Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘All Virago all august’

With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

I have written before about my feelings towards Angela Thirkell – how I want to like her more than I do, how I get more than a little irritated by her world view – her snobbery and casual xenophobia. So, I’ll not repeat myself – you can read some of my thoughts about her in my previous posts like Before Lunch, The Headmistress, The Brandons and others, I have now read quite a few Thirkell – like I say I really do want to like her. Growing Up is set in the middle of World War Two – and as many of you know I do like a wartime novel – (written during the period for preference). As it was All Virago All August too – I decided to give dear old Ange another go – and while she will always irritate me I have to say I did really enjoy this one.

Angela Thirkell was a prolific writer, her famous Barsetshire novels number nearly thirty. It would seem that Virago – for reasons best known to themselves I am sure – are publishing these Angela Thirkell novels out of order, and I have certainly not been reading them in order. There are characters in this novel who I am reliably informed appear in earlier novels in a younger and unmarried state – so if you are reading these novels in strict order there may be unwitting spoilers ahead.

Wartime or not Thirkell’s world is still very recognisably her own. Her class conscious snobbery is present – but is less objectionable. Her working class characters less infantilised than in previous novels, though their overflowing love and deference toward their ‘social superiors’ is hilariously unrealistic. I suppose what I would quite like to see – but never will – is a rabble rousing left wing character to come lurching down the village street loudly proclaiming the end of the class system – posting notices of union meetings on the lampposts.  

Wartime has brought change to Barsetshire and Beliers Priory is now a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. The Priory’s owners: Sir Henry and Lady Waring have moved themselves into the old servants’ quarters – which they are finding surprisingly comfortable and practical.

“Lady Waring sometimes wondered if she ought to be so comfortable, but as Sir Harry worked in town four days a week on matters connected with regimental charities, spent two days hard work on county jobs and was rarely free on Sundays, besides doing a good deal of the gardening, she hoped her comfort would be forgiven, wherever these things are judged, because it made a restful home for her husband.”

The hospital is run competently by Matron – who having lost her cat in an unfortunate shooting incident is given charge of a new kitten Winston – she is very much a cat person and enjoys extolling Winston’s virtues every chance she gets. There are some wonderfully entertaining characters in this novel, from the absurdly emotional Selina Crocket and her mother Nannie Allen to the gamekeeper Jasper who believes his grandmother returns from time to time in the form of a black hare and is determined to shoot her. Laura Morland and Dr Ford pop up when Laura gives a talk for the men at the hospital. Her son, Tony Morland now older and less annoying and in uniform also shows his face, and we see that poor Dr Ford has never really got over his dislike of the young man. Laura finds herself among a large gathering of fans as she comes to deliver her talk – and Matron explains carefully how she got one of the nurses’ uniforms wrong in a previous novel.

“Mrs Morland, in spite of her large and constant public, was always surprised, interested and pleased to hear than anyone had really read her books, though sometimes a little depressed by the way in which her friends lent their copy, to one another, and she took very seriously any technical criticism that came her way.”

The Waring’s niece Leslie arrives for a visit – she has not been well – and very much needs time to recover herself. Having worked in a hush-hush job with the navy she was torpedoed on the way home from America and her nerves are frayed from the experience and overwork. So, when the Warings are asked to house an intelligence officer and his wife, they agree with some reluctance. Their guests turn out to be Lydia and Noel Merton – and with them they bring a breath of fresh air – Lady Waring is soon enjoying Lydia’s company, and Leslie makes a great friend of her. Walking from the station to the Priory upon her arrival, Lydia was delighted to have bumped into another old friend – who is billeted nearby – and soon it seems as if the attentions of almost everyone locally are centred on Beliers Priory in one way or another.

This is a novel written at a time when the outcome of the war was still uncertain – there was still a lot of anxiety about for people with loved ones abroad. Both Leslie and Lydia have brothers serving abroad that they are desperate for news of – and we are reminded of the impact of war with the knowledge that Sir Henry and Lady Waring’s only son was killed in the First World War. Dunkirk is talked about with some reverence – and in the hospital now housed in Beliers Priory there are plenty of reminders of what war can mean. Wartime also brings new opportunities for women – both Lydia and Leslie have benefitted from the chance to do things they never would have done in peacetime. Neither of them really want to be idle – they wish to be useful and busy – and they both have a lot to offer.

Against the backdrop of war and all the uncertainty it brings Thirkell tells a story of a community coming together – a little romance and perhaps just a bit of hope for the future – all being well.

Read Full Post »

The Last of Summer was Kate O’Brien’s sixth novel, written during the Second World War it concerns those last few weeks of the summer that lead to the break out of hostilities between Great Britain and Germany. It is clearly a novel written by an author in full control of their craft, setting and characterisation are quite perfect, tense, and claustrophobic atmospheres spine tingling in their realness. There is not a huge amount of plot in this novel – and there doesn’t need to be – there is so much to enjoy for its own sake. To read this novel is like taking a slow, meandering walk on a late summer evening through the twisting lanes of a new and unexplored place.

The novel opens as our heroine Angèle Maury arrives at the station of Drumaninch, she asks directions of the porter there – before setting off to walk to the home of her aunt by marriage that she has never met.

Angèle, a young French actress, had been travelling in Ireland with friends when she decide to cut them loose and go instead to the family home of her dead father. Maury is a stage name – her name by rights is Kernahan like that of the people at Waterpark house. Waterpark house is the big house of the district – one in which many of the locals take something of an interest. Angèle arrives unexpected and unlooked for and for one person at least, unwelcome – most of the family at Waterpark house unaware even of her existence.

“…there were people, female shapes, in the semi-circular embrasure of an enormous, outflung window. The girl advanced towards two blurred heads, half-closing her eyes. The northerly aspect of the entrance façade, with its sober ilex trees, had seemed almost cold, had indeed suggested a somewhat menacing detachment from the bright day; the hall and the maidservant’s voice had been cool and almost friendly, and unsteadied her.

‘What’s that you’re raving about Delia? The children’s cousin – from France, did I hear you say?’ The voice was chuckly and uneducated. A civilised and soft one answered it lightly.

‘You did Dotey. You heard her say it.’

The latter speaker extended a pretty hand, with a silver thimble on the middle finger, towards Angèle.

‘This is unexpected’ she said amiably.”

Angèle’s father was Tom Kernahan – one of three brothers. Waterpark house is now ruled over by Hannah Kernahan the widow of Ned, Tom’s brother. Now she is assisted by her eldest son, also called Tom. Tom is very much the golden child of the family, the heir and the eldest son, the expectations of the family and the locals lay heavy on his shoulders. Also living at Waterpark house are Tom’s two younger siblings; charming Martin and Jo, who likes to gamble but has pretty much decided to enter into the religious life, their mother’s impoverished cousin Dotey and the lovably ridiculous Uncle Corney – the last of those three brothers.

It transpires that Hannah was the only member of the household who knew of Angèle’s existence but had never seen fit to share her knowledge with the rest of the family. Angèle’s father had left the family home more than twenty-five years earlier – gone to France and married a French actress, and it seems thought no more of by his family in Ireland. Now his daughter is alone – her mother also dead – and she arrives at Waterpark house wishing to make some kind of sense of the past. Hannah is very much the matriarch here – her world is one of certainty and order – we see her often through the eyes of others, variously, a saint, a martyr, and a steely eyed arranger of how things should be. Into this world comes the young, pale exotic French beauty that is Angèle Maury daughter of an exiled father and her actress mother – she can’t help but disrupt this closed, ordered little world immediately. The reader senses early on a certain kind of fire in Hannah – a woman capable of fighting to keep her world the way she sees it.

Angèle is swept up immediately by her cousins, especially Martin and Jo, who want to know all about her and have her stay the whole summer. Tom initially stands at something of a distance, yet he too is clearly very affected by her arrival. Uncle Corney is charmed beyond reason by Angèle, and Dotey takes all her direction from Hannah – who is altogether harder to read. In the coming days Angèle is introduced to some of the locals, who take a great interest in her presence – and speculate about her and Tom from the beginning. There is plenty of time to get to know her new family on long summer days at Waterpark house and on a day out to Carahone – with its amusements, merry-go-rounds, aunt sallies and brass bands. Within days Martin has fallen in love with Angèle, and Angèle and Tom with one another.

“Tom turned from the window swiftly when he heard the tone of her voice.

‘I’ve been asleep a long time, I think,’ he said, and he spoke fast now and his voice shook. ‘In a way, I’ve never been awake. But since you came, since I saw you – and all today – I see. I used to love all this’ – he looked about him as if at things that were strange to him – ‘as if it were life, as if it were the whole of things. And now, if you weren’t here, if you were to go, it would be meaningless. I see that you’re the reason for it all – and that you are a part of it for me now, and that I must give it all to you and keep you here.”

All these brooding family tensions exist within a world of anxiety, raising tensions in Europe – everyone gathered round the radio for the night time news. What will war mean for the men of this Irish household? – will they go to fight for the British or not? And what will war mean for Angèle’s beloved France and her mother’s family who are all in Paris?

The Last of Summer is a slow, intense read – very beautifully written it captures perfectly a particular time and place.

Read Full Post »

Translated from French by Francis Golffing*

Sitting down to write this review and it suddenly seems to be a very long time snice I read the book – it is about 2 weeks. I really should be better organised with reviews – and make proper notes.

A Fine of Two Hundred Francs is a book of four stories – one of them the length of a novella – each telling tales of French resistance. Written at around the time theses events would have been happening, these stories are an incredible chronicle of a unique period in French history. However, the woman behind these stories is herself a fascinating figure. Russian born Elsa Triolet was an author and essayist of many books as well as a translator of Russian literature. She emigrated to France on her marriage in 1918 and was later decorated for her heroic role in the French resistance. She was a major literary and political figure in Europe – the first woman to win the Prix-Goncourt and became a peace activist after the war.

These stories were originally published illegally – the title of the final story and the collection is taken from the code used to signal the Allied landings in Normandy.

The Lovers of Avignon tells the story of Juliette Noël a beautiful young typist who lives in Lyons with her beloved aunt and the young Spanish boy she recently adopted. The war is a big disrupter of family life however, and following the death of her brother, Juliette has become involved with the resistance. She is asked to go to Avignon, an important message must be delivered – it is risky – but Juliette shrugs away the danger – telling her aunt and the child she will be home soon. In Avignon she meets Celestin – the man she is tasked with connecting with. It is Christmas time, and they have a few precious hours to spend together – pretending to be lovers – walking the ancient walls of Avignon reading the inscriptions left by recent real lovers in the years before the war.

“They had Christmas dinner in a restaurant. The whole country had made a desperate effort to dine well, or merely to dine, this Christmas. They ate Turkey with chestnuts. The waitress wore a starched apron. There were carnations on the table, bits of mistletoe overhead, and a little Christmas tree in the corner. The room was heated, and the garden behind the windows was celebrating Christmas. When they had finished their coffee they went up to Fort Saint-André.”

I think many of us can appreciate the poignancy of trying to make things as normal as possible during times that are anything but normal.

When Juliette returns to Lyons it isn’t long before she is faced with real potential danger – when Celestin turns up again. The fear here is palpable, the sense of being watched of everything being at risk.

The longest of the four stories is The Private Life of Alexis Slavsky and it isn’t until late into the story that any mention of the resistance is made at all. This is the story of an artist – drifting from Montparnasse to Lyons to the Alps – often in the company of his wife Henriette, he must hide his Jewish blood (a grandmother) while he attempts desperately to ignore much of what is happening around him and continue with his work. His bohemian lifestyle is little suited to wartime, and Alexis is often an irritated and frustrated man. Elsa Triolet is said to have based this character on Henri Matisse who apparently complained about the interruption to his work the war brought. Alexis continues to drift through France and through these days of war, he manages to have an affair – an infatuation that hurts Henriette a good deal before his eyes are finally opened to what is happening all around him, the risks that others are taking so that people like him can be safe. The woman who helps open his eyes is Louise – a journalist he knew in Paris, now working with the resistance. Part of Louise’s story is told in the next story in the collection.  

In Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree Louise, who we met towards the end of the previous story, has survived Nazi interrogation, and even escaped from a concentration camp. She is now lying low, at a safe house in the French countryside waiting to re-join the maquis. Louise passes the time reminiscing about her childhood in Russia, recalling her relationship with her mother and sister- and the world of their childhood. It’s a wonderful portrait and one I suspect is quite autobiographical, like Triolet, Louise writes her thoughts and memories in a notebook and buries them for safety under a peach tree when the time comes for her to leave.

The final story, termed the epilogue – A Fine of Two Hundred Francs is also the shortest piece. Like the previous three stories though it is rich in detail and enormously atmospheric. The story recreates the action that was undertaken when that code was broadcast on the radios that were being listened to in secret all over France. A small village in France and the resistance are ready for action, there is a parachute drop and everyone is ready to do their part. The Germans retreat but only after having left a trail of devastation and violence in their wake. The villagers suffer terrible reprisals for their resistance and Triolet brilliantly portrays the shocking realities of these times for ordinary people.

“They left havoc behind them; yawning doors, windows smashed by rifle butts. Everyone suffered his share: those who liked the Boches and those who didn’t, those who had ‘nothing to reproach themselves for’, and those who had.”

Throughout this book Elsa Triolet reveals a reality that can only come from someone who was there. It is an extraordinary testament to war and the unbelievable courage of those who were caught up in the occupation. I couldn’t help but wonder – what would I have done? Who would I have been?

* The translator is unacknowledged in my old VMC edition, so I took to Twitter to ask for help. Francis Golffing was the name suggested to me – and it looks probable it was. *

Read Full Post »

Translated from Yiddish by Maurice Carr

I started my WIT reading early, so that I could get some reviews out at the beginning of the month. My first read for WIT is a VMC, ticking off All Virago All August too. Deborah is a highly autobiographical novel by Esther Kreitman the sister of two more famous younger brothers;  Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer, both of them writers, Isaac was the writer of Yentil and won the Nobel prize in literature.

Born Hinde Esther Singer into a rabbinical Jewish family in Poland in 1891. She apparently had an unhappy childhood; her mother disappointed her first child was a girl handed her over to a wet nurse for three years. Like her heroine Deborah she submitted to an arranged marriage and moved to Antwerp. Sadly, there appears to have been some division between Esther and her brothers, they decided not to offer help when she needed it and played no part in getting her work published in Yiddish journals. Her life, and that of her brothers seems to have been quite different. Having read the introduction by Clive Sinclair – it is possible to see a lot of Esther in Deborah.

The novel is set in the early part of the twentieth century (the novel ends around the start of WW1) – as the novel opens Deborah is fourteen. She is living with her parents; the unworldly, rather feckless rabbi Reb Avram Ber, his wife Raizela who is often sickly and her brother Michael. The family are living in a small Jewish village in Poland – the community here speak Yiddish rather than Polish, Reb Avram Ber is the rabbi – the family are poor, and life is very hard. The novel gets off to a pretty slow start – but the portrait of this community is instantly vivid – and I sensed this would be worth sticking with and it is, I was soon drawn into a novel in which in some ways little happens. Deborah is a bright girl, imaginative and romantic she longs for the kind of education preserved for boys, but her fate is to stay at home, to help her mother in domestic tasks, and be content with that.

In a bid for a better life – the family move twice, Reb Avram Ber taking up new appointments that he believes will enhance his family’s fortunes. The first takes them to R- (that’s as close we get to a name) – where Reb Avram Ber takes up a position in a school that is part of a Tsadik’s (spiritual leader) court.

“Deborah found more variety in life than ever she had done in Jelhitz. There the days used to pass with a great sense of security, with no expectancy of strange things to come; from morning to night and from night to morning time used to go its irksome way with unbroken monotony. Now life was unsettled, harsh circumstances played havoc with it. Trouble and cares descended on the family from all quarters, came swarming in like vermin from the walls of a rotten building creeping forth from every chink, and each time one chink as stopped up, two others appeared in its place…”

Life here is not any easier – the Tsadik’s promises seem empty ones, and often the family are left with no money. When freed from her duties, Deborah watches the students hurry across the courtyard coming to and from the school where her father is employed, and it is in this way she first catches sight of Simon – whose name she will not learn for some time. Disillusioned by their experiences in R- they family move again – this time to Warsaw.

Deborah has begun to grow up – she sees the world differently; her brother is allowed all the freedoms denied to her – and she longs to better get to know this city she is living in the midst of. Her father is asked to pass judgement on all kinds of spiritual and family difficulties that are brought to his door – including divorcing a gangster’s wayward daughter from her furious young husband. It is in Warsaw that Deborah begins to understand more about the inequalities in her world – she finds socialism and a group of young radicals, who inspire her. Amazingly, she meets again that student from R- Simon, with whom she falls hopelessly and silently in love with. It is not to be however, and Deborah is heartbroken. Numbed and hardly knowing what she is doing, she agrees to an arranged marriage to a young man in Antwerp – we sense that this will not be the happy ever after that Deborah deserves.

“When they presented Deborah with a long, golden chain and hung it round her neck, she shivered at the touch of the cold metal and at the thought that the most vicious of dogs might safely be tied up with a chain such as this.”

I can’t say too much more about what happens to Deborah from here – but the ending of the novel is powerful – heralding the horrors that were already unfolding in Europe when Esther Kreitman was writing and that would get worse.

Deborah is a vivid and poignant story of a world which we might not see very often in literature, her characters are real – and we know they came from life. Esther Kreitman writes with an unsurprising anger for the wasted lives and the horrifying fate that awaited so many of her community. It is a book that deserves to be better known than I believe it is.

Read Full Post »

cof

It’s September already – well August always does fly by.

It’s been a lovely summer, but Monday sees a return to work, and a return to less reading time and blogging time. I always take a couple of weeks to settle back into the routine.

I have read a fair bit during August, the number of books is perhaps not much greater than usual, but I feel as if I have read a few fatter books. The Muriel Spark Complete stories of course was in last month’s photo too, I read almost half of it during July, and in August read the second half.

August is both Women in Translation month and All Virago all August, and so I was happily juggling books for both challenges.

Open the Door by Catherine Carswell was my first VMC of the month, I read while I was on a short break in Belgium. Open the Door! Is the story of a young woman’s awakening, her search for love, independence and happiness is brilliantly and compellingly told. Joanna is both trapped and in time released by her large capacity for love.

New Islands by Maria Luisa Bombal is a small collection of stories from the most creative period of the Chilean author. A couple of the stories are rather strange, but I still enjoyed them.

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers is a novel about a man who escapes from a concentration camp in Germany in the late 1930s. However, it is also about a lot more than that, showing us exactly what life in Germany was like for ordinary people. It seems timely indeed that this German classic has been reissued now.

Sisters by a River was Barbara Comyns first novel, one which gave me a lot to think about, as Comyns light, bright, breezy tone is very deceptive, behind the humour there is a lot that is really rather dark. Comyns wraps that darkness in witty anecdotes, that rather belie some of the content.

The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart is a novel about mothers and daughter and the legacy of slavery, set on the lush island of Guadeloupe. It was chosen by my book group (my suggestion) and we will meet to discuss the week after next.

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell – is an enjoyable social comedy written in that last year of peace. It was a deliciously witty bit of escapism.

I found David Golder by Irène Némirovsky to be fascinating – it has been viewed as quite a controversial novel – which now having read it I understand. I enjoyed it though, and the novel gave me a lot to think about, Irène Némirovsky was an interesting and complex woman.

My kindle which is peeping out from among the real books above I took on a trip to the Isle of Wight, having been reminded of poor hotel lighting when I was in Belgium. I read The Night Watch by Sarah Waters – a novel of considerably more than 500 pages – it zips along art a cracking pace and is so well written with excellent period detail. I am reminded I must read more by her.

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim is the follow up to her first novel Elizabeth and her German Garden and is really every bit as wonderful and life affirming.

Love, Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet is a Haitian triptych. Three novellas, which I still have to review, which were powerful, disturbing and quite compelling.

cofI have started reading a book I bought ages ago from a charity shop (I think) called Summers Day by Mary Bell (1951) – a book published by Greyladies. I really could find virtually no information about either the novel or the author (the name being shared by a notorious British child killer). I came across this piece on Furrowed Middlebrow’s site about the author – which interested me.

September is the start of phase 5 of #ReadingMuriel2018 – and I have three Spark novels to read over the next two months. Apart from that I haven’t made any reading plans, although I need to concentrate on my ACOB – I have precisely thirty years to go. I may just do it! Though a couple of recent purchases might distract me from that, two beautiful looking new books that I really want to read.

cof

I read some excellent things in August, and as always would love to hear what you read.

Happy September reading.

Read Full Post »

mde

Today has been declared Elizabeth von Arnim day by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock in her year long celebration of underappreciated lady authors. I have read quite a number of von Arnim novels, I love her voice so much. One of her most famous books of course is Elizabeth and her German Garden, which was published anonymously in 1898. EvA went on to write two more ‘Elizabeth’ books – The Solitary Summer and The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904). I don’t suppose it matters which order one reads these books, and in fact I read The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen a couple of years ago.

In many ways there is very little to say about The Solitary Summer – so you may be glad to hear that this post is likely to be fairly short.

“What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden.”

The Solitary Summer was a delightful little read, in the company of Elizabeth, The Man of Wrath, the April, May and June babies we spend the summer in the German countryside. Here, Elizabeth assures her doubting husband that she wants nothing more than to spend a summer alone – alone meaning no visitors, her husband and children will have to be present. Yet, Elizabeth longs to be free from the constant whirl of polite society.

“May 2nd. Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes.”

However, Elizabeth’s alone – is not quite my alone – and neither is it quite what she had envisaged. Aside from The Man of Wrath and the April, May and June babies, there is the governess, the gardener and a new parson to be appointed to her husband’s living. Toward the end of the summer – much to poor Elizabeth’s exasperation, there is a soldier, a lieutenant staying in her house – a man she exhausts herself just trying to avoid.

Elizabeth glories in her garden, realising she has made mistakes in the past – she takes her husband’s advice and employs a new gardener – and soon she is glorying in her larkspurs and roses. She sneaks out of the house early before anyone is awake, and glories in her garden as it wakes.

“Here was the world wide-awake and yet only for me, all the fresh pure air only for me, all the fragrance breathed only by me, not a living soul hearing the nightingale but me, the sun in a few moments coming up to warm only me.”

the solitart summer

When the children don’t need occupying, or even when they do, there are forest walks to be enjoyed and mud banks to be scrambled down. When it is raining, Elizabeth has her books, her wants are really very simple, and very restful. Her joy in the simple things is really quite infectious. Unfortunately, my garden doesn’t inspire quite the same feelings in me and would take precisely 37 seconds to walk around.

In the company of Elizabeth, we meet the poor women of the village who are too afraid of cold/dirt to let their babies go out of doors. This allows us a (not entirely comfortable) glimpse of the different levels of German society. However, Elizabeth von Arnim is a wonderful observer of people, as always, she is warm, witty and wise – and I continue to love her writing very much.

“If one believed in angels one would feel that they must love us best when we are asleep and cannot hurt each other; and what a mercy it is that once in every twenty-four hours we are too utterly weary to go on being unkind.”

We realise in time, that Elizabeth does indeed love her Man of Wrath, he is even more affectionately portrayed in this book than in German Garden. Elizabeth seems happiest in her garden with her babies under the summer sunshine, and soldiers, parsons, husbands and babies apart – she did manage to get a more or less solitary summer.

Read Full Post »

cof

I have now read several Angela Thirkell novels, and it would be fair to say I have had an on and off relationship with them. True, I have criticised her a bit – I not keen on her class consciousness, and I do think she infantilises her working-class characters especially domestic servants. However, even in those novels I have criticised in the past, there were things I really enjoyed too. I like her humour very much, her world (did it ever exist? – I think probably not in quite this way) is one it is rather comforting to spend a little time. We are always pretty much assured of a happy ending – and there are moments when we need such assurances.

Before Lunch was included in a marvellous and hugely generous Librarything Virago group secret Santa parcel last Christmas, and it has also served to nicely tick off 1939 in my A Century of Books. Before Lunch joins that group of Angela Thirkell novels I can honestly say I enjoyed. The class stuff is still present – I’ve come to expect it – though I don’t believe there is anything cruel behind it. I think Angela Thirkell must have been a product of her own upbringing and class – and isn’t it nicer to believe that all domestic staff are slavishly devoted to their masters than the reverse?

Anyhow – on with the book. It has a quite unashamedly nostalgic feel, English rural life, where everyone knew their place in the world. Published of course during that last year of peace, Before Lunch reflects a time of small worries and long summer days.

Jack Middleton is a difficult man, rather garrulous and fussy and a little too fond of his dog Flora, he has lots of funny little ways. Luckily his wife Catherine Middleton is able to put up him with quite easily and adores him.

“‘I am glad you can tolerate me as I am,’ said Mr Middleton, still suspicious, ‘for at my age it is very improbable that I shall change. Had I been a younger man when you married me, Catherine, a man more suited to you in age, you might have remoulded my life, shaped me again to your liking. But you took pity on an ageing wreck, your young life twined itself round the rugged roots of a storm-shattered tree, and I cannot alter my way of living, I cannot change my spots.’
‘I do love the way you say everything twice over,’ said Mrs Middleton, ‘and I would hate you to change your spots. What were you calling me for?’
Mr Middleton’s impressive face dissolved in a flash and became as formless as water.
‘I called you because I needed you,’ he said suddenly becoming a heartbroken child. ‘I called you once and you did not come.”

The Middletons rent their very comfortable country home from Lord Bond, the White House next door forms part of the estate and is currently unoccupied. Jack Middleton’s widowed sister; Lilian Stonor, intends to spend the summer at the White House, bringing her grown up stepchildren Denis and Daphne with her. Jack’s equilibrium is somewhat shaken at this news, remembering only too well Daphne’s lively enthusiasm and Denis’s apparent sickliness, which depressed him a bit.

When the three arrive, they soon make themselves at home, quickly becoming a part of local village life. Jack’s business partner Alister Cameron is another frequent guest, charmed especially by the presence of the Stonors, he finds Daphne to be delightful company – though he is closer to Lilian in age. Denis is pale and tired, but the good country air does him the world of good, and allow him to get on with his music, he is writing a ballet – and forms a tender friendship with Catherine, which threatens to leave them both a little heartsore.

Lady Bond gives Daphne a little bit of work typing her correspondence, and this brings her into contact with Cedric – aka C W; Lord and Lady Bond’s son and heir. So, Daphne likes C W, Alister likes Daphne, Lilian is starting to see Alister Cameron in a new light but wants her adored step children to be happy. Daphne hears lots of talk about C W and a certain Betty Dean. Catherine loves her husband and is a little shaken by dear Denis, who is so sympathetic towards her. Cue lots of misunderstandings, tears and sulks before everybody gets together with the right person.

Denis delights old Lord Bond by playing Gilbert and Sullivan for him, and Daphne deals rather well with Spencer the butler who Lord Bond is rather bullied by. Lady Bond is hilarious in a managing kind of way, enjoying calling village meetings to fight against the scandalous intention of Sir Ogilvy Hibberd to build a garage on Pooker’s Piece. A meeting is held to discuss the meeting they will hold to discuss the proposal, and nothing whatever is achieved. Jack Middleton talks a lot about cows, and Lady Bond’s brother Lord Stoke, irritates his sister to distraction, taking the chair without asking and leaving suddenly. It is all very funny and sharply observed.

Before Lunch is a delightful social comedy, which zips along at a cracking pace. It was a perfect quick, comfort read which gave me quite a lot to chuckle over.

Read Full Post »

cof

I love Barbara Comyns writing, her way of looking at the world, is deliciously eccentric. My favourite to date is probably The Juniper Tree – a book I couldn’t stop thinking about. When reading Comyns – one can’t help but wonder where her rather skewed view of the world came from. Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns’ debut novel gives us something of an idea. Although described as a novel, Sister by a River has the taint of memoir about it as Comyns used her first novel to tell the story of her childhood.

It is a story of chaos, genteel poverty, sibling squabbles, unsuitable governesses and antics on the river running past the family home. Her childhood was obviously quite extraordinary. It’s hard to know if Comyns viewed any part of it as happy – but it quite clearly informed her writing and ignited her imagination.

“When we were very young people would sometimes forbid us to play on the path that ran by the river, but it didn’t make any difference, we always did. We used to fall in but were never completely drowned, the village children often were though. There was a family called Drinkwater and no less than five of them were drowned, they were a very poor family, the mother was very handsome and fierce looking, with a figure rather like a withie, which was quite suitable because she stripped the withies on the river bank as her living, most of the village women did and after they were stripped they were made into baskets and cradels.”

(NB spelling errors in quotes entirely deliberate)

The novel is narrated by young Barbara – we see the world through her eyes, and in her words and with her own sometimes eccentric spelling. This narration is odd at times, it is much more like that of an adult recalling childhood than a child themselves.

Barbara is one of six sisters – though one doesn’t appear in the story, as she wouldn’t like it. Told in a series of usually short chapters and vignettes, with titles like – Aunts Arriving, God in the Billiard Room, It wasn’t Nice in the Dressing Room and Mice and Owls, Comyns recreates a childhood full of unreliable adults and the animals that fall foul of them. It is a story that is colourful and strange, told with humour and some affection.

“Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsofilia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’ which was a favourite expression.”

However, Comyns’ light, bright, breezy tone is very deceptive, behind the humour there is a lot that is really rather dark. Comyns wraps that darkness in witty anecdotes but that is her way of talking about times which must have been frequently alarming, unpredictable and sometimes violent, which she is oddly matter of fact about, it’s her way of highlighting an upbringing that must have at times taken its toll.

Barbara’s parents were generally responsible for the violence – towards one another or unwanted animals, they are neglectful and inconsistent allowing the children to run pretty wild. There are plenty of disturbing events, her father threatens to shoot himself, a local child drowns in the river. Barbara’s mother, who went deaf following the birth of her sixth daughter, is vague, their father frequently bad tempered and beset by money worries.

“One evening we elder ones returned rather late after a visit to the cinema, we were all kind of in a coma, degesting the film we had just seen, but we were soon rudely awakened, there was an awful uproar, Mammy was screaming and crying in the morning-room, and Daddy bellowing away like a bull, as we came into the room he hurried out without speaking to us, he locked himself in the billiard-room, always his stronghold during rows. Mammy was in the most frightful state, it was difficult to make out what had happened, she seemed almost crazy, and I felt all sick.”

sistersby a riverThe household reminded me of the Mitfords, though maybe the Mitfords were less dysfunctional. There are unattractive aunts, a messy grandmother whose bedroom smelt of vinegar. None of the adults seem to have much going for them. The elder sister Mary bullies the other sisters badly and Barbara grows up closest to her sister Beatrix. Childhood ends as it must, crashing to a sudden halt when tragedy strikes.

Comyns storytelling is much more than her quirky, humorous anecdotes might have us believe. This is a quick engaging read, not my favourite Comyns but one I couldn’t help thinking a lot about. What, strange and frightening days of childhood lie behind this novel?

Read Full Post »

open the door

My first book for August and the Virago group’s All Virago all August was Open the Door! By Catherine Carswell. It accompanied me on a short trip to Belgium – which was lovely – but during which I didn’t get a huge amount of reading time. Another thing about travelling – and why do I always forget this – but the ‘mood’ lighting in hotels is not good for readers. I really should always take my kindle which at least has its own back light.

Anyway, on with the book – which I thoroughly enjoyed – the kind of novel I think of being ‘a proper Virgo book.’

The author of Open the Door! published only one other novel, like the heroine of this novel she was born in Glasgow. This her first novel is apparently very autobiographical. In the company of Joanna Bannerman – who we follow from childhood to when she is thirty years old – we visit, Edinburgh, London and Italy. Joanna is a brilliantly drawn character, I have seen a couple of reviews of this book, saying she was an unsympathetic character, I didn’t think so. Joanna is flawed – she makes some selfish decisions, but she is warm – craves love and is capable of great kindness. Aren’t we all capable of small acts of selfishness? We all hide from the world our little vanities and caprices, but they make us human, and Catherine Carswell shows us the truth of this in her character of Joanna Bannerman particularly, but in all her characters.

“She was poised and keen, a hawk in mid-air, a speck of perfect bliss upheld in perfection of readiness for the predatory swoop”

As the novel opens it is 1896, Joanna her older sister Georgie, and younger brothers Linnet and Sholto are accompanying their mother Juley on a dreaded visit to their Edinburgh relatives. Juley is a little vague and a little disorganised, even then, she relies on her children to help her organise themselves. As the years pass she will come to lean on her children more and more, while also wanting to retain some control of the household affairs. Juley is another wonderfully drawn, complex character.

This Edinburgh visit is especially memorable, for it is here that the family first learn that the children’s father has died suddenly of pneumonia. The Bannerman children have been brought up within a religious evangelical environment, and the children’s mother Juley – is a particularly strident believer – though she changes churches regularly. There is one last family holiday at their holiday cottage in Duntarvie a place of rural perfection and happiness for Joanna that she is destined to carry with her through life.

As she grows older, the artistic Joanna begins to pull against the conventionalities of this evangelical Glasgow life. She seeks life with a great energy and passion – longs to free herself of the restrictions of her background. Her studies at the School of Art open new horizons for Joanna – she is ready to grab at life and eager for love. She enters into a sudden failed engagement, and then shortly afterwards marries a man she barely knows, an Italian, Mario. She leaves everything she knows and travels to Italy, with her new husband, experiencing sex for the first time, and is less than impressed.

‘This droll device, this astonishing, grotesque experience was what the poets had sung of since the beginning’.

Mario seeks to control her, imprisoning her within the walls of his home, with his own personal wardress watching Joanna – Maddalena his devoted sister.
Thankfully, it isn’t long before Joanna is free again, and back in Glasgow, living again with her mother and siblings. Her dream though is to go to London. She surrounds herself with artistic, interesting friends and lovers including Phemie, Lawrence and the much older, married Louis Pender.

“Ah, how remorselessly the stream swept away all the debris of winter it could reach! As Joanna watched it in fascination she was one with it, and she rejoiced. Her life – was it not as that flood? Was it not muddy, littered, unlike the life she have imagined or chosen? But it was a life. It moved.”

mdeJoanna finds employment and happiness in London, living in two small rooms in the home of a family whose disabled children she becomes particularly fond of. Holidays are spent in Scotland with the family, but in London there is always Louis Pender – her married lover. Louis will never leave his wife, they will always be subject to the little lies and intrigues of an affair – and in time these begin to tell on both of them. Will Joanna ever find the loving fulfilment she craves?

Open the Door! Is the story of a young woman’s awakening, her search for love, independence and happiness is brilliantly and compellingly told. Joanna is both trapped and in time released by her large capacity for love.

Read Full Post »

IMG_20170910_105310

It seems I am a little behind, the 10th of September and I am only just reviewing my final book of August.

The Vet’s Daughter is only the second book by Barbara Comyns that I’ve read, the other being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which is a wonderfully quirky, slightly sad little book. Comyns is an interesting writer, her prose is very readable, deceptively simple, yet her stories are visionary and unusual, combining realism and a little surrealism. As a reader one detects a sparkling, lively imagination. Having read the author’s own introduction this Virago edition, I think I can see where this strange slightly out of kilter world comes from.

“I was born in Warwickshire in a house on the banks of the Avon and was one of six children. Our father was a semi-retired managing director of a midland chemical firm. He was an impatient, violent man, alternately spoiling and frightening us. Our mother was many years younger and lived the life of an invalid most of the time. I remember her best lying in a shaded hammock on the lawns, reading and eating cherries, which she was inordinately fond of, or in the winter sitting by the morning-room fire and opening and shutting her hands before the blaze as if to store the heat. Her pet monkey sitting on the fender would be doing the same.”
(Barbara Comyns in her introduction to The Vet’s Daughter 1980)

I loved the opening of the novel, which serves to pull the reader immediately into the world of Alice Rowlands, our unforgettable narrator.

“A man with small eyes and ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need of me to say and I saw he was a poor broken down creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee caps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me.’ And left this poor man among the privet hedges.”

Alice is of course the vet’s daughter of the title, and her home life is dominated by her father, a cruel bullying man subject to sudden rages of temper. Alice by comparison to her father is a gentle innocent, her mother cowed by her marriage is very sick, and we know immediately she won’t last long, and Alice will be left alone with her unpredictable father. The house has a dark, sinister atmosphere – and when (on page 6) her father sells a sack of furry creatures – brought to him to be destroyed – to a vivisectionist, the reader can be in no doubt about what kind of man Alice’s father is. Alice’s life is lonely, restrictively dull and uneducated. She longs for romance – for a different life away from her father.

“Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once. Perhaps…”

The only kind person in the vet’s house following Alice’s mother’s death is Mrs Churchill, who works as cook, and with whom Alice spends more and more time. While Alice’s father is away for a few weeks the business of the vet’s surgery is taken care of by Henry Peebles, the first ever man to treat Alice with kindness and consideration. Alice calls him Blinkers to herself, and starts to meet him in secret after her father’s return.

Her father arrived home with a young blonde woman in tow; Rose Fisher – a barmaid from The Trumpet – Mrs Churchill is scandalised by the appearance of a woman she renames ‘the strumpet from the Trumpet.’ Rose claims she will be Mr Rowland’s housekeeper but it seems no one believes that little bit of deception for a second. Rose is an over confident, blowsy young woman, who soon at home at the vet’s house, seeks to re-make young Alice in her own image.

Alice is briefly rescued from her life with her father – by going to live as companion to Henry Peebles’ mother in the countryside. Mrs Peebles is marooned in her own home – terrified of the two servants who run her house to suit their own needs. Alice and Mrs Peebles become friends and Alice is determined to get Henry to dispense with the services of the sinister couple.

“In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me – and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought “I mustn’t break the gas glove”. I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.”

Alice’s world has been one of constant shocks, and during this turmoil Alice has discovered she a has strange ability – levitation – which over the coming months she practises with. It isn’t long before more change comes – this time to Mrs Peebles’ house, and Alice is obliged to return home to her father. When Mr Rowlands and Rose learn about Alice’s strange ability they seek to exploit it. Alice’s destiny leading to an extraordinary, and probably inevitable moment on Clapham Common.

I really loved this novel, and I am certainly determined to read more – I have a copy of Who was Changed and Who was Dead tbr.

barbara comyns

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »