The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: a trip to Somerset, England

A trip to Somerset
A trip to Somerset

I first came across this book in a Paris bookstore at the start of a long Sunday walk up to Montmartre The book being in hard back was a must read for me but should I be sensible and buy it later? It was a steep climb to the top you see. Well, as fellow book addicts will agree, there is no such thing as being sensible when you’re just dying to read a new book. I also thought of my TBR pile in French but then decided an English break was what I needed (any excuse). So I bought the book, carried it around Paris for an entire day and tucked in to my literary feast as soon as I got home.

 

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is  fascinating account on a crime which occured in 1860 and which shocked the whole of England. 3 year old Saville Kent, son of a well to do British Government Official was found murdered, his small body stuffed in an outdoor privy. The man leading the investigation was Mr Jonathan Whicher. It was the sensationalist tabloid story of its the time and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on it. It was one of the most infamous murders of the 19th century; Constance Kent was arrested for the murder of her 3-year-old half-brother.

Some people have found the book long and laborious to read but then it is a lot of detail and investigation in it. However I would advise you not to be put off – it is written in such a captivating way that it is definitely worth persevering with since it is effectively also the story of how forensic investigation first came into being. It was also the springboard to so many new literary journeys for a new breed of character : the literary detective. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot were the literary descendants of Mr.Whicher.

Road Hill House
Road Hill House

Road hill house

My first visit back to the UK after the book and where did I do? Well, I had to really didn’t I?

Road Hill House is now known as Langham House and can be found in the pretty village of rode in Somerset. Beautiful and quaint you might say, was it not for the infamous murder of 1860.

Back in 2010, it was the 150th anniversary of the infamous child murder at Road Hill House and the owners of the house gave a rare opportunity for the public to see the gardens Unfortunately,  I was not able to visit the gardens nor the house but I did get to catch a glimpse of it, and its every big and imposing as it appears in the novel.  The house has seen an increased level of interest since the publication of Kate Summerscale’s book but whilst in Rode, I stumbled across another book on the subject  : Paul Chambers’ ‘Murder Most Foul’ has also been  published about the Rode murder. So, I found myself buying this one too for the journey back!

If you come to Rode looking for the backdrop to a literary mystery you will most certainly find it. I found a lovely corner of a park, picked up my Mr Whicher and started to reread on site. A visit to Rode Chapel on the high street was particular reminiscent of the novel’s events too. A spot of lunch in the local  Cross Keys pub made my literary journey complete and to be honest, most of the village I walked around looked exactly like I imagined it would have back in 1860. I was in the novel; I was there and saw the book come to life right before my very eyes.

One Thousand Chestnut trees, Korea

One Thousand Chestnut Trees, Korean/American writer Mira Stout

Journey to Korea with me
Journey to Korea with me

This is the story of a young New York artist, Anna, tracing her Korean roots. It is a interesting tale, told by Anna, her mother and her grandfather and is a mixture of Korean history with tales of a family legacy .

It has been nominated for several literary awards so this might be a recommendation for some. My reason for reading it was a work colleague travelling to South Korea and I though well if I cant go then I’m just going to have to go on my literary journey. So here I am. I have to admit that I was woefully ignorant of Korea and everything about the culture and people before I read this book.

It is a journey of personal discovery for Anna, the main protagonist, who half Irish and half Korean, is bullied due to her mixed heritage. She grows up in New England and in later years her uncle Hong visits. She realises once he’s gone however that she could have made an effort to get to know him and therefore find out about her heritage. It’s only when she is older and she loses her job in a bookstore (it closes) that she eventually makes the journey ‘back home’.

The book was interesting on many fronts as would be especially impressive to those of you who are fascinated with Korean history – from the horrors of the Japanese occupation to the split of the into the North and the South and the terrible war that ensued, through the modernization of Korea into a Westernized country that maintains its own unique Eastern identity and traditions.

If I did have the chance to go to Korea and this novel really got me thinking, I would like to visit many places there. It really does give you an insight into why and how Korea’s people/country first became segregated and how this segregation not only affects the day to day but also the mindset and the cultures of the people on both sides of the divide.  After reading this book I now have a new found respect for Korea as a country and its people and I like to think that I have some sort of awareness surrounding the human angle of the news headlines that we are currently seeing in the news.

This is the story of the true Korea as it is the story of the Korean spirit.

Literary Journey to China – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a 2005 novel by Lisa See

Travel to China
Travel to China and discover a secret language

 

In rural Hunan province, Lily and her friend Snow Flower are kindred spirits or laotong. Laotong means that the two people in the relationship have emotional closeness and eternal friendship.

Both Lily and Snowflower  experience the painful process of foot binding at the same time. The tradition of binding your daughter’s feet deforms their feet, making them stay small and attractive to men.

But for me the most exciting discovery of the Chinese culture was learning about of Nü Shu a secret phonetic form of ‘women’s writing,  which Lily’s aunt taught them. They also learn Nü Shu songs and stories.

The language is fascinating for many reasons since it reveals a lot about the culture and lifestyle of China at that time. Society was sex-segregated for a start, girls and women did not have the same access to literacy as boys and men though and many people in fact were illiterate.

I couldn’t find out when or how Nü Shu came into being and I don’t actually think anyone knows, but, because it is clearly based in the standard Chinese script, hanzi, but when literacy spread, women stopped learning it and so it began to disappear. The Japanese apparently were wary of it when they invaded China as they thought it might be used to send secret messages!

I loved this as it took me back to a fascinating time albeit one where women were forced to be second class citizens.  It fascinated me on many levels – particularly the use of language  and how they managed to use this secret language to communicate and learn and to really advance as people. The power of language struck me and I found it a very beautiful and unique story – more so that the book itself to be honest.

Where I would like to travel to is to visit women who still use and speak this language and to find out more about how women lived or survived during this time. I have never heard of a language quite like it  – its development and role in society but it made me want to travel into 19th century China and to learn more about it.

When I read up more about what the book was about,  it turns out that a lot of the books written in this secret language were cloth bound booklets given to daughters upon their marriage. They wrote songs in Nüshu, which were performed on the third day after the wedding and they expressed hope and happiness for the bride as she left.

If anyone can tell me more about this forgotten language of the past I would love to know more.

If ever there was a time travel machine I would want to use it now.

A Russian gem

 A great Russian read
A great Russian read

I suppose to a lot of people, when you mention Russian literature to them you would think of maybe Anna Karenina and War and Peace  and more often than not something which may be considered a little boring I would think. But Russian literature is a hidden gem in my eyes. I started out with the easy novels and children’s books as always and even still have my first dual easy reader (French-Russian) as I couldn’t find an English-Russian book. But the time has come to grow up with the Russian lit I told myself and with a Russian styled work project approaching, I thought to myself what better time!

The Government inspector by  Nickolai Gogol.

Essentially, it’s a farce about corruption and stupidity in the local government in Tsarist Russia. But it’s the books clever simplicity which is the real star and which goes even further in emphasising the serious nature of the story.

The plot centres on a small provincial town whose name is never mentioned.  The people there have discovered that the imperial government is sending an undercover inspector to look into the efficiency of its institutions. Since the whole of the town’s administration is corrupt, this is not welcome news. When they hear of a young man from St Petersburg who is staying in one of the town’s inns, they assume that he must be the inspector. They flatter and bribe him, but of course the joke is that he is not really the inspector at all.

The potential for farce and comedy here are huge  and as I remembered a plot using a hotel inspector in an episode of Fawlty towers, this brought a smile to my face even before I’d read  very far in the book.

However, although the play does also amount to an attack on the local governmental institutions themselves, it is the way in which it is written, that is so clever and funny. Penned in the early 1800s, the political atmosphere of the time must have been quite severe and restrictive, yet the comedy shines through and the whole book could be transmitted across the ages to more or less any country to some degree. In particular , the characters Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky will remind English speaking readers in particular  of a variation of Tweedledum and Tweedledee or the two male puppets Statler and Waldorf,who sit in the balcony on the Muppet Show. (Incidentally I discovered years ago that these two muppets were named after classic hotels in New York, so this was once part of my NY tour at the time)

Standing in Red Square amongst the government buildings,  the grandeur of the past is omnipresent on so many levels. But having read The Government Inspector, I felt I had peeled a little layer away and seen a hidden and surprisingly fun level of Russian society that I had never expected to discover. I’ve always thought that the towers and grandeur of the Russian architecture does sadly not reflect the history or politics but it is represented in this book – the hidden comedy and secret layers of a society and its people.

If you visit Russia, you cannot fail to be moved by the beauty of Red Square but it’s the streets and buildings of the government quarters that really give you a keener sense of what this book is talking about and the hidden secrets deep within.

Richard III, England

Lots of history to go back into!
My lovely collection of historical fiction – well some of it. Too many books to fit on one photo!

The news that the skeleton of Richard III has been found recently is a very exciting discovery in my opinion. Since I read a lot of historical fiction, I have recently read a lot on this infamous character from the past.

Many people will think they know a lot about him whether by history lessons or from reading Shakespeare.  However, a book I recommend in order to find out about him further, and his role in perhaps one of the biggest mysteries of all time: is ‘The Princes in the tower’ by Alison Weir.

The book reconstructs the entire chain of events leading to the double murder. I’ve read a lot of her books and particularly enjoyed her historical novels. But since meeting her on her book tour where she was presenting her book  ‘Mary Boleyn the Great and Infamous Whore‘,  I bought several of her fiction and non fiction titles which I have been working my way through ever since.

As both an historian and a writer of historical fiction, I admire her writing and writing style. And I was no less impressed with her research behind the murder of Edward IV’s two young sons, Edward V and Richard, the Duke of York, at the hands of Richard III – who usurped the English throne during the War of the Roses.

She reaches her verdict that Richard is solely responsible for ordering the two princes deaths while locked up in the Tower of London. However, she does provide thorough evidence against Richard. She also manages to really describe the  life in pre-Tudor England, by explaining how anti-Richard sentiment was often exaggerated for the benefit the Tudor rules who followed the Plantagenets.
In hindsight, Richard III will always be the wicked and power-hungry hunchback as depicted by Shakespeare. But what this book gave me was a insight into a remarkable figure in history. One whose remains I have seen discovered on ‘The King in the Car Park’ programme on Channel 4 as well as my rediscovering of him through Alison’s book.

For true history buffs like myself, I recommend travelling down to Bosworth field where Richard III was killed in battle in 1485. The modern landscape differs markedly in appearance from that of 1485 as the former open fields have been enclosed by straight hedges for example and there is now a  canal which was opened in 1804 and a railway in 1873.

Nevertheless, to really appreciate the life and the man that Richard 3 was, reading this book and visiting Bosworth field is to take a step closer to the past.