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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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I began 2020 with a lovely Persephone book – starting the year with a very me kind of book seemed a good beginning to my reading year. Milton Place is novel about a very English house, and a very English family, during a period of time when such families and their way of life were changing.

“The great house hung like a vast garment many times too big for the shrunken stature of its diminished inhabitants…”

 Large houses were falling out of fashion after the two world wars and hideously expensive to run. Many such places were being acquired by institutions or county councils, transformed from exclusive family homes into municipal buildings. All of that is very much in the background of this novel – the novel itself is much more about the relationships between the people who live in Milton Place, or come regularly to visit.

Milton Place is the second novel by Elisabeth de Waal that Persephone have published, a novel which failed to find a publisher when it was written, and it is published for the very first time by Persephone. Written around the 1950s/60s the setting is clearly a few years after the second world war – I assumed the very early 1950s.

Mr Barlow is the owner of Milton Place, an elderly widower with two middle aged daughters, who pay him occasional visits, and disapprove of him hanging on to the old family home. After the war – during which the house was given over to the military – Mr Barlow stubbornly returned to Milton Place the large country home he loves. Here he lives with a couple of old retainers, his eighteen year old grandson Tony visits during his holidays from school, as his relationship with his parents is complex and quite toxic. Mr Barlow’s existence is a quite lonely one, though he perhaps hadn’t realised that.

As the novel opens, Mr Barlow receives a letter from the daughter of an old friend. Anita Seiler is the now middle aged daughter of a woman Mr Barlow fell in love with as a young man in Vienna many years earlier. The two were unable to marry, and Mr Barlow had carried the memory of his lost love ever since. He is delighted to hear from her daughter, the letter bringing back memories of his young love. Anita is Austrian, a widow, with an adult daughter, now she is looking to move to England and asks Mr Barlow to help her find some kind of work as a housekeeper or similar. Mr Barlow invites Anita to Milton Place – with little real idea of helping her find work, he thinks perhaps his daughter might help with that.

Anita arrives and quickly sets about breathing new life into Milton Place. She appears to be just what the old place, and Mr Barlow need, her very presence is a tonic. She and Mr Barlow become great friends – though they never quite leave the formalities of calling one another Mr or Mrs behind – taking long walks together, delighting in the gardens, talking about everything.

“…walking was living with a place and making friends with it, it needed time and patience and the measured rhythm of your own pace to put you in touch with the things that are near, while the distant prospects shift very slowly and you take them in from imperceptibly changing angles.”

Anita delights in the work she finds herself to do at Milton Place, bringing the rooms back to life, polishing silver, caring for Mr Barlow’s beautiful home with cheerfulness and energy. Mr Barlow is in no hurry for Anita to leave, and Anita is happy, the house and Mr Barlow’s friendship doing much to heal the terrible scars that she is carrying from the war. Her story is a heart-breaking one. Then soon after Anita’s arrival Tony, arrives for his summer visit, school has ended and national service beckons, which the young man can’t help but dread. With Tony’s arrival, relationships at Milton Place change in some surprising ways. As the novel progresses, we learn more about the people who inhabit Milton Place, and those who merely sweep in from time to time and upset the equilibrium.

“One cannot do arithmetics with pain – neither add nor multiply nor divide it. It is always one and indivisible, and everyone carries the whole of it.”

Mr Barlow’s daughters are both quite horrible – though in rather different ways. Emily married well, is constantly busy with good works, charities and local committees, she is constantly scheming to sell Milton Place – and move her father somewhere more sensible. She drops by once a week, seeing it as a duty that she does so. She is unsettled and irritated by Anita’s presence – fearing she might have an agenda of her own. Cecilia meanwhile is a very unhappy woman, though no more likeable for that. Married to provincial doctor with a social conscience and a chip on his shoulder, she is a depressed and bullied woman. Her son Tony, goes to a private boarding school, paid for by her father, Tony’s father is so resentful of this fact, that it has destroyed their marriage and the relationship that Tony has with both his parents. He is aware his mother is bullied and unhappy but is incapable of much sympathy.

The survival or demise of the English country house is a recurring theme in several Persephone novels, and Milton Place fits perfectly into that group. Like de Waal’s novel The Exiles Return, it also concerns itself with the aftermath of war, those scars that people carry with them. Elisabeth de Waal writes lyrically and gloriously about the English garden at Milton Place, the flowers and the pleasure they give those who love them. It’s really quite ridiculous that Elisabeth de Waal was unable to find a publisher for this wonderful novel, so glad Persephone brought it back.

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I do love a book of Persephone short stories, I have now read all the volumes they publish. Whether it be an anthology like this one, or one of the twelve collections by Dorothy Whipple, Margaret Bonham, Katherine Mansfield, Frances Towers and others, I have loved them all. Alongside these writers of other Persephone short story collections, happily sit many other noteworthy writers including; Winifred Holtby, Colette, Lettice Cooper, Rose Macaulay and Carol Shields. In fact, this volume – along with the First book of Persephone Short stories is pretty much my perfect reading material.   

The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories span very nearly a century of women’s writing. Thirty stories arranged chronologically, the first story first appearing in 1896 the final story by Rosamunde Pilcher dating from 1984. Now this volume features one story from each of those other twelve collections, nine stories previously published in the quarterly/biannually magazine, with nine more stories selected especially for this publication. Now here is where I make what might seem a surprising admission. I have loved the quarterly/biannually ever since I began collecting Persephone books, and I eagerly read the reviews and other bits and pieces, however I rarely get around to reading the short stories. For someone who loves short stories that is odd I suppose – but it did mean that there were more stories in this volume I was reading for the first time.

Quite frankly though, those stories that I was reading for the second time were just as good – or even better – second time around. For instance, I was able to anticipate the ending of After Tea (1941) by Dorothy Whipple quite eagerly, knowing what was coming didn’t spoil it at all, I cheered for Christine, trapped in a dull, household with no freedom – all over again. Similarly encountering Katherine Mansfield’s Her First Ball (1921) was a delight, I could read and re-read Mansfield’s stories at any time.  

“She quite forgot to be shy; she forgot how in the middle of dressing she had sat down on the bed with one shoe off and one shoe on and begged her mother to ring up her cousins and say she couldn’t go after all. And the rush of longing she had had to be sitting on the verandah of their forsaken up-country home, listening to the baby owls crying ‘More pork’ in the moonlight, was changing to a rush of joy so sweet that it was hard to bear alone.”

(Her First Ball (1921) Katherine Mansfield)

A few stories, I’ll admit I had forgotten anyway, the Mollie Panter-Downes stories I read so long ago it was almost like reading them for the first time. A Year of Decision (1944) in which a husband; Mark Goring, with ‘a safe’ though important desk job during the war, longs for service, and rather envies the former school friend whose death he sees announced in the newspaper. His wife, in the country with two young children, is naturally grateful that her husband comes home each weekend. Then Mark is called into to see his boss with unexpected results.

“Mark thought of Janet briefly before he nodded and said ‘fine’, and they settled down to details. When he finally got back to his own office, he still couldn’t believe it. After four years of sitting in one place with his nose to the grindstone, the idea of getting on a plane and going somewhere made him feel like a child let out of school.”

(A Year of Decision (1944) by Mollie Panter-Downes)

It’s always hard to review a large volume of stories, all I ever try to do is give something of a flavour. The collection opens with a lovely bittersweet little story; In Dull Brown (1896) by Evelyn Sharp in which a young woman; Jean, who goes out to teach three children each day in their home, meets a young man; Tom Unwin by chance on the omnibus, they exchange a few words. They bump into one another again, then lose sight of each other, each of them clearly remembering the other in the meantime, before meeting again in the park weeks later. Jean thinks young men prefer women who don’t work, who like her pretty younger sister Nancy, stay home by the fire, ready for any gentleman that should call. She is hugely excited therefore when their friendship develops to the point when she can invite Tom home.

“‘Oh, here you are,’ cried Nancy, gliding off the sofa and putting her arms round her in her pretty affectionate manner. ‘Poor Mr Unwin has been waiting quite an hour for you. Whatever made you so late?’

Jean disengaged herself a little roughly, and held out her hand to Tom.

‘Have you been very bored? She asked him with a slight curl of her lip.

‘That could hardly be the case in Miss Nancy’s company,’ he replied in his best manner.”

(In Dull Brown 1896 by Evelyn Sharp)

The final story is Gilbert (1984) by Rosamunde Pilcher in which we meet Bill Rawlins, recently married to Clodagh – making him step-father to two little girls. The children have three pets, Gilbert is a goldfish. One Sunday morning Bill finds himself tested in his new role when, while his wife sleeps, Emily; one of his step-daughters discovers Gilbert floating in the fish tank.

In between these two stories are stories from both Britain and North America, collectively they reflect those changing decades. Several stories are about war in some form. In The Casualty List (1932) by Winifred Holtby – on Armistice Day, an elderly woman looks back to the time of WW1 when she had read the casualty lists in the paper, rolled bandages and knitted socks. Monsieur Rose (1941) by Irène Némirovskytells the story of a wealthy man’s flight from Paris as the Germans arrive.   In Miss Anstruther’s Letters (1942) by Rose Macaulay we find the titular character searching desperately through the rumble of her home for something irreplaceable.

There are also, as I mentioned some wonderful stories from North America including The Bedquilt (1906) by Dorothy Canfield Fisher which tells of the one great moment of joy in a small, forgotten life. Going Home (1942) by Sally Benson in which a servant in New York sets out on a trip home to Washington. Accidents (1983) by Carol Shields in which a man on holiday with his wife is hospitalised following an accident. His wife takes a motherly interest in the young Englishman in the next bed, alone and far from home, very badly injured.

Well I could go on, there are so many stories I haven’t talked about – but this post is already far too long. Suffice to say I can’t recommend this collection highly enough – especially to readers of Twentieth Century women writers.

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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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