M C Bolitho, A Victorian Lady in the Himalayas, edited by Jean Burnett
Jean Burnett is part of Writers Unchained, a collective of writers from Bristol, and has published novels with Little, Brown about the adventures of Lydia Bennett. She has edited the diary of Maria Bolitho, a Victorian Englishwoman who travelled across the Himalayas by pony in 1895 with her belongings in a Gladstone bag, a fur coat for cold nights, and a female companion called coyly ‘the other memsahib’. They were supported by a host of ever-changing ‘syces’, ‘coolies’, ‘porters’ and other Tibetan and Indian servants hired from the villages the women passed through. Some of the men begged to be allowed to go home when the party finally descended from Ladakh to the paltry altitude of 12,000 feet, worrying that they and their yaks would suffocate in the unwholesome heat of the lower heights. It’s a remarkable diary and the travels seem extraordinary for two white women to have undertaken, given the politics of the day. Bolitho is very good on the brisk dismissal of terrifying ordeals, and is clearly interested in the clothes, jewellery and social customs of the people she met and who took care of her supply needs. For those interested in women travellers, and colonial-era travel in India, this is definitely worth reading.
My caveats are that the book should have contained a decent map (it has a useless schematic without scale or relative heights) of the route of the journey, and for some more background material about how the diaries were found, transcribed and about Bolitho herself.
Graham Robb, The Debateable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England
We snapped this up in the Orcadian Bookshop in Kirkwall, as we were running worryingly low on books for the holiday. Graham Robb is a biographer and historian, and I enjoyed his The Discovery of France immensely; he researches and writes history from the soil upwards, and finds remarkable things. He and his wife (a phenomenally helpful conduit for much of the local information he uses) moved from Oxford to the Scottish Borders in 2016, and he began to realise that there was no history for the area they now lived in (they bought the house of former government minister Nicholas Ridley). The Borders of Scotland and England are colourfully described in the ‘Border ballads’ as a lawless zone of medieval reiving and thieving. Little else is known about the area between Gretna and Peebles (very roughly). In a remarkable tour de force of research Robb shows that between the Neolithic period and the medieval, hardly anything has turned up in the way of archaeology to show who actually lived there, while countless reivers and cattle thieves were apparently darting to and fro following ancient laws of ‘batable’ truce, where any animal left overnight could be taken, though on ‘truce’ days the value of animals taken, house burnt, and women stolen was reimbursed. Mary Queen of Scots went to visit the wounded Lord Bothwell in his Border castle in the heartland of the ‘batable land’, and lost a French jewelled watch en route, but there’s not a lot else coming out of the moss. Robb then makes a backwards lurch into the early Christian period and pulls a massive rabbit out of the hat when looking at a map of Scotland by Ptolemy. A further rabbit arrives soon afterwards, in relation to a Caledonian invasion of Scotland that no-one seems to have noticed before.
If you skim over the endless stories of Armstrongs and Elliots, and focus on Robb’s actual bike- and footwork on the ground, this is a great example of history done from first principles, looking at what you see on the ground, on the inscription, on the horizon, and asking why and how they came to be. My other caveat comes from the slight Dan Brownness of some of Robb’s more outré theories, but nobody can doubt his veracity.
Lynn Abrams, Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800-2000
I bought this in the Shetland Times Bookshop in Lerwick, still worried by not having something lined up to read, and I bet that caused a surprise at stock-taking that night. ‘It’s gone! Thank goodness!’ It’s a fairly old academic study of the position of women in Shetland society, showing that single women were vastly more independent and self-supporting than their peers in mainland Scotland. Because most Shetland men went out to the fishing in four- and six-oared boats, rowing into the Atlantic and North Sea fishing grounds, and then line-fishing, again and again, their life expectancy was not long. So women worked the croft, managed the house, knitted for money (incessantly) and bargained for and sold their goods, and were autonomous to a degree unknown for other Scottish women.
It’s a grand slice of history, but is borne out by a worryingly limited amount of primary evidence from interiews and oral history. I don’t disbelieve the author’s conclusions, but I am wary of her dogged use and re-use of the same short fragments of interview to prove many different intersecting points. More evidence would have been reassuring, and better editing by Manchester University Press would have got rid of the maddening repetition. However, the sections on sexuality and myth were absolutely fascinating, ethnography I’ve not encountered before.
Gladys Huntingdon, Madame Solario
I wandered back to the counter in Ex Libris, the Bradford on Avon bookshop, with this prize from its cavernous second-hand section in the back loft, and the owner was delighted that I was showing an interest. He, and I, had never heard before of this 1956 novel, reprinted by Penguin in the 1980s, so obviously it had to be read. It’s a Henry James subject – a party of seemingly rich Edwardians gather in a grand hotel on the shores of Lake Como, where they socialise and gossip, and welcome the return of the fascinating and beautiful Natalia Solario to their ranks – but told with a little more self-awareness and openness than James could ever have allowed himself.
And that’s the problem: the treatment is at first impeccably Jamesian, and the narrative reveals all sorts of interesting facts with a word, a glance, an intonation, an omission, but it is not a Jamesian novel. The 1950s origin may be the problem, or the split narrative voices. Madame Solario herself has a few goes at presenting her points of view, as disaster slides towards her like the melting of a dessert ice, but the multiple perspectives break the hypnotic, breathless attention that a proper James novel would demand. The story-telling was not up to the story, so I gave it up. (It was made into a French film in 2012.)
Robert Nathan, Long After Summer
A kind reader called David Vlazny decided that I needed to discover Robert Nathan, an American author who published from 1919 to 1975, and of whom I had never heard. So three books arrived, generously ordered for me via Abe Books, and I plunged immediately into the first one, Long After Summer. It’s a novella, set on Cape Cod, where an unnamed writer tells the story of Johanna, and how he watches her life unfold. His boat-building friend has adopted Johanna, a teenage orphan, to live in his childless house. The writer falls ill, and Johanna is sent to clean up and take care of the man, and both discover that in his house she feels freer and more herself than in her new home. She and Jot, young fisherman, fall in love, and the island is quietly pleased to see their happiness. Then Jot is drowned, and Johanna begins to live backwards in time, returning to her days of happiness.
It’s a fascinating concept, and has, I suppose, already been tackled by F Scott Fitzgerald in his 1922 story ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, but Nathan does not take Johanna back to her babyhood. Her grief-driven trajectory takes her towards madness and death, unless she can be rescued by the writer and the priest, who love her best.
It’s a small gem of a novella, but it’s so short, and so undeveloped, it feels almost superficial, until you read individual sentences. Nathan is a terrific writer. Long After Summer has certainly assured me that the two other Nathans I have waiting are going to be good.