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2015-02-25_21.27.23

Persephone book number forty-four is a delightful little collection of short stories by an author you won’t have come across before – unless you have read this collection, as it was sadly the only book of Frances Towers’ stories ever published. Frances Towers spent many years teaching and the majority of her short stories were written during the 1940’s – this collection was published in 1949 a year after Frances Towers had died suddenly of pneumonia.

At the centre of these stories is the so called ‘literary daughter’ – the overlooked, downtrodden, disappointed and romantically inclined young women of the Jane Eyre type. There is romance here – small quiet romance – often unhappy, or disappointed, but there is also cynicism.
One of my favourite stories of this collection is the titular story – the second in the collection – in which a young girl Prissy, living with two aunts, when not away at school, has found her ideal Mr Rochester in Mr Considine a friend of her aunt’s. In this story Towers recreates beautifully the insular world of an unhappy adolescent girl, the fear of ridicule, and the carefully guarded romantic aspirations we have all known. One of Prissy’s aunts is a glacial beauty – with whom Prissy has a difficult relationship – Aunt Athene only sees the pale child in Prissy –

“And then there was Mr Considine. But Prissy did not speak of him, because gradually he had come to assume all the characteristics of Mr Rochester, and Mr Rochester belonged to that part of Prissy’s experience which was too poignant to be shared”
(From Tea with Mr Rochester)

That story is preceded by Violet – a story of a meddling maidservant. Sophy the rather over looked daughter of the house – one of three sisters – has, strangely enough, Violet, the maid, to thank for the romance that comes into her life. However there is a suggestion of something slightly too knowing about Violet, something a little sinister which gives the ending of this story a delicious little shivery feeling.
The Little Willow is a heartbreakingly poignant story of lost love, or rather love that never was given a chance; when Simon Byrne goes off to war, his love for Lisby the quiet, unremarkable sister of the household where he was once a guest – remains undeclared.

“Lisby said nothing. She had no poetic conception of herself to impose on the minds of others. However, she had her uses. She cut sandwiches and made coffee and threw herself into the breach when some unassuming guest seemed in danger of being neglected. And unassuming guests often were.”
(From The Little Willow)

Romantic love (oh never sex!) rears its head in Don Juan and the Lily – in which a naïve young girl, Elsa goes to work in an office. Here she meets the older Miss Dellow – a mysterious, enigmatic creature, who alone ministers to boss Mr Pelham. A fan of gothic fiction, having a preference for Wuthering Heights over Jane Austen, she weaves fantasies around Miss Dellow, which are brought up short when she is befriended by the goddess and visits her at home. When Miss Dellow goes on holiday Elsa is called unexpectedly into Mr Pelham’s office.

Actually the only reference to anything remotely sexual is in the story The Rose in the Picture – in which a young woman anticipates the coming home of the son of the vicarage. He in his youth a remote being, whom she had once witnessed grappling with another girl – “gobbling as if they were starved” – an image she has been haunted by and has been responsible for her feelings for him ever since.

Spade Man From over the Water is a story also published in the Persephone book of short stories, but it is certainly one that is worth re-reading – as are any of them actually. It is a rather odd little story, which perhaps could be interpreted in a couple of different ways. Two women recent neighbours have become friends during the absence of the younger woman’s husband. The return of this husband seems to herald a change in their friendship – however we are left to wonder how real the friendship was for this lonely young wife.

A young girl, rather shallow and superficial staying in a large country house, has her opinions of this way of life altered, and finds love in Strings in Hollow Shells.

In The Chosen and Rejected tells a slightly cynical story of two spinster friends who have decided to throw their lot in together and share a cottage. The lady of the big house – recognising in the two ladies, people of her sort, befriends them, and then reveals rather shatteringly her plans for her husband when she is gone. There is a touch of darkness to this story, which I think is utterly brilliant.

Lucinda is a ghost story – and to say too much about it might be to spoil for future readers – so I won’t. It is a little odd, but also quite clever – although not quite as fully explored as the other stories – it is enjoyable but for me was the weakest of the collection.

“She lived by herself in a little house down in the village. Sometimes she was asked to a tea party of local ladies at the Manor, but never to meet any of my stepmother’s friends from London. I used to feel ashamed of my father and Julia, and deeply apologetic towards Aunt Essie. I would hold my thumbs for her when parties were being discussed, and would pray with pop-eyed fervour, till my veins stood out, that God would make them ask Aunt Essie.”
(From The Golden Rose)

The Golden Rose is one of several stories – that one could imagine almost being extended to a novella or novel, there was so much that could have been explored further in these characters. However Frances Towers’ story is really quite perfect as it is. Here we meet our narrator’s Aunt Essie, a woman living alone she has been declared as silly and irrelevant by the rest of the family. However Aunt Essie has had a life, she has a romantic secret that no one has ever suspected.

This was such a superb little collection, that I couldn’t help but be rather sad that it is the only book by Frances Towers that exsists.

francestowers

ariel

Back in December I pledged my intent to bring poetry back into my life. Poetry was something I read much more of in my late teens and early twenties, but it is a habit that I grew out of somewhere along the line. Perhaps because of my own youthful flirtation with poetry part of me associates it with grumpy teenagers wallowing unsociably in back bedrooms.

Back then, still living at home, typically monosyllabic and unimpressed by life, I read Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, following that up with Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams – I may have to revisit these books one day – they made an enormous impression on me at the time. I went on naturally enough to read some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry – I always found it challenging – but there was so much in the imagery of her language that spoke to me back then, that Sylvia Plath has remained somewhere at the back of my mind ever since. A couple of months ago – I treated myself to a lovely little hardback copy of Ariel – I suspect I once had a paperback copy at some time but where these old books disappear to nobody knows.

I am very aware that I haven’t a clue how to review collections of poetry – I have never done so before. Perhaps all I can do is share some of Sylvia’s beautiful imagery – and some of my own thoughts about it.

Ariel; published posthumously in 1965, two years after Plath’s suicide – was her second collection of poetry – and it is deeply personal, often intimate, and frequently challenging. Her themes are those of marriage and motherhood, sexuality, depression, death and suicide. Plath’s poetry is lyrical and though often dark there is a strange luminosity to many of her images.

“The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are”
(from Tulips 1961)

Hospitals feature several times, not surprisingly – and I do love how Plath captures the white, stillness and other worldness of a hospital room. The speaker has yielded her identity to the nurses and doctors, the violent colour of the tulips – presumably a gift – interrupting the white calmness of the hospital environment.

One of her most famous poems ‘Daddy’, with its images of war and holocaust appears an angry railing against her father, a Nazi sympathiser who died when she was a child – scholars apparently differ on just how biographical it is.

“Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time ”

(From Daddy)

Probably her most famous poem in this collection is Lady Lazarus, a poem I must have read dozens of times in my teens. It is a poem that talks about Plath’s own previous suicide attempts, and her subsequent resurrections, it is also another poem containing images of the holocaust – looking back I find myself a little disturbed at my seventeen year old self’s fascination with it.

“I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it –”
(From Lady Lazarus -

I particularly discovered, how one reads poetry entirely differently to prose – I hadn’t thought about that much before, but it is inevitable though; poetry is such a different art form. I enjoyed dipping in and out of this collection, most of the poems I had to read over and over – allowing the language and the imagery to wash over me. I realise I probably chose a quite challenging collection to begin my renewed poetry reading – but I enjoyed the challenge, although I don’t pretend that I understood completely every word – sometimes I suspect I only gained a vague sense of what lies behind Plath’s words. I have to admit that the title poem Ariel remained a frustrating enigma – despite re-reading it countless times – I looked it up on Wikipedia for some enlightenment – it’s about a horse.

One of my favourites – another one concerned with death – is Edge – it isn’t cheery stuff, although strangely perhaps I don’t find it depressing – but the imagery is perfect, the lines flow into each other effortlessly.

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
(From Edge -1960)

Sylvia Plath was a complex, intelligent, damaged woman, and this is very much reflected in her poetry.

sylviaplath

theawakening

A few weeks ago I (accidently) found a second book group – or they found me – on Twitter – I can’t remember which – calling themselves a feminist book group, I had to give them a try. Whether or not I manage to keep up with two book groups meeting two weeks apart remains to be seen – but I definitely intend to go along to the first meeting of this one in a couple of weeks. The book chosen to be their first read was Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a book which seems to have had quite a resurgence in the last year or two.

In the stifling atmosphere of late nineteenth century Louisiana society, Edna Pontellier lives with her husband Lѐonce a creole businessman and her two young sons, dimly aware that she is not quite as traditionally maternal as the other wives around her; hers was very much a society marriage.

“The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”

grand isleAs the novel opens the Pontellier family are holidaying away from their New Orleans home on Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico at a resort managed by the Lebrun family. Here are other families from their New Orleans circle, spending their summers in small cottages on the estate, days of idleness and evenings of relaxed sociability. Robert Lebrun is very much a fixture of these summers, just a couple of years younger than Edna, he is considered charming and altogether harmless despite his yearly habit of attaching himself to one married woman or another. His flirtations are smiled upon, he is no threat to any of the husbands, and he will unleash no scandals nor take part in any real impropriety. Edna and Robert are rarely apart this year, and their friendship raises no eyebrows nor elicits any special comment at first. Edna becomes gradually more infatuated with Robert, until her friend Adèle Ratignolle reminds her pointedly of her duties to her family.

“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

This is the summer that Edna finally learns to swim; her fear and delight in her sudden acquisition of the ability to do so, a metaphor for the awakening which is already taking place within her. Edna wrestles with her traditional duties of motherhood – and her longing to be always with Robert. Robert, perhaps sensing that things could so easily get out of hand between him and Edna, causing scandal and misery and upsetting the pleasant easy existence he has so far enjoyed, suddenly leaves for Mexico – citing business opportunities as his excuse.

Back in New Orleans Edna finds herself unable to simply slip back into her normal life. Struggling at times to understand herself and how she feels, Edna longs for a freedom that her position as a wife and mother does not allow her. She strikes up an odd, unlikely friendship with Mademoiselle Reisz, a musician who much older than Edna represents the woman she might have been able to become, had she, like Mademoiselle Reisz grown up independent of her family, and had the opportunity to follow her own path. Mademoiselle Reisz was also at Grand Isle that summer, and is another friend of Robert Lebrun, and Edna is envious of the letters he sends her from Mexico, and which she is allowed to read.

“Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”

Edna begins to pull away from the society in which she exists, she moves out of the family home and into a small bungalow nearby and takes to spending time with a renowned rake. Her husband; away on business for lengthy periods of time, reacts sharply by advertising in the local press that the Pontellier family home is undergoing refurbishment – thus saving face with New Orleans society. Robert’s return to New Orleans heralds Edna’s devastated realisation of the impossibility of her desires, and the escape that she seeks.

First published in 1899 – this novel was controversial when it first emerged – and it would seem it still divides. I am though, surprised by how many one star reviews I have seen for it – readers seem to take their dislike of the central character and her actions out on the entire book – I can’t help but find that bafflingly short sighted – but hey we can’t all like the same things. The Awakening is an extraordinarily good novel, written with delicacy and subtlety, there is none of the density that can be found in other novels of this period. The writing style has a more modern feel to it than might be expected – it is very much a novel of that realistic school of some French novelists.

The Awakening is a feminist novel of liberation Edna refuses to conform or sacrifice her wants for her husband and children – but sorry, I actually liked her.

katechopin

Future classics?

classicclub meme

Time for another question from the Classic Club:

What about modern classics? Pick a book published since 2000 and say why you think it will be considered as a “classic” in the future.

It feels like a long time since I have participated in the monthly classic club question, and this is a difficult one – what after all is a classic? Who decides a book is a classic and what elusive quality is it that makes a book worthy of such a title?

So – naturally I have broken the rules a little in my answer and gone for two books.

I suppose it all comes down to what I think a classic is made of. One element I think that will be appreciated in the future is a timeless quality. Many classics of the past of course are firmly rooted in the period that they were written, and we read and love them still, but people change, and I wonder if whether, in another 100 years readers will want books that are very much of the 2000’s? Maybe – but I can’t help thinking that those novels which do have that timeless quality will traverse the years between now and then better – this world is a fast changing place, our tastes so much more fickle than they once were. Then novels which speak of the human condition in some way that never really changes, love, friendship, sexual awakenings, memory, loss, hope, faith and questions of philosophy will I suspect remain the things that make readers reach for novels published many years earlier.

“There are so few people given us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty, have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given us to love and they all stick.”

(The Gathering – Anne Enright 2007)

thegatheringThe first novel I have picked is The Gathering by Anne Enright – and I confess I am rather astounded at my own choice. The Gathering won the Booker Prize in 2007, and I read it in 2009. I enjoyed it a lot, although now I realise I enjoyed it far more in retrospect than I ever realised at the time. This is often the sign of a truly exceptional novel and naturally I now want to re-read it. Reading ‘The Gathering’ I must admit, was at times like walking forward in a misty haze, street lights showing most of the path ahead – frequently the reader wanders hesitatingly into regions that are unfamiliar before turning back onto the familiar path. It is a haunting story of memory and family, the setting is split between the present and 1968 – there was for me that timeless quality that I always love so much and which I think will help make it a classic of the future, although at the same time it is very much a novel of twenty-first century families too. The Gathering is essentially the story of a large Irish family who gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. Liam had been a drinker – but it wasn’t that that killed him; it was what happened to him in his grandmother’s house in 1968. Like so many great classics – The Gathering is a novel which divides opinion – and I suspect a lot of people will be perplexed at my choice. The Writing however is gorgeous, lyrical, and subtle – there are depths to this novel that one reading alone can’t do justice.

“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

(Life of Pi – Yann Martel 2001)

life of piThe second novel I have picked is a very different novel to The Gathering; Life of Pi by Yann Martel – coincidently another Booker winner. Life of Pi – was a book I actually avoided for many years. It was published in 2001 – and I remember buying it for my Dad in hardback that Christmas – and he loved it. However it wasn’t until four years after my dad’s death that I got around to reading it for myself – fairly sure I’d hate it – I loved it. It too has that wonderful timeless quality, but as well as that it’s a powerful allegory of faith, spirituality and hope. It is of course the story of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It is an enormously readable adventure – with an ending that often splits opinion (I loved the ending others hated it) – but serves for fabulous long debates – surely a must for book groups if nothing else. Life of Pi is an exuberant adventure, and is surely a book to be enjoyed by future generations.

 

What do you think? Could these books be classics of the future? What would your choices be?

inchancery

Published a couple of years after the Interlude, Indian Summer of a Forsyte – which I read straight after A Man of PropertyIn Chancery opens in 1899 and is set against a back drop of the still new married woman’s property act the Boer War and the death of Queen Victoria. The title refers to the Court of Chancery – where matters such as divorce were settled. This second novel is every bit as readable as the first, and Galsworthy’s characters remain deftly explored. In this novel Galsworthy concerns himself mainly with the realities for all sides of marital disharmony, the difficulties that existed in getting a divorce and the horror of upper-middle class families over the resulting taint of scandal.

It is twelve years since Irene Forsyte left her husband Soames; she now lives alone under her maiden name of Heron on the money left to her by Old Jolyon’s bequest. Soames is still bitter about the end of his marriage, having not divorced Irene at the time, he finds himself in the unsatisfactory position of being still legally married, without the necessary evidence to end it – and without the wife he still desires to possess.

With his own marital situation a constant grief to Soames, he is keen to help his sister Winifred when her husband – who had been a source of anxiety to the Forstyes for some years – steals her pearls and takes off for Buenos Aries with a dancer. Consulted as brother and lawyer Soames along with his ageing father James are eager to get Montague Dartie out of their lives – despite the scandal it will undoubtedly cause – and recommend divorce. Soames begins to rather wish he had done the same years earlier.

“How many hundred times he had walked past those trees from his father’s house in Park Lane, when he was quite a young man; or from his own house in Montpellier Square in those four years of married life! And tonight, making up his mind to free himself if he could of that long useless marriage tie, he took a fancy to walk on, in at Hyde park Corner, out at Knightsbridge Gate, just as he used to when going home to Irene in the old days. What could she be like now? – How had she passed the years since he last saw her, twelve years in all, seven already since Uncle Jolyon left her that money!”

Jolyon Forsyte (the son of Old Jolyon) still lives at Robin Hill, the house originally built for Soames and Irene. Jolyon is now a widower, his children Jolly and Holly rather more grown up than when we last saw them, Jolly is about to go up to Oxford. Jolyon’s eldest daughter by his first marriage – June – lives alone in London, known for taking on some responsibility for her various “lame ducks” of the art world – she would rather like her father to buy her a gallery so she can help her latest protégé further. Despite being related, Jolyon’s family has had nothing to do with the rest of the Forsyte family since they came to Robin Hill, until an unexpected visit by Soames. Val Dartie, Winifred’s son is due to go to Oxford at the same time as young Jolly, but when the two meet, they take against one another, although Val Dartie is almost immediately smitten with Holly, much to her brother’s disgust. With the Boer War underway, and reports coming back of casualties and losses igniting feelings of patriotism in young men – Jolly Forsyte challenges Val Dartie to join up and accompany him to South Africa and join the British troops.

Reluctantly Soames visits Jolyon who has been acting as Irene’s trustee, to ask him to discover what Irene’s current situation really is – hoping to discover in her current life evidence for divorce. What the middle aged Soames wants above everything else is a son, and he has met a lovely young French woman, who he thinks would be willing to marry him if he were free. When Soames realises that in fact Irene has lived her life entirely alone, apparently still true to the memory of Bosinney the man she had fallen in love with which led to the end of her marriage – he begins to wonder if he can’t simply win his wife back. Irene’s feelings toward Soames have not changed, a fact she makes perfectly clear to him when he turns up unexpectedly at her flat. Irene, horrified at Soames’s suggestion, leaves London for Paris. Soames, obsessed again with the idea of possessing Irene, hires a firm of seedy investigators to follow Irene. It becomes rather ludicrous when Soames himself follows his wife to Paris and finds himself featured in the investigator’s report. Although, Soames is not the first to visit Irene in her exile.

“A little private hotel over a well-known restaurant near the Gare St Lazare was Jolyon’s haunt in Paris. He hated his fellow Forsytes abroad – vapid as fish out of water in their well-trodden runs: the opera, rue de Rivoli, and Moulin Rouge. Their air of having come because they wanted to be somewhere else as soon as possible annoyed him. But no other Forsytes came near his haunt, where he had a wood fire in his bedroom and the coffee was excellent. Paris was always more attractive in winter. The acrid savour from wood-smoke and chestnut-roasting braziers, the sharpness of the wintery sunshine on bright days, the open cafes defying keen-aired winter, the self-contained brisk boulevard crowds, all informed him that in winter Paris possessed a soul which, like a migrant bird, in high summer flew away.”

Back in London, Irene spends more and more time with Jolyon Forsyte, the two of them becoming unable to deny what is happening between them, they allow Soames to site their relationship in a divorce suit.

A divorce is finally obtained for Soames, although not for Winifred whose husband has returned unexpectedly to her. Time moves on, three marriages take place,  two births soon follow, as do the deaths of two Forsytes.

Awakening, the interlude at the end of In Chancery is a delightful, slightly sentimental picture of the life of the eight year old Jon Forsyte a few years later at Robin Hill. His is a happy, charmed life, he loves and is loved by his older, indulgent parents, his half-sisters who are rather more like aunts, are mysterious beings who he rather likes. His every whim and caprice is catered for and smiled indulgently over.

I am not alone in reading the nine books of the Forsyte Saga Chronicles this year – and you can read Liz’s review of In Chancery here and Bridget’s experience of listening to it on Audio book, no doubt Karen’s thoughts will follow in due course.

john galsworthy

lettertfromnewyork

It seems a very long time since I read 84 Charing Cross Road and Qs Legacy – the only books by Helene Hanff that I had previously read, but as soon as I started reading Letter from New York it was like meeting up with an old friend. I am grateful to Karen for sending me a copy of a book I hadn’t previously heard of until she offered to send it to me. What a lovely book it is, at once nostalgic and endlessly charming it is full of people you would like to meet, amusing anecdotes and affectionate observations of the people of New York.

For six years from October 1978, Helen Hanff broadcast five minute vignettes on BBC radio’s Woman’s Hour. In these broadcasts Helen talked about her life in New York, the people she knew, her friends, neighbours their dogs, Central Park and the traditions of New Yorkers. After those broadcasts came to an end, Helen Hanff was left with a folder full of the transcripts of those broadcasts, transcripts which she later showed to her publisher, they naturally wanted to immediately put them into a book, and reading the result it is very easy to see why.newyork1980

“I gotta tell you about Nina’s bumble bee. Last year a bee came every day to pollinate her terrace. The old wooden terrace door had a hole in the top, and when the bee got tired he crawled into the hole and took a nap. But last fall Nina had a new door installed. And the next day the bee came and worked, and then looked for his nap-hole, He searched more and more frantically for it, before he gave up and flew off. And this spring he didn’t come back. Nina was inconsolable. Her orange tree had no blossoms and there was nobody to open the snapdragons; but more than that, she missed him.
‘He was a lovely bumble bee.’ She told me sadly. ‘ The two of us worked out there together, we never bothered each other; we were companions.’

Living in the small apartment, where she lived and wrote in a tiny alcove on a manual typewriter, and from where she famously corresponded with Frank Doel at Marks and co. at 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene was surrounded by a host of interesting, colourful neighbours, all of whom have their own stories. Many of her neighbours owning dogs and cats, Helene couldn’t help but include the stories of her four legged friends in her monthly letter to Britain too. Helene’s wonderfully, witty uniqueness comes across beautifully, her world is one the reader can’t help but want to spend time in.

Helene writes with affection of her neighbours in her high rise apartment, their comings and goings begin to read like those of the inhabitants of a small, cosy village, with all of them looking out for each other. At Christmas, catering for visitors in her tiny apartment kitchen, Helene is able to scatter her pre-prepared dishes around the building in the fridges of her neighbours, while the dishwasher in another apartment is useful afterwards.

“Richard came up a few minutes later, accompanied by the most beautiful Old English sheepdog I ever saw, with a thick snow-white coat and enormous white fur paws. I sat in my armchair and, at Richard’s command Bentley sat alongside the chair with his profile to me. His face was entirely hidden under a mop of white fur, and he stared off at nothing. I leaned down and, talking into his left ear, told Bentley he was the most beautiful sheepdog in the world. I told him there were lots of dogs in the neighbourhood who would be overjoyed to meet him. I told him he was going to be very happy in his new home with Richard, and that all the people who lived in the building were going to admire him and appreciate him and all the dogs were going to be friends with him”

We meet Bentley, the old English Sheep dog, once a sad abandoned animal in a dog’s home, he finds a happy home with Helene’s neighbour Richard, and is soon a big favourite with all, becoming a surprise hit at another friend’s fashionable New Year party. That party held by Arlene; Helene’s high-flying, couture wearing friend, whose social life gives Helene a few wardrobe difficulties, and provides a major contrast to Helene’s own, small, quiet writer’s life.

Helene writes also of the changing seasons. Through her eyes we see the colours of autumn, New York winters and summers, Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations and we see the runners and sunbathers in Central Park. Helene Hanff brings her beloved New York to life, in such an engaging way, that part of me wanted to be living in that apartment block with Helene and her neighbours during the 1970’s and 80’s – it sounded like just about the best place to live.

helenehanff

orlando

Within the first few pages of starting this extraordinary novel, I couldn’t help but think what a difficult book it would be to write about. So now here I am… staring at a screen, wondering where to begin.

Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.”

Orlando was chosen by my book group – and although we don’t meet to discuss it until the 26th I wanted to avoid the usual last minute rushed reading that often happens with book group choices. I was rather looking forward to being challenged and surprised, and I was – in a most enjoyable way. I have seen Orlando described as Virginia Woolf’s most accessible novel – but as this is only the third of them I have ever read I can’t say definitively – but I certainly found it an engaging novel, enormously entertaining and inventive, it is an extraordinary, historical fantasy. Woolf’s prose is glorious, rich and endlessly quotable, the images she leaves us with unforgettably colourful. Frequently studied by scholars of gender, transgender and women’s studies, Orlando is a novel of complex ideas. Certainly there is a great deal of fascinating and often very funny social commentary on the changing roles for men and women throughout the ages.

Virginia Woolf started writing Orlando, a mock biography in 1927 for Vita Sackville West – it was published by the Hogarth Press in 1928 – the character of Orlando largely based on Vita herself. The novel is filled with references which would have meant something to Vita, and with a detailed knowledge of Vita’s family home Knole in Kent. It is interesting to note that this novel was first published in the same year as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a novel I read at the end of last year and absolutely loved – yet Hall’s depiction of lesbianism and transgender issues is far bleaker and less euphoric than Woolf’s.

“He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which hung from the rafters.”

orlando2So starts Orlando; a biography. The novel opens in the late 1500’s and Orlando is a young nobleman of high birth, who quickly becomes a favourite of the ageing Queen at the Elizabethan court. Immediately the reader is catapulted into the most colourful and fascinating historical age. Following the queen’s death, during the long cold winter of 1608 in King James’s reign, during the famous frost fair on the frozen river Thames, Orlando falls in love with Sasha an androgynous Russian princess. When Sasha abandons him, returning suddenly to Russia, Orlando is desolate, and returns to writing The Oak Tree – an epic poem he had first begun and abandoned in his youth. Orlando is also very much a novel of writing and writers, Orlando writes, is delighted by books, (one of my favourite incidents coming much later in the book when Orlando places an order with a Victorian bookseller).

“The taste for books was an early one. As a child he was sometimes found at midnight by a page still reading. They took his taper away, and he bred glow-worms to serve his purpose. They took the glow-worms away and he almost burnt the house down with a tinder.”

Orlando meets Nick Greene – and briefly enjoys a friendship of entertainment and understanding, though Greene criticises Orlando’s writing. When Orlando is made aware of a satire written by Greene about Orlando – he is left feeling betrayed. Thereafter Orlando comes to lavish more time, money and attention on his beautiful ancestral home, to which he invites all sorts of people. Orlando finds himself the subject of harassment by the Archduchess Harriet – who has made her feelings quite clear.

To rid himself of these unwanted attentions, Orlando leaves for Constantinople as an ambassador to King Charles II – yes – already more than sixty years have gone by and Orlando is still a young man. It is here we begin to see Woolf’s deliciously inventive playing around with time – amongst other things. While in Constantinople, Orlando falls into a strange, week long sleep. On awaking, Orlando has become a woman.

As a woman, Orlando is essentially the same person, and yet externally different, – in this we have the beginning of Woolf’s powerful message about gender, and how our perceptions are formed.

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

Time continues to move forward, as the now female Orlando takes up with Gypsies, leaving behind the ambassadorial trappings she escapes, lives with them, happily adopting their way of life, until conflict results in her realising that her place is back in England. Leaving the next day aboard ship Orlando is soon made particularly aware of her femaleness when she almost causes a sailor to fall to his death in shock with an accidental glimpse of her ankle. When Orlando docks in England it is to the dawn of the eighteenth century, and she marvels at all she sees around her.

Orlando moves through the eighteenth and nineteenth century – we meet again that Archduchess who has now become an Archduke Harry and Nick Greene pops up again, he too apparently timeless. Orlando – although remaining biologically female – sometimes appears dressed more as a male, at others as a woman, her gender itself switching about – often determined by the age in which she is living. In the Victorian age – Orlando is more feminine than we ever see her. Orlando wins a lawsuit, over her beloved property, and in tune with that most conventional age – the Victorian age she is pursued in marriage. Eventually Orlando marries the similarly gender ambiguous Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. As the novel ends we are in Woolf’s present day, and Orlando finally publishes her poem The Oak Tree.

There are so many things to celebrate in this novel – leaving aside all the gender and societal issue which will make for fascinating discussion. I loved Woolf’s humour – her tongue in cheek mickey taking particularly at the Victorian age, and its literature.

“madam,” the man cried, leaping to the ground, “you’re hurt!” “I’m dead, sir!” she replied. A few minutes later, they became engaged.”

I had not expected to find such delicious, sharp humour, and right up until the last thirty or forty pages I loved every bit. Then, suddenly the narrative becomes a little more impenetrable, it might have just been my tiredness, but by the time we get into the (to Woolf) modern age – everything becomes a little less clear. That’s a minor point really – because overall I found Orlando to be a joy to read.

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