An Almond for a Parrot by Wray Delaney

almond-for-a-parrot

An Almond for a Parrot – Wray Delaney (2016)

My obsession with historical fiction continued this week with this, the first adult novel from Sally Gardner. Gardner is an award-winning children’s novelist and, under the pseudonym Wray Delaney, has come up with, a fabulous tour of eighteenth century England in the company of a courtesan.

This is the tale of Tully Truegood. We meet her first in Newgate prison, awaiting trial for murder. Discovered to be with child, it seems likely that she will be hanged, though she will at least have a stay of execution until her baby is born. Here she has time to commit her life story to paper, beginning with her mother’s death soon after Tully is born. Left in the care of her father, Captain Truegood, a drunken gambler, she is left much to her own devices with only the family cook to care for her.

Reminiscent of Angela Carter or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, this is a story woven of magic realism. When Tully tells Cook that there is a boy trapped inside the grandfather clock, she finds that not everyone sees what she does. A girl called Pretty Poppet turns up with visitors now and again, but as Tully grows older Pretty Poppet remains the same age. Neither her father nor Cook pay much attention and when Tully is twelve her father, desperate to clear his debts, drags her out and marries her off.

The wedding service consisted of nothing more than the young gentlemen and myself giving our consents and signing the papers that the black spider eagerly put before us.

And that was that. I never saw my bridegroom’s face, nor was I informed of his name, nor the purpose of such a hasty marriage. Cook told me the next day that my husband had gone to join the army and I need think no more about it.

‘With luck,’ she said, ‘you will be a respectable widow by the time you’re fifteen.’

Life for Tully improves when her feckless father remarries. Queenie Gibbs takes Tully under her wing, though Tully must pay her way. Queenie runs a fairy house and, once she’s old enough, Tully is expected to join the other girls under Queenie’s protection and become a courtesan.

This book is full of magic, and Tully’s ability to bring forth the spirits of the dead, wow an audience with her levitation and spot a charlatan doctor, leads her to fame and wealth. When she falls in love, she knows that all is bound to end badly, the spectre of her mysterious husband  haunting her.

From writing children’s books, this is most definitely a departure! Life in the fairy house is more magical than perhaps it would be in real life, but there is plenty of sex and not all goes well for Tully when confronted by wealthy clients who treat her as any other item that their money can purchase. There are a few dark scenes, but mostly this is a story of Tully’s triumphs over the men who would control her. I loved this novel and would highly recommend it.

 

 

A New Life – Part Four

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood engraving by C. D. Laing after B. Sly, 1849. 1849 By: Benjamin Slyafter: Charles D. Laing and Robert SmirkePublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Celine looked out to see Daniel on the street, arguing with another man. The dark blue uniform marked him out as a policeman and her heart sank.

‘What on earth is going on here?’ Maria strode forward and interrupted the shouting men.

‘I’m being accused of theft!’ Daniel blurted.

‘Not theft exactly, ma’am. He has paid for these goods but at a reduced price to that which the vendor demanded.’ The policeman gestured towards a waiting horse and cart, an ancient piano sitting within.

‘The vendor is the rogue. He reneged on our deal at the last moment. That is what I have been trying to make this numbskull understand!’ Daniel hit the side of the cart in anger.

‘Daniel!’ Celine took his arm and moved him away from the policeman and the cart, whose drive looked none too pleased to have his vehicle abused. ‘What happened?’

‘Nora knew this fellow over in London Bridge who was selling off odd pieces of furniture, and she heard that he had a piano that he wanted rid of. I knew that you missed playing and it was going to be an early Christmas present for you. It was supposed to be a surprise.’

‘And it is,’ Celine assured him. ‘So what happened?’

‘Nora was going over to London Bridge on another errand so I asked her to ask the price for me. It seemed like a fair deal, what he offered her, and so I engaged transportation to pick it up today and arranged the funds to pay the man what he’d asked.’

‘And when you turned up this so-called gentleman took one look at you and raised his price,’ Maria guessed. ‘By how much?’

He told her and even the policeman whistled in shock. ‘Double!’

‘Well, that’s a case of daylight robbery if ever I heard it.’ Maria turned to the law. ‘Sir, surely there’s some agreement that can be made. What does the vendor say for himself? Daniel, I presume you paid him the original amount?’

Daniel nodded and the policeman looked troubled. ‘The vendor insists that he did not give permission for this gentleman to remove the item. He calls it theft as only half the requested payment was made.’

‘Very well. Do you have paper? A pencil or something similar?’ Maria asked and the man nodded. She dictated her address to him, his hand stumbling as he realised the location. ‘Have this man send his bill to my husband. We will not pay him the full asking price but if he can devise a fair amount between the two then I am sure the matter can be considered settled.’

‘Maria, I can’t let you do this,’ Daniel protested.

‘Call it an early Christmas present from the McCarthy’s if you must, but let us get this infernal instrument into the house. Celine, your neighbours are staring at us.’

Celine turned to see Mrs Carlisle watching the commotion from her front step. She cursed inwardly: this was hardly the best impression to make on her new neighbour. Celine tried to smile and raised a hand in greeting but Mrs Carlisle did not return either gesture. Instead she turned and walked back into her house.

‘Oh dear,’ Maria said.

The matter with the piano was soon resolved, but when Celine went to call upon Mrs Carlisle that Thursday she was told that the mistress was out. To make clear the insult, she saw Mrs Carlisle clearly through the window as she returned to the street, watching her leave with a face of stone.

 

 

 

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)

NPG D23441; Ignatius Sancho by Francesco Bartolozzi, published by  John Bowyer Nichols, after  Thomas Gainsborough

Ignatius Sancho by Francesco Bartolozzi, published by John Bowyer Nichols, after Thomas Gainsborough stipple engraving, published 2 July 1781 (1798). http://www.npg.org.uk

Ignatius Sancho had the misfortune to be born on a slave ship, or at least this is what his official biography states. It is more likely that he was born in Africa and then taken onto a ship with his parents. His mother died when he was very young, and his father committed suicide, unable to reconcile himself to a life of slavery. When he was two years old his owner brought Ignatius to England and he became a servant for three sisters who resided in Greenwich. The sisters were against the education of slaves but Sancho became acquainted with the Duke of Montagu through them and he gave the young man books. In 1749, he left the sisters and became butler to the duchess of Montagu. Under the care of the Montagus, the young man was able to enjoy reading, music and writing, all with their full encouragement.

Sancho married Anne Osborne, a woman of West Indian origin, in the early 1760s. They had seven children and he was a devoted husband, often writing on family life in his letters to friends. In the 1770s, Sancho began to suffer from ill health, developing gout. With the help of the Montagus, he acquired a grocer’s shop in Charles Street, Westminster. This new venture also marked Sancho as a financially independent householder making him eligible to vote. It is thought, therefore, that he is the first person of African origin to vote in a parliamentary election in Britain.

Through his shop Sancho built up quite a circle of friends, both in politics and the arts. Charles James Fox (Whig leader of the time and well known as an anti-slavery campaigner), David Garrick, the legendary Shakespearean actor and theatre manager, novelist Laurence Sterne (author of Tristram Shandy) and the artist Thomas Gainsborough are among his impressive list of associates.

Ignatius Sancho died in 1780, but his letters were published posthumously a couple of years later in two volumes entitled The Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African. It was a popular book and earned much needed royalties for Sancho’s widow, Anne. It is still easily obtainable today, with the Waterstones website offering at least six versions, the latest published in 2015.

Sancho famously wrote on the subject of slavery, and one of his most famous letters is one that he wrote to Laurence Sterne, urging his friend to include a passage in Tristram Shandy which lobbied for the abolition of the slave trade. He was also known for his accounts of the Gordon riots of June 1780 which took place six months before his death. The central location of his shop meant that the mob passed by his door. What had begun as an anti-Catholic protest descended into chaos and looting when the planned march on the House of Commons got out of hand and became a riot.

Ignatius Sancho is today commemorated with two plaques in London. One is near the site of his shop in Westminster, the other is in Greenwich Park close to where Sancho grew up.

 

 

 

The Devil’s Feast by M.J.Carter

the-devils-feast

The Devil’s Feast – M.J. Carter (2016)

The Devil’s Feast is the third book in the Blake and Avery series. The year is 1842 and our intrepid duo have a brand new investigation, this time involving politics and celebrity chefs. Carter again weaves fiction with real life, populating her murder mystery with expertly researched and utilised historical figures.

We begin not long after the second book finished, and all is not well:

Thus it was that my friend, my associate, my burden, Jeremiah Blake, had fetched up in the Marshalsea prison, imprisoned for debt by his sometime patron Theophilus Collinson. Collinson was quietly influential in London’s highest political and social circles. Blake was a private inquiry agent; Collinson sent him to investigate and resolve matters which his rich and powerful acquaintances did not want to leak into the public domain. Blake was paid for his work, and Collinson built up a bank of favours. But Collinson had come to feel he had a justified hold over Blake, and Blake was not – and as far as I could tell never had been – good at taking orders.

Avery is in London, avoiding his wife Helen who is stuck out in Devon and clearly unhappy about it. Towards the end of The Printer’s Coffin we met the famous chef, Alexis Soyer, who is in charge at the Reform Club and has built a reputation as one of the finest chefs in London. Young Matty Horner is now working in his kitchens and so, even as a Tory born and bred, Avery allows himself to set foot on the premises of what is a Liberal club.

Served a fantastical meal (based on real menus and accounts since Soyer really did exist), the evening takes a sudden hideous turn when a young MP falls ill. Avery initially suspects cholera but the man dies that night and it soon becomes clear that he was poisoned. Without the help of Blake, Avery must now try and investigate alone and discover the poisoner before the date of an important banquet that is crucial to the Liberal party’s reputation.

Because Blake is missing for a large chunk of this book, I did miss the odd couple dynamic a little, though he pops up eventually. I was glad to see Avery’s wife, Helen, make a rare appearance. There were hints of disharmony in the Avery marriage in book two which were picked up on here, and I would love for book four to take place in Devon and feature her more prominently. I have never been a huge lover of Helen, but it would be interesting to learn more about Avery through the relationship. In keeping with his character, Avery keeps a lot close to his chest even as a first person narrator, and I would love to see a more emotional side to him.

Although much is followed through from the previous book, the plot is standalone and there is enough explanation to read this book first without worry. Carter weaves a tight plot with so many suspects, all with a variety of motives, that I only had a sneaking suspicion of the culprit right at the end, and even then was not sure until the final reveal. It is an engrossing read (I read it in a day) and a great piece of historical fiction.

Interested in the other Blake and Avery novels? My reviews below:

The Strangler Vine – M.J. Carter

The Printer’s Coffin by M.J. Carter

A New Life – Part Three

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood engraving by C. D. Laing after B. Sly, 1849. 1849 By: Benjamin Slyafter: Charles D. Laing and Robert SmirkePublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

It was Maria McCarthy who stood at the door.

‘Come in,’ Celine stood back to admit her friend. ‘I apologise for the bareness of it all. We are still a way from having this set up as a proper home.’

‘No matter.’ Maria hung her cloak from the stand in the hallway. ‘I was just passing and I thought I would see if you needed any help. Has Mrs Simpson arrived yet?’

‘Ma’am.’ Ruth Simpson came down the stairs with her freshly written letter. ‘I came today, and I owe both of you a great deal for this opportunity.’

‘Mrs Simpson has already been a great help. I realise that I know nothing about running even as small a household as this,’ Celine confessed as she lead the way to the morning room.

‘Ma’am, will fetch you tea before I go out?’ Ruth asked Celine.

‘Oh, yes, if you would I’d be most grateful.’ Celine smiled, signing the letter and handing it back to the efficient cook.

‘Stop being grateful,’ Maria advised once Ruth had disappeared down to the kitchen. ‘You are her employer. You pay her to fetch tea and to cook and I hope to clean. You do need a maid though I would say if you want those soft white hands of yours to stay so.’

‘Yes,’ Celine sighed. ‘I am not cut out for housework. Daniel has to set the fires as I seem unable to do it. I don’t know how these tiny girls manage with such strenuous activity day in, day out. It took me an entire day to clean the windows last week, only for them to be filthy again the next morning.’

‘Such is life in this filthy city,’ Maria said, looking around her. Celine was embarrassed to note that the floor was not well swept. ‘Let me ask around and find you a young girl. You need not pay much and she can share Mrs Simpson’s room.’

‘Thank you, Maria.’ Celine wished that the tea would arrive. There was no distraction from the substandard furnishings of the room. ‘I met a neighbour. Mrs Carlisle, a doctor’s wife. She has invited me to call on her on Thursday.’

‘That is good news.’ Maria raised an eyebrow. ‘And she has met Daniel?’

‘Not yet,’ Celine confessed. ‘But I was honest and told her that he is an actor. I would not say that she was impressed by that fact but she took it in her stride and made her invitation subsequently.’

‘That is a good sign, Celine, only do practice caution. I doubt they see many men with skin as dark as Daniel’s on these streets.’

‘Yes, Maria, I will.’ Celine felt like a child being lectured by her mother. ‘How is Sam? And how is your health?’

‘Sam is hardly at home these days,’ Maria confessed. ‘But he does seem more excited about the prospect of becoming a father than he was. He has already had the nursery furnished and secured a nursemaid, and it is still months until the baby is due.’

‘That is good. I know that Daniel is keen for us to start our own family, only we must have the house in order first.’

Ruth Simpson entered then with the tea tray. ‘Ma’am, I shall be away to the Carlisle’s and then to the shops.’

‘Very good.’

Ruth was gone but a moment before she came rushing back in, Celine spilling tea into her saucer as she looked up in surprise.

‘Begging your pardon, ma’am, only you must come quickly.’

Celine and Maria both jumped to their feet, Maria less sprightly due to her burgeoning stomach. Following Ruth out of the front door the source of her panic soon became clear.

 

 

 

NW by Zadie Smith

 

nw

NW – Zadie Smith (2012)

I wanted to read this book before watching the TV adaptation that was broadcast this week on the BBC. Also, it seemed fitting to catch up in the week that Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, is published. I have yet to catch up with the TV version, but here are my thoughts on the source novel.

NW follows four Londoners – Leah, Natalie (previously known as Keisha), Felix and Nathan. They have all grown up on the same council estate in northwest London, and the novel looks at how they have moved on in their different ways. Mostly though,  this is a story of the friendship between Leah and Natalie. Now in their thirties, both are married, Natalie with kids and Leah trying to be without. While Natalie has confounded racial stereotypes and become a successful barrister, Leah has found herself stuck in a dead end job where she is in the minority as a white woman amongst a mainly black office.

 

-Not relevant? What do you mean? How could you tell me that whole story and not mention the headscarf?

Natalie laughs. Frank laughs. Michel laughs hardest. Slightly drunk. Not only on the Prosecco in his hand. On the grandeur of this Victorian house, the length of the garden, that he should know a barrister and a banker, that he should find funny the things they find funny. The children wheel manically round the garden, laughing because everyone else is. Leah looks down at Olive and strokes her ardently, until the dog is discomfited and slinks away. She looks up at her best friend, Natalie Blake, and hates her.

The novel follows a non traditional structure. The above is taken from the first section which concentrates on Leah in the novel’s present day. We then move to a heartbreaking section on Felix (my favourite part of the novel) before the most experimental section: 185 numbered snapshots following mainly Keisha/Natalie from childhood up until the moment we meet her as a married woman with two children. The last part of the book then ties up the sections, not neatly, but to bring the four characters together. A lot is left unanswered, especially in terms of the two women’s marriages which are both left in a precarious position.

This is a challenging novel in terms of the structure of it, and although Felix’s section has real urgency and tension, this is not a plot driven book. A huge portion is backstory, getting up to the point that we’ve already read, and I found that this was where my attention began to wander, reading it in dribs and drabs where I had read the previous 169 pages in almost one sitting. Smith is brilliant in her use of language. Her dialogue is so real that you hear the characters as you read. Technically, this is a great book, one that teaches us about life and the flaws within us all, regardless of wealth or background, but for me it did not touch my heart quite enough.

 

 

 

 

A New Life – Part Two

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood engraving by C. D. Laing after B. Sly, 1849. 1849 By: Benjamin Slyafter: Charles D. Laing and Robert SmirkePublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

By the day of Ruth Simpson’s arrival, the Gower Street house was looking like a home. There were curtains hanging in the dining room and the matrimonial bedroom, nets in the attic room designated for Ruth. She had a bed as well, an old cast iron bedstead that Daniel had bought at auction. In the kitchen was a fine big wooden table, a dresser with drawers full of utensils. Enough for the new cook to carry out her duties.

            ‘Please let this be the last day of burnt toast,’ Daniel grumbled as his wife struggled before the fire, unused to such manual labour.

            ‘You could have prepared your own,’ she retorted.

            ‘I’m joking, dearest. You must admit that you will enjoy having someone around to do the cooking.’

            ‘And the cleaning I hope. This house is already covered in coal dust in only a few days,’ Celine climbed to her feet and sat down with a plate of charred bread.

            ‘Don’t work the poor woman into an early grave,’ Daniel warned, scraping the worst of the cinders from his portion. ‘You will have to help Mrs Simpson you know. We cannot afford a fleet of servants like Mrs Harper or your father have.’

            Celine’s nose wrinkled. ‘How much work can one house be?’

            ‘My love, just bear in mind that you may want to learn a few practical skills. You don’t want to lose your cook inside of a month through exhaustion.’

****

Mrs Ruth Simpson arrived at midday, a small ancient carpet bag all she had with her when she pulled on the bell.

            ‘Come in!’ Celine flung the door open. ‘It’s so wonderful that you’re here at last.’

            Ruth stared up at her new mistress. ‘Ma’am.’ She curtseyed clumsily and walked into the house, looking all about her. Celine knew that the new cook was only ten years older than her, yet looked much older. The poor woman, she thought. A life of misuse and hard labour had taken its toll.

            ‘I shall take you upstairs and show you to your new bedroom.’ Celine lead the way. ‘I hope you will find it comfortable.’

            The small room was quite bare, with just the narrow bed made up and a small table, but the sun streamed in through the window nett and it looked quite acceptable, Celine thought.

             Ruth put down her bag and untied her hat. ‘Ma,am, I shall get started right away. I shall find the kitchen myself but can you tell me what you want me to prepare for dinner?’

            ‘For dinner?’ Celine had not even thought. For a week she and Daniel had subsisted on pies that he brought home to her, and one evening they had been invited to visit Sam and Maria. ‘Well, shall I leave that up to you for this evening?’

            ‘Very well. What food is there in the pantry? And do you have any preferences? I assume the master will like a bit of meat. Which butcher do you use?’

            ‘I’m sorry. There is no food, only a morsel of bread and a dab of butter. Some milk. I have not…I’m not very good at this, am I.’ Celine sat down on the bed and covered her face with her hands.

            ‘Ma’am?’

            ‘Sorry, I – I don’t know what Daniel’s preferences are. He eats everything I’ve ever seen put before him so…And I don’t even know where the nearest butcher would be, let alone if they are any good. I’m sorry, Mrs Simpson, I am not used to running a household. Forgive me.’

            Ruth Simpson looked at her kindly. ‘Ma’am, this is my first job as a cook, but I did work as a scullery maid some years back, and I’ve seen how a house is managed. Now, do you know which houses along the street are well run? I can find out from their cook where the best butcher is, and arrange for our food deliveries. All you need worry about is being able to tell me each day what you’d like me to cook. And leave me a little money to pay the bills.’

           Celine smiled and nodded. ‘I can manage that. Try the Carlisle’s house two doors down. They are a doctor and his wife. Surely their house will be run like clockwork.’

            ‘I shall go there directly.’ Ruth put her bonnet back on. ‘From there I can go to the shops. I’ll write out a letter for you to sign. That way I can get everything on credit and bring you the bills to settle when they’re due.’

            Celine breathed out, her panic subsiding. She may have been new at this but look, she told herself, a happy husband, an efficient cook, all inside of a fortnight. And was that the doorbell? She left Ruth to write out her letter while she went to see who her first official visitor could be.