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How difficult it is sometimes to talk about a book that I loved as much as I loved this one. A fabulous treat of a read for #ReadIndies month.

I have loved everything that I have read by Dorothy Whipple – everything that has so far been published by Persephone. Her novels and short stories remain endlessly popular among Persephone readers. Random Commentary however is not a novel.

This book is a compilation of pieces from Dorothy Whipple’s journals and notebooks. There is a note from the publisher in the front explaining their approach, and now I have finished the book, I am glad they chose this approach, it was the right one I think. The journals were kept intermittently by Dorothy, then years later she simply copied out extracts that she thought might interest her readers. Nothing was ever organised or dated – though of course it all runs fairly chronologically, therefore the title fits absolutely. Persephone decided to stick to Dorothy’s original intention and produce the book as a facsimile. Naturally some events give us an idea as to date, and as there a lot of mention of her writing, the publication dates of her stories and novels help us orientate ourselves as to where we are within the period of approximately 1925 – to the end of the Second World War. However, the majority of the time it really doesn’t matter to the reader (well certainly not to this reader) what year it was – I just revelled in Dorothy’s world – and loved every word.

In these extracts Dorothy Whipple doesn’t just reveal the writer she was, the struggles and the constant self-doubt, the highs, and lows, she shows us the world around her, and her appreciation of it.  

“I went to walk on the front. The day was ending, and over the vast expanse of Morcombe Bay, I saw hundreds – thousands of birds flying together. They rose up like a tree. They streamed like a long undulating snake. They wheeled, they became a whale, they threw themselves like a net over the sky, they settled like a dark mud bank. Such unison. Like a wonderfully trained choir, or corps de ballet. But who or what conducts them? By answering “instinct,” you don’t dismiss the mystery.”

This book is a delight for any Whipple fan – and perhaps best enjoyed by those who have already enjoyed her fiction. For those of us already familiar with her fictional world, it shows us something of the woman behind those loved stories. A woman full of self-doubt, as delighted as a child by glowing reviews of her books, a normal married woman, who happens to write very popular books and is on friendly terms with J B Priestly. She is indignant on her husband’s behalf when he must retire earlier than he’d like. They have a little terrier called Roddy who they adore, and when he inevitably dies, get another also called Roddy. She is an author often annoyed by the constant interruptions when she wants to write – interruptions she is certain no male writer would suffer, I think she was probably right there. An aunt, who is absolutely smitten by her pretty young niece, a child she loves having to stay and who she puts in one of her books.

As a reader she appreciated Rose Macaulay, and Katherine Mansfield is saddened by the death of Winifred Holtby. As a writer she is invited to events she find herself nervous of attending, finds herself chatting to H G Wells, finding him an easy, kind man to talk with, she liked him enormously.

“When on this lovely September morning, I went up for the paper and opened it, standing under the golden trees in the sunshine, I saw that Winifred Holtby was dead. I am sad, sad. So generous, brilliant, warm hearted, so young to die. I feel so sad as if I had missed saying something to her and now never shall.”

During the course of these extracts Dorothy and her husband Henry are living in Nottingham and decide to rent a holiday cottage in the countryside at Newstead, to spend weekends. Dorothy comes to love the peace of the cottage – often yearning to be back there, however, after Henry’s retirement they have to give up the cottage and the house in Nottingham and move to a house in Kettering. Generally never happier than when at home quietly, Dorothy is often obliged to travel a bit – London of course a frequent destination and she and Henry holiday in British resorts. So, we also find her in such places as West Runton, Cardigan Bay and Southampton and on trips back to her native Blackburn to see her mother, completley swamped by that feeling of home on hearing the accent of the railway porter.

“Thousands of incendiary bombs on London tonight. Terrible damage. Hundreds of homes, eight Wren churches, the Guildhall gone, and Dr Johnson’s house in Gough Square, which I always promised myself to see, and now never shall. I am sad, sad about London. One feels for it as if it were human, and very dear.”

As we hit the 1940s the war becomes a necessary backdrop to her journal entries. She reports on raids, and the news and the despair she and so many others must have felt. In the midst of which ordinary life goes on, her books and stories written, published, and reviewed. For this is very much a glimpse into the life of writer, although it’s wonderful to see so much of the woman she was too.

I am so glad that Persephone decided to republish this volume – in just the way Dorothy Whipple originally intended. Now all I long for is that they reissue her childhood memoirs too. That’s not too much to ask is it?

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Mom & Me & Mom is the seventh and final book in the sequence of autobiographies by Maya Angelou which begin with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was back in April last year that I started by reading (actually rereading) that first volume, and a mini reading project with two good friends Liz and Meg was born. Having now completed the seven volumes of autobiography I may go on to read some of the essays – as I know Liz is planning on doing. This final volume is a little different to the previous six – published only a year before Maya died at the age of eighty six.

The previous volume A Song Flung up to Heaven finishes when Maya is a little over forty, and in a sense that’s where these autobiographies leave her – as this volume never really takes us beyond that point, at least not in any great detail. However, this volume is still a satisfying conclusion to the series of autobiographies – for this book is about Maya’s mother, and Maya’s relationship with her mother. So, while this volume is still about Maya Angelou, it is mostly about a tiny, fierce little woman called Vivian Baxter.

“Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.”

It’s well known that Maya and her brother were sent to their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas to live when Maya was three. A short visit to her mother when she was eight ended in Maya’s rape by her mother’s partner, and a trauma that took years to undo. It wasn’t until Maya was thirteen that she went to California to live permanently with her mother – who was at that time little more than a stranger. Maya remembers her nervousness that she wouldn’t be good enough for this beautiful little mother.

“She looked around and saw me. I wanted to sink into the ground. I wasn’t pretty or even cute. That woman who looked like a movie star deserved a better looking daughter than me. I knew it and was sure she would know it as soon as she saw me.

‘Maya, Marguerite, my baby.’ Suddenly I was wrapped in her arms and in her perfume. She pushed away and looked at me. ‘Oh baby, you’re so beautiful and so tall. You look like your daddy and me. I’m so glad to see you.’”

Vivian Baxter Johnson, Maya’s mother had been born into a tough family, her brothers would beat you up soon as look at you, and Vivian had learned to fight even as a child. Vivian had grown up beautiful, met and fallen in love with Maya’s father and moved to California. When her marriage ended she sent the children away, and when they came back to her a decade of growing up apart meant that a lot of healing still had to take place, a lot of trust and acceptance be earned. Vivian Baxter was an extraordinary woman, a tiny, fierce little woman with a lot of influence, a trained nurse, she had also spent time in the Merchant Marines and as a businesswoman ran casinos in Alaska. She seems to have known, maybe instinctively that she had to give Maya time, that their mother daughter relationship was a fragile thing that would need time to grow, Vivian gave Maya the time and space she needed, yet she also gave her love – as it is above all love that oozes from these pages, love, and unquestioning support. Vivian Baxter Johnson, surely more than anyone else, helped shape the woman that Maya Angelou became.

“I will look after you and I will look after anybody you say needs to be looked after, any way you say. I am here. I brought my whole self to you. I am your mother.”

When Maya first came to live with her mother, she was unable to call her that – she searched around for a suitable title, and came up with Lady – it stuck, and for years she continued to call her mother Lady. Some years later, she was able finally to begin to call Vivian mother. By then an incredible bond had formed between them, for she had been supported and encouraged in everything. Whether it was in her desire to become the first black, female trolly bus conductress, becoming a mother herself at just seventeen, or travelling the world in Porgy and Bess, at every stage, at every moment Vivian had her back.

When Maya married Tosh, Vivian knew it was a bad idea, when Tosh tried his best to push Vivian out of their lives Vivian kept coming back. When the marriage ended she was there to support her daughter without saying I told you so. She helped Maya with her dance costumes, and took care of her son Guy when Maya was travelling. When Maya is horrifically beaten by a boyfriend, locked in his rented room, unable to summon help, it is Vivian who tracks her down and saves her.

“She felt guilty like all mothers who blame themselves when terrible events happen to their children.

I could not speak or even touch her but I have never loved her more than at that moment, in that suffocating, stinking room.”

Later when Maya was working on a screenplay in Sweden, feeling ostracized by the actors with whom she was working, Maya called her mother, and Vivian knowing her daughter needed her, dropped everything, and got on the next plane.

Inevitably, Vivian, gets old, and sick and Maya tells that story movingly too. Showing as much understanding to the needs of her ageing mother, as the younger Vivian had shown to the teenage Maya who had just arrived in California. Later, after her death a park in Stockton, California was named Vivian ‘Lady B’ Baxter park in her honour.

Mom & Me & Mom is an incredibly affectionate portrait of a mother daughter relationship, it is written with a lot of love and great honesty.

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A Song Flung up to Heaven is the sixth volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. My reading buddies Liz and Meg were a little bit a head of me, though I think we will all be starting on book seven soon. This volume is one of the slimmer volumes in the set – but it is every bit as addictively readable as the others – and I finished it in a day.

“Believe people when they tell you who they are. They know themselves better than you.”

This volume starts where the previous one left off, with Maya’s return to America from Ghana where she has spent a couple of years. She has left her son Guy behind, at his insistence. It is time for another chapter.

It is 1965 and Maya is returning to an America in which the civil rights movement has exploded. After meeting him for the second time while in Ghana, Maya has decided to put her energies into working with Malcolm X’s organisation in New York. However, before going to New York, Maya travels to California to see her mother and brother – and while she is there Malcolm X is assassinated. Maya is absolutely devasted, but while Malcolm’s brutal death leaves her feeling traumatised and lost – it is the reactions of other black Americans that leaves her really bewildered. She had expected a huge outpouring of grief and rage – and there wasn’t one. For a little while she really doesn’t know what she is going to do. We see Maya lost and a bit more vulnerable in this volume, needing the support of her mother and in particular her brother Bailey to whom she often turns in times of difficulty.

She gets a job as a market researcher in Watts, California. In August of that year, the Watts riots took place – and Maya was a witness to the violence, looting and chaos that took over the suburb for five long days. She walks through the riots, prepared if necessary to get arrested – even though she has done nothing – yet she passes through unharmed and unnoticed.

“Nothing’s wrong with going to jail for something you believe in. Remember, jail was made for people. Not horses.”

It is after this that Maya begins to spend some time on her own writing. She is encouraged by no lesser person than James Baldwin. She is given financial support by a friend – who only wants to allow her to write. She works on some drama and later starts writing poetry quite seriously.

Martin Luther King Jnr’s poverty march campaign is due to get going, and Maya is contacted by someone who askes her to join the campaign, she will again be working for Martin Luther King Jnr – if she accepts. Maya does accept – but she says she won’t be able to join the campaign until after her birthday as she is planning a big party. The year is 1968 – and her birthday Maya explains is on the fourth of April. I must admit I gasped out loud here! I mean what were the chances? – especially after what happened with Malcolm X, when she had missed being with him by a sudden change of plans. Again Maya’s grief and bewilderment is palpable. This extract leapt out at me – I think most of us know exactly how this feels, though I felt Maya expressed it particularly well.

“Death of a beloved flattens and dulls everything. Mountains and skyscrapers and grand ideas are brought down to eye level or below. Great loves and large hates no longer cast such huge shadows or span so broad a distance. Connections do not adhere so closely, and important events lose some of their glow.”

James Baldwin was one of a number of friends who helped Maya rouse herself again from her own terrible despair after King’s death. She is sustained in part by her writing and the good relationships she has in the people around her. It seems she has often been very fortunate in her friends.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven is an extraordinary portrait of an important period in American civil rights, and for that reason perhaps it has become one of my favourite of the six volumes I have read so far, they are all fantastic though. This volume although only the sixth of seven seems to mark the end of her autobiography really, as the seventh volume, Mom & Me & Mom is really an examination of her relationship with her grandmother and mother, and I believe goes back over some of the ground already covered in these books. I will be reading that one soon, and I am looking forward to meeting up with Maya’s Arkansas grandmother again.

As we leave Maya Angelou at the end of this volume, she is starting to write the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she is just a little over 40 years old, and will we know live to be more than eighty. It does seem a shame that she leaves us here – when we know so much more came after. I know there are other books available books of essays in particular – so I may need to explore some of those in the future.

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Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh was one of those impulse buys, based solely on something I saw on Social media. My second nonfiction review in a row – that’s quite unusual for me. A mixture of memoir, history, and nature writing, it is her first book. I thought it was an incredible debut.

“Battles, governments, laws, leaders – borders – come and go, but the land and its sacred places remain unmoved and unchanged in their core. There are some places in this broken and bleeding world in which I have experienced moments – fleeting but clear as winter light – where I feel hope like the beat of moth-wings on my skin. There are still places on this earth that sing of all that came and left, of all that is still here and of all that is yet to come. Places that have been touched, warmed, by the presence of something. By its heat, by its breath, by the beat of its heart. Places that hold on their surface a shadow-trace left behind by something we can still sense but no longer see.”

Kerri ní Dochartaigh was born in Derry at the height of the Troubles. She grew up on a council estate, in a family where one parent was protestant and one Catholic. This was both unusual and risky. The family was to break down and her father left when Kerri was still in primary school. Terrifyingly, in the space of one year her family were forced out of two homes and when she was just eleven a petrol bomb was thrown through her bedroom window. Fear was a huge part of the place she grew up in, and it was a huge part of her life – her experiences traumatised her – affecting how she thought about the place that she had grown up in.

It is clear that Kerri was writing this book toward the end of 2019, before the issue with the border that arose out of the Brexit negotiations was settled. It was also a period that saw some violence erupt again – and the appalling murder of a young journalist Lyra Mckee shocked us all for the return to violence it might herald. For Kerri the prospect of a return to the bad old days was unthinkable. The memory of that petrol bomb attack haunting her still – unsurprisingly.

I am older than Kerri by more than a decade, yet I feel I grew up with the Troubles too – only for me they were just pictures on the evening news, and occasional bag searches in some buildings in the city centre. The reality that Kerri shares here – of growing up, under constant threat – where your own neighbours might hound you out of your home, or throw a petrol bomb through your window is a stark reminder of those desperate times. I don’t want to get too political here – but how politicians could play around with that fragile peace is beyond me.

One thing her childhood and her upbringing had given her – thanks in particular to her grandfather, was an appreciation of nature, and a knowledge of and affinity to what she calls the thin places.

“Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places, that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in a place between worlds, beyond experience.”

In this wonderful, honest book, Kerri explores how nature kept her sane and helped her heal. Having left Ireland for Edinburgh and Bristol – to escape the trauma of her past – she is pulled back to it again, finding herself living within a few streets of where she grew up. During this period Kerri struggles with her mental health and her relationships aren’t always happy. At the time when she is writing the book, it’s clear that Kerri is in a better place, living in the countryside with her partner M. Yet, in writing this book she must naturally return to some dark times – to some dark places her own mind took her. There must be both catharsis and pain in this kind of honesty.

“I spent most of my life feeling – harrowing as it is to admit, now – that I somehow must have deserved these things: they were mine, and to shed them would be to shed me, in turn. As though the thing that best defined me was the suffering and the sorrow, the things I had seen, and the things I had lost. I could not, for decades, even try to imagine that there might be something in underneath it all, that might be a self that would remain no matter how many layers I might slowly learn to undo.”

There is a lot in this book about place, about belonging and how borders are manmade – reminding us that people are so often bound up in the landscape of where they are from. Kerri is asking us to reclaim those landscapes through our language, and through study – understanding the world around us is so important I think. The land that she loves – that we all love wherever we are from – is so much more than the lines on a map.

This is a beautifully written, tender, lyrical book – and I am so glad I found out about it and read it.

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I am a bit behind my two reading buddies – Liz and our friend Meg – in our Maya Angelou read-a-long. All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes is the fifth volume in her remarkable autobiography – so just two to go.

In a month thick with reading challenges – this one fitted nicely into nonfiction November – a challenge I don’t usually do so well at – but have managed two this month.

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

This volume takes up the story where the last one left off – Maya is in Ghana with her son Guy who has just been involved in a terrible car crash leaving him with serious injuries. Maya is finding it hard to rid herself of the anger she feels toward the young man who caused the accident – Guy on the other hand is much more laid back about the whole thing, despite being almost totally encased in plaster.

Being in Africa is an incredible experience for Maya – and she begins to settle down to life in Ghana – thinking perhaps she may never go back to America. While Guy recovers from his injuries, and then begins to settle happily into Ghanaian student life Maya shelves her plans to go to Liberia and begins to put feelers out for jobs in Ghana. Wherever she goes Maya makes friends and connections, and here it is no different. Most of those she is surrounded by are black Americans who have moved to Ghana.

Like many other black Americans at the time, Maya saw emigrating to an African country as a kind of homecoming, in time she realised it was nothing of the sort – that the mother Africa idea was a myth. The relationship between people emigrating to African countries and the people of those countries proving to be more complex. The Ghanaians aren’t always that welcoming toward the black Americans – some of whom almost expected a welcoming committee at the airport. It is easy to see though how for people coming from sixties America with its myriad prejudices and history of slavery – arriving in an African country must have felt incredible. However, while working in the university Maya also encounters some racism toward black Americans from members of the European community. How depressing that must have been to encounter the same kind of commentary on African soil.

There is a visit to Ghana by Malcolm X – who Maya had met before when she was working for Martin Luther King – since when Maya had become disillusioned by King’s message of peace and nonviolence. Now she is attracted by Malcom X’s message – and by the time the book ends she is thinking of going to work for him on her eventual return to the States.

“My policy was to keep quiet when Reverend King’s name was mentioned. I didn’t want to remind my radical friends of my association with the peacemaker. It was difficult, but I managed to dispose of the idea that my silence was a betrayal. After all, when I worked for him, I had been deluded into agreeing with Reverend King that love would cure America of its pathological illnesses, that indeed our struggle for equal rights would redeem the country’s baleful history. But all the prayers, sit-ins, sacrifices, jail sentences, humiliation, insults and jibes had not borne out Reverend King’s vision. When maddened White citizens and elected political leaders vowed to die before they would see segregation come to an end, I became more resolute in rejecting nonviolence and more adamant in denying Martin Luther King.”

During her time in Ghana Maya gets the chance to travel a little outside of the city into the countryside. It was a fascinating for me to learn something about Ghana a country I know very little about, Angelou writes so beautifully and recounts her experiences so vividly. Here she sees the places where slaves were held before the were shipped out of the country – it is a poignant and stirring reminder of that terrible history.

Maya has finally matured by her experience with men in the past – when she meets yet another large, man who she finds attractive and fascinating, the reader might be forgiven for shaking their head. However, Maya has learned something, and when the man offers to buy her a fridge(!) and tells her he wants her to move to another county with him, she sensibly doesn’t allow her head to be turned completley. She is an older (though still only in her thirties) woman, and her son is also growing away from her. She faced the possibility of losing him when he had his accident – but in the end she sees Guy is merely growing up and away from her – it is a sad thought for her that he may not need her anymore. They have been so much to one another in the past.

“we had been each other’s home and centre for seventeen years. He could die if he wanted to and go off to wherever dead folks go, but I, I would be left without a home.”

 Africa it seems doesn’t hold all the answers for Maya – though it has clearly had a profound effect on her. So we leave Maya preparing to return soon to America. What ever lies ahead for Maya I know it will be incredible – reading these books has shown me how very little I knew about Maya Angelou’s life. No wonder she had to write seven volumes of her autobiography.

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With thanks to Handheld Press for providing the book

Dreaming of Rose was originally published in 2013, but has been revised by Handheld press for this new edition.

Having now read ten books by Rose Macaulay, I do consider myself to be something of fan, and eager to learn more about her. While Dreaming of Rose: A biographer’s Journal is a book about Rose Macaulay’s biographer Sarah LeFanu, it is also, of course, about Rose Macaulay too. I’m not sure I expected to love this one as much as I did, not always being great with non-fiction and being more interested in Rose Macaulay herself and her writing than in her biographer – I thought. Well, I was wrong, everything is connected, Rose Macaulay, her work, and her biographer and I absolutely loved this book. It prompted me to buy Sarah LeFanu’s biography of Rose Macaulay, published in 2003 by Virago. I think this book sets the interested reader up perfectly for the biography – but I shall probably wait a while before I read it.

As the title suggests – this is a journal, a journal kept by Sarah LeFanu during the period she was writing her biography of Rose Macaulay, a writer and great traveller. It is a book which for me works well on two fronts, allowing readers to explore Rose Macaulay through the eyes of another – while also giving us a glimpse into the life of the biographer at work. The biography of Rose Macaulay was published in 2003, and the majority of the journal entries date from 1998 to 2002 when Sarah was writing the book. In 2012 a sealed archive of embargoed Rose Macaulay material was opened – and Sarah took up her journal again, to record this momentous occasion.

LeFanu shows us that the work of a biographer is not easy – there are a lot of hurdles to be got over, many frustrations encountered along the way. Family life, children’s school holidays might sometimes get in the way, and sometimes after days struggling with a particular chapter – it must be set aside for long periods to make way for other, paid work.

“I suspect I’m blaming Rose for my inability to get on with writing this chapter. I desperately need a clear space with no teaching. I’m doing a day school on women poets the weekend after this, and haven’t even begun to think about it. And then there’s all the next term’s reading still to do.”

During this period Sarah was a very busy woman, teaching at Bristol university, abridging books for BBC radio 4, editing anthologies and picking up various bits of freelance work. Yet, as soon as she could, she would come back to Rose, picking up the threads of her literary investigations, persuading people (or not) to talk to her, and thanks to an Art’s Council award travelling to some of the places that Rose had. She is also incredibly honest about her own self-doubt, a terrible critic of her own work, her own worth – there are times when Sarah LeFanu questions her own ability to write the biography at all. Money worries rear their ugly head too – bills are due and there’s little left in the kitty – it’s certainly not all glamour.

The relationship between the biographer and their subject (perhaps especially when the subject is no longer with us) is a unique one. There is naturally a responsibility to that person concerning revelations that they may not have wished to be made so public. In Rose Macaulay’s case many of the letters she hadn’t wished published were published years before Sarah LeFanu began writing her biography. Rose Macaulay’s great secret was already out. Those letters left out of that publication were sealed for fifty years – and opened in 2012. In 1918, Rose Macaulay met a writer, and former priest Gerald O’Donovan, a married man, and father. Their relationship was secret and lasted twenty-five years – until his death.

“This evening I finished James Lees-Milne’s entertainingly bitchy Ancestral Voices. In his entry for 27 July 1943 he describes Rose Macaulay as ‘dry and twitchy’ at a dinner party where they were both guests. I know that it was the first anniversary of Gerald O’Donovan’s funeral. But how was Lee-Milne to know? According to Victor Gollancz Rose’s affair with Gerald had been the best kept secret in London.”

The short story Miss Anstruther’s Letters is inspired by the grief that Macaulay suffered after his death – it’s a deeply poignant story even without that background knowledge. So, alongside LeFanu’s investigations into Rose Macaulay, she must also consider the huge role Gerald O’Donovan played in her life.

LeFanu shows us just how complex and yet consuming the relationship between a biographer and her subject is. Unearthing those little nuggets of information that go into creating a picture of a person – it’s not unlike a treasure hunt, following the clues, hoping to find the things no one else has – fitting it all together, creating an understanding. Appreciating how that relationship works, and where the pitfalls might be, how the biographer can feel like they are chasing a ghost, Sarah LeFanu references the biographer of Robert Louis Stevenson. She also references another long held literary secret – that of Dorothy L Sayers and her son. There is a responsibility in the biographer’s art – and it is one that LeFanu is well aware of.

This is a wonderful book; I am so very glad I have read it. One I think that will interest those interested in Rose Macaulay and those interested in the art of the biographer. Warning – it might make you want to read a lot of books by Rose Macaulay, but of course I would say that could only be a good thing.

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The first book I started after moving to my new flat was chosen for me by Liz – who had actually bought it for me one Christmas. She was helping sort the tbr cupboard (yes cupboard!) and thrust this one at me to read next – I hadn’t known what my next read was going to be. I really don’t know why I hadn’t read it before – the perils of a large tbr I suppose things get forgotten about. So, despite the fact that I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, A Bite of the Apple is definitely a book right up my street. Liz knows me, she knew I would love this, I did.

For anyone who has scanned bookshop shelves looking for that tell-tale apple on the spine of a book – or who, like me, has far, far too many dark green spined VMCs to house – this book is a joy. Part memoir, part history of Virago including thoughts and reminiscences of over forty years of feminist publishing, this is the story of a publisher and a movement. The excitement and vision that started it off – the passion, determination and belief that made Virago the success it was, and still is – is all here.

“It was common to think of the literary tradition that runs from Jane Austen through Ivy Compton-Burnett to Barbara Pym as a clever and witty women’s view of a small domestic world. This was not a ghetto we accepted. The female tradition included writers of vast ambition and great achievement: mistresses of comedy, drama, storytelling, of the domestic world we knew and loved. I saw a large world, not a small canvas, with all human life on display, a great library of women’s fiction.”

Lennie Goodings has been with Virago almost since the start, when Carmen Callil founded the iconic press, she really has seen it all. She began part time in 1978 in the one roomed Virago office, accessed by five flights of steep stairs. She had no idea then, that in time she herself would become the publisher, but she did know that she had found her home.

Throughout these years Lennie Goodings worked with some incredible writers, some pretty big names too – and here she describes those working relationships. Remembering her meetings with women like Maya Angelou, Rosamond Lehmann, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Dunant and Sandi Toksvig among many others. These glimpses of the women, who for some of us lets be honest, are our heroines, is wonderful, Lennie Goodings shows how many of these writers had just as much passion and belief in what Virago were doing as those working for the publisher at the time.

However, like with any organisation of its kind Virago had – and still have – their naysayers. Those who think that having a separate publisher for women, somehow diminishes their art – they have the same problem with the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Apparently, and it was news to me, A S Byatt refuses to have her books put forward for the women’s prize – there seems to be a fear from some quarters, that if books are published by a women’s press and nominated for a women’s prize then men won’t read them. (Rolls eyes). So, that there is the problem, isn’t it, still despite over forty years of Virago publishing, there are those who don’t take women’s writing seriously enough. I do my bit, by reading very few men (ha! Sticks tongue out!) Lennie Goodings however puts her case for the need for Virago and for the Women’s Prize rather better than me.

“With fiction, what seems to matter more is the gender of the writer; because even in this new world of outspoken writers and readers it appears not all words are equal. Something seems to happen to a novel when it has a woman’s name on the spine.”

One of my favourite chapters – perhaps not surprisingly was the one about the Virago Modern Classics list that started in 1978 – which includes a marvellous encounter with octogenarian Rosamond Lehmann. The classics of course have been an enormous success – oh and how we cheered when the green spines came back – changed a little for the twentieth century but green again. The first one of course was Frost in May – and was followed by so many more – that are now collected and cherished by people like me. Goodings reveals how the list changed the way women’s novels began to be seen, attracting new readers, becoming a strong and familiar presence in bookshops. Suddenly new life was given to the novels of writers like Rosamond Lehmann who had thought their day was done – and generations of readers can thank the Virago Modern Classics for the books that made it into their libraries.

The Virago that Carmen Callil started in that one roomed office all those years ago is not the same company as it is today. Lennie Goodings discusses how difficult remaining independent was, there were some forthright discussions and disagreements, but things had to change. In 1995 Virago became part of the Little Brown group and Lennie Goodings was there to see that transition through and explains clearly why that was necessary for Virago’s survival. Revealing how the imprint has moved forward, and how many exciting publications have come about since then, that may not have done otherwise. Today, Lennie Goodings is chair of Virago Press – still working with the authors and books that have been her passion for so long.

This was a marvellous book, really giving a lot of insight into the feminist movement of the late 1970s and 1980s – the publishing industry and the books and writers I love. Definitely, a book to keep to refer to again.

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I have been a Barbara Pym fan for some years now so when I first began seeing mention of this new biography on social media, I knew I would have to read it as soon as it was available.

Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s journal has already reviewed this book in two excellent posts – I fear I don’t have the energy to write two posts about a book, though this book is fully deserving of such attention. There is so much to talk about with this wonderful book – but I am going to assume that lots of you will be reading this soon – if you’re not already and so I will try not to get too carried away.

I don’t always engage so well with non-fiction, but this book has a wonderfully readable narrative. Immediately engaging; each chapter a little vignette from Pym’s life with chapter titles such as Miss Pym’s Summer of Love, Miss Pym tours Germany and An Untoward Incident on the River urging us to read on.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym takes its title from Pym’s own diaries which she prefaced – The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym. It seems clear from Pym’s own treatment of her diaries and letters – what she destroyed and those she didn’t – that she always had one eye on posterity. Of course, this isn’t the first biography to have been written about Barbara Pym, in 1990 Hazel Holt published A Lot to Ask, and six years earlier A Very Private Eye an autobiography in letters and diaries edited by Barbara Pym her sister Hilary and Hazel Holt had been published. In my review of that book, I spoke about the revealing nature of letters and diaries that had been first written without thought of publication in mind – having now read Paula Byrne’s fascinating and illuminating biography, I have to say I think Barbara Pym always had an eye on publication. I first read A Lot to Ask in 2010 so it is perhaps unsurprising that I couldn’t remember a lot of detail, I then read A very Private Eye in 2013. I think I had retained enough memory of those books to be unsurprised by some of the things Byrne’s book reveals. However, I think it is clear that Hazel Holt sought to protect her (by that time deceased) friend from certain revelations – and so looking back on that biography now, I think we have to see it as being an incomplete picture. This book I believe gives us a true picture of Barbara Pym, it is both honest and deeply affectionate – and I liked Barbara Pym the woman much better for it.

Paula Byrne takes us back to Pym’s upbringing in Oswestry, Shropshire where she was born in 1913 to Frederic and Irena, her father a solicitor her mother the very model of the excellent women with which we associate Pym.

In 1931 Barbara Pym went to St Hilda’s college Oxford to read English – it was a life changing experience for her, she fell in love with Oxford and found it a very inspiring and stimulating environment.

“Pym went up in the autumn of 1931. In her mind, Oxford would always be associated with that season; the smell of woodsmoke and the picking of wild berries. It was also a place to be forever associated with romance, teeming as it was with young men, dressed not exactly in fancy dress, but in scholars’ sweeping black gowns.”

It was here that Barbara began to form some very important relationships, she was never short of male attention, and as we come to see she fell in love easily, and very hard – liked sex and was unapologetic about it. Her first sexual experience however seems to have been traumatic in some way, and this was definitely one of the things Pym edited from her life, removing the relevant passages from her diary. However, more love affairs followed, Henry Harvey in particular was a big part of her life at Oxford and after. Sadly, Henry was to let Barbara down – and so began a pattern that would last the rest of her life. Falling in love with men who were either unsuitable or unavailable.

One particular section of the book which might surprise some Pym fans are the chapters which focus on Pym’s fascination with Germany. I found it an especially engrossing part of the book. In 1934 Barbara Pym went to Germany with the student’s union – having already started learning to speak German. Like many Britons of this period – Barbara was beguiled by everything the Nazi propaganda machine was pumping out. Her interest was non-political. She was attracted by the German culture, art, music, and landscape. We must remember that England in the 1930s was in a bit of a mess – the Nazi party was quite deliberately presenting Germany to the rest of the world as some sort of promised land – and Barbara fell for it. Later, she clearly had begun to have doubts and she may well have ignored things she really shouldn’t have – but by then she was head over heels in love with Friedbert Glück a handsome SS officer who was quite close to Hitler.

“Pym was thrilled when she caught sight of ‘real Nazis.’ One of them was called Friedbert Glück and he was wearing the black uniform of the SS. The other men wore the brown shirts with the swastika armband of the Stormtroopers (SA).”

We can’t judge the actions of a young woman in the 1930s with 21st century sensibilities, we weren’t there – we don’t really know how we may have acted had we been born then. It is clear that later Barbara Pym bitterly regretted her naivete and saw her later war work with the ARP and the Wrens as some small reparation for her error.

All this was happening around the time that she first started writing Some Tame Gazelle – which interestingly originally had quite a lot of German content in it. Later Pym removed every German and Nazi reference in the novel on the advice of her good friend Jock Liddell. Had Chatto and Windus accepted the novel when it was first sent to them in the mid-1930s, it would be a quite different book to the one we know now.  

Of course, Some Tame Gazelle was finally published in 1950, and paved the way for five more novels – all of which were popular and provided Barbara Pym with a legion of loyal fans. Byrne discusses Pym’s writing and each of the novels brilliantly, with the affection that comes from a dedicated fan. We then sense the sadness and the frustration of those often discussed wilderness years – and her drive to keep writing even when all seemed hopeless. Throughout her life, Barbara had a wonderful relationship with her sister Hilary, who she set up home with when Hilary was widowed. Men came and went; work was at the International African Institute in London. Everything she experienced in her life was rich material for her writing, which remained hugely important throughout her life. Then comes the glorious intervention of Phillip Larkin, and a late renaissance and the publication of her remaining books.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is a wonderful biography, revealing and honest and really compelling. I have already written far too much – I apologise for such a long post – but I really could have written a lot more.

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This Persephone volume of London War Notes proving once again that I am not always very good at reading nonfiction. I started this huge Persephone a couple of days before Christmas when I had lots of reading time, then on Boxing day decided to take a break from it to read a classic crime from the British Library – finally finishing it on New Year’s Eve. It is a book I know a lot of people love – and I have certainly loved Mollie Panter-Downes fiction – and it seems that I do engage with her fiction better. Still there is a lot to admire in this collection, which I have had tbr for some time. After I had finished the book I realised that of course I would probably have done better to read these pieces over a much longer period of time, dipping in and out – after all the pieces were never originally intended to be read one after the other in this way.

Of course, Mollie Panter-Downes has written about the Second World War in her fiction too, two collections of her short stories, one about wartime and one peacetime are well loved among Persephone readers. While her beautiful novel One Fine Day (1947) takes place in the first real summer of peacetime – 1946 – as families all over the world were learning to adapt to the changes that peacetime brought with it. London War Notes brings us into the war pretty much as it was happening. What she does brilliantly, and right from the first page – is to capture a mood – recreating a kind of collective British (well certainly an English) voice.

“For a week, everybody in London had been saying every day that if there wasn’t a war tomorrow there wouldn’t be a war. Yesterday, people were saying that if there wasn’t a war today it would be a bloody shame. Now there is a war, the English, slow to start, have already in spirit started and are comfortably two laps ahead of the official war machine, which had to wait to drop off somebody’s handkerchief.”

Between the 3rd of September 1939 and May 12th, 1945 Mollie Panter-Downes wrote one hundred and fifty three ‘Letters from London’ for the New Yorker magazine – these are they. This complete collection of them first published in 1971 provides an incredible picture of real wartime life – throughout her tone is delightfully confiding and warm, sometimes amusing or a little cutting – most of all she is honest. She did not seek to curry favour with the government of the day – in fact, she can be sometimes rather critical but capable of praise or appreciation where she considers it due. There is a wisdom in her observant eye and a deep understanding for the people of Britain to whom she was clearly loyal and of whom she was very proud.

In these pieces we observe the first almost disbelieving shock of being at war – barrage balloons in the skies as retired army officers answer the call. ‘Battalions of women’ did so too – anxious to do whatever they could. The evacuation of children from London, and the strangeness of the parks without them. Her observations have something of the novelist’s eye about them, she notices the mothers left behind, the cartons that carry gasmasks – which could be transporting grapes to a sick friend, the advertisements offering sanctuary to London pets. She is tuned in to the varied voices around her the rumour, criticism, the anxieties, and stoicism – the hope.

“The last week has been a bad one. The calmness and cheerfulness of the ordinary citizen aren’t in themselves new or surprising, for to be long on both those qualities is part of the national character. Unless it is stiffened by a realistic comprehension of what it may be required to face, such an attitude is possibly as irritating to objective observers as the blithe unconcern of someone taking his usual constitutional along a cliff which everyone knows is in danger of falling.”

She tells us about the ordinary London dweller – their opinions their reactions to each new development. The reality of rationing, the disappearance of eggs Those who watched the Russians arriving with some suspicion, unused to thinking of them as allies. Reporting on what the government were doing or saying, the reactions to German invasions of Greece or Yugoslavia.

“This Sunday morning’s news of Germany’s aggression against Yugoslavia and Greece was the climax of a fortnight so bewildering that Britons have hardly known from one moment to another what emotions they were going to be called upon to register next.”

I couldn’t help but think how different those times were from today with our constant rolling news, the ability, should we be so inclined to absorb hours of new bulletins – never waiting more than a few minutes for an update. Living in such turbulent times when news was much less readily available must have been quite agonising – those few news bulletins each day a must for many.

The final few entries I found particularly poignant – especially coming after such a lot of long, detailed pieces – that sense of finally the madness ending. Another kind of disbelief as the blackout curtains start to come down and some London restaurants begin to open their doors in celebration. The relief is palpable.

This book is undoubtedly fascinating, Panter-Downes is a really excellent writer – but it is also quite big and quite dense – and I probably didn’t really do it justice by reading it in the way that I did.

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The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939

Regular readers will probably know that I rarely read nonfiction, and when I do it is still quite narrative driven – memoirs, biographies, or essay collections. Which is why I had let this book languish on my tbr for a year since Liz bought it me for Christmas in 2019. I had known I wanted to read it – but this year I have read even less nonfiction than usual and so there it sat.

The week before Christmas I was casting about for something new to read and pulled a pile from the shelf to look through. I read the first few paragraphs of A Very Great Profession and was surprisingly hooked – I hadn’t known I wanted to read something like this at that moment. It is described as a book of literary criticism, which perhaps makes it sound a little drier than it is. Subtitled ‘The Woman’s novel 1914-1939’ it really is right up my alley. I found it completely absorbing, a real celebration of many of the kinds of books I love – written by the founder of Persephone books and originally published by Virago in 1983.

In this book Nicola Beauman looks at women like Katherine in Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day and Laura in the film Brief Encounter. These were women who borrowed books from the circulating libraries, and whose lives were so often recorded in the very fiction that they read.

“Laura Jesson, goes into the local town every week to do a bit of shopping, have a café lunch, go to the cinema and change her library book. This is the highlight of her week. It was the glimpse of her newly borrowed Kate O’Brien in her shopping basket that made me want to find out about the other novels the doctor’s wife had been reading during her life as ‘a respectable married woman with a husband and a home and three children.’ (This was how she describes herself in Still Lives (1935) the Noel Coward play upon which Brief Encounter (1945) was based.)”

Following her introduction – in which Beauman explains how the book was conceived and written, each of the eight chapters takes a different theme, war, domesticity, sex, psychoanalysis etc. Drawing on numerous novels from this period between the two wars Beauman explores the lives that were being led by the middle class women who would have read them.

In the first chapter Beauman illustrates how war influenced not just the lives of men – but also, and in different ways the lives of women too. These novels often reflected the changing lives of women – and what the middle class concerns of many at this period were – and discusses the propaganda type of novels such as some of those by novelists like May Sinclair. Novels such as Mr Britling Sees it Through and The War Workers, come in for some discussion, and throughout this book I loved reading the extracts from these novels I had previously enjoyed as well as encountering many I had never heard of.

The surplus women that feature so prominently in women’s novels of this period are the subject of another chapter. After the first world war, many women who might have married and might have wished to simply couldn’t because of the loss of so many men of their generation in the war. These women began to turn their energies to other things. Novels discussed here include Woolf’s Night and Day, F M Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter and Delafield’s Consequences.

Women’s domestic lives, romance and sex take up other chapters, continuing the portrait of middle class female life during this period. She discusses how gradually women’s lives had started to open up a bit, and how some writers had begun to approach the reality of passion and women’s sexuality. These chapters all contain too much fine detail for me to discuss it adequately in a review – but each chapter is just wonderfully immersive for the lover of novels from this period – largely those written by women though one or two by male writers are included.

The final chapter is about love – and it seems a fitting chapter for this wonderful book to end on somehow. It begins with a detailed discussion of a novel from just outside the time period of 1914-1939.

“The Pursuit of Love (1945) by Nancy Mitford is the apotheosis of the woman’s novel about love. In some ways it rounds off everything that was written on this topic during the inter-war period, mingling tenderness and wit into an unsentimental but deeply emotional whole. There are few novels which explore with such insight women’s real natures, and critics who condemn Nancy Mitford as catering entirely for a snob-public are sadly missing the point.”

This book was an easy five star read for me; I knew that when I had only read a third of it – I was so thoroughly absorbed I gulped it down quickly. It is surely a must for any lover of the kinds of novels published by Virago and Persephone. Nicola Beauman is an able literary critic she fully understands these novels and the women who read them and how inextricably linked the readers and the novels were – and I dare say still are.

List writers beware however, there are just so many fascinating novels mentioned in this book that it is tempting to start jotting them down – I didn’t do that, I just didn’t dare! Many of the novels mentioned I have already read or got waiting to read – many others were completely unknown to me. This book is now my favourite book about books I have read for some time.

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