Posts Tagged ‘persephone’

Hetty Dorval Persephone book 58, is a modern classic in Canadian literature. A slim volume it is a delightful quick read, that could be read in one sitting. There is an ambiguity about the titular character which I found especially interesting.

Frances (Frankie) Burnaby is just a young girl when Mrs Dorval comes to Lytton in British Columbia. Her arrival causes some discussion in the town that impresses Frankie and her friend Ernestine with whose family she lives during the week. Frankie’s own family live on a farm fifteen miles out of town, and Frankie is trusted with riding between her home and the town each weekend so she can spend Friday afternoon to Sunday evening with her family. During the week Frankie is happy with Ernestine and her family, going to the public school as well as receiving French lessons at the convent. She and Ernestine enjoy taking walks out of the town, hanging round the railway station, seeing what’s going on. They witness the arrival of Mrs Dorval’s furniture and are immediately curious. The two girls decide to go to Mrs Dorval’s house and see if they can see her through the windows. The woman they see is Mrs Broom – who takes care of Hetty Dorval and has arrived ahead of her to set up the house. 

“Through the years in the various times and places in which I came to know Mrs Dorval, I never failed to have the same faint shock of delight as I saw her profile in repose, as it nearly always was. I can only describe it by saying that it was very pure.”

When Frankie finally meets Hetty Dorval it is accidentally. Frankie is riding back to town from her parent’s farm when she comes across Mrs Dorval riding the same way. Frankie falls into conversation with a woman who immediately fascinates her with her beauty, youth and poise. Hetty invites Frankie to tea and makes her promise to not tell anyone she has visited – hiding in another room Frankie witnesses the non-too subtle dismissal of the local clergyman. Frankie visits Hetty several times where Mrs Broom – aka Mouse is always in attendance and frequently on the receiving end of Hetty’s irritation, although it is clear she gives as good as she gets.

When Frankie finally comes clean to her parents about her visits to Mrs Dorval – who they have never met – she is made to promise to stop her association with her immediately. It would seem that stories have followed Hetty from Shanghai to Lytton and popular opinion is firmly against her.

Frankie loses sight of Hetty for a few years, as she goes away to school shortly afterwards and Hetty ends up leaving Lytton too. After Frankie leaves school she and her mother take a trip to England. In the way that only ever happens in fiction, Frankie leaves the wilds of Canada, and on a trip to England bumps into her enigmatic former neighbour not once but twice.

“I turned as soon as I felt it was safe, and I feel now that before I turned I felt a pricking in my thumbs. Perhaps not. Well, I turned, and by this time the woman had stopped looking in our direction and was again listening to the two men in a way infinitely gentle and pretty. It was Hetty. I gave a little gasp. ‘What, Frankie?’ asked Mother.

‘Mother,’ I said very quietly, ‘you won’t believe me, but that’s Mrs Dorval.’

Mother turned and faced me, all seriousness. ‘Frankie! You don’t mean that!’ She paused ‘So that is the Menace! Frankie I can’t believe it. Not that girl! She can’t be Mrs Dorval.’”

In England Frankie stays with her mother’s godfather Mr Trethewey and his son Richard and daughter Molly. Frankie is really happy, becoming close to both Molly and Richard, in time she finds herself falling in love with Richard. Then one day while out with Richard and Molly she bumps into Hetty again, who she had seen briefly aboard ship. Frankie sees Richard and Molly become as instantly fascinated – as she once was, with Hetty Dorval. Hetty is newly widowed, but as compelling as ever. Frankie is older now, and she sees Hetty quite differently to how she did when she was younger.

It is Frankie’s changing perspective that is most interesting. When she first meets Hetty she is an innocent, she responds to Hetty quite naturally, uninfluenced by society’s prejudices. When she meets Hetty again, she has more awareness of the gossip that followed Hetty to Lytton and why her parents stopped her seeing her. Hetty is a fascinating character – she tries to keep herself to herself holding the community of Lytton at arm’s length. We know little about her past, but she is clearly self-absorbed and quite capable of throwing off her past with practised ease.

Hetty Dorval is a wonderfully ambiguous novella with a fabulous sense of place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in 1918, Despised and Rejected was published under the pseudonym A T Fitzroy, given the book’s themes it is perhaps unsurprising that it was subject to a trial, consigned to the list of forgotten novels by women when it was banned under the Defence of the Realm Act. Published by a committed pacifist, the book was reviewed poorly, later put on trial and the publisher fined. One hundred years after its publication it was brought back by Persephone books, now re-issued under the author’s true name.

“ ‘…one can’t say that it is all for nothing: those train-loads and boat-loads of cheery boys taken from the land, the workshops, the universities, who go out singing and joking to their death; who never did anything remarkable in their life before, and yet who do incredible plucky things on the battlefield; the patient heroes on both sides who do their bit and much more than their bit, because it’s been instilled into their faithful hearts that it’s right that should do…”

The novel’s opening belies the strong themes present in the rest of the book; it has the feel of a light social comedy – perhaps this makes what comes next all the more powerful. July 1914 and the Blackwood family are enjoying a holiday at a hotel in Devon, they have been joined by Ottilie; a young German woman who has been staying with them at their home in Eastwold on the outskirts of London.  Also present is Antoinette de Courcy, Mr Griggs and a young woman called Hester Cawthorn. Mrs Blackwood is a socially ambitious mother of two sons and a daughter Doreen, her husband is traditionally dominant. Mrs Blackwood adores her eldest son Dennis – whose arrival is imminent; he has been studying music much to the disapproval and disgust of his father. Dennis arrives with fellow musician Crispin, and they are coerced into joining in with an evening of dramatic and musical entertainment.

It is fairly obvious to the reader why it is Dennis doesn’t entirely fit in with his staunchly conventional family – and it isn’t anything to do with his artistic nature. Dennis befriends Antoinette – recognising in her what she doesn’t even know about herself. Antoinette has developed a devastating crush for Hester, and she isn’t the first woman Antoinette has felt like that about. Dennis is desperate to hide his own homosexual nature – he sees it as a terrible affliction.

“The secret terror, that had beset him ever since he was a boy, was upon him, urging him to flight; secret terror, unavowed, unshared, upon which even in thought he had scarcely allowed himself to dwell… terror that nevertheless had been part and parcel of his being, since the first dawn of adolescence.

Different from the others, even in his schooldays; different, not only by reason of his music. He must befor ever an outcast amongst men, shunned by them. He was maddened by fear and horror and loathing of himself.”

Freed of her infatuation of Hester – following an awkward visit to her in Birmingham, Antoinette becomes much closer to Dennis. He starts to court her – desperate for a cover – but Dennis cares too much for Antoinette to deceive her and he tells her about himself – about his love for a young man called Alan and tries to get Antoinette to recognise her own true nature. However, Dennis is the one man that Antoinette is able to love – and while she accepts Dennis for who he is – she is hurt very deeply. To have this kind of acceptance in a novel written in 1918 is extraordinary – Antoinette is jealous of Alan – but unable to hate him.

The outbreak of war changes the tone of the novel – Dennis is also a pacifist – as are many of his friends and acquaintances. England at this time was very pro-war – and Allatini brilliantly portrays the almost religious like fervour of the times – with everyone keen to send their sons, brothers and lovers off to fight. Dennis’s friends are people Antoinette begins spending time with, in the company of Dennis, she listens to their arguments and impassioned objections to the war. She becomes a supporter of their cause; Dennis and his friends are conscientious Objectors – passionately against the killing of other human beings, having no wish to kill other young men like themselves they have no argument with. In the first year of the war they are constantly asked why they aren’t in khaki. The Blackwoods are embarrassed by Dennis – his brother is in the army – as is his sister’s fiancé – and Eastwold society don’t quite know how to treat Mrs Blackwood now her son is such a disgrace.  

In 1915 conscription comes in, and the COs as they are called are subject to highly prejudicial tribunals – arrested and put into prison when they fail to comply with their tribunal. Antoinette watches the proceedings with increasing horror – the tribunals judged by men well past fighting age.

“…they all looked pompous, comfortable, overfed; and at the present moment, righteously indignant. These old men had lived their lives; they would neither be called upon to shed their blood for their country, nor to go to prison if they upheld opposing views; they had probably sent their sons to the war, but of themselves no personal sacrifice would be demanded. They were old- they were safe – and what right had they to send out the young men to kill each other.”

Dennis is terrified more for Alan than for himself – and Antoinette is terrified for Dennis – feeling she has no right to be. Everywhere, there are people saying – those in prison are at least safe – they have no idea of the horrors these men were subjected to.

We know all too well what a toll, the First World War had on the young fighting men of Europe. Despised and Rejected reminds us what a devastating toll it took on those who felt themselves unable to fight because their consciences wouldn’t let them – branded as cowards and traitors by the people who were supposed to understand them best. It is a novel well ahead of its time in its attitudes to pacifism and homosexuality as well as its clear desire to see the continent of Europe united. It is a bravely honest novel, that exposes the terrifying jingoism of a country obsessed with war.

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Translated from the French by Francine Yorke

Maman, What are we Called Now? Is Persephone book number 115, first published in French in 1957, it was re-issued by Persephone in 2015. It is the diary of a few weeks in 1944, after the author’s husband was arrested. It depicts the last weeks of the German occupation of Paris.

In July 1944 Jacqueline began her diary, the allies had landed in June – there was the feeling the nightmare could end. Then, Jaqueline’s beloved Andre disappeared. Jacqueline began her diary to record her hopes and fears as well as her memories. Alongside these are her descriptions of Paris in these last tense weeks of occupation, as the Germans start to pull out and de Gaulle’s Free French arrive.

Andre and Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar were a French Jewish couple who had enjoyed a privileged lifestyle before the war. They believed themselves to have fully assimilated, they were French first, Jewish second. Andre was from an old banking family; he had initially joined the French army as a lieutenant but had found his way back to Paris after his demobilisation following the occupation. Before the war, Jaqueline had written articles and sketches of French society for magazines. By the summer of 1944, the couple and their nine year old daughter were living hidden lives, living under assumed identities, Andre working as a liaison officer for London. I can only imagine, the fear that went along with living in such a way, forged papers that would barely stand up to scrutiny, relying on the loyalties of others.

The title of the book is taken from the question that young Sylvie Mesnil-Amar asked her mother one day in a crowded railway station – no doubt keen not to make a mistake. The question, of course could have had catastrophic consequences had anyone been paying attention to them. During these weeks Jaqueline is still surrounded by friends, those sympathetic to the cause of the resistance and who from time to time get to hear snippets of important information about who has been taken where.

The diary ends in August 1944, Paris is liberated, and there is suddenly a happy, if unexpected ending for the Mesnil-Amars.

“The bells of Paris are ringing and ringing. And I am crying for my prisoners, my pale prisoners, out there on the far side of the world. I am crying for those who have fallen in the last battle, those who died yesterday, this morning, all those who will never know that Paris is free, that France will be free. I am crying for my absent friends, I am crying for my absent husband.”

After the diary we have several pages of photographs from the American photographer Thérèse Bonney, taken in Paris in 1943. They are powerful images.

The second part of the book are a series of short essays and reminiscences by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar written between 1945-1946.

“Now, once more, on clear summer mornings in the countryside, we’ll hear the clack of the gardener’s shears as he cuts the grass, the distant sound of trotting horses and cart-wheels on the road, the toot of a car horn, the spinning garden-sprinkler with its little hail of rain, and the postman’s step on the gravel. In Paris we’ll hear the wonderful, deafening roar of cars on the boulevards, impatient horns hooting along the length of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré at 5 o’clock in the evening, and we’ll hear the traditional cries of Paris, in quiet old, out of the way streets, ‘Rabbit skins! Skins!’; and the rag and bone men calling out ‘any ol’ clothes?’; and we’ll hear shouts of ‘Lovely cherries, ladies, buy my sweet cherries,’ followed in the winter by cries of ‘hot chestnuts, hot chestnuts…’ around glowing braziers on street corners.”

In these pieces she asks some fairly difficult, but understandable, questions. Time and again she comes back to children and what they really knew or understood and what the impact upon them might have been. By this time, she was feeling very angry about the people around her – those people who once she would have associated with in those heady pre-war days. These were the people who collaborated with the Germans, or who apathetically carried on with their nice lives. She asks questions about the future and the past.

Both parts of this book are beautifully written, powerfully poignant and endlessly quotable. Maman, What are we Called Now? Is a fantastic companion to other war books – both fiction and non-fiction, books like Little Boy Lost, Few Eggs and No Oranges, A Letter to my Children and others.

I wonder though, at Persephone’s choice of title; the original title was “Ceux qui ne dormaient pas” which I believe translates as something like; Those who did not sleep – which I think is a much better title.

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Emmeline is Persephone book number 123, reissued by Persephone in 2017, it’s an American historical novel first published in 1980, by the author of Looking for Mr Goodbar. I haven’t read that earlier novel, which according to Lucy Ellmann in her afterword to this edition is not nearly so well written as Emmeline, calling it a sub-porn peep show. Yet it is that novel which made the author’s name. This novel Ellmann claims – and I absolutely agree – is a howl against the patriarchy. It is also, devastatingly, largely a true story, based on the life of Emeline Bachelder Gurney.

Immediately compelling, Emmeline spans a period of about sixty years, though the majority of the story takes place in the 1840s and 50s. The reader’s anger for Emmeline builds gradually, Judith Rossner reveals the injustices and cruelties that existed for women and girls in a society that punished and judged those who had fallen foul of men’s selfish seductions. Emmeline is punished throughout her life for the crime of another, she hadn’t understood what danger she might be in, and later in life she makes a mistake that no one could possibly have foreseen. The unforgiving nature of the people close to her and the wider community is heart-breaking. It is an unforgettable story.

In 1839, Emmeline Mosher left her home in Fayette, Maine to go and work in the cotton mills of Lowell, Massachusetts – she was thirteen years old. Driven away from the only home she has known by her aunt and uncle on their way home after a visit. It was common in these days for girls of poor families to be sent out to work, they sent money home and became the saviours of their families. Life was difficult for the Mosher family; Emmeline was the eldest of nine children, and there was practically nothing to eat. As her aunt leaves her in Lowell, Emmeline is young, vulnerable, lonely and frightened, she also has the misfortune to be noticeably pretty.

As soon as Emmeline arrives in Lowell, she is housed in one of the many boarding houses that exist for the mill girls to live in. Emmeline’s boarding house is run by Mrs Bass. Everything is new and strange, and Emmeline has little knowledge of the world.

“She was virtually ill with loneliness and cold and could eat very little at each meal. Mrs Bass asked if she was troubled, but she denied it. She had noticed that to be one of Mrs Bass’s favourites was to incur a certain amount of teasing from the other girls, and she wanted desperately to please them.”

The work in the mills is exhausting, the hours are terribly long and the atmosphere of the weaving room choking, though it is remarkable what these girls quickly get used to. Emmeline fails to make any real friends among the other girls in the boarding house – though at first Mrs Bass makes something of a favourite of her. When Mrs Bass warns Emmeline about Mr Maguire the manager of the weaving room where she is placed – Emmeline has no idea what the danger might be – the reader of course knows instantly and knows to fear for Emmeline.

“‘Listen to me Emmeline…’ she uttered the name in the way in which only one other person had ever pronounced it.

‘You must keep away from Mr Maguire. He’s dangerous.’

‘Dangerous? She was awake now. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘You must take my word for it,’ she said ‘He hurts girls like you. A girl was turned off the corporation on his account. A girl who looked … The first time I saw you I thought of her.’

‘What must I do?’ Emmeline asked, frightened in spite of herself.”

However, Emmeline is alone, she misses her mother and home fiercely she has no friends to confide in and no understanding at all of what a certain kind of man might want with her. Mr Maguire is kind to her, takes an interest in her – brings her a shawl from his wife as the weather gets colder, gets his wife to invite her for Christmas day tea – today, of course we would call it grooming, its insidious.

“He smiled. ‘Now I have you in a cage. And whenever I want you, I’ll take you out, and when I’ve done with you, I’ll set you back in.”

It’s an age old story – and it’s Mrs Bass who realises what has happened to Emmeline – and now she is anything but sympathetic. Emmeline’s a child of course, but not viewed as such by anyone. It’s arranged for Emmeline to take refuge with her aunt – the rest of her family aren’t to know about ‘her shame’. Money is extracted from Mr Maguire so that Emmeline can continue to send it back to her family. Her aunt arranges everything, Emmeline is powerless.

Her experiences in Lowell set the course of the rest of her life. When she finally does return to Fayette, she is hiding a secret – one she is desperate to share with her beloved mother but finds she can’t. Had Emmeline told her mother what had happened perhaps things would have been different – perhaps not. Emmeline is relieved to be home – and is happy, staying home quietly, looking after her parents, watching her siblings grow up, get married and begin to have children. Yet the biggest tragedy and greatest test is still to come – Emmeline will in time become a victim of the judgement of those around her, punished and ostracised for the abuse done to her.

I don’t want to give away any more spoilers in this review. Emmeline is a wonderful novel – just don’t expect a happy ending. Rossner recreates the suffocating world of the cotton mills and the spiteful, gossipy boarding houses filled with adolescent girls brilliantly. It is both Emmeline the lonely, vulnerable girl and Emmeline the older woman, alone and ostracised that I will remember for a long time.

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I was away in The Lakes last week – and before going away I changed my mind several times about what reading material I was going to take with me. Something for the 1965 club, my kindle for emergencies and something else. In the end I opted for The Call, a pleasingly fat Persephone book which I anticipated having time to get into properly. This is quite a large book – and a lot happens in it, much more than I can talk about here – it is also hugely readable.

First published in 1924 The Call is a novel of women’s suffrage – among other things. It is also about the struggle for a young woman to be taken seriously within the scientific field. The author’s stepmother was the physicist Hertha Ayrton, and many of the struggles described in this novel were endured by Ayrton.

In about 1909 Ursula Winfield is a young woman living in a conventional upper class home in Lowndes Square with her mother and step-father. Ursula is an only child – and on the face of it very different to her mother Mrs Hibbert, who is a fluffy, little woman who greatly enjoys society and is quite used to having young men dance attendance on her. Colonel Hibbert is typical of the type of military man who believes that women are the weaker sex and deserving of respect and protection. Ursula is like neither of them – she spends most of her time thoroughly engaged in scientific research in her laboratory in the attic. She has little interest in what she wears or looks like – the servants regard her with bewilderment, and local society rarely get a glimpse of her.

Despite the very obvious differences between Ursula and her mother – they have a wonderful relationship which is portrayed beautifully by Zangwill. There’s real sympathy and deep affection between these two women. Mrs Hibbert provides us with some of the novel’s lighter moments – though Zangwill does not allow Mrs Hibbert to be just a small, pretty society lady – she has hidden depths as we discover later on.

At this stage of the novel Ursula has absolutely no interest in the WSPU and is in fact quite horrified by many of the reports of suffragettes in the newspapers. She simply has no time to consider what they are doing very deeply – and is really quite puzzled as to why there is so much fuss about a vote.

It is an excursion to Henley that begins to change many things for Ursula. Here, she encounters some suffragettes, talks to one of them on the train home, a young woman who tells her quite confidently that the day will come when Ursula will seek them out. It is at Henley that Ursula first meets Tony Balestier. Ursula has had no thought of romance at this point in her life – she is far too taken up with science – attending meetings at the Chemical society with her friend Professor Smee. Professor Smee has been a great help to Ursula – and she enjoys his company – however the unhappily married Professor has developed strong unrequited feelings for Ursula, feelings which his sad embittered wife quickly becomes aware of. However, it is Tony who Ursula falls for – and he for her. When Tony has to go abroad for a year or so Ursula is still deeply involved in her scientific research.

“Was it only this morning? Then the world had been a clean and pleasant place of healthy men and women. Now it had become rotten, crawling with obscene abomination. These suffragettes talked as if the vote would help! If people were so vile and bestial, nothing could help, nothing! It was all horrible. She did not want to live. Science was dead, futile. Everything was tainted- even Tony.”

Soon, though and almost against her will – Ursula is drawn to the suffragette cause. She is a fine speaker and proves herself an invaluable part of the struggle. She becomes a key figure in the suffragette movement – working alongside the young woman she once met on that train from Henley. Her involvement spans several tumultuous years and the author shows us how the movement organised itself, and grew quickly surprising its detractors.

Zangwill shows us the dreadful inequalities in the justice system at the time. Ursula throws herself wholeheartedly into the cause – and in doing so she risks everything. Her mother and step-father disapprove naturally and like many women she risks her relationships with the people she cares for most. Her activities take up all her time and so her scientific studies are temporarily shelved. She writes to Tony about what she is doing, with no very clear idea of how he will take it, she does know he is quite a conventional young man.

Ursula is imprisoned, endures force feeding – which is quite honestly and uncompromisingly described – and suffers from the after effects of this dreadful treatment.

“The following night, hunger ceased to worry her, but the thirst was horrible. Her lips were like wood, and her tongue seemed to have grown too large for her mouth. She had a backache, too, as well as a headache, which had got steadily worse. And she was so cold; most of the time she was shivering. When the doctor came in the morning, he looked at her sharply. ‘I don’t believe she is drinking the milk.’ He told the wardress.”

Then the First World War comes along, and everything seems to change almost immediately. Everyone accepts the vote will come – soon. Now, Ursula has a very real purpose for her postponed scientific research – she could actually help save men on the front line.

This wonderfully feminist novel is thoroughly involving and an enormously important testament of the struggle for women’s suffrage and for a woman to be taken seriously in the world of science.

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Half term week always seems like a good time for a big fat Persephone book – and I had several to choose from. Consequences is one of Persephone’s rather older titles – but I only bought it last year. I think I already knew what to expect – a tone very different to the one E M Delafield is best known for in The Provincial Lady. I am embarrassed at how few Delafield I have read – she is a writer I have wanted to explore more of a long time. In Consequences we encounter Delafield’s concern with women’s place in the world, but here there are none of the wry observances I remember from her most famous work. It was in The War Workers; that I first saw the anger that Delafield is also capable of. It is clear, that in Consequences it is that same anger which fuelled her.

Delafield’s own fate was thankfully better than that of the central character in Consequences, the Great war, and her writing gave her a purpose and a direction in life that many women – whether they married or not did not feel. After the First World War, E M Delafield did marry and went on to have two children, publish lots of books and worked with the ministry of National Service, her life was full, and successful – not so the life of Alex Clare in Consequences.

The theme of this beautifully poignant novel is the fate of women of a certain class, who do not marry. Her central character is Alex – an awkward girl, who in time becomes an awkward young woman. The eldest daughter of a gracious society couple Sir Francis and Lady Isabel Clare, Alex continually finds herself at fault, is overly sensitive and easily aggrieved. It is the late nineteenth century, and Alex is a child of a traditional Victorian household, where provision will be made for the boys, the girls expected to marry. In this novel Delafield recreates upper class Victorian family life, convent school days, the anxious social whirl of a young debutante and the hard, privations of the religious life of a nun.

The novel opens with the children playing the game of consequences in the nursery – I remember playing the game at school myself – you write down a name, fold the paper over, pass it to the next person, who writes down what’s said and so the game goes on. Alex is twelve as the novel opens, she has two younger sisters and two younger brothers, all of whom are ably managed by Nanny.

Having several times incurred the wrath of her parents and been responsible for an accident involving her sister Barbara – Alex is sent to a convent school in Belgium. It seems that from here on Alex’s life is set on a path that won’t end happily. Her starry eyed infatuation over her friend Queenie Torrance, puts her at odds with the nuns, who decree that girls should not show any special preference for one over another.

“She left the misery of that black Saturday behind her, and was left with her childish nerves a little shattered, her childish confidence of outlook rather more overshadowed, her childish strength less steady, and above all, set fast in her childish mind the ineradicable, unexplained conviction that because she had loved Queenie Torrance and had been punished and rebuked for it, therefore to love was wrong.”

Alex isn’t a very likeable character, she is just as able to annoy the reader as she does the people around her, she is a product of her upbringing and environment, and is often her own worst enemy. Yet, it is still possible to feel some sympathy for this awkward young woman as she attempts to make her way in a world she doesn’t quite understand. The time comes for Alex to return home, to put her hair up and be launched upon society. Other young women are as little prepared as Alex, and yet they seem to find their way much better. Alex had expected that everything would be fine once she was grown up – everything would fall into place, she would be successful, and she would be happy.

‘It seemed to Alex that when she joined the mysterious ranks of grown-up-people everything would be different. She never doubted that with long dresses and piled-up hair, her whole personality would change, and the meaningless chaos of life reduce itself to some comprehensible solution.’

Alex comes out into society, dressed beautifully and accompanied by her mother. She attends balls and dinners, with some enthusiasm at first, but isn’t a great success. She feels what she sees as her own failure keenly, and once again she is at odds with those around her. She enjoys a brief illusory sense of success when she meets again a young man she knew slightly in childhood. Following a very brief, aborted engagement to the only man to show any interest in her – Alex is lured back to convent life by a local Mother Superior who shows her kindness. After a year, she is back in Belgium at the convent where she was once a schoolgirl.

Though even this isn’t the end of Alex’s story. Just as her engagement had once felt wrong, after nine years in a convent Alex realises, she has no vocation for the religious life – and must ask to leave – a long, difficult process, and what possible life will she have back in England?

“Alex found herself reading of emotions and experiences of which her own seemed so feeble a mockery, that she was conscious of a physical pang of sick disappointment. 
Was all fiction utterly untrue to life? Or was hers the counterfeit, which the printed pages but reproduced something of a reality which was denied to her?” 

There is a terrible inevitability to Alex’s fate – she has never learned to get along with people, is unable to empathise with them – and just as in her days of childhood she is still quick to feel other’s criticism. The reader knows even at this stage that Alex is unlikely to find her happy ending.

Despite being over 400 pages, Consequences is a fairly quick read – it is hugely compelling – and Delafield’s writing made me sit up late turning the pages – I just had to know what was next for poor Alex Clare

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