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theyearofreadingdangerously

I expect the twitterers among you already follow Andy Miller (AKA @i_am_mill_i_am ) writer and co-host of the Backlisted podcasts, if not you should. I haven’t really got into listening to the podcasts regularly yet as I never seem to have time – reading, blogging, a P365 photography group on Facebook, working full time, sleeping argh! I need more hours.

The Year of Reading Dangerously is a book I have been aware of for a long time, but it was only recently I got around to buying a copy. I’m famously bad at reading non-fiction, but I do like a book about books, so I was confident that there would be a lot for me to enjoy in this book – there was.

“It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

Andy Miller had the kind of life many people I suspect would recognise as being similar to their own. A job he liked, a commute to London, a wonderful family – a busy routine and a love of books he had stopped finding the time to read. Realising that books had become what was missing in his life, Andy set about putting that right – and so began a year of reading which would slowly transform his life. He committed himself to fifty pages a day – it was a commitment which quickly became a luxury, a joy – though with some books it really was more of a commitment.

This book is about that year of reading, about the fifty books he came to choose and added to The List of Betterment (serious books, classics, literature), his reading of them, reaction to them, and the life he was living as a husband, father and editor while he was reading. The List of Betterment was not a list compiled especially because it contained all the books Miller thought everyone should read, they were simply the books he wanted to read. I love a book list, what reader doesn’t? So, I had to turn to the list first (sorry) and count up how many I had read – eighteen! Oops – I wondered what I would put on my own list of betterment (ugh-o I really wish I hadn’t thought of that!)

It began with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, bought on a day out to Broadstairs with his young son Alex, (Alex got a copy of Mr Small).

“Some part of that book, of Bulgakov himself, now lived on in me. The secret of The Master and Margarita, which seems to speak to countless people who know nothing about the bureaucratic machinations of the early Stalinist dictatorship or the agony of the novel’s gestation: words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one.
You don’t get that from Dan Brown.”

Other books include: Middlemarch, Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Sea, The Sea and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. *Disclaimer* when I looked at that list there were books on it I knew I never wanted to read, and would only ever read should I have the misfortune to be locked in a (well-lit) dungeon with only those books for company. Still, that didn’t prevent me from being interested in Andy’s journey through his betterment books – a couple even got added to my wishlist. His enthusiasm for Anna Karenina, made me want to re-read it, though I too absolutely loved it many moons ago, equally his irritation with Pride and Prejudice only made me love it more – I’ve read it four times.

As well as being a book about books The Year of Reading Dangerously is a work of memoir too. I loved the glimpses into Andy’s world, the relationship with his son is especially touching. I began to think we must be similar ages, so many of his references are mine too – so much resonated, especially his memory of school days. However, literary snob that I am, the thing that got me most excited was Andy’s ruminating about the children’s story book The Tiger Who Came to Tea. So, while I may have only read the tiger who came to teeighteen books from The List of Betterment – I have read The Tiger Who Came to Tea numerous times, and never tire of it.

“Is it wrong to prefer books to people? Not at Christmas. A book is like a guest you have invited into your home, except you don’t have to play Pictionary with it or supply it with biscuits and stollen.”

This is a book which will appeal greatly to those who love a book about books, whether you think you want to read those books or not, but it is also honest, funny and wise – the chapter about Herman Melville vs Dan Browne is quite hilarious – and while I shall never read either one, I was wonderfully entertained.

andy miller

murderofalady

I do enjoy a bit of vintage murder, as I discussed recently in a post dedicated to the genre of Golden Age Crime. Murder of a Lady, re-issued by British Library Crime Classics is a Scottish locked room mystery first published in 1931, it was the twelfth novel by Anthony Wynne to feature his amateur sleuth and physician Eustace Hailey. Anthony Wynne was a new name to me, but he was obviously very prolific, and apparently quite well known for his locked room mysteries.

The setting is Duchlan Castle in the Scottish Highlands, where the body of Mary Gregor the elder sister of the laird has been found locked in her own bedroom. Miss Gregor has been dealt a terrible blow, and despite a dreadful injury there is hardly any blood, and no weapon can be found. The door is locked from the inside, the windows barred, and, once the alarm has been raised, access to the room was achieved only with the help of a locksmith. The only clue – and it’s a strange one at that – is a tiny fish scale on the floor next to Mary’s body.

“‘This is the room; nothing but the lock of the door has been disturbed. I had a great shock myself when I entered and I would therefore prepare your mind.’
Dr Hailey inclined his head, responding to the Highlanders’s gravity with a reserve which gave nothing away. The door moved noiselessly open. He saw a woman in a white nightdress kneeling beside a bed. The room was lit by a paraffin lamp which stood on the dressing-table; the blinds were drawn. The kneeling figure at the bed had white hair which shone in the lamplight. She looked as if she was praying.”

Living in the house, is the laird; Major Hamish Gregor – known to all as Duchlan, his son Eoghan, daughter-in-law Oonagh and their young son, and four servants – two maids and two upper servants who are next to being members of the family; Christina, Eoghan’s old nurse, and Angus the piper. The laird’s wife died when Eoghan was a young child, and Mary had taken over the care of her nephew and been almost a mother to him.

Late at night on the day following Mary Gregor’s death, the Procurator Fiscal arrives at Darroch Mor, the home of Colonel John MacCallien, where Dr Eustace Hailey is a guest – with the grim news of the death of Miss Gregor. Having earned himself a reputation for helping to solve some high-profile crimes, Dr Hailey has been sought out to assist until a police man from Glasgow can attend. Dr Hailey accompanies the Procurator Fiscal to Duchlan Castle immediately to examine the scene and start talking to the dead woman’s brother.

Inspector Dundus arrives sooner than expected and reveals himself to be a serious young man, with his own way of doing things. Though perfectly cordial, he makes it quite plain that he intends to conduct the investigation himself, although he is willing for Dr Hailey to be an adviser at something of a distance. Hailey returns to Darroch Mor, happy enough to leave Dundus to his work.

Initially everyone is very quick to say how kind and respected Mary Gregor was, a charitable woman without an enemy in the world. Soon, however Inspector Dundus uncovers the reality, that Mary ruled the house with a rod of iron, her personality still pervades the house, affecting everyone who lives there. Her body shows evidence of a previous attack, perhaps many years earlier, and with it the suggestion of a family secret. Oonagh Gregor is frequently left alone by her husband who serves with the Royal Regiment of Artillery – recently returned from Malta and now undertaking special duties in Aryshire. Her relationship with her husband’s aunt is revealed to have been very difficult – and concerns over her young son’s health has obliged her to consult local physician Dr Macdonald – who has become something of a confidant and friend, none of which has gone unnoticed.

The castle grounds run down to the loch, from where local fishermen ply their trade – and the deeply superstitious locals believe that it is the ‘swimmers’ – mystical fish creatures from the loch who are responsible for the dark goings on.

“‘There’s queer stories about Loch Fyne as you may know. The fishermen tell very queer stories sometimes.’
‘So I believe.’
Mr McLeod roused himself.
‘Aye,’ he exclaimed with warmth, ‘it’s easy to say you don’t believe in old wives’ tales. But these men are shrewd observers with highly developed and trained senses. Who knows but what they may be able to see and hear and feel more than you and I could see or hear or feel? All the time they are watching the face of the water, which is the mirror of the heavens.’ ”

Mary’s death is followed by others – each just as improbable and circumstances decree that Dr Hailey is soon fully involved in the investigation. Things do get rather melodramatic, but the solution is very clever – which I hadn’t guessed at all.

Murder of a Lady is a very readable and entertaining mystery especially for fans of the locked room mystery, and I particularly enjoyed the Highland setting. Certainly, it is not the best of its type, however it has introduced me to a writer I would happily read more by.

anthonywynne

black narcissus

During July, the Librarything Virago group have selected to read books by Rumer Godden. I have enjoyed quite a number of her novels in the past but had not yet managed to read one of her best-known works – Black Narcissus. This was Rumer Godden’s third novel for adults, and the first of several which were adapted for film. The film Black Narcissus was released in 1947 in Technicolor, which not all films were in those days. It starred Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons and was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film was a hit and won a coveted Academy Award for its cinematography. I remember seeing the film years ago, although I can’t say I remembered much about the story other than it involved a dramatic tale of nuns on a mountain in India.

The novel opens as Sister Clodagh prepares to leave her religious community in Darjeeling for Mopu in the Himalayan mountains to the north. Here Sister Clodagh will take on the role of Sister Superior to a small group of nuns who will be helping to set up a convent school community in an abandoned palace. The palace was once known as ‘the House of Women’ built for a harem of the General who leased the land from the British rulers. Now the General’s son, another General has given the palace to the Sisters of Mary – believing a school and hospital just what the poor local people need. Before they leave, Mother Dorothea lets Sister Clodagh know that she has some reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for this responsibility. Clodagh is certain she is ready for the challenge, and leads her fellow sisters; Sister Ruth, Sister Briony, Sister Honey and Sister Philippa – confidently towards a new adventure.

The group of sisters begin the long trek up the hills to their new home, a palace wreathed in scandal, set against a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Mopu is home to tea growers, snow-capped mountain peaks and the glorious flora and fauna one associates with India. As always Rumer Godden portrays the landscape and people of India, beautifully and with obvious affection.

“It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn; across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.
Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on a hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.”

The sisters have a lot of work to do to make the old palace ready to use as a school and dispensary, and they set to work as soon as they arrive. An elderly Chinese woman Angu Ayah has had caretaking responsibilities at the palace and she stays on to help the sisters in their duties. One of the first people the sisters meet is local British agent Mr Dean – who they have been told will be on hand to help the sisters should they need it. Mr Dean is an informally dressed whisky drinker who rather shocks the sisters with his relaxed laid-back attitude and teasing humour. Mr Dean exudes a strength the nuns will have need of in the months ahead, and later, as they come to know him better they discover in him an ability to great sympathy and understanding.

The General’s nephew and heir, the young General Dilip Rai comes to the sisters to learn French, and a beautiful young girl Kanchi – who the locals have gossiped about wildly – has been placed with the sisters at the request of her uncle. Kanchi is soon surreptitiously keeping a close eye on the handsome young General – who, himself has an unusual effect on Sister Clodagh. Something in the character of the young General reminds her of her ill-fated romance with a neighbouring boy; Con – back in Ireland before she took holy orders.

“As he walked he kicked the stones away from him and slashed at the bushes; he looked pretty and naughty as a child, though he was nearly a full man; tall and beautifully built, not like a hill man but like a young Rajpit.
He slashed with his cane at the bushes, and she was suddenly back, walking down the Wishing Lane at home with Con; the green damp lane that led from the House gates past Skinners Farm to the lake, and Con was slashing at the hedge to show his temper.”

Mr Dean’s promise that the sisters will fail in their mission look set to come true as the nuns show time and again a lack of understanding for the people they are living among. The people have their own traditions and long held superstitions – and these are soon at odds with the inflexible attitudes of the sisters. Other troubles, passions and little jealousies play a part in causing the community difficulties as one of the sisters starts to show signs of mental illness. The magical landscape seems to beguile each of the sisters – distracting them from their purpose and allowing them, at times, to dream. Throughout the novel there is an air of forbidden passions rising to the surface, which Godden explores with wonderful subtlety.

Despite the drama and tragedy towards the end, the novel is much quieter than the film, which I remember as being quite melodramatic.

I am hoping to squeeze one more Rumer Godden novel into July as I do have two others waiting and Black Narcissus has served as a timely reminder to what a good writer she was.

rumer godden

cof

I know I am not the only reader/blogger for who Golden Age crime (click the link for posts tagged Golden Age Crime)  serves as a blissful escape, comfort reads, the books we reach for at times of tiredness, stress or illness. So, what on earth is it about murder? I know other readers feel just the same about modern crime fiction, though for me it is only the vintage crime novels that appeal – I rarely read modern crime. Agatha Christie was y first experience of Golden Age – and although Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaoi Marsh might be better writers it is to Dame Agatha I return most often and who I collect. cof

I read these stories throughout the year of course, but really is there anything better than to turn the lights down, draw the curtain against the dark and settle down in your favourite chair as the wind and rain hammer against the windows? Watching the bodies pile up, as Scotland yard detectives are served tea and crumpets in front of a proper fire, is certainly a wonderful escape from the modern world and all its craziness.

More than that, everything works out just perfectly – murderers are apprehended (I shudder at the capital punishment doled out occasionally) adult children who have been oppressed by overbearing ageing parents, are reborn, and sometimes the handsome detective finds romance. The only thing about these vintage stories some of us struggle with are the attitudes and language used for non-English characters. I have learned to not let it worry me too much – it serves to remind us how we have moved on, and to understand the society of the period.

I think we all know very well what to expect from our Golden age fiction, and that is probably what brings us back to it time and again. It is a world we understand. In the world of Golden Age fiction, sinister butlers shuffle towards libraries bearing trays of drinks, long lost children appear out of nowhere, as do degenerate brothers, and wicked mothers. Trains hurtle across Europe, carrying with them countesses and Lady’s Maids. Country house gatherings are interrupted by unexpected death, poison books are consulted and weapons searched for. Local police are aided by Scotland yard, gentlemen detectives and amateur sleuths. Victims so often turn out to have been almost deserving of their fate, cruel, miserly or criminal themselves – they are dispensed with creatively but without the gratuity favoured by some modern crime writers. So, in a way, even the Golden age novels we have never read before are as familiar to us when we pick them up, as the comforting stories of our childhood. Agatha Christie, was in fact one of the first adult writers I began to read when I was about eleven. I feel therefore as if I have known Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple almost my whole life – as I am perfectly happy to re-read them. Other writers I have not read as much, I love Dorothy L Sayers’s Gaudy Night – I have read it twice and will definitely read it again – and have adored other Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane novels – but there are many I haven’t read, and I have only ever read a handful of Margery Allingham. Ngaio Marsh is another favourite – I love the relationship between Chief Inspector Alleyn and Inspector Fox – one particular favourite Opening Night – set in a theatre. Surfeit of Lampreys is also excellent.

Golden Age crime seems to have enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity in the last few years, and I am constantly discovering new writers. Of course, the superb British Library Crime Classics imprint have brought out a mountain of tempting titles by authors who in their day were hugely popular but who fell out of print. I am currently reading one of them – Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne – a Scottish locked room mystery set in a castle. There are just so many – I can never work out which ones I should get. I feel pretty confident that I shall never run out of comfort reads. Thanks to the BL I have discovered writers like John Bude, Freeman Wills Crofts and J. Jefferson Farjeon. I also discovered Ethel Lina White not too long ago – her books available on kindle – I found Fear Stalks the Village to be an excellent read. Winifred Peck – never really known as a crime writer – wrote a few mystery novels – and they are now re-issued by Dean Street Press. Arrest the Bishop was a good read, so I definitely want to read more.

So, if you know of any of any more obscure titles which I simply must read – let me know. I am aware that many readers are real crime aficionados, and so would welcome recommendations – though I do have some waiting to be read.

The pictured books are some of the Golden Age books in the house – some I have already read, some form part of my tbr piles.

2017-04-11_10.27.54

strangers on a train

Patricia Highsmith is one of several writers who I’ve read for the first time this year. In her; I have discovered a writer who was a wonderful creator of mood and suspense her characters explored with psychological acuity. Strangers on a Train was her first novel.

Strangers on a Train, is a story I have been broadly familiar with for many years, I vaguely remember having seen the 1951 Hitchcock directed film. I’m sure many people already know the brilliantly simple premise; two strangers swap murders – what could possibly go wrong?

“People, feelings, everything! Double! Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.”

Up and coming architect Guy Haines badly wants a divorce from his difficult, promiscuous wife from whom he has been separated for three years. He wants to start his new life with Anne and as his career begins to take off the last thing he needs is for Miriam to hold him back. On a train journey to Metcalf, Texas to meet with Miriam at her request, Guy meets Charles Bruno – on his way to Sante Fe. Bruno is a hard-drinking young man, the son of a wealthy household, he deeply resents his father – and with several drinks already inside him he engages Guy in conversation. Bruno is not an attractive proposition as travelling companion, and Guy is reluctant to engage with him yet gets drawn into a bizarre conversation despite himself. Bruno has a private dining car and invites Guy to join him, here we begin to see Charles Bruno as a very troubling, psychopathic personality. He tells Guy all about his father and how he hates him, and almost against his will Guy finds himself imparting a lot of information about himself and his estranged wife Miriam.

“For here it was now, as clear as it had ever been. And, worst of all, he was aware of an impulse to tell Bruno everything, the stranger on the train who would listen, commiserate, and forget. The idea of telling Bruno began to comfort him. Bruno was not the ordinary stranger on the train by any means. He was cruel and corrupt enough himself to appreciate a story like that of his first love.”

Charles Bruno makes a dreadful, drunken suggestion – they each want rid of someone – so why not help one another out, if he were to kill Miriam there would be nothing to connect him to the crime, it would be a perfect murder. Then, in return a few months later Guy would kill Sam Bruno – Charles’s hated father. Guy is repelled by the suggestion – and fatally doesn’t take it too seriously. Once off the train, he reflects upon the meeting with a shudder, feeling that he has met with evil. Following an unhappy and unsatisfactory meeting with Miriam, Guy travels to Mexico to spend a few precious days with Anne. While he is away, Charles Bruno decides to put his plan into action, and using the small amount of information Guy unwittingly gave him, he tracks Miriam down, and follows her. Bruno’s personality is such that it is the idea of committing the so called perfect crime that appeals to him almost as much as the idea of ridding himself of his father. He strikes.

“People talked about the mystery of birth, of beginning life, but how explainable that was! Out of two live germ cells! What about the mystery of stopping life? Why should life stop because he held a girl’s throat too tightly? What was life anyway – What did Miriam feel after he took his hands away? Where was she? No, he didn’t believe in life after death. She was stopped, and that was just the miracle.”

In Mexico Guy receives a very odd note from Bruno – and soon there follows the most shocking news about his wife. A dreadful idea occurs to him, an idea too terrible to contemplate and Guy immediately holds on to the idea of an unknown maniac stalking the neighbourhood where Miriam lived.

Deep down of course Guy knows the truth about what happened to Miriam, but as the police make it quite clear that they believe Guy to have a perfect motive he isn’t keen to go to them with the preposterous story of a stranger on a train. Guy is running scared, of both the police and of Bruno. Charles Bruno is a manipulative young man, and he begins turning up unannounced, writing letters, gradually increasing the pressure on Guy to fulfil what Bruno considers his part of the bargain. The pressure becomes almost unendurable, and the longer he stays silent of course, the more Guy implicates himself in the crime. Highsmith brilliantly portrays Bruno’s psychological manipulation, how he gradually wears Guy down, turning him into a nervous shadow of himself.

At Guy and Anne’s wedding there is the inevitable uninvited guest – as Charles Bruno ratchets up the pressure. Sending Guy detailed plans of how to carry out the murder of his father, Bruno gets under Guy’s skin – to such a degree that Anne begins noticing that things aren’t right.

Strangers on a train – which I read most of aboard a train, travelling back and forth to Cornwall last weekend – is a brilliantly intelligent page turner. Guy is an ordinary man as the novel begins – ensnared in a terrifying series of events, brought about by the horrifying trap he finds himself caught in.

patricia-highsmith

save me the waltz

The one and only novel written by Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, Save me the Waltz is the novel my very small book group chose for our July read. It is the book Zelda wrote during a period she spent in a Baltimore hospital to receive psychiatric treatment, while there she spent around two hours a day writing as a part of a daily routine to aid her recovery. The book was written in just a few weeks and to be absolutely honest it shows. Both Harry T Moore who wrote the introduction printed in this edition, and the Wikipedia page for the novel suggest that F. Scott Fitzgerald insisted upon or at least strongly encouraged her to make various revisions. I can’t help but feel very sad for this woman who had so many hopes and dreams, suffered so much illness and who, devastated by the lack of success her novel had, never published another.

I wonder whether Zelda is still best for who she married (the fate of many women with talent and ambition sadly) or whether Vintage’s re-issuing of this novel in 2001 and the recent novel; Z a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler has re-established interest in Zelda for her own sake – I hope so. In her day, she was a famous glamour girl and an aspiring ballerina, dubbed the first American flapper by her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda and Scott were the epitome of the jazz age, and their story still fascinates many fans today. The novel is highly autobiographical, and tells a similar story to that of F. Scot’s novel Tender is the Night. There are many well written passages, some lovely description and the novel shows that Zelda was certainly a writer of some talent – however there is also a lot of the novel which is rather overwritten, and for me the characters lacked depth. The novel is still fascinating for what it might teach us about Zelda herself.

“She felt the essence of herself pulled finer and smaller like those streams of spun glass that pull and stretch till there remains but a glimmering illusion. Neither falling nor breaking, the stream spins finer. She felt herself very small and ecstatic. Alabama was in love.”

The novel tells the story of Alabama Biggs, the youngest of three sisters, she grows up in the south, fascinated by her older, beautiful sisters and their beaus, she is in a hurry to grow up. The daughters of Judge Austin Biggs and Miss Millie – the opening to this novel had a wonderful Southern feel which transports the reader to another time entirely.

“A southern moon is a sodden moon, and sultry. When it swamps the fields and the rustling sandy roads and the sticky honeysuckle hedges in its sweet stagnation, your fight to hold on to reality is like a protestation against a first waft of ether.”

Just before World War One Alabama meets her own beau, David Knight, the two marry and David goes on to become a very successful painter. The Knights (like the Fitzgeralds of course) become the toast of jazz society – everyone seems to know them or want to know them, their lives for a time is almost one long party.

They have a baby daughter Bonnie, who is something of mysterious novelty to the dizzy pair – thank goodness for the nanny – and the Knights move their little family to the Riviera. Here there are more parties, and little distractions and temptations for each of them. The story is sometimes hard to follow, a bit fragmented although it certainly captures the spirit of an age. Like her creator, Alabama doesn’t want to just be the wife of a successful artist, she has ambitions and dreams of her own. Others don’t take her ambitions seriously, but Alabama has a fierce determination to succeed as a ballerina – despite being rather old for someone starting out.

“It seemed to Alabama that, reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her – that, in proving herself, she would achieve that peace which she imagined went only in surety of one’s self – that she would be able, through the medium of the dance, to command her emotions, to summon love or pity or happiness at will, having provided a channel through which they might flow. She drove herself mercilessly, and the summer dragged on.”

Alabama starts training under Madame, her determination driving her to aching muscles and bleeding feet. Her desire is to dance the role of La Chatte – which she had once seen danced by the Russian ballet. Ballet allows Alabama the freedom she has craved to be just herself, and shrugging off the small jealousies of the dance world she begins to blossom. As Alabama begins to succeed in dance the cracks in her marriage become gradually more apparent. This section – where Alabama begins her dance training (along with the passages set in the Biggs family home before Alabama marries) are the best in the book.

Save me the Waltz is not a great novel – but it isn’t a terrible one either – and Zelda didn’t deserve the dismissal it seems to have received in her lifetime. And although Alabama isn’t as strong a character as I would have liked her to be she is the one thing that shines from the novel – and I liked her enormously. I didn’t love Save me the Waltz as much as I thought I would, but it is worth reading, and a fascinating insight into the life of a woman whose sparkle still has the power to dazzle.

zelda fitzgerald

A Lady and her Husband

A Lady and her Husband, first published in 1914 surprised me with the modern outlook of several of the female characters. I hadn’t realised it would be such a feminist novel – it was a really nice surprise, and the element which would make me recommend the novel to others.

According to the Preface by Samantha Ellis, Amber Reeves was a brilliant young woman, the uncompromising daughter of a suffragette and Fabian society member. The inspiration for A Lady and her Husband came from a real-life project undertaken by Amber Reeves, her mother; Maud Pember Reeves and other Fabian society women, who spent four years visiting working-class families in Lambeth to find out all they could about their lives. The result of this was Maud Pember Reeves’s book Round About a Pound a week, which is also published by Persephone books, I have an old Virago edition which I have yet to read. Ellis considers this novel very much a companion piece to that other book.

The plot of this novel is fairly simple. Mary Heyham is the wife of a prosperous business man. Mary has spent her adult life so far bringing up her children, and running her home with the help of the usual servants. She has always been the conventional little wife – the soft, unquestioning mother figure her husband James so depends upon. Now her children are grown up, they don’t have the same need of her, her son Trent works alongside James in the business, Laura is recently married, and now her youngest daughter Rosemary has announced her engagement.

Rosemary is very much a forward looking young woman of keen socialist principles. She recognises that Mary needs something to do – a challenge. Rosemary can’t help rather fearing the result of marriage for herself – afraid of becoming soft and useless. So, Rosemary enlists James’ help, and they come up with a scheme for Mary to have a look at his chain of successful tearooms – enquiring into the lives of the girls who work there. James is happy for Mary to have a diversion, expecting her to find him out to be a wonderful employer. James is a brilliantly created character – one I wanted to frequently hit over the head with something heavy. His condescension is hugely irritating, pompous and complacent – he calls his wife ‘old lady’ and doesn’t ever expect her to think too hard about anything. The following quote perfectly demonstrating his patronising attitude.

“James was detached and good-humoured, perfectly ready to talk things over with her. He seemed to think that it was really very creditable that she should have stuck to the thing like this, and taken such an interest in it. One gets rather too much into the habit of assuming that women do not care about serious things. Well then, to what revolutionary courses did she – dear little person that she was – wish to commit her wretched husband and his old fashioned business?”

James and Mary love each other deeply – but they have become used to their conventional roles, and neither have ever had to face their differences. James is a different man in business than he is at home, and Mary has never really met that man before. Rosemary supplies her mother with a pile of socialist literature, and Mary engages a secretary – Miss Percival, whose own deeply held socialist and feminist beliefs are soon revealed. Mary’s education begins.

“Miss Percival shook her head. ‘I don’t know how it came,’ she said, ‘though I could find a hundred reasons – I can see a fresh reason in every man I meet! When I look at their faces in the street, in a bus, anywhere, their mean stupid faces – men who get their ideals out of the half-penny papers, men who think about money on an office stool all day, and then go home and treat some woman as an inferior -I wonder than any woman has ever loved a man.”

Mary begins to visit the tearooms in the company of Miss Percival, and her visits soon raise a number of questions. Mary discovers that the girls who work in the tearooms are expected to come from families where there is already money coming in, where they are not relying on the twelve shillings salary to live. Mary meets a young woman for who this is certainly not the case, and Mary is drawn awkwardly into the story of Florrie and her very sick mother’s life – and realises at once that the employment policy is not realistic and twelve shillings (though more than many women in service) not nearly enough. Her visits raise other questions too – why do the women not have a room in which to eat? She sees women standing in corridors hurriedly eating – no chance to sit down during their hours at work, the women whose job it is to wash up reduced to standing for hours, water slopping around their feet. Others are obliged to carry heavy trays and stand around looking bright and efficient. -1

The women work long days for little salary, and Mary starts to realise how very difficult and uncomfortable their lives are. James is not happy with the suggestions Mary makes to improve his workers’ lives – and Mary is made to feel quite unhappy about his reaction.

Mary starts to see the world very differently – she starts to ask questions – much to James’ discomfort and irritation. In starting to see the world very differently, Mary also begins to see her husband differently – it causes Mary to re-examine her life and her marriage.

A Lady and her Husband is a quite subtle examination of women’s lives at this period – before the First World War, we meet women from different sections of society, and see clearly how differently the world treats them.

Amber Reeves