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mde

I hadn’t planned to read a Persephone book last weekend but when I heard the Jessie at Dwell in Possibility was hosting a Persephone readathon, I changed my plans slightly. I always love an excuse to pull one of my unread Persephones from the shelf, The Journey Home and other stories was a Christmas gift from Liz, and proved to be yet another superb story collection published by Persephone -I always know I am going to love a Persephone story collection. This new collection of stories has been put together by Persephone – the stories dating from the 20s and 30s featuring stories from the collections originally published during Malachi Whitaker’s lifetime.

I first came across the writer Malachi Whitaker in the Persephone book of short stories – a truly brilliant anthology of stories from a variety of writers. That, however was the extent of my knowledge – I had to turn to the usual places to try and find out more. Well the Persephone website has far more information on Malachi Whitaker (born Marjorie Taylor) than Wikipedia. She published four volumes of short stories and an autobiography during her lifetime but seems to have stopped writing sometime in the 1930s. Born in Bradford in 1895 she spent time working in her father’s bookbinding works, moved around Yorkshire with her husband and adopted two children.

This collection brings together twenty of her short stories, many of which are very short, so the volume itself is only about two hundred and thirty pages – and that includes the afterword. The writing however is quite superb, Whitaker crafts her stories with precision, not a word is wasted, yet the stories are fully satisfying. I got the impression of a down to earth, no-nonsense Yorkshire woman who understood perfectly the communities among whom she lived. Her canvas is the ordinary, the domestic, but she perfectly captures the ordinary – making them appear less than ordinary – even the absurd in a way that not every writer manages. Here we have a boy starting work with his father, a couple getting drunk for the first time, honeymooners, children left to their own devices, young women ‘in trouble’.

Some of the stories are sad, a little dark, many are memorable. The collection opens with The Journey Home, this short, title story is quite a little shocker, about which I really feel I can’t say anything.

“The girl in the corner seat noticed the rabbit without a white bob to its tail, because she had never seen a rabbit without that mark before. She had seized on the rabbit, or anything else that offered itself outside the window, to avoid looking at the face of the woman opposite, a face so ravaged by one passion or another that it was almost obscene.”
(The Journey Home)

In the story Brother W, Whitaker tells the story of two brothers, one of the brothers has recently died. The surviving brother William, remembers, with some regret, the brother to whom he hadn’t spoken for twenty years. The brothers had continued to share the same bed as they had as children, it never occurring to either of them to move into the spare room. Now, William pays a visit to the stone mason to arrange for a headstone for his brother.

A man who has made his money in business in the south of England, returns to Bradford in September, the time of the annual fair (the tide) in The Smoke of the Tide. Albert Shepherd loves the beauty he sees in the industrial north of his birth, which is so disparaged by his London wife. He revels in the sights, sounds and smells of his youth and the memories flood back.

funfair

A child is left alone by her mother in The Lonely One. A cold winter’s day, and her Auntie Annie is supposed to be coming over within an hour of the mother’s departure – but never arrives – presumably forgetting. The girl finds the hours hanging heavy on her – with little to fill her time, she is made more aware of the time and the silence as she eats her soup alone and pretends to make the beds. Later, she walks to a nearby farm to collect the milk. She spots a woman walking in the street and imagines briefly that it is her auntie come at last.

“But nobody came. The woman must have been a stranger, or somebody from the next village. As soon as she realised that nothing fresh was to happen, that the woman had passed, the child sat down in front of the fire and cried a little, pouting her lips and narrowing her eyes, but very few tears came. Her mother was far away and her auntie had forgotten her. Forgotten her! Yes, that was better. One real tear fell down her left cheek, and another stood in the corner of her right eye.”
(The Lonely One)

Two young brothers enjoy, perhaps one last really happy day in For a small moment. Their mother who has been sick so long – has died, but the boys have not been told. Having spent the last week with an aunt, they have been invited to the house of a family friend Mrs Taybrow. Mrs Taybrow leaves the boys with her young daughter; Miriam and her cousin Louise while she goes out to what we – but not any of the children know – is their mother’s funeral. The boys have a wonderful day, picking gooseberries, playing hide and seek and making toffee, creating quite a mess in the process – for which, oddly they are not reprimanded later. At the end of the day they are delivered home, where the boys can’t wait to tell their mother about all they have done.

There are obviously too many stories in this collection to write about individually – but the whole collection paints a picture of a time and place, resurrecting the people who lived there in the way only a woman who lived among them can.

malachi whitaker

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A Persephone readathon

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With several posts popping up over the last forty-eight hours about this – I am sure everyone knows about this by now – but Jessie who blogs at Dwell in Possibility is having a Persephone readathon. Between the 1st and 11th those of us who love Persephone have the chance to brighten up our social media with photos of our Persephone books, talk about all things Persephone and of course indulge ourselves in a bit of Persephone reading. happytree

I only found out about this readathon two days ago – so I wasn’t sure I could join in, but I really wanted to. So, I have re-thought my reading schedule (which is always fairly elastic anyway) and decided to try and squeeze one – perhaps even two Persephone volumes into the next ten days. I’m not sure if any reviews will get written in time for the end of the readathon though – that might be tight, as I still have two of January’s books to review.

mdeI’m finishing a novel in translation today – as well as meeting my mother for lunch and going to the cinema – but sometime today I aim to get properly stuck into The Journey Home and other Stories by Malachi Whitaker; Persephone book number 124 – which I got for Christmas from Liz, I read the first two very short stories the night before last. This collection was first published by Persephone in 2017 though the stories themselves date from mainly the 1930s – which is very much my reading comfort zone. I have five others Persephone titles tbr – and now 97 titles altogether.

I have a couple of links to old posts for those of you who might have missed them.

Last January I wrote a post called Perfect Persephones – it was my top ten Persephone titles – as they were then. Already I feel if I were to edit it, I might have to change it to include Earth and High Heaven – one of my best books of 2017.

In 2015 I wrote about the children in Persephone books in a post called The Lost Children of Persephone.

All my Persephone reviews are tagged Persephone – so if you’re looking for recommendations – click away ;)I like to encourage others in the Persephone habit.

persephonebookmarks

Everyone discovers Persephone at different times, I first heard about Persephone books from Liz, that was at least twelve years ago. I have visited the shop a few times, it is always an exciting trip, and of course the train journey back always includes an extra bag. The shop is so beautiful, even the outside is wonderfully photogenic.

So I am looking forward to seeing lots of Persephone love around in the next week or so, reviews and pretty pictures.

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longlivegb

The first of three books from the end of 2017 I still have to review – please bear with me while I catch up with myself.

I don’t read much non-fiction, I think that much is quite apparent, but Long Live Great Bardfield is the kind of non-fiction book I am most likely to read. An autobiography written in a very accessible chatty style, depicting the lives of writers (or in this case artists) living in the first half of the last century.

tG artI’ll be honest, I didn’t know the name Tirzah Garwood (though I certainly recognised her work) until Persephone books brought out this title last year. I had vaguely heard the name Eric Ravilious but couldn’t have told you anything about him, nor had I heard of the Great Bardfield artists colony. However, if you haven’t heard the name Tirzah Garwood, and you’re a Persephone fan, who has been enjoying the Persephone Quarterlies and now Biannually, you will, as I did, recognise her work. Many of the illustrations used in the Persephone magazine over several years are from the work of Tirzah Garwood. How fitting that they are now publishing her autobiography.

So, with the Christmas holidays giving me plenty of reading time – I settled in with this almost five-hundred-page autobiography and entered into the bohemian world of Tirzah Garwood and Eric Ravilious.

Born into a family of five children, Tirzah (born Eileen Lucy – Tirzah was a nickname) and her siblings were obliged to move around quite a bit with their parents. Living in Glasgow, Croydon and Eastbourne Tirzah seems to have been surrounded by a lively, loving family who supported her artistic abilities.

When she was eighteen, Tirzah went to art college in Eastbourne, where she was taught by Eric Ravilious. Over the next few years, Tirzah produced dozens of remarkable woodcuts, many of which were highly praised and displayed at the Society of wood engravers. The work she has left behind her, is I think beautiful, so intricate, yet so bold.

“I had sent some of my wood engravings to the exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers and they had been liked by the committee of which Eric was a member and The Times had given them a kind mention; this more than anything convinced my parents that they ought to let me go, though they thought my subjects hideous and the Mr Ravilious was perverting a nice girl who used to draw fairies and flowers into a stranger who rounded on them and did drawings that were only too clearly caricatures of themselves.”

All of these wood engravings were completed before she was just twenty-two years old. When she was twenty-two she married Eric Ravilious, another wood engraver, book illustrator and water colourist. Early in their marriage, the Ravilious’ went to live in Great Bardfield – a village in Essex, where a number of Ravilious’s artist friends and associates either lived or frequently visited. I really could have done with an index to help with the all the names of artists, friends and lovers. I ended up doing a lot of googling and in the beginning, struggled to remember who everyone was.

tirzahSadly, from this point Tirzah’s time was taken up with domestic matters, and although she did help Eric with some of his artistic projects (a now lost mural in a Morecombe hotel for one) Tirzah’s own art took a back seat. Being married certainly didn’t stop either Eric or Tirzah from having other love affairs, all of which seemed perfectly normal to the people around them in Great Bardfield.

In 1935 Tirzah had the first of her three children (the youngest of whom has edited this autobiography and written the preface). Those years before the Second World War, were busy for Tirzah, as she struggled with a doomed love affair with another Great Bardfield artist, and cared for her children. Despite their involvement with other people, both Eric and Tirzah were generally devoted as a couple, in their own way. It was unconventional, but it seemed to work for them. During this time Tirzah spent some time designing marbled papers which she found herself able to sell.

Eric decided to volunteer as a war artist, and so in the early years of the war was away quite a lot. Tirzah was diagnosed and operated on for breast cancer – and it was following her recovery that she began to write her autobiography in the evenings while the children were asleep. Yet, it seems that art was never far from her mind.

‘I hope, dear reader, that you may be one of my descendants, but I have only three children, my grandfather had six and as I write a German aeroplane has circled round above my head taking photographs of the damage that yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival. If you are not one of my descendants then all I ask of you is that you love the country as I do, and when you come into a room, discreetly observe its pictures and its furnishings, and sympathise with painters and craftsmen.’

Tirzah emerges as a warm, modest woman, she had a lot to deal with – especially with her health, but her writing was obviously cathartic. Her writing style is particularly engaging and provides a compelling record of an extraordinary, colourful group of artists. Long Live Great Bardfield is a fabulous autobiography, well written and hugely compelling.

tirzah garwood

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cof

In the unlikely event that it has passed you by – Persephone Books’ latest offerings are published this month, and one of them is Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton.

In 2012 Simon from Stuckinabook read a little-known book called Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton and blogged very enthusiastically about it. It was of course, a wonderful review, the kind that makes almost everyone want to read the book immediately. It almost seemed as if everyone wanted a copy of the book, and many of us immediately jumped online to get a copy. All the reasonable priced copies seemed to get snapped up, and soon the prices of second hand copies appeared to have risen. I just wasn’t fast enough – and was disappointed not to get a copy. A few months later a friend of mine on Librarything offered to send me her copy – she had read it and didn’t particularly want to keep it. I finally had the book – and read it eagerly.

cofNow, a short extract from my original review from 2013, is among others in the afterword to this new Persephone edition. So exciting to have my blog name in the back of a Persephone book, and such a lovely idea to gather together a myriad of voices from both modern bloggers and contemporary reviewers.

I include some highlights from my old review below – although I certainly feel I should re-read the book now. Oh, and yes, I am keeping hold of both copies.

Guard your daughters is a novel about five sisters and an unconventional slightly dysfunctional family at a time just after the Second World War. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Certainly, there is something familiar about this novel, it feels like something one has read before or should have read before, it is nostalgic somehow and familiar, yet at the same time is something of a new discovery.

The Harvey sisters are unconventional, unschooled and oddly named they have been brought up at quite some distance from the rest of the world. Living with their famous detective writer father, and their fragile mother, they have been one another’s friends – with hardly any experience of people outside their family. Pandora the eldest has recently married and moved away to London – and this change seems to highlight for the sisters the peculiarity of their lives. Our narrator is Morgan, the nineteen-year-old middle sister, a pianist with a keen imagination. The eldest of the sisters still at home, and next in age to Pandora, is Thisbe, a beautiful and sharply tongued poet. A year younger than Morgan, is eighteen-year-old Cressida, sensible and domesticated, she seems most keenly aware of the oddities in the Harvey’s existence. The youngest sister is fifteen-year-old Teresa, romantic and dreamy she is very much the baby of the family.

Coming back to visit her family after her marriage, Pandora fears for her sisters – fears they won’t be able to marry or have lives of their own. Her removal from the family has increased her unease of the way the sisters have been brought up.

With their parents existing very much in the background, the five sisters have made their own entertainment and learnt to look after themselves and one another really very well. Their father divides his time between his writing and his wife, who he dances attendance upon constantly ensuring she is not upset. This fragile absent mother is a strange character, at first, she appears merely cosseted and spoilt, her husband and daughters adoring her without question. The sisters have been sheltered from the world to a ridiculous degree, but when two seemingly eligible young men come into the sisters’ lives; their lack of social experience becomes obvious. However, there are darker undercurrents to this unconventional household. Throughout this novel, woven into the humorous and charming story of the relationship between five sisters – there is a definite shadow. For me there was always something unexplained, remaining unspoken till the end. This element is brilliantly done, well plotted it adds something quite special to what could have been a fairly ordinary story. Yet the story is not ordinary, it’s heart-warming, funny and memorable, and the final twist utterly brilliant.

diana tuttonIn the new Persephone Biannually, we are offered a tantalising glimpse of a sequel. I almost can’t bear knowing that it existed. Written in the late 1950s Unguarded Moments was never published – set seven years after the events in Guard your Daughters. I don’t know whether the manuscript still exists, and whether future publication is even possible – but oh, I want to read that so much it hurts!

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A Lady and her Husband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amber Reeves

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With thanks to Persephone books for the review copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gwethalyngraham

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effi briest

(translation by Walter Wallich 1962)

With thanks to Persephone books for the review copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

theodor fontane

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