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Olivia Manning is definitely one of those writers whose books I always feel confident of enjoying. I don’t think I had known that she had published short stories, until I came across this collection in a charity shop. There are fourteen stories in A Romantic Hero – also the title of the penultimate story.

In these stories Olivia Manning explores lonely childhoods and complex adult relationships. Her stories, just like her wonderful novels are shot through with her precise understanding of people, their domestic dramas, their sadness and their humour. Arranged chronologically (I like that way of putting story collections together) these stories represent a period of almost thirty years of Manning’s creative life, with the first two stories dating from 1938 and the final story from 1966.

Rather than try and talk about all fourteen stories in this collection, I will give just a flavour of some of them. One thing I really liked was how Olivia Manning takes to so many different locations, from coastal Ireland to Cairo, to Jerusalem and a snowy wartime Romania. Many of the locations I have encountered in her novels.

“There, clutching the tufts of hard grass, they could look down into the crevices where they believed the strong-smelling weed hid giant octopi and other secret, colourless monsters.

They came to the leap.

Mrs Clandavy, on the other side of the wall, started calling them again.

‘We’re coming,’ Joseph answered as he took the leap without pausing to measure it or glance down. He went over with this bone-thin legs bent. His knickers, his ragged jersey and his socks were all too short, and his limbs stuck out from them like sticks. His neck, like a thin stalk, held precariously the weight of his large head with its thick, untidy, fawn-coloured hair. Van, a year older, taller and even thinner, followed him easily.”  

(Childhood – 1938)

The collection opens with Childhood a story paired with the one that comes after it, The Two Birthdays. Both stories are about the Clandavy children and their difficult emotional mother. In the first story Van and her younger brother Joseph are exploring the beach near their Irish home. Picking up bits of debris from the beach, checking on Mr Congo the crab they have adopted and been finding food for. Hearing their mother calling, they are forced to leave the beach and return to the house, and the difficult, confusing atmosphere, where their parents are frequently waging war, and playing the children off on one another. In the second of these, time has moved on a little, and Mrs Clandavy has separated from her husband. There is a day out with neighbours planned on the river, which Joseph has been looking forward to. These stories are slow and meandering, and I love that kind of storytelling and there is a deliciously strong sense of time and place too.

Other Irish families appear in this collection, like in The Visit, in which the narrator remembers a visit to a Lady Moxton when she was a child. She hadn’t really wanted to go and had been relying on her brother to be with her, but at the last minute he was ill in bed with a cold. She travels by tram with her bossy, ambitious mother and must face the strange old woman without her brother.

I was reminded strongly of The Balkan Trilogy in In A Winter Landscape in which we follow a British couple as they travel across Romania by train. They meet a Polish soldier and get into conversation, spending a couple of days in one another’s company on the train and overnight at a hotel. Manning’s descriptions of the landscape are lovely, her eye for detail as good as ever.

“The damp in the air had covered the carriage windows with long ferns of frost. One could scrape off the frost and see through the glass the white landscape going past. This was wheat-growing country, treeless, the fields repeating themselves in hills and hollows that looked barren, as though made of salt.”

(In a Winter Landscape – 1941)

In The Man who Stole a Tiger, we meet Tandy, a survivor of a lost troopship, he was brought back to health in a Jerusalem sanatorium. The story is narrated by a Padre who spends time with Tandy before and after the events related in the story, the Padre never really liked Tandy, who he describes as an ex-borstal boy. While recovering in Jerusalem, Tandy found himself visiting the zoo – and it was there he decided to free the tiger who he seemed to connect with and feel needed rescuing. Tandy steals the tiger and then embarks on an absurdly long journey by road. I won’t spoil the ending – which most readers will see coming – but it’s wonderfully subtle and desperately poignant.

In Twilight of the Gods Elizabeth goes on holiday to Ireland just after the war. Here she meets again a woman she knew years earlier and had once thought rather glamourous. She finds a woman greatly changed and living in the middle of an uncomfortable domestic situation which Elizabeth is keen not to get drawn into.

In the title story; A Romantic Hero, we meet Harold, living (kind of) with Angela – who he doesn’t love. One day he meets a good looking young man called David, and Harold is smitten – and imagines David feels as he does. He arranges to meet the young man the following day, and of course nothing goes quite as Harold imagines.

All in all this was a lovely collection, reminding me – had I needed it, what a great writer Olivia Manning is. When I finished the Levant trilogy around Christmas, I felt quite bereft, so I was in need of another Olivia Manning book I think.

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I generally really like short stories, and while my preference is usually for collections from backlisted women writers, I am perfectly happy to sometimes read more modern collections. Your Duck is My Duck is a collection of six stories by American writer Deborah Eisenberg, who has written several other collections. I first read about the collection on Susan’s blog A Life in Books, and bought it immediately, it sounded right up my street. Overall, I did like this collection, though a couple of the stories fell a little short of my initial expectations. It is well written, and though a couple of stories left me a little cold, the others I liked. These stories are all a bit longer than some short stories, and Eisenberg uses their length the fully flesh out her characters.

The stories are by turns, dark, funny and mysterious. Eisenberg explores the strangeness in the lives and emotions of her characters with astuteness, characters are well defined. In these pieces she explores aspects of money, sex and power.

The opening story in the collection is Your Duck is My Duck from which the collection takes its title. This was I thought a very good opening to the collection. An artist is taken up by a wealthy couple who she meets at a party. It becomes clear that she has been struggling with her work, and the couple invite her to their retreat. Their retreat is on the edge of a coastal village which the couple have spoiled with their schemes. On arrival, she finds her hosts engaged in an awkward domestic conflict. There is a wonderful sense of place in this story – as there is in other pieces, I particularly enjoyed Eisenberg’s descriptions.

“I was looking out at cliffs and the sea, all sluiced in delicate pinks and yellows and greens and blues, as if the sun were imparting to the sleeping rock and water dreams of their youth, dreams of the rock’s birth in the earth’s molten core, the water’s ecstatic purity before it was sullied by life—as if the play of soft colors were the sun’s lullaby to the cliffs and the sea, of endurance and transformation.”

(Your Duck is My Duck)

Taj Mahal was definitely my favourite story in the collection, and the one I remember best. The story very cleverly moves across time periods and there are shifting perspectives, as a group of ageing movie stars react to the newly published biography of a film director, written by his grandson, based on his childhood memories of visits made to his famous grandfather. A story about the reliability of memory – as the former stars rage and dispute the facts laid out in the biography. Can their memories of the past really be trusted?

“What to do about all this horseshit? Nothing, really, nothing. But still, the ones who are left, those who happen to be in New York – Duncan, Coral, Roman and Luther – have collected, on this glassily brilliant autumn day, in the noisy bar of a restaurant that Roman likes. Emma has been included, too, although if it weren’t for this so-called memoir, these old friends of her mother’s would no doubt have forgotten all about her. Even in the book her existence is confined to pages 48, 49 and 316.”

(Taj Mahal)

In Cross off and Moves on the death notice of a cousin in the newspaper, leads a woman to remember how her difficult mother loathed her father’s sisters. She realises how many things were hidden from her, her memory of her aunts is positive, she recalls their kindness. She spends time trying to piece together the past.

Merge Is the longest story in the collection, and it started out really well, but the ending fell flat for me – and left me a bit confused. It tells the story of Keith, the son of a wealthy man, he has fallen out of favour at home, and is need of employment. He meets Celeste, a young woman a little older than himself, and she finds him work, helping an elderly neighbour of hers and giving him a place to stay while she is away. Keith helps out Mrs Cordis, one particular duty being to walk her dog Moppet. Meanwhile, somewhere a long way from home, Celeste appears to be in trouble of some kind.

The Third Tower was the story that worked least well for me, I found it all rather confusing. The confusion might well be deliberate as it portrays a young woman undergoing some neurological tests. She finds herself refusing to trust the things that are really in her mind but instead allows herself to be influenced by her doctor.

Recalculating is another excellent story; in which Adam a young man from a traditional American community, travels to England to attend the funeral of an uncle he never knew. Adam had often wondered about this uncle, had grown up asking questions which were never satisfactorily answered. Here he meets his Uncle Phillip’s circle of fairly bohemian friends; they all instantly accept Adam and he is drawn into their world.

On the basis of this collection I would definitely be interested in reading more by Deborah Eisenberg, I really liked her writing and her ability at exploring character and place.

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With thanks to the publishers for this review copy.

Laid up still and in pain, this pleasingly chunky collection of short stories by a host of Golden Age Crime writers was just what I needed. I have always loved the sea, I love the sea more than I love boats, though I am quite partial to those little trips they do around the bay at the seaside in summer. All the stories in Deep Waters, concern water of some kind – not always the sea, and many of them concern boats or ships, though we have rivers, canals, garden lakes and a swimming pool too and I was delighted to have a story set in a lighthouse. Edited by Martin Edwards this is a fantastic collection, so completely engrossing, I fairly gulped these stories down.

The collection of sixteen stories opens with The Adventure of the Gloria Scott by Arthur Conan Doyle in which Sherlock Holmes relates one of the stories from his past to Watson. Holmes recalls his old friend; Victor Trevor from his student days, and his father, and a man from the past who turns up and upsets everything – and a letter which seems to bring about Trevor senior’s death.

One of my favourite stories was The Echo of a Mutiny by R. Austen Freeman,it’s a satisfying length too at something like forty pages. Set in a lighthouse – which I found especially pleasing, there s a fantastic tension throughout the story which makes it very compelling. It concerns two old enemies, a terrible secret from the past, and a seemingly perfect murder. In part two we discover how Freeman’s medical detective Thorndyke is able to solve the mystery using meticulous detective work and forensic science.

“It was shortly after passing the buoy that the gaunt shape of a screw-pile lighthouse began to loom up ahead, its dull-eyed paint turned to vermillion by the early afternoon sun. As we drew nearer, the name Girdler, painted in huge, white letters, became visible, and two men could be seen in the gallery around the lantern, inspecting us through a telescope.”

(The Echo of a Mutiny)

The Gift of the Emperor by E W Hornung, is another compelling adventure. Hornung’s famous gentleman thief Raffles is on the trail of a pearl of great price. He and accomplice Bunny end up on board ship, sailing toward the Mediterranean. However, Raffles’ old enemy is on their tail.  

In The Turning of the Tide by C S Forsterwe see everything from the perspective of the potential murderer. Middle aged solicitor Slade has thought of everything, particularly the difficulty of disposing of a body. He feels he has no alternative than to kill the man who knows about his misappropriation of client’s money, if his colleague lives, he will be ruined. There is a marvellously chilling twist in the conclusion of this story.

“Slade thought of other defaulting solicitors he had heard of, even one or two with whom he had come into contact professionally. He remembered his brother-solicitors’ remarks about them, pitying or contemptuous. He thought of having to beg his bread in the streets on his release from prison, of cold and misery and starvation. The shudder which shook him was succeeded by a hot wave of resentment. Never, never would he endure it.”

(The Turning of the Tide)

The Pool of Secrets by Gwyn Evansconcerns a lake in the grounds of a country house. The house has recently passed to the Canadian nephew of Sir Charles; the former owner. Sir Charles’s cousin had reason to be very upset when this new heir was discovered, and the goings on up at the hall has been the subject of local and press speculation. One story that won’t go away is that of the ‘Silver Bride’ that said to haunt the lake at the hall. As Quentin Drex; former secret service man buys a drink in the village pub, a local man stumbles in, telling a terrible tale of the silver bride, who he says has claimed the life of his dog. Drex determines to find out the truth behind the story of the silver bride – and it is rather surprising.

In other stories we find criminals planning their ingenious escapes from their floating crime scenes, victims succumbing to dastardly plans and murderers being caught out by very clever men (I wish they weren’t always men – but oh well). There is poison in a glass of cognac, the ingenious theft of gold bullion, the hard to explain death of a man on his river boat, among other things, plenty of the usual Golden Age ingredients that readers so enjoy. All in all, this was a marvellous anthology of watery stories, each of which is prefaced with a page of biographical information about their authors.

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

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

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

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

(Her First Ball (1921) Katherine Mansfield)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(In Dull Brown 1896 by Evelyn Sharp)

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

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

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

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

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With thanks to Virago for providing me with this beautiful designer edition.

I love Edith Wharton and The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton had been on my wish list for ages – so I was very excited to receive this collection from Virago.

There is a long tradition of the telling of ghost stories, an oral tradition that saw people telling and re-telling the stories known in their own families. People have long delighted in the sharing of such stories. It seems we continue to love to scare ourselves. These stories are very much in the best tradition of ghost stories – they give one a little shiver down the spine, they are deliciously creepy – but they never descend into absolute horror – I can’t really see them as nightmare inducing. They are understated, more Gothic than frightening, beautifully written of course with well-drawn characters.

Edith Wharton’s stories are set in both America and England stories which appeared over a period of more than thirty years, in the first half of the last century. They bear witness to Wharton’s own fascination with hauntings, bewitchments and spirits. From childhood Edith Wharton had been terrified of ghost stories, and in these stories, she has channelled her fears in tales which expose the faults in us mere mortals; betrayal, grief, greed and the misuse of power. They are all endlessly readable.

There are eleven stories in this collection – none of them too short – they are to my mind the perfect length, perfect to settle down with over a cuppa when you get in from work – or at night before bed. I don’t feel I can talk about each story, so as I generally do with story collections, I shall instead just give a flavour of the whole collection and talk about a few favourites.

The collection opens with The Lady Maid’s Bell narrated by the lady maid of the title. Having recently recovered from typhoid, Hartley is in search of a new position. She is told about a Mrs Brympton, a young woman though something of an invalid, she lives all year round at her country home on the Hudson river. Hartley is warned that the house is large and gloomy, and that the lady’s husband is often away. Hartley feels that a quiet place in the country will suit her well having so recently been ill. On arrival at Brympton Place, she is greeted by Mrs Blinder the cook and a friendly housemaid Agnes. Some things feel strange, she hears about her predecessor so long devoted to Mrs Brympton who died the year before. It is explained that should Mrs Brympton want her, Agnes will fetch Hartley, that there will be no summons by bell – as is usual. So, why does Hartley wake suddenly to the sound of a bell? and who was the woman she saw in the corridor outside her room?

In Afterward an American couple seek to buy a house in England, Mary Boyne and her husband settle on Lyng in Dorsetshire. Mary asks about the presence of ghosts and is told: ‘oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.’ It is further explained that she will never know it till long afterward. Settling happily at Lyng Mary and her husband Ned laughingly look out for their ghost that they will not know about till afterward – not really feeling too worried. However, when Mary sees a figure walking toward the house as she and Ned watch from the roof – she starts to get a feeling for the trouble that will follow.

“Distinctly, yes she now recalled that she had seen, as she glanced, a shadow of anxiety, of perplexity rather, fall across his face; and, following his eyes, had beheld a figure of a man in loose greyish clothes, as it appeared to her – who was sauntering down the lime avenue to the court with the doubtful gait of a stranger who seeks his way.”

For me one of the most enthralling and memorable stories is Kerfol, set in Brittany, where the narrator has been urged by friends to buy a property going – they say – for a song. Deciding to go and view the property the young man is shocked to find his entry to the house is prevented by a pack of vicious, though silent dogs. The reason for the presence of these spectral dogs is told in the story of Anne de Cornault who lived in the house with her husband in the seventeenth century.

In Bewitched we are back in America, and in wintry rural New England landscape three local men, a farmer and two cutters, call at the house of Saul Rutledge another cutter. There they encounter Saul’s wife – beside herself with a tale of witchcraft – she claims that the dead daughter of one man has bewitched her husband over the previous year – leaving him a shadow of his former self. The men, shocked and horrified at such a tale – set out to uncover the validity of her strange claim.  

“As he came in he faced the light from the north window, and Bosworth’s first thought was that he looked like a drowned man fished out from under the ice – ‘self-drowned’ he added. But the snow light plays cruel tricks with a man’s colour, and even with the shape of his features; it must have been partly that, Bosworth reflected, which transformed Saul Rutledge from the straight muscular fellow he had been a year before into the haggard wretch now before them.”

Mr Jones tells the story of another English haunted house. When Lady Jane Lynke inherits the beautiful country house of Bells, she swears she will never leave it. She hasn’t reckoned on Mr Jones however – for everything that she wants to do in her new home she is told by the old servant that Mr Jones won’t like it. Whether it is lighting a fire in the parlour or unlocking the door to the muniment room Mr Jones is apparently consulted and his disapproval communicated to her ladyship. However, Lady Jane has never seen Mr Jones – and when she and her friend begin to investigate, they discover a Mr Jones had been an important servant many decades earlier.

In Pomegranate seed a young woman who is quite newly married to a man who had been previously widowed, is alarmed at the sight of a letter lying on the table addressed to her husband. The letter is one of a series of identical letters, to which her husband reacts very oddly. She becomes fixated on the letters, which her husband won’t talk to her about – and the idea that the writer, who she guesses is a woman – has some terrible hold over him, that the wife is desperate to free him of.

All in all, a pretty perfect collection of stories for the time of year. Ghost stories read well throughout the winter though, so I think this would make a great gift for any Edith Wharton fan come Christmas.

I am currently away on holiday, and there is no Wi-Fi where I am staying (this post uploaded courtesy of a café with sea view.) So, this post will have to suffice until I get home next weekend.

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

Over the summer I read The Wedding by Dorothy West – and it immediately made me want to read everything she wrote – it’s a sadly very short list. I do have her first novel The Living is Easy somewhere on my tbr – which I will read in the fullness of time, knowing there will be no more.

The Richer, The Poorer is a collection of stories and autobiographical pieces, they are an absolute delight. Here Dorothy West shows her brilliance in the shorter form, she illuminates the struggles of ordinary families, the sad, disappointment of childhood, the misunderstandings that exist between the old and young.

In these stories we meet people dreading the visit of the investigator – who decides whether they will receive welfare relief. There are families holding funerals, girls renting typewriters, people living in sad marriages, a forty year old man trying again for his bar exam, children whose small eyes are opened to the frailties of their parents, people who have spent all their lives working to avoid the poverty of their childhoods. In each story, Dorothy West’s characters step from the page fully formed, they are clearly the people she met during the time she worked in Harlem as welfare investigator and relief worker.

There are seventeen stories in this collection, and many are very short – yet for me at least not unsatisfying. I delighted in gulping down one after another, after another. Following on from the stories, are thirteen autobiographical pieces, sketches and reminiscences from Dorothy West’s long life, many harking back to her childhood. With so many pieces in this collection I can only really give a flavour of the whole.

In these stories people acknowledge the history of slavery – many characters in these stories people born in the South but who moved North to escape the prejudice so prevalent in the South, but something of the place we once called home always pulls us back.

“He shuffled down the street, an abject little man of fifty-odd years, in an ageless overcoat that flapped in the wind. He was cold, he hated the North, and particularly Boston, and saw suddenly a barefoot pickaninny sitting on a fence in the hot, Southern sun and a piece of steaming corn bread and a piece of fried salt pork in either grimy hand.”

(The Typewriter)

The collection opens with The Typewriter a middle aged man plods home after a day at work as an office building janitor. His daughter has been learning to type on a rented typewriter – and he isn’t looking forward to the sound of it echoing through the apartment. However, he is a fond parent and he wants to help his daughter – so when she asks him to dictate made up letters for her to type, he obliges – and his letters, firing his imagination, open up a whole new world for him.

In the title story; The Richer, the poorer – two sisters who have lived their lives very differently are brought together again by the circumstances of old age. While one sister, saved and worked hard all her life – sacrificing many comforts to the drive to ensuring she has money for her old age – the other sister did the exact opposite.  

“Over the years Lottie had urged Bess to prepare for her old age. Over the years Bess had lived each day as if there were no other. Now they were both past sixty, the time for summing up. Lottie had a bank account that had never grown lean. Bess had the clothes on her back, and the rest of her worldly possessions in a battered suitcase. 

Lottie had hated being a child, hearing her parents skimping and scraping. Bess had never seemed to notice. All she ever wanted was to go outside and play. She learned to skate on borrowed skates. She rode a borrowed bicycle. Lottie couldn’t wait to grow up and buy herself the best of everything. 

As soon as anyone would hire her, Lottie put herself to work. She minded babies, she ran errands for the old.”

(The Richer, The Poorer)

In the stories The Five-Dollar Bill and The Penny we see both the desperation for a small amount of money and the terrible toll poverty can have on children. In the first of these, a child is made aware of the duplicitousness of her mother. While in the second story a little boy is joyful at the gift of a penny from his father – but his joy is destined to turn to misery – and have unexpected consequences, thanks to the interference of a local do-gooder with an agenda.

In Jack in the Pot Mrs Edmunds wins fifty-five dollars on bingo – a fabulous sum of money at the time. The winnings bring a terrible fear however, as she and her husband are awaiting a visit from the welfare investigator. She is terrified of being sanctioned. She tells her husband she won five dollars and they celebrate with a wonderful dinner. Meanwhile, a neighbour suffers a terrible tragedy – and knowing his need of the exact sum of money she has hidden away Mrs Edmunds is horribly conflicted. We meet another welfare investigator in the story Mammy in which an investigator must follow up on a claimant’s previous employment – in this story we meet the mammy of the title; Mrs Mason, who has suddenly left her employer and refuses to return. There’s a lot that is uncomfortable about the relationship between the wealthy employer and her servant – too much that reminds the reader of the imbalance of power.

The autobiographical pieces that follow the stories are simply wonderful. In these pieces West remembers her middle class Boston childhood, paying tribute to her fabulous mother. She recollects the summers spent so happily on the island; Martha’s Vineyard, and the people who would come and share the family summer cottage with them. She also recalls a trip to Moscow, and the time she spent working as part of the Harlem Renaissance. We are left with the impression of a fascinating woman, who lived a long and happy life.

The Richer, The Poorer is a wonderful immersive collection, the themes are universal and West’s writing compassionate and richly observant.

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The Harsh voice is a collection of four short novels (four long short stories is probably more accurate) that each deal with corrupting influence of money and hate. The title coming from a poem by Richard Wynne Errington.

“Speaks the harsh voice

We hear when money talks, or hate,

Then comes the softest answer.”

First published in 1935 the stories straddle the period dominated by the Wall Street crash of 1929. Rebecca West had travelled to America several times, and in these four brilliant pieces – three of which are set in the US – she perfectly recreates an American voice. Through these stories we see something of the America that Rebecca West experienced during the 1920s.

Life Sentence concerns both the corruption of money and the hate and misery that can come out of an unsuitable marriage. Corrie Dickson is a good natured young man when he marries his fiancé Josephine against his better judgement. Corrie had somewhat half-heartedly tried to break off the engagement, not counting on the iron will of the sweet little girl he was engaged to. Josie never really forgives him for what Corries later refers to as his attack of cold feet. Corries’s uncertainty on the eve of their wedding overshadows their whole marriage – and in time he begins to see his wife as two people, Josie the soft, lovable girl he fell in love with and Josephine an unforgiving, ambitious woman chasing money. She has become a strident, accusatory woman, who is about a lot more than mere motherhood or marriage.

“And as he knelt by the bed where she had cast herself, and whispered to her that he could not bear it if she would not turn her head that way, that something grew colder still and said, in time to his heartbeat. ‘This is a life sentence, this is a life sentence.’”

Josephine represents a new breed of American woman that was emerging during this period, confident businesswomen taking their place alongside men.

There is no conversation opens in Paris, Etienne de Sevenac a vain French aristocrat who prides himself on his youthful looks and success with women, relates to an unnamed friend how he fell foul of American businesswoman; Nancy Sarle. Etienne has lost – or is about to lose – everything. He’s never worked, relying on his inheritance to fund the lifestyle he enjoys so much. Etienne’s listener (we find out more about her later) is fascinated by Nancy Sarle. She travels to America, infiltrating the very society that will, eventually bring her face to face with this infamously, powerful businesswoman.

This story is particularly strong, it explores the nature of hate and revenge and more importantly the misconceptions between people. Nancy and Etienne are so different to one another – their concerns and experiences such that each was completely incapable of understanding the other. Rebecca West’s characterisation here – as in all four of these pieces is brilliant – the voices of her characters authentic and believably of the times.

The Salt of the Earth is the only story in this collection set in England, it would be hard to pick a favourite piece in The Harsh Voice, but this one might slightly have the edge for me. In this piece West introduces us to another wonderfully monstrous character in Alice Pemberton. Alice is the salt of the earth, an Englishwoman who likes to help everyone around her – her mother, her siblings, their spouses and children – she just wants to ensure they don’t continue to make the mistakes she sees them making. However, her help is destructive, she appears to be utterly unaware of the effect she has. Alice’s husband sees it all though, and so when Alice returns from a visit to her mother, he tries to talk to her about it.

Alice has been ill, and when she leaves her mother’s house to return home, her mother is so relieved to be rid of her, she can’t hide it – and no one at home is pleased to see her. Alice approaches home, thinking she will catch the servants out – but her mother has called ahead – knowing what would lie in store for the poor servants if anything is out of place.

“Of course the servants adored her. Well, so they might. She knew she had an almost perfect manner with subordinates, and she really took trouble over training them and thinking out devices for ridding them of their little faults. She would never need to part with her servants, if it was not for the curious vein of madness running through all women of that class, which invariably came out sooner or later in some wild attack of causeless rage.”

The reader suspects, what Alice’s fate will be, the clues are there from the start – but that just makes the story all the more compelling. West builds the suspense wonderfully in this story, and it was probably that along with its very Englishness which made me love it as much as I did.

The final story in this quartet is The Abiding Vision, a story about the destructive power of money, but also a story about love. Sam Hartley is a self-made man, he has risen from rough beginnings in Butte, Montana to Park Avenue in New York. His wife Lulah has been by his side throughout, but now as Sam has reached his peak of success in middle age, his beloved, kindly Lulah is looking and feeling her age. Sam takes a mistress, a chorus girl named Lily. For Lily, in the beginning at least, their arrangement is a business deal – and for Sam, still committed to his evenings with Lulah, and taking care of her, it’s exactly what he wants. Years pass, and Lulah becomes ill, and Sam is hit hard by the Wall Street crash.

These stories are brilliant, compulsively readable, portraying the America of the 1920s particularly well. One thing that troubled me; Rebecca West puts some rather unpleasant Antisemitism into the mouths and thoughts of a few of her characters. Thoughts prevalent at the time no doubt, though I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was something West was portraying as being authentic of these types of people at this time, or whether in it we see something of her own attitudes. I tend to assume the former.

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