Betsy & Lilibet by Sophie Duffy – Two women, Same birth date, Different Lives

Northern Reader

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This in some senses is the story of two women. One is possibly the best known woman in the world; Queen Elizabeth II. The other comes from a family well known only in the local area of London, Elizabeth Sarah Sunshine, Undertaker. It is such a personal, clever book which actually tells the story of the more obscure and fictional Elizabeth, looking back over decades of a life lived amongst the people of part of London. Her family, her friends and her clients make up the back drop of a woman who stayed in one place despite war, peace, happiness and sadness, and the departure of so many in all senses. This is the story of an ordinary life, but as with all seemingly ordinary lives, extraordinary things happen. In the background there are the comments of the more famous Elizabeth, always interesting, sometimes broadly relevant, always well known. I…

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Update on The Crown and the Coffin.

If you read my post earlier about the first time I thought about writing #BetsyandLilibet, you would know that I got the name Sunshine from a lovely talented woman who sold me a bespoke candle in a coronation mug at #KillertonHouse, a National Trust property.

Well. I searched the internet and managed to message Sam Sunshine and told her that ‘Betsy and Lilibet’ is published today. And she got back to me and said she has a four year old dog called Betsy! How cool is that?

Here is the fabulous Betsy.

The Crown and the Coffin: ‘Betsy and Lilibet’

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London, 1926. Two baby girls are born just hours and miles apart. One you know as the Queen of England, but what of the other girl – the daughter of an undertaker named in her honour? Betsy Sunshine grows up surrounded by death in war-torn London, watching her community grieve for their loved ones whilst dealing with her own teenage troubles… namely her promiscuous sister Margie. As Betsy grows older we see how the country changes through her eyes, and along the way we discover the birth of a secret that threatens to tear her family apart.

My fourth novel with Legend Press is published today. (Hurrah!) ‘Betsy and Lilibet’ has been a long time coming. The first idea came to me about five years ago when I was browsing at a vintage fair in the grounds of Killerton House in Devon. I came across a local candle maker who uses vintage jelly moulds and china. I bought a Coronation Mug filled with her homemade scented natural soy candles. And when I read from her business card that her surname was Sunshine, I asked if I could possibly borrow that name some time in the future and she kindly said yes. It also turned out that our daughters went to the same school. The stars aligned that day.

I didn’t know then that I would be writing a novel about two Elizabeths but as the Queen approached ninety years of age, I felt drawn towards her story. And I wondered about another girl who might’ve been born on that same day, with the same name, and the path that she might’ve taken.

Betsy Sunshine is born into a family of undertakers, Sunshine & Sons. But there are no sons, just a troublesome younger sister, and that is how Betsy becomes the head of the family business, dutifully serving her community just as her namesake serves her country. Over the course of ninety years – oh, the births, marriages, deaths, war, terrorists and, of course, the coronation – the two Elizabeths will meet three times. And at the heart of the novel lies a secret that Betsy has kept in the shadows since 1947. As she approaches her ninetieth birthday, it is time that this secret is aired in the sunshine.

I’m really proud of ‘Betsy and Lilibet’, delighted that it is finally in the bookshops, and hope you get the chance to read it.giphy

And if you are able, you are invited to the book launch at Hugh Mills and Gaye undertakers in King Street, Newton Abbot on Thursday 18th October at 6. Just RSVP to info@legend-paperbooks.co.uk

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Told with wit and warmth, this is a gritty, truly British, saga; from war time childhood fortitude though to a lifetime of love, loss and laughter. Dive in and enjoy! Paul McVeigh

A charming and funny look at family, loyalty and love during the Queen’s reign. I think Her Majesty would approve. Cathy Bramley

So atmospheric you can almost smell the Brylcreem… Laurie Graham

Clever and charming, I loved this look at the complications of family life. Katie Fforde

#100WomenNovelists: Patricia Highsmith

Blog Post 36: The Talented Mr Ripley (1956)

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Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt that the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.

‘The Talented My Ripley’ is the first of five novels known collectively as the Ripliad. I’ve only read the first but I can see why Highsmith couldn’t leave Ripley alone. He’s a sociopath, psychopath, an amoral anti-hero, but such is his charm and complex depth of character, we literally want him to get away with murder.

Highsmith famously said Ripley was her. Like Ripley, she was an outsider. Like Ripley, she left America where she never found her place, choosing to spend her time in Europe. Like Ripley, she too was a complex human being. I don’t really want to talk too much about her as a person; suffice it to say she doesn’t appear to have been terribly nice, going so far as to write racist letters to the papers under a pseudonym, for example.

But there’s no doubting this is a remarkable book, far more than the mystery or detective stories popular in the USA in the 50s. It has never been out of print, has been made into films and plays, and right now is the perfect book to satisfy the current appetite for psychological thrillers. Tightly plotted, with its close third person narration, full of subtlety and existentialism, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ really deserves its place as a classic.

If you wanted to be cheerful, or melancholic, or wistful, or
thoughtful, or courteous, you simply had to act those
things with every gesture.

Highsmith offers no point of view other than Ripley’s and he is a character that makes you unsettled – about those you love and about yourself. Not many books play on your mind as much as this one.

And if you watch the 1999 Anthony Minghella film, don’t compare it to the novel as there are some big differences. But the essence of Tom Ripley is captured well by Matt Damon.

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Believe it or not, I think I’ll be revisiting Ripley soon.

 

 

 

 

#100WomenNovelists: Janice Galloway

Blog Post 35: The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989)

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I can’t remember the last week with any clarity.

I want to be able to remember it because it was the last time anything was in any way unremarkable. Eating and drinking routinely, sleeping when I wanted to remember but I don’t.

Now I remember everything all the time. You never know what you might need to recollect later, when the significance of the moment might appear. They never give you any warning.

They never give you any warning.

When I began this series, I wrote a list off the top of my head of my favourite novels written by women in the 20th Century. I had no plan other than to choose a hundred of these. But I did know the series would be unlikely to include Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath; I know their writing well enough, studied as part of my English degree, but so much has been written about them. I wanted to choose some lesser known writers. Janice Galloway is far from unknown, but The Trick is to Keep Breathing is often compared to Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar. So I chose this as an alternative. And I much prefer it.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing charts the breakdown of Joy Stone, a drama teacher, following the death of her married lover. But far from being self-indulgent or depressing, this novel, with its rawness and brutality, has spirit and, ultimately, hope. It is a stunning depiction of the human mind in free fall and has rightly become a classic, establishing Galloway as one of the foremost Scottish writers of our time.

There are two reasons this novel stands out. The first is the use of the text itself; the different fonts, the out-of kilter layout, the words that sometimes fall off the page, the form really does reflect the content. The use of repetition, sections of dialogue exchange, adverts, agony aunt letters, horoscopes, flashbacks – all these fragments make up the whole of her confused mind and, like Joy, we must navigate our way through the disjointed narrative, filling in the gaps.

The second is the character of Joy herself. She has a history of family suicide, PTSD, an eating disorder – this should be a terribly downbeat novel. But Joy’s dry wit, her sarcasm, and her desire to find some meaning in her mess of a life, drag this piece kicking and screaming into the light. In part existential, in part an intimate portrayal of the daily grind of routine, this is an extraordinary read. I highly recommend it.

#100WomenNovelists: Monica Dickens

Blog Post 34: Mariana (1940)

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Mary sometimes heard people say: ‘I can’t bear to be alone.’ She could never understand this. All her life she had needed the benison of occasional solitude, and she needed it now more than ever. If she could not be with the man she loved, then she would rather be by herself.

Mariana opens with Mary, in a remote cottage during a storm, her telephone line down, waiting to hear news of her husband whose ship has struck a mine and sunk, with the loss of many lives. She has no way of finding out tonight if her husband is one of the survivors picked up by a merchant ship. She must wait for the morning to come. Meanwhile she replays the events of her life up until this point to keep herself occupied.

This is a coming-of-age novel, often compared to Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love or Dodie Smith’s I capture the Castle. It’s truly a charming and witty read, a precedent for a later generation of novelists such as Jilly Cooper with her Prudence series. In fact, the marvellous Jilly Cooper has a quote on the back cover of my edition by Persephone Books. I galloped through it, pushed on by the breathlessness of the young narrator, whose idyllic 1920s childhood and 30s teenage years are brimmed full of nostalgia in the run-up to what we, the reader, know lies ahead. The opening is a stark reminder of this.

As with many other novels in this series of blog posts on #100WomenNovelists of the twentieth century, Mariana is semi-autobiographical and, though it is extremely accessible, this doesn’t mean there is no depth. As well as the intimate period details, there is a strong sense of place (who will ever forget Charbury, her grandparents’ country house?). But ultimately, this is a story of a young woman finding herself in a world that has largely cushioned her in girls’s schools, a (disastrous) drama school and as a lady’s companion. Her mother is central to this. Often strapped for cash, she has brought up Mary pretty much single-handedly, has always worked incredibly hard, been a solid, surprising role model. But Mary only wants one thing: to be married.

On a stormy night during the War, Mary waits to see if her childhood ambition will be crushed. Is she now a widow? In the agony of ignorance, she has a moment of clarity:

You had to go on. When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person…Nothing that ever happens in life can take away the fact that I am me. So I have to go on being me. There’s only me now.

 

 

 

#100WomenNovelists: Mary Wesley

Blog Post 33: The Camomile Lawn (1984)

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Helena Cuthbertson picked up the crumpled Times by her sleeping husband and went to the flower room to iron it.

The opening sentence to The Camomile Lawn says so much in so few words. We get a glimpse of Helena’s life. She has a husband, sleeping. She has a ‘flower room’. She likes to read the Times, pristine, so much so that she needs to iron it. We see her frustration with her husband from the outset, a frustration that is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, for most of the central characters.

I first came across The Camomile Lawn when it was dramatised for Channel 4 in 1992 with a wonderful cast of characters and much sauciness. I’d never seen anything like it; the war time experiences of young people on the Home Front, losing their innocence, grabbing life by the throat because there might not be a tomorrow. When I read the novel I realised how good the adaptation was. And when I became a fledging novelist in my thirties, I was delighted to discover that Mary Wesley wrote this book in her seventies.

Based on Wesley’s own wartime experiences, the novel opens with the various teenage cousins spending the summer of 1939 in Cornwall, at Aunt Helena’s house, like they do every year. But they understand this will be the last time for who knows how long. War looms over those rocky cliffs, casting shadows over the camomile lawn laid by Helena who was wrongly warned it would never flourish. It is still there, years later, when the cousins finally return in their late middle age to attend a funeral.

In 1939, ten-year-old Sophy lives with Helena and her Uncle Richard (the sleeping husband), having been born out of wedlock to Richard’s half-sister who subsequently and inconveniently died. Helena has no experience of children, having been widowed in the last war and finds the task of motherhood trying to say the least. And while Helena lost a husband and the possibility of her own family, Richard lost a limb in the trenches and can’t do the things he’d like to do because of ‘his leg’.

Added to this unusual mix of upper class relatives, is a Jewish musician and his wife, both German refugees. Max and Monica have left behind a son in a camp, with no idea of what will become of him. But they bring music and good housekeeping and sex and each member of the family will be changed by them.

Flitting between London and Cornwall, between the past and the present, Wesley weaves a tale of love and loss, of frustration and rejection, of hope and dreams. Her wit is cutting. Her rambling viewpoint brave and deft. You are left feeling breathless with longing for something that is gone, relieved that you never had to live through this time, knowing there will never be a generation like this again.

#100WomenNovelists: Elizabeth Taylor

Blog Post 32: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971, Virago Modern Classics)

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Mrs Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January. Rain had closed in over London, and her taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road, past one cavernous porch after another, the driver going slowly and poking his head out into the wet, for the hotel was not known to him. This discovery, that he did not know, had a little disconcerted Mrs Palfrey, for she did not know it either, and began to wonder what she was coming to.

Elizabeth Taylor wrote twelve novels, four volumes of short stories and a children’s book and for a long time was largely forgotten, like Barbara Pym (see Blog Post 21). Like Pym, Taylor wrote about the smallness and ordinariness of the middle-class and upper middle-class with wit and pathos and such attention to detail.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an exquisite tragicomic novel about old age, in particular the old age of the widow. Set in a jaded, genteel hotel, in postwar London, a recently widowed Mrs Palfrey and her fellow residents are cut off from the changing society of the 60s. They are waiting out their remaining years in this dull hotel, praying for some distant relative to take them out for a drive or for a meal at a restaurant to give them some variety, some relief from the dull routine of their daily lives.

Then one day, on her return from the library, Mrs Palfrey trips and falls. A young man, Ludo, comes to her rescue and helps her inside to his basement flat to clean her cuts and give her a cup of tea. After this chance meeting they become unlikely friends and partners in subterfuge. Mrs Palfrey now has her very own visitor.

Taylor captures the nuances of hotel life. The whisky-drinking Mrs Burton, the constant-knitter, Mrs Post, the irate Mr Osmond. Time passes slowly. Days melt into days. Weeks into weeks. How Mrs Palfrey longs for the sight of lilac blossoms in the square.

It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; everyday for the old means some little thing lost. Names slip away, dates mean nothing, sequences become muddled, and faces blurred. Both infancy and age are tiring times.

Touching, funny, wonderful.

 

#100WomenNovelists: Elizabeth Jenkins

Blog Post 31: The Tortoise and the Hare (1954)

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The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square… Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a  pattern of raised wheat ears… Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which the cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.

What a delight to discover Elizabeth Jenkins and to realise how many books she wrote, both biographies and novels. I came across her during my research for my work-in-progress set in the Second World War on the home front. This is the first I have read of her and I am sure I will devour the rest of her books if this is anything to go by.

Jenkins is put into the group of women novelists who wrote in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Her sense of dislocation is compared to her close friend, Elizabeth Bowen’s. Her dry wit is akin to that of Barbara Pym. But, in the introduction to the Virago edition of 2008, Hilary Mantel compares her to Jane Austen – ‘formal, nuanced, acid’.

This is a novel of great subtlety, subtext, and atmosphere. Over the course of the narrative there is an almost unbearable build up of tension. A tension that kept me gripped all the way through to its surprising yet satisfying conclusion.

At its heart, this is a story about marriage. Set not long after the war, the characters are trying to return to a normal, settled life, split between London and Berkshire. But this upper middle-class existence is now on shaky ground and it is very hard for Imogen to know and keep her place at the centre of her older, handsome, QC husband’s attentions. Imogen does her best to placate Evelyn, to bend to his will, to keep him happy, as we see from the opening paragraph where they look at a piece of pottery in an antique shop. While Imogen is struck by the simple beauty of the piece,  Evelyn cannot see past its imperfections. And so they do not buy it.

As the novel progresses, we feel great empathy for Imogen, especially from a 21st century perspective. Her husband is overbearing and her son imitates his father so that she is isolated in her own home. And then there is Blanche Silcox, a middle-aged, frousty, horsey neighbour who has Evelyn in her clutches. Imogen, who only has her looks and femininity to rely on, can do nothing to compete with the competent, countrified, monied Blanche. But the novel is so much more than this. The psychological depth is extraordinary. The characters brilliantly drawn. Each sentence exquisite. Thank goodness there are so many more books to read by this remarkable writer.

#100WomenNovelists: Jan Struther

Blog Post 30: Mrs Miniver (1939)

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It was lovely, thought Mrs Miniver, nodding good-bye to the flower-woman and carrying her big sheaf of chrysanthemums down the street with a kind of ceremonious joy, as though it were a cornucopia; it was lovely, this settling down again, this tidying away of the summer into its box, this taking up of the thread of one’s life where the holidays (irrelevant interlude) had made one drop it.

Mrs Miniver doesn’t have a plot as such being more a collection of episodic events. But Mrs Miniver is a fictional character, based loosely on Jan Struther, and so I have classified this as a novel for the purposes of the blog.

Mrs Miniver started life as a column in The Times. Jan Struther was asked to write about ‘an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life – rather like yourself’. It was very popular and was published in book form in 1939, just after the outbreak of war. In fact, Churchill said that Mrs Miniver did more for the Allied cause than a fleet of battleships and destroyers.

Mrs Miniver is a housewife, married to an architect and mother to three. The family lives in Chelsea, has servants, and the eldest child goes to Eton. But this upper middle-class existence celebrates the ordinary, everyday events of life – from a spring day to the purchasing of a new diary – that most people will be able to relate to. She certainly isn’t a snob. She knows she lives a charmed life. But there is something about her zestful, joyful nature that means we don’t begrudge her this existence.

It oughtn’t to need a war to make us talk to each other in buses, and invent our own amusements in the evenings, and live simply, and eat sparingly, and recover the use of our legs, and get up early enough to see the sun rise. However, it has needed one: which is about the severest criticism our civilisation could have.

Mrs Miniver was made into an academy award-winning film of the same name starring Greer Garson. It was released in June 1942 , one of the first Hollywood films to be overtly anti-Nazi (‘We will come. We will bomb your cities.’). Soon after, the Americans strengthened their war efforts. And even Goebbels was said to admire this piece of propaganda.

Next I think I will watch the film which has quite a different tone. But I’m glad to have read Mrs Miniver first.