Hello, and welcome to Secret Library, our weekly feature in which authors share three titles that have influenced them greatly but which don’t get the attention they deserve. Today we welcome Catherine Kullmann as our guest librarian.
Catherine was born and educated in Dublin. Following a three-year courtship conducted mostly by letter, she moved to Germany where she lived for twenty-five years before returning to Ireland. She has worked in the Irish and New Zealand public services and in the private sector. Widowed, she has three adult sons and two grandchildren. She has always been interested in the extended Regency period, a time when the foundations of our modern world were laid. She is particularly interested in what happens after the first happy ending—how life goes on for the protagonists and sometimes catches up with them. Her books are set against a background of the offstage, Napoleonic wars and consider in particular the situation of women trapped in a patriarchal society. Let’s get to her choices!
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
It must be sixty years since I first read ‘The Adventures of a Father and Mother and Four Sons in a Desert Island’. Headed by a polymath of the father, and supported by the tireless energy of the mother who has an eye for small, important details, they rise to every challenge and take full advantage of all the opportunities offered to them. The father’s daily journal provides the narrative framework, enabling the reader to experience all the adventures and dangers as they happen. The island is home to every possible sort of flora and fauna and the parents are never at a loss in putting this bounty to good use.
The book began as stories told by Wyss to his four sons. Its didactic benefits were recognised immediately: In stark contrast to the over-emphasis on book learning, predominantly of the classics, that was then prevalent in English schools, Fritz, Ernest, Jack and Francis learn practically, by trial and error. Also, unusually for the time, discipline is gentle; the children are both seen and heard, and encouraged to develop their talents and aptitudes without fear.
The best translations are by H Frith, and William H G Kingston. I recommend finding an old edition with wonderful steel engravings that bring this classic to life.
We normally provide you with links to get the books our guests choose, but as there are so many translations – and Catherine’s so clear the choice is important – we’ll leave it this time round.
Drink to Yesterday and Pray Silence (US title A Toast to Tomorrow) by Manning Coles
These linked stories of British spies in Germany cover the period 1915 to 1938. Well worth reading in their own right, they are of additional interest today as they give a nuanced, contemporary view of the fall of Germany in 1918 and the subsequent rise of the Nazis. Cyril Coles, who co-authored the books with his neighbour Adelaide Manning, drew on his own experiences as a British agent frequently working behind German lines. The main protagonist is Tommy Hambledon, a schoolmaster turned spy. I can say no more without spoiling the story.
The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw
Set in AD371, as the Roman Empire starts to crumble under the onslaught of Goths and Huns from the east while Christianity still struggles to come to terms with its new status as official faith of the Empire. Charis of Ephesus, daughter of an important nobleman, dreams of studying medicine. When the cruel governor, Festinus, tries to force her into marriage, she flees to bustling, cosmopolitan Alexandria disguised as a eunuch. Accepted as a student at the famous medical school, all Charis wants is to be able to follow her calling, but when she finds herself the personal physician of the popular but controversial Archbishop Athanasios whose Nicene beliefs conflict with the Arian beliefs of the Imperial Court, she is drawn into the seething world of religious politics. She saves the life of the Imperial agent Athanaric and he repays the debt by rescuing her when she is arrested for conspiring in the escape from prison of Athanasios’s successor, Peter. Athanaric’s solution is to recruit Charis as an army doctor assigned to the province of Thrace. Here she comes into her own as a physician but, to her surprise, finds herself asking if medicine enough?
Charis is an engaging heroine who meets her challenges with integrity and fortitude. However the real importance of this novel is its vibrant portrayal of an overlooked, crucial turning point in the history of western civilisation.
Thanks Catherine for some really intriguing and unusual choices! And if you’ve been equally intrigued you may wish to check out Catherine’s latest tales of Regency life: The Potential for Love which has had some great reader reviews. Get it here (all links, as usual, are affiliate links).