Sunday, 29 March 2020

'The Lark - E Nesbit

During these strange times of isolation, social distancing and almost-lockdown in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, like many people I am seeking comfort in books. So, whether anyone wants it or not, I will be writing here about the books I've been reading. And I hope that, if you're looking for hot-water-bottle book recommendations for yourself, then some of these sound appealing to you, too.



You know Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) even if you think you don't. She wrote The Railway ChildrenThe Story of The Treasure Seekers (and several others about the Bastable children), The Story of the Amulet and, well, about 50 others. She mostly wrote for children but there were also a hefty number of books for adults, of which The Lark (1922) was the final one. It came just two years before her death. Although the cover I've reprinted above gives the impression this is another children's book, it really isn't - I just pinched this one off the internet as I thought it was a lovely cover. Below is the edition of The Lark that I read. Which looks a bit more grown-up.

On the face of it, The Lark is a whimsical fantasy story. Two orphaned and delightful cousins, Jane and Lucilla, leave boarding school at the age of 19 or 20 (which seems rather old to still be at school but let's not quibble). Their mysterious guardian, whom they have never met, writes to say he is sending a car to pick them up, and when it arrives they are whisked to idyllic little Hope Cottage in the English countryside. Here they find a note from their guardian saying he has made a bad investment, lost their inheritance and done a runner. Eek. 

Being girls educated in the 1910s, Jane and Lucilla are equipped with no useful skills with which to forge their own ways in the world. But both are wholesome, cheerful and endearing, and everything they need just falls at their feet. They start selling flowers from their garden to passers-by. And when they have depleted the garden's meagre supplies, they fall in with the kind folks who own - but seemingly don't live in - the big house up the road, who let them set up a flower shop on site and sell all the flowers from their plentiful garden. No strings attached. They end up in a range of - ultimately harmless - scrapes. It's a lark.

Everything seamlessly falls into place for these two. When they need a gardener, they stumble upon a dejected war hero who just so happens to be an unemployed gardener in need of a job and a home. When they need somewhere else to live and more outlets from which to earn a living, these also fall into their laps. Along with the necessary people to help them. 

But don't be put off by the sickliness. The Lark is a sweet, comforting, reassuring read in times that are unpleasant, disorientating and confusing. The English countryside looms large in the story, as do old-fashioned values and the kindness of humanity. Community spirit is a large character here. And there is a lot we can draw from The Lark and its can-do attitude and apply to our own situation. 

And of course, with E Nesbit we are in good hands. She knows how to tell a story, to create characters and write a page-turner of a plot. Some of her other books, eg the aforementioned Story of the Amulet, incorporated fantasy elements and magical storytelling, and while The Lark is realistic you can see the influence. Surely, only a fantasy writer would believe in a world so perfect as the one Jane and Lucilla fall into? In fact, E Nesbit's magical writing was said to be so groundbreaking that she was considered an influence on other writers who came after her, including PL Travers (who, of course, created Mary Poppins) and even Harry Potter writer JK Rowling. 

PS - It might also be worth revisiting some of E Nesbit's books for children in the coming months, and I would push The Complete History of the Bastable Family (1928) to the top of your reading list if so. At more than 1,000 pages, this collection of the three books will keep you occupied for a fair while. 


Now, more than ever, it is so important to support your local, independent retailers to help ensure they are still here for us on the other side of this pandemic. So please consider ordering books direct via your local, independent bookshop rather than that very problematic online monolith. Thanks.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Faustus: That Damned Woman

"My name is Johanna Faustus. I was born almost four hundred years ago.
I gave my soul to achieve the impossible.
I watched this city grow sick and I swore to heal it.
I might be damned, but I would save the world to spite the Devil.”

In this strident new production of Faustus, the Headlong Theatre Company and writer Chris Bush have re-imagined the story with a female Faustus (played with astonishing certainty by the very talented Jodie McNee) and put a feminist twist on the whole thing. Currently being performed at Bristol Old Vic, Faustus: That Damned Woman is an engaging production that will definitely make you think. 

The set by Ana InĂ©s Jabares-Pita hits you first. As you take your seat in the auditorium, you look up and see an enormous shell-like, cave-like abyss, tunneling back into the very bowels of the Old Vic. It is extremely effective. And later on, it becomes somewhere for the cast to hide, seek shelter, emerge from and for the audiences to see assorted images projected as we follow Johanna Faustus’ story.

In these times of cornoavirus-infused uncertainty, the story of a society battling the plague is remarkably prescient. Johanna is seeking information about her mother who was killed for being a witch, when in reality she was merely a herbalist. Brought up by her apothecary father, Johanna wants knowledge about her mother, about medicine, about how to combat the threat of plague and about how to succeed as a woman. 

She strikes a deal with the devil (Barnaby Power). In exchange for a glance in his book of the dead to see if her mother really was a witch, she promises to give the devil her soul for all eternity… just as soon as she has completed her 144 years of life. Those being 144 years when she doesn’t age, needs no sleep and can fast forward (but not backwards) through time to whatever era she chooses. All in the pursuit of knowledge. And all with the devil’s servant Mephistopheles (Danny Lee Wynter in sterling slime-ball mode) by her side, trying to trip her up.

Hoping to beat the devil at his own game, Faustus wants to cure disease, empower women and prove that good can triumph over evil. She meets medical pioneers including Marie Curie and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, whose presence brings an extra layer of meaning to the production (aided by strong performances by Alicia Charles and Emannuella Cole). She is haunted by the torture her mother endured, which Faustus witnesses via supernatural methods. 

But ultimately, does any of this do Johanna Faustus or womankind in general any good? That is for the audience to decide. 

Faustus: That Damned Woman is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 21 March. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Women of Bristol Old Vic

In time for International Women’s Day, Bristol Old Vic is launching a series of interviews and stories based on women from the theatre's past and present. The sound installation, Women of Bristol Old Vic, brings the voices of women in theatre to the front of the stage and celebrates their achievements across theatrical history.

The seven installations combine archive material, oral histories and locations across the theatre’s foyer. There are seven QR codes, which can be found throughout Bristol Old Vic’s foyer, and each unlocks a story about the women of the theatre, from the first female theatre manager Sarah Macready (who is included in volume one of my book The Women Who Built Bristol) to Wise Children’s artistic director Emma Rice.