Posted on: March 13, 2018

It occurred to me that many of the books I’ve enjoyed the most over the years have all been set in the Spring/early Summer.  I don’t know why this is, I would’ve thought Autumn would be more my time, but that’s how it goes.  So as it’s now Spring-time (allegedly) I thought I’d mention a few of the books I’ve liked which always remind me of this season.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

The “excellent women” of the title refers to those reliable spinsters (to use an old-fashioned word) who were often the backbones of their small communities, volunteering for thankless menial work, but for whatever reason – usually a shortage of men – they never seemed to be fortunate in the love department.  Mildred Lathbury is one such woman, living by herself in a small London apartment in the 1950s, and helping out at her local church.   I loved Mildred, and her small, unassuming lifestyle.  She is a great character, often quietly fuming inside at the worthy image she has (so now I’m the kind of woman who always hangs up her tea-towel am I!).  Over the course of a few months we follow Mildred as she gets caught up in the relationships all around her, particularly with her neighbours.

The Face Of Trespass by Ruth Rendell

My favourite RR novel, it concerns a washed-up writer, living in a tumbledown cottage in the Essex countryside, and trying to survive on the few meagre royalties his book still earns.  He is obsessed by the memory of a temperamental lover.  This is not one of RR’s Inspector Wexford novels, which suits me just fine, as I’m not a fan of the police procedural genre, and I was fascinated by the lonely life of the central character.  I feel RR was at her very best when writing about lonely people living on the edge of mainstream society.  The book opens at the beginning of May, which  was the time of year when I first read it.

Hangover Square, & Mr Stimpson & Mr Gorse by Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton is probably most famous these days for writing the play Gaslight, on which two famous thrillers of the 1940s were based (one starring Ingrid Bergman), and giving rise to to the expression “gaslighting”, to show psychological abuse in a relationship.   But he was also responsible for Hangover Square, which for me is one of the finest British thrillers I’ve ever read, and The Gorse Trilogy, about a psychopathic conman, Ralph Gorse (brilliantly filmed as The Charmer in the 1980s, starring Nigel Havers).   Both books begin in the month of January and span the following few months.  In Hangover Square, the central character, a troubled young man called George Harvey Bone, is returning to London after the Christmas holidays, and resuming his wasted existence, moving from grim bedsits in Earl’s Court to seedy London pubs.   He is obsessed with a woman called Netta, who is downright sociopathic and not worth anybody’s time.  The book details their wretched relationship over the next few months, culminating in tragedy at the end of Summer, just as War is about to break out.  In Mr Stimpson & Mr Gorse, the middle book in the Gorse Trilogy, Gorse has found his way to Reading (of all places), where he proceeds to prey upon the insufferably silly Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, in order to divest her of all her savings.   It is said that Hamilton based Gorse on the notorious sexual sadist and murderer Neville Heath, who preyed upon vulnerable women in the chaos of immediate post-war Britain, and who was hanged in 1946.  Ralph Gorse remains a horribly convincing portrait of an amoral psychopath devoid of all feeling.

The Haunting Of Toby Jugg, & The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley

I’ve blogged about Toby Jugg on another page, but for me this is Wheatley on top form, and listening to a recent audio book of it confirmed just how scary it is in parts.  The novel is told in journal format, and covers a few weeks in the life of one Toby Jugg, a young airman crippled during active service in WW2.  Toby has been sent to a remote castle in Wales to convalesce, and fears that his carers are trying to deliberately drive him insane so that they can get their hands on his inheritance (his 21st birthday is only a few weeks away).   The book covers most of May and June, culminating in grim Satanic rites on Midsummer’s Eve.   Wheatley can be a trifle long-winded, and with a tendency to rant at times, which may be off-putting for some readers used to a brisker, more taut style of story-telling, but some of the scenes are amongst the scariest I’ve ever come across in a horror novel, and those damn spiders … ugh!  I’ve heard there is a filmed version of this around (The Haunted Airman), but I don’t think I could watch it for that reason.   Wheatley’s most famous novel, The Devil Rides Out, is also set in the Spring, culminating as it does on May Eve, Walpurgis Night, the 30th April, and said to be one of the Satanic highlights of the year.   Once you’ve read this, or seen the famous Hammer film version, the end of April will never be the same again.

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

This much-loved book is also told in journal format.  It is the story of a 17-year-old girl, Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her eccentric family in a crumbling Suffolk castle in the 1930s.  She falls in love for the first time, but unfortunately it’s with her sister’s fiance, and the bittersweet pain of first love has never been better evoked.  Cassandra begins her diary on a cold, wet, miserable March day (“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”), and the bulk of the book covers the months March, April, May and June.  The whole way Dodie writes about the English countryside shouts of a homesick exile, living as she was in California at the time she wrote it.   When the weather warms up Cassandra takes her diary to write outside, and we get beautiful words like “the moat is full of sky”.  Stand-out scenes are the May Day walk to the village pub, the nocturnal swim in the moat, and Cassandra’s special way of celebrating Midsummer’s Eve.   I often think of it as Dodie’s love letter to home.

Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy

This book spans several years, covering as it does the lives of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, but I first read it in the run-up to Easter, and I always seem to start thinking of Anne at this time of the year, probably because she was executed on May 19th.  There are numerous books about the Tudor wives out on the market, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this one, simply because JP doesn’t try to reinvent the characters to suit some modern perspective, which can often be a failing with modern historical fiction.  It is also Plaidy in her prime, before she had a tendency to slip into sausage machine mode, of churning out several books a year.

Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier

Containing quite possibly one of the most memorable openings in English Literature (“last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”), Rebecca concerns a nameless young woman who falls in love with a mysterious older man, Max de Winter, whilst working as a paid companion in the south of France.  He takes her back to his ancestral home in Cornwall, which is still saturated with the memory of his first wife, the beautiful, vibrant Rebecca, who drowned there only a year before.   The main part of the novel is set in late spring/early summer, as Max and his young bride return to Cornwall around May/June time.  I can never forget the huge bank of rhododendrons the narrator sees when she first arrives at Manderley.

Summer At Fairacre by Miss Read

Miss Read – her real name was Mrs Dora Saint – wrote many popular novels set around the fictional small English villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green.  My favourites were the Fairacre school books, narrated by a feisty, good-humoured headmistress.  She began these with Village School in the mid-1950s, and turned them out on a regular basis until Miss Read finally took a well-deserved retirement in the 1990s.   Miss Read remains one of my favourite fictional characters of all time, and I love the gentle, understated humour in these books.   Summer At Fairacre was published in the early 1980s, and begins on March 21st, the first day of Spring, when it snows!  The book covers the next 6 months, coming to a close on Michaelmas Day, at the end of September.  I love it, and Miss Read is often at her funniest in her observations on the absurdities of life.  She’s not as starchy as she can sometimes appear in the early 1950s books.   Yes, these books are cosy and idealistic, but they don’t paint an impossibly idyllic view.  The village has its fair share of strife (particularly if it’s anything to do with Arthur Coggs), and it reminds me of growing up in a small village in the mid-20th century.

Writing about some of these has left me with the slim hope it might inspire the weather to warm up a bit.  I won’t hold my breath on that one.  Anyway, whatever you’re reading this Spring, I hope it gives you as much pleasure as these books have given me.



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