were medical professionals available and so Mary was their only option. The trust placed in her at this time likely gave her the confidence  for her next pursuit.

The Crimean War began in late 1853 and Mary decided that she should volunteer as a nurse. Florence Nightingale had already been despatched with a detachment of nurses, and when Mary arrived in London and applied to the War Office she was turned away. Even today, the thought of embarking on such an endeavour as Mary’s would take some courage and determination. She  used her own resources to establish the ‘British Hotel’ near Balaclava with a little help from her acquaintance Thomas Day. She did meet with Florence Nightingale at her hospital on her way to Balaclava and reports a friendly encounter. Her hotel opened in March 1855. She provided catering, supplies and accommodation there as well as attending casualties. She may not have advanced healthcare, true, but she gave comfort and support to those who needed it and left Crimea in 1856 with next to nothing, having given all that she had.

Back in London and now destitute, Mary’s plight was taken up by the British press and  fund set up which helped her and Day free themselves from bankruptcy and she went back to Jamaica in 1860. Further fund-raising in 1867 (patrons included the sons of Queen Victoria) helped Mary to buy property in London and she returned to these shores permanently until her death in 1881.

 

NPG 6856; Mary Jane Seacole (nÈe Grant) by Albert Charles Challen

by Albert Charles Challen, oil on panel, 1869

On 30th June 2016 a statue honouring Mary was unveiled in the garden of St Thomas’ Hospital, London. Over a decade of fundraising in conjunction with a donation of £240,000 courtesy of the government. The statue has not been without controversy: supporters of Nightingale have claimed that she wasn’t a proper nurse and therefore should not be honoured as such. Less savoury complaints have focused on Mary’s identification as ‘Creole’ and stated that since she didn’t call herself black then she should not be held up as a black icon.

It really does not matter what people think of Mary’s statue. Just as she was in life, her likeness stands opposite the Houses of Parliament today, striding onwards.

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