My friends Anna and Suzanne, who lived across the road from me growing up, owned a copy of Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre and kindly lent it to me and my sister to read. It’s one of the few books that Ann and I both read as children that we both liked and still like. Mum also liked it and she went on to collect all of Gwendoline Courtney’s books. After she died and her collection came to me I read these other titles but for a long time it was just Elizabeth and her family that I knew. Its original title was Stepmother which gives a clue to its plot but only a partial one as it turns out. The four Verney sisters are all horrified when their father remarries but Nan, the stepmother of the title, turns out not to be wicked and is, in fact, responsible for changing all of their lives for the better. What I liked, and still like, was the depiction of family life: the squabbles, the fun, the inter-reliance. It’s one of my feel-good books now and I often read it in times of stress.
Okay, cards on the table: I chose to read Summers of the Wild Rose by Rosemary Harris because it is partially set in Innsbruck. A devotee of the Chalet School books from a young age, anything to do with Austria, and Tirol in particular, jumps out at me. This is not the Chalet School by any stretch of the imagination but a diligent reader of the early books in that series will recognise the setting in time as well as place. Part one of Summers of the Wild Rose is set in 1936 in the midst of rampant anti-Semitism. It’s told from the perspective of Nell Dobell an English girl who travels to the Austrian city with her choir to take part in a music festival. There she meets Franz and sees for the first time the corruptive nature of power. The second part of the novel is set well after the Second World War and we meet Nell as a mature woman, still involved in the musical world. And we also meet her niece through whom the past is resolved.