We had the most excellent evening at the Endsleigh Salon Book Group last week. The hotel have very kindly been making us welcome for almost ten years now (party frock evening soon) and truth be told, we always have an excellent time. We choose a theme and everyone reads accordingly, any book of their choosing, connections can be as tenuous as we like and, witness last week and the theme of Pseudonyms ...you can even bring a book along having forgotten the theme, or been enjoying a book so much you can talk about nothing else, and somehow we will make it fit.
I had been a bit Last Minute so chose Heartstones, a novella by Ruth Rendall. It wasn't exactly her nom de plume but there was a smattering of Barbara Vines too ( Grasshopper and Asta's Book) so we had a good old dissection of Ruth and how differently she wrote. Heartstones, a horror story of sorts and described as
'cunning and shocking...an absolute cracker... undertones of dread and suppressed sensuality,'
...had really impressed me when I first read it in 1987ish. But then that might have been because I had three children under the age of five and was really just impressed with myself for getting to the end of any book, even if it did only have seventy-seven pages. This second reading left me slightly underwhelmed and slightly confused by the ending which I remember had seemed as clear as day in 1987.
Oh well never mind because the best was yet to come.
'Oooooh,' we all chorused at the moment of reveal having read it in our youth.
The moment of reveal I should add is a wonderful one. We all sit on our books until it is our turn and go for the Big Surprise announcement. We love it.
Published in 1957, Seal Morning was lauded at the time as an autobiographical account of Rowena Farre's childhood spent living on a remote Scottish coastal croft surrounded by seals which did clever things like play the xylophone. I was sucker for all of it back in the day and completely stunned when Angela proceeded to tell us that it was actually fiction and that Rowena Farre had been exposed as a something of a fraud, had gone to ground after publication, fallen out with her family, emigrated to Sydney Australia living out her life under her real name of Daphne Macready before eventually returning to England where she died of cancer in Canterbury in 1979.
Angela had done her background research and the conversation turned to journalist Dan Boothby who has been on the trail of Rowena Farre for some time.
'Hang on, Dan Boothby, didn't he write that book about Gavin Maxwell and the otters?'
'Yes he did,' said Angela, ' Island of Dreams, he was given the chance to live in Maxwell's former home and wrote about it.'
I have Island of Dreams - A Personal History of a Remarkable Place waiting to be read and had thought it might make good Orkney reading in September.
Then someone, not me, mentioned Terry Nutkins and that was it, we were off on a tangent.
Book evenings can go a bit tennis-elbow-foot in this way. We often assess the extent of our wanderings at the end of an evening and realise we've been half way round the world to the houses, the foot of the stairs and back, but had the most amazing journey along the way.
Terry Nutkins had been one of the young boys who had lived with Gavin Maxwell but I remembered him being an acquaintance of my student nursing room mate at Gt Ormond Street and that we had gone to meet him at the dolphinarium in Oxford Street in about 1972. I've mentioned it on here before, but there was incredulity in the salon room as to how dolphins could possibly survive in central London, so thank goodness for iPads and google to confirm what by this time I was worrying I might just have dreamt.
The conversation came back to Rowena Farre and we had the most fascinating discussion about her, not least how might critic Kenneth Allsop have felt having described the book as 'a wonderfully honest account' on the front cover.
And what did Rowena/ Daphne feel... smug, terrified, rich and not in the least bit bothered...
If you are intrigued and want to know more about Rowena Farre take a look at Dan Boothby's website... here's a tantalising snippet...
Rowena Farre. Also known as Daphne Lois Macready. Also known as Lois Parre. The writer of three books and, as far as I knew, only one other published piece of writing. The writer of Seal Morning - an autobiography of childhood. Made up. A Time From the World - an autobiography of living with gypsies. Made up. The Beckoning Land - an autobiography of living with holy men in India. Made up.
The woman was an enigma. Evasive. Lost to her family. A fantasist whose ghost I'd been pursuing in idle moments for the past five years. Ever since I decided Rowena's story needed to be pinned down. The story of a literary hoaxer, a writer of fraudulent autobiography, a woman who ran from all those who knew her. So she could become the person she wanted to be. A traveller, a seeker, a writer.
Like Magnus (home for three weeks now and paws firmly glued to the floor) Dan Boothby might have been born under a wandering star, but likewise Rowena Farre who seems to have led a mysterious and enigmatic life that I am now despereate to know more about, so I am hoping Dan can get a biography together eventually.
Other pseudonyms making an appearance were...
Cecil Day Lewis writing as Nicholas Blake
Edith Mary Pargeter writing as Ellis Peters
J.K.Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith
John Banville writing as Benjamin Black
The book that sent the discussion through the roof was Call me Elizabeth by Dawn Annandale, whilst the books that we made fit the theme were Arcadia by Iain Pears, along with Ruth Scurr's John Aubrey - My Own Life (which we all wanted to rush out and buy that minute.)
But perhaps the best thing about the June meeting is that it is Choosing Evening.
We gather ideas for themes throughout the year, into the Choosing Hat they go (this year a Foyles carrier bag) and out came..
Let's Face the Music and Dance
More Tea Vicar
Rain and Shine
Let There be Light
and more, oh yes indeed a fun year of reading ahead for the salonistas.
So what would you choose for those themes...
And if you have read Seal Morning what thinkest thou of Rowena Farre/Daphne Macreadie...