Monday 4 December 2023

Guest review by Sam Kenyon: DANGEROUS LIAISONS by Choderlos de Laclos, translated by Helen Constantine


"A novel of extraordinary power and scandal ..."

Sam Kenyon is a writer, composer and teacher. His first full-length musical, Miss Littlewood, based on the life of maverick theatre director, Joan Littlewood, premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2018. His first novel, I am not Raymond Wallace, was published by Inkandescent in 2022, and reviewed by John Case on this website. Sam is currently adapting Les Liaisons Dangereuses into a musical. He lives with his partner and their daughter in London.

“Love, which people pretend is the cause of our pleasures, is at most only an excuse for them.” – Madame de Merteuil, Letter 81

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos is pitched as a collection of letters - French letters, if you’ll forgive the pun – published in 1782, in Paris. In an author’s preface Laclos offers us two potential lessons we may glean from reading it:

“One, that any woman who consents to receive into her circle of friends an unprincipled man ends up by becoming his victim; the other, that any mother who allows her daughter to confide in anyone but herself is at the very least lacking in prudence.”

The letters begin with one from said daughter: Cecile de Volanges. It is early August, seventeen hundred-and-something, and this fifteen-year-old has left her convent in preparation for her marriage to the thirty-six-year-old Comte de Gercourt – a soldier stationed in Corsica. She writes to her friend Sophie to discuss, amongst other things, a charming young harp teacher: the Chevalier Danceny. Meanwhile, the Marquise de Merteuil (Madame de Volanges’s cousin) writes to the Vicomte de Valmont (a notorious libertine). Some years earlier, Gercourt had dumped her for an Intendante who had, in turn, dumped the Vicomte for the Comte. In revenge, and with a gentle hint of blackmail, Merteuil enlists Valmont to seduce Cecile, the news of which they will publish after Cecile’s wedding. Valmont, however, has a target of his own: the devout (and married) Présidente de Tourvel, who is currently staying at his aunt’s country house. Merteuil strikes a deal: if Valmont provides her with written proof of his seduction of the Présidente, as well as seducing Cecile, he will earn one more night in her arms. Valmont accepts, and the scene is thus set for the liaisons of the title, and their fatal consequences.

Having first devoured this some 35 years ago, two things struck me most about returning to the work: that (amongst other things) libertinism is, at its heart, a radical ideological attack on the Catholic church; and that the novel depicts scenes of unequivocal queer desire.

Letter 71, for example, has Valmont describing a magnificently convoluted erotic farce at the chateau of one of his lovers. After a night of passion with Valmont, her other lover, Vressac, appears:

“The two lovers kissed and I was kissed by them both in return. I was no longer interested in the Vicomtesse’s kisses, but I admit that I took pleasure in Vressac’s. We left together. And once I had received his long expressions of gratitude we each went back to our beds.”

In another sequence, Cecile writes to Sophie:

“It seems to me that I love [Merteuil] more how I love Danceny than how I love you, and sometimes I wish she were him.”

Merteuil’s Letter 81 is a savage indictment against the blinding powers of patriarchy. Widowed (fortuitously, she would argue) at a young age, she has navigated the world as a woman by cultivating a profound inscrutability – even self-harming in order to practise maintaining her poise and demeanour. She takes lovers, but only once she has the upper hand:

“I have perceived that there is no one without a secret which it is in his interest never to reveal.”

This is a novel of extraordinary power and scandal, said to have been one of the driving forces in the fervour of the French Revolution itself. It is a novel of tremendous pain: of the grotesque inequalities both between the sexes and the social classes; of the solitude of loveless marriages, and of the sheer overwhelming power of mutual sexual attraction in a society laced with taboos. And it is a novel of abuse: of women by men; of young people by older people, and of servants by their masters and mistresses.

It is also a novel that, like all the best ones, leaves us wanting more. In a footnote to the final letter, Laclos teases:

“We cannot at the moment give our readers the subsequent adventures of Mademoiselle de Volanges, nor can we give any account of the sinister events that crowned the misfortunes and completed the punishment of Madame de Merteuil. Perhaps some day we shall be permitted to finish this work…”

The subject of numerous adaptations – films; a ballet; an opera - this is a classic novel that bears rereading time and time again.

*Quotations are taken from Helen Constantine’s excellent translation for Penguin Classics.

Monday 20 November 2023

Guest review by Jon Appleton: TOM LAKE by Ann Patchett


"This marvellous, blissful novel – by one of my favourite writers – has an intense immediacy, which perfect suits its theme that there’s no place to live but in the here and now."

Jon Appleton is a freelance writer and editor based in London.

It’s the summer of 2020, just a season into the coronavirus pandemic, and fifty-seven-year old Lara is confined to the cherry farm in rural Michigan she runs with husband Joe. Their three grown-up daughters – Emily, Maisie and Nell – have no option to be at home with them. It’s a situation faced by families the world over.

A lot of people think it’s the end of the world. But Lara doesn’t think that – in fact, she’s never felt like that. Lara seems to be a woman who has never wanted much, who is happy in the moment. She’s actually enjoying the experience of lockdown.

But summers are fleeting and unrepeatable and this summer’s other novelty is the fact that it’s time to share the story of her past – of her long-ago, briefly successful as a career as an actress in a film that takes years to be released and a sudden play, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, in which she stars as the main character. Her appearance in the play at the town of Tom Lake is forever linked to her relationships with her fellow actors – especially her boyfriend, Peter Duke, who went on to have a notable career long after Lara’s ended.

The fact of Lara and Duke’s relationship has haunted her eldest daughter Emily all her life, but this turns out of be just one of the stories everyone knows but nobody talks about – and therefore maybe doesn’t quite understand. During the summer, more truths emerge and need to be confronted, and Lara’s gentle, loving complacency deserts her in the face of it.

For the first time, she sees the swerves her twenty-four-year-old self made – with varying degrees of self-awareness – as close shaves that have, in fact, steered the course of her life. The life-changing moments proved to have happened on days others than those she imbued with significance. By the end of the story, where she is now is not only where she wants to be and where she needs to be but she has understood the journey to reach it afresh.

The novel is described as a ‘meditation’ on themes of love and parenthood, and it is; Lara’s voice is measured and her narrative affords space to chart the routines of harvesting fruit, deciding on meals, recollecting past incidents, running a household. And yet, Tom Lake is spiked with moments of sharp insight and revelation as Lara becomes unblinkered. It’s also imbued with the fear that gripped the world in 2020, the threat to survival, to the future, not only of individuals but of the planet.

Tom Lake is about a play and in a way, reading it feels like watching a piece of theatre: being in a scenario that can never be repeated in exactly the same way. This marvellous, blissful novel – by one of my favourite writers – has an intense immediacy, which perfect suits its theme that there’s no place to live but in the here and now.

Tom Lake is published by Bloomsbury.


Monday 6 November 2023

Guest review by Ben Tufnell: IN ASCENSION by Martin MacInnes

 "For all the big ideas, the sheer scale of the story, the narrative is compelling. I was gripped, hurtling headlong towards an astonishing conclusion."

Ben Tufnell
is a writer and curator based in London, where he runs Parafin, an art gallery. He has published widely on modern and contemporary art, in particular on artforms that engage with landscape and nature. His short stories have been published by Conjunctions, Litro, Lunate, Storgy and Structo, amongst others, and his debut novel, The North Shore, is published by Fleet.

Close to the opening of this extraordinary novel, the narrator, Leigh, peruses the bookshelves in her mother's office. Femi is a theoretical mathematician and Leigh notes volumes with intimidating titles like Philosophy of Cusp Forms and Ultraparallel Theorem, as well as one bearing only an infinity symbol, a lemniscate, on its spine. It is a sign. That symbol with its interlocking ovoids recurs in many different forms throughout this ingeniously constructed book: in a mysterious message that may be from an extraterrestrial intelligence, in the shape of the Nereus, the spaceship that eventually carries Leigh to the edge of the solar system. Indeed, In Ascension is itself structured like an infinity symbol, a Moebius whose ending returns us to the beginning.

Yet, while taking us on a vast and awe-inspiring journey to the stars, In Ascension is grounded in life on Earth. It is a story about connectedness, about nature and human nature; ecologies, both macro and micro. The linking motif running through the book is water: water as a carrier of life, water as connector, water as protector (the Nereus, named after a Greek sea god, contains an ocean in its hull). MacInnes beautifully evokes a formative moment, when Leigh, swimming near her home in Rotterdam as an escape from her unhappy childhood, has an insight into the interconnectedness of all lifeforms and environments - 'there was no gap separating my body from the living world' - and this notion is a sort of foundation for all that follows.

Leigh becomes a marine biologist specialising in algae.In the near future, against a backdrop of climate collapse, she joins a scientific expedition to investigate a newly-discovered marine vent, which initial readings suggest may be deeper than the Mariana Trench.She and her colleagues speculate about the role thermal vents may have played in the genesis of early lifeforms, even the origin of life itself. As their ship nears the site, anomalous phenomena begin to occur. The leader of the expedition suggests they may have found 'a location of singular importance in the history of life on the planet...a cradle, a garden...' When the expedition attempts to measure the depth of t the trench their initial readings suggest it is 36kms deep, three times that of the Mariana Trench. Subsequent readings suggest it is many, many times deeper than that. It is the series of jaw- dropping moments in a book which challenges our sense of the possible.

Soon after, the focus turns outwards, towards space. A mysterious object, decorated with runes a and symbols is detected passing through the outer solar system. A message is received from the Voyager probe, now billions of miles distant and long presumed inactive. A new propulsion system is developed which will allow a spaceship to travel at hitherto unfeasible speeds.

Leigh develops new algal strains as a source of food ( and psychological comfort, the algae's greenness a potential salve against the sense of loss experienced as our blue-green planet retreats into the distance) for a long extra-planetary journey. She trains as a member of the support crew for the mission, but it is no surprise when she and her colleagues are bumped up to become the primary crew. As the Nereus passes beyond the heliopause (the limit of the sun's influence) things begin to blur, as if the narrative logic of space and time is being stretched and distorted by the vastness of the journey.

There's more, of course, but I've already given so much away. What I will say is that MacInnnes handles his material - and his research, which must have been extensive- deftly. And for all the big ideas, the sheer scale of the story, the narrative is compelling. I was gripped, hurtling headlong towards an astonishing conclusion. However, a word of caution: readers who like their stories neatly tied up may well be frustrated. Readers who enjoy something more open, more speculative, will find In Ascension completely satisfying.

It's a big story, beautifully told, austere and grand, filled with ideas. It is mind-boggling, mind-expanding, enriching. Rightly longlisted for the Booker Prize, I would be amazed if it didn't make the shortlist. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a more ambitious novel being published this year. It gives us the story of a life and a story of life itself.

In Ascension is published by Atlantic Books  

Ben Tufnell's The North Shore was chosen by Adèle as one of her books of the year in our birthday round-up.


Monday 23 October 2023

Guest review by Graeme Fife: CULTURAL AMNESIA by Clive James


"James is a wonder: the breadth, the stretch of his curiosity, the range of his cultural interest both in ideas and literature is extravagant, the depth of his knowledge profound..."

Graeme Fife is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history and fiction. His novel of the French Revolution, No Common Assassin, tells the story of Charlotte Corday.

‘Dollink, either you got the voice or you don’t got the voice; I got the voice.’ Zalinka Malinov (attributed)

I received this book as a gift but it is a gift in itself. James is a wonder: the breadth, the stretch of his curiosity, the range of his cultural interest both in ideas and literature is extravagant, the depth of his knowledge profound, add to this his wit and style and you hold in your hands the remarkable gathering of a lifetime’s inquiry into the human mind and heart.

The book comprises vignettes, some in quite extended essays, of individuals whose life and work has either enriched or compromised their existence. For the most part the men and women whom James remembers and speaks of, he recalls with affection and praise. Not always – he is not averse to censure and sees through cant or failed promise and I need not enumerate those whom he castigates. By and large, the censure they get they most obviously deserve. ‘Like his boss, (Goebbels) was able and industrious. He didn’t miss a trick. All he missed was the point.’

For some of the people celebrated in the pages of this totally compelling book, their legacy is an example, a very demanding example, of fortitude and integrity. Sophie Scholl (to whom the book is, in part, dedicated) was condemned by the Nazis for conducting a fearless pamphlet campaign against their venomous autocracy with her brother and friends, members of the White Rose resistance group. ‘Finally,’ she told the court, ‘someone has to make a start. We only said and wrote what many people think, they just don’t dare to express it.’

As Edward Gibbon (cited here by James in a separate chapter) said of life under the Emperors: ‘To resist was fatal and it was impossible to fly.’ The Gestapo offered Sophie Scholl respite if she recanted. She refused and the executioner, who in a small pity, took her first having allowed the condemned to smoke a last cigarette together, said that he had never seen anyone die so bravely. As James reports: ‘She just glanced up at the steel, put her head down and she was gone. Is that you? No, and it isn’t me, either.’ She was barely twenty-two.

Alongside the frankly solemn, even reverential, there is joyous mockery. His story of Albert Camus gives opportunity for a lively digression on the dumb bigotry of autocrats, their aversion to what Shakespeare’s King John calls ‘that idiot laughter’ and it’s a riotous comic gem: I cried with laughter. It’s evidence of the cool style of the man, his ecstasies of humour, so to put it. In another captivating digression on the choice of book titles, he writes: ‘(T. S.) Eliot's own idea of a terrific title was Ara vos prec, a sure-fire hit with any bookshop browser who spoke medieval Provençal.’

In the portrait of Diaghilev (‘Why should I waste my imagination on myself?’) he riffs on the contrast between the exquisite structure of the work with the hopeless disarray of the life’. Of Auden: ‘The man whose lyrics were showpieces of carpentry – try to imagine a poem more accurately built than The Fall of Rome – kept a kitchen that could have doubled as a research facility for biological warfare….(he) lived long enough for me to see his tie. I thought it had been presented to him by Jackson Pollock until I realised that it was a plain tie plus food.’

Of Heda Margolius Kovály – heard of her? Nor I … look her up, read on – ‘If the world can’t be ruled by the values that come naturally to a woman like her, how can it be worth living in?’ There were, on the other side, apparatchiks and I won’t name them but what emerges from James is an urgent sense that he has thought deeply about these people and their contribution to our culture, thought very hard indeed and is, therefore, to be relied on. Yeats, he acknowledges had some pretty batty ideas about mystic inspiration, the spiritualist claptrap which vitiates much of his early work, but he eventually saw through it and his magnificent later poetry confirms how ‘art was, for him a system of solid knowledge by far transcending his own fads.’ That is the triumph of his intellect and his allegiance to the deeper requirements of the work. This book is peppered through with such gemlike insights into the matter of artistic creation, social idea and action, the driving force of human courage in the face of adversity, such as the ‘misuse of language linked to fraudulent politics’. It’s generous, unfailing in honesty and an absolute delight. As I say: a gift in and of itself. With astonishing skill James combines penetrating enquiry with an aphoristic style, a happy blend which has a particular attraction: the steady unpeeling of reputation, deserved or not, with sudden explosions of mirth and brilliant turn of laconic phrase..

Cultural Amnesia is published by Picador.

More of Graeme's choices:

A Telling of Stones by Neil Rackham

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

An interview with Graeme about No Common Assassin, his novel of the French Revolution

Monday 9 October 2023

Guest review by Sue Hampton: LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT A MAN I KNEW by Susan Fletcher


"Many books today are described as beautifully written but few earn that accolade with such simplicity and poetry." 

Photograph by Mikaela Morgan

Sue Hampton gave up primary school teaching to become a full-time author in 2008, and has now published more than forty titles for adults, including Shutdown and Ravelled and Other Stories, as well as for children and teens. "Having been praised by authors I respect, including Michael Morpurgo, I was booked by about 600 schools to deliver writing workshops, and supported many students with hair loss as an Ambassador for Alopecia UK. I now prioritise climate and peace activism and being a grandma. This is just as well, because schools won't touch me with a criminal record. For the last few years I have donated any author earnings to Extinction Rebellion."

I’ve read it at least five times but still my response to this novel is as passionate as love should be. Experiencing a washday as the story begins, with water rushing on stone and the wind tugging at the line, the reader might feel the weight of a slow, meditative quietness. But it’s deceptively full: a sensual, tender exploration of the ordinary as Jeanne, the warden’s wife at the asylum in Provence, bears through each day’s labour her secret longing and loss. Literature can boast many rite-of-passage storylines built around young protagonists but here the awakening comes late for a mature woman aching for her grown-up sons and long-used to the stone colours of her faded marriage. Used to being unseen, without power or voice. And what awakens her is not the kind of encounter fiction leads us to expect, not that kind of relationship but the symbiosis of art and nature. Because yes, Van Gogh comes to the hospital, but the author knows better than to inhabit his disturbed yet gifted spirit, showing us instead the beauty of a brown moth barely visible on a branch. The writing is in itself painterly, and like the artist’s work stirs the senses while connecting with something profoundly moving about unremarkable humanity.

There is deep sadness here, but the joy is overwhelmingly intense, and this slow, gentle novel delivers masterfully understated drama before the muted but emotional resolution. Jeanne is as ordinary and overlooked as the moth on the branch, yet richly sympathetic and somehow compelling, and as the reader becomes intimate with her, Fletcher gradually creates in her cold husband a man we slowly come to know (as we don’t know Vincent) and understand. With a generous author whose shifts are subtle and whose love embraces flawed reality, the minor characters live too, even when only presented from Jeanne’s perspective. From the starting point of a lesser-known portrait – one of a pair because Van Gogh painted the warden too – Susan Fletcher has opened up the vivid inner life the artist could only suggest, taking us back to the uninhibited girl and sacrificial mother, through the grief and anxiety that seem to her as natural as the weather and as impossible to resist. The Mistral rips through the climax but the work of a troubled painter can also recover and reshape a different kind of landscape between two people.

Reading it for the first time I hoped the author would shun the easy, predictable choices, the corrosively depressing, the sentimental or melodramatic. And she does, with restrained delicacy. There are no misjudgements in arc or tone as she keeps it all as real as Jeanne herself. Many books today are described as beautifully written but few earn that accolade with such simplicity and poetry. I’m a climate protester and it’s been with me in HMP Bronzefield and more than one police cell, where it’s meant a little light and warmth and hope and made a dark world seem worth saving.

Let me tell you about a Man I knew is published by Virago.

Monday 25 September 2023

Guest feature by Dennis Hamley: THE SECOND PERSON FROM PORLOCK


"Each character, real or imaginary, had their own quest and I accompanied them on their journeys though the uneasy England of 1824. And I like to think I helped them find their destinations and their fulfilment."

Dennis Hamley has been writing for an unconscionably long time. His first book was published in 1962. Since then he's written more books than he can count, including The War and Freddy, Hare’s Choice, Spirit of the Place, Out of the Mouths of Babes, the six novels in the sequence of medieval mysteries The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay, Ellen’s People and Divided Loyalties. He says: "It's wonderful to see my Coleridge project in print at last, and published by Fairlight Books, based in Oxford where I live.  It came about when, after leaving hospital, I was visited by an ex-student of mine on the Oxford Creative Writing Diploma course - Louise Boland, a very good writer who had decided to set up as a small independent publisher specialising in literary fiction. That gave me the impetus to resurrect the project I'd been working on for years."

My interest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge merged into near-obsession at Cambridge, when my supervisor set our tutorial group an essay on STC’s theory of the imagination. This was in STC’s own college, Jesus. I loved this assignment, spent hours over it, found my understanding of literature changed utterly and received the supervisor’s comment ‘A noble effort’. Pleasing, but he omitted to say if it was actually any good. In 2002 a publisher, David Fickling, suggested I might write a novel about STC. So I did. It took me two years and he rejected it. And he was right. Incompetent and unreadable. So I got on with other things. But the resolve to write a proper novel about STC wouldn’t leave me. It took fifteen years for me to work out how to do it.

In 1972, a book called It’s a Don’s Life by Freddie Brittain, one-time fellow of Jesus (not to be confused with Mary Beard’s book) was published by Heinemann. Freddie mentioned a strange inscription in the first edition of Kubla Khan in the Old Library:

The writer of the above had much better have kept his sleeping thoughts to himself, for they are, if possible, worse than his waking ones.

It sounds damning. But perhaps it wasn’t. I needed someone to examine it closely. Who? A sizar, working as a library clerk, as had STC, perhaps?

My original failed novel depended on a what if? When in Sicily in 1804, Coleridge had a mysterious relationship with an opera singer, Anna-Cecilia Bertozzi. In 1808 he suddenly writes about her in his notebooks: ‘… her sincere vehemence of her attachment to me…Heaven forfend that I should call it Love.’

Back home, STC was in platonic love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s wife, Mary. He called her ‘Asra’, to distinguish her from the other Saras, wife and daughter. And now, just in time, he sees ‘the heavenly vision’ of Asra’s face, ‘the guardian angel’ who saves him from the final temptation . I couldn’t resist thinking, ‘Yeah, right!’ What if STC had, unbeknown to him, left a son in Sicily and that son comes to England to find him?

So I had three main characters: one, STC, real; two fictional, George Scrivener, undergraduate who finds the Kubla inscription and works out its true significance, and Samuele Gambino, putative son in search of the truth. For George, an aspiring poet, the wish is that STC might be his mentor. Samuele needs to square his mother’s vision of genius with his teacher Mr Calvert’s of an opium-sodden wretch.

Perhaps the word ‘riff’ best describes what I was attempting. All facts would be accurate, but STC didn’t live by mere facts. We meet him with the line:

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had seen a ghost.

He was lodging with Dr Gilman and his wife on a sort of extended rehab. The ghost first appeares in Highgate High Street and then haunts him. Is this revenant the Second Person from Porlock? George Scrivener works out that there couldn’t even have been a first.

Mixing fictional and real characters is a risk worth taking. Samuele’s guide in his quest is Charles Lamb, who tells him who to visit and provides letters of introduction. So Samuele meetsTom Poole, STC’s friend in Nether Stowey, Wordsworth, Southey and, most important, STC’s brilliant daughter, Sara.

Once I had a structure in my mind, actually writing the book came relatively easily. Each character, real or imaginary, had their own quest and I accompanied them on their journeys though the uneasy England of 1824. And I like to think I helped them find their destinations and their fulfilment.

The Second Person from Porlock is published by Fairlight.  

‘With no discernible sleight of hand this master storyteller, with effortless assurance and prodigious skill, weaves his mighty spell and conjures before our very eyes all we will ever need to know about the most famous lines of poetry that English ever produced.’ — Robert Lipscombe, author of The Salamander Tree and The English Project

Monday 11 September 2023

Guest review by Rowena Edlin-White: THE FAIR BOTANISTS by Sara Sheridan


"Here is a novel of passion, intrigue, and women’s ingenuity which I can thoroughly recommend."

Rowena Edlin-White: "I was born in Nottingham in 1948, to two penniless actors. In the fullness of time I followed them to stage and screen but that gradually gave way to writing and a passion for kitchen-table publishing. For some years I wrote for children before moving into journalism and non-fiction. These days I research and write about local history, women’s history and ‘forgotten’ authors. My most recent book is Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers (Five Leaves), and I edit The Quill, a little Anglo-American journal about early women author-travellers. My favourite occupation is foraging in second-hand bookshops."

I went to the Wigtown Book Festival in Dumfries and Galloway again last September and was delighted to find Sara Sheridan launching a new novel, The Fair Botanists – in fact there was a women-and-gardening theme this time, which led me into several gardens in the region which I hadn’t visited before.

The Fair Botanists takes us back to Edinburgh in 1822: the Botanic Gardens are being physically moved, trees and all, from Leith Walk to a new situation at Inverleith, because it is just possible that King George IV might decide to visit the city and why should not the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens rival Kew? The gardens contain many exotic plants of interest to the medical profession, none more so than the so-called ‘Great Aloe’ which flowers only once and then dies; this event is believed to be imminent and several people have a vested interest in it.

Many women of the time were interested in botany as artists, herbalists or for the special properties of different species. Sheridan’s female characters span those interests: Elizabeth Rocheid is a penniless widow brought to town to look after Clementina, an eccentric in-law; Elizabeth is an artist. Belle Brodie has a keen interest in exotic perfumery - and is also “Edinburgh’s most expensive courtesan.” An unlikely friendship develops between these two women as they watch for the Aloe to flower. Here is a novel of passion, intrigue, and women’s ingenuity which I can thoroughly recommend.

Sheridan’s fictional characters interact with real people, for example, the under-paid head gardener, William McNab and Robert Graham, Regius Keeper of the Gardens. Sir Walter Scott puts in an appearance and the Rocheid family really did exist but have acquired a couple more members.

Enter Mrs Brunton:


In a short scene (if this were a play it would take place in front of the curtain whilst the scenery was changed) in Canongate Kirkyard, Johann von Streitz, a minor royal, comes across the Rev Alexander Brunton tending his wife’s grave. “My dear Mary...” Brunton says, “You have perhaps heard of her? She wrote novels. Her work has appeared in translation...” That’s all. But even before I read Sheridan’s notes at the end of the book I had my suspicions about Mary Brunton who wrote novels – she had to be real. I also referred to Sheridan’s book Where are the Women?, an illuminating guide to many notable women un-memorialised in Scotland, and yes, she’s there!

My first resort in cases of long-forgotten authors is the venerable Bromley House Library in Nottingham. A glance at the catalogue proved me right – they have three volumes by Mary Brunton (1778-1818). Needless to say, after nearly 200 years they are rather fragile, but I was allowed to borrow Mrs Brunton: A Memoir which also includes her third and unfinished novel, Emmeline.

Mary Brunton nee Balfour, was born and brought up on Orkney, from where – it is said – she eloped in a rowing boat with Alexander at the age of twenty. He gave her the space and opportunity to pursue her literary interests and her first two novels, Self-Control (1811) and Discipline (1814), were much admired. The Memoir includes letters to her friends with news of the progress of her publishing career. With regard to Self-Control, she writes to her friend Mrs Izett:

“My hopes of popular favour are low – very low indeed. Of a work like mine, the wise and the good will not be at the trouble to judge... it may become popular, for that is a mere lottery. If it do, be assured, my dear friend, its faults, of which it has many, will draw down the censure of those who are, or think themselves entitled to decide for their neighbours... But I am positive that no part – no, not the smallest part – of my happiness can ever arise from the popularity of my book, further than that I think it may be useful. I would rather, as you well know, glide through the world unknown, than have (I will not call it enjoy) fame, however brilliant. To be pointed at – to be noticed and commented upon – to be suspected of literary airs – to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more unpretending of my own sex; and abhorred, as literary women are, by the more pretending of the other! – My dear, I would rather exhibit as a rope-dancer – “ [extract: Aug. 30, 1810]

Mary’s career was cut short at the age of thirty-nine when she died in child-birth; her only child, a boy, was still-born.

In Sheridan’s own words: “ historical novel is a time machine that takes the reader back to where they come from. It casts light on the modern world.” (Author’s Historical Note: The Fair Botanists, p358). I find this happens again and again. Her excellent novel led me back to a pioneer woman novelist of the early 1800s contemplating her own position as a woman writer of the period. Magical!

The Fair Botanists is published by Hodder.