‘Cowper kept the forces of darkness at bay by constant occupation. At first this took the form of gardening and caring for a menagerie of pets, including his tame hares Bess, Puss and Tiny. Cecil is at his most vivid…
I first read Esther Waters more than fifty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin. As a young man I enjoyed reading tales of unmitigated woe, in which one disaster succeeds another, and the novel’s eponymous heroine suffers more than most at the hands of assorted drunkards, snobs, gamblers and predatory employers. And, as an Englishman in Ireland, I was fascinated by the complexity and ambiguity of relations between the two countries, and by Irish views of England ‒ of which Esther Waters is a remarkable and unusual example.
On the face of it, crimes don’t get much cosier than those which appear in the first six novels of the Flavia sequence. The convention of Slightly Foxed dictates that titles are normally tucked away in a footnote, but I think it is worth savouring the delightful cadence of all six here: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag; A Red Herring without Mustard; I Am Half-Sick of Shadows; Speaking from among the Bones and The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches. To me, each of these seems to have exactly the right balance of whimsy and menace, and these are promises that are admirably fulfilled in the books that follow.
Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun (1952) – a book that could easily be subtitled ‘politically motivated witch-hunts and how to avoid them’ – feels horribly relevant. The Devils is about the supposed possession of a convent of nuns, thanks to the alleged witchcraft of a Catholic priest with a sex life that reads like Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It includes exorcisms, torture and Byzantine political manoeuvrings by an untouchable elite.