100 Women Novelists of the 20th Century: E.M. Delafield

Blog post 3: The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930)

November 7th.
Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa. Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: ‘O, Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworth’s?’

Edmée Elizabeth Monica De La Pasture was the daughter of a Count and a famous novelist, Mrs Henry de la Pasture. Under her pen name E.M. Delafield, ‘The Diary of a Provincial Lady’ is her most loved and well-known book (and she was a prolific writer, despite an untimely death in the war) and has never been out of print. This semi-autobiographical diary is full of charm, wit, and self-deprecation and is quintessentially English, a comedy of errors which touches on real issues and is therefore right down my street. So why have I never read it until now? Has it gone out of fashion? Absolutely not. The diarist may be an upper-class lady recounting the daily conflicts of domestic life in a Devon village in the 1930s, but underneath there is a recognisable woman with everyday struggles that are still relevant today, despite the boarding schools, the French governess and the servants.

She is married to Robert, a bit distant, grumpy, falls asleep over the Times and grumbles about the state of the house, but he’s essentially a good sort. She acts as a buffer between him and the two children, the delightful Robin and Vicky, who can’t always be counted on to be perfect in front of important visitors, especially Lady Boxe, her nemesis who drives imperiously around the village in her Bentley, flinging sly remarks which turn the writer to dreams of murder.

The interesting thing is that despite the fact they live in a fine house, have a cook, a maid, a governess etc, the Lady is always having to borrow from Peter to pay Paul. She has to be creative with her bills and regularly pawns her great aunt’s diamond ring to clear the household debts. And she must go humbly before the bank manager to procure an overdraft. You could call this family the modern day equivalent of the squeezed middle, a family that is living beyond its means. But the writer enters pieces for the Time and Tide magazine and has some success with publication. We can see that she longs to have more literary success and earn money in her own right. One way she hopes to do this is to better acquaint herself with the literary world, but usually this has unsatisfactory consequences.

Very, very distinguished Novelist approaches me (having evidently mistaken me for someone else), and talks amiably. She says that she can only write between twelve at night and four in the morning, and not always then. When she cannot write, she plays the organ. Should much like to ask whether she is married.

The diary is one of my favourite forms of writing. In the footsteps of Pooter and the descendant of Bridget Jones, E.M. Delafield’s diary deserves its place as a classic of the 20th Century. I feel like I should have read this book before. After all, my second novel ‘This Holey Life’ is of this tradition and I wonder if I somehow absorbed the essence of the Provincial Lady by cultural osmosis. Vicky is also struggling to be a good mother and a good wife and to have good thoughts about her neighbours and members of the community but is continually thwarted in her good intentions by the everyday muddle of life. A common theme for diarists, so it seems.

E.M. Delafield shines a light on the politics and dynamics of family life and a small community and this was handed on to Barbara Pym, a couple of decades later. (Yes, I will be blogging about the divine Miss Pym.)

Final word: Don’t be fooled by the ‘Lady and “Provincial’ of the title.

(Also, I am thrilled that there are several follow up diaries. Result.)

100 Women Novelists of the 20th Century: Daphne du Maurier

Blog Post 2: Rebecca (1938)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

For my second novel I have chosen a classic, loved by many. Like ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’, my first choice, ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier is a novel that is hard to define: Is it psychological suspense? Gothic romance? Murder mystery? Maybe it is all of these but however you define it, it is a book that you can revisit and each time you can wonder at its power to make the reader complicit in the central crime.

I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden too, whatever the poets may say. They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word.

One thing for certain is that ‘Rebecca’ is not a love story, but rather a dark treatment on the nature of obsession and jealousy. The influence of a first wife on a second. A first wife whose absence is as strong as the presence of the other characters. We never see the first Mrs De Winter for ourselves, we only hear about her from other people, what a wonderful, vibrant, beautiful woman she was. It is only Maxim de Winter, her widower and now new husband to the young nameless narrator, that we hear an alternative view of Rebecca, that she was a cruel, taunting, faithless wife. We, the reader, can never really know her true character. The second Mrs de Winter has to invent her own haunting picture. She is surrounded by the physical belongings Rebecca has left behind. Her opulent bedroom which is curated by the creepy, hostile housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. Her signature with its swooping letter ‘R’. Her organised writing desk. Even her scent. But it is the house itself, Manderley, that holds fast the ghost of Rebecca so that the narrator convinces herself that she can glimpse her beautiful, elegant shadow lurking in the dark corridors and alcoves. She knows that she will never live up to her predecessor.

Like Thornfield Hall in ‘Jane Eyre’, Manderley is a character, as are the grounds in which the great house nestles, and the turbulent sea beyond. Du Maurier uses the pathetic fallacy to make the landscape a living, breathing thing, to give it human qualities. We experience Manderley through the narrator’s viewpoint, feeling her emotions in relation to it, her isolation and sense of unease. The suffocation of the blood-red rhododendrons, the persistence of the crashing waves, the superior grand west wing where Rebecca and Maxim de Winter once slept, all of these build a claustrophobic nightmare from which she feels she cannot escape. As much as she loves Manderley, she wishes she was back in Italy where she honeymooned with her new husband, a brief interlude where he was happy and free. Now he is moody and distant and she feels she is diminishing in his eyes by the day.

If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.

The most deftly written part of this novel is how the narrator becomes complicit in the dark deed at the core of the story and that her overwhelming feeling on its discovery is relief that Maxim loves her, not horror at what he has done. And we, the reader, feel that too.

Rebecca, published in 1938, was a novel for uncertain times. So it is no surprise that ‘Rebecca’ has never gone out of print.

And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.

100 Women Novelists of the 20th Century: Fay Weldon 

Blog Post 1: The life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983)

Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea: she writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies.

For my first novel I have chosen Fay Weldon’s ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ because this is the book I first read when I realised I wanted to be a writer. A few years earlier, I had seen the fantastic television drama with Julie T. Wallace in the title role and was spellbound. But it wasn’t until about 2001 that I first read the novel. (And then every novel of Fay Weldon’s after that.)

It’s hard to categorise this extraordinary story. A cautionary tale of married life? A satire of romantic fiction? A feminist fairy tale? Just let me say it is sharply brilliant. Witty, shocking, thought-provoking, disturbing, contradictary, and more.

What I love about Fay Weldon’s writing is the simplicity that disguises the depths she trawls. Her language is accessible but her subject matter dark and problematic. ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ is a fine example of how she does this.

The central premise is how far a woman scorned will go for revenge. The blurb on the back of my copy says: ‘What can a woman do when her husband accuses her of being a ‘she-devil’ and leaves her for another woman? Especially if that woman is six foot two, has a jutting jaw, a hooked nose and moles on her chin. And her rival is petite, ultra-feminine and a successful novelist…’

What does Ruth do? She becomes a she-devil. This enables her to steadfastly deconstruct her husband’s life and that of his lover, Mary Fisher. On the way she takes on the church, the law, and the establishment which allows the poverty trap that women must so often live in.

The book was published in 1983. Who can forget that year? Thatcher. A nation torn apart by riots, recession, war. A nation being systematically dismantled: schools, hospitals, railways, factories, mines. A decade where money usurped compassion. ‘She-Devil’ is deeply political as well as being morally and ethically challenging.

Ruth, surburban wife and mother with a narcissist of a husband must transform herself into a she-devil to wreak her revenge. And in doing so, terrible decisions must be made. She must burn down her home, abandon her children and endure the most painful cosmetic surgery. But on this quest to take out Bobbo and Mary Fisher, she will help the downtrodden. She will give the powerless a voice, a career, a reason to live.

But ultimately Ruth will sacrifice her children and her health. And for what? For all my re-readings of this phenomenal book, I still don’t have the answer.

100 Women Writers from the 20th Century.

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In a year’s time, I will turn fifty. I am not worried about the impending big birthday but I want to mark it somehow, for myself, and with whoever happens upon this blog.

I’m going to mark it with books. My life has revolved around literature and television. A child of the 70s, a teen of the 80s, part of Generation X, I’ve lived my life against a background of popular culture. My first novel was even named after a Saturday night legend: ‘The Generation Game’. But I also have a degree in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing. And, yes, I am a novelist.

Because of this fusion of classic literature and telly, I am not a book snob. I’ll have a go at reading most fiction, but I am particularly drawn to the female novelist. When I started writing I was desperate to learn and hone my craft. I went to a Creative Writing evening class and I read. A lot. For me, reading and writing go hand in hand and seeing as I felt like I’d ‘done’ the classics at university, I immersed myself in contemporary novels, which tended to be written by women. These novelists – Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell, Jane Gardam, Lesley Glaister, Janice Galloway amongst many others – showed me a world I recognised, shone a light into the darker places and they helped me make sense of, you know, stuff. But I’ve recently been pulled backwards in time, to the century I grew up in. The century that my mother and grandmother were born into.

At university, in the late 80s, I took a module called Women Writers. It seemed bizarre to me that there was a whole module dedicated to women. But I soon realised this was because the other modules were basically dedicated to literature written by men, (with the exception of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing). Fast forward to 2017, and still male novelists are more likely to win literary prizes. They are more likely to be reviewed in the Press.* Despite the fact that far more women read fiction than men. So over the next year, I will revisit 100 novels written by women in the 20th Century.  A year of my reading life dedicated to women writers across a range of genres, ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ is a perfectly valid thing to do. (Especially as I am actually a female novelist. Did I mention that?)

I will be random in my approach; that’s how I roll. But hopefully over the year, themes will emerge and a more cohesive picture will be created. The last century saw massive social and political upheavals which affected all walks of life: the vote, wars, work, equal pay, education, politics, migration, social mobility, sexuality, contraception, motherhood, fertility. These are huge issues which affect everyone but they have an unfair impact on women and any changes have been hard fought. This is a vast world of continuous change and yet a world with an unchanging backdrop which perhaps only the novelist can address with a certain amount of truth.

Each week, I will post a review of a novel. I will jump around in time and genre and location and although there will undoubtedly be a British bias as Britain is the country I’ve grown up in and was educated in, I will include writers from the Commonwealth and beyond. The power of books is that they can transport you across the Sargasso sea, to the Belgian Congo, into the bedroom of a teenage boy in Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

Women’s voices are so often obscured and shouted down. Too domestic. Too romantic. Too trivial.

I beg to differ.

Next blog: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon.

*I can forward you a link to research done on sexism in publishing.

 

 

The one with Mab in her combies.

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Horekelly

Madampe

Ceylon

18.IX.00

Dearest Tommie

Your parcel really went off yesterday morning so I do hope it will go by this mail. We put in some sample packets of coconut to make up the weight, but the box was heavy so we could not put very much. We had to put it in the small packets as all the lead paper is cut at that size. They take samples of the stuff that is made everyday and then open them after a certain time to see how it has kept.

I have put in some more seeds of various sorts. I don’t know whether any will grow. The things with the curious brown leaves attached are the seeds of the ‘Hora’ tree from which this place gets its name. This is really Hora-Kelle (forest) and before it was cleared to plant coconuts there was a big hora forest here. There are still a good many trees about and they are very fine. They have perfectly straight, thick trunks, quite bare for about 20 or 30 feet and then they branch out. The seeds like shrivelled berries are Teaks. They are awfully pretty trees with dark leaves and big bunches of pale green flowers like the shape of Spanish chestnut blooms. The long bean is a plant that has a rather pretty white flower a little like a very big jasmine only with no scent. Aren’t the red berries pretty? But they are poisonous. I planted some in a box and some on a sponge and I found that only the brownie coloured ones came up so I suppose they are the ripest. I think if you were to plant some of the various seeds and keep them in the kitchen they might come up. I generally soak mine in tepid water before planting. They say it makes them germinate quicker.

I am going to send you a paper with an account of the earthquake. I thought you would like to see it although it did not really amount to much.

The new Boy is going on very well so far and he is certainly keeping the house very much cleaner than it was before. He had the sitting room carpet up the other day without being told and I noticed this morning he had got everything out of the little sideboard arrangement. We have not got a proper sideboard you know, only a sort of little chiffonier thing with two cupboards and two drawers and then in the top one glasses, finger bowls etc have to be kept. You are obliged to keep your things in evidence in the dining room here, you know, because there is never any proper place in the kitchen. We have a dinner wagon too and on that we have the tea and breakfast sets, cruets, and all the silver things we have in use. There are some shelves in the kitchen verandah and our dinner things are kept there. There are two safes there too where our eatables are kept and we have a big cupboard in the dining room under the stairs where we keep groceries and drinks and spare china etc, rather like our cupboard in the breakfast room.

One thing, this Boy is a very good cook, gives us awfully dainty little meals and serves up everything so nicely. The other Boy had got so lazy and he always served us up the same things, so often fish cakes and rissoles till we got sick of the sight of anything round. He makes very good bread too, both white and brown. You can’t think what a treat it is to have nice bread and butter again. George has gained a bit lately and I am sure it is the nourishing brown bread. What he had been eating was always made of the very cheapest flour and must have been very bad for him. I weigh 9 stone 9 lbs so I am not quite an elephant yet.

I like the Hospital stamp very much and have stuck it on the calendar on my writing table. I do hope you felt better after you got home and you ought to go on with the Chemical food for some time. One bottle is no good. I cannot understand you taking, or Kate allowing you to take, any sort of medicine that had been kept years. Of course it would have made you ill. The properties would have changed tremendously. I wonder it didn’t poison you. I think you were perfectly idiotic. It has simply undone all the good work going to Fairbank would have done you. What a fool Fanny is and what a lot of good a spanking would do her. How jolly of Kate to give you a tan waterproof. I am so glad. Is it at all like mine? I should like to think we are ‘little twins’.

I had a letter from Mrs Gillespy this mail. She seems perfectly happy at Billingshurst and very pleased with everything. She said she hoped you would come and stay and was disappointed you could only come for a day.

Talking about Christmas presents makes me feel quite excited although I know it won’t feel a bit like Xmas here, but still having presents will make it a bit better. At any rate it will be a more peaceful one than last. With regard to our presents, of course there are heaps of things we want both, small and large, so I’ll give you a long list, but mind, I’m only putting down big things just to show you what we haven’t got but you are not to allow Mother to insist on getting something which costs pounds just because it is down on the list. We shall be very cross if you spend much. You have all spent so much on us already, and tell Kate that too. We shall only be able to send very feeble little offerings home, there are so many to send to, but people won’t expect much from a newly married pair, will they? There are such jolly things I should like to buy you, but they are all so dear. We are going to manufacture things though. We have got some in our minds eye.

We are rather wondering about George’s books. He wrote and asked his mother to send them out to him and just mentioned a few he could think of. The other day he had a letter from her and she said she had asked Jack to go and look out the books George had mentioned. Of course he meant her to send them all, note books and everything as they are coming out for nothing with the company things. It doesn’t matter how many come and there are a lot of things in note books that he has written at different times that he sometimes wants. She is really rather foolish sometimes in understanding things and of course he can’t ask to have a box sent out again too soon.

I am looking forward to the cricket photos. Please give my love to Dor and thank her very much for her letter. Her evening frock does sound pretty and I want to see it badly. It is hateful to think of her doing her hair up and I shan’t be there to see. She will seem so different when I come home.

I must tell you such a comic thing which happened the other day, though annoying. I was just going to dress before tea when George came up to say a sort of pedlar man had come and did I want anything? We did want one or two things so he went down to see what he had got while I dressed. I went on calmly dressing and had nearly finished when my door suddenly opened and in walked the office boy, followed by the pedlar man and another man with the pack. I gasped and tore past them down to the office to fetch George. I found that he had been sent for to go into the mill and the office boy (who was new and cheeky) had taken it upon himself to bring the man upstairs. The cheek of walking into my bedroom without even knocking did for me. If they had been five minutes sooner I should have been attired only in my combies. I always lock my door now!

George was furious. He smacked the office boy’s face and sent off the man without buying anything. The boy is not supposed to come into the house and to come upstairs was great impertinence. George smacking his face evidently offended his dignity as he has never appeared since. I laughed afterwards although it made me very hot at the time, especially as none of them could speak English.

I do hope Mother had a good time at Fairbank and came back rested.

lots of love and kisses to everybody

from Mab

 

The one where Mab has a rant.

Horekelly,

Madampe

Ceylon

11.1x.00

Dearest Tommie

I am cross and I should like to smack someone. I nearly did George but not quite. We did up your little parcel, sent it off gaily yesterday and the postmaster sent it back and said we must insure it. We thought it would not be necessary as it was not worth much. George went off at early dawn this morning with it to the post office to try and get it in the bag before the coach came but the postmaster had sealed up the bag and of course would not open it again so now it won’t go till next mail, as parcels have to be in Colombo a day earlier than letters. We find that 3lb is the minimum and although this only weighs 6ozs, we have to pay the same, so we are going to make up the weight with desiccated coconut.

I hope you will like the little bangle, it is not the sort you meant, but Mrs Maxfield thought it was a better kind for hanging things on and as it is rather pretty I kept it and if you would like one of the other ones I can easily get it when I go to Colombo and they are both very cheap. If the moonstone comes out, you must tell me and I will send you another to have put in. Mrs Maxfield didn’t think the ring in the little jumbo was very safe so you had better let Mrs Dealing look at it. Tell her I’m still happy and we have not come to blows yet!

Oh why did I leave my native land to come to this abominable country!  We had two earthquake shocks on Sunday night and I didn’t like it at all.  It was about quarter past four and I was sound asleep when I was awakened by hearing a sort of rattling at the door which I thought was the pups scratching to come in. Then the whole room began to shake and everything rattled and there seemed to be a sort of roaring noise and I said to George, ‘Whatever does it mean?’ He said, ‘Earthquake’. I said ‘Oh!’ and promptly got between him and the bed and even then I shook about. It only lasted about a minute although it seemed ages and then about five minutes afterwards there was another little shock. George wired to the Observer and has also sent a little account, I think. Aren’t I getting an experienced person? Of course we felt it a good deal more being upstairs. Mr Van Dort thought it was thieves on his roof as the tiles rattled about so, it never dawned upon him what it was.

The mail is late this week. We shan’t get our letters till this evening. I have written a long letter to Kate this week. I wrote to Dory last. I am going to call on Mrs D’Olivera this afternoon if it is possible to get a cart. George has been trying all over the place to get one, now there is just a chance the postmaster might be able to get one. This is a hole of a place. There was church the other day but we couldn’t go as we couldn’t get a cart. But it is the same with anything we want to do and it is certainly a trial for one’s temper and patience living in this place.

Our new Boy came on Sunday night and so far is very good but it is too soon to say. He is a Sinhalese and has a very good character for cleanliness. He cooks very well, seems to be a decent sort of man altogether. Such a funny little type with a square head.

Mr Clarke sent me the two photos that he took of the mill coolies, but they are very bad. There are men and boys in one and women and girls in the other. The women would put their hands in front of their mouths and giggle.

Did you notice the funny little seal on your last letter? George is using them for business letters as we have a faint idea the postmaster at Madampe opens the letters. They are very clever in doing that sort of thing. These seals are rather cute aren’t they? Oh, I was nearly forgetting. Could you send me one or two Ambulance books? You can have them again when we leave this place but so often accidents happen to the coolies and of course they come to George. If they are really hurt he sends them off in a cart to the hospital but generally it is only slight things. They are very fond of falling off the desiccators about eight feet onto a cement floor and naturally get very bruised. Then sometimes they cut themselves with the choppers they break open the nuts with. We have got a little medical book which is very good but there are a lot of useful things in the Ambulance ones, I know. George keeps lint and Elliman’s and a few things like that in the office for cases of emergency.

EllimansEmbrocation

Well I think that’s all for to day so I’ll say ‘Adoo’. I am wondering how your neuralgia is, better this time, I hope, and Mother’s too.

lots of love and kisses for everybody

from Mab

 

Mabel has a visitor.

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Madampe

September 4th, 1900

Dearest Tommie

If the mail happens to be a little late this letter ought to arrive on the 25th so ‘Many Happy Returns of the Day’, my dear, and lots of love from us both. I am going to send you a minute present in a few days but it has not come yet. I was so hoping we might have been down to Colombo before this so kept putting it off, but now I have written to Mrs Maxfield to get what I want.

I do hope the change and Fairbank will have done you good. You don’t sound up to much what with your shoulder and your tummy. You’ve been doing too much, that’s what it is, and it is a good thing the doctor has knocked off your tennis for a bit.

I do feel badly not having done anything for Miss Kew but somehow I always seem to have a  lot of work on hand, sewing the buttons of George’s trousers is quite a day’s work every week. The Dhobi is most skilful in pulling them off. We have not got a new Boy yet but expect one in a day or two.

The puppies are growing very fast and require plenty of nourishment. We have to give them a dish each as when we give them their food in one dish they gobble so tremendously that we think it must be bad for their little digestions. We had a dreadful fright last week. Our little cat disappeared on Wednesday and did not come back until Sunday evening. I was unhappy. I quite thought she had been killed in some way or else  someone had stolen her. We think she must have got shut up in the copra shed as she goes in there to eat shavings and it was shut up and not opened till Sunday. She was not much thinner, but very frightened, as there are lots of rats and mice in there. Of course someone might have caught her and kept her shut up but if they did I know she would have come back directly she got a chance. The puppies were pleased to see her again, in fact their welcome was almost too energetic. When Moses, who is very broad in the beam, charges at her, he knocks her head over heels.

I hope the Longs party was nice but it was sure to be jolly. I should think that silk would make an awfully pretty blouse and go very well with the yellow skirt. I expect she will have jolly presents. How sad its being so wet on Thursday for cricketing. I expect you were all miserable, especially with your best clothes on.

Of course that beastly little machine won’t work. I never thought it would. George has slaved over it, so have I until I cursed. One of these days I shall chuck it into the canal.

Please give my love to Mother and thank her ever so much for her lovely long letter. I do hope the scorpion etc has arrived quite safely, it would be sad if it didn’t.

Things are going very satisfactorily at the mill just now and they are getting much better reports from London so I hope George’s worries are over. He is still very busy though as they are building onto part of the factory and it needs a lot of looking after. By the way, the petitions I sent back home were not written by the people themselves but by regular professional writers whose business it is. They only just say what they want to and the man composes it, thinks he writes uncommonly good English too, I expect.

We had it very wet on Saturday and Sunday, most unusual for this time of the year as it ought to be pretty hot, but instead it’s fairly cool and breezy. The NE monsoon might break in about a month and then I expect we shall have a lot of rain.

I was nearly forgetting to tell you that I had a caller the other day, quite an exciting event. She was a native lady, a Mrs De Oliveira, very high caste and perfectly English in every way. Her husband is the Police Magistrate at Chilan and he comes over to Marawila, a village a few miles away, once a fortnight, so they have a little house there too. She was very nice indeed and very good looking, a sort of soft browny colour. She had on a brown coat and skirt and pink vest and hat and they were just the colours for her. Her brother is the Maha-Medliyan, the native A&C of the Governor. She has been in London, was there for the Jubilee and was presented at one of the Drawing Rooms. Her sister, Miss Bandaranaika is very well known in society and I think has married an Italian count. I am going to call on her next Tuesday. I wish it didn’t mean going for miles in a bullock cart though.

Don’t laugh at the little home made birthday card but I can’t write for them. It is so unsatisfactory and I thought you might like one I had made myself.

Good bye, I wish I were at home to make you a birthday cake. Oh, I’ll tell you what I want you to give me for a Christmas present – a cake with walnuts in it! There’s nothing like asking for what one wants but the ones we get are rather heavy and underdone somehow and I don’t fancy them and I do long for a nice homemade one. That is of course, if it won’t cost too much to send, it must be just a tiny one.

Lots and love and kisses to everybody

from Mab

Mabel: Killer, Photographer, Spendthrift.

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Madampe

August 20th 1900

Dearest Tommie*

You and mother are the poor old cripples with your rheumatism or neuralgia. I should be inclined to think yours is the latter. Have you taken any of that neuralgia tonic? I should think it would very likely do you good, at any rate I should give it a trial. You certainly ought to adopt some stringent measures to get rid of it. Suffering like that is beyond a joke. Tell Mother she ought to eat as much as she can and I think she ought to have a little whisky either with her dinner or supper. I think she needs it once a day at least. I do hope to hear in your next letter that you are both better.

I like the sound of your silver frame very much but I should certainly choose somebody better looking than that frightful thing of me to put in it. I have not got a frame for your photo but I have stuck it up on a ledge and I shall see it gradually fade away before my eyes. I think it is awfully good of you and of the children too, Elsie particularly, she does look a pretty little thing. But you must have your photograph taken properly because I have not got a decent one of you at all and I want one badly.

By the way, George sent off the bottle with the scorpion etc. last week. I hope it will arrive all right. Don’t be disappointed at the size of the box but it had to be packed very carefully because of the spirit. I hope Mother won’t be frightened of the contents. There are quite a lot of things – a big scorpion, and a tiny one, a tiny centipede, a sort of grasshopper, a small green lizard, like the one that went up my legs, a big lizard that lies about in the sun, and a little snake that George found crawling across the compound. We don’t know its name but it is harmless. I think the scorpion is the most loathsome.

We are so cross. I have been taking a lot of photos lately, especially to send Mother, little views inside and outside the house and lots of the canal, and comic ones of the pups sitting in flowerpots and things and two of the owl we caught and all sorts of things. There were nearly 4 dozen altogether and we sent them to be developed the other day and the man has just sent them back developed, but he says none of them are worth printing, and they aren’t, most of the films have not got anything on them at all and the others only blurred smudges. It is all the fault of the beastly people we bought the films off. They had ‘to be developed by July 1st’ on them so we wrote and told them that and asked them to send us some fresh ones but they wrote back that it didn’t matter and that we should find those quite all right. And now they have turned out to be no good at all, I do feel mad. And the worst of it is that we have got to pay 8 rupees for having them developed, that is 10/6, all for nothing. Of course we shan’t pay for the films themselves. I think they are 6 rupees for 4 rolls. I want George to send them the bill for the developing as well. You might ask sometime or other how much small Kodak films are in England. I wonder if we have to pay much more.

I have just killed one of those tiny scorpions. It was walking on the window ledge so I put a letter weight on him and now the ants are busy carrying him off to their larder. They are capital scavengers.

George and I went for quite a long walk yesterday afternoon after tea. It was fairly cool and there was  nice breeze. We went to some deserted paddy (rice) fields. They are just grassy fields divided by little banks to walk on. When the ground is being irrigated, at certain times the paddy has to be kept almost under water or it won’t grow properly. We got into the very marshy place and had to jump from one tuft of grass to another. We hoped to find some butterflies but it was too late for them, they had all gone to bed. But I got some flowers. There are very few actual flowering plants here, most of them are only green things.

I was nearly forgetting to tell you that we have dismissed our Boy and he went on Sunday. We came to the conclusion we were paying too much for wages, 744 rupees a year which is £37.4 and it seems quite ridiculous for only we two. If we had felt we were getting our money’s worth, it would not have mattered so much, but we weren’t. The Boy had got very lazy and did not look after things at all well and he was really getting R22.50 a month for doing almost nothing as I believe Solomon did most of the cooking. What annoyed us was that he had got very slovenly in his dress lately, wore dirty white coats and would bring up early tea in a dirty yellow sort of flannel coat. I think he thought he was a fixture here and so didn’t take any trouble but he went a little too far. We are really glad of an excuse to get rid of him without exactly being angry with him. George did not like parting with him as he has had him ever since he has been out here and he has some very good qualities. He is very honest and truthful which is a very great thing out here but he is certainly lazy.If he had managed with Solomon it would have been all right but he started another cooly and that was too much. Those two had R10 each a month and the bath cooly R4 so that mounted it up to R46.50 a month. We hope Solomon will stay on as cook with wages of R12.50 or 13, but George hasn’t spoken with him yet as the Boy only went yesterday. Then we shall get a young House Boy for R12.50 or R15 and at any rate we shall save a few rupees a month and feel we are getting more for our money. We really have to pay more wages here than we would in Colombo as they don’t like coming to such an out of the way place.

2.30

George says he is certain Kodak films are much cheaper in England. so if they are a good deal cheaper will you get me 4 rolls. They keep them in airtight tins out here, each with 4 rolls. I expect they do at home too, but if not they ought to be sent in a tin sealed up so that no light can get to them. I’ll send you the label of an old tin for the size etc. But they must be fresh ones that have not got to be developed in too short a time or they will be bad before I can get them done.

I don’t think I have anything else to tell you so ‘Adoo’.

Much love to everybody

from Mab

*Mab’s sister, Amy Gibson.

Food and My Family. Part One: The Veggie Option.

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Food has always been a bit of a thing for our family due to varying needs, desires, temperaments, and opinions. So I’m going to have to split this giant subject into a few parts. I’ll be looking at food allergies and intolerances, meal times, and vegetarianism.

I became a veggie in 1985 when I was 17 years old. I’d been on holiday with my mum and step-dad to Canada and was put off by the slabs of meat on offer all around me. I was already on the verge of vegetarianism, living with an older brother who was a trawler man. (You never knew what might be lurking in the kitchen sink of a morning.) Once back home, I cut meat right out of my diet.

When I met my husband-to-be in my first year at university, he was in his second week of being a veggie, a bet with a friend to see who could last the longest without eating anything that ‘had once had a mother’. So far it had been two weeks and I think because I was already meat-free, it was easier for him to stay strong. He won the bet. He is still a vegetarian now, nearly 30 years on. His friend pretended for a whole year that he was still a contender but we later found out he’d fallen off the wagon after the first month. Mixed grills, burgers, sausages, you name it, he ate it. In secret.

My reason for giving up meat was because of the way animals were treated back in the 80s. I never thought it was wrong to eat animals, as long as they were farmed and slaughtered with compassion. My thoughts began to change a few years ago. I discovered I was B12 deficient, after a long period of frail health. For several months I had been dreaming about red meat. I would wake up salivating over rare steaks and cottage pie. So one evening, when we were out for a meal, I had lamb. It was heavenly. I’ve been eating meat since – but meat from local animals that have been reared well. (Still not too keen on fish as I don’t think I’ll ever get over the early mornings in my childhood kitchen, with the flapping fish and screaming lobsters.)

Our kids have been brought up to decide whether to eat meat or not. The oldest, 21, is a vegan. The middle one, 20, is a meat fanatic. The youngest, 18, after a briefish dabble with vegetarianism, has returned to the dark side.

But I still love a good veggie meal. My favourite restaurant in the world will always be Cranks at Dartington, with its whole food staples, colourful salads, homity pie, and  general lushness. The Cranks Recipe Book was given to me as a student heading off to university and it is still my go to book for all sorts of recipes from Red Dragon Pie to Lentil and Tomato Soup.

That being said, nothing beats a roast dinner. With a decent cut of beef rather than a veggie sausage.

And my B12? I no longer have to have the injections.

Next time: Allergies and Intolerances.