While I was struggling to get my feeble Virago/Persephone loving brain around The Cleft I rewarded myself every now and again with a couple of stories from this little collection. It was just the job. The Woman Novelist and other stories contains fifteen stories, adapted from a collection that was originally published in 1946 – with the exception of the title story which had not been previously published.
Diana Gardner was a writer and artist who knew Virginia and Leonard Woolf; they were neighbours during the war. Whether Virginia Woolf ever actually read Diana’s work seems to be unknown – though she is reported to have scribbled a congratulatory note on the side of the Horizon pre-publication leaflet, which announced Diana Gardner’s story ‘The Land Girl’ would be included in the Christmas 1940 edition. The Land Girl is for me one of the best stories in this really quite superb collection. Gardner’s depiction of jealous selfishness and its destructive nature is breath-taking. The narrator Una, is a cool, heartless creature, who comes we find out early on from a fairly well-to-do family – she is initially enraged by the lack of sugar for her porridge. From then on the girl wages her own little war on the woman whose home she is staying in.
“It was then that something took possession of me. The sight of the old, chipped thermos on the orange tray and his spent, thin shoulders bent over it caused my dislike of Mrs Farrant to well up into a sudden storm of hatred.”
(From The Land Girl)
With the exception of ‘The Woman Novelist’, these stories we were written during the Second World War; and although some of the stories taking place in the Germany of this period, there aren’t that many references to the war itself. In The Splash a young Nazi stormtrooper seeks to prove himself to be a specimen of Nazi perfection, while at the pool with a couple of English girls. While in A Summer Holiday Gardner explores how people can – despite all the evidence available – be completely blind to what is going on around them.
Gardner is great at atmosphere, whether it’s comic or mysterious, or gently illustrative of difficult times – she manages in just a few pages to give her readers a whole world, her characters have pasts which we can imagine, their futures less certain perhaps. In Crossing the Atlantic two unlikely people find themselves spending weeks together in a boat on a voyage to New York. In this story we have one of Gardner’s wryly comic, surprise endings. In Halfway down the Cliff, what appears to be a daring Cliffside rescue of a child has an unexpected, comic conclusion, Gardner showing again how she enjoys surprising her readers. The Boathouse is a tender little story of love in a time of war.
In the title story it is difficult not to place Diana Gardner herself in the character of Madeline. Madeleine is a woman who must juggle the running of her home, with her writing, on which her family depends. Her husband is rather useless; their marriage appears to be based less on love but on a mutual dependence. Madeleine feels more supported in her work by her faithful maid.
“On the far side of the house, everything was deeply still; the conservatory was enfolded by silence. In that detached, blazing hour after lunch even the birds were withdrawn, not moving, or visible, and the tractor which, all morning, had droned on the hill was now quiet.
Madeleine looked at her manuscript. The next section was going to be the most difficult and involved, and the most significant.”
(from The Woman Novelist)
Gardner explores the oddness of relationships with a wonderfully practised eye. It seems the couple in A Summer Holiday reach the end of their relationship when the Germans invade France, and they disagree about the coming danger. Another couple, in The Couple from London, leave hotel staff horrified and perplexed when one of them is left behind by the other – in very mysterious circumstances. In The Visitation a Shepherd leaves his family to the mercy of German incendiaries and rushes off to tend to his flock – his wife takes his apparent desertion in her stride – she understands her husband. The volume opens with The House in Hove a lovely story told in reminiscence of a house, where a woman left her children with their father. The memories of that desertion are still painful many years later as the narrator remembers her mother leaving and ruminates on the failed marriage of her parents.
I loved how Diana Gardner sometimes leads us down the garden path – we think we know where we’re going – but in fact we don’t. In Miss Carmichael’s Bed – there is an atmosphere of mystery – the reader is convinced that there is something supernatural about the old box bed that so intrigues the woman who has come as a housekeeper to Miss Carmichael. Gardner is never as obvious as that – and the reader is left surprised but certainly not disappointed. Gardner does the same in the story Mrs Lumley – here again we have an atmosphere which brilliantly has the reader holding their breath – and here again Gardner surprises us – subtly and cleverly.
Gardner’s use of colour in her descriptions show her artist’s eye – she paints tiny canvases of perfect storytelling, such a shame she didn’t write more. Her novel The Indian Woman (1954) is firmly on my wish list – but inexpensive copies seem hard to come by.
(Diana Gardner by Mervyn Peake, 1937, in a private collection)