Posts Tagged ‘Lettice Cooper’

One of the books on my original #20booksofsummer pile was National Provincial. It’s novel I had set aside for LT’s All Virago All August (Persephone books also count) it is one of the most recent reissues from Persephone books. At just over 600 pages I was also waiting for my summer holidays to read it.

Ever since I first read South Riding by Winifred Holtby I have been searching for another novel with similar themes. National Provincial ticked all the boxes I wanted it to. A novel of Northern politics, social class and subtle feminism, I loved it. It definitely embraces many of the themes explored two years before by Winifred Holtby and also by Elizabeth Gaskell almost a century earlier. There is a large cast of characters and several story strands – I could probably write far, far too much about them all.

In the mid-1930s the (fictional) city of Aire in the West Riding of Yorkshire, people are divided very much along political and social class lines. The middle classes are staunchly Conservative and have been for years, some families more liberal than others. The working classes have always been Labour. Not everything has stayed the same, some men like factory boss Ward brought up in poverty have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and now own the works that employ many of the local workers. That peculiar brand of British snobbery denotes who is socially acceptable and who isn’t – to some families at least, new money just doesn’t cut it.

“She looked out of the window at the sliding panorama of streets, warehouses, chimneys, slag-heaps, railway sidings and colliery shafts. She was too familiar with such scenes to be struck by their ugliness, but she saw with a fresh eye their beauties, the subdued harmonies of grey and brown, all taut perfection of springing line in crane and chimney, all softened to-day in a sunlight thickened by smoke to a haze of gold. The industrial North, one of the battlefields of that sporadic war of which so many people were still unaware, seeing each battle separately and with surprise in terms of their own emotional or social colouring. But you could not look at anything separately nowadays, and there was not  much surprise left to anyone who had been on a newspaper.”

Into this sprawling mass of Yorkshire urban life comes Mary, returning from her successful journalistic career in London, where she had lived happily alongside other independent young women. With her sister Doris about to marry a well-known local cricket star, Mary must take on the mantle of caring for their mother Emily who is ill with Rheumatoid Arthritis. She is due to take up a position on the Yorkshire Guardian, though we sense it’s a far inferior position to the one she had in London. Her job means she has to attend lots of local society events, bringing her into contact with local families like the Wards and Hardings. She falls in love with a married man from another class.

Mary’s Aunt Grace and Uncle John Allworthy are life-long supporters of the Labour movement, in his late sixties, John is still the Union man at Ward’s. Grace herself is an old campaigner, she has stood by her husband – also a labour councillor, throughout their marriage, their beliefs and aspirations the same. As young boys, Allworthy and Ward had started out in the machine shops together, now Ward is a wealthy man, with a large house, where he’s brought up his two children in comfort, a world away from the slums he grew up in. Ward is a man who has dedicated his whole life to the making of money. His children pull against him, making friends with people Ward doesn’t like. Marjorie the eldest thinks along traditional Conservative lines, like her father – though she is keen to befriend Mary, against her father’s wishes. Ward’s son Lesley; just started at the university, awkward and unhappy, meets a group of left-wing academics, his eyes wide open he is led inexorably toward extremism.

Two old genteel families are the Marsdens and the Hardings. William Marsden lost his sons in WW1 and is an older, sadder man because of it. Lionel Harding is his brother-in-law, politically something of a liberal, he still represents the traditional Conservative class. His adult sons Stephen and Robert are sensibly married, his daughter Claire, no longer the girl her father thinks, is struggling with her mental health. Stephen is married to Joy, a cool proud beauty; the daughter of an old, traditional family, she is ashamed that Stephen must now work for Ward. They have two little boys. Robert is married to Beryl who longs for a baby. In the political upheavals that are coming to the West Riding both Stephen and Robert will have reason to question their allegiances.

All over Aire people are thinking differently, questioning living conditions and wanting better for their families. Olive works at Wards in one of the machine rooms, she loves her job, the banter with the other girls, the money in her pocket. When her family is rehoused on the new housing estate, Olive’s simple, working class snobbery goes into overdrive. She wants a new suite for the sitting room, expects her family to live more graciously, looks down on her brother’s girlfriend because she is in service to the Robert Hardings. Olive is engaged to Tom Sutton, an idealistic rabble rouser in the Ward factory, once he called John Allworthy Uncle John, sitting by his fire talking long into the night. Now Tom sets himself against John, calling an unofficial strike. 

“Tom bent to his cloth again, a snake of suspicion stirring in his heart. He suspected both of them, but whereas his suspicion of Mr Harding, the gentleman, the class enemy, the master, was automatic and almost perfunctory, his suspicion of John Allworthy, the workman, the Trade Union man, the stalwart of the Divisional Labour Party, was a vivid and uncomfortable emotion.”

The novel is set against a backdrop of World politics, Mussolini marching into Abyssinia, Hitler taking over the Rhineland, people feeling like the League of Nations have let them down. Mosley’s Blackshirts are on the rise – though everyone says England just doesn’t do Fascism. Some Labour supporters are listing toward Communism while others are frankly bored by all the divisions and politics. It’s a thoroughly absorbing and fascinating portrayal.

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The New House takes place over one very long day that sees the “removal” of Natalie Powell and her adult daughter Rhoda from their large family home to a much smaller house on the other side of the town. The old house is to be demolished to make way for newer more modest housing for working class families. Rhoda’s sister Delia has arrived from London to help, and with her she brings the wind of change. The social order is a central theme to this wonderful novel. Natalie Powell has been a spoiled and petted woman her whole life, given to childlike rages when she doesn’t get her own way, she generally did, and she has become a selfish woman. Natalie and her sister Ellen – who also comes to help on moving day – are still living in their shared past, they were brought up in a certain way, the duties that they believed were due to their parents, they believe are due to Natalie. Natalie still recovering from her husband’s death, relies on Rhoda to help run the home, Rhoda in her early thirties, has become trapped. Aunt Ellen the dutiful sister and daughter who never married and now lives in a kind of hotel for ladies like herself is delighted to be back helping and organising and busy, and in her Rhoda recognises the woman she too could so easily become if she doesn’t break free. Delia planning soon to marry her fiancé Jim is eager to help Rhoda get away and suggests she takes her job in London when she leaves to get married in a few months. Rhoda is shaken by the suggestion, but keeps thinking about it throughout the day.

“Today, she thought, is like a crack in my life. Things are coming up through the crack, and, if I don’t look at them, perhaps I shall never see them again. Ordinary life in the new house will begin tomorrow and grow over the crack and seal it up.”

Maurice the son of the family, is also now living away from home, he is married to the fairly dreadful Evelyn, a young women not dissimilar to her mother-in-law. Although Evelyn is uncomfortable with Maurice’s family, and is quite disliked by Maurice’s two sisters. She is more concerned with lovely things, clothes and her social position than with her husband and his family.

   (the reproduction endpaper inside the Persphone edition)

“Evelyn got off her bus in the centre of the town, strolled along, looking at the shop windows, and finally turned in at the big doors of Varleys. It was like coming back into her familiar world. The warm air, scented with cosmetics, lapped her round. The bright lights shone on counters of expensive oddments, fantastic gloves, fragile stockings, handkerchiefs like bright flowers, handsome heavy bags. There were a lot of well-dressed people about, shopping or looking. The women behind the counters served them with skill and deference. Once you got inside those big doors, you were in a world which, provided that you had money to spend, existed for your convenience.”

Maurice although adoring of his little girl Tattie, is unhappy and dissatisfied with his life. The upheaval of the move from the family home throws everything up in to the air – releasing feelings in the members of the Powell family they are hardly aware of. He is still attached to the large family home that he moved out of five years earlier – and seeing his mother and sister leaving it is painful for him, forcing him, along with other members of his family, to take stock and look at his life.
The New House was first published in 1936 and re-issued by Persephone books in 2003 with a wonderful preface written by Jilly Cooper the wife of Lettice Cooper’s nephew Leo Cooper. It is that wonderful thing, a beautiful quiet novel, where nothing much happens, but through it you see the whole of the society which existed at the time it was written. I loved it and as I had a busy couple of days with family, I was forced to read it more slowly than I might have done otherwise.

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Fenny (first published in 1953), is the story of a young English school teacher who, after the death of her mother, for whom she was the sole carer, decides to take the opportunity to travel to Florence for a six month post as governess to an English family and their only daughter. At Villa Meridiana Fenny’s world temporarily expands but can she grow with it? The backdrop of the Tuscan landscape, the Italian character, the growth of fascism and the threat of war are all interwoven in this simpatico portrait of a gradually emerging self-awareness

“Fenny” is a deeply charming, enormously readable novel, which opens with the Fenny of the title (Ellen Fenwick) a young English school teacher coming to Italy as a governess to the granddaughter of an actress that she admires. The Fenny who arrives at Villa Meridiana in the summer of 1933 having recently lost her mother, has endured seven years teaching at a Yorkshire high school and is ripe for change. For a while Ellen – who soon becomes Fenny -finds acceptance and peace in the beauty of her surroundings. However Fenny must soon face emotions which are completely new to her, as she falls in love and finds that the relationships of people around her are not always what they seem. Fenny and Juliet the child to whom she is governess, very quickly develop a close and touching relationship, but there are changes and upheavals for the family and they leave Italy. Fenny deciding to stay in Italy pledges to keep in touch with young Juliet. Three years later Ellen is working for another family she had first encountered while working at Villa Meridiana. She is drawn to wanting to help Shand, the teenage son of her employer whose deep unhappiness and longing to get back to America concerns her. The backdrop to the story of Fenny and the families she works for is the terrifying rise of fascism in Italy and the coming of war. There comes a time when Fenny must really face up to what is happening, and make decisions about her own safety.
Fenny’s relationship with her two charges continues over many years. While she herself faces hardship and fear during the war years, she learns things about life which she can pass to the adult children she loves so deeply. In the course of the novel we see Fenny develop from an inexperienced young woman with much to learn, into a strong mature woman who survived the turbulent war years in Italy.
The novel spans the years of 1933 to 1949 and through these years we see the changes that occur in Italy as the fascist party takes firmer hold, and war looms on the horizon. There is one particular short scene – witnessed by Fenny and young Shand – of a middle aged clerk being dragged off by a group of black shirts that I thought was beautifully and frighteningly described. Throughout the novel it is easy to see the affection that Lettice Cooper had for Italy and for Florence in particular. For me this was the perfect reading experience, I loved the setting, the characters are marvellous creations – although two of the Italian women Fenny encounters are horribly selfish and manipulative – but fascinating for all that. Fenny is a real joy of a read.

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