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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

My new lovelies are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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midsummernight workshouse

I have become an admirer of Diana Athill through reading four of her books of memoir – and I have a couple more tbr. She is a wonderful teller of tales, her memoirs written with great warmth and honesty. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was my first experience of Athill’s fiction.

These twelve stories first appeared in the late 1950s or early 1960s, ten of them published with four others under the title An Unavoidable Delay in 1962. This lovely Persephone collection was published in 2011 – with Athill able to write her own preface – she is one of only a few living authors to be published by Persephone. The endpapers taken from a fabric purchased by Diana Athill for her flat in the 1970s.

In this collection Athill writes about young women experiencing the world of love and sex for the first time. Smart, sexy, knowing stories, touched with gentle humour and some well-developed characterisation.

A young girl is enraptured by her first kiss at a dance, with an unexciting young man in The Real Thing which opens the collection. The girl is touchingly young, finds so many situations to be ‘utterly withering’ and unkindly calls her companion Thomas ‘Toofat’ in her head – his last name is Toogood. He is at least old enough to drive a car. In No Laughing Matter another young girl – a university student – who is absolutely smitten with her boyfriend Stephen – has to decide whether it is time to take their relationship to the next level.

“For twelve weeks these anxieties had buzzed like mosquitoes, teasing at the decision, giving her the circles under her eyes and spoiling her appetite. The more formidable they became, the more certain she was that she would do it in spite of them. The decision was harder than she had expected, involved more than the general principle of the thing which, though frightening, was simple. She was suffering for it, and the more she suffered the greater became her exaltation.”
(No Laughing Matter)

Most of these quiet stories are set in England, and the point of view is mainly, though not exclusively that of women. Two stories take place abroad, one in Italy and one in Greece. Although the themes of many of these stories are very similar – they each standalone perfectly – characters are clearly distinct from one another.

midsummernight2Adultery rears its head in a couple of stories – in the first of them, we meet one woman living in boredom with her husband. Her memory, keeping alive, her brief fling with a slight social acquaintance. In, For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound Kate Beeston is floored by a casual phone call from her former lover she watches her husband in the garden – and recalls the week she spent with David Field when her husband was away. This was one of my favourite stories, for me it had the feel of the kind of story Elizabeth Taylor could have written.

“The name had stabbed her – ‘It’s David Field here’ – so that Kate had reached for something to lean on, but then an odd contentment had come down on her and it had been an effort to understand what he was saying. She had wanted only to listen to the sound of his voice.”
( For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound)

In the title story, a writer tries desperately to find her writing mojo – at a writing retreat. There are a host of quirky characters installed – including a practised seducer – who all delight in poking fun at the house rules, and the odd little messages pinned up on the communal notice board.

One story told from a male point of view is An Afternoon Off. Tweedy middle-aged Roger Paul, who works for a publisher has rarely had a day off, never taken his full holiday entitlement. One afternoon he decides to not go back to the office – he doesn’t phone them to explain either. He goes to the cinema and has tea with a young woman who he tries not to notice is a bit common and tells him about her boyfriend. He finds it is all a little bit disappointing.

In the final story Buried – a middle aged woman finds herself skulking through the farmyard of her brother’s neighbour. It is a couple of years since Mrs Klein last visited her Colonel brother. Their peculiar adventure gives her chance to recall their childhood, how her elder brother had been everything to her before he went away to school – and gradually life disrupted that early closeness. In this way, she comes to a new understanding of her brother, realising how he became the man he is.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is another excellent short story collection from Persephone books. Diana Athill a writer I continue to read with great relish.

DianaAthill

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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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