Saturday, 19 April 2014

Easter Wishes from The Kissed Mouth!

Hello Chums!  I hope you are having a jolly Easter weekend with plenty of sunshine, chocolate and egg-related jollity all round. I spent yesterday with my lovely cousin-in-laws and families, and tomorrow we are off to Grampy's for church and lunch, for which I have to cook a chocolate bread and butter pudding.  Anyway, I digress, I am here to talk about Easter and our dear friends, the Victorians...

I'm guessing that for our nineteenth century ancestors, Easter was actually a bigger deal than it is for us.  I've noticed over the last few years that the shops are pushing more and more 'things' to help you celebrate the double Bank Holiday weekend, and much like Christmas the origins are somewhat sidelined in favour of commercialism and fluffy chicks. Gosh, the Victorians would have loved that.  Apparently by the turn of the Twentieth century, chicks were allowed to drive cars.  I'm not sure that's very safe to be honest, look at the difficulties the driver is having controlling the wheel.  A cautionary tale for us all, I feel.  Wait until your chicken is full grown before allowing him or her to operate machinery please.

The Morning of the Resurrection (1886) Edward Burne-Jones
Obviously, for the Victorians the religious message was far more welcome and necessary than we are comfortable with now.  Easter, as my father always tells me, was of course the biggest religious festival of the Christian year, being that it actually marked the moment that Jesus spectacularly gatecrashed breakfast.  Good work, that man/spirit/son of God!  Burne-Jones' rather sombre affair is subtle and muted, the only highlight being the halo around Jesus' head.  Surely a man rising from the dead would need a few more bells and whistles?

Christ and the Two Marys (1897) William Holman Hunt
There you go, Jesus would obviously turn up with rainbows, but then this is Holman Hunt.  His technicolour resurrection looks a little kitsch these days but I quite like the pizzazz that he lends to the moment, after all this is a fabulous moment for Christians.  This Christ is bringing the party with him.  Good on him.

Mary Magdalene (1877) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I'd never considered that this lovely Rossetti was an Easter image but the story goes that Mary Magdalene turned up to the tomb with some hard boiled eggs to share with the other mourners but when she saw Jesus, the eggs turned red.  This, therefore, is the mourning Mary holding on to her faith and about to be proved right.  That is quite a big egg she has there. They obviously have heroic-sized chicking in the Holy Lands...

The Angel at the Sepulcre
The Angel at the Tomb

This pair of lovelies are obviously by Julia Margaret Cameron and are the waiting angels at the tomb.  Again, they have the look of patient waiting, solemn and unmovable.  I love all of JMC's work but I think the clarity of the profile of our right-hand angel is so unusually sharp for her.  It is both soft and precise, I love it.

The Easter Bonnet Gustave Jacquet
Of course, Easter means Spring, and rebirth in terms of nature.  I remember my Nan taking part in Easter bonnet competitions and I think it's a very fun idea.  This young lady seems unwilling to shed her big furry coat, after all it is rather chilly in April, but she is sporting a rather pretty hat with some tumbling flowers.

Rolling Easter Eggs (1905) Edward Atkinson Homel
Mixing the religious with the jolly, we have these young girls rolling coloured eggs down a hill.  The act of rolling the eggs is a combination of the religious (rolling the rock away from the tomb) and the egg in nature (the Pagan goddess Eostre was associated with eggs as a symbol of the land holding rebirth inside it).  In England it is traditionally known as pace-egging (from 'Pasch', Old English for Passover) and happens all over the country, sometimes competitively.  Incidentally, the Easter bunny is a variation of Eostre's animal, the hare.

Easter Eggs in the Countryside (1908) Victor Gabriel Gilbert
I love the light in this picture, quite pale but strong and almost a match for what I can see out of my window this morning.  Now, this little girl has gone and thieved a nest full of eggs, which is not a good idea but I'm guessing was probably a former 'delight' of childhood.  I think her Mum ought to nip out to Waitrose and get her a chocolate egg to dissuade her from this practice, or at least go and buy some mini eggs and make rice-crispie nests like we did yesterday.  The goats look less than impressed by this and I don't blame them.

An Easter Holiday (1874) James Aumonier
The girls in this picture are from Bloomsbury Parochial school, out for a holiday trip in a wood in Watford.  They look happy to actually be outside, bless them.  A Parochial school is one affiliated to a church or religious organisation and so Easter must have been a big deal for them at school, probably why they got a treat.  I love how small they seem next to the massive trees and how their blue dresses compliment the pale yellow of the primroses that carpet the wood floor.  Beautiful.

Easter Morning Caspar David Friedrich
Back to Burne-Jones' notion of a quiet, comtemplative Easter, this beautiful canvas by Friedrich is about as far removed from Hunt's disco-Christ as it is possible to get.  These figures are walking in a misty landscape, presumably going to church like the other figures discernible in the distance.  There is no feeling of celebration, no merrymaking, just three women walking up a country road like their neighbours.  In some ways it might be just a rural scene, nothing special, but taking the title into consideration, the trees take on further significance.  The figures seem tiny and the trees appear to guard their way, as if the path has been opened to them, leading to the light in the sky.  The women are stood between the trees looking, like the disciples looking into the empty tomb as God looks down at them.  This painting forms a pair with another entitled Early Snow, showing a lush green landscape dusted with white. Both showcase the majesty and mystery of nature, the seasons and the magic to our eyes of the world we live in.

Well, happy Easter, my dears, I hope you eat yourselves stupid on chocolate and have a good time.  May the weather be pleasant and may you be as happy as chickens and rabbits dancing at some sort of cross-species shin-dig...

Look, I'm not a prude, but no good can come of this, surely?  Oh well, love to all and a happy Easter to you, whoever you dance with this weekend!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Short Film: Arterial

Just a quick post today because I wanted to draw your attention to a splendid short film by Christopher Ian Smith.  Using La Belle Dame Sans Merci as its starting point, it explores the relationship of a modern man with nature...

I do love it when people use the same inspiration as the Pre-Raphaelites as their spring-board and the tale of the young, urban chap and his encounter with the wild, floating lady is magical.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci Frank Dicksee
I found it surprising, intriguing, and beautiful and encourage you to go and take a look here.

I can think of no better way of spending the Easter weekend than being ruined by a beautiful woman.


Sunday, 13 April 2014

Review: The De Morgans and the Sea

On Friday, the smallest Walker and I went to Mr Walker's place of work and visited the lovely new exhibition, The De Morgans and the Sea.  The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth have turned over two spacious rooms to a display of the work of Evelyn and William De Morgan.

The husband and wife team had an extraordinary creative partnership and shared the theme of the sea in many of their works.  Where better to see them than in the cliff-top art gallery, overlooking a glorious golden beach?

Display of ceramics

Starting with William De Morgan, his pots and tiles are in deliciously resplendent colours.  He made the most amazing tiles showing fanciful medieval ships, taken from manuscripts, woodcuts and engravings...

One of my favourite pieces was this jar in ruby and gold-lustre earthenware showing curls and swirls of fish swimming around its plump figure...

There is a very 'touchable' quality to De Morgan's pots (which of course you can't indulge in!) because they are so marvellously three dimensional.  Somehow they manage to strike the right balance between tasteful and insane, and although they have a very Victorian aesthetic, the beautiful and subtle colours make them timeless.  I want a fish jar. It's so gorgeous.  Some of his tiles were used on P&O liners when he was employed by the company from 1882 to 1900 and his tiles decorated the public rooms of twelve of their liners, enhancing their sumptuous interiors.  Sadly none of the ships have survived, but a number of duplicate tiles were created and are on display at the exhibition.

The cabinet of treasures
I loved this cabinet as it showed both De Morgan's work together, Evelyn's painted frieze and William's pots, which leads me on to Evelyn and her beautiful pieces.  You will be familiar with the Russell-Cotes' De Morgan, Aurora Triumphans...

Aurora Triumphans (1886)
Mmmm, angel-y.  When you look at some of De Morgan's paintings, the seaside setting is very subtle.  Take for example this one...

Lux in Tenebris (1895)
Lux in Tenebris or 'Light in Darkness' shows an angelic figure bringing light and hope in the form of an angel with a laurel branch.  In the darkness below her feet lurks a crocodile, symbolising the Devil and peril.  Further to this, she is floating above some rather terrible looking rocks while the placid sea laps around.  The canvas is very dark but the angel glows in her pale golden gown.  De Morgan is telling us that life is a mixture of calm and trouble, hope and darkness, reflecting her interesting in Spiritualism.

The Sea Maidens (1885-86)
Goodness me.  The story behind this (should you need a story to justify that amount of boobage) is that the Little Sea Maid, on the left, was distraught when the Prince declared that he didn't love her.  Her five older sisters sold their hair to the Sea Witch in exchange for a knife so that the Little Sea Maid could go and kill her feckless Prince and return to her watery home.  Instead the Sea Maid killed herself rather than harm the man she loved.

This is lovely in the (everso abundant) flesh, and the mermaids, all painted from the same model, the De Morgan's Maid, are icily beautiful and remote.  The sea is deep and inky blue, contrasting with the pearly skin of the girls and the scales of their tails reflect the light below the water.  It is wonderful.

Ariadne in Naxos (1877)
Her choice of classical subjects made use of her love of the shoreline and here we have Ariadne waking up on Naxos to find that she picked a rubbish boyfriend.  Usually she is pictured having a right tizzy because the ratweasel Theseus has gone off with another woman but De Morgan shows her as miserable as a woman awaiting lie-detector results on Jeremy Kyle.  It's actually an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of a wronged woman, internalising her pain, unsurprised and listless.  It's okay Ariadne, something better will be along in a minute...

Boreas and Oreithyia (1896)
I'll finish with what must be my favourite image from the exhibition, Boreas and Oreithyia.  Boreas, the Greek god of the North wind, fell in love with Oreithyia, daughter of the King of Athens.  When the normal chat-ups didn't work, he fell back on the traditional pick-up and fly-off.  Charming.  When I saw this, I actually understood how people could mistake De Morgan's work for Burne-Jones, especially in the figure of Boreas.  He is painted from Alessandro di Marco, the model for The Beguiling of Merlin by Burne-Jones, and he does look rather splendid with a pair of wings.

The exhibition is definitely worth a visit and it does give you a chance to see the rest of the marvellous museum at the same time.  The De Morgans and the Sea runs from 1st April until 28th September and further information can be found on the Rusell-Cotes home page here.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A Curl of Copper and Pearl

Hello everyone and welcome to launch day!  I've had a lovely day of swanning around one of the locations in my novel, Kelmscott Manor...

Today my novel is launched and I would like to thank everyone for the support I have been given over the last few weeks.  Here then is an extract from the book, when Alexa is at Kelmscott for the second time, in 1872.  Her relationship with Rossetti has become a little strained and difficult as he has been using chloral which makes him unpredictable...
I made the mistake of attending dinner that evening. I was placed beside Mr Morris, William, looking ill at ease, and Miss Rossetti, who spoke past me for the most part, eager to converse with William about poetry and his new novel.  This was engaging a great deal of his time, and no doubt giving him great reason to hide away. Rossetti sat between his mother and Jane, speaking to his mother the most and giving Jane looks of devotion which she paid no attention to. I ate well, soup, meat and a fruit pudding, but remained quiet in the midst of the conversation, as Jane did. To her credit, the crow-like Miss Rossetti engaged me in conversation about the area of London I came from, then about St Paul’s Cathedral, which I knew very little about other than its general appearance. She smiled and spoke pleasantly, if a little like she felt it was a duty.  She had the professional air of someone who found it a pleasant challenge to talk to all manner of people. I wondered if she did prison visits. Her manner was serious, but interested and she was skilful at drawing questions from my responses. I explained that my uncle ran a meat market stall.  She asked about the expense of cuts, the preference of animal at different times of year, the best cut of meat. I replied to her question about my work that I had worked as a seamstress, and she asked if I knew embroidery, of which I knew a little, which caused a nod of pleasure from both her and Mr Morris. At the end of the meal, I excused myself so I could pack and wished the Rossetti ladies a good evening. I had gone through to the room beyond and paused, catching sight of a sketch left on the chair. It was of May, looking angelic, and I paused, smiling.
‘She seems pleasant.’ Mrs Rossetti’s voice carried through to me, and there was a general chuckle from the assembled party.
‘Did you think I employed savages to pose?’ Her son’s reply was full of mischief.
‘Not at all, I assumed you employed her because she is beautiful, not for her table manners.’
There was a moment of good-natured murmuring at the table, as William and Christina both seemed to speak and laugh, then Rossetti spoke again, his voice tight with jollity.
‘Well of course I employ her because of her face, it’s hardly for her wits,’ he spouted and there was a rumble of female complaint, barely meant, before he continued.  ‘Alice is a good girl, but dull and without conversation or talent. However, one can hardly place her in a cupboard like a teapot, when you’re not using her!’
A great laugh of indignation arose from the party, laughter at me, poor stupid me and Rossetti’s cruelness in pointing out my folly. I turned to leave and saw May, crouched on the stairs, her smile like a contented cat. I didn’t linger."
So, on with the competition!  You might remember that I asked you to vote for your favourite oil of Alexa Wilding and your favourite sketch.  After a jolly response both here and on Facebook, I can reveal the winners are....

Veronica Veronese (1872)
For the oils, the clear winner was Veronica Veronese, followed by Monna Vanna and La Ghirlandata tied in second place.  I think it is the glorious green, copper and yellow all clashing and combining to such spectacular effect.  Coincidentally, this is the only image they have of Alexa in the shop at Kelmscott.  It's on a fridge magnet and therefore now on my fridge.

For the sketch, you voted for this one...

Aspecta Medusa (1867)
Lots of you loved this one and it's easy to see why.  Rossetti was an absolute genius with chalk.  That tumble of russety hair is divine.

Anyway, thank you everyone for entering and the winner drawn at random is....

Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth!

So, Freyalyn, if you could drop me a line to my email with your address I shall pop a signed copy off to you!

Thank you again to you all for making the publication of my first novel such fun and larks, I couldn't have done it without all your support.  

Me reading my book in the garden at Kelmscott
Right then, I best start writing another one then...

Friday, 4 April 2014

Exhibition Review : The Artists Rifles - From Pre-Raphaelites to Passchendaele

Last night I had the good fortune to attend the opening of a new exhibition at Southampton Art Gallery.  The subject relates to the First World War commemorations that are happening this year but stretched back further than that, all the way to the Pre-Raphaelites.  The subject was the Artists Rifles...

Cap badge of the Artists Rifles
The Artists Rifles were one of many volunteer regiments formed in mid nineteenth century when Britain felt under threat from the French.  Raised in London in 1859 by an art student, Edward Sterling, it comprised of men in the creative arts: painters, musicians, actors, architects and the suchlike.  It was formally named the 38th Middlesex (Artists') Rifle Volunteer Corps in 1860, with its HQ in Burlington House.  The unit's badge, above, designed by J W Wyon shows Mars and Minerva in profile.

What I didn't realise was how many of the Pre-Raphaelite and associated Victorian artists were involved in the venture.  Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, John Everett Millias, William Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, together with G F Watts and Lord Leighton were all members.  Lord Leighton became CO of the corp after the original commander stepped down, possibly good training for being in charge of the Royal Academy.  The exhibition fills a marvellous room with their art, together with a set of portraits of the gentlemen involved.

Oscar Gustav Rejlander double self-portrait
as artist and in Artists Rifle uniform
There are some smashing stories of Pre-Raphaelites being trained as soldiers.  William Morris couldn't tell his left from his right and so turned the wrong way while drilling.  He ended up facing his friends, apologising profusely and turning around again.  Rossetti, predictably, argued all the time and wouldn't take orders without questioning the officer at length.  I think we are fortunate that the French never invaded.

Over the Top (1918) John Nash
Of course it isn't all jolly fun with beardy chaps.  The fact that it is linked to the 1914 events give a hint that the corp was involved in the First World War and a stark painting by John Nash shows part of their involvement.  Over the Top shows the Welsh Ridge counter-attack of December 1917 where the Artists Rifles climbed from the trenches in the snow and attacked the enemy.  Of the 80 men involved, 68 were killed or wounded in the first few minutes.

The Artists Rifles memorial at the Royal Academy
Post 1918, the work of the Artists Rifles is shown in such glorious pictures as Shell posters (which I have an absolute weakness for) and some utterly glorious paintings such as this one, possibly my favourite of the exhibition (outside the nineteenth century)...

Pauline Waiting (1939) Herbert James Gunn
The exhibition features works from major national collections including the Imperial War Museum, Leighton House and the National Portrait Gallery (and the Russell Cotes Museum and Art Gallery, hence me getting to go to the opening with Mr Walker).  It also has objects and uniforms from the Regiment.  It starts in Southampton Art Gallery where it runs from 4th April until 28th June.  It then goes to The Willis Museum in Basingstoke from 5th July to 27th September, then to the Gosport Discovery Centre from 4th October until 27th December.

It's a beautiful exhibition with a really moving story to tell so if you are able to come to the South, I thoroughly encourage you to do so.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Trouble with Alexa Wilding...

This will be a bit of a rambly one, so forgive me in advance, but it comes from a few discussions I've had in the last couple of weeks regarding Alexa and where she sits in the whole Pre-Raphaelite story.  The problem with Alexa is that in order to put her in, you have to shove other things around...

Alexa and Fanny

Lady Lilith (watercolour) D G Rossetti
Lady Lilith (oil) D G Rossetti

Slotting Alexa into Fanny's story is reasonably straightforward.  Fanny reigned supreme from 1862-65, then Rossetti dragged Alexa off the street and Fanny was shoved in a box.  He scraped Fanny out of pictures like Lady Lilith, Venus Verticordia and arguably (by me at least) Monna Vanna and never looked back.  What was it about Fanny that Rossetti no longer found inspiring?  She had grown fat (oi!) and therefore unattractive as a muse (watch it!) and he needed the beautiful, young Alexa to relight his creative fires and earn him a bit of cash.

I find the weight argument a bit spurious and based on a remark made by William Bell Scott (who hated Fanny's guts).  He called her 'the creature with three waists', how kind, but he was also the man who claimed that she cracked nuts between her teeth.  This coupled with Rossetti's nickname for her, 'Elephant', sealed her fate as being unattractive.  It should be noted that Rossetti had called Fanny 'Elephant' for years before he stopped using her and was calling her that when this picture was taken...

Fanny, 1863
When he replaced Fanny with Alexa, she looked like this...

Alexa, mid 1860s
No offence to Alexa, but she's not really a wisp of a thing.  Maybe then it had more to do with age.  When Rossetti grabbed Alexa she was around 17 years old.  Fanny was 30.  But Alexa wasn't the only woman on the scene, as 26 year old Jane Morris reappeared as Rossetti's Muse in 1865 too.  Fanny was well and truly put to one side as main muse, but if it was not her appearance, what else could it be?

I wonder if Rossetti's move away from Fanny was a move away from his dependence on her.  She had become a permanent inclusion in his life in 1862 when his wife died.  Unlike the other women who had caused Elizabeth Siddal so much heartache, Fanny moved herself in to Rossetti's life and became a fully integrated part of him as man and artist.  Annie Miller remained a muse but slipped away; Marie Stillman, Anne Ryan, Ellen Smith, all came and went but Fanny was there in his house, in his bed, in his kitchen, and in his studio when he needed her.  Possibly his move away from Fanny was a move away from any weakness he had understandably felt after Elizabeth's death.  She was around his age, she had been in his life for a while.  Maybe what he wanted was a fresh start and not be Sad, Mad Rossetti anymore.  Maybe in Alexa he found a way to forget the past.

Alexa and Jane

Whilst Alexa is quite easily slotted into Fanny's story, the real problems and arguments come when you try and reconcile Alexa and Jane Morris.  Possibly one of the main reasons that Alexa has been ignored by biographers for so long is that she makes the whole Rossetti-Jane love story a bit less single-minded.  The official story says that Rossetti fell back in love with Jane Morris in 1865 and remained devoted to her, obsessed in fact, until his death.  But then things like this happen...

Kind of Jane's face, kind of Alexa's hair.  I like to call her 'Jalexa'...
One of the reasons I wanted to write a Pre-Raphaelite story from the perspective of Alexa is that she was there at all points between 1865 and 1882.  She is a bit of a fly in the ointment of the obsession because she gives Jane a run for her money in terms of being Rossetti's muse.  Alexa appears in more oils than Jane and countless sketches.  She was there at Kelmscott Manor when Jane and Rossetti were 'all alone', she was there in Bognor when Jane and Rossetti called an end to their romance.  She was equally a matter of speculation among Rossetti's friends, but has roundly been dismissed as anything other than a model.  Why?

La Pia De'Tolomei (1868) D G Rossetti
La Pia De'Tolomei (1868) D G Rossetti
Much of Alexa's poor reputation is fixed upon a throw away remark by Rossetti, which I merrily quote in A Curl of Copper and Pearl.  Rossetti wrote to his mother from Kelmscott that Alexa was 'a really good-natured creature - fit company for anyone & quite ladylike, only not gifted or amusing.  Thus she might bore you at meals & so on (for one cannot put her in a cupboard)...' (24th May 1873)  Upon those damning words poor Alexa has been written off as not of interest in comparison to the dark goddess, Jane Morris.  Why bother with looking at Alexa when Jane was obviously his consuming passion?  Look at the pictures he painted of Jane in comparison to those of Alexa...

La Donna della Finestra (1879)
La Bella Mano (1875)
I wonder how much our knowledge of Rossetti and Jane's relationship informs how we view his art and how much that feeds back into how we view his relationship.  He loved her in real life and so his image of her is loving, therefore he loved her in real life.  It's a relationship that is self-fulfilling by this point with all the times it has been repeated in print. We can tell how intense Rossetti felt about Jane Morris because his images are so intense.  His images are so intense because he felt so intense.  But what of Alexa?  Do we believe the images of her are any less intense?   To my eye, the same gaze is reflected in all the Rossetti's muses.  It is easy to argue that Alexa looks disinterested and bored/boring because that is how we believe she was in real life.  Looking at the two images above, do we really see more passion in Jane than in Alexa?  Is it really there or do we imagine it because Rossetti felt differently towards Jane?

Did Rossetti feel differently towards Jane?

Alexa and Rossetti

Ah, now, here we go.  I am queen of unfounded speculation, but I am not alone.  Alexa and Rossetti's relationship caused gossip among his friends but mostly it was put to bed because he was openly seen with Jane.  He could not possibly be seeing two women, that wouldn't be like him at all!  In answer to the evidence of the letter, there are many reasons why Rossetti might have said Alexa wasn't amusing or gifted.  He might have been closing down an avenue of interest from his mother who was about to meet the young lady.  He might have been feeling spiteful.  He might have known that people were talking or have been paranoid enough to think they would be.  He might have been sleeping with Alexa and wanted to hide it from Jane, from Fanny, from his family.  Come on, he's not really a one-woman man now is he?  Are we claiming that Jane Morris was a far stronger influence on Rossetti than Lizzie Siddal?  Did Jane cure Rossetti of his womanising that drove one woman to the grave?  Bold claim indeed.

What we know of Rossetti and Alexa's relationship is that he guarded her jealously, not allowing her to pose for anyone other than himself, Boyce and Dunn, his studio assistant (who was also in love with her).  He paid her weekly, even if he wasn't using her, and he complained about her absences bitterly in his letters.  When he went away from London he invariably took Alexa with him, he gave her extra funds when he sold pictures and he worried about her health.  In many ways he treated her the same as he treated Jane and Fanny and yet Alexa doesn't fit in the simple narrative of Rossetti's life.  Fanny is difficult enough but she just about slots in between Lizzie's death (for which she is often help culpable) and Jane's return.  He loved Lizzie, he loved Fanny, he loved Jane, but as for Alexa, he just painted her.

Venus Verticordia (1867-68) D G Rossetti

Are we so sure?

Friday, 28 March 2014

A Curl of Copper and Pearl: An Extract for Wombat Friday

Hello Darlings, and welcome back on this rather busy week full of all things to do with Alexa. 

I thought I would post up an extract of the novel today, and I've chosen a scene involving Alexa and Fanny.  This bit takes place after Alexa's first visit to Kelmscott Manor, a place that Fanny was banned from.  We know from Rossetti's letters that Alexa visited Fanny after she returned and told her a few uncomfortable truths as to what was going on.  

When Alexa calls on Fanny, she is in the kitchen, making jam...

Like the golden sun, she sat at the large wooden table that filled the centre of the kitchen, her pale dress covered with a pinafore of stout cotton in a floral sprigged print. Her frame hid the chair, swamped in fabric from skirt and apron. She had a wide white bowl in front of her and a sharp knife held in her hand. From the left, her strong hand found a punnet of plums which she picked from. Her eyes flicked to me briefly as I entered, and she drew her knife around the fruit, twisting it and pulling sharply at the stone before depositing the flesh into the bowl.
‘How was Kelmscott?’
She sliced at another plum, her lips tightening. I drew back the chair opposite her, lowering myself into it slowly. Caution was always necessary with Fanny, and I considered that maybe it wasn’t the moment to antagonise her while she held a knife. That wasn’t why I was there anyway. I tilted my head in a gesture of boredom, making a face of distaste.
‘As you might imagine, Mrs Hughes.’
My admission drew a snorted laugh, her knife busy. I watched for a moment, the all-pervading smell of sharp juice making me feel a little sick. Her fingers were slick and shiny with the plums, the skins darkening with her wet touch, and the juice flowing down her fingers over her rings, under the rings, covering the skin. I moved my queasy gaze to the bowl of plums. Some were rosy, some a little green and freckled, some still with stalks and leaves. A confident spider paraded across the skins at the top, making his way to safety, but showing no fear as Fanny’s plump hand seized one of his stepping stones and whisked it away.
‘My mother used to make plum jam,’ she began, and gave a little smile. I nodded. She was lying, that tiny smile giving her away. She always smiled when she lied, possibly why I had liked her when many others did not. I preferred to see it as a joke she was sharing, a story, rather than mistruth.
 ‘I haven’t had good jam for a while.’  That also wasn’t true, but for want of something to say, I was polite.
‘Oh, my jam is the best.’ She smiled a wide, toothy grin, which I mirrored, helplessly.
‘So I’ve heard,’ I answered saucily, and we both laughed, the tension broken. She gave her head a toss, shaking back loose strands of crinkly blonde hair, but the movement allowed her to relax her expression for a moment and I could see unhappiness crease her features. As her head was still again, her smile returned as if it never left.
‘How’s the jam at Kelmscott?’
The enquiry drew an immediate answer from me.
‘There isn’t any.’
We sat in silence as she considered this, satisfied. The only sound was the knife continuously slicing through the plums and freeing the stones, a clatter as they hit the table and the soft impact of flesh in the bowl.
‘Would you like a plum?’ she asked at last, and I reached forward as she tilted the bowl. ‘Take the nicest, go on.’
My fingers hovered, then I gently grasped a cherry-red fruit, feeling the skin’s tightness as my fingers caught it. Fanny made an impressed face at me as I took the fruit, holding it in my hand like a precious prize.
‘A good choice, and just ripe. It will be no loss to my jam.’ She picked up a perfect little red fruit and holding it like a gem between her thumb and finger. ‘Some fruits look beautiful, precious, but…’ She slid her knife around the skin and I could hear the flesh crunch unwillingly. She hacked out the stone with effort and dumped the little carnage into the bowl, ‘They are all hard inside, even though they look ripe. Some fruits are glorious…’ She lifted a large plum, dark red like ox blood and the size of a hen’s egg. She rolled it expertly between her fingers, studying it, taking the powdery bloom from the skin and darkening it. Her knife slid in and the juice trickled uncontrollably from the wound as she rotated the dark form in her hand. When she opened it, it was all pulp, loose and generous and she picked the stone out, depositing the body in the bowl with a wet flop. ‘To what end? They all end up in the bowl and no-one appreciates the quantity they give.’
Wiping her hands on her apron, she gestured for me to hand over my fruit. Curiously, I passed it back and she slid the knife around the seam of the body with ease. She twisted it a little but it parted with such compliance that it seemed unnecessary and her thumb ejected the stone cleanly. I laughed, but without knowing why other than I felt very uncomfortable suddenly.
‘It’s a good one.’
I spoke just to fill the silence, as I took the cut plum from her barely wet hand. For a spilt second her fingers tightened on the fruit, just as a warning, but the barest amount.
‘Your plum is obviously ready for eating,’ she replied, and her smile did not reach her eyes.
‘Lord Fanny,’ I sighed, ‘pack it in. Anyway, my plum is my business.’
‘You mind that you keep it that way.’ She smiled and the moment was allowed to pass.

The book is available to buy from Amazon already, and I will be having a bit of an on-line shindig on 9th April to launch it.