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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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Madame solario

When I was first bought Madame Solario I was aware of Gladys Huntingdon’s writing having been compared to Henry James, I didn’t allow that to put me off – it is some years since I read Henry James, but I can’t say I find him easy. Now that I have read the novel, I understand the comparison, there is an elusive, intense quality to the narrative that is quite Jamesian – and one can’t help but think of Henry James, and perhaps Edith Wharton and E M Forster when one reads a novel of society people abroad. However, Gladys Huntingdon’s novel is far more scandalous than anything those other literary giants produced.

Before we get to the novel itself – the story behind the novel is in itself fascinating. First published in 1956 – Gladys Huntingdon chose to publish this, (I believe) her only novel, written when in her seventies, anonymously, it was thirty years before the author was revealed. No doubt, the mystery surrounding the authorship of Madame Solario contributed to its success at the time. Born Gladys Parrish, in 1887 the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphian Quaker, her life growing up was itself quite Jamesian in nature – so we are told by Alison Adburgham, in her afterword to this Persephone edition.

Back to the story itself – a beautifully written novel of almost 500 pages, there is drama here – however it is not a novel with a great deal of plot. Madame Solario is strangely compelling, the reader can’t help but be drawn into the intense relationships which slowly develop between a large group of mainly Europeans on the shores of Lake Como. It is a world painted exquisitely by the author – who herself would have experienced something very similar as a young girl, holidaying with her family on Lake Como.
Set in Cadenabbia on Lake Como in September 1906, Madame Solario transports us instantly to another world – a world of European and American high society, a lakeside retreat, shuttered villas, picnics, polite conversation and whispered scandal. madame_solario_pic_for_page_7.jpg

The novel is divided into three sections, the first and third sections told from the view point of Bernard Middleton, who we meet on page 2 – a nice, young Englishman in whose company we feel instantly at ease. He is young, his experiences of the word so far have done little to prepare him for the unspoken passions, and complexities he finds himself in the midst of.

“‘I don’t know what your studies have been, but you may know that geologists speak of faults when they mean weaknesses in the crust of the earth that cause earthquakes and subsidences.”
Having pulled on his gloves he was energetically buttoning them.
“And I will tell you something out of my own experience. There are people like ‘faults’, who are a weakness in the fabric of society; there is disturbance and disaster wherever they are.” He gave Bernard a fierce look beneath his bristling eyebrows.
‘Young man, go away from! Get on to solid ground as soon as you can.’”

The middle section – (I shall come to that again later) Bernard retreats from view, and my one minor quibble with this novel is that this section is longer than it need be. Bernard has recently finished at Oxford, destined for a career in banking – a career arranged for him, and one he doesn’t look forward to. A few weeks on Lake Como is a kind of compensation for the dull years ahead. Supposed to be meeting up with a friend, who having fallen ill can no longer come, Bernard is on his own, experiencing grown up society for the first time. Clustered around Bernard, at this society retreat are members of the American and European elite, British, Italian, Russian and Hungarian society are represented. Bernard is drawn to Ilona Zapponyi, daughter of a countess, but Ilona has had her heart broken by Kovanski, and the Zapponyi’s leave quickly. Bernard realises that Kovanski is at the hotel in pursuit of the mysterious Madame Solario, still young and beautiful – who arrives amid disturbing rumours of her past. Whispers of a terrible scandal within her family, leading to her being married off to her much older South American husband – only where is he now? And what happened to her brother who disappeared around the same time?

“Bernard saw coming out a lady he had not seen before. She was not a girl, not young in his sense, though he knew she could not be more than twenty-seven or -eight, and his eyes stayed on her – not with any interest that a girl might have aroused, only contemplatively, but stayed, because he at once thought her beautiful. Her figure was a little above medium height and very graceful; she was fair, and she wore a hat trimmed with velvet pansies in shades of mauve that deepened into purple. After she had walked out into the sunlight she opened a white silk parasol, and Bernard saw a tall Italian called Ercolani go quickly up to her; they stood talking – that is to say, she stood very still with her parasol resting on her shoulder, while he did the talking.”

Bernard starts spending time with Madame Solario, she seems to appreciate his easy company. Walking along the winding paths that run alongside the lake, he is a frequent, rather over-awed companion to this elusive beauty. Bernard is a great observer, he watches and listens to everything that goes on around him. Kovanski – who Bernard has taken seriously against – makes Bernard feel young and foolish. Just as Bernard’s unlikely friendship with Natalia Solario begins there is another surprise arrival at the hotel – Eugene Harden, Madame Solario’s brother – whom she hasn’t seen in twelve years, and who calls her Nelly.

The second part of the novel – explores the intense, rather disturbing relationship between Natalia and her brother and their reunion. Eugene cross examines his sister about their past, bitterness, jealousy and shared remembrances come into play. Eugene plots to raise his own social standing by taking advantage of various imagined alliances, and we lose sight almost completely of dear Bernard. This second section, as well as being a bit long is the weakest section of the novel – which is gloriously revived in the final section which sees Natalia leave Cadenabbia, and Bernard is right in the middle of the action as he is given the opportunity to protect the woman who has so beguiled and charmed him.

Gladys Huntingdon tells a story of disturbing scandal, against a backdrop of polite society, under which flows a current of something rather dark.

I finished reading this novel – both impressed and full of questions. Madame Solario remains elusive, we never completely get to know her – and this feels exactly right, as the memory of the glimpses we get of her, haunts the reader long after the book is laid aside.

GladysHuntington

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“I don’t believe you ever see anything dead on, only at a peculiar angle through the corner of your eye”

Given to me by a good friend; Every Eye has been on my tbr for a long time. A slim novella at around 120 pages, I was prompted to read it following a conversation on the Libraything Virago group. A couple of members were discussing the equal brilliance of the last lines of the title story in Roman Fever and the final line of this Persephone novella. Well as I was already reading one I absolutely had to read the other too.

Isobel English is best known for Every Eye, her second novel, she wrote a couple more novels some stories and a play, but as far as I can see none of those are currently available. Isobel English was a pseudonym, her real name was June Braybrooke, and the prologue of this Persephone edition is written by her husband.

“Nothing is ever lost that is begun, no word spoken that can ever be broken down to unco-ordinated syllables, no tear shed that will leave only a powdering of white salt. Everything must go on, and on, and on, repeating itself and gathering force for the ever that is still only the bright whiteness of eternity meditated on by mystics and recluses.”

Every Eye is the story of a young woman whose life could have been made unhappier than it eventually turned out. There is however, a quiet sadness in the midst of what we are supposed to see as her final, recent happiness. We meet Hatty, when she is in her thirties, not long married to a younger man, and anticipating a holiday with her husband Stephen to Ibiza, a delayed honeymoon. On the eve of their departure Hatty hears that Cynthia has died (a few pages later we learn Cynthia had married her uncle 19 years earlier). It is six years since Hatty cut herself free of Cynthia – the novel is an exploration of this relationship – and others – and the impact these relationships have upon her.

As Hatty and Stephen travel by train through Europe toward their holiday destination, Hatty reflects on her relationship with Hatty, her Uncle Otway who Cynthia married, and the relationship she had in her twenties with a much older man. The story switches back and forth between the present and the past, Isobel English’s writing is superb. Hatty is a pianist, and it is around the time that Cynthia came into her life, when she was fourteen, that Hatty began to realise she wouldn’t make her living from playing piano on stage – she does instead become a piano teacher. Uncle Otway is a large presence in her life, a big handsome blustering man, a little interfering in the fatherless girl’s life. Hatty, who always feels like a stranger in her family, doesn’t care much for him, though she likes the small, blue eyed woman, Cynthia; who he brings to the house one day. Cynthia has been married before and has a son the same age as Hatty, she has spent time living in Ibiza – a place the fourteen-year-old Hatty can have no idea she too will one day travel.

Hatty has a problem with one eye, a squint or lazy eye, giving her eye the appearance of looking into the side of her nose, Hatty’s mother encourages her to have an operation to fix it, though it is a very expensive proposition – Hatty is not easily persuaded as she is a little squeamish at the thought. Years later when Hatty begins again to consider it, her mother works hard to dissuade her. Hatty has grown up being advised not to draw attention to it, wear broad brimmed hats to help disguise it.

Sight, as perhaps the title refers to in a way, is a recurring theme, clear-sightedness, the eye of the beholder, the way we see others, the way others see us. Hatty sees her eye as being a deformity, it affects her self-esteem, and impacts on the first proper relationship she has, with an older man. Hatty doesn’t believe he can find her attractive, she is charmed and attracted by his interest in her, his affection and kindness but she can’t help but notice his wrinkled sagging skin, his age. Similarly, as she now journeys with Stephen on their late, long looked forward to honeymoon, she can’t help but notice the disparity in their ages – wondering how others see them. Another theme is age, there is a discernible difference in age in three important relationships within the novel.

Cynthia of course we only see through Hatty’s reminiscence, a woman liked by the fourteen-year-old Hatty, but things change – and gradually Cynthia becomes a more negative presence in her life. Sharp, critical, she subverts Hatty’s first relationship – has Hatty doubting herself. Within a few years of marrying Otway, Cynthia has certainly altered physically, a baby born to her in middle age has played a part in that, as has the reduction of her husband’s army pension. She appears changed in other ways too, more cynical and brittle. When their money no longer stretches as far as it used to, Cynthia takes cleaning jobs behind her husband’s back. Cynthia is a survivor.

“ ‘I don’t know why people have their photographs taken,’ I say. ‘Cynthia altered so much in appearance that strangers used to ask who it was in the place of honour on the piano. She used to laugh; obviously she got a kick in keeping the record of the person she had once been always before her eyes.’
‘It must have been her peak period,’ Stephen smiles. ‘People sometimes go through their whole lives without ever reaching the moment when they are exactly the person they want to be.’ “

The sense of place in the novel is wonderful too – France, Spain and Ibiza by train and boat – places evoked beautifully by Isobel English, although Hatty’s view of them is warped by her view of herself and her memories of the past. The one person we never see clearly however is Stephen – I wonder if this is deliberate – I can only assume it is. Stephen is a bit of a mystery remaining an enigma for the reader as the novel comes to its brilliant end. The ending brings the past and present together in such a way the reader almost wants to go back and start all over again, it is the kind of ending you remember, but also makes you want to re-read – well I’m sure I will one day.

isobel English

 

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On my last trip to the Persephone shop in November the one book I absolutely knew I was going to buy for myself was Every Good Deed and other stories. It is the most recent Dorothy Whipple book to be published by Persephone –  with stories first published in literary journals and other collections mainly in the 1940s.

What I hadn’t realised until I opened it to peruse the contents was that the first story Every Good Deed is a novella at 120 pages, I was excited at the idea of a really long story I could sink my teeth into. Every Good Deed spans a period of around twenty-five years, in the lives of two gentle, innocent sisters. The period is difficult to work out – perhaps it doesn’t matter much, though one sister does already own a car at the beginning of the novel and wears a mushroom hat. Neither of the world wars are mentioned, but I assumed the story to take place in the twenty five years before the second world war – the story first appeared in 1944.

The sisters at the centre of Every Good Deed are the Miss Tophams, Miss Emily and Miss Susan, already in their forties when the story opens. Left quite comfortable by their parents, the sisters live at The Willows together, getting along wonderfully well, each of them living their life according to their talents. Miss Susan manages the house and all domestic matters alongside their faithful cook while the elder sister Emily has her committees and public affairs. Miss Emily is capable and caring and the work she likes best is her involvement with the children’s home. It is the children’s home which indirectly changes their lives forever. The lives of the sisters have slipped along in the same quiet stream for years, they are very content with their lives, their friendship with Cook making her into more of a third member of the family. Their only brother James lives in London, keeping a distanced though not a too interfering eye on his sisters’ affairs.

On one visit to the Children’s home, Miss Emily meets a new arrival (the home has had dealings with this girl before) Gwen Dobson who is thirteen. The matron and her staff find her difficult to deal with, know her to be sly, manipulative little madam, wilful and disobedient. Miss Emily believes that the dear child merely needs kindness – and to diffuse a rapidly escalating situation late one evening Miss Emily takes the girl home to The Willows for the night.

“Before she disappeared round the corner, Gwen, clinging closely to Miss Emily’s silken waist, turned and put out her tongue.”

Gwen stays five years, and the sister’s lives are changed forever. Gwen is difficult, selfish and unappreciative, she rules the roost and the gentle loving sisters whom she now calls Aunt Susan and Aunt Emily continually find excuses for her. They arrange for her to be educated, but Gwen is eventually asked to leave. Gwen always knows how to find her way round the sisters, how best to take full advantage of their gentle, innocent natures. Their dear Cook, more of a friend than a servant, leaves in tears, promising to return if Gwen ever leaves them. The house, once a place of gentle, ordered calm, suffers in Cooks absence, as the sisters struggle to cope with Gwen. One day Gwen does leave, running off with a jazz musician when she is eighteen.

For a while everything returns to the way it was before Gwen arrived five years earlier, even their beloved Cook returns to The Willows. For a year, the sisters and cook live happily, shrugging off the previous five years, blissfully glad to have their old lives back. Then, Gwen returns, and this time she is heavily pregnant, producing a son within hours of her arrival.

“I’d no idea newborn babies looked like this,’ said Susan with awe and delight as she washed the child. ‘Why, he’s a person already. See the way he turns his head to look at us. We’re the first things he has seen in his life, Emily.’”

I won’t reveal any more of the story, but I found it hard to put down. One small criticism; the story could perhaps have done with a little pruning, but it’s a small point, and doesn’t detract from what is a very enjoyable novella.

The other stories in this collection – nine of them, are to my mind outstanding. I am not going to talk about all nine however. Miss Pratt Disappears is probably my favourite. The eponymous Miss Pratt is a downtrodden woman whose capabilities have never been acknowledged by the two sets of selfish relatives with whom she divides her time. Creeping apologetically around their houses, going to bed early, eating like a bird. One night she finds herself locked out of both houses on her change over day – and so Miss Pratt in desperation and with only a small amount of money – catches a bus to a place she was once happy.

In ‘Boarding House’, we see the happiness of several people at a small hotel in its first season, completely destroyed by one selfish woman. A woman, whose loneliness and boredom changes the mood of everyone and the atmosphere of the house.It is a superbly observed little story.

The shortest story is The Swan, just a few pages long, it portrays a single swan, whose mate has been killed. The narrator is desperate to save the swan from spiralling further into madness and grief. It is an unusual story to come from the pen of Dorothy Whipple. And I found it delicately moving.

“Then far away, down one of the waterways, I would see her coming, small in the distance, growing larger and lovelier as she came, swimming strongly towards me. When she reached me, she made little hoarse sounds of pleasure and ate bread from my hand. I had to be careful she didn’t take my fingers with it in her eager beak. I was proud to have made friends with her and naively thought I had consoled her for the loss of her mate.
I was wrong.”

One Dark Night is set during the wartime blackout. A woman who has so far avoided being out in the blackout emerges from a cinema, to find herself in complete and absolute darkness. She steps out in fear, alone, ruminating on the argument which has separated her from her sister, to whom she hasn’t spoken in over a year. Looking desperately for a chink of light by which to find her way, the woman stumbles along a street with shops hiding behind blackout shutters, and desperately opens a door.

This is a quite delicious collection for all Dorothy Whipple fans, and suited my mood perfectly in the dark days of late January when I so needed an escape.

Dorothy whipple

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Perfect Persephones

 

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We all like a book list don’t we – and so I have another one for you, a list of perfect Persephone reads.

My Libraything catalogue tells me I have 89 Persephone books, a mixture of fiction, non-fiction and short stories, 6 of them I still have to read. It never ceases to amaze me how Persephone books almost always hit the spot. Quality books, inside and out, they are always a treat to read.

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Before I get to my top ten, special mention must go to: Miss Pettigrew who Lived for a Day, my first Persephone book and one of only two that I have read twice. I should also mention Dorothy Whipple and Marghanita Laski, two of my favourite Persephone writers though I have left their books off my list – I would still highly recommend all their works.

10. The Persephone book of short stories – A pleasingly thick book of short stories. The thirty stories in this wonderful collection were all written between 1909 and 1986 by a range of extraordinary writers – the list of which, would read like a who’s who of twentieth century women writers, Dorothy Whipple, Edith Wharton, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Shirley Jackson, Diana Athill, Penelope Fitzgerald and more.

operation-heartbreak9. Operation Heartbreak (1950) – Duff Cooper. A novel which surprised me – I hadn’t expected to be so moved. Willie Maryngton is a man with the heart and soul of a soldier. Born in 1900, he is just too young to fight in WW1 – having eventually received his commission, he is ready to go to France just as the armistice is signed – and too old for WW2.

8. Into the Whirlwind (1967) Eugenia Ginzburg – Tells the true story of the terror unleashed by Stalin during the 1930s, and it naturally doesn’t always make for comfortable reading, but it is a powerful and quite extraordinary book. in the 1930’s Ginzburg was a loyal communist party member, a university teacher and journalist. A wife and mother, living a life surrounded by people who thought as she did, Eugenia (Jenny) found herself caught up in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, accused on trumped up charges when her colleague Elvov at the university was charged with leading a counter-revolutionary group – a group that was totally fictitious. From 1934 when prominent party member kirov was assassinated Jenny suddenly found herself, suspected, watched and frequently questioned

7. Dimanche and other Stories (2000) – Irène Némirovsky. This collection was my introduction to Irène Némirovsky – and it was a wonderful experience, it is an exceptional little collection. Irène Némirovsky offers us glimpses of French bourgeois life in the years just before and during World War Two. They concern relationships, family life and the individual’s sense of themselves in the world around them.

6. Flush: a biography (1933) Virginia Woolf – Flush, is a complete joy, it is – for those who don’t know – is a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, a cocker spaniel that was her constant companion, both before and after her marriage to Robert Browning. The book is a combination of fiction and non-fiction, through which we meet the two nineteenth century poets, revealing something of the early years of their marriage.
Although it appears so much lighter in tone than many of her other works, Flush does in fact consider social inequalities and the way that society treated and classified its women.IMG_20160706_222212

5. A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf (1953) Ed. Leonard Woolf. A Writer’s Diary really is a wonderful reading experience, Virginia Woolf seems to have been incapable of writing a poor sentence, though she was horribly hard on herself. From the first entry in this diary dated 1918 to the final entry – 1941 just three weeks before her death, we see something of her private inner world, from the books she was reading, the words she was herself writing to the people she encountered.

4. Vain Shadow – (1963) Jane Hervey Vain Shadow is a very autobiographical novel – certain characters so recognisable as themselves by members of her own family that Jane Hervey found herself on very bad terms with them after its publication. The story in Vain Shadow is simple enough – a wealthy family gather at their country estate in Derbyshire following the death of the patriarch. Over a period of four days they mourn him, arrange his funeral and read his will. It is a work of quiet brilliance.

3 The Happy Tree (1926) Rosalind Murray The Happy Tree opens with the death of a young man, and told in retrospect by a woman who is slightly astonished to find she is now forty. Our narrator, Helen Woodruffe remembers her childhood with her adored cousins Guy and Hugo in the years before the First World War. We then witness the emotional toll the war takes on Helen, as it necessarily takes or changes the people she loves.

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2 Princes in the Land (1938) – Joanna Cannan A book I had overlooked for a long time, for years passing it by in favour of others. Sometimes, perfection is found in unexpected places. The novel is about family life and motherhood; Patricia Lindsay is a woman who in middle age as her children begin to make lives for themselves is left wondering what her life has been for. Patricia made sacrifices for her children, adapted her expectations of life, but what in the end, was it all for. It is an exquisite examination of family life that shows with brilliant honesty and some poignancy that parents can’t live their children’s lives for them, and however much it may distress them they must allow them to go their own way in the end.

manja1 Manja (1938) – Anna Gmeyner This really had to be at the top of my list. It is a book which has stayed with me, which surprised and moved me. Manja was inspired by a one paragraph newspaper report about the fate of a twelve-year-old girl in a German town.
The novel with its somewhat controversial beginning was well received at the time it first appeared written under a pseudonym. However, I think that reading it now – knowing what we do about what happened in Europe in the years after Anna Gmeyner was writing lends it a greater poignancy.

What about you, what are your perfect Persephone reads?

 

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Persephone book 117 The Godwits Fly is a semi-autobiographical novel by New Zealand author Robin Hyde (born Iris Wilkinson), of which I had extraordinary high hopes. The prose is glorious, poetic and continually a delight to read. Hyde’s descriptions of landscape particularly are sumptuous as are the snippets of poetry we get throughout the novel. However, while there is nothing to actually dislike about this novel, I found myself slightly underwhelmed though I don’t know why. Perhaps I just expected a little too much, it is still a very good novel. Robin Hyde’s writing style is not always easy, her prose as I have said is wonderful, but it isn’t always straightforward, not always conventional, the perspective alters a little as the characters in the novel grow up.

Iris Wilkinson, (AKA Robin Hyde) was a journalist, novelist and poet, born in South Africa, she moved with her family to Wellington, New Zealand when she was a child. Like the character, Eliza – who is at the centre of The Godwits Fly Iris was born into a family who considered themselves English. They can’t help but keep their eyes turned North – to the England they never travel to. They strive hard to be conventional, and limit the influence of children from other families, and in doing this of course they never really fit in anywhere. The Godwits of the title are a small migratory bird – that fly North from New godwitsZealand at summers end, though they don’t go to England, they fly to Siberia. As Robin Hyde explains in her foreword…

“And it is true, too, that the godwits flying north, never go near England. They fly to Siberia. But to a child in this book, it was all more simple. A long way was a long way. North was mostly England, or a detour to England.”

In reading this novel it is hard to be sure where Iris’s life ends and Eliza’s begins, there are so many sad parallels between their lives. Iris Wilkinson’s life ended in 1939 just before the outbreak of World War two – she killed herself, after only about a year in England. The novel doesn’t end like that – though the seeds of great sadness have been sown for Eliza who as the novel ends is just twenty-one.

The novel opens when Eliza Hannay is a child, she has one older sister and one younger – some years later a baby brother is born. The family move house regularly – Eliza’s childhood memories a series of less than perfect rented houses, going from the hills down into the suburbs of Wellington. Here Eliza’s mother Augusta struggles to maintain an air of respectability on her office clerk husband’s salary. Mr Hannay is something of a trial to his wife, they row a lot, and seem to have little in common. John Hannay reads voraciously – bringing home a variety of colourful characters with whom he enjoys socialist debate. My favourite section of the novel was the first half – when Eliza and her siblings are growing up, playing, having childhood adventures, going to school and observing the complicated world of their adult parents with the honest eyes of childhood.

“‘Daddy got drunk once, and I hit him over the head with my hobby-horse,’ said Eliza. Augusta’s profile went bleak and set, though she only said. ‘Trust you for remembering.’ Eliza wondered, ‘what is the little jumpy thing that makes you talk out loud when you promised you weren’t going to?’”

As the siblings get older – other influences come into play. However, Eliza and her sister Carly can’t entirely free themselves of the home influences. Carly becomes engaged – for a while, and toys with the idea of nursing before discovering her mistake. Eliza – who from childhood has written poetry – is more complex than her sister. She feels that like the godwits they need to fly, fly away to England, at school she is mocked rather for her devotion to a place she has never been. Eliza falls in love with Timothy Cardew – one of her father’s socialist friends. Timothy loves Eliza too – though not enough to stay with her. Timothy dreams of travel and exploration, and so Eliza is left behind – though Timothy writes from time to time. Timothy inspires much of the poetry that Eliza writes, eventually producing a small book of her poetry. There is a lovely scene where her father attempts to move his daughters poorly printed little book into a more prominent position is his local bookshop – much to the fury of the assistant. The bookseller explains how local produced books are not expected to sell.

“Courage is a beautiful sleek horse, she thought, a thoroughbred, with its eyes blazing and the wind tapering round its ardent flanks. It is sensitive and swift, nerved for the one crucial thing. I haven’t got that. Only the slow, prodding mule-gait: and I give in often, and cry for help, but when help doesn’t come, I can manage, as a rule.”

More sadness is to follow for Eliza – I don’t want to talk about all that occurs in the novel – although most of it seems to mirror Iris Wilkinson’s own life – and Ann Thwaite’s preface to the Persephone edition tells us the sad story of where the name Robin Hyde came from.

All in all, there is an awful lot to like in this book, and thinking about it retrospectively now, my slight feeling of being underwhelmed might have had more to do with my mood than anything else.

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This disturbing – but compelling little novel, is one I hadn’t thought I wanted to read. I knew however, that I liked Marghanita Laski’s writing, her female characters particularly are very real, flawed and believable, and her novel Little Boy Lost is one of the most poignantly heart-rending novels I have ever read (that’s not a criticism). So, I decided to give it a try – after all it’s very short.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue is generally described as a horror story. The horror lies in the way the story plays upon the reader’s fears of entrapment and loss of control and confusion of identity. That nightmare thing of trying to get people to believe the unbelievable, of having no way out of a situation with only one possible horrifying conclusion.

This is a novel about which it is difficult to write without potential spoilers, and so while I am intending to keep this short – I can’t promise the following won’t be a tad spoilery.

It is worth keeping in mind that I am just about the last person to ever read a horror story, and yet I really enjoyed it (though it is rather shuddery). The Victorian Chaise-Longue isn’t really a horror story by modern standards. It is instead, a quietly disturbing novel, cleverly psychological, it also has something to say about women’s lives and their positions in society during the two periods in which it is set. In the hands of a modern writer, I suspect everything would have gone a little OTT and been drawn out for 400 pages, Marghanita Laski is wonderfully subtle, and restrains herself to not revealing everything. The Victorian Chaise-Longue is far more powerful, in my opinion, for such handling.

Melanie Langdon is a young 1950s wife recovering from TB. She constantly seeks reassurance of her doctor that she won’t die, pretty and a little spoiled, she is constantly indulged by those around her. She was pregnant when the TB was discovered, and despite concerns, her doctors had allowed the pregnancy to continue. Her son Richard was born seven months earlier – since when Melanie has barely seen him. Her days are spent in bed, where she looks forward to her husband Guy’s visits, the nanny coming to hold Richard up at the door for her to see, and the continuing good reports from her doctors. Melanie has everything she could wish – apart from her health, which appears to be slowly returning, her life is one of privilege.

With her condition improving, her doctors agree she can leave her bedroom in the afternoons, to lie in the sun in the drawing room. The drawing room is where the Victorian Chaise-Longue has been put. A large, old fashioned piece of furniture, rather ugly with a scrolled back and cross-stitch embroidery cover.

“Through the open window the spring poured in. From her couch, bathed in the soft sweet air, Melanie could not see the canal that lay beside her home, but it flowed through her imagination, dark and still and beautiful. From the water on the far side, a rough bank rose steeply to a bombed, still desolate waste, and from one of the brambles that sprawled all over it, a branch curved high and free to lie across the blue sky. Suffused with sunlight faintly swaying across the pale blue sky. Drowsy, Melanie looked at the flowers and the sky, and the noises of the city – the soft continuous roar of traffic, the whine of the milkman’s electric cart that stopped and started in the street behind – died away with her slow beatific loss of immediacy.”

Melanie had bought the chaise-longue in an antique shop the day before she received her TB diagnosis. On that day, Melanie had been aware of a fleeting memory which swept over her as she first came into contact with the chaise-longue. At first, the reader takes this memory at face value, though it seems vaguely out of place – which in time we realise it was.

On the afternoon, that Melanie is carried by her husband to lie on the Victorian chaise-Longue in the afternoon sun, she falls asleep, and when she wakes up, nothing is what it was.

“She opened her eyes and it was dark. I am still asleep, she thought, and she shut her eyes again; but soon she realised that it was not now the delightful chaos of sleep still imposed on her brain. Now, this time, I am really awake, she said, and again it was dark, darkness charged with a faint foul smell.”

Melanie has woken up in the body of another woman, a woman who lived in the Victorian era – the 1860s – and like Melanie is lying on the chaise-longue, a victim of TB. Melanie finds herself in the body of Milly Bains, with the thoughts and longings of Melanie. The room is unfamiliar, yet known, the people around her unknown and yet gradually familiar. There are things which have happened to Milly in the past which neither we nor Milly can be sure of, some disgrace she has brought to the family, a reason why her sister is so coldly disapproving. It is like we have stepped into the middle of a story having entirely missed the opening chapters. Like Melanie, the reader isn’t always sure what is going on, this is particularly clever as it heightens the sense of claustrophobic uncertainty. Melanie – tries to believe she is in a nightmare – for as long as she can, before the true horror of her situation becomes apparent.

I was surprised actually, at how much I enjoyed this novella, and while it won’t be my favourite Marghanita Laski novel, it has renewed my appreciation for a gifted novelist who wrote several very different novels.

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