Today I share with you my review of Spirited by Julie Cohen, published by Orion July 2020.
I loved this book; I found it enchanting, and it gripped me throughout. Set in the mid nineteenth century in England and India, the story covers spiritualism, so-called “spirit photography”, the oppression of women in Victorian times, and the power of women to assert their identity and to triumph over suffocating prejudice.
The novel reminded me of Affinity by Sarah Waters, published by Virago, another book which captivated me.
Fans of that book will love this one. Curiously, the colour and design of the covers on both books is very similar.
Julie Cohen’s mastery of atmosphere is compelling and as she builds the sense of mystery, the sympathy of the reader must surely rest with all three main characters, with Jonah who has returned to England from tragic events in India; with Viola, who responds to her grief at her father’s death by giving herself heart and soul to her photography; and to Henriette, strong and resilient, who rises above the cruelty and abuse she has received in the past.
Blended into all this is an intelligent and powerful debate about life after death and the various things we cling to in order to uphold our beliefs. Very highly recommended.
So who better to play him on stage and change our view of him than one of our contemporary heroes, the charismatic David Tennant?
But Richard II is also one of those kings who is a mystery to many of us; what we do know may be gleaned from primary school history, or a visit to Westminster Abbey.
There the main thing we learn about him is that he was murdered on the orders of his successor, Henry IV, and his body was initially buried somewhere else, but eventually Henry IV felt so guilty he moved the former king to the grand tomb he’d originally had built for himself in Westminster Abbey – which is where we may contemplate him today.
Richard II: An Unbalanced King, we are told in the brilliant comic classic book 1066 And All That, was only a boy at his accession: one day, however, suspecting that he was now twenty-one, he asked his uncle, and, on learning that he was, mounted the throne himself and tried first being a Good King and then being a Bad King, without enjoying either very much.
David Tennant’s Richard II showed us a petulant, whining, rather effete, figure in what my two teenagers could only describe as long hair and a long white nightie (and of course a crown on his head).
We were there because my two teenagers love David Tennant for being Doctor Who.
Yet how he opened up my view of this bad king.
All the raw vulnerability of the character was there, and I ended up feeling much more about Richard than that he was simply a baddie basking in undeserved glory in a tomb in Westminster Abbey.
Instead he was a real live fragile human being, with his moral weakness and disastrous decisions, different on the inside from the outside, as we all are.
This is what I wrote about Richard II in an ezine article in 2011:
For example, take a walk round Westminster Abbey, as I did the other day – here, in this major spiritual hub and London tourist attraction you’ll pass the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, and find clustered around him many monuments and tombs. The official tourist guide says these speak both of human dignity and achievement. But do they? Among them we find both the goodies and the baddies. Some are noble but others got there by ruthlessly exploiting everyone and everything in their lust for power.
Of course, after contemplating Richard II, who was so awful he was murdered by his successor, but still eventually ended up in the grand tomb he’d built for himself in the abbey, we can then move on to Poets Corner which shows us a much better aspect of human nature, celebrating creativity and genius to uplift and inspire us.
But now Shakespeare and David Tennant between them have deepened my view of Richard – as all great creatives must do with the characters they portray.
Since everyone in our house loves the Doctor, I’ve asked myself this question. And I concluded that we love the Doctor because:
* As a fictional character, he is a perfect combination of science and religion. He has the Christlike qualities of power, knowledge and goodness; combined with the vast possibilities of science. He plays into our archetypal longings for balance and justice in the universe, plus our thirst for knowledge and our fascination with the potential of science and our quest for empowerment.
* he has power over time. Time, death and the ageing process are among those things we cannot control, though we dream of doing so.
* he engages us on a spiritual level. He represents the perpetual battle between good and evil.
* the character of the Doctor, with all this power, knowledge and goodness, contains both playfulness and gravity. We respond at a deep level to paradox. Every one of the eleven actors who has played the Doctor has at some level combined the weight of ultimate responsibility and moral integrity with a quirky, mercurial quality. And the twelfth Doctor seems set fair to carry this same quality.
* we are always learning new things about the Doctor. He always retains his mystery.
* the Doctor is essentially lonely and poignant. He loves, and he evokes love. Yet he can never become emotionally attached to any one human – not without tragic repercussions or complex tampering with the space time continuum.
* he regenerates, just like nature, just like the Green Man, a symbol of rebirth, found in many cultures from many ages around the world.
The Doctor is all these things and more.
And we love him not only because of all this, but because of the genius of all those involved: the executives, actors, writers, directors, producers, monster-creators, technical people, visual and special effects people and composers and musicians. They will have overcome everything that human weakness can throw at them, during the fifty years of the programme’s life, as we saw only too well from the Adventure in Space and Time episode about BBC executive Sydney Newman, actor William Hartnell, producer Verity Lambert, and director Waris Hussein.
As Russell Drysdale said, “In Australia there is a quality of strangeness that you do not find … anywhere else.”
Reviews of the exhibition were mixed, with a lot of criticism levelled at it in the UK. But from the first painting of a convict settlement, neat, well spaced out and idealized, through to the contemporary paintings struggling to reconcile the wounded history of cruelty, misunderstanding and conflict between aboriginal people and European colonial settlers, the exhibition created, for me, a strong sense of connection to my own experience of four and a half years living in this great continent.
There was no painting of Sydney Opera House, my favourite of all buildings; but there was one by Grace Cossington Smith of Sydney Harbour Bridge being built, (“The Bridge in Building”, 1929) viewed from below, demonstrating pride, hope, creative enterprise, ingenuity, and above, beyond and around it a distinctly spiritual resonance.
The indigenous artworks were particularly moving, with their distinctive cross hatched patterns characteristic of aboriginal artists, as they depict rain running down dunes, undulating landscapes, waterholes and trees and spirit ancestors, believing that we tread the earth for a while then come out of it and become part of the ancestral realm again.
But in addition to the aboriginal artworks, there were others which touched me deeply. In particular a swirling picture by Kenneth McQueen, a Queensland artist, of the rainforest-clad mountains reflected my own experience of this majestic landscape. I felt connected, then, to one of my former favourite haunts, Mount Glorious, which is part of the Great Dividing Range, forming the backdrop to the city of Brisbane. As soon as I saw his painting I thought “Yes! Maiala Rainforest” – conveyed just as I remembered it, in swirling patterns of movement.
The indigenous people of Australia are the ones who fully understand and imbue the earth with sacred forces. They are the ones who gave this continent its air of mystery and spiritual power. But I can be thankful, too, to those eighteenth century European settlers, because they prepared the way so that I,and many others, might have access to this sublime scenery.
There, displayed for us in The Alternative Guide to the Universe, were the outpourings of unlicensed architects, off-beam physicists, self-taught artists, arcane code creators, numerologists and mystical theorizers; untrained farmer-inventors of automata and robots, constructors of imaginary buildings and cities from discarded packaging, and proponents of new theories to replace gravity and relativity.
We gazed at elaborate designs for a robot to roam the universe, and crack the mystery of life after death, with a complex scheme for a new language with which this robot would communicate these truths to the future inhabitants of planet earth.
We viewed images of exquisite dolls of children and young people which had been created by one man over 20 years, dressed in clothes he designed and made himself, then posed in numerous positions and photographed; and finally, packed away carefully, not to be seen again by anyone until after his death.
What makes art? I asked myself.
And answers immediately flooded in:
A long obedience in the same direction.
The creators of the works we saw were a direct inspiration and encouragement to me as a writer.
Some are long-term residents in psychiatric institutions, others are on the fringes of society, just inside the cusp of (apparent) normality.
And they are all remarkable, exceptional people.
And they all have this in common:
They are focussed, committed, and they direct all their energy into one project consistently, over a number of years which can range from one to three decades.
If you have this kind of commitment you too could in theory create exquisite things.
Your ideas might not ‘work’, but if you are creative in this life, and you leave a body of work behind you that is intriguing and beguiling and fills people with wonder and amazement and awe, you have added something of lasting value to this world. You may even have fulfilled your God-given purpose.
What’s the difference between nature or music appreciation… and a mystical experience?
When does “being moved by something beautiful” become a religious experience?
Surely the criterion for a mystical experience is that it changes your life?
In my case, it did.
My early childhood mystical experiences ultimately led me on a spiritual journey of many years – which, along the way, bore fruition in my novel “Mystical Circles”, and is now bearing fruit in my new novel “A Passionate Spirit.”
And for me this spiritual journey didn’t start by opening a book or listening to a clergyman. It started with a direct personal encounter with Divine Reality.
And the person who encouraged me to take it forward was a Scientist.
The name of the scientist was Sir Alister Hardy, Marine Biologist, who wrote the book “The Biology of God: A Scientist’s Study of Man the Religious Animal.”
At the University of Wales, Lampeter, you’ll find the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre. Find out about it here if you want to enquire further, or contribute an experience of your own.
Sir Alister found in a study of 3000 contributed experiences that there were 21 triggers for spontaneous mystical experiences. These included such things as childbirth, the prospect of death, illness and crises in personal relations. But top of the list came depression/despair, and then prayer and meditation, and then, natural beauty.
A few months before my 17th birthday, I wrote to Sir Alister, having read an article in The Times about him.
He appealed “to all those who have at any time felt that their lives have been affected by some power beyond themselves, to write an account of their experience and the effect it has had on their lives” and to send it to him.
I wrote the story of my childhood religious experiences, and sent it to Sir Alister. In his reply to me, he wrote that my experiences were “the feeling of an ecstatic joy in relation to the universe brought on by some particular aspect of nature… what Rudolf Otto called the numinous, the sense of the Holy.”
Thus began a journey of many years – a fascinating journey of spiritual enquiry and research – and several more mystical experiences along the way.
For me, then, University intervened, but after my graduation and return home, I wrote to the R.E.R.U. at Oxford again.
“What can I get involved in?” I asked. “How can I further my spiritual search?”
Edward Robinson, the new Director, replied, and pointed me to this organisation:
The Centre for Spiritual and Psychological Studies.
(find out about more about my involvement with this organisation here)
And thus, with a weekend symposium in rural Gloucestershire and a group of diverse and sometimes eccentric people of many religious backgrounds (celebrated, in fictional form, in my novel “Mystical Circles”) I began my long spiritual journey.
But don’t forget, as T.S. Eliot says in his poem ‘Little Gidding’, the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time (tweet this).
My first childhood religious experience involved a mountain in the early morning. And my journey took me to another mountain at the other side of the world where I was to recapture that same experience, early in the morning.
In this mini-series I’m going to tell you about some of my “glimpses of eternity” and also introduce you to a few of the fascinating individuals who’ve been way-markers on that spiritual journey.
Join me in my next few posts and find out about my roll-call of spiritual guides (saints as well as sinners).
And do share your own experiences with me, if you wish!
As a mystery romance novelist I have my own ideas!
The setting for my novel Mystical Circles is a gracious farmhouse in the Cotswolds; surrounded by garden, orchard, and its own land rising up the steep side of the valley to a ridge overlooking the panorama of the Severn Vale, it also boasts a fine tithe barn. It’s my idea of a romantic location. Though I will admit that some of the things that go on in it do not quite qualify for that description! For intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle.
Nevertheless, there are genuinely romantic moments in my novel. There is a sunken garden with a water lily pond; an African thatched gazebo reached by a winding path through azaleas and rhododendrons; and up the wooded slope behind the farmhouse, a hermitage, ideal for “one-to-one counselling sessions”. Also the sitting room, with its leaded window panes, through which the morning sun streams, tinting the oak floor timbers gold, and enriching the colours of the silk long- fringed rugs is often the venue for a romantic get-together; or maybe the library, with its mellow oak panelling, the dreamy atmosphere, the softly glowing lamps. These are all suitable locations for romantic moments.
But in real life true romantic moments are few and far between.
To me, the essence of a traditional romantic moment is this: a serendipitous conjunction of beauty, happiness, dreams, and a loving relationship between a man and a woman. Notice my use of the word ‘traditional’!
You need to inhabit a romantic moment fully to claim it.
I can think of moments which had most of the ingredients of being romantic… except that I lacked the confidence to be fully alive to them.
You need to be relaxed, accepting, and totally at one in the moment.
These are some examples of romantic moments garnered from my own memories (the names of the ‘romantic heroes’ concerned are disguised!:
1. lemon souffle in a restaurant in Albemarle Street, London, with Mr X
2. on a London underground escalator when Mr X turned to me and said: “One day we’ll be together forever.”
3. On the shore of a certain Balearic Island, near dusk, watching a sea that looked like caramel silk, when Mr X turned to me and said “When I become Y (naming the promotion he was hoping to get, which we’d discussed), we’ll come back here and stay at the Z Hotel (naming the Hotel Romantic-but-Very-Posh-and-Expensive which we on that trip had been unable to afford to stay in).
Here are my further ideas of what would constitute a romantic moment:
1) A chance meeting with an ex-lover in a supremely beautiful place (and I spent ages trying to make that work in a previous novel but it just didn’t come off).
2) The “bone fida mini-break” beloved of Bridget Jones – in a fine country house hotel such as the one which Daniel Cleaver whisked Bridget off to, filmed at Stoke Park (although it all went sour when they met up in the foyer with Mark Darcy and his attractive companion Natasha).
3) The spontaneous / surprise weekend in Paris in the springtime (referred to in a stage farce I greatly enjoyed, when the main character, a philanderer played by Leslie Phillips, spirited his mistress Janie off on just such a break, having purchased beautiful lingerie to lay out on the bed for her, and was then interrupted by other visitors whom he hadn’t bargained for).
True romantic moments are few and far between in real life. That is, of course, the nature of serendipity. And it’s why romance fiction is the most popular literary genre.
I hope that when those moments come, you are able to fully inhabit them.
What are your romantic moments? Dare you let me know about them in your comments – disguising the name of the romantic hero, of course?
What might walking backwards through the Australian rainforest have to do with a mystery romance novel set in the Cotswolds? It was all part of my “unconscious research”. And it was a long research journey too, I admit. If you’re intrigued, go to Martin Willoughby’s blog to read my guest post on how “Dream Yoga” played a role in the creation of the story of “Mystical Circles”.