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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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This year the Librarything Virago group are reading the 1940s, a project that is right up my reading alley. The majority of us I think will be sticking to our VMC and Persephone editions, with perhaps a few Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press sneaking in. Each month has a different theme – with our January reading focused on family.

Margaret Bonham’s story itself is told in the preface to this edition by her daughter Cary Bazalgette. Margaret Bonham and her husband had lived in Devon before and after the Second World War, and it is this area of the country that Cary Bazalgette says is present throughout these stories. Place is always so important to me, and I know Devon well and so these stories resonated with me from that point of view. The Train and the Gun feature the train line that runs along the coast between Dawlish and Teignmouth – a place I know very well, Sidmouth and Ashburton also feature though aren’t named. A story called The River in which a fond father goes to great lengths to please his little daughter on their afternoon walks by the river – takes place along the banks of the River Yeo.

In 1948 Margaret Bonham left her children when her marriage broke up and didn’t see them again until 1950 when custody arrangements were settled. Bazalgette and her brother didn’t live with their mother – and so for her daughter particularly these stories stood in for her – to be read and re-read over and over.

There are mothers and children throughout this volume of fifteen stories, some fathers too, though few of the children featured have two parents. I thoroughly enjoyed this whole collection, stories of great subtlety, they turned out to be exactly the kind of stories I expect from Persephone, which are the kinds of short stories I like best.

The title story comes first, and it shows to perfection the author’s skill in capturing a brief moment. It concerns a group of English girls on the French coast, who enlist the help of Mademoiselle – their French governess – in pleading their cause in a visit to The Casino. Valentine rather wishes that Giselle didn’t have to come, and Rhys is not sure she wants to go at all – after all anything might happen at a casino. Kitty suggests Giselle will ‘make it look better – in case they are raped.’ Permission granted – though they are only to be allowed to go until eight o’clock – preparations get underway, and all the while Rhys feels uneasy about the adventure. If you’re looking for sudden dramatic endings, Bonham is not that writer – here Bonham’s brilliance is in the disappointment of a longed for treat.

One of my other favourite stories was Vicky – clearly set in Sidmouth – where the Vicky of the title lives with her three aunts, Agnes, Marianne and Violet.

“On a painted iron seat facing the sea the three aunts waited. Behind them the row of flat Georgian houses, their gardens gritty with sand, were closed and withdrawn from the sun, the striped blinds lowered. At either end the cliffs, like slices of pink cake with green icing, shut out the view and enclosed the bay.”

(Vicky)

The aunts remember the past, when they were young girls and motor cars were new. It was a time when young men danced with them and took them driving – yet they never married. Their brother George married late in life – and Vicky has never been told much about him. An old family friend Mrs Casey and her daughter Henrietta pay a visit, and the girls are thrown together – taking a walk down to the sea. Here, Vicky’s certainty is shaken when a tragic secret is revealed.

In Annabel’s Mother Bonham has created a child of rather monstrous precocity. Her mother feels unequal to dealing with her – Annabel’s constant prattle about things she has read or learned her incessant questioning has worn her mother down to such an extent that she sees that all Annabel’s school holidays are spent at hotels.

“‘Mummy,’ she said, ‘do you know why there’s an extra high tide today?’
‘No, dear.’
‘Mummy, you are dull; don’t you really know?’
‘No, dear; why?’
‘It’s because of the moon.’
‘I think we better start unpacking.’
‘Mummy don’t you want to learn?’”
(Annabel’s Mother)

Having had her scant knowledge scorned by her twelve-year-old daughter for so long, Annabel’s mother; Mrs Keven has no confidence at all in challenging the confident assertions that Annabel comes up with. As their latest holiday gets under way with Annabel continuing to decry her mother’s past schooling and intelligence Mrs Keven locks eyes with another resident Mr Ferris. In Ferris, Annabel has quite possibly met her match, and Mrs Keven is given reason to be glad of this break after all.

The two Mrs Reeds features Lucy; a woman who almost scandalises the maternity ward completely by sailing through her daughter’s birth with breezy unconcern. When another woman comes into the bed next to her, Lucy discovers she is called Mrs Reed, which initially amuses her because she was once called Mrs Reed, when married to her first husband. She announces to the ward – so there should be no confusion, that she divorced him. Lucy’s husband, a farmer is Louis, a Frenchman – who we see more of in the next story featuring this couple – and Lucy must enlist his help when she discovers that Mrs Reed’s husband is indeed her own first husband.

In The Miss – Lucy and Louis have an evening away from their children at the cinema – date night 1940s style. They meet a woman there – they kind of woman the two of them call ‘a miss.’ Intrigued and amused a little by her – they offer her a lift and end up getting invited in. It gradually becomes clear that their ‘miss’ is rather an odd character.

the casino

Bonham’s storytelling is excellent – it is clear that the short story form suited her perfectly. She did publish one novel in 1951 – but that doesn’t seem to have been successful. I am sorry there isn’t more out there to read by Margaret Bonham. This was an excellent pick for our ‘Reading the 1940s’ – as there are many different kinds of family portrayed here.

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Can there be, for the dedicated Persephone reader, a more marvellous thing than a new Whipple? Like many other Persephone readers; I was very excited when I heard there was to be a new, and sadly a last Whipple.

Young Anne first published in 1927 was Dorothy Whipple’s debut novel. With its Persephone release all of Dorothy Whipple’s books are finally back in print – why they remained out of print so long is a mystery. I envy those readers who have yet to discover Dorothy Whipple – though I will have the joy of re-reading them all.

There is no great drama in this novel – it is the story of life – Whipple’s characterisation absolutely drives this novel – which is still enormously compelling, told with huge compassion.

“How changed he was! How assured! A man of the world, this George, who had once been poor, bitter, crude. How changed they both were…”

Dorothy Whipple’s first novel – published when she was in her thirties – was very autobiographical. We follow the growth, education, life and loves of Anne Pritchard from the time she is just five years old through to a time when she is finally settled. We first meet young Anne sat in the church pew alongside the rest of her Lancastrian family, her middle-class parents, and brothers Gerald and Philip. Mr Pritchard is a stern, inflexible presence throughout Anne’s childhood – he stops short of being a bully, but his unsmiling, traditionalism feels quite suffocating.

“‘Anne, go back to bed at once!’
‘But I’m frickened,’ she whimpered, holding her cold toes in her hands to warm them.
‘What on earth is there to be frightened of? Asked her father impatiently.
‘There’s all sorts of things looking at me,’ she wailed. ‘Weary Willie and Tired Tim and things.’
‘Olive!’ Henry Pritchard protested angrily to the recumbent figure of his wife, ‘I absolutely forbid you to let the children have those vulgar comic papers.’”

Anne is instantly lovable, and thankfully not perfect – perfect children are not all that attractive. For Anne, the most important member of the household is Emily, the maid – who shows Anne such love that she becomes an alternative mother figure to the child – destined to follow her through life wherever she goes.

As a little girl Anne goes to a local school run by a couple of middle aged sisters. According to the wonderful preface by Lucy Mangan, this is one of the things in the novel that mirrors Dorothy Whipple’s own life. The school is closed when one sister dies suddenly – from starvation – it seemed that no one had realised they had no money for food.

In this novel Whipple’s peripheral characters are of equal importance, fully fleshed out they have a lot to tell us about the society that Dorothy Whipple was writing about. Whipple is always particularly clear sighted about societal differences – those petty snobberies and tender feelings that come between people when class rears its ugly head. Even as a quite tiny girl Anne recognises something in George Yates that is different – she hasn’t yet learned about class distinction – but she soon will. It is Mildred Yates – a child Anne rather admires – who makes it quite clear to Anne that her cousin George’s social position is not the same as hers. Mildred is a wonderful creation – even as a child she is something of a horror. Another superb creation is Vera Bowden Anne’s much older cousin, a pretty, unhappily married woman who loves to flirt with other men to make her disappointing life more bearable.

Anne’s parents decide to send her to a Catholic convent school as a day girl, she is practically the only protestant pupil, but soon learns to appreciate the kindly sisters and comes to enjoy her time there. As a very young woman Anne finds love and loses it, too young perhaps to fully understand the nuances and complexities of relationships. It is a love that she will not entirely shake off – later the past will return to threaten a fragile happiness.

A change in family circumstances means Anne must go to live with her dreadful Aunt Orchard soon after completing her education, the grimness of this is relieved by the faithful presence of Emily – who goes too – not forgetting the black kitten Onions. Aunt Orchard is a magnificently dreadful creation, petty, selfish and prone to extreme rages – her house is no kind of home to Anne – who hits upon the idea of a secretarial college course – to get herself out the house and secure some independence. Emily continues to be the most wonderful support she will endure almost anything for Anne’s sake, her slanging matches with Aunt Orchard are quite hilarious. She even loans Anne the money for her course.

“She thought with satisfaction how her position in the house had eased since she had been able to hand over fifteen shillings a week out of her salary, now twenty-five shillings, and make up what she considered the deficiency in mending and aspidistra washing and putting up with Aunt Orchard generally. The bread of dependence had been very bitter.”

We see Anne earn her first pay packet, make decisions for herself, enter into a more grown up (dare I say less romantic) relationship. By the time we leave Anne – she has changed – made mistakes and learned from them. In Anne, Whipple has created a realistically flawed young woman, one who we sympathise with and like enormously despite her faults.

I absolutely loved Young Anne – what a fabulous debut it was back in 1927 – and what a wonderful high for Persephone to complete their Whipple re-issues with.

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The Persephone mini readathon seems a long time ago already, the second book I read during my own slightly longer Persephone readathon was The Carlyles at Home. This is an earlier Persephone book that I had managed to completely overlook until recently.

Written in the 1960s, it portrays the home life of writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle and his wife, during the thirty odd years they lived at Cheyne Row in Chelsea. Thea Holme; the author, wrote it while she and her husband were living in the house as custodians. She confines herself to everyday matters in the Carlyles lives, staying well away from the nature of the Carlyles marriage for example, Thomas Carlyle’s work is mentioned almost in passing. Small domestic concerns, problems with servants, home improvements and noise from neighbours. Each of the eleven chapters focus on a different aspect of the Carlyles lives at Cheyne Row.

Of the two Carlyles, it is Jane we get to know best through this book, though even she remains a little enigmatic. The house in Cheyne Row where she and her husband lived emerges as the third character in this lovely little book and those with an interest in houses will love it. The endpapers for this Persephone edition shows a detail from a Chelsea interior by Robert Tait and depicts the largest room on the ground floor of the house with Thomas and Jane in situ.

It was in 1834 that Thomas and Jane Carlyle moved into the house on Cheyne Row in Chelsea, and it wasn’t until after his wife’s death in 1866 that Thomas Carlyle left. The Carlyles had originated from Scotland, and Chelsea, though not quite so fashionable then, as it was to become, had houses that Thomas had declared to be cheap and excellent. We first encounter the couple as they await the Pickfords van, accompanied by their maid Bessie, they are obliged to eat their first meal there off the top of a box lid covered with a towel.

“But after two days of picnicking, with carpenters and bell hangers finishing their work, and pieces of furniture broken on the journey from Scotland being mended, at last the house was cleared of workmen and the floors could be swept; the carpets were laid – nailed down by Jane herself – the heavy curtains from Craigenputtock, altered to fit the London windows, were hung on their brass rods; the books were sorted and housed, and Carlyle was settled into his library on the first floor with his writing table and one of the horsehair dining chairs to start work as soon as he pleased.”

We meet the succession of maids who come to Cheyne Row to work for the Carlyles, they are a colourful bunch, and Jane seemed to have had quite a close relationship with a couple of them. There’s the maid who gives birth in the china closet, the maid who is found passed out drunk on the floor, another becomes a trusted member of the household – almost part of the family. These domestic concerns were more Jane’s remit than Thomas’s, but it seems Jane also took a good deal of responsibility for matters of finance – which must have been a bit unusual during the Victorian period. Jane was also concerned with allowing Thomas the time, space and peace in which to work.

“A cock crowing in the small hours woke him instantly: he would thump his bed in wrath, then jump up and pace the room, waiting furiously for the next crow, which would sometimes drive him out of the house, to walk about the streets till morning.”

Noise was a constant battle – Thomas Carlyle had a mania for quiet and found himself easily disturbed. Cockerels seem to have been popular in Chelsea at this time, and Thomas Carlyle was driven to distraction by their early morning cries, what with them and neighbours’ daughters who practise piano – Jane is forced to write polite notes to their Chelsea neighbours which appear to have been received in good part.

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The constant search for quiet prompted at least some of the house renovations that took place during these years. Here too, Jane was generally left to superintend the dreadful upheaval while her husband would take himself off – often to Scotland – to escape the noise. One of the projects undertaken was an attic study – a room that should be completely cut off from all noise.

Aside from all these mini domestic dramas there are lots of period details about money, food and clothing. Jane is forced to go to a ball décolleté and is horrified at the thought of all that flesh on show – though finally she is rather charmed at how good she looks. Even the servants wear bustles which must be accommodated – all of which does get a bit difficult when moving around.

Jane it appears was an extremely good manager of money – she never wasted money on herself – and has to carefully instruct her husband on the mysteries of housekeeping money. Thomas Carlyle comes across as complaining and petty – a difficult man to live with I suspect. Whether this view of Jane Carlyle is a little romanticised or not I couldn’t tell as I knew nothing about her before reading this. She emerges as the stronger more capable of the two.

The Carlyles at Home is a social history of Victorian life in Chelsea but is also a wonderful introduction to an interesting and enigmatic couple, about whom people have long speculated.

carlyles

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I first encountered Marghanita Laski at the old Castle Bookshop in Hay on Wye – outside bookshelves and an honesty box on the wall. I was known to go a little mad there and bought bedraggled copies of Jane Eyre in order to save her from the rain. On one visit a mighty twelve years ago, I found a book called The Village by Marghanita Laski (1952)– the name rang a faint bell – and the pretty green paper cover urged me to buy it. When I returned home, I realised I had bought an old 50s edition of a book now re-issued by Persephone books. I absolutely loved The Village – and later bought a Persephone edition to go with it. It is very much over-due a re-read. I went on to read all the other Laski novels re-issued by Persephone as well as her first novel, that they haven’t. My interest in re-reading The Village is now even greater having finished with huge enjoyment Persephone’s latest Laski issuing, Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right.

Like Love on the Supertax (1944) – a novel Persephone haven’t re-issued – and I suspect may not – Tory Heaven is a social and political satire. However, where Love on the Supertax is at times a little too Mitfordesque – Tory Heaven is merely sharp, wonderfully so. Here too Laski turns her observing eye on the British class system as she did in both The Village and Love on the Supertax. Those who come in for particular criticism (indirectly of course) are those members of upper class English society who resented the changes to their world and way of life that the Second World War particularly brought about. The world was changing forever, and they didn’t like it, and no doubt expressed their views loudly to anyone who would listen. This novel, it seems is Margahnita Laski’s reply.

minipersephone readalong

In his preface to this Persephone edition David Kynaston writes how in the immediate aftermath of the war and the election of Clement Atlee’s government many in the middle classes began to feel great discontent, no longer able to afford things they had taken for granted. They began, Kynaston tells us to want a return to the old sure Tory ways, that they had grown up with, with its strict social hierarchy.

The novel opens in 1945, five Britons have been stranded together for some years on an island in the Far East. They are a mixed bag, but have rubbed along fairly well together, despite a few petty jealousies and resentments. They manage to listen to the results of the 1945 General Election on the radio – and learn that a Socialist government has been elected. James, a traditional upper class young man is utterly horrified, as is Ughtred an elderly former civil servant, they can only imagine the world they will eventually arrive home to. Martin, a middle-class academic is delighted. Alongside these three are Penelope, the daughter of an Earl and Martin’s girlfriend, and Janice, a blonde beauty whose background no one seems to know much about. Having once managed to secure herself a double room at the Raffles Hotel, she generally comes up smelling of roses. James has had his eye on Janice – but she has made it quite clear she doesn’t return his interest. James offers up a kind of prayer that the dreaded socialists might be done away with.

‘“God, let it be as it might have been. Alter the clock, fix the election, do it any way you please, but let me see the England of all decent Conservatives’ dreams.”

The group are rescued and taken home to England by ship. Here is where Laski has played around with what actually did happen in the mid-1940s after the war – imagining not just a Tory victory but a whole new regime based upon returning the country to what certain sections of society would see as the ‘Good old days’ (ha! Any bells ringing?).

The Socialist government having collapsed almost immediately, a new hard-line Tory regime is in place as the five return to England.

Everyone in Britain has been graded along social lines, A, B, C, D, or E. Those granted coveted A status – are given everything they would want, bags of gold sovereigns, beautifully furnished rooms, complete with attentive butler. Bs are the middle classes, Cs the servants of A, including hairdressers and domestic servants, waiters etc, Ds are trade unionists, who don’t cause trouble as strikes are now illegal, Es are the odds and sods and hated intellectuals.

“‘The intellectuals.’ Ughtred continued, ‘apparently went delirious with organisation. They cut out the Light Programme of the BBC and substituted continuous editorial comment by Mr Kingsley Martin. They turned all the strip cartoons into illustrations of intellectual activity. They organised WEA lectures in every village hall and showed foreign films in every cinema…’”

When James is handed an A disc he is bemused at first, but over the next few days comes to realise what a wonderful world he has returned to. Fabulous, recently unheard-of food, enough credit to order his dream car, the promise that should he want a wife – one will be found for him. In the immediate chaos of his return to England James loses sight of his fellow island dwellers. However, in the company of Ughtred – another joyful A, James is destined to run into Martin, Penelope and Janice – and through them, and members of his own bemused and frightened family he is eventually forced to see things as they really are. On a visit to is parents his mother – always anxious that their butler/spy shouldn’t hear – explains…

““The Government want all ladies in my position to do a lot of charity, visit the poor with blankets and calves’ foot jelly and send them coals for the winter; in fact they issue us with special coals for the purpose. Well, of course, we’re only supposed to do charity to C’s, and there aren’t nearly as many C’s around here as there are A’s. We’re all supposed to go once a month and the consequence is, all the C’s are getting more blankets than they could possibly use. And as for the calves’ foot jelly – they just won’t touch it now they’ve tasted Heinz’s tomato soup.”

Knowing how many people will be reading this book in the coming months – I won’t say anymore about the plot. Laski is wonderfully witty, she makes her point without any need of a sledgehammer.

It is extraordinary how relevant a novel published in 1948 can still seem. I just hope no one buys Tory Heaven for Jacob Rees Mogg – it could very well give him ideas.

 

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I am finding that I rather enjoy having a tbr spreadsheet, it doesn’t stop me buying/acquiring books and adding to it, but it has until now stopped me going mad. Don’t let the moderately modest book pile in the picture fool you – it is only a part of the story.

So, in January when I began doing A Century of Books which I am happily obsessed by – I had 280 books on my spreadsheet once I had added in all those pesky kindle books. I am currently reading book 51 of the year – which is ok for me at this point in the year – however … as of a few minutes ago when I updated it – the spreadsheet stands at 261 (there are several books I am eyeing up to cull – random kindle buys particularly but they still stand for now). Oopsy, so I have been clearly buying books. Now you can all see what a hopeless book buyer I am, and there was me blithely thinking I had done better this year.

As for A Century of Books –I do love this challenge and can imagine doing it again too. I had said I was trying to do it in two years – though completing it in a year would be amazing and I am now wondering if I can manage it. However, I think I am reading too many duplicates (with several more lined up that I have to get to) that I suspect I will get to December and find myself frustratingly close but just out of reach. Currently I have got 43 years ticked off, as long as I don’t duplicate too many years I could just do it – but I think it will be tight.

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So, the books above are some of my recent acquisitions – four Persephone books are ordered and winging their way to me, I assume they will arrive Tuesday because of the bank holiday. Did I need four more Persephone books right now? No, to be frank I didn’t, I already have five tbr, but what has need ever had to do with it? There is a  Mini Persephone readathon coming up next weekend, hosted by Jessie, but I may well extend that to most of next week, and several of my Persephone tbr – are annoying duplicate years in my ACOB (I know, I did say I was obsessed!).

My new lovelies are:

Heartburn by Nora Ephron – which I am looking forward to – I have heard very good reports of it. These VMC40 editions are so pretty.

The Collected stories by Grace Paley (huge admission, I arrived home with this to discover I already had a copy. I hadn’t realised because the other book had been missed off my spreadsheet and was physically so different it didn’t ring a bell).

The Takeover by Muriel Spark, the Spark I will be reading in June for Phase three of #ReadingMuriel2018.

The book underneath that is the latest arrival from the Asymptote book club, book six for me. It looks brilliant, but not everyone who subscribes will have received it yet – so I can’t reveal it. Some of you may remember I expressed doubts about book five when it arrived. Well I finished it a few days ago, and really enjoyed it – so sometimes first impressions are entirely wrong.

The book at the bottom of the pile was what I spent a left-over book voucher on, The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall. A Birmingham set book by a Birmingham author, I haven’t actually read that many books by Clare Morrall, and not all her books are set in Birmingham. Having loved Astonishing Splashes of Colour, I was so disappointed by The Man Who Disappeared that it put me off her other novels, until I read When the Floods Came, which I thought was fantastic.

The four Persephone books I have ordered are: Consequences by E M Delafield (1919) The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme (1965), The Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini (1918) and Tory Heaven by Marghanita Laski (1948). Those are added to my Persephone page (you knew I had a Persephone page, didn’t you?) – where I keep track of what I own, and I now have over 100. I shall probably try and read two back to back this next week – I have nine to choose from. This pleases me.

So, the numbers may not be moving by much, but I am having fun! Is anyone else joining in the mini Persephone readathon?

minipersephone readalong

 

 

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When I read my first collection of short-stories by Katherine Mansfield I was sure it wouldn’t be long before I read my next. Well that was five years ago!

The Montana Stories was one of those odd gaps I had in my Persephone collection – I had meant to acquire a copy for years. I love collections of short-stories – and I have no idea why I left it so long to get and read this one – it is glorious.

The Montana Stories ticked off 2001 in my A Century of Books – which felt like a bit of a cheat, because all the stories were written in 1921 – but this collection was only put together by Persephone in 2001. In 1921, Katherine Mansfield, very ill with TB went to stay in a chalet in Montana, Switzerland for her health. This period became one of her most creative periods – and the pieces in this collection are presented chronologically – which is often such an interesting way to read a writer’s work. This collection contains short stories and unfinished fragments – and some extracts from her letters in the editorial notes at the back. The unfinished stories can be a little frustrating – though still beautiful to read. Some of these unfinished pieces end less abruptly and could be seen as having an ambiguous ending – other pieces end more suddenly. Many of the stories in this edition had been previously published in The Spectator – and illustrations that accompanied those stories are reproduced here too.

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With so many very short stories and fragments in this collection I am only to talk about three particular stories in any detail – but I really can’t stress how perfect every word of the whole collection is. What a truly gifted writer Katherine Mansfield was. Some other stories that will stay with me particularly are: Mr and Mrs Dove, Marriage á la Mode and A Cup of Tea, as well as the frustratingly unfinished A Married Man’s story.

In Bliss and other Stories (1920) – the collection opens with Prelude – a story still that is very memorable to me five years later. In that story we meet the Burnell family – perhaps that story is so memorable for me because it was my introduction to Katherine Mansfield. So, imagine my delight to find not one but two more stories in The Montana Stories featuring the Burnell family; At the Bay and The Doll’s House. One of the daughters of the Burnell family is Kezia – and I read something, somewhere online that suggests that Kezia is an autobiographical character, having little patience with conventional society rules. These two stories were perhaps not surprisingly among my favourites in the collection.

“As the morning lengthened whole parties appeared over the sand-hills and came down on the beach to bathe. It was understood that at eleven o’clock the women and children of the summer colony had the sea to themselves. First the women undressed, pulled on their bathing dresses and covered their heads in hideous caps like sponge bags; then the children were unbuttoned. The beach was strewn with little heaps of clothes and shoes; the big summer hats, with stones on them to keep them from blowing away, looked like immense shells. It was strange that even the sea seemed to sound differently when all those leaping, laughing figures ran into the waves.”
(At the Bay)

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In At the Bay, Stanley Burnell, Kezia’s father goes out for an early morning swim, then returns to the house for breakfast before leaving for work. When he leaves, the women and children – left behind – breathe a sigh of relief. Aunt Beryl talks coolly to a society woman, while Kezia’s mother daydreams the day away, her latest baby at her side – leaving the majority of the household tasks to be supervised by Kezia’s grandmother. It is a beautifully atmospheric story – suffused with a feeling of long, indolent sunny days, bathing, dreaming and talking the day away, until the time comes for the men to return.

In The Doll’s House the Burnell children are given a fabulous Doll’s House that is so large it has to sit outside the house in the garden. The house opens up to reveal tiny, beautifully furnished rooms, Kezia is particularly enchanted by a lamp. The children delight in telling the other children at school all about their doll’s house, Kezia’s older sister reserves the right to do the telling first, she is, after all, the eldest. They are permitted to bring their friends home to see it – a couple at a time, glorying in the envy and delight the other children have for it. However, they are not allowed to bring the Kelveys – who no one else ever associates with the Kelvey siblings either. No one knows who their father is – and their mother is the washerwoman. It is only Kezia who is made uncomfortable by such rules and dares to go against them.

“The hook at the side was stuck fast. Pat prised it open with his penknife, and the whole house swung back, and – there you were gasping at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat stand and two umbrellas! That is – isn’t it? – what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker.”
(The Doll’s House)

Another of Katherine Mansfield’s most well-known stories in this collection, is The Garden Party – and this too is utterly masterful. The Sheridan family are preparing for their garden party. Daughter Laura has been put in charge of ensuring the marquee is put in the correct place, while her sister Jose tests the piano. Their mother has ordered masses of lilies and the girls are enchanted by the flowers. As the preparations near completion, the family learn that a working-class neighbour has been killed in an accident, leaving behind a wife and children. Laura thinks the party should be called off out of respect but neither her mother or sister agree. Later she is asked to take a basket of left-overs to the family. The Sheridan sisters also appear briefly in the story Her First Ball.

Persephone short story collections are always a hit with me – I’ve yet to read one that isn’t fabulous. This collection reminds me that I haven’t read nearly enough Katherine Mansfield – and I do have another collection waiting on my kindle.

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