Thursday, January 26, 2012

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

This one's for all you Downtown Abbey fans out there!

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, originally published in 1968, is the classic memoir of a woman who worked her way up in service from kitchen maid to cook before retiring after her marriage to a milkman.

The book has been re-issued (even in e-book format!) because it is one of the sources used by the writers of the popular PBS/BBC series Downton Abbey. And yes, we are big fans Chez QG. Apparently the book was wildly popular in the UK when first published and created something of a sensation.

Margaret Powell vividly illustrates the division in the great houses between the wealthy noble families and their large staffs of servants. The houses themselves were physically divided with front and service stairs so that some servants seldom entered the part of the house used by the family. Class lines were rigid and mutually enforced on both sides.
Margaret was something of a rebel and always tried to make something of herself. She was an avid reader and one of the most poignant passages in the book relates her request to the mistress of the house she worked in to borrow books from its library. "Of course, Margaret," was the reply," but I didn't know that you read!"

Margaret not only read but later in life completed her education and got a college degree. She is a good writer but not always a fluid one. The book is a personal memoir, not an attempt at social history, and succeeds on those terms.

Readers will not find any of the plot lines of the television series but will better understand the world of its "downstairs" characters.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

The second week of January is probably too early to pick the best literary novel of the year, but The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay will certainly find a spot high on my personal list by the end of 2012.

This superbly crafted tale of how the child-like faith of the mentally disturbed church volunteer Mary Margaret O'Reilly leads to unspeakable tragedy is compelling and profound.

Without spoiling the story, I can only reveal that the when the devout Mary Margaret has an accident while cleaning the crucifix in the chapel of the Sacred Heart church in South London, she believes that she has re-opened the wounds of Christ and that belief drives her to seek redemption which ends in the tragedy. Since the accident and her response to it happened with visitors in the chapel, a sensation ensues which drags the priest struggling with his own faith into the situation.

Although the length of a novel, The Translation of the Bones is so expertly and sparely written that it reads more like a short story. The plot has no loose ends and all of the characters--Mary Margaret, Father Diamond, Mary Margaret's morbidly obese mother Fidelma, and fellow parishioners Stella Morrison and Alice Armitage--are complex and believable.

Francesca Kay is a British author who was won the 2009 Orange Prize for New Writers  for her first novel, An Equal Stillness (not yet published in the US).  This second work is an inspiring story of faith, loneliness and family relationships which prompts the reader to reflect on these themes after finishing the book.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Catherine The Great by Robert Massie

Over the Christmas holidays I read Robert Massie's Catherine the Great using my Kindle app. That was a smart choice, since the book is a tome, weighing in at 574 pages!

I first read a biography of Catherine the Great as a young girl from a series called Landmark that offered biographies and histories for young readers.  Needless to say, it offered a sanitized version Catherine's private life and her 12 lovers.  Years later I read another full biography of her life, but can't remember the name or author. But it wasn't aimed at young readers, and neither is Massie's book.

This biography is well-researched and well-written. I think it could have used a more discerning editor because occasionally the narrative became lost in the weeds of the author's intensive research and I found myself skimming the text hoping to get to the point more quickly. Sometimes the point was so minor that it added little to the reader's (or maybe I should say "this reader's" understanding of the subject.

That said, Catherine the Great should appeal to both academic and interested lay readers. Catherine began life as a minor German princess who moved to Russia after her betrothal and marriage to Peter, the heir to the throne of Russia who was the nephew of Empress Elizabeth. Because Peter refused his marital duty to her, probably because of impotence,  she suffered for many years as the childless wife until the Empress insisted she choose a lover from two options presented to her and get about the business of producing an heir. Once the heir is produced, the Empress takes him away from her and raises him herself, setting the stage for another generation of dysfunctional relationships.

Massie documents 12 lovers of Catherine over her long life, and produces some evidence that she did marry one of them,  Gregory Potemkin, who remained the most influential man in her life until his death. The lovers were sequential and it seems that Catherine used most of them to provide some semblance of family that she never was able to achieve in the conventional fashion. Although she had a second child, Anna, who died very young, it's interesting to speculate on how she avoided more pregnancies during her child-bearing years, something Massie does not address.

The story of how Catherine managed to wrest the throne from her feckless and emotionally disturbed husband and then go on to institute many progressive and wise reforms for the Russian people and nation is even more fascinating and important. Massie does an excellent job of describing how the neglected and oppressed young wife sought refuge in books, educated herself, ultimately took her place among the leading intellectuals of the day, and became regarded in western Europe as the model of enlightened despotism.

In summary, Catherine the Great is not light reading but worth the effort. Several of my Facebook friends are reading it now, so I hope they will add their own comments to this review when they are finished.