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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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A Lady and her Husband

A Lady and her Husband, first published in 1914 surprised me with the modern outlook of several of the female characters. I hadn’t realised it would be such a feminist novel – it was a really nice surprise, and the element which would make me recommend the novel to others.

According to the Preface by Samantha Ellis, Amber Reeves was a brilliant young woman, the uncompromising daughter of a suffragette and Fabian society member. The inspiration for A Lady and her Husband came from a real-life project undertaken by Amber Reeves, her mother; Maud Pember Reeves and other Fabian society women, who spent four years visiting working-class families in Lambeth to find out all they could about their lives. The result of this was Maud Pember Reeves’s book Round About a Pound a week, which is also published by Persephone books, I have an old Virago edition which I have yet to read. Ellis considers this novel very much a companion piece to that other book.

The plot of this novel is fairly simple. Mary Heyham is the wife of a prosperous business man. Mary has spent her adult life so far bringing up her children, and running her home with the help of the usual servants. She has always been the conventional little wife – the soft, unquestioning mother figure her husband James so depends upon. Now her children are grown up, they don’t have the same need of her, her son Trent works alongside James in the business, Laura is recently married, and now her youngest daughter Rosemary has announced her engagement.

Rosemary is very much a forward looking young woman of keen socialist principles. She recognises that Mary needs something to do – a challenge. Rosemary can’t help rather fearing the result of marriage for herself – afraid of becoming soft and useless. So, Rosemary enlists James’ help, and they come up with a scheme for Mary to have a look at his chain of successful tearooms – enquiring into the lives of the girls who work there. James is happy for Mary to have a diversion, expecting her to find him out to be a wonderful employer. James is a brilliantly created character – one I wanted to frequently hit over the head with something heavy. His condescension is hugely irritating, pompous and complacent – he calls his wife ‘old lady’ and doesn’t ever expect her to think too hard about anything. The following quote perfectly demonstrating his patronising attitude.

“James was detached and good-humoured, perfectly ready to talk things over with her. He seemed to think that it was really very creditable that she should have stuck to the thing like this, and taken such an interest in it. One gets rather too much into the habit of assuming that women do not care about serious things. Well then, to what revolutionary courses did she – dear little person that she was – wish to commit her wretched husband and his old fashioned business?”

James and Mary love each other deeply – but they have become used to their conventional roles, and neither have ever had to face their differences. James is a different man in business than he is at home, and Mary has never really met that man before. Rosemary supplies her mother with a pile of socialist literature, and Mary engages a secretary – Miss Percival, whose own deeply held socialist and feminist beliefs are soon revealed. Mary’s education begins.

“Miss Percival shook her head. ‘I don’t know how it came,’ she said, ‘though I could find a hundred reasons – I can see a fresh reason in every man I meet! When I look at their faces in the street, in a bus, anywhere, their mean stupid faces – men who get their ideals out of the half-penny papers, men who think about money on an office stool all day, and then go home and treat some woman as an inferior -I wonder than any woman has ever loved a man.”

Mary begins to visit the tearooms in the company of Miss Percival, and her visits soon raise a number of questions. Mary discovers that the girls who work in the tearooms are expected to come from families where there is already money coming in, where they are not relying on the twelve shillings salary to live. Mary meets a young woman for who this is certainly not the case, and Mary is drawn awkwardly into the story of Florrie and her very sick mother’s life – and realises at once that the employment policy is not realistic and twelve shillings (though more than many women in service) not nearly enough. Her visits raise other questions too – why do the women not have a room in which to eat? She sees women standing in corridors hurriedly eating – no chance to sit down during their hours at work, the women whose job it is to wash up reduced to standing for hours, water slopping around their feet. Others are obliged to carry heavy trays and stand around looking bright and efficient. -1

The women work long days for little salary, and Mary starts to realise how very difficult and uncomfortable their lives are. James is not happy with the suggestions Mary makes to improve his workers’ lives – and Mary is made to feel quite unhappy about his reaction.

Mary starts to see the world very differently – she starts to ask questions – much to James’ discomfort and irritation. In starting to see the world very differently, Mary also begins to see her husband differently – it causes Mary to re-examine her life and her marriage.

A Lady and her Husband is a quite subtle examination of women’s lives at this period – before the First World War, we meet women from different sections of society, and see clearly how differently the world treats them.

Amber Reeves

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With thanks to Persephone books for the review copy

This will almost certainly be on my books of the year list – a book I couldn’t stop reading but didn’t want to finish. It’s hard to convey in a review just how lovely this book is, you may just need to read it. There is something about Gwethalyn Graham’s story-telling, the way in which she creates relationships, the emotional and upsetting nature of the divisions that she portrays which makes this novel so compelling.

I hadn’t heard of Gwethalyn Graham before Persephone re-issued this novel, a Canadian writer who published one other earlier novel before this. Earth and High Heaven was an enormous success remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-eight weeks. First published in 1944 – those first readers could not have known whether the happy ending that is implicit in the novel’s opening sentence would be replicated for the allies.

Gwethalyn Graham explores the divisions and deeply entrenched prejudices which existed in Canadian society, through the story of Erica Drake and Marc Reiser who meet and fall in love. Set in Montreal during World War Two – Graham shows us how society was divided into three distinct groups.

“Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with, relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffer from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.”

When they meet, Erica is twenty-eight, a journalist on the society pages of the Montreal Post, Marc is a few years older, waiting for his call up overseas, he is a lawyer, originally from a small town in Ontario. Erica’s father is the President of an import company started by his great grandfather, the Drakes holding a prominent position in the English Canadian society which has so little to do with the French Canadian and Jewish communities who live side by side. Marc’s father had emigrated to Canada from Austria with his wife and Marc’s older brother, he owns a planning mill in Manchester Ontario, while Marc’s brother is a doctor to remote mining communities.

At a cocktail party held in the Drake home, Marc Reiser is brought somewhat unwillingly along by René de Sevigny, a French-Canadian friend, and brother to Erica’s brother’s wife. Marc and Erica meet and are instantly drawn to each other – it’s that love at first sight kind of thing that Disney so love to portray. Erica has led a life of unthinking privilege, so when presented with the everyday prejudices that Marc encounters as a Jewish man in Canadian society, the scales fall from her eyes, and she is horrified. When she tries to introduce Marc to her father; Charles (who spends most of the party hiding in his study) she is appalled when Charles walks straight past him without so much as giving Marc eye contact. How could she have got it so wrong?

Erica is an innocent in the ways of the society in which she lives, she herself is incapable of disliking someone simply because they happen to be Jewish – and so discovering this attitude exists within the very walls of her home she is devastated. However, due to her upbringing, Erica soon recognises that she too is guilty of inherent racism, although in loving Marc and recognising how her attitudes have been shaped by her upbringing she is already more enlightened.

Erica is one of three siblings, her father is known to be rather difficult and set in his ways, but Erica and he have always enjoyed a special understanding. Erica is acknowledged by everyone to be Charles’s favourite – she brings the best out in him. So, when she is brought face to face with her father’s prejudice it is a bitter and devastating blow. Charles had raged and stomped when his son married a French-Canadian woman, but now he is very fond of her, and Charles has become his daughter-in-law’s favourite member of the family. Erica tells herself that he will come around, if only he would meet Marc – and see what he is really like. Charles can be cruel – taking every opportunity he can to tell anti-Semitic stories – calling Marc a ‘cheap Jewish lawyer.’

‘I don’t want my daughter to go through life neither flesh, fowl, nor good red herring, living in a kind of no man’s land where half the people you know will never accept him, and half the people he knows will never accept you. I don’t want a son-in-law who’ll be an embarrassment to our friends, a son-in-law who can’t be put up at my club and who can’t go with us to places where we’ve gone all our lives. I don’t want a son-in-law whom I’ll have to apologize for, and explain, and have to hear insulted indirectly unless I can remember to warn people off first.’

Erica’s younger sister Miriam comes home from England, although only twenty-four she has a failed marriage behind her, and two other men vying for her attentions. Miriam takes Erica’s side, she meets Marc and likes him immediately. Miriam understands the problems with their parents in a way that Erica seems unable to. She loves her sister, the one sibling never to cause their parents a moments concern, but now sees there may be no way back for them all. Erica continues to see Marc against her parent’s wishes, Marc tries to make Erica aware of the difficulties they will face, tries to get her to see that marriage between them is impossible. Erica is worn down by the pressure and stress, the barrage of Charles’s vitriol against the man she loves. She loses weight, is visibly changed, but hangs on grimly nevertheless, her belief in Marc, and the possibility of a future together is unwavering.

This is a surprisingly emotional read, and I defy anyone not to rush through it – desperate to see if the happy ending implied in that first sentence comes true. Erica is the driving force of the novel, a wonderfully sympathetic character through whose eyes we see the divisions within a society.

Gwethalyngraham

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effi briest

(translation by Walter Wallich 1962)

With thanks to Persephone books for the review copy.

I don’t think I had ever heard of Effi Briest as such – I think I saw it in a list of Oxford World’s Classics a couple of years ago, and having looked at the synopsis immediately put it on my Classics Club list. However, I never did manage to get around to buying a copy. When I heard Persephone Books were re-issuing it I decided to hold out for that edition.

Effi Briest is a nineteenth century German classic – that should really stand beside Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. A nineteenth century novel in translation written by a man, is not an obvious choice for publication by Persephone – although the themes of unequal marriage, society and the consequences of adultery make it a perfect match.

“ ‘Look, Mama: it doesn’t matter that he is older than me. Perhaps it’s even better that way. After all, he isn’t really old, and he’s healthy, vigorous, soldierly and dashing. I could almost say that everything about him was right if only… well if only he were a little different.’
‘In what way Effi?’
‘Well, you mustn’t laugh at me. It’s something that struck me only the other day, over at the parsonage. We were talking about Instetten and suddenly old Niemeyer’s eyebrows rose – in admiration and respect you see – and he said: “yes indeed, Baron Instetten is a man of character and of principles.”
‘And so he is Effi?’
‘Of course. And you see, Mama I don’t have principles. That’s what worries and frightens me. He is so good to me, so indulgent, and yet… I’m afraid of him.’

Effi Briest is a young girl – the much-loved daughter of conventional, though apparently loving parents in Hohen-Cremmen, a fictional region in Bismark’s Germany. Effi is just sixteen when we meet her – she is instantly endearing – exuberant and wonderfully full of life. She gallops around the gardens, happily gossiping with the daughters of the village schoolmaster and pastor who live nearby. In hindsight the reader can’t help but remember Effi before her marriage laughing with her friends, suffused with childlike enthusiasm, young, still so young.

Within a couple of pages of this novel, Effi is engaged to a man more than twice her age. Baron Geert von Instetten is thirty-eight – and was once in love with Effi’s mother. Effi the daughter of the one that got away. The engagement has been arranged by Effi’s parents – who it seems see nothing odd in the arrangement. Even more strangely perhaps – Effi seems perfectly happy too, although there is a sense that young Effi sees it as just one more happy incident in her golden childhood. Proud to be marrying such a handsome man, she and her mother begin buying the necessary clothes. In the first few chapters we see Effi’s life as one blessed by a happy home, Effi is still very childlike – yet even Effi’s mother notices that Effi is a little too matter of fact about her fiancé stuffing a letter which arrives from him in her pocket and only reading it much later.

“’Did you like the way Effi behaved? Did you like the whole affair? She was odd, sometimes completely naïve, and then again very self-assured and by no means as humble as she should have been towards a man of his standing. The only explanation surely, is that she is still quite unaware of how well she has done for herself. Or is it simply that she doesn’t love him properly?’
Frau von Briest was silent and counted the stitches on her embroidery. At last she said: ‘That is the shrewdest thing I have heard you say during these past three days, Briest. I have been having my doubts, too, but I don’t think there is any cause for anxiety.’”

Instetten is a high-ranking Prussian official –  from Eastern Pomerania, a coastal town; Kessin is a long way away from her childhood home. The marriage takes place and Effi has a lovely time on her honeymoon, writing to her parents of all the things she sees in the company of her handsome new husband. In time Effi is taken to what will be her new home, a house which itself seems to change the tone of the whole novel, the hallway is quite dark, lit by red lamps, a few unusual objects suspended from the beams; a crocodile, a shark and a ship in full sail. The upstairs rooms remain unfurnished, the sound of curtains swishing across the empty ballroom floor – upset Effi’s imagination – as does a picture of a little Chinese man, about which Instetten has told her a story. The house is at the far end of town, close to a small wood and the road to the beach. Effi has been told by her husband that there aren’t really people of their class in the town – and in time she is taken on a round of visits to the local aristocrats – which are not wholly successful. Instetten works long hours, is frequently away from home, and Effi is alone with Joanna the servant and Rollo the wolfhound who has become her almost constant companion. Frequently alarmed by the sounds she hears from the empty rooms above, Effi is also homesick for Hohen-Cremmen and the young girls she spent so much time with once. One good friend, aside from the faithful Rollo, however is Gieshübler the hunchbacked apothecary.

It isn’t long before Effi – hardly out of childhood herself is a mother, to a little girl, Anna. Effi engages Roswitha as a nurse – and in time Roswitha proves to be a stalwart of support to Effi as the years ahead alter her fortunes considerably. Effi is still alone too much, and is ripe for manipulation by a dashing Major who comes to live nearby. Fontane doesn’t dwell on the specifics of Effi’s relationship with Crampas, it’s all deeply shaded in suggestion. We realise however, that there will be consequences for Effi particularly. Instetten is a man of rigid principles – and society so very unforgiving.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot – as I suspect a lot of people will be reading this novel now – I certainly hope so. It is a wonderful novel, compelling and compassionate. Theodor Fontane seems only to be judging society – his sympathies I am sure, like the readers own are always with Effi. This is a novel which deserves to be widely read – I loved every word.

theodor fontane

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Madame solario

When I was first bought Madame Solario I was aware of Gladys Huntingdon’s writing having been compared to Henry James, I didn’t allow that to put me off – it is some years since I read Henry James, but I can’t say I find him easy. Now that I have read the novel, I understand the comparison, there is an elusive, intense quality to the narrative that is quite Jamesian – and one can’t help but think of Henry James, and perhaps Edith Wharton and E M Forster when one reads a novel of society people abroad. However, Gladys Huntingdon’s novel is far more scandalous than anything those other literary giants produced.

Before we get to the novel itself – the story behind the novel is in itself fascinating. First published in 1956 – Gladys Huntingdon chose to publish this, (I believe) her only novel, written when in her seventies, anonymously, it was thirty years before the author was revealed. No doubt, the mystery surrounding the authorship of Madame Solario contributed to its success at the time. Born Gladys Parrish, in 1887 the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphian Quaker, her life growing up was itself quite Jamesian in nature – so we are told by Alison Adburgham, in her afterword to this Persephone edition.

Back to the story itself – a beautifully written novel of almost 500 pages, there is drama here – however it is not a novel with a great deal of plot. Madame Solario is strangely compelling, the reader can’t help but be drawn into the intense relationships which slowly develop between a large group of mainly Europeans on the shores of Lake Como. It is a world painted exquisitely by the author – who herself would have experienced something very similar as a young girl, holidaying with her family on Lake Como.
Set in Cadenabbia on Lake Como in September 1906, Madame Solario transports us instantly to another world – a world of European and American high society, a lakeside retreat, shuttered villas, picnics, polite conversation and whispered scandal. madame_solario_pic_for_page_7.jpg

The novel is divided into three sections, the first and third sections told from the view point of Bernard Middleton, who we meet on page 2 – a nice, young Englishman in whose company we feel instantly at ease. He is young, his experiences of the word so far have done little to prepare him for the unspoken passions, and complexities he finds himself in the midst of.

“‘I don’t know what your studies have been, but you may know that geologists speak of faults when they mean weaknesses in the crust of the earth that cause earthquakes and subsidences.”
Having pulled on his gloves he was energetically buttoning them.
“And I will tell you something out of my own experience. There are people like ‘faults’, who are a weakness in the fabric of society; there is disturbance and disaster wherever they are.” He gave Bernard a fierce look beneath his bristling eyebrows.
‘Young man, go away from! Get on to solid ground as soon as you can.’”

The middle section – (I shall come to that again later) Bernard retreats from view, and my one minor quibble with this novel is that this section is longer than it need be. Bernard has recently finished at Oxford, destined for a career in banking – a career arranged for him, and one he doesn’t look forward to. A few weeks on Lake Como is a kind of compensation for the dull years ahead. Supposed to be meeting up with a friend, who having fallen ill can no longer come, Bernard is on his own, experiencing grown up society for the first time. Clustered around Bernard, at this society retreat are members of the American and European elite, British, Italian, Russian and Hungarian society are represented. Bernard is drawn to Ilona Zapponyi, daughter of a countess, but Ilona has had her heart broken by Kovanski, and the Zapponyi’s leave quickly. Bernard realises that Kovanski is at the hotel in pursuit of the mysterious Madame Solario, still young and beautiful – who arrives amid disturbing rumours of her past. Whispers of a terrible scandal within her family, leading to her being married off to her much older South American husband – only where is he now? And what happened to her brother who disappeared around the same time?

“Bernard saw coming out a lady he had not seen before. She was not a girl, not young in his sense, though he knew she could not be more than twenty-seven or -eight, and his eyes stayed on her – not with any interest that a girl might have aroused, only contemplatively, but stayed, because he at once thought her beautiful. Her figure was a little above medium height and very graceful; she was fair, and she wore a hat trimmed with velvet pansies in shades of mauve that deepened into purple. After she had walked out into the sunlight she opened a white silk parasol, and Bernard saw a tall Italian called Ercolani go quickly up to her; they stood talking – that is to say, she stood very still with her parasol resting on her shoulder, while he did the talking.”

Bernard starts spending time with Madame Solario, she seems to appreciate his easy company. Walking along the winding paths that run alongside the lake, he is a frequent, rather over-awed companion to this elusive beauty. Bernard is a great observer, he watches and listens to everything that goes on around him. Kovanski – who Bernard has taken seriously against – makes Bernard feel young and foolish. Just as Bernard’s unlikely friendship with Natalia Solario begins there is another surprise arrival at the hotel – Eugene Harden, Madame Solario’s brother – whom she hasn’t seen in twelve years, and who calls her Nelly.

The second part of the novel – explores the intense, rather disturbing relationship between Natalia and her brother and their reunion. Eugene cross examines his sister about their past, bitterness, jealousy and shared remembrances come into play. Eugene plots to raise his own social standing by taking advantage of various imagined alliances, and we lose sight almost completely of dear Bernard. This second section, as well as being a bit long is the weakest section of the novel – which is gloriously revived in the final section which sees Natalia leave Cadenabbia, and Bernard is right in the middle of the action as he is given the opportunity to protect the woman who has so beguiled and charmed him.

Gladys Huntingdon tells a story of disturbing scandal, against a backdrop of polite society, under which flows a current of something rather dark.

I finished reading this novel – both impressed and full of questions. Madame Solario remains elusive, we never completely get to know her – and this feels exactly right, as the memory of the glimpses we get of her, haunts the reader long after the book is laid aside.

GladysHuntington

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“I don’t believe you ever see anything dead on, only at a peculiar angle through the corner of your eye”

Given to me by a good friend; Every Eye has been on my tbr for a long time. A slim novella at around 120 pages, I was prompted to read it following a conversation on the Libraything Virago group. A couple of members were discussing the equal brilliance of the last lines of the title story in Roman Fever and the final line of this Persephone novella. Well as I was already reading one I absolutely had to read the other too.

Isobel English is best known for Every Eye, her second novel, she wrote a couple more novels some stories and a play, but as far as I can see none of those are currently available. Isobel English was a pseudonym, her real name was June Braybrooke, and the prologue of this Persephone edition is written by her husband.

“Nothing is ever lost that is begun, no word spoken that can ever be broken down to unco-ordinated syllables, no tear shed that will leave only a powdering of white salt. Everything must go on, and on, and on, repeating itself and gathering force for the ever that is still only the bright whiteness of eternity meditated on by mystics and recluses.”

Every Eye is the story of a young woman whose life could have been made unhappier than it eventually turned out. There is however, a quiet sadness in the midst of what we are supposed to see as her final, recent happiness. We meet Hatty, when she is in her thirties, not long married to a younger man, and anticipating a holiday with her husband Stephen to Ibiza, a delayed honeymoon. On the eve of their departure Hatty hears that Cynthia has died (a few pages later we learn Cynthia had married her uncle 19 years earlier). It is six years since Hatty cut herself free of Cynthia – the novel is an exploration of this relationship – and others – and the impact these relationships have upon her.

As Hatty and Stephen travel by train through Europe toward their holiday destination, Hatty reflects on her relationship with Hatty, her Uncle Otway who Cynthia married, and the relationship she had in her twenties with a much older man. The story switches back and forth between the present and the past, Isobel English’s writing is superb. Hatty is a pianist, and it is around the time that Cynthia came into her life, when she was fourteen, that Hatty began to realise she wouldn’t make her living from playing piano on stage – she does instead become a piano teacher. Uncle Otway is a large presence in her life, a big handsome blustering man, a little interfering in the fatherless girl’s life. Hatty, who always feels like a stranger in her family, doesn’t care much for him, though she likes the small, blue eyed woman, Cynthia; who he brings to the house one day. Cynthia has been married before and has a son the same age as Hatty, she has spent time living in Ibiza – a place the fourteen-year-old Hatty can have no idea she too will one day travel.

Hatty has a problem with one eye, a squint or lazy eye, giving her eye the appearance of looking into the side of her nose, Hatty’s mother encourages her to have an operation to fix it, though it is a very expensive proposition – Hatty is not easily persuaded as she is a little squeamish at the thought. Years later when Hatty begins again to consider it, her mother works hard to dissuade her. Hatty has grown up being advised not to draw attention to it, wear broad brimmed hats to help disguise it.

Sight, as perhaps the title refers to in a way, is a recurring theme, clear-sightedness, the eye of the beholder, the way we see others, the way others see us. Hatty sees her eye as being a deformity, it affects her self-esteem, and impacts on the first proper relationship she has, with an older man. Hatty doesn’t believe he can find her attractive, she is charmed and attracted by his interest in her, his affection and kindness but she can’t help but notice his wrinkled sagging skin, his age. Similarly, as she now journeys with Stephen on their late, long looked forward to honeymoon, she can’t help but notice the disparity in their ages – wondering how others see them. Another theme is age, there is a discernible difference in age in three important relationships within the novel.

Cynthia of course we only see through Hatty’s reminiscence, a woman liked by the fourteen-year-old Hatty, but things change – and gradually Cynthia becomes a more negative presence in her life. Sharp, critical, she subverts Hatty’s first relationship – has Hatty doubting herself. Within a few years of marrying Otway, Cynthia has certainly altered physically, a baby born to her in middle age has played a part in that, as has the reduction of her husband’s army pension. She appears changed in other ways too, more cynical and brittle. When their money no longer stretches as far as it used to, Cynthia takes cleaning jobs behind her husband’s back. Cynthia is a survivor.

“ ‘I don’t know why people have their photographs taken,’ I say. ‘Cynthia altered so much in appearance that strangers used to ask who it was in the place of honour on the piano. She used to laugh; obviously she got a kick in keeping the record of the person she had once been always before her eyes.’
‘It must have been her peak period,’ Stephen smiles. ‘People sometimes go through their whole lives without ever reaching the moment when they are exactly the person they want to be.’ “

The sense of place in the novel is wonderful too – France, Spain and Ibiza by train and boat – places evoked beautifully by Isobel English, although Hatty’s view of them is warped by her view of herself and her memories of the past. The one person we never see clearly however is Stephen – I wonder if this is deliberate – I can only assume it is. Stephen is a bit of a mystery remaining an enigma for the reader as the novel comes to its brilliant end. The ending brings the past and present together in such a way the reader almost wants to go back and start all over again, it is the kind of ending you remember, but also makes you want to re-read – well I’m sure I will one day.

isobel English

 

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On my last trip to the Persephone shop in November the one book I absolutely knew I was going to buy for myself was Every Good Deed and other stories. It is the most recent Dorothy Whipple book to be published by Persephone –  with stories first published in literary journals and other collections mainly in the 1940s.

What I hadn’t realised until I opened it to peruse the contents was that the first story Every Good Deed is a novella at 120 pages, I was excited at the idea of a really long story I could sink my teeth into. Every Good Deed spans a period of around twenty-five years, in the lives of two gentle, innocent sisters. The period is difficult to work out – perhaps it doesn’t matter much, though one sister does already own a car at the beginning of the novel and wears a mushroom hat. Neither of the world wars are mentioned, but I assumed the story to take place in the twenty five years before the second world war – the story first appeared in 1944.

The sisters at the centre of Every Good Deed are the Miss Tophams, Miss Emily and Miss Susan, already in their forties when the story opens. Left quite comfortable by their parents, the sisters live at The Willows together, getting along wonderfully well, each of them living their life according to their talents. Miss Susan manages the house and all domestic matters alongside their faithful cook while the elder sister Emily has her committees and public affairs. Miss Emily is capable and caring and the work she likes best is her involvement with the children’s home. It is the children’s home which indirectly changes their lives forever. The lives of the sisters have slipped along in the same quiet stream for years, they are very content with their lives, their friendship with Cook making her into more of a third member of the family. Their only brother James lives in London, keeping a distanced though not a too interfering eye on his sisters’ affairs.

On one visit to the Children’s home, Miss Emily meets a new arrival (the home has had dealings with this girl before) Gwen Dobson who is thirteen. The matron and her staff find her difficult to deal with, know her to be sly, manipulative little madam, wilful and disobedient. Miss Emily believes that the dear child merely needs kindness – and to diffuse a rapidly escalating situation late one evening Miss Emily takes the girl home to The Willows for the night.

“Before she disappeared round the corner, Gwen, clinging closely to Miss Emily’s silken waist, turned and put out her tongue.”

Gwen stays five years, and the sister’s lives are changed forever. Gwen is difficult, selfish and unappreciative, she rules the roost and the gentle loving sisters whom she now calls Aunt Susan and Aunt Emily continually find excuses for her. They arrange for her to be educated, but Gwen is eventually asked to leave. Gwen always knows how to find her way round the sisters, how best to take full advantage of their gentle, innocent natures. Their dear Cook, more of a friend than a servant, leaves in tears, promising to return if Gwen ever leaves them. The house, once a place of gentle, ordered calm, suffers in Cooks absence, as the sisters struggle to cope with Gwen. One day Gwen does leave, running off with a jazz musician when she is eighteen.

For a while everything returns to the way it was before Gwen arrived five years earlier, even their beloved Cook returns to The Willows. For a year, the sisters and cook live happily, shrugging off the previous five years, blissfully glad to have their old lives back. Then, Gwen returns, and this time she is heavily pregnant, producing a son within hours of her arrival.

“I’d no idea newborn babies looked like this,’ said Susan with awe and delight as she washed the child. ‘Why, he’s a person already. See the way he turns his head to look at us. We’re the first things he has seen in his life, Emily.’”

I won’t reveal any more of the story, but I found it hard to put down. One small criticism; the story could perhaps have done with a little pruning, but it’s a small point, and doesn’t detract from what is a very enjoyable novella.

The other stories in this collection – nine of them, are to my mind outstanding. I am not going to talk about all nine however. Miss Pratt Disappears is probably my favourite. The eponymous Miss Pratt is a downtrodden woman whose capabilities have never been acknowledged by the two sets of selfish relatives with whom she divides her time. Creeping apologetically around their houses, going to bed early, eating like a bird. One night she finds herself locked out of both houses on her change over day – and so Miss Pratt in desperation and with only a small amount of money – catches a bus to a place she was once happy.

In ‘Boarding House’, we see the happiness of several people at a small hotel in its first season, completely destroyed by one selfish woman. A woman, whose loneliness and boredom changes the mood of everyone and the atmosphere of the house.It is a superbly observed little story.

The shortest story is The Swan, just a few pages long, it portrays a single swan, whose mate has been killed. The narrator is desperate to save the swan from spiralling further into madness and grief. It is an unusual story to come from the pen of Dorothy Whipple. And I found it delicately moving.

“Then far away, down one of the waterways, I would see her coming, small in the distance, growing larger and lovelier as she came, swimming strongly towards me. When she reached me, she made little hoarse sounds of pleasure and ate bread from my hand. I had to be careful she didn’t take my fingers with it in her eager beak. I was proud to have made friends with her and naively thought I had consoled her for the loss of her mate.
I was wrong.”

One Dark Night is set during the wartime blackout. A woman who has so far avoided being out in the blackout emerges from a cinema, to find herself in complete and absolute darkness. She steps out in fear, alone, ruminating on the argument which has separated her from her sister, to whom she hasn’t spoken in over a year. Looking desperately for a chink of light by which to find her way, the woman stumbles along a street with shops hiding behind blackout shutters, and desperately opens a door.

This is a quite delicious collection for all Dorothy Whipple fans, and suited my mood perfectly in the dark days of late January when I so needed an escape.

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