by Stephen Reid
As the winter season closes in, the Editor gently suggested I pause in discussing all things Dickens and perhaps mention other books I have managed to read—and could recommend—up to the half year mark. So, herewith a trio...
Village School by Miss Read
The recent death of prolific English author Dora Saint (1913–2012), best known by the pseudonym ‘Miss Read’, prompted me to pick up this first book of an author I had always been curious about. She was best known for two series of novels set in the English countryside—the Fairacre novels (20 books between 1955–1996) and the Thrush Green novels (15 books between 1959–2009). Village School is the first in the Fairacre Series. Both series were based on her life as a village school teacher.
In her cycle of village life the more disturbing aspects of the modern world are kept safely at bay. The cast of local characters includes eccentric vicars, pompous postmistresses and bucolic farming families. Village daily life—and its minor crises—are all chronicled in precise, loving, though unsentimental, detail with chapters such as The Jumble Sale, Miss Clare Falls Ill, Choir Practice, The Sad Affair of the Eggs. She has a gentle, descriptive style that is wonderfully gifted in describing the English countryside. An utterly charming book! ($20, PB)
Reveille in Washington by Margaret Leech
REVEILLE. Noun. The sounding of a bugle early in the morning to awaken and summon people in a military camp or garrison. From Old French—resveiller—to awaken.—Webster’s Dictionary.
In spite of his nearly seventy five years and his increasing infirmities, the General was addicted to the pleasures of the table...Before his six o’clock dinner, his black servant bought out the wines and liqueurs, setting the bottles of claret to warm by the fire. The old man had refined his palate in the best restaurants in Paris ... he liked woodcock, English snipe, the hams of his native Virginia. Yet nothing equalled the delicacy he called ‘tarrapin’... Leaning his left elbow on the table and holding a fork laden with the succulent tortoise, he would announce, “The best food vouchsafed by Providence to man” before hurrying the fork to his lips.”
This description of 75 year old General Winfield Scott (1786–1866), Commander of the United States Armies, obese, infirm and gorging himself on Terrapin at Cruchet’s (Washington’s most famed restaurant) in 1861, just as the Union is about to dissolve into Civil War, opens Margaret Leech’s (1893–1974) richly detailed narrative of Washington DC during the four year conflict.
First published in 1941, on the eve of America’s entry into World War Two, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History the following year. Long out of print, it’s now available once more in a handsome edition from New York Review Books. The author uses a colourful descriptive style and a kaleidoscopic range of sources to trace both the growth and change of the city itself and the fortunes of a representative cast of citizens, both eminent and humble. In 1861—as historian James M. McPherson notes in his insightful introduction—Washington DC was little more than a provincial town surrounded by slave states. A seat of government for a confederation of powerful sovereign entities. By 1865, it had transformed itself into a powerful national capital—one of a nation reunified and purged of slavery and state sovereignty by the copious shedding of blood.
The change to the city was physical as well as political. Built on a swamp, Washington’s open drainage ditches carried raw sewage across the unpaved streets to within sight of the White House. Sanitation was rudimentary. Disease was rife. In 1862, President Lincoln’s 11 year old son Willie, died of typhoid fever caused by drinking contaminated water. Communal rubbish tips were plentiful. Wild pigs roamed the streets. Apart from a few impressive public edifices—the White House, the Treasury, the Patent Office—most buildings were simply impermanent wooden structures, many housing a large population of transients.
Yet by 1865, the combined efforts of the Government, the Army and the newly established United States Sanitary Commission, a volunteer organisation, had brought some order and relief to public health facilities, which had been totally overwhelmed by the influx of thousands of wounded Union soldiers into the capital from 1862 onwards. An extensive building programme of public and private residences gradually replaced a city of wood with that of stone—the completion of the great dome on the Capitol Building shortly after the end of the war was seen by contemporaries as representative of this transformation.
This book is also populated with a cast of wonderfully drawn individuals. A tragic hero in Abraham Lincoln. Pathos, as represented by the private and public trials of his wife, Mary. Warriors such as General Ulysses S. Grant. Villains, in assassin John Wilkes Booth and Rose Greenhow—seductive social hostess and Confederate spy. Matthew Brady, diligently labouring to create a photographic record of the great conflict. Future giants of American literature, Poet Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass) and author Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), were both toiling as nurses in military hospitals.
Above all Margaret Leech’s book is an entertaining and informative portrait of Washington itself during the four most critical years of its history. ($28, PB)
Midnight in Peking by Paul French
“I’ve been alone all my life…I am afraid of nothing — nothing! And besides, Peking is the safest city in the world.”
The last known words of 19 year old Englishwoman Pamela Werner to her concerned friends as she prepared to cycle home alone from a Peking ice skating rink at around midnight on 7 January, 1937. At dawn the next morning, her horribly mutilated body was found at the foot of an old imperial fort called the Fox Tower near the eastern outskirts of the wartime city—an area known as the ‘Badlands’—on the fringe of the Chinese Underworld.
Her father was 72 year old Edward T. C. Werner, retired diplomat and scholar. Pamela’s horrendous death—she could only be identified by her watch, clothing and the grey iris of one eye—caused an international sensation. Combined with the approach of the Imperial Japanese Army, it sent the city into a panic. A bungled and half hearted Chinese-British police investigation petered out by June 1937. The British Consul in Peking declared an open verdict. One month later the Japanese Army occupied the city and Pamela’s fate was forgotten by all—except her grieving father.
Using his contacts, influence and money, Edward Werner conducted his own private investigation and, during four years of internment by the Japanese, sent numerous letters recording his findings and accusations to the British Foreign Office. This file, rediscovered by Paul French in the British Archives, forms the centrepiece of his book. He lines up the suspects: émigré White Russians, a Chinese criminal gang or—most likely, according to both Werner and French—a high society deviant dentist, Wentworth Prentice, who ran a nudist colony in the Western Hills outside Peking and allegedly headed a sex cult that intimidated prostitutes and lured unsuspecting young women to parties where they were raped and threatened with hunting knives.
Using this fresh material along with contemporary newspaper articles, books by or about people of the time and interviews with the few left who actually knew Pamela, French offers a speculative reconstruction —‘Invitation to a Party’— of her fatal evening. Case closed after 75 years? Perhaps ... yet I would have liked to have read at least some of Edward Werner’s actual letters and heard his voice.
This is a intriguing book. The author writes well, the subject is compelling yet at the end of it I was even more curious as to how Edward Werner uncovered the truth of his daughter’s fate and his efforts to secure belated justice for her. ($19.95, PB) Stephen Reid