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Can there be, for the dedicated Persephone reader, a more marvellous thing than a new Whipple? Like many other Persephone readers; I was very excited when I heard there was to be a new, and sadly a last Whipple.

Young Anne first published in 1927 was Dorothy Whipple’s debut novel. With its Persephone release all of Dorothy Whipple’s books are finally back in print – why they remained out of print so long is a mystery. I envy those readers who have yet to discover Dorothy Whipple – though I will have the joy of re-reading them all.

There is no great drama in this novel – it is the story of life – Whipple’s characterisation absolutely drives this novel – which is still enormously compelling, told with huge compassion.

“How changed he was! How assured! A man of the world, this George, who had once been poor, bitter, crude. How changed they both were…”

Dorothy Whipple’s first novel – published when she was in her thirties – was very autobiographical. We follow the growth, education, life and loves of Anne Pritchard from the time she is just five years old through to a time when she is finally settled. We first meet young Anne sat in the church pew alongside the rest of her Lancastrian family, her middle-class parents, and brothers Gerald and Philip. Mr Pritchard is a stern, inflexible presence throughout Anne’s childhood – he stops short of being a bully, but his unsmiling, traditionalism feels quite suffocating.

“‘Anne, go back to bed at once!’
‘But I’m frickened,’ she whimpered, holding her cold toes in her hands to warm them.
‘What on earth is there to be frightened of? Asked her father impatiently.
‘There’s all sorts of things looking at me,’ she wailed. ‘Weary Willie and Tired Tim and things.’
‘Olive!’ Henry Pritchard protested angrily to the recumbent figure of his wife, ‘I absolutely forbid you to let the children have those vulgar comic papers.’”

Anne is instantly lovable, and thankfully not perfect – perfect children are not all that attractive. For Anne, the most important member of the household is Emily, the maid – who shows Anne such love that she becomes an alternative mother figure to the child – destined to follow her through life wherever she goes.

As a little girl Anne goes to a local school run by a couple of middle aged sisters. According to the wonderful preface by Lucy Mangan, this is one of the things in the novel that mirrors Dorothy Whipple’s own life. The school is closed when one sister dies suddenly – from starvation – it seemed that no one had realised they had no money for food.

In this novel Whipple’s peripheral characters are of equal importance, fully fleshed out they have a lot to tell us about the society that Dorothy Whipple was writing about. Whipple is always particularly clear sighted about societal differences – those petty snobberies and tender feelings that come between people when class rears its ugly head. Even as a quite tiny girl Anne recognises something in George Yates that is different – she hasn’t yet learned about class distinction – but she soon will. It is Mildred Yates – a child Anne rather admires – who makes it quite clear to Anne that her cousin George’s social position is not the same as hers. Mildred is a wonderful creation – even as a child she is something of a horror. Another superb creation is Vera Bowden Anne’s much older cousin, a pretty, unhappily married woman who loves to flirt with other men to make her disappointing life more bearable.

Anne’s parents decide to send her to a Catholic convent school as a day girl, she is practically the only protestant pupil, but soon learns to appreciate the kindly sisters and comes to enjoy her time there. As a very young woman Anne finds love and loses it, too young perhaps to fully understand the nuances and complexities of relationships. It is a love that she will not entirely shake off – later the past will return to threaten a fragile happiness.

A change in family circumstances means Anne must go to live with her dreadful Aunt Orchard soon after completing her education, the grimness of this is relieved by the faithful presence of Emily – who goes too – not forgetting the black kitten Onions. Aunt Orchard is a magnificently dreadful creation, petty, selfish and prone to extreme rages – her house is no kind of home to Anne – who hits upon the idea of a secretarial college course – to get herself out the house and secure some independence. Emily continues to be the most wonderful support she will endure almost anything for Anne’s sake, her slanging matches with Aunt Orchard are quite hilarious. She even loans Anne the money for her course.

“She thought with satisfaction how her position in the house had eased since she had been able to hand over fifteen shillings a week out of her salary, now twenty-five shillings, and make up what she considered the deficiency in mending and aspidistra washing and putting up with Aunt Orchard generally. The bread of dependence had been very bitter.”

We see Anne earn her first pay packet, make decisions for herself, enter into a more grown up (dare I say less romantic) relationship. By the time we leave Anne – she has changed – made mistakes and learned from them. In Anne, Whipple has created a realistically flawed young woman, one who we sympathise with and like enormously despite her faults.

I absolutely loved Young Anne – what a fabulous debut it was back in 1927 – and what a wonderful high for Persephone to complete their Whipple re-issues with.

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I continue to read quite a lot of short stories, and this is another fairly large collection that I dipped in and out of over the course of about three weeks. I recently bought this pretty new VMC anniversary edition of Collected Grace Paley stories, only to get home and realise I already had the book. The other edition was such a physically different book that it hadn’t rung a bell with me at all. It’s not the first time I have bought a book I already have, the perils of a large tbr!

This collection brings together the stories of three previously published collections into one volume: – The Little Disturbances of Man (1959)
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985).

Grace Paley’s stories are of the world she knew well, the noisy vibrant neighbourhoods of New York city. She writes in a style which can take some getting used to, a sort of stream of consciousness style – lots of dialogue and no speech marks. Often in the vernacular of her city, the voices of her characters are loud, insistent, and hard to ignore. Paley has an ear for voices – and she recreates them with great authenticity and affection.

The collection opens with Goodbye and Good Luck and seems to be a letter written from a woman to a much younger female relative. Rose explains her long-term relationship with a Russian actor who she met while working in a New York theatre. She spends her life loving this man she can’t have – turning down other marriage proposals, waiting. One day he does return, years have passed, times have changed. As Rose, who is now firmly in middle age, ends her letter she is about the embark on a new life with the love of her life.

One character we meet in many stories is Faith Darwin – a woman at the heart of the New York Jewish community. She’s a typical Paley heroine. In the earlier stories Faith is a young mother, her husband is absent, and she is rooted in her urban community. In Faith in a Tree we find Faith suspended above the children’s playground in a Sycamore tree contemplating the children of her neighbours as well as her own. In Conversation with my Father – Faith has become a writer, and her father tells her he would like her to write a simple story just once more, the kind of story Maupassant or Checkov might write. In Dreamer in a Dead Language Faith visits her ageing parents in a Jewish retirement home. Here, Faith is drawn into the lives of the other residents, knitting is undertaken, ailments discussed, advice given.

“The boys are down playing Ping-Pong with Mrs Reis. She kindly invited them. Faith, what is it? You look black, her mother said.
Breathless, Mr Darwin gasped, Crazy, crazy like Sylvia, your crazy sister.
Oh her. Mrs Darwin laughed, but took Faith’s hand and pressed it to her cheek. What’s the trouble, Faith? Oh yes, you are something like Sylvie. A temper. Oh, she had life to her. My Poor Syl, she had zest. She died in front of the television set. She didn’t miss a trick.
Oh, Ma, who cares what happened to Sylvie?”
(Dreamer in a Dead Language)

Through these and other stories we see Faith grow, meet her friends and family watch her raise her children. There is often little plot in these stories, but Paley recreates an entire world. There’s a wonderful spirit in Faith, she is ever an optimist, loves her children and her community – and is constantly evolving.

In other stories Paley writes of politics, and we hear voices raised in protest. There are absent fathers, lovers and friends. We meet the mothers of the neighbourhood playgrounds, she introduces them in typical Paley fashion.

“When I went to the Playground in the afternoon I met eleven unwed mothers on relief. Only four of them were whores, the rest of them were unwed on principle or because some creep had ditched them.”
(Northeast Playground)

grace paley storiesIn one story a woman runs into her former husband and they sneak off together to make love. A boy is killed in a sudden senseless accident while messing around on the trains with his friends, in Samuel. In Friends a group of women friends who first knew one another when their children were young visit a dying friend, and travel home together afterwards. An elderly couple raise the child of their mentally ill daughter, while an elderly pharmacist is forced to face up to his own past racism in Zagrowsky Tells – which was one of my favourite stories. The voices are strong, their stories those of any city – and yet also, they seem particularly the stories of New York.

In these stories Grace Paley is funny, wise and frequently angry – she understands life in all its difficulties and her characters are very real. There is a rhythm and inventiveness in Paley’s use of language. There is a sort of aural quality to Paley’s stories, from the lilt of the Yiddish spoken by many characters, to the rattle of subways trains, the voices of children playing in city playgrounds – the laughter and protest of people living in close proximity.

 

 

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The Persephone mini readathon seems a long time ago already, the second book I read during my own slightly longer Persephone readathon was The Carlyles at Home. This is an earlier Persephone book that I had managed to completely overlook until recently.

Written in the 1960s, it portrays the home life of writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle and his wife, during the thirty odd years they lived at Cheyne Row in Chelsea. Thea Holme; the author, wrote it while she and her husband were living in the house as custodians. She confines herself to everyday matters in the Carlyles lives, staying well away from the nature of the Carlyles marriage for example, Thomas Carlyle’s work is mentioned almost in passing. Small domestic concerns, problems with servants, home improvements and noise from neighbours. Each of the eleven chapters focus on a different aspect of the Carlyles lives at Cheyne Row.

Of the two Carlyles, it is Jane we get to know best through this book, though even she remains a little enigmatic. The house in Cheyne Row where she and her husband lived emerges as the third character in this lovely little book and those with an interest in houses will love it. The endpapers for this Persephone edition shows a detail from a Chelsea interior by Robert Tait and depicts the largest room on the ground floor of the house with Thomas and Jane in situ.

It was in 1834 that Thomas and Jane Carlyle moved into the house on Cheyne Row in Chelsea, and it wasn’t until after his wife’s death in 1866 that Thomas Carlyle left. The Carlyles had originated from Scotland, and Chelsea, though not quite so fashionable then, as it was to become, had houses that Thomas had declared to be cheap and excellent. We first encounter the couple as they await the Pickfords van, accompanied by their maid Bessie, they are obliged to eat their first meal there off the top of a box lid covered with a towel.

“But after two days of picnicking, with carpenters and bell hangers finishing their work, and pieces of furniture broken on the journey from Scotland being mended, at last the house was cleared of workmen and the floors could be swept; the carpets were laid – nailed down by Jane herself – the heavy curtains from Craigenputtock, altered to fit the London windows, were hung on their brass rods; the books were sorted and housed, and Carlyle was settled into his library on the first floor with his writing table and one of the horsehair dining chairs to start work as soon as he pleased.”

We meet the succession of maids who come to Cheyne Row to work for the Carlyles, they are a colourful bunch, and Jane seemed to have had quite a close relationship with a couple of them. There’s the maid who gives birth in the china closet, the maid who is found passed out drunk on the floor, another becomes a trusted member of the household – almost part of the family. These domestic concerns were more Jane’s remit than Thomas’s, but it seems Jane also took a good deal of responsibility for matters of finance – which must have been a bit unusual during the Victorian period. Jane was also concerned with allowing Thomas the time, space and peace in which to work.

“A cock crowing in the small hours woke him instantly: he would thump his bed in wrath, then jump up and pace the room, waiting furiously for the next crow, which would sometimes drive him out of the house, to walk about the streets till morning.”

Noise was a constant battle – Thomas Carlyle had a mania for quiet and found himself easily disturbed. Cockerels seem to have been popular in Chelsea at this time, and Thomas Carlyle was driven to distraction by their early morning cries, what with them and neighbours’ daughters who practise piano – Jane is forced to write polite notes to their Chelsea neighbours which appear to have been received in good part.

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The constant search for quiet prompted at least some of the house renovations that took place during these years. Here too, Jane was generally left to superintend the dreadful upheaval while her husband would take himself off – often to Scotland – to escape the noise. One of the projects undertaken was an attic study – a room that should be completely cut off from all noise.

Aside from all these mini domestic dramas there are lots of period details about money, food and clothing. Jane is forced to go to a ball décolleté and is horrified at the thought of all that flesh on show – though finally she is rather charmed at how good she looks. Even the servants wear bustles which must be accommodated – all of which does get a bit difficult when moving around.

Jane it appears was an extremely good manager of money – she never wasted money on herself – and has to carefully instruct her husband on the mysteries of housekeeping money. Thomas Carlyle comes across as complaining and petty – a difficult man to live with I suspect. Whether this view of Jane Carlyle is a little romanticised or not I couldn’t tell as I knew nothing about her before reading this. She emerges as the stronger more capable of the two.

The Carlyles at Home is a social history of Victorian life in Chelsea but is also a wonderful introduction to an interesting and enigmatic couple, about whom people have long speculated.

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my wife melissa

Between the 1930s and the late 1960s Francis Durbridge was a prolific writer of mystery novels and plays for both TV and radio. He would have been a famous name back in the 1940s and 50s, and his detective novels featuring Paul Temple were widely read. I have yet to read any Paul Temple novels, though I did read The Other Man, one of Durbridge’s other standalone novels – well I was going to say a couple of years ago – I just checked, it was five years ago! So, with lots of Bello books still unread on my kindle from my Bello splurge of a few years ago, I decided to read My Wife Melissa for the 1967 slot in my ACOB.

There are lots of questions in this little 60s mystery, the main one being who killed Melissa? Who was it called her husband Guy an hour after she had died doing a very good impersonation of her?

When Guy arrives home on the night of his wife’s death, he finds her preparing to go out with two of their friends Paula and Felix, another enormous hat box sitting in the hall.

“It was one of those whimsical things in gold and crimson stripes, all tied up with a colossal silk bow; there was no price-tag on it, of course, but with a sinking heart I mentally deducted another twenty guineas from the not very rosy level of our joint bank account. Melissa was a sucker for new hats. It sometimes seemed to me, the longer I was out of work, the more fancy hats she bought though heaven alone knew what she did with them; she hardly ever wore them. “My Love in her attire doth show her wit,” wrote the poet, “For every season she hath dressings fit”. That was Melissa all right.”

Guy Foster is a writer – a struggling writer would be more appropriate. Coming home that day, Guy has no wish to go out. Following a non-too serious tiff, it seems Melissa is happy to go without him and Guy is happy to let her – he will have uninterrupted hours to himself in which to work. Melissa, Felix and Paula head out to racing driver Don Page’s birthday party, and Guy never sees his wife alive again.

mdeLater in the evening Guy receives a phone call from Melissa – only it is soon apparent that Melissa had been dead at least an hour when the call was made, she had been strangled. Guy is immediately put under suspicion by Inspector Cameron – an eminently sensible man, who we suspect won’t have the wool pulled over his eyes too easily. Inspector Cameron finds a piece of paper in Melissa’s bag with the name of a doctor on it – Dr Norman Swanson of Wimpole Street. Guy claims never to have heard of him, to have no knowledge of his wife consulting Dr Swanson. He is stunned therefore, when Inspector Cameron informs him that he – Guy – is well remembered by both Dr Swanson and his secretary following his recent consultation two weeks earlier. What on earth can it all mean?

Guy can’t rest, he must try and find out what is going on. Talking with Don, Felix and Paula about Melissa and the time before her death, Guy starts to find out things he didn’t know – which puzzle him further and makes him wonder how well he knew his wife.

Later another young woman is found murdered in Guy’s remote little cottage, Guy discovers her body following another hushed phone call late at night, again sounding just like Melissa.

“I went into the kitchen, and a split second later wished that I had not done so wished with all the futile intensity we summon up at such moments, when we pray desperately for the power to put the clock back. But it was too late. The girl in the old wicker chair was dead, and I was there, staring at her, instead of being safely tucked up in my bed in my London flat. There was no putting the clock back.”

Unfortunately, the young woman is someone Guy was seen talking to earlier that day as he tried to find out more about the secrets Melissa seemed to have been keeping.

This was an enjoyable quick read – it really seemed to end ever so quickly, but then I read it while I was ill, and sleeping badly, so I possibly just flew through it. The mystery itself is a good one, there are few people in the frame so to speak, so perfectly possible to guess at least part of the mystery.

“Slowly, I reached out and pulled the window shut. As I turned I sensed that someone was in the darkened room with me. I could see and hear nothing, but I could feel the alien presence. I began to inch towards the lamp on my desk, next to Melissa’s picture. The long curtains behind the desk rustled over my shoulders as I bent to snap on the light. A gun stabbed my spine, the muzzle softened by the curtains, and a voice whispered: “No light!” “

Regular readers may know that two things lift a book above the ordinary for me, depth of character and a strong sense of place – I felt this book lacked both these things – not surprisingly it isn’t that kind of narrative, Durbridge is not that kind of writer. Still, the plot zips along at a cracking pace, making it a novel the reader can’t help but fly through. What Durbridge does do really well is to set a scene (the playwright in him no doubt) and to reproduce a sense of threat and unease.

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“What am I living for and what am I dying for are the same question.”

As I succumbed to some kind of (now possibly viral) chesty bug, the second book of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy kept me wonderful company. A slightly chunkier book than I often read (this isn’t altogether intentional I just seem drawn to shorter books) The Year of the Flood was such a wonderfully intelligent, imaginative read, that it really did become hard to put down.

The narrative of this book runs parallel to that of Oryx and Crake – in year twenty-five, a catastrophic event has effectively wiped out the vast majority of the population on earth. Strange, savage hybrid creatures wander the desolate landscape as an unforgiving sun beats down on the few fragile human beings left, and vultures hover overhead. Who, if anyone, is left alive?

“Why can’t I believe? she asked the darkness.
Behind her eyelids she saw an animal. It was golden colour, with gentle green eyes and canine teeth, and curly wool instead of fur. It opened its mouth, but it did not speak. Instead, it yawned.
It gazed at her. She gazed at it. “You are the effect of a carefully calibrated blend of plant toxins,” she told it.
Then she fell asleep.”

As with Oryx and Crake, the narrative moves back and forth between the last decade or so before year twenty-five, to the days and weeks following the man-made plague that wiped out most of the human population. In Oryx and Crake, we met Snowman (aka Jimmy), and the strange children of Crake – but by the end of that book we know that Snowman isn’t alone after all.

Surviving the “waterless flood” are two women Toby and Ren. Against the odds the two women survive separately, each isolated and alone. Ren living, at first, in an airtight room at the upmarket sex club where she had worked as a dancer, using the media devices she has access to, to search for news of her friend Amanda. Toby, at the Spa where she had been hiding out. Now Toby; some years older than Ren, watches from the roof top garden that was her home for several years.

In the years before, Toby had found refuge with the God’s Gardeners, a religious cult, who refuse to eat flesh and utilise the products of the natural world in their clothing, medicines and food. Toby has spent years hiding from a violent, stalker, and with the gardeners she finds a way of life she only partly believes in, but for some years brings her peace. Toby had become a bee keeper, maker of potions and in time became a key member of the community. Now she scans the horizon from the ruined rooftop garden, clutching a rifle she has dug up from her parents’ old home.

“Yet each flower, each twig, each pebble, shines as though illuminated from within, as once before, on her first day in the Garden. It’s the stress, it’s the adrenaline, it’s a chemical effect: she knows this well enough. But why is it built in? she thinks. Why are we designed to see the world as supremely beautiful just as we’re about to be snuffed? Do rabbits feel the same as the fox teeth bite down on their necks? Is it mercy?”

In the past Ren had also lived with the gardeners, as a child she had been taken there when her mother left her father and took up with Zeb another key figure in the gardeners. Ren’s mother eventually takes them back to one of the privileged compounds, a sanitised world of scientific breakthroughs and man-made everything. Here, as a teenager Ren meets Jimmy, who breaks her heart, bitter and hurt, rejected by her selfish mother, Ren stumbles inexorably toward the sex industry.

Ren is brought up against other ragged survivors, many of whom are horribly dangerous, and one of whom is Toby’s old nemesis. Ren is tough, but she needs help. Ren and Toby come together, they will need all their strength and ingenuity to survive the hostile environment that they are now living in.

I must admit that Toby’s story was my favourite of the two, the life she lived with the gardeners, one I almost started to envy. She learns the way of plants and how to talk to bees – she’s a survivor and someone I would want on my side.

I don’t really want to say too much more about the plot of this one, but oh my what an imagination. Nothing is so far fetched that it isn’t immediately credible, although let’s hope not prophetic. Though Margaret Atwood has a talent I think for seeing where it is that humanity is going wrong and calling us out on it. She does so brilliantly here, and I can’t wait for book three.

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brother in ice

Translated from Catalan/Spanish by Mara Faye Letham

When this genre defying novel (?) first arrived from the Asymptote book club I had a flick through it, and somewhat confused, felt it might not be for me. Well I was wrong, we should never judge these things too quickly. Certainly, Brother in Ice took me a little outside my comfort zone, both in style and form but I found myself reading it quickly with great enjoyment. I was particularly fascinated by the way Alicia Kopf had chosen to structure her book, after a while it started to make sense. It all works wonderfully well, what an interesting writer this woman is.

Having won awards in both its Catalan and Spanish editions, this edition is published by And Other Stories.

“I placed my foot on very thin ice. First I slipped. Now I’m sinking…
Moments of sun alternate with gusts of pain and longing that cut through my chest with the whimper of a dog that’s been run over.”

polarexplorersPart research notes, part first person fictionalised account, part travelogue, Alicia Kopf uses the stories of famous polar explorations to explore her narrator’s family and coming of age. Our narrator becomes fascinated by the tales of these long-ago explorers, Shackleton, Peary, Admundsen, Cook and Scott, so throughout the book she scatters little bits of internet research about these men, their triumphs, controversies and failures. These are stories of heroism of survival and loss. We quickly get drawn into these often well-known stories that still have the ability to fascinate.

“My brother is a man trapped in ice. He looks at us through it; he is there and he is not there. Or more precisely, there is a fissure inside him that periodically freezes over. When he is present, his outline is more clearly defined; other times he’s submerged for a while.”

In the narrative sections our narrator explores her difficult, fragile family and her own artistic life. Like Kopf herself the narrator has an older brother who is on the autistic spectrum, although he remained undiagnosed until well into adulthood. She sees her brother as a man trapped in ice – and strives to understand how his mind might work. When he is tired he doesn’t go to bed unless he is told to, he needs to be told to do most things otherwise he remains frozen, trapped. Her mother is sometimes distant, caught up with her own work and caring for her son. Still processing her parents’ separation years earlier, our narrator is a thirtysomething artist, lurching through a series of unsuitable job and unsatisfying relationships.

“The desires frozen for lack of money or unrequited love are different from the ones we freeze because we’ve given up on them. The latter have the gleam of stoic heroism. Even though we might be renouncing our desires out of fear, and we’ll spend our lives blind, without feeling or seeing anything…On the other hand, if we obey our desires we could end up lost.”

She lives in an unnamed city, working in a cold, white studio – one of many metaphors for cold or ice. Later she travels to Iceland, and I must admit this was probably one of my favourite sections of the book, as I had a short holiday in Reykjavik in February 2017, and I am sure I will go back.

I couldn’t help but wonder where our narrator ended, and the author Alicia Kopf began, there is so much that feels autobiographical. I understood completely the author’s fascination with polar exploration and stories of survival – her use of these stories in exploring her unnamed narrator’s brother’s condition is surprisingly powerful. Kopf captures the mood of strained family relationships against the struggle of a woman searching for an artistic independence of her own.

My main reason for joining the Asymptote book club was to take me outside me comfort zone, and this book has done that brilliantly. I heartily recommend these subscriptions – book six has recently arrived and this time we shall be travelling to modern China with The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge – another English Pen Award winner published in English by Balestier Press.

 

 

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I first encountered Marghanita Laski at the old Castle Bookshop in Hay on Wye – outside bookshelves and an honesty box on the wall. I was known to go a little mad there and bought bedraggled copies of Jane Eyre in order to save her from the rain. On one visit a mighty twelve years ago, I found a book called The Village by Marghanita Laski (1952)– the name rang a faint bell – and the pretty green paper cover urged me to buy it. When I returned home, I realised I had bought an old 50s edition of a book now re-issued by Persephone books. I absolutely loved The Village – and later bought a Persephone edition to go with it. It is very much over-due a re-read. I went on to read all the other Laski novels re-issued by Persephone as well as her first novel, that they haven’t. My interest in re-reading The Village is now even greater having finished with huge enjoyment Persephone’s latest Laski issuing, Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right.

Like Love on the Supertax (1944) – a novel Persephone haven’t re-issued – and I suspect may not – Tory Heaven is a social and political satire. However, where Love on the Supertax is at times a little too Mitfordesque – Tory Heaven is merely sharp, wonderfully so. Here too Laski turns her observing eye on the British class system as she did in both The Village and Love on the Supertax. Those who come in for particular criticism (indirectly of course) are those members of upper class English society who resented the changes to their world and way of life that the Second World War particularly brought about. The world was changing forever, and they didn’t like it, and no doubt expressed their views loudly to anyone who would listen. This novel, it seems is Margahnita Laski’s reply.

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In his preface to this Persephone edition David Kynaston writes how in the immediate aftermath of the war and the election of Clement Atlee’s government many in the middle classes began to feel great discontent, no longer able to afford things they had taken for granted. They began, Kynaston tells us to want a return to the old sure Tory ways, that they had grown up with, with its strict social hierarchy.

The novel opens in 1945, five Britons have been stranded together for some years on an island in the Far East. They are a mixed bag, but have rubbed along fairly well together, despite a few petty jealousies and resentments. They manage to listen to the results of the 1945 General Election on the radio – and learn that a Socialist government has been elected. James, a traditional upper class young man is utterly horrified, as is Ughtred an elderly former civil servant, they can only imagine the world they will eventually arrive home to. Martin, a middle-class academic is delighted. Alongside these three are Penelope, the daughter of an Earl and Martin’s girlfriend, and Janice, a blonde beauty whose background no one seems to know much about. Having once managed to secure herself a double room at the Raffles Hotel, she generally comes up smelling of roses. James has had his eye on Janice – but she has made it quite clear she doesn’t return his interest. James offers up a kind of prayer that the dreaded socialists might be done away with.

‘“God, let it be as it might have been. Alter the clock, fix the election, do it any way you please, but let me see the England of all decent Conservatives’ dreams.”

The group are rescued and taken home to England by ship. Here is where Laski has played around with what actually did happen in the mid-1940s after the war – imagining not just a Tory victory but a whole new regime based upon returning the country to what certain sections of society would see as the ‘Good old days’ (ha! Any bells ringing?).

The Socialist government having collapsed almost immediately, a new hard-line Tory regime is in place as the five return to England.

Everyone in Britain has been graded along social lines, A, B, C, D, or E. Those granted coveted A status – are given everything they would want, bags of gold sovereigns, beautifully furnished rooms, complete with attentive butler. Bs are the middle classes, Cs the servants of A, including hairdressers and domestic servants, waiters etc, Ds are trade unionists, who don’t cause trouble as strikes are now illegal, Es are the odds and sods and hated intellectuals.

“‘The intellectuals.’ Ughtred continued, ‘apparently went delirious with organisation. They cut out the Light Programme of the BBC and substituted continuous editorial comment by Mr Kingsley Martin. They turned all the strip cartoons into illustrations of intellectual activity. They organised WEA lectures in every village hall and showed foreign films in every cinema…’”

When James is handed an A disc he is bemused at first, but over the next few days comes to realise what a wonderful world he has returned to. Fabulous, recently unheard-of food, enough credit to order his dream car, the promise that should he want a wife – one will be found for him. In the immediate chaos of his return to England James loses sight of his fellow island dwellers. However, in the company of Ughtred – another joyful A, James is destined to run into Martin, Penelope and Janice – and through them, and members of his own bemused and frightened family he is eventually forced to see things as they really are. On a visit to is parents his mother – always anxious that their butler/spy shouldn’t hear – explains…

““The Government want all ladies in my position to do a lot of charity, visit the poor with blankets and calves’ foot jelly and send them coals for the winter; in fact they issue us with special coals for the purpose. Well, of course, we’re only supposed to do charity to C’s, and there aren’t nearly as many C’s around here as there are A’s. We’re all supposed to go once a month and the consequence is, all the C’s are getting more blankets than they could possibly use. And as for the calves’ foot jelly – they just won’t touch it now they’ve tasted Heinz’s tomato soup.”

Knowing how many people will be reading this book in the coming months – I won’t say anymore about the plot. Laski is wonderfully witty, she makes her point without any need of a sledgehammer.

It is extraordinary how relevant a novel published in 1948 can still seem. I just hope no one buys Tory Heaven for Jacob Rees Mogg – it could very well give him ideas.

 

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