Posts Tagged ‘Diana Tutton’

With thanks to the British Library for the advance copy

Many of us I think discovered Diana Tutton only because of Simon at stuck in a book’s infectious enthusiasm for a book called Guard Your Daughters – cue everyone trying to get hold of copies. Fast forward a few years, and that has been reissued by Persephone books, and now we can read Simon’s afterword in a new edition of Diana Tutton’s Mamma. Of course, Mamma has been reissued by The British Library as part of their Women Writers series – a series I have come to especially love, it’s just so up my alley.

Mamma is rather different to Guard your Daughters, the central relationships perhaps just nudging the taboo. However, everything is quite held back emotionally, there’s a lot of subtlety which I appreciated. In fact, this novel has much more to say I think about the fifties society it depicts than it does about this potentially scandalous relationship.

The Mamma of the title is Joanna Malling – as the novel opens she has just moved to a new house – and though worn out with the effort, is looking forward to showing it off to her daughter Elizabeth who is coming to visit and help out. A letter has arrived from Elizabeth (often called Libby) which Joanna hadn’t time to read in the move, when she does she is surprised to find her daughter has got engaged to a man Joanna has as yet never met. Libby’s fiancé is a Major in the army, she is just twenty but Steven Pryde is thirty-five – a quite unusually large age gap.

Joanna was widowed when her daughter was a baby and despite thinking she might remarry never did. She is still only forty-one and has decided that really she should now be just quite happy to sink slowly and gracefully into old age. At forty-one!! To us in 2021 that really seems laughable – and yet in this we begin to see the way middle class societal expectations influenced women at this time. Joanna had been living as a widow for a long time, now with her daughter about to marry it was her turn to sink off into obscurity – it was the proper, suitable way of living. These class expectations and contradictions are everywhere in this novel – in the way other friends and relatives are portrayed and most fascinatingly in the way Joanna’s daily woman and her mother are portrayed. Joanna also realises with a shock that her relationship with her daughter will change, once she is a wife.

“But this young man whom Libby loved was, to her mother, more than a stranger. She felt his stolidity to be inimical, and knew that she would always feel it so. To think of Libby kissing him was an embarrassment from which her though recoiled, and it was desolation to realize that henceforth whatever passed between herself and her daughter would, if of interest, be recounted to Steven. From Janet the loyal Libby would keep a secret if asked, but to Steven, now, all her loyalty must be given, and it would be cruel to strain it.”

When Joanna and Steven first meet it’s not an instant success, though the love struck, excited Libby can’t see that. She insists that her husband-to-be comes up with a name to call his soon to be mother-in-law – and Mamma is what is decided upon, although the word is brought out rather awkwardly – Joanna is after all only six years older than Steven. Joanna wants nothing else than for her dear daughter to be happy, and she works hard at getting to know Steven and helping plan for the wedding. Libby of course is a good, young virginal bride, excited about being married, eager to show off her culinary prowess to her intended.

The marriage takes place just six weeks later and while Steven is waiting for a posting abroad the couple are temporarily homeless. With housing shortages in the neighbourhood and Stephen working nearby Libby and Steven move in with Joanna.

There’s the inevitable shifting around trying to accommodate everyone’s needs and Joanna is particularly sensitive to that. However, soon the three have settled into a comfortable routine in the evenings when Steven comes home. Libby – or Elizabeth (sometimes Liz) as Steven calls her is very happy, she is also very young and rather naïve – she makes small, unimportant errors and her mother sees them – and whenever she can she tries to smooth out any ruffles. The problem is that it soon becomes clear to everyone but the new bride that Steven and Joanna have far more in common – they are on the same wavelength, their experiences during the war were not so dissimilar. This rather toe-curling exchange when Elizabeth wants to put some photographs in the drawing room.

“‘Darling,” said Steven, “have you got a morbid craving to see your own face all over your own drawing room?” Elizabeth seemed thoroughly taken aback.” I – I thought you’d want it there!” “But I don’t. I detest big photographs.” “But – but everyone has their photographs in their drawing rooms!” “Do they?” said Steven thoughtlessly. “How extremely suburban!” Elizabeth blushed violently, and Joanna hurried to give her some support, although as it happened she entirely agreed with Steven.’”

Libby had expected to be able to make a few little changes to her man – the curtailing of his moustache for one – and is hurt when her efforts are unrewarded, she fusses over him too much when he is ill and Joanna is upset to see her daughter struggling a little in her new role. However, Joanna and Steven are drawing just a little closer – and Joanna feels it – she worries about it – but can’t switch off her awakened feelings. It has been many years since she felt anything like this and everything she knows about her role is that now is the time to forget anything like that. Joanna adores her daughter first and foremost – and so must wrestle with these unexpected feelings as she becomes more torn between her desires and her loyalty to her daughter.

I loved this novel – and how in a quiet way it says so much about fifties society. I couldn’t help but wonder how a modern writer would have handled this plot – and I suspect it would have all got a bit dramatic and obvious – I prefer Tutton’s handling of it by far.

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In the unlikely event that it has passed you by – Persephone Books’ latest offerings are published this month, and one of them is Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton.

In 2012 Simon from Stuckinabook read a little-known book called Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton and blogged very enthusiastically about it. It was of course, a wonderful review, the kind that makes almost everyone want to read the book immediately. It almost seemed as if everyone wanted a copy of the book, and many of us immediately jumped online to get a copy. All the reasonable priced copies seemed to get snapped up, and soon the prices of second hand copies appeared to have risen. I just wasn’t fast enough – and was disappointed not to get a copy. A few months later a friend of mine on Librarything offered to send me her copy – she had read it and didn’t particularly want to keep it. I finally had the book – and read it eagerly.

cofNow, a short extract from my original review from 2013, is among others in the afterword to this new Persephone edition. So exciting to have my blog name in the back of a Persephone book, and such a lovely idea to gather together a myriad of voices from both modern bloggers and contemporary reviewers.

I include some highlights from my old review below – although I certainly feel I should re-read the book now. Oh, and yes, I am keeping hold of both copies.

Guard your daughters is a novel about five sisters and an unconventional slightly dysfunctional family at a time just after the Second World War. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Certainly, there is something familiar about this novel, it feels like something one has read before or should have read before, it is nostalgic somehow and familiar, yet at the same time is something of a new discovery.

The Harvey sisters are unconventional, unschooled and oddly named they have been brought up at quite some distance from the rest of the world. Living with their famous detective writer father, and their fragile mother, they have been one another’s friends – with hardly any experience of people outside their family. Pandora the eldest has recently married and moved away to London – and this change seems to highlight for the sisters the peculiarity of their lives. Our narrator is Morgan, the nineteen-year-old middle sister, a pianist with a keen imagination. The eldest of the sisters still at home, and next in age to Pandora, is Thisbe, a beautiful and sharply tongued poet. A year younger than Morgan, is eighteen-year-old Cressida, sensible and domesticated, she seems most keenly aware of the oddities in the Harvey’s existence. The youngest sister is fifteen-year-old Teresa, romantic and dreamy she is very much the baby of the family.

Coming back to visit her family after her marriage, Pandora fears for her sisters – fears they won’t be able to marry or have lives of their own. Her removal from the family has increased her unease of the way the sisters have been brought up.

With their parents existing very much in the background, the five sisters have made their own entertainment and learnt to look after themselves and one another really very well. Their father divides his time between his writing and his wife, who he dances attendance upon constantly ensuring she is not upset. This fragile absent mother is a strange character, at first, she appears merely cosseted and spoilt, her husband and daughters adoring her without question. The sisters have been sheltered from the world to a ridiculous degree, but when two seemingly eligible young men come into the sisters’ lives; their lack of social experience becomes obvious. However, there are darker undercurrents to this unconventional household. Throughout this novel, woven into the humorous and charming story of the relationship between five sisters – there is a definite shadow. For me there was always something unexplained, remaining unspoken till the end. This element is brilliantly done, well plotted it adds something quite special to what could have been a fairly ordinary story. Yet the story is not ordinary, it’s heart-warming, funny and memorable, and the final twist utterly brilliant.

diana tuttonIn the new Persephone Biannually, we are offered a tantalising glimpse of a sequel. I almost can’t bear knowing that it existed. Written in the late 1950s Unguarded Moments was never published – set seven years after the events in Guard your Daughters. I don’t know whether the manuscript still exists, and whether future publication is even possible – but oh, I want to read that so much it hurts!

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