Highsmith and lambs

Patricia Highsmith, The Glass Cell. Virago Modern Classics, 2014. First published in the USA, 1963

Patricia Highsmith Glass Cell coverThis wasn’t the most soothing choice of reading during Britain’s third lockdown, when Covid cases are soaring, hospitals are full and their staff almost overwhelmed, and the days are short and mostly wet and grey. So I shall give just a few thoughts about this typically disturbing novel by Patricia Highsmith, and append some more uplifting stuff from recent walks.

The first third of the novel tells of the brutal treatment in a grim prison in the south of the USA of a man singularly ill-equipped to deal with its regime. Phil Carter is an educated, affluent engineer/designer who’s been convicted of commercial fraud. He failed to read certain documents his crooked bosses gave him to sign, and these provided incriminating evidence at his trial.

As usual with Highsmith, the reader is never on firm ground. The story is told largely from Carter’s point of view. Was he really so carefree in business matters, naïve or gullible, too trusting? Were these bosses, who continue to converge on his life after his six-year sentence has been completed, as dodgy as we’re led to believe? Given how Carter develops (or unravels) in the second part of the novel, it’s difficult to believe he’s entirely innocent – about anything.

It’s a novel about the toxic nature of jealousy. Like Othello, Carter is worked on by one of these ex-bosses, keen to give him the ‘ocular proof’ that his beautiful wife Hazel, who has visited him regularly in jail, has been having an affair the whole time – and that it’s still going on when he’s released and they start a new life in New York. The consequences are explosive, and left me when I’d finished the novel with something resembling an acrid taste.

The world that Highsmith conjures up in those novels of hers that I’ve read (link HERE to previous posts about them) is twisted, and the characters who inhabit it are damaged by its tortuousness. Often they inflict some more on others. I find this is not the best of times to be reading her.

Hibernating snailsHere then are some reflections and images from recent rural walks.

First, a cluster of what I presume are hibernating snails. They were tightly packed inside a drainpipe embedded in a garden wall – it must have been blocked, otherwise they’d surely have been washed away after all the rain we’ve had here in Cornwall in recent weeks. (None of the snow, so far, that’s swept across the north and south-east of Britain over the weekend.)

The steps are outside a house near Kenwyn Church. As they don’t lead anywhere, I assume Stone stepsthey once functioned as a means of stowing things more easily into a cart or truck, or to make mounting a horse less arduous. I like the patterns made by lichens and mosses (not sure what the difference is).



We have had a few rare days of sunshine. At this time of year, clear skies mean very cold air. This fine butterfly –  a red admiral, I think – took advantage of the warming rays on an olive tree that sits in a pot in the sheltered south-facing front of our house.


Most days have been grey and damp. Mrs TD and I had our spirits lifted on a walk last week at the sight of a field of ewes with their skipping, frisking lambs . The farmer was just leaving through the gate, so we were able to ask her about them. She said the lambs were just three days old. When we passed that way again a few days later I was able to snap this delightful scene: the lamb enthusiastically feeding from its placid mother, its tail wagging like a spaniel’s.


Ewe and lambThe sky was grey, but this sight brightened our day.









16 thoughts on “Highsmith and lambs

  1. No I can’t imagine Highsmith would be a comforting read at the moment!

    The photos are much more soothing (a red admiral at this time of year!!), although the vegan side of me is sad that the mother and her lamb won’t be together for much longer….

    • Kaggsy: no, it was far from comforting… Oh dear, I hadn’t thought of that (the lamb and its fate – and its mother’s). I eat very little meat, and was vegetarian for many years. Still can’t abide the thought of eating lamb.

  2. We live in Australia and can’t eat lamb after fostering one once. We are not vegetarians but don’t eat many mammals anymore. Fish and chicken and it has to be from Tasmania free range farms.
    Patricia Highsmith must have been one jaded person as some of the things she writes can only come from a dark mind but she could sure tell a story.

    • Pam: no mammals is a good principle. I’m nearly there, and we do try to buy local produce.
      Reviews of recent biographies reiterate her legendary ferocity and misanthropic tendencies.

  3. I had some encouraging news from my niece in the UK today… she has had the jab, and (in what I think is a sensible use of social media) is talking with friends who have the same health conditions to monitor any side effects and whether any patterns develop.
    I have been worried sick about her so it seems like good news to me.

    • Mrs TD and I are in the next category to be inoculated- should be later this month, we hope. We have made a prodigious mess of things otherwise here in the UK. Good to hear about your niece, Lisa.
      We’re concerned about our nieces in Perth, where there are bush fires.

    • FictionFan: Seasons start early here in Cornwall, where we’re warmed by the Gulf Stream. Daffodils start appearing soon after Christmas. The lambs are cute, aren’t they! It was lovely to see them skipping about, exploring their new world.

  4. The Glass Cell isn’t my favourite Highsmith (the prison setting makes it feel very bleak), but it’s interesting to see your take on it nonetheless. (Your comments on the toxic nature of jealousy chime with my hazy memories of it.)

    The photos are lovely, particularly those of the butterfly and the lamb. I wasn’t aware that the lambing season had started down in Cornwall. Hurrah for the Gulf Stream, indeed!

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