Posts Tagged ‘persephone’

I have got quite good at acquiring Persephone books – you need only look at my Persephone page to see how the collection grows (I feel confident in one at Christmas too). However, I haven’t been so quick to read them of late – for no particular reason I can think of.  

In November I treated myself (that’s how it always feels) to reading two Persephone books. The first I was gifted at Christmas last year, the second I bought recently with a voucher I was given in May for my birthday. Six other Persephone remain on my tbr, one novel, four works of non-fiction and a slim volume of poetry, perhaps I need to make more effort next year.  

The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1930) 

I have already spoken about my physical difficulties with this large book – and for a little while that did affect my relationship with the novel. Thankfully I was able to overcome that, and once I had settled into the book properly, I enjoyed it enormously. There are images that I think will stay with me for a while, Canfield Fisher’s writing is very visual – almost cinematic. Set in the years before and during WW1 in the US and France.  

The Deepening Stream centres around Matey Gilbert (Matey is clearly a nickname – though it is never explained) one of three American siblings. Their childhood takes place in various American towns – following their academic father as he takes up new appointments, and France where he takes a sabbatical on two separate occasions. France comes to hold a very special place in Matey’s heart in particular – and her relationship with the Vinet family, who become almost as family while the Gilbert family are in France – is hugely important to her.  

Growing up, Matey and her two siblings Priscilla and Francis tiptoe around their parents – who continually seem to be on the edge of some unexplained battle. The children are scarred by their experience of living under such a cloud and witnessing this fractious marriage. Matey is saved by the love of her dog Sumner – and later by witnessing a scene between her parents that allows her to view them differently.  

Against all odds perhaps, Matey marries very happily. She and Adrian are of one mind, they think and act alike – Adrian even loves France as much as Matey. Two children come along, and then alas does WW1. Matey and Adrian are deeply distressed at the reports coming out of France as the war gets underway. They feel totally unequal to carrying on with their comfortable lives at home while war ravages the country and the people they love. Adrian is a Quaker – so there is no question of him joining the fighting, however in 1915 the couple make what to others seems like an extraordinary decision. Taking their two young children with them, they set sail for France. Here, Adrian will join the ambulance corps while Matey will give what help she can on the home front, staying with the fractured Vinet family who she first knew as a child.  

“‘There’s the dock where we’re going to land,’ said one of the passengers. They approached it more and more slowly. Matey ran her eyes over the people waiting. How French they were! Why did any group of French people look so different to Americans? There was a small, thin old woman in black, with a long mourning-veil, who was crying and waving her handkerchief at someone on the ship. Matey turned her head to see who was waving back at her. No one. She looked again the old woman seemed to be looking at her. 

With a shock Matey knew whose was that ravaged human countenance. Across the narrowing stretch of water, she was looking full into the eyes of Mme Vinet. It was her first glimpse of the war.” 

There is certainly plenty for Matey to do – she has some money left to her husband by an aunt to assist her efforts, Mme Vinet is a shadow of the women she was, her adult children scattered with no word as to how they are. Matey is a force of nature throughout the war, helping those no longer able to help themselves, she is indefatigable in her determination to save people (and especially children) from the poverty, trauma and starvation that the war has brought to so many ordinary, previously comfortable French citizens.  

The novel is a brilliant example of WW1 literature to sit alongside such books as A Testament of Youth.  

The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple (1936) 

In many ways there is a lot less to say about this book than there was about The Deepening Stream. Not because it isn’t wonderful – it really is quite wonderful – but because I can’t possibly do justice to the charming nature of it.  

Apparently, The Other Day, was a book commissioned in 1935 – published a year later – by Dorothy Whipple’s literary agent. It was not a book she particularly wanted to write.  

Dorothy Whipple was born in 1893 – and this book recounts delightfully her first twelve years. She reminds us – should we need it of all the horrors and pitfalls of childhood. How easy it is to get oneself into trouble with the grown-ups, how awful and miserable being taught by an unsympathetic teacher can be, how terrifying the illness of a sibling might feel. Her parents are presented as loving and sensible her siblings are lively and her grandmother is clearly deeply sympathetic and adoring but as children so often are, she frequently frustrated by the decisions that adults make for her.  

“I was aware, very early, of the power of grown-up people. With a word they could destroy your leaping hopes or deprive you of something you cherished with passion. They seemed not only tyrannical, but incalculable; you could never tell beforehand when or why they were going to approve or disapprove.” 

In twelve chapters – each focusing on a particular period in her childhood, Dorothy Whipple takes us to a bygone era, a simpler time perhaps, though one when a child may easily die from pneumonia. She races caterpillars with her siblings, pulls up all the flowers in her father’s garden to give to the old ladies at the alms houses, pays a visit to a hated aunt against her will, holidays in the Isle of Man and survives a miserable time at school before being sent to the glorious convent school. The family live in a Lancashire town at first, later moving to the country for part of the year. Here we witness again Dorothy’s love of the Lancashire countryside that she recounts so beautifully in Random Commentary.  

Children it seems are not so very different, whether they are born in 1893 or 1993 – those things that are important to children will always be the same. Dorothy Whipple reminds us of that, and I do think reading this and Random Commentary provides the Whipple fan with a fantastic portrait of the woman who gave us those fabulous novels and stories. All of which I suppose I shall just have to re-read one of these days.  

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I am writing this while in a very bad mood – and that’s why I haven’t blogged earlier in the week as I had originally intended and why I am behind in reading and commenting on other blogs. It is amazing how trying to sort out what should be a minor issue can become all-consuming, take over your days, and interrupt your nights. I am so distracted and mithered that I am finding it hard to concentrate. I am already finding writing full reviews more challenging than it used to be, so I didn’t really need this as well.  

However, while I am struggling to write properly about books, I am reading them – not in such large numbers as I would like but I am thoroughly enjoying the business of reading, choosing what to read next and sitting quietly for a while with a book. There’s a special kind of comfort in sitting up late in silence while the world slows down a little and entering that world that you have wanted to return to since you last laid the books aside. That never diminishes. A feeling that only the booklover understands. 

The book I started November with is the perhaps oddly titled Two Thousand Million Man Power by Gertrude Trevelyan (1937) which I was delighted to receive a review copy of. I will definitely be reviewing it later this month. It’s a brilliant novel – ignored for something like eighty years it is finally being reissued by Boiler House Press at the end of the month. It’s about a man and a woman, ordinary people over several years, against the backdrop of all that was going on in the 1920s and 1930s, their dreams and the slow destruction of those dreams when everyday life is brought into play. I shall say nothing more, but please look out for it; it really is quite brilliant.  

Several weeks ago, I suddenly had the urge to re-read Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour (1947) – which I did. Re-reading Elizabeth Taylor is always a pleasure and I decided I should give myself permission to do this more often. Then quite coincidentally my book group decided to read an Elizabeth Taylor for November, and after some discussion we settled on Palladian (1946). So, my second read of the month has been that. I found my memory of it to have been rather sketchy – I remembered a few important things but had forgotten others. It certainly isn’t her best book, but there are flashes of her brilliance in it, and while parts are a little over-wrought, her characterisation is as fine as ever. I finished rather sorry there wasn’t just a little more.  

That, I suppose is why we keep the books we do. So that we can one day take out an old friend, open up the pages and say – “ah, yes, I remember you.” There is a comfort in familiarity too.  

I haven’t bought any books for a few weeks (polishes halo) but a couple have come into my life. Two Christmas themed reads from the British Library The White Priory Murders a mystery for Christmas by Carter Dickson (1934) (aka John Dickson Carr) and from the women writers’ series Stories for Christmas (2022). I am saving both for next month. I have also just redeemed a Persephone gift voucher I had from Liz back in May for my birthday. I have ordered Dorothy Whipple’s The Other Day (1936)– and I can’t wait for it to come.  

Speaking of Persephone, I realised I had quite a bit of a Persephone backlog, I received several last Christmas which I still haven’t read. So, while everyone else seems to be reading novellas for novellas in November (I shall try to join in later in the month) I am contemplating starting one of two huge Persephone tomes. I just fancy getting really stuck into a big novel. I have The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger (1934) and The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1930) to choose between, and I fully intend to settle down later this afternoon and make my choice. There are still a few other Persephones unread in the cupboard, but I have a feeling that I shall probably cheat and read that new Dorothy Whipple before I read them.  

That’s all from me for now, I shall endeavour to write properly about something I have read soon. In the meantime, happy reading.  

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A Well Full of Leaves is one of the two most recently published books by Persephone, and I was lucky to receive this one for my birthday from Liz. It has been out of print for decades, the author herself died prematurely in 1947. The piece on the Persephone website about this novel seems to suggest that it may be a book that will divide readers. I can see why that might be, I enjoyed it – though I feel enjoyed is the wrong word, as there is a lot of unhappiness here. I would say don’t be put off by the Kirkus review that is pasted into the description of the novel on Goodreads. This is a novel that is very beautifully written, and while some readers may dislike the long descriptive passages, others will relish the prose.

This is the story of a childhood, the growth of four siblings to maturity following their bleak and terrible childhood. Narrated by Laura Valley, the third of four siblings, as the novel opens she is thirteen, she has an older sister Anda, an older brother Robert and a younger brother Steve. They live in a horrible little house, in a horrible street with fairly horrible parents. Their father is mainly pathetic, he bets on the horses and loses, drinks a lot, and has been completley dominated by his terrible, bullying wife. Their mother is possibly the worst mother I have come across in fiction, she is cruel, spiteful and uncaring. She casts a long shadow over the inhabitants of that house, in which no one is ever very happy.

“It isn’t everyone who has a mother like ours. She was a specialist whose specialities never touched the kind, the gentle, or the constructive. She was at her best when she was toppling the entire scene. All her dislike of us and the world in general was extended into whatever she was doing. Under her hands soapsuds were angry, clothes sneered, steam menaced, crockery raved.”

Her greatest loathing is directed at Steve the youngest. At just eleven, he is already shaping up to be a great Greek scholar, winning a scholarship for the Grammar school. Laura is determined that he will continue his education, and make it to the university in a few years’ time. Robert has been forced to leave school at fourteen, and is working as a clerk, this despite his enormous fascination for history which continues despite his having left school. Anda the eldest at sixteen, is a traffic stopping beauty, and she has no intention of staying in that house much longer.

Laura has her own unique way of surviving the misery of her surroundings. She has a wonderful capacity to see outside of herself – to see beauty in the smallest of things – to enjoy the rain or the wind or the sound of a bird. Laura’s love of nature saves her – though reader beware, this is no adult fairy-tale.

“The wind was not just a casual noise to be swallowed up and forgotten with the other noises of the street. It had risen in the thin blown-glass of waves meeting a far-off shore; it had travelled from beaches where the sea slid forward and fled back again, grinding the shells to sand; this wind had boomed in slippery caves with hanging seaweeds for aeolian harps; it had blown across wild heaths setting tatted winter weeds jigging, careered through copses and wild-wood and quiet country cemeteries where tombstones listened to it impassively in the moonlight; it reached the towns, roaring round the theatres and churches, past shut shops where quails and shrimps and sheep’s brains and forced strawberries were all quietly waiting to be bought and devoured and so become the blood and thoughts of men and women. And it came at last to shabby streets like our own, shrieking aghast through leagues of brick and hovels, whipping the waters of lonely, warehouse-enclosed canals into long stiff ridges of black cream, and finally going off blustering and spent to the hills beyond the town.”

It is in these descriptions and observations of the natural world that Myers is at her very best. She reminds us that even in the humblest of streets the same gentle breeze may blow as over any green field – that a bird, or a blade of grass, a wildflower can sometimes be enough to lift the spirits.

Anda escapes the house for life with a kindly artist, many years her senior, though the relationship appears to be platonic. Later, she marries into aristocracy, and enters London society. Steve’s hopes of continuing his education are thwarted by his vile mother, who simply can’t allow any of her children even a modicum of happiness. Steve accidentally finds the world of the theatre, and by the time he is in his early twenties he is a huge success. Laura stays at home long enough to care for her father in his last illness, as she can’t bear to leave him to her mother’s not so tender mercies. Then she moves in with Steve, and falls in love with a married playwright that Steve introduces her to. Steve is the most damaged of the Valley siblings, his relationships with those around him anything but healthy, women adore him, but he uses them, despising them, throwing them aside. He can’t leave the past behind, and carries his bitterness with him every day. As the years pass, Laura becomes the only person that Steve can tolerate.

I think the reader probably knows early on that there are no happy endings here, Myers shows us how impossible it is to rectify the damage of a terrible childhood. I won’t say any more than that because of spoilers.

I am glad that Persephone brought this back into print, I know Elizabeth Myers wrote other books too, but it does seem she disappeared without trace.

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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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It seemed like quite a while since I had settled down with a Persephone book, and so reading this one felt like quite a treat. After a good Christmas haul, I have now amassed a lovely little pile of unread Persephone books to add to my enormous collection of already read Persephone books.

The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins might seem like a surprising addition to the Persephone list, but it isn’t really. Wilkie Collins was a man ahead of his time in his attitudes to society and women – and he was often angered by the injustices that he saw around him. I read a lot of Wilkie Collins about thirty years ago, and The New Magdalen was one I had read before, I had retained some memory of it, but little of the detail. It is of course from the genre called the sensation novel – and is a great page turner.

The novel centres on Mercy Merrick a young ‘fallen’ woman, as the society of that time would have judged her – who sets about trying to rehabilitate her character, and reputation in an unforgiving society. She sees her chance and takes it – but nothing is ever as simple as that.

If you’re familiar with the sensation novel, then you’ll know the kind of thing you’re going to get. It’s a very particular kind of storytelling, quite different from modern novels, but in that it does provide a degree of escapism, which I appreciated. The world of the sensation novel is small and full of coincidences. This is necessary for the plot to move along at the cracking pace that it does, so the modern reader needs to let go of that inner cynic that is apt to cry “really!” So, a principle character only needs to sit and idly remember someone they once loved/met/was inspired by and the reader knows that person will be turning up soon, and anyone they meet in one place will be part of the family or social circle they settle into later.

Mercy Merrick has had a difficult life already when we first meet her, one that had led her to a refuge for fallen women in London. Each time she has begun a new life, a new job, someone finds out about her past and it all comes crashing down.

“For three years past all that a sincerely penitent woman can do I have done. It doesn’t matter. Once let my past story be known, and the shadow of it covers me: the kindest people shrink”

Having left the refuge again, Mercy is now working as a nurse in France during the Franco-Prussian war. As the novel opens Mercy is sheltering in a small cottage, as the French and Germans close by try to blow each other to pieces. With her in the cottage is a French officer, a surgeon some wounded men and another young woman in need of shelter. Grace Roseberry is on her way from Canada to England. English born, she hasn’t been back since she was a child, and now with her father recently dead, she has no one in the world. She is however carrying letters of introduction from her father to a Lady Janet Roy – who Grace hopes will take her in, and employ her as a companion in her large London mansion. Grace confides all of this to Mercy as they sit waiting for the crisis to end. However, the cottage is badly shelled, and Grace takes a direct hit.

Mercy takes her chance – in terrible fear of being discovered, but desperate for a chance, she swaps places with Grace Roseberry, who lies lifeless in a French cottage. She takes Graces clothes, the precious papers and calling herself by the name Grace Roseberry she makes her way to England and to the home of Lady Janet Roy.

“To the mistress of the house, and to all who inhabit it or enter it, she is known as Grace Roseberry, the orphan relative by marriage of Lady Janet Roy. To herself alone she is known as the outcast of the London streets; the inmate of the London Refuge; the lost young woman who has stolen her way back – after vainly trying to fight her way back – to Home and Name. There she sits in the grim shadow of her own terrible secret, disguised in another person’s identity, and established in another person’s place. Mercy Merrick had only to dare, and to become Grace Roseberry if she pleased. She has dared, and she has been Grace Roseberry for nearly four months past.”

Although she has had a difficult life, and has now entered into a fraud, Mercy is a good woman, the reader knows this immediately, Mercy is constantly conflicted by what she is done, and grateful for everything that comes after. Lady Janet takes her in, gives her a home, employs her as a companion, and soon starts calling Mercy her adopted daughter. One of the men who helped liberate her from the cottage is Horace, a friend of Lady Janet’s and is clearly smitten with Mercy, and is soon asking her to marry him. Lady Janet’s nephew Julian is a clergyman, a man with a strong social conscience he is often out of step with the narrow, thinking of the society in which he lives. Mercy once heard him speak, while she was still at the refuge and has never forgotten him. Julian is also deeply affected by Mercy. Julian has been contacted by someone asking him for help, a young woman is in need of assistance after being caught up in the war in France and terribly injured.

For Grace Roseberry hadn’t been killed, she had been terribly injured and it has taken a long time for her to be recovered enough to travel to England. She is full of anger, looking for revenge desperate to right the wrong she realises has been done to her. She is proud and in no mood for forgiveness or charity.  I’m sure it is no coincidence that one of these women is called Mercy and the other Grace, for one of them has both these attributes, and one of them has neither.

The New Magdalen is definitely in the thumping good read category of novels. Great page turning escapism and a story that reveals all those anxieties that people of the Victorian era held – anxieties which resonate still, even in 2022.

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I am as you are all probably aware a big fan of Elizabeth von Arnin and of course a big Persephone fan so a book combining the two felt like a real treat. This wonderful Elizabeth von Arnim novel was out of print for decades before Persephone brought it back. I can’t understand why it was out of print so long, perhaps the rather unexciting title is partly responsible. For me, Expiation felt like classic von Arnim.

This is a novel full to the brim of Elizabeth von Arnim’s delicious wit, a satirically humorous novel about middle class prudery and close-minded cruelty. Everything about this novel is perfect – each scene, each piece of dialogue is simply superb. Even the name chosen for our heroine’s in-laws is perfect – Bott – a word that can be spat out in exasperation and disgust as poor Milly might long to do. Oh, those Botts!

“That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continually increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, ordered. Titford was full of Botts, and every one of them a credit to it.”

As the novel opens Milly Bott is surrounded by her sorrowing in-laws – her husband died in a road accident a few days earlier, they have buried him and the solicitor is about to read the will. Everyone adores Milly, in her forties, she is soft and comforting and good – and never gave poor Ernest a moments trouble. Though the couple remained childless she was a good wife to Ernest. The Bott clan is a large one, an elderly mother-in-law and several sons and daughters each with their own wives and husbands and offspring. These people are drawn so well – they are hilariously infuriating, and while Milly may have committed adultery, our sympathies are one hundred per cent with her. There is something very lovable about Milly – perhaps because she isn’t perfect, and the Botts are so insufferable, pompous and rather absurd. We know how well von Arnim writes such absurd creatures, her portrayal of them is always wincingly accurate.

In the polite suburb of Titford the Bott family are well known and well thought off – the Botts are suitably proud of their position. They are respectable in every way – and consider themselves the leading lights of behaviour and morality.  However, the Botts are about to be shaken to the core. When the will is read, it is revealed that Ernest has left all his money to a charity for ‘fallen women’ – adding the dark rejoinder that his wife will know why. Milly will have just a £1000 of his large estate for herself. Speculation is immediate and not kind – by page 29 the reader knows that the Bott speculation is pretty spot on.

“It had begun quite by chance. And what a chance, thought Milly, looking back now with the horrified clear vision which is the portion of the found out, at the beginning. Such small things had made it begin. Five minutes earlier, five minutes later, and she never would have met Arthur. A missed train, a slower taxi, even just a pause to watch the pigeons in the courtyard, or, indeed, even a little decent reserve, and she would have been saved. But the train was caught, the taxi was swift, the pigeons didn’t interest her, and in she went; and there, in the British Museum, in the gallery where the busts of the Roman emperors are, she met Arthur Oswestry, and they sinned.”

For ten years Milly had been having an affair with a man she met in The British Museum – and now she realises, due to the date of the will, that Ernest had known for the last two. For readers of a novel first published in 1929, this was far more shocking than it would be today.

The novel is the story of Milly’s attempt at expiation, at atonement for her great sin. This involves her deciding to escape the Botts by fleeing to her sister who many years earlier disgraced the family – and who Ernest had barred Milly from contacting – yet in a wonderful bit of past defiance had continued to write to. Only, things don’t quite work out as Milly had planned. We follow Milly as she encounters the harsh world of disapproval in the guise of her sister changed by circumstance, a nosy landlady and the sneering, family lawyer. She even feels unworthy of her £1000, and the deep black of mourning that she is wearing. Poor Milly wears her shame heavily and is horribly hard on herself.  In time Milly must make her way back to Titford – and the world of the Botts – submitting meekly to their plans for her.  

Anyone worrying that this will all be horribly bleak and sad, fear not – in Elizabeth von Arnim’s hands it is anything but. Ultimately this is marvellously uplifting – and I defy anyone not to fall in love with dear Milly.

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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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I adore Katherine Mansfield’s short stories – some of which I swear I could happily read over and over. Therefore, I had been looking forward to Journal which I have had waiting for the perfect moment for some time. Unfortunately, I don’t think I did necessarily choose the right moment, I think my mood wasn’t quite right for this book – which has so many beautiful, wonderful nuggets within it that I can’t possibly take anything away from it – I just wasn’t as delighted by it as perhaps I had assumed I would be. That said, there is always lots to love about Mansfield’s writing – and I learned more about her the woman, reading this, than I knew before – so all in all it was a positive read – I just wish I had felt more enthusiastic at the time. Definitely a case of right book, not quite right time.  

A few years before this Journal begins, Katherine Mansfield has left her native New Zealand for Europe – where she remained – living at multiple addresses throughout the period- until her death. London, Cornwall, France, Italy, and Switzerland it appears that Katherine was for ever packing up and travelling from one place to another. We see these places through her wonderful eye – and experience her delight in often the simplest things – her wants seem to have been few – she took joy from the smallest of things.

“The heavens opened for the sunset to-night. When I had thought the day folded and sealed, came a burst of heavenly bright petals.”

Various friends and acquaintances flit in and out of these pieces, referred to by their initials – there is an explanation of who each set of initials refers to in the front of the book. Her one constant companion – aside from John, who sometimes stayed in London when Katherine went abroad – is LM – Ida Baker who Katherine called Lesley Moore who was a loyal and constant presence in her life until she died.

Compiled by her husband John Middleton; after Katherine Mansfield’s death it is a uniquely personal and revealing book. I know John Middleton has come in for criticism in the past – accused perhaps of benefitting too greatly from his wife’s legacy and making decisions to publish things that Katherine would rather he hadn’t. I think perhaps that is why I often feel a little uncomfortable reading collections like this – I can never quite escape the little voice in my head whispering – ‘would she want me to read this?’ Still, I do love Katherine Mansfield – not just her writing – but her – the person she was, complex, creative, flawed and often a little sad. One day I will read this Journal again – because it is wonderful, and next time, I will be in a better mood – and appreciate it even more.

Journal is a book of many kinds of writing, there are diary entries, unposted letters, writing drafts and reminiscences. One of the things that certainly struck me early on is the honesty with which Katherine wrote here – she is hugely self-critical and always observant. Chronicling the last twelve years of her life we see her in every kind of mood – in love, in happiness in delight in the world around her but also in grief, despair and of course in illness.

“By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love — the earth and the wonders thereof — the sea — the sun. All that we mean when we speak of the external world. A want to enter into it, to be part of it, to live in it, to learn from it, to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious direct human being. I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it’s no good — there’s only one phrase that will do) a child of the sun. About helping others, about carrying a light and so on, it seems false to say a single word. Let it be at that. A child of the sun.”

Her creativity is in evidence throughout – her stories never very far from her mind – her battles to perfect her writing – and her great desire to see her work in print. She would read her stories to John and when he pronounced them good she would be pleased, but later self -doubt would creep in and unsettle her again, this is so often the case with those writers we later declare genius!

“Saw the sun rise. A lovely apricot sky with flames in it and then solemn pink. Heavens, how beautiful…I feel so full of love to-day after having seen the sun rise.”

Often writing in reflective mood, Katherine writes about her childhood – memories of New Zealand would swamp her. She writes about her mother from whom she never felt love – and her adored grandmother for who she still felt a great loss. Her beloved brother is killed almost as soon as he stepped on to French soil during the First World War, and a note from Middleton tells us sadly, that of all her friends who went to war, none came home. Yet, despite this we get little sense at all of the war – even though the war years make up a large part of this Journal. In a sense the world she writes about is fairly narrow – but it is all her own.

Journal is a book full of beautiful, tender moments – written by a woman who must have known her time was limited – and who strove to leave something of herself behind through her writing.

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Unusually I’m reviewing two books in one post – something I don’t think I have ever done before. Partly, this is an attempt to catch up at least a tiny bit and partly, because the second of the books is poetry – which I find so much harder to write about. Thematically the books work together well, focussing as they do, though in different ways on WW2 and I was actually reading them side by side for at least part of the time.

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald is the seventh of her nine novels that I have read – though it is seven years since I last read her at all. I’ve no idea why I had waited so long – this novel must surely be one of her best. Atmospheric, funny and hugely readable, due in no small part to the wonderfully vivid characters, Fitzgerald’s world is immediately relatable.

“As an institution that could not tell a lie, they were unique in the contrivances of gods and men since the Oracle of Delphi. As office managers, they were no more than adequate, but now, as autumn approached, with the exiles crowded awkwardly into their new sections, they were broadcasting in the strictest sense of the word, scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of a few that made their mark. And everyone who worked there, bitterly complaining about the short-sightedness of their colleagues, the vanity of the news readers, the remoteness of the Controllers and the restrictive nature of the canteen’s one teaspoon, felt a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.”

London during the early years of World War two – and the men and women who make their living in Broadcasting House are committed to recording and sharing the voices and experiences of wartime Britain. Their mission always to tell the truth on air. The war has brought changes for all of them, with blackouts, bombs falling, and a dormitory set up in the concert hall for those working late. As the war progresses, little anxieties creep in, as the professional interests of different departments clash. The BBC have decided that truth must never be sacrificed for the sake of consolation – that people must know exactly what is happening in the war, must have all the information they require. There is a fabulous set piece when a French general arrives at Broadcasting House to address Britain – it very nearly leads to disaster.

Sam Brooks the RPD spends very long hours at Broadcasting House, barely leaving it. He likes to confide his worries to the young female assistants he surrounds himself with, pushing plates of cheese sandwiches under their noses as he talks. Annie and Lise are two recent recruits finding their way in the confusing world of broadcasting. Lise spends a lot of time talking about her French boyfriend. Needing somewhere to live she is briefly befriended by Vi – a more experienced member of the team and is taken home to lodge with Vi’s family. Lise seems like a troubled young woman, and drifts in and out of BH, appearing and disappearing without word.

“‘All my energies are concentrated, and always have been, and always will be, on one thing, the recording of sound and of the human voice. That doesn’t make for an easy life, you understand.’”

There is no doubt that Sam is a perfectionist, his work an obsession. Jeff Haggard is the DPP – he and Sam have been working together for more than a decade. Whenever Sam gets himself into a bit of a fix it’s generally Jeff who has to sort him out – they make a pretty good team. Both men have marital difficulties in their fairly recent past – acknowledged briefly though not talked about. Sam takes new girl Annie under his wing, the daughter of a piano tuner from Birmingham, Sam wants to teach her all he knows about sound and is more than a bit non plussed when she corrects him on a matter of pitch.

Fitzgerald was writing from her own experience of working for the BBC during the war, and that comes across strongly in the atmosphere she reproduces here.

Virginia Graham’s volume of world war two poems Consider the Years turned out to be a wonderful companion to Human Voices. Originally, I began reading it for the Persephone readathon a few weeks ago – only reading half of it during that weekend, I continued to dip in and out throughout the following week.

These war poems are thoroughly delightful, many of them loosely structured they are in fact written in a variety of styles. Arranged chronologically by the year they were written; they allow us to see the changing nature of war. Virginia Graham uses her poetry to chronicle her war – and her poetry is, suggests Anne Harvey, writing the preface to this edition, quite close to that of Betjeman.

There is a narrative to many of the poems which one could quite easily see as mini short stories. We have debutantes at a country hunt ball, air raids over Bristol, wartime food, soldiers on leave, the changed atmosphere of everyday life, so many aspects in fact of life during wartime.

One of my favourite poems from 1939 is Somewhere in England – in which I can really imagine people harking back to happier times, when there was less urgency in their daily routines.

“Somewhere there must be women reading books,
and talking of chicken rissoles to their cooks;

But every time I try to read The Grapes of Wrath

I am sent forth

On some occupation

Apparently immensely vital to the nation.

(‘Somewhere in England’)”

I don’t read much poetry these days, but this one was a real treat. Virginia Graham is warm and humorous, her social commentary witty and well observed. A truly fabulous little collection.

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