Easy on the heart: The Marriage Bureau

Alright, today we’re moving away from the doom and gloom, the moaning and whining.

I still feel restless etc but I’m making the effort not to bring you all down (although, thanks to all of you who left comments on my last post letting me know I’m not the only one!).

Last year, I promised you a review of the book I’m talking about today.

marriage-burreauThat’s right, today I’m finally talking about The Marriage Bureau: True Stories of 1940s London Matchmakers!

(May be known as Marriages Are Made in Bond Street: True Stories from a 1940s Marriage Bureau in your market)

In the mid-1980s, author Penrose Halson took over a London marriage bureau that had been operating since 1939. It was started by friends Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, single women who weren’t ready to get married themselves but knew a lot of people that could use their services as matchmakers. The idea came to Mary when she became aware of all the young, marriage minded males posted overseas who would come home for a few weeks to find a girl to marry. They didn’t have the connections to meet the right women and Mary did.

The Marriage Bureau follows these young women (in their mid-twenties when they started) as they worked to find office space, and set up their business at a time when women rarely worked outside of the home. It introduces readers to an incredible cast of characters: London spinsters, men who wanted to marry above their station, a widow three times over looking for a man without children who wouldn’t upset the balance of her life, the young sailor looking for love while on leave who hoped they would find someone that was just like his neighbour growing up, even a German spy.


I’ll admit that one of the things that drew me to this book was the fact that it’s in production by the folks that are responsible for Downton Abbey. I’m imagining a kind of Call the Midwife crossed with Downton or Upstairs Downstairs. I still get so excited thinking about the possibility!

This is a delightful, easy on the heart non-fiction read. Honestly, most of the time I forgot I was reading non-fiction. The chapters are set up in a way that you could dip in and out and you wouldn’t lose the ‘plot’. I have a friend who I regularly supply with books – she always tells me she doesn’t read non-fiction. I’m planning on loaning it to her, pretending that it’s fiction. Not sure she will notice the difference – that’s how readable it is.

I’ve been reading a lot of heavy, heart-rending non-fiction. The Marriage Bureau is that rare non-fiction read that is uplifting, riveting and will leave a smile on your face.

Look for it in spring.



Filling the Downton Abbey void

It’s maybe been a while since I mentioned that I loved Downton Abbey. I mean, it was a popular show, I’m not alone in this. The show definitely also sent me scurrying after related reading material. That’s how I came to read Lady Almina and the Real Downtown Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, and then Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, and even Below Stairs, which really led to Serving Victoria.

Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, had a follow up show where he visits famous estates and digs around to find out some of the more interesting stories. It’s called Great Houses with Julian Fellowes and it’s awesome.

Recently, I read his new book, Belgravia.


Belgravia opens on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels. The next day many of the guests go off to fight in the battle; many of them do not return. We meet the Trenchard family – James, his wife Anne and their beautiful daughter Sophia. James is a supplier to the army and his fortunes have been climbing as he’s able to achieve what most cannot. They manage to get an invite to the ball via Sophia’s relationship with Lord Bellasis, a favourite nephew of the Duchess of Richmond.

In a time when social rules dictated who could marry whom, Sophia is not a ‘good’ match for Lord Bellasis – her father works.

The rest of the story takes place in London in the 1840s, when those heady days in Brussels changes everything for these families.

I know – I’m being vague again. But the enjoyment of this book relies on one not knowing very much going in.

Here’s what’s interesting about Belgravia: yes, you can read it in traditional book format, but originally it was released as a serialization, both text and audio,  via an app! The book very much reads this way – each chapter feels episodic, there are cliffhangers, and I ended up speeding through the 402 pages.

Otherwise, this book was eminently readable. There is no one better when it comes to this type of historical feature. Fellowes has an incredible depth of knowledge when it comes to society, the relationships therein, the changes as a new class of wealth showed up on the scene intent on mingling with the top echelons of English Society, as well as the dynamics of service at the time. The characters feel like real people and Fellowes writes for an audience that he knows is capable of following along. He doesn’t write down to you, he doesn’t affect jargon of the time to try and lend his work more credibility. It just is credible. Even watching him on Great Houses, I’m always struck by how polite he is, how respectful he is of everyone he interacts with.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be notable, but it totally is.

If you miss Downton, this should fill the void.


Lake Reads: BC Day Edition


lake reads

Look at what I did! Learning and growing, guys.

As my shiny new graphic may have indicated, I’m off for another long weekend at the lake. This time around is a little different – my sister, Audrey of Aud Thoughts, is coming with! I’m sure for a lot of people, the addition of an extra person would mean that less reading would occur. But Audrey and I are the kind of sisters that will just read together. I suspect Holly and Amanda at Gun in Act One are similar.

But you didn’t come here to hear about sister reading (did you?). You want to know what I’ve brought with me to the lake, right? I have some good ones coming with me! Right now, I’m reading one of these.

The Outliers by Kimberly McCreight. You may recall that I LOVED Reconstructing Amelia. Her second book, Where They Found Her, was just OK for me. The Outliers is our book club book – apparently this is the first in a trilogy. Wylie gets a text from her best friend Cassie, ‘Please Wylie, I need your help.’ This is the first Wylie has heard from Cassie in over a week so of course she’s going to do what she needs to to help her friend.

Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. This one is described as Emma set in Modern Asia so that’s really all I need. Amanda read it recently and said it was more serious than she expected it to be but I guess now I’m prepared for that!

Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin. First of all, this woman’s name is Wednesday and I can totally get behind that. This book, an anthropological look at the insanity that is the Upper East Side, sounds gossipy and snotty and great. I’d been meaning to read this one for a while and when I walked into Chapters the other day, the paperback was on for $15. Yes, please.

The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty. Guys, this is the last of Moriarty’s books that I have to read! Once I read this, I will have read ALL of her books and have to wait for her to write something new. (I read Truly Madly Guilty and it was amazing. Totally maintaining the Moriarty Standard of Excellence). Sophie’s perfect boyfriend is going to propose but on the day he’s going to do it, she ends the relationship and breaks his heart. A year later, he’s  married to someone else and Sophie wonders if he’s the one that got away. Listen – it might not sound like your cup of tea but when Liane Moriarty is at the helm, a straight forward story becomes so much more.

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes. Anyone else feeling like they need a hit of Downton? This book from the show’s creator is set in the 1840s but begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. It all starts at the Duchess of Richmond’s infamous ball and I am here for it.

The Fire Witness by Lars Kepler. Guys, I can’t get enough of this series. Kepler has become one of my favourite Scandinavian crime writers. After this one, I still have Stalker to go. This one tells the tale of a gruesome and strange murder in a home for teenaged girls. Joona Linna returns to find out what happened. Lake rule: you must always bring crime fiction.

The Hopefuls is also coming up with us because Audrey has requested it. And! For the first time ever, my husband wants to read a book that I recommended. I’m not supposed to make a big deal out of it or he won’t read it… (The book is Dark Matter)

Hope you have some good reads on deck this weekend!






Book Hoarding: Tales from the Front Line

For months I tried really hard to curb my book buying. And for the most part, I was successful. I borrowed from friends, and went to the library more often but I didn’t buy too many new books.

And then we came back from our trip and I lost my damn mind.

In the span of two short days, I managed to get three book trips in. One was a library sale (a stack of books for $3.50!) but the others were not. Want to know what all I got? Don’t tell my husband.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. Money well spent. I loved it.

The House of Dolls by David Hewson. I posted about how much I wanted to get this book. And then I basically went out and got it. It was pretty alright. I really liked the fact that it takes place in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a good setting for crime fiction! The whole thing was suffused with a real sense of “Dutch-ness” that I appreciated.

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy. I love Maeve Binchy and I like to always have some on hand for a) a rainy day or b) when I need to reset my book mojo. So when I saw it at the library sale I got it only to realize when I got home that I had already bought a copy of it. So…anyone want a copy of Scarlet Feather?

Jane Austen’s First Love by Syrie James. I loved her other books, especially The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte. It was $5 at the bookstore, my friend and I both bought a copy.

The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park. I don’t think I ever posted about the first book, The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, but I really loved it. It had been a while since I’d read really great historical fiction and that first book kind of restored my faith in the genre. The second book is mercifully shorter but after the surprising ending of the first book, I’m all kinds of curious about the second book. Did I mention the author is an octogenarian?

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope. I’m not sure why but I’ve been in the mood to read Trollope recently. I keep hearing about him and I’ve only ever read The Way We Live Now but it was great. This story about a woman who wants to become a countess and marries a wealthy Lord and six months later he claims that the marriage never occurred, he has a living wife, she was only ever his mistress and the child she carries illegitimate – it sounds Victorian awesome.

Elizabeth & Leicester by Sarah Gristwood because I take every opportunity to expand my Royals library and I haven’t read about the Tudors recently.

The Astronaut’s Wives Club by Lily Koppel. I’d been interested when this first came out but when I heard it was going to be a TV show, it shot back up in the priority line.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. I can’t get enough of Liane Moriarty. It started when Big Little Lies was a book club book and then I finally read The Husband’s Secret – my friend had been after me to read it for months. What Alice Forgot will be my next fix. Hopefully Moriarty is working on something else…

Anne of Ingleside by LM Montgomery. I’m still working my way through the series and this is the next book and I didn’t have it.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. The Woman in White is part of my TBR Pile Challenge so obviously I needed The Moonstone for when I love The Woman in White.

Servant’s Hall by Margaret Powell. This is the follow-up to Below Stairs about what life was like for servants in the great Victorian houses.

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory. I can’t seem to quit her, even after she keeps disappointing me. Maybe this one is a return to her greatness?

Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris. Even though I’ve read biographies on Audrey Hepburn before I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much Hepburn.

You know how sometimes you know something is bad but you don’t know something’s bad until it’s staring you in the face? I’m in so much trouble…


Giving Daisy Goodwin Another Shot

Recently The Socratic Salon hosted a discussion about what it takes for readers to go back to authors who have burned them before. It was an interesting and lively discussion about the ways that we make room for or dismiss authors who have maybe disappointed our hopes in the past.

The first time I read Daisy Goodwin, I was disappointed. In The American Heiress, I was expecting a Downton Abbey worthy story featuring a fabulously wealthy American who comes to Britain intent on snagging a titled young man to marry. And that is the bare bones story but it never really gelled with me. I remember being disappointed that there wasn’t more substance to the story. I’m not sure if I had hoped that she would marry for love or find that a title wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. I’m always annoyed when characters move to other worlds and just expect to be able to do whatever they wanted. I remember being disappointed, though, that the main character lacked any kind of spunk.

But when I saw The Fortune Hunter, and read that it featured the love triangle between Elisabeth of Austria, Bay Middleton, and Middleton’s fiancee Charlotte Baird, well I was immediately willing to forgive Goodwin her past transgressions against me.


If you’ve ever been to Vienna, you’re probably familiar with Elisabeth of Austria because of all the places that her portrait, the one of the young woman in the white ballgown with diamond stars in her abundant hair, is featured. When I went to Vienna and kept seeing the Winterhalter portrait, I was so entranced that I needed to know more about the woman. I found and purchased the Brigitte Hauman biography of Sisi (a book that Goodwin mentioned in her Afterword as being the best written about Sisi).

So I was somewhat familiar with the story. But there’s something so different about reading a biography of a person and having them brought to life by a fictional account.

The Fortune Hunter is a delight. It is the perfect kind of historical fiction novel that hits all the right notes. It manages to find the right balance of expressions that are right for the time without being heavy handed and phoney sounding. I thought Goodwin did an amazing job bringing Elisabeth to life as well as addressing her relationship with Bay Middleton. It’s not ever been proven whether their relationship was romantic and physical, although most tend to agree that it probably was. Charlotte Baird, the heiress to an immense fortune who Middleton did eventually marry, is the kind of heroine I can totally get behind. She doesn’t spend her time getting ready for parties and gossiping, she has an interest in photography and a disdain for the types of women who only think about The Season and getting married, as exemplified in her sister-in-law to be, Augusta.

fortune hunterOh no I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and am glad that my previous experience with Daisy Goodwin didn’t prevent me from wading into this one whole-heartedly. In the same Afterword, Goodwin mentions that she so enjoyed writing the scenes that feature Queen Victoria (and I can see why, they were hilarious) that she has become a main character for her next novel. She also mentioned that the new biography of Queen Victoria by A.N. Wilson was one of the best biographies written about her. A biography I just so happen have sitting on my table.


Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household

Downton Abbey has given us all an appetite for life below stairs.

The ultimate behind-the-scenes look would be those servants in service to a monarch amiright?

That’s what I thought I was getting with Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household.

I imagined Kate Hubbard giving us access to the maids and butlers and valets, in thrall to the longest serving Monarch in British history. That there would be Carsons and Daisys and Mrs Patmores. That we’d find out all the gossip about the august royal personages from those tasked with looking after their more basic and bodily needs.

Alas, like when I picked up a book supposedly about regular people during the Tudor period, Serving Victoria was more concerned with those in more senior positions within the household: ladies-in-waiting, personal secretaries, ladies-of-the-bedchamber, physicians and deacons. Basically the lives of the paid companions of Queen Victoria only insofar as they affected Queen Victoria.

serving victoria

It’s not that it wasn’t an interesting read. It was. Well-researched and executed it was an extremely interesting book, full of little tidbits about a bunch of different Royalties. It just wasn’t what I expected. But again, these are the lives that are documented aren’t they? The folks with the level of education needed to serve the Queen in their individual capacities, those that were able to read and write. The below stairs servants likely didn’t leave anywhere near their level of record behind to make research possible.

The early years, when we get to know the nursery governess were good. Sarah Lyttleton provided insight into the psyches of and treatment of the royal children from the start. The Princess Royal was very much her father’s daughter, brilliant and precocious and bored until the found her a tutor that was better able to challenge her. But the poor Prince of Wales was from the start always thought to be lacking in judgment and intelligence, early opinions that really set him on a course of assuming he’d disappoint before he ever got started.

Having read a variety of books about Queen Victoria and her various relations, I get a sense that depending on when and how you knew her, she was very different to different people. There were very few that she trusted enough to be her full self, and especially after the death of Prince Albert she clung to those that she felt capable of relaxing with and talking to almost as an equal. In her early years she was easily amused and liked to play silly games and gossip, although once she married she tended to defer to her husband in most things. After he died, she spent a lot of time marking anniversaries of the deaths of everyone around her. And since she outlived a lot of her children and contemporaries, this really took over her life.

The people that served her found it exhausting. I’d never really thought about how tiring it must have been to have to hang out with a Monarch and spend a lot of your time waiting for her to decide what you were going to do that day. She hated when her ladies-in-waiting had the nerve to get married but woe to the men in her life if they should decide to get married. Her doctor had served her for over 20 years and was nearing 50 when he decided to get married and she wouldn’t allow it to go ahead for months.

If nothing else, seeing the life of Queen Victoria through the eyes of those that waited on her is a new way of seeing that epoch of history. It’s a massive amount of time and things changed so much that it may surprise you to hear that it’s only 364 pages long. Hubbard has done an admirable job of boiling down the lives of these faithful folks to only the most salient details.


If You’re Looking for More Books about Downton Abbey…

I’ve just returned from another trip to Downton Abbey. The real Downton Abbey that is, Highclere Castle.

(I feel like I should point out that I meant a bookish trip, not an actual trip to visit Highclere Castle like it’s in my neighbourhood.)

At the beginning of this year, as I was waiting for the 3rd season to premier on this side of the world, I decided to spend some time in the real Downton Abbey, courtesy of the current Countess of Carnarvon. Capitalizing on the popularity of the show, she wrote a book about Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon around the same time as the show takes place.

Well that book must have been popular because she has followed it up with another one, Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey. I’ve seen it listed on Goodreads as Lady Catherine, the Earl and the Real Downton Abbey and that strikes me as a much more appropriate title for this book. While the first book really mostly was about Almina and her incredible life, Lady Catherine was a much more passive Countess ergo, not as interesting to read about. The current Countess wisely chose to make this book more about the time.


Catherine Wendell was born into a wealthy American family in 1900. She lived a privileged lifestyle, descended from some of America’s “best” families until she was 10, when her father lost pretty much everything and decided to try his hand at…acting. He was dead two years later and her mother moved her family to England to be near some cousins. Catherine met Lord Porchester (Porchey), the future 6th Earl of Carnarvon, fell in love and married him. They had two lovely children, and while the responsibilities of running Highclere fell to them rather sooner than they expected (the 5th Earl died in 1923 about six months after Catherine and Porchey married) things were pretty decent.

Except that Porchey had a wandering eye. So they got divorced and Porchey was ever after plagued by his love affairs. Catherine married again right before the second world war but tragically her husband was killed in the early days of the war.

She spends quite a lot of time in convents, trying to get herself together after periods of intense stress. But while Almina made life happen, Catherine lets life happen, which is much less interesting to read about. Catherine’s children also, unbelievably, do everything they are supposed to. Her son does go to war and she’s (obviously ) terrified but he comes through more or less unscathed. Her daughter is lovely and affectionate and smart and marries appropriately. No scandal or anything. At least Almina was illegitimate and insanely wealthy.

The saving grace for this installment of life at Highclere was the window it gave of the time itself. The current Countess was able to get firsthand accounts from some of the people that had worked at Highclere at the time, and were able to give an idea of what it was like to have been young and alive at the time.

In the end, I liked Catherine and Porchey and their children but I’m glad that this book ended up being from the library. Although I will say that I liked this cover better than the first.