Shakespeare’s English

June 11th, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve had a copy of David Crystal’s The Stories of English for a long time now, but never managed to get around to reading it. That’s about to change.

Today, I came across a fascinating article about what English accents used to sound like. In it, linguist Gretchen McCulloch explains that there was a major shift in English pronunciation during the late eighteenth century. Because North American colonies were founded before that transition, Canadians and Americans now speak with accents that are derived from the old pronunciation.

The most obvious example, according to McCulloch, is our pronunciation of Rs (in words like car, yard, and farm). Basically, the English used to do it; the emigrants who first settled here did it; and so we still do it. In contrast, Australia was used as a penal colony after the linguistic shift, and that’s why Australians today don’t pronounce their Rs.

Anyway, embedded in McCulloch’s short article is this terrific video featuring linguistics expert David Crystal and his actor son, Ben Crystal. In it, they demonstrate what Shakespeare sounded like in “Original Pronunciation”, or OP.

If you don’t want the fluff about the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London, skip ahead to 3:00. But don’t miss the Crystals’ compare-and-contrast readings of Shakespeare! It’s startling, inspiring stuff.

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Ahistorical Fiction

June 4th, 2014

Rivals in the City by Y S LeeHello, friends. Here we are: this week, in the UK and Australia, Walker Books publishes Rivals in the City. (The US/Canadian edition will come in February 2015 from Candlewick Press.) I am tremendously excited to see this fourth novel come into the world and meet its readers. I’m also rather wistful: it’s the last Mary Quinn mystery.

The part I’m saddest about? I’ll never again write dialogue between Mary and James. I absolutely adored writing them in and out of arguments. The part I’m happiest about? Leaving Mary poised to make her way in 1860s London, entirely on her own terms. To me, this feels like a triumph.

Like all good endings, this final pub date has made me think about Mary Quinn’s beginnings. One of the best questions I’ve ever been asked, as a writer, was a couple of years ago at Kingston WritersFest. It was from a high school student. While I can’t remember her precise words, it went something like this: “The premise for the Agency is clearly a fantasy. But you’ve chosen to write the novels as realist historical fiction. Why did you decide to blend the two?” Isn’t that a beautifully analytical question?

To mark the publication of Mary Quinn’s last adventure, here’s my answer, in the form of a short essay about what I call “ahistorical fiction”. (If you don’t want to read expository writing, I’ve posted the first chapter of Rivals in the City here, for you.) If you’re curious about the idea of ahistorical fiction, please read on. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ahistorical Fiction

My title is neither a typo nor a lousy pun. I really meant “ahistorical fiction”, which I define as a subset of historical fiction that includes elements which stand apart from mainstream history. I’m not talking about fantasy (set in an imagined world that may or may not straddle our own) or speculative fiction (which includes fantastic, supernatural or futuristic worlds). Neither do I mean fiction that is broadly anachronistic (Napoleon with a smartphone!) or counter-historical (undermining the very idea of history). Today, I’m here to defend the use of ahistorical elements in otherwise realist historical fiction.

The obvious, reflexive objections are:
1. Doesn’t that undermine historical fiction as a genre?
2. Why bother with ahistorical fiction at all? Why not write something else?

My short answers:
1. No, it enriches it.
2. See answer no. 1.

Are you ready for my longer answers? In the afterword to Code Name: Verity, Elizabeth Wein explains some of her plot choices and acknowledges that her first priority is not perfect historical accuracy. Instead, she says, her goal is simply to tell a really good story. I like that justification; it’s at the core of my writerly impulse, too. And Wein makes it sound so clean and easy. But I think it skims over some of the tricky decisions and border-drawing that happens when writers carefully include ahistorical elements in their work.

When we use ahistorical elements, we’re being selective. We’re not haphazardly inventing conveniences to rescue a stalled plot or sprinkling in some cute embellishments. Instead, we’re trying to open up our understanding of historical relationships. For Wein, this is having an English girl pilot crash-land in Nazi-occupied France. For me, in the Mary Quinn mysteries, it’s the creation of a women’s detective agency in 1850s London. In both cases, the ahistorical element is technically possible (just about). For my detective agency, I’m leaning on two historical precedents: the beginning of progressive girls’ education in the mid-nineteenth century (Bedford College was founded in 1849) and the career of Aphra Behn, the eighteenth-century playwright and spy. (The Agency is also an affectionate homage to Miss Climpson’s “typing bureau” in Dorothy L Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels.) These specific historical leaps allow writers a different way of asking the big question at the heart of historical fiction: what if?

When I began to write A Spy in the House, the first Mary Quinn novel, I wanted to focus on an orphan girl without any advantages of money, social status, or education. I quickly realized that such a novel would be a swift, bumpy descent from poverty to prostitution to prison and, almost inevitably, early death. (This last sentence basically gives away the plot of Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, which I highly recommend. It’s a gorgeously excessive tragedy not the least bit diminished by its inescapable ending.) Yet I wanted to rescue my protagonist, not sentence her to death. I decided to play with ideas of power by giving my orphan, Mary, a quasi-realistic opportunity to make her own way in the world: a handful of allies, a good education, a job that was more than underpaid drudgery. She would carry with her the baggage of her childhood suffering, but she would have a second chance. It was my way of using fiction to right an ongoing injustice. It was also a way to, in David Copperfield’s words, make Mary the hero of her own story.

Ahistorical elements in historical fiction are a way of rearranging the furniture. They’re also a bit like social history’s quarrel with the great-man narrative of history: what about everybody else? What if we shift our focus away from what’s always been there, and ask a different question? The use of ahistorical elements is born of love and respect for history and historical fiction. As in any relationship, though, sometimes you bump up against its limits. Sometimes you crane your neck, trying to see what exists outside its bounds. Sometimes, a fresh idea knocks you breathless. And once you’ve considered it, it helps you to see your old love anew.

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In the presence of misogyny

May 28th, 2014

Sometimes, I despair of this world and the people it contains.

I try to work hard, to take responsibility for my mistakes, to be grateful for my privileged life, to see the world from other people’s vantage points. I try to raise my children to do the same. I try to remember that most people in my life do so, too. I try to remember that there are many, many decent and reasonable people in the larger world. And then something like the Isla Vista killings occurs – only a month after the terrorist kidnapping of some 270 Nigerian schoolgirls. I haven’t a single wise thing to say about either.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the most insightful responses to Elliot Rodger’s killings I’ve read so far, by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman. (Thank you, Vee, for posting this to Facebook.)

The ideology behind these attacks – and there is ideology – is simple. Women owe men. Women, as a class, as a sex, owe men sex, love, attention, “adoration”, in Rodger’s words. We owe them respect and obedience, and our refusal to give it to them is to blame for their anger, their violence – stupid sluts get what they deserve. Most of all, there is an overpowering sense of rage and entitlement: the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power.

from “Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism”, 25 May 2014

The Belle Jar is equally thoughtful:

We don’t know if Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. We don’t know if he was a “madman.” We do know that he was desperately lonely and unhappy, and that the Men’s Rights Movement convinced him that his loneliness and unhappiness was intentionally caused by women. Because this is what the Men’s Rights Movement does: it spreads misogyny, it spreads violence, and most of all it spreads a sense of entitlement towards women’s bodies. Pretending that this is the a rare act perpetrated by a “crazy” person is disingenuous and also does nothing to address the threat of violence that women face every day.

from “Elliot Rodger and Men Who Hate Women”, The Belle Jar, 24 May 2014

I hope you’ll read both linked articles in full. I’d appreciate knowing what you think.

My overwhelming sense is of a need for urgent action: we have to push back. We need to weed out any sense of entitlement in ourselves and in our children. We need to speak up in the presence of misogyny, and do so persistently and constructively and fearlessly.

And that is always the hardest part.

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And suddenly, BOOM

May 21st, 2014

Hello, friends. Like almost everybody else along the eastern seaboard, we’ve been holding our breaths for spring. Most people agree that we’re about a month behind the usual weather and temperatures. But suddenly, last week, spring SPRANG. The grass seemed to turn green overnight. Trees budded and blossomed. Perennials leapt into action.

The third weekend in May is a holiday, here. Absurdly enough, it’s called Victoria Day, in honour of the long-dead monarch of another country (May 24 was Queen Victoria’s birthday; only Canadians know that). It’s the traditional holiday weekend when people open up their summer cottages, go sailing, and light fireworks. In our family, we garden. Here are some images of how I spent my long weekend.

strawberry fieldsStrawberries! We planted these last year and forgot to pinch off the blossoms, so I was relieved and excited to see what promises to be a good haul. Each blossom will turn into a strawberry.

IMG_1735Rhubarb from our friends Michelle and Brian. We have to leave it alone this year if we want the plant to establish itself permanently. It’s hard, though. I keep dreaming of roasted rhubarb, this slow-poached rhubarb, these rhubarb hazelnut squares.


This year, our five-year-old son has his own little garden bed in which he’s planted seeds of his choosing. He selected only things he likes to eat: cherry tomatoes, sunflowers, butternut squash, and watermelon.


Our bleeding heart bush gets bigger and more bodacious every year.


The magnolia tree is still small and slow – a couple of weeks behind the long-established ones in the neighbourhood – but I love it so.

IMG_1742Sour-cherry blossoms. When we bought this tree in the fall, we were thinking only about the fruit. It was such a lovely surprise this spring to see the blossoms appear.

Those photos are a good summary of my weekend. I pruned, I weeded, I seeded, I transplanted. (I read, too, of course – but not in daylight hours!) Is it spring where you are, friends? What did you get up to?


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Suddenly, it’s very real

May 14th, 2014

Hello, friends. One of the strangest things about writing a book is knowing – or, more accurately, discovering – that it’s done. I mean finally, irrevocably, too-late-to-change-a-comma done. For me, this revelation usually foists itself upon me when I open an envelope from my lovely editor at Walker Books, Mara Bergman.

Rivals in the City (Walker Books ed)

It’s not that I’ve been unconscious throughout the editorial stages, of course. But editing is very much a process that clips along on someone else’s timeline. An email pings, a package of page proofs arrives; I look things up, I shuffle words. There’s usually a very tight deadline, which means that I’m working late into the night, and never have the chance to do the final read-through I really want to do. And then the whole thing vanishes again.

Eventually, however, my words come back to me and they’ve been transmogrified. They’re sandwiched between covers – in this case, one that’s embossed! There is my dedication, standing alone. There is the sharp, sawdust aroma of printer’s ink on paper. And so much work – thousands of hours, dozens of people – compressed into an object you can balance upon your palm.

It’s a gorgeous moment. It makes me gasp and feel proud and foolish and grateful and incredulous, every time. (It’s also a terrifying moment: there will be errata.) But more than anything, I am ready. I can’t wait for Rivals in the City to make its way into the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Three weeks, now.


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Nostalgia and serendipity

May 7th, 2014

Hello, friends. I spent yesterday morning very happily shuttling around libraries.

The first was Stauffer Library, the humanities and social sciences library at the university where I did my PhD. You could say I know my way around it. For a few years, it was as familiar to me as my own apartment. I had the positions of the stacks memorized; I knew which photocopiers worked best; I was on nodding terms with even the crustiest of staff. Heck, I had a personal study carrel on the fourth floor, with a lockable shelf where I kept my books. Nerd aristocracy, that was me.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t been back to Stauffer since that slightly bittersweet day when I returned the last of my library books and gave up the key to my study carrel. (I really loved that study carrel. I wrote tens of thousands of words in that carrel.) And then, this week, I needed to borrow a book. I was curious how the library might have changed, whether it would smell familiar, how they might have reinvented the “information commons”, aka the place where everybody used to check email at rows of sticky-keyed public computers. I was expecting a pleasant compare-and-contrast.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the rush of nostalgia that welled within me when I touched the outer door. Even the resistance of the door against my arm, the curvature of its handle in my palm, felt absurdly right. I crossed the foyer (empty, now that the academic year is over), entered the library itself, and suddenly, I was back. The only slightly discordant note was the absence of my backpack. I don’t think I’d ever entered that library without its weight on my shoulders.

After finding my book (I went to the wrong end of the stacks at first), I walked a circuit of the fourth floor. I even paid a visit to my former study carrel. Stauffer is still a terrific place to work: quiet, with lots of natural light. But I felt like a tourist there, an outsider who should know when to move along. And that’s appropriate, too.

Nostalgia is a fundamentally limited emotion or approach; it gilds the view, offers a shiver of delight, and little more. Worse, I think it inhibits more productive thoughts or feelings from developing. That’s a realization I’ll need to hold fast as I continue work on The Next Book. The past is elusive enough, without the fog of nostalgia.

After leaving Stauffer, I continued to the public library. And there, in the Friends of the Library’s book sale, was this:

Shinozaki, Synonan My Story

Syonon: My Story, by Mamoru Shinozaki, is a memoir that’s been hovering at the edges of my research for The Next Book. I’ve thought, repeatedly, must chase that down. And there it was, sandwiched between The Wealthy Barber and What is My Cat Thinking? (I swear I didn’t make that up.) Really, what were the chances? And what if I’d given in to nostalgia and sat down to work at Stauffer? I might never have found Shinozaki.

Some of the most serendipitous moments of my life have been in libraries. How about you, friends? Have you had any big moments – serendipitous, nostalgic, or otherwise – in libraries, lately?

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Code Name: Verity

April 30th, 2014

So, Code Name: Verity. It was first published in 2012. It was shortlisted for both the Printz Award and the Carnegie Medal, so it’s not as though I’m drawing attention to unsung heroines, here. But I finally made time to read Elizabeth Wein’s novel last week and when I’d finally finished sobbing, all I could wonder is why I’d let it languish for two years.

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity

As you may already know, Code Name: Verity is a story of friendship during the Second World War. The first part of the book is a narrative written by “Verity”, aka Julie, a Scottish girl spy who’s been caught by the Gestapo in Nazi France. It’s supposed to be Julie’s confession, her cowardly attempt to abate torture and to extend her life just a little further, by giving up precious wartime secrets: sets of radio code, names of British airfields and army bases, the Allied use of RADAR technology. And yet, this narrative simply cannot be what it claims. That is the tension that drives this book.

Julie’s story is a memoir – a platonic love-letter, even – about a profound friendship between two young women performing extremely dangerous wartime jobs. It’s a terrifying, witty, completely persuasive behind-the-scenes account of British defense activity. It’s beautifully told. But Wein’s brilliant stroke in this book is that Julie must be an unreliable narrator. There’s no way that a young woman of her intelligence and courage (especially as demonstrated in the narrative) could write a straightforwardly treasonous confession. And so I swore, and squirmed in my chair, and shook, and was compelled to read on.

The second narrative is written by Julie’s best friend Maddie, a shot-down pilot, and it picks up after Julie’s arrest. It’s told in much plainer language, as suits Maddie’s character, and it’s a shattered reflection of Julie’s so-called confession. It fills in blanks, it forces you to flip back to re-read parts of Julie’s memoir, it moves the story on swiftly and with an equal sense of valour.

I was a snivelling wreck when I finished Code Name: Verity, and I mean that in the best way possible. Like nearly everybody else who’s read it, I highly, highly recommend it.

As a writer, I was further struck by two elements that I hope I can learn from. The first is Wein’s use of counterpoint (to borrow the musical term): “the relationship between voices that are interdependent harmonically and yet are independent in rhythm and contour” (that’s from the wikipedia definition). This is something I’m attempting in my current work-in-progress, and reading Code Name: Verity was like getting a tutorial from a more experienced writer. I also took note of Wein’s techniques for introducing humour into a story that is always going to be a tragedy. I won’t be able to borrow directly from her, here, but it was lovely to see it done so well.

It’s both inspiring and daunting, to read a novel that so brilliantly occupies ground that I’m planning to re-tread (my WIP is also set during the Second World War). But these days, I’m finding it more inspiring than anything else, and for that I am grateful.

Have you read Code Name: Verity, friends? What did you think?

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Being your own good boss

April 23rd, 2014

Hello, friends. Just this week, I was fantasizing about having an extra six hours a day. With a 30-hour day, I reckoned I could work enough, spend sufficient time with my family, and sleep adequately. But I soon realized that it’s a just pleasant delusion – not only because it’s temporally impossible, but also because I’m sure other things would crop up. Even if I had my miraculous 30-hour day, I’d probably end up grinding my teeth and muttering about a 36-hour day.

So when my friend, the author Stephanie Burgis, linked to this lovely piece of writing advice from fellow children’s novelist R J Anderson, I made time to read it. It’s called “How I Stopped Being My Own Bad Boss”, which immediately made sense to me. We all undermine ourselves from time to time (right? RIGHT? If you don’t, I’m not sure I want to hear from you) but being self-employed carries its own special range of freedoms and responsibilities. And, more often than I care to think about, I have sabotaged my own work day.

My recent specialty was running errands on work time. I’d drop off the children at school/babysitter and think, “On my way home, I’ll get groceries.” It made so much sense: I was already going past the store. Going alone is so much quicker than taking along two small children. It was even a great time of day to shop: no queues at the checkout. And groceries are the reverse of frivolous. But only after a couple of months did I realize how much time I was stealing from myself. It wasn’t just 20 minutes in the grocery store. It was getting home and putting the food away. And then cleaning up after the morning rush. And then, while I was at it, throwing in a load of laundry. And then remembering that online banking/phone call/random bit of life admin I’d meant to do. And before I knew it, it was 11 o’clock and I’d lost the freshest, most focused part of my work day. So I made a vow: from now on, I only run errands with children at my side. It’s a much longer trip to the grocery store, by a large margin. It’s a little odd, showing up at the accountant’s office with two miniature bodyguards. But I’m protecting my work time. I stopped doing things outside the writer’s job description. In R J Anderson’s words, I stopped being my own bad boss.

Anderson’s advice is terrific: forthright, concrete, constructive. As she bravely admits, “I used to [feel] stressed & overwhelmed nearly all the time… In fact, I seriously considered quitting writing altogether at one point because I felt like I had no life outside of writing anymore.” This is what she did to turn herself around.

If you’re a writer, an aspiring writer, self-employed, or otherwise looking for ways to work more productively, I highly recommend reading what Anderson has to say.

How about you, readers? Do you have any tips to share, or bad-boss confessions to make?

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Rivals in the City: Chapter One

April 16th, 2014

Hello, friends. Can you believe that it’s only six weeks until the UK publication of Rivals in the City? I know, I know! I finished my final proofread last week and the typeset pages went to the printers on Thursday. (I have since found some corrections that I’d like to make – AUGH!) Ahem.

Anyway, to celebrate and to thank you for hanging on with such dauntless patience, I am thrilled to excerpt for you, right here, the first chapter of Rivals in the City. I hope you enjoy it!

Rivals in the City final cover

Chapter One

Saturday, 13 October, 1860
The streets of London

It was a miserable day for a walk: sleety, frigid, dark. Nevertheless, Mary Quinn and James Easton, Private Detectives, were out for a ramble about Bloomsbury, bundled against the penetrating drizzle, straining to distinguish people from lampposts in the dense fog that swamped the streets. Mary’s skirts were soaked to the knee and much heavier than when she’d first set out. Their boots were thick with mud.

Mary smiled up at James, squeezing his elbow a shade tighter. “Isn’t this delightful?”

He laughed. “Unalloyed bliss, apart from the rain, the wind, and the bitter cold. Can you still feel your fingertips?”

She wiggled them experimentally. “A little. Could you tilt the umbrella towards me, please? It’s dripping on my shoulder.” James complied and they paced on, past a sodden, shivering boy wielding a broomstick taller than he was. “Wait a moment, James.” But she needn’t have spoken. James was already turning back, pressing a coin into the crossing-sweeper’s unresisting palm. He murmured something and gave the child a gentle pat on the shoulder, urging him to movement.

Mary watched the boy stumble away, a slight figure swallowed by the dark smog. She shuddered. It was like a heavy-handed morality play, to which there could be only one conclusion.

James returned, offering his arm once more. “Where were we?”

“You were complaining about the weather. Not for the first time.” She smiled up at him again, teasing this time. “Are you quite certain you don’t want to come up to my flat for tea and toast and scandal?” As her future husband, James wanted their marriage to be respectable. It wasn’t for his sake, particularly, although she suspected he cared about reputation more than he would acknowledge. No, it was for Mary: in order to bury her past properly, and allow her a fresh start, they had agreed to behave with Utter Propriety. No matter how hypocritical and inconvenient the conventions of etiquette, it was worth observing them for a short while, for the social invisibility it would afford their marriage. These cold and uncomfortable walks about town were a perfect example of their new courtship, conducted by the rules: how else could an unmarried lady and gentleman hold a truly private conversation, unchaperoned and uninterrupted? James’s logic was inarguable. And yet, after twenty years of freedom, Mary desperately resented these superficial social restrictions. Was this the moment to propose her little escapade?

His reply wiped all thought of it from her mind. “I’d love to. Let’s just pop into the next church and get married, first.”

She puffed with amusement and saw her breath in the air. “Of course, you’ve a marriage license in your pocket.”

“Do you doubt it?”

“I’d no idea you were on such intimate terms with the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

“There are common licenses, you know. One can be obtained from any vicar.”

She halted and stared up into his dark eyes. They glinted with mockery, and something else, too: a challenge. Her mouth dried up. “A-are you – mocking me?”

“I’m asking you to declare yourself. We could be married within the hour, if you so chose.” His expression was neutral, his tone maddeningly even. He might have been offering her his seat on the omnibus.

She was suddenly at the edge of a precipice, fascinated and terrified in equal measure. Of course she wanted to marry James… someday. But now? Here? “I – I don’t know what to say,” she confessed, unable to meet his gaze.

“That is an answer in itself.” He sounded remarkably calm, but there was no missing the undercurrent of hurt in his voice.

She spun to face him fully, taking both his hands in hers. “I’m sorry, James. I love you, truly. And I want to marry you.”

“But not yet.”

“I’m just learning a whole new way of being. Can you picture yourself in my place?” Mary closed her eyes briefly, knowing that James certainly tried. He, of all people, was deeply sympathetic to the horrors of her childhood on the streets, her life as a juvenile housebreaker, her unexpected escape from the death sentence. She’d never been free to explain exactly how she’d been rescued by the Agency, but he knew enough. “After a childhood such as mine, I’m suddenly a woman of means. I can choose what to do with my days. I answer to nobody. Can you see why I might want a little more time for such selfish liberty? This is my first taste of true independence; the closest I’ll ever come to perfect freedom.” She paused. “It is selfish, I’ve no illusions that it’s anything else. But it’s a giddy, dizzying sort of freedom, and I want more time to explore it.”

After a few moments, he squeezed her fingers. “I think I do understand.” She felt limp with relief. “It’s too easy for me to forget. I answer only to George, and that’s as a business partner. There’s the usual fraternal bickering, I suppose, but I am very much my own man.”

She smiled. “That you are. And you’ve chosen a willful, stubborn, scandal-ridden disgrace of a fiancée.”

“Only the best, for me.”

“James.” Mary pulled him close. Too close, for perfect propriety. “Thank you.”

His finger glided against the curve of her cheek. “I can’t say, ‘my pleasure’.”

She smiled crookedly. “I do want to belong to you, one day. And to claim you as my own, as well.”

“I very much look forward to being claimed.” He glanced about furtively, then dipped his head to hers, kissing her briefly – all too briefly – on the lips. “Perhaps I’ll have your name tattooed on my arm, so there’s no doubt as to whom I belong,” he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow, and resuming their steady walking pace. “What would you say to your initials, in Gothic letters, surrounded by scrolls and hearts?”

“No need,” she said with a laugh. “Once you’re mine, I won’t permit you to forget it.”

They walked on in a daze, utterly distracted by each other, and by visions of their future. It wasn’t until they heard church bells ringing the hour – it was already eleven – that Mary returned to the present. “Ought we to talk business?” she suggested, with a slight sigh.

“Sadly, yes. What news of ailing Mr. Colfax?” It was the last – and, admittedly, only second – item on their list of current cases.

“I’m afraid it’s bad: I’ve traced the purchase of three substantial amounts of arsenic over the past year directly to his wife.”

James whistled. “I thought it was supposed to be difficult to buy arsenic, now. There was all that administrative reform after the Bradford tragedy.” Less than two years earlier, there had been an accidental mass poisoning in the north, when arsenic was mistakenly included in a batch of peppermint sweets.

“In theory, yes. But all one need do is tell the chemist what it’s wanted for – everybody in the world wants it to kill rats – and sign the ledger.”

“Did she sign in her own name each time?”

“For the first lot, yes, which makes me wonder if the idea only came to her after the fact. But for the second and third purchases, which are more recent, she took care to use a false name and address. I’m certain it’s her, though. Not only does the handwriting match, but the chemists – she used a different shop each time – remembered her and described her with accuracy.”

“What’s next?”

“We still don’t know exactly how she’s doing it,” said Mary. “She’s not suffering from any sort of digestive upset, and neither are the domestics. It must be in something he alone consumes. Dissolved in the whisky, maybe, or perhaps he’s the only one who likes sugar in his coffee?”

“I’ll ask him to consider what it might be,” said James. As the male partner, he was also the public face of their fledgling detective firm – a concession to convention that seldom failed to irk Mary, if she dwelt upon it. “And perhaps he ought to take a short holiday. It would be useful to confirm that he doesn’t suffer these digestive horrors when he’s on his own; only when dear Mrs. Colfax presides over the menu.”

Mary nodded. “In the meantime, I doubt Mrs. Colfax is a threat to anybody else. Only to that very heavily insured husband of hers.”

They plodded on, contemplating the faithlessness of modern love and marriage. Their client was a frail and rather elderly bridegroom of three years – a doting husband until, after too many sudden and agonizing gastric attacks, he had slowly begun to suspect the worst. Before their marriage, Mrs. Colfax had been a lively young widow, handsome and sociable and absolutely penniless. Their marriage was just the sort of thing Mary had been taught to eschew at the unconventional Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The thing was, she thought, with just a little more patience, that fortune would pass legally to Mrs. Colfax. Yet she seemed reluctant to wait for it. Money had a way of spoiling people’s judgement.

Had it done the same to her? Mary thought half-guiltily of her own fortune, the gift of a grateful and generous Queen Victoria after Mary averted an attempt on her life. That lump of capital, while a tiny sum to the Queen, had changed her life entirely. It made her a woman of some means, a person with the power to shape her own life. It would also mark her as a potential target for small-time fortune-hunters, if word got out of her independence. Of course, when she married James, her money would become his property…

“What are you brooding about?” asked James. “You’re not planning to poison me with arsenic, are you?”

That raised a smile. “If anyone’s buying arsenic, it’s your precious housekeeper.”

James grinned. “I thought Mrs. V. had thawed towards you a bit.”

“A very little bit. You know, she might be the main impediment to our marriage.”

He shivered dramatically. “Absurd. The real impediment is that I’ll be a solid block of ice before you give me a definitive yes.”

“So much whinging!” said Mary, laughing again. “Are you really about to collapse from the cold? We could take a turn about the museum, now that our confidential business is concluded.”

“I wish we could,” said James, “but I’ve got to get back to the site. It’s payday for the men and I don’t like to be late. Next time, certainly. Or better yet, we’ll end in a coffee-house.”

They turned and walked briskly towards Mary’s small flat in Burton Crescent, picking their way carefully through the muck churned up by passing horses and carts. As he always did, James waited for her to extract her door key, then unlocked the front door and returned her key to her upturned palm.

This was the moment. She had to speak now. She tilted her face up to his and said, “I’ve a proposal to put to you.”

James batted his eyelashes and spoke in a quavering falsetto. “Darling, I thought you’d never ask.”

“You may regret saying that when you hear just what it is.”

“Is it so very dull?”

“Quite the reverse. Not to mention thoroughly unladylike and far from respectable.”

“We’ve waded through sewers, dangled from a bell-tower, and stumbled out of a burning building together. Can you top that?”

“Possibly.” Mary fumbled in her reticule and produced a torn half-sheet of paper. “I found this yesterday.”

“This” was a handbill for “Mr. Ching, a Chinese pugilist of noble extraction, closely related by blood to the Chinese Emperor”, who challenged “the sportsmen of England, Britannia’s athletes, all of Her Majesty’s skilled and subtlest fighters, to best him in an unarmed fight”, with the winner to receive a prize-purse of one pound. For the semi-literate, there was even an illustration of a determined-looking Chinese man, wearing loose robes and facing the reader in a fighting stance.

Curiosity lit James’s eyes. “‘Mr. Ching claims the superiority of Chinese hand-and-foot fighting’,” he read, “‘and promises ocular proof of such. Not only will Mr. Ching fight: he will take on all who present themselves.’ Are you planning to challenge the distinguished Mr. Ching, Mary?”

“Not as a combatant,” she admitted. “But I would dearly love to see him fight.”

James’s brows drew together in a frown. “The address is in Leicester Square. ‘Hazardous’ doesn’t begin to describe the place…”

“Hear me out,” she said, quickly. “The notice made me think of my father; after I saw it, I suddenly remembered being a child, watching him practice these very complicated chains of hand and foot movements. He claimed that when used at speed, they were more effective than most weapons. He promised to teach me, when I grew older.” She paused. “Then, of course, he disappeared.”

“I’ve heard of such a style of fighting,” allowed James. “But setting aside questions of safety and propriety for the time being, how will seeing this Mr. Ching affect you, do you think? Is it wise to revisit this sort of memory?”

“I’ve never claimed to be wise,” said Mary. “And I’ve no idea what the effect might be. Quite likely, it will be a crashing disappointment…”

“But you want to go. No. You intend to go.”

“Yes.” She drew a breath and looked up at James. “It’s tonight.”

His expression was scrupulously neutral. “The only women in the vicinity will be prostitutes. You’ll be in danger from the moment they see you.”

“I’ll go as a boy, of course.”

“The return of Mark Quinn?” He considered. “Still risky. You make rather a handsome lad.”

She hesitated. “Aren’t you going to scold me for doing something so inappropriate? We’ve been so thoroughly dull and forbearing for months now, and I’m jeopardizing all our hard work.”

“And what good would scolding you do?” His smile was crooked. “Besides, is that how you think of me, Mary? A stuffy killjoy, obsessed with what respectable people might think? A fusty old man who can’t quite understand how your mind works?” His mouth twisted. “Perhaps that’s why you don’t want to marry me.”

Mary was genuinely alarmed. “James, that’s not it at all. I know you want what’s best for me. For us. As for being a fusty old man… well. I’ve never once thought of you as either fusty or old.” She smiled up at him. “Believe me, I thoroughly appreciate your manliness.”

He permitted himself a small smile at that. Then, he lowered his voice. “Has it occurred to you that if we married now, you would be infinitely freer to do as you please?”

She blinked. “It hadn’t.” She paused, then spoke more slowly. “But now that I think of it, it’s only partially true. You can go to a boxing den at any time you please, on your own or with men friends. But if it was ever hinted that I’d gone, too, such a rumour could still threaten our social reputation as a married couple, or that of your family firm.”

He considered her words. “So it’s a larger problem we face. You will always want to exceed the limits of respectable feminine behaviour.”

She thought about it seriously. “Yes, I think I will. Sometimes, at least.” A pause. “And you? Will you always value propriety and a spotless reputation? Are those so dear to you?”

He was already shaking his head. “I respect those things for their utility. They make daily life smoother and easier, and I wanted your life – our life together – to be as free and pleasant as possible. But they are not paramount to me—” He was interrupted by the chiming of the nearby bells of the Church of St. Pancras. It was half-past eleven.

“You had better go pay your labourers.”

“Yes. But we need to finish this conversation, Mary.”

She nodded. “As for tonight. Will you come with me?”

“I suppose there’s no dissuading you.”

“No. I’ll go alone, if you prefer not to come.”

“Then how can I possibly refuse?”

She looked at him. “You ought to, really. You shouldn’t let me coerce you with threats of danger and scandal.”

“What if I just want to see you in breeches again?”

She smiled and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll call for you at eight.”

“Better if I meet you at the corner of Russell Square, I think.”

“Right.” Normally, James took his leave by kissing her hand, murmuring some tender endearment. Today, however, he chucked her under the chin. “Cheerio, Mark.”

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The Wind in the Willows

April 9th, 2014

Hello, friends. This week, I’d like to talk about my five-year-old’s favourite book, The Wind in the Willows. I realize I’m not revealing any kind of secret, here. Everybody has heard of The Wind in the Willows. First published in 1908, it’s a classic of children’s literature. Its most famous illustrator is Ernest H. Shepard (who also drew the “decorations” for Winnie the Pooh. There are some lovely links to images here in the Bodleian Library’s collection). What more is there to say?

The Wind in the Willows, classic edition

Well, did you know that it was first published without illustrations? Or that I had never read it until recently? And that my English husband had only been exposed to it as a film, during his childhood? Travesty and deprivation and humiliation, I know! What kind of ignoramuses are we, anyway?

Despite this gaping cultural hole in our childhoods, we gave our son a copy of The Wind in the Willows this past Christmas. But he wasn’t ready for the full-text classic version that we chose, which included Shepard’s illustrations in black-and-white. So I picked up a shorter, more generously illustrated edition from the public library, just as a placeholder. It was an atrocious abridgement: capricious, rife with comma splices and ambiguous pronoun references, and in a few places simply nonsensical. And still, for our son, it was love at first sight. All his other favourites were instantly swept aside. We read the book in an unbroken cycle, every night before bed. Whenever there was a lull in the day, he would appear with the book under his arm, saying, “Can we read a bit of The Wind in the Willows?” And while I had a low opinion of the editorial work, I figured it was just about tolerable.

Then my son was invited to a birthday party and insisted that his gift be a copy of his favourite book. What to do? We couldn’t possibly recommend the edition we were perpetually reading. After an initial stumble (Nick picked up the only in-stock edition at our local indie bookseller. It was the Oxford World’s Classics edition, complete with scholarly introduction and end notes! For a child turning six!), we all cheered with joy and relief when we found the Candlewick Press edition, abridged and richly illustrated in full colour by Inga Moore.

The Wind in the Willows, illus. Inga Moore

(This is a good point at which to make my statement of possible conflict of interest. Yes, Candlewick Press is my publisher. But I had no idea this edition existed until I found it at my local Chapters. I have since bought three copies with my own money and will almost certainly buy more. I need this book to stay in print forever.)

So, Inga Moore’s illustrations. There are roughly 100 of them, and every single one is done with love and wit and tenderness. They are astonishingly beautiful, and it’s rare to find a page unadorned. A purist might object that having so many illustrations doesn’t leave much to the imagination, but we are spellbound. The light. The landscape. The sheer glee.

I haven’t yet read the classic version of the story so I can’t say anything authoritative about this shorter version, but there is so much lovely language and wry humour here. Moore’s abridgement seems sensitive and respectful, and the chapters have a distinct shape to them. (Moore also preserves the social snobberies of the original. Look out for Toad excoriating the “common, fat bargewoman!” and expurgate as necessary!) For anyone wondering which version of The Wind in the Willows holds the most delight for a younger child, I say this one. This one.

I know my son is not yet six, but The Wind in the Willows has become the most important book of his short life. He carries the characters around with him, like friends. He whispers phrases from the book under his breath, and folds them into his solo play. He deliberately misquotes lines from the book, making them fit whatever situation he’s currently in. He’s not just in love; he’s besotted and possessed and deeply altered by his encounter with this book. As a bookish parent, could I ask for any richer delight?

Friends, do you have a Wind in the Willows story to share?

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