Posts Tagged ‘virago books’

who was changed

Who was Changed and Who was Dead is a novel I have had for some time, and it was probably only because I read The Vet’s Daughter in August that I had even remembered I had it. There must be so many books at the back of the bookcase that I have forgotten about. So, I recently ferreted it out, putting it where I could see it on the bookcase next to my chair.

Comyns doesn’t shy away from dark, possibly unpleasant themes, and yet the execution is so quirky and readable that I can’t say I found it as upsetting as apparently some of the early reviewers did. In her introduction to my Virago edition Ursula Holden – explains how modern readers are perhaps not quite so shocked or squeamish as they once were. I may know some readers who really are a little squeamish, and certainly Barbara Comyns does paint some unpleasant images.

Warwickshire – a little before World War One, and swans swim through the drawing-room windows of Grandmother Willoweed’s house. The river has flooded badly with much of the village submerged, people shelter upstairs. Ebin Willoweed, once a journalist, now lives with his three children in his mother’s house. As the waters rise, he rows his daughters around the submerged garden. The river is a huge influence in the lives of the Willoweed family, and the rest of the village.

“She came to a little wrecked pleasure-steamer, which had become embedded in the mud several summers ago and which no one had bothered to remove. It had been a vulgar, tubby little boat when it used to steam through the water with its handful of holiday-makers, giving shrill whistles at every bend and causing a wash that disturbed the fishermen as they sat peacefully on the banks; but, now it lay sideways in the mud with its gaudy paint all bleached, it was almost beautiful.”

Comyns leaves little to our imaginations – her descriptions are wonderfully vivid. A squealing pig floats away, legs flailing in desperation – the peacocks are all drowned. The flooding of the river heralds far worse to come.

The grandmother rules the house with a fierce tyranny, a tyranny to tries to exert over the whole village – albeit from a distance. She has sworn not to set foot on land which she doesn’t own – she owns a lot of the surrounding farmland. On the rare occasions that the grandmother ventures forth – she is rowed down the river. Locked into a bitter contest with old Ives who works in the garden, over which of them will live longest – the grandmother enjoys the power she has over everyone at Willoweed House.

Ebin’s three children – Emma, Hattie and Dennis – are quite neglected by their father – consumed with this own bitterness – primarily the loss of his career and his resentment toward his mother, they are often left to their own devices. Emma is the eldest – quietly she combs out her long marmalade hair and keeps an eye on her younger siblings. She takes the younger children on picnics, giving them a little of the mothering and happy security she herself hasn’t had.

“After a time Emma opened the picnic basket and they ate honey sandwiches with ants on them and drank the queer tea that always comes from a thermos.”

Ebin is critical of Dennis – and fairly dismissive of Emma, who has little time for him – Hattie is his favourite child, although she isn’t his. Hattie is the child fathered by his late wife’s black lover – though neither her colour or her parentage is ever remarked upon.

Sisters; Eunice and Norah are the maids at Willoweed House, struck with a wicker carpet beater by the grandmother if she thinks they aren’t working. Norah has been helping local gardener Fig’s mother – and has developed a romantic interest in Fig in the process. Fig is taking his time to be convinced, at first resenting Norah’s interference, but Norah is persistent in her quiet, gentle way. Meanwhile, her sister Eunice has been seeing a married man, with the inevitable consequences.

In the days following the flood – death starts to stalk the village – when it seems to be hit by a kind of plague. The miller goes mad and drowns himself, the baker’s wife – who had been having an affair with Ebin, – runs screaming through the village – finally falling to the ground on top of the grandmother’s white cat. There are other cases – disturbing cases, Emma stands listening to the cries of a stricken child from inside a village house.

“Emma and Dennis cringed against a hedge. Besides the shouting there were other most disturbing sounds like some great malevolent animal snorting and grunting, and there was a stench of evilness and sweating, angry bodies. A man with his shirt all hanging out pushed past Emma, and in the moonlight she could see his face all terrible, with loose lips snarling and saliva pouring down his chin. Shrieks of laughter greeted him when he climbed on the thatched roof and shouted and swore down the chimney. Several men carried lanterns, which they wildly waved about their heads and which made a strange and dancing light. Emma and Dennis crept against the hedge, and although they were pushed and jostled, they clung to each other and were not parted.”

A cottage is set alight by frantic neighbours – a man burned to death – where will the madness/plague strike next?

Who was Changed and Who was dead is a little masterpiece. It is a work of a rare imagination, which could certainly be taken as an allegory of the extraordinary and violent madness which was about the sweep the globe in 1914. As well as death, madness and destruction in this novel there is also tenderness, innocence and love.

barbara comyns

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the ghostly lover

First things first, let’s get it out of the way – this title is terrible. No doubt the title wouldn’t have been quite so cringey when it was first published in 1945 – however these days a title like that makes us think of Mills and Boon. Elizabeth Hardwick however is a serious writer – and The Ghostly Lover; her first novel is pretty serious, don’t let that title fool you.

I had read this novel before – probably almost thirty years ago – I remembered the title and the cover and nothing else really except that I found it quite hard going. Now I know why, The Ghostly Lover is an intelligent, introspective coming of age novel – which I can’t imagine having engaged with in my late teens, but which I enjoyed very much indeed this time around. Four years ago, I read Hardwick’s 1979 novel Sleepless Nights – which is an altogether different kettle of fish, it’s an elegant novel of little plot, beautiful imagery and quiet wisdom. The work of an older more accomplished writer. The Ghostly Lover, however is an astonishingly good first novel – and I remain a fan of Elizabeth Hardwick’s.

“Life seemed to be an enormous subterranean existence in which nobody spoke and in which people died for want of a few words they needed.”

Marian Coleman is sixteen in the long hot summer of depression era Kentucky. Marian and her brother Albert have been living with their grandmother, while their unreliable parents are absent, moving from job to job, chasing the seemingly unobtainable American dream. Sitting on the porch of her home as the novel opens, Marian becomes aware of a man watching her. Bruce, is a neighbour, ten years older, he is already divorced, and rather attractive, he wanders over to talk to her. As Marian sits talking to Bruce that day, she is awaiting the return of her parents, who have been absent on this occasion for two years. Their return is anticipated with a mixture of nerves and excitement.

Lucy and Ted; Marian and Albert’s parents arrive, late at night hours after they were expected, and immediately begin to upset the quiet balance of the household. They are disorganised and incapable of good parenting, but Marian has yet to realise this, sorry that soon they will be off again, her father chasing yet another job that will make their fortune. When Lucy’s childhood friend Mary calls, and suggests to Lucy that perhaps her daughter might have need of her, Lucy is unrepentant, determined to see Marian as grown up enough to do without her.

“‘I know everyone thinks it’s terrible that I go away and leave the children. I know they think it’s disgraceful that we can’t stick to anything.’ Lucy paused, and she saw that Mary’s face was heavy with emotion. She was like a child, gratefully partaking of some choice confidence. Lucy thought sadly that there must always be women like Mary in the world, women with faces that showed deep concern over ever triviality, women who wore the drawn brow of sympathy like an emblem, who specialized in the quick, hushed, understanding reply. Now she had nothing to say. Whatever she hoped to tell had vanished. ‘I simply cannot live here,’ she said and turned away.”

Hattie is the young black cleaner who works for the family, a sharp tongued, cynical young woman, with whom Marian attempts to have some kind of superficial friendship. Through Marian’s critical examination of her attitude to Hattie, Hardwick touches on race relations in the South at this time (there is some use of language we wouldn’t use now, although it is in keeping with the times the novel was written in, and is not overly offensive.)

“There had never been a real stranger in this house: only the native. Dark ones, swarthy-skinned, strange-tongued, foreigners with thick, alien eyebrows never entered the unknown homes, the America lying cunning and anonymous in the rich earth. In every corner, in every face, there was a quiet, lawful, unchallenged exclusiveness, unplanned, unrecorded and violent. But the members of the family made strangers of themselves to elude and trick the pale faces the soft voices, the calm acceptance. Mother, daughter, father, and friend; each behind the mask saying, in steady rhythm to the heartbeat, in answer to the actuality within him, the relentless refrain: They would die if they knew

The Ghostly Lover of the title is Bruce – largely absent in the novel – he is the provider of Marian’s first significant male attention. During their short sojourn at home, Marian waits for her parents to show their disapproval – Bruce is after all ten years older, and Marian little more than a child – naturally they don’t and even then, Marian seems to know that this is all wrong.

Marian decides to go to college in New York, a year for which, strangely perhaps, Bruce pays. Here Marian lives in a hostel with other young women who are studying alongside her – develops new relationships, sometimes remembers Bruce, writing letters to her mother and grandmother – still in denial at her mother’s hopelessness. It is during her letter writing home that Marian makes a discovery about her grandmother, altering her view of her a little. There are some wonderful peripheral characters, one of the most fascinating (and elusive) is Gertrude – a woman living in the hostel, she is an older woman, foreign and rather awkward – she attaches herself to Marian, and then suddenly disappears.
In time, Marian is forced to recognise her parents for who they are when she pays them a visit, shocked by their selfishness and greed – she is finally ready to make her own way in the world.

Last week was such a slow reading week that I actually took six days to read this novel which is less than 300 pages, in one way that was hugely frustrating, however I was forced to appreciate Elizabeth Hardwick’s beautiful intelligent writing, which I think benefits from reading slowly. In the end, it was a joy spending such a lot of time with this novel. I look forward to reading more by Elizabeth Hardwick, hopefully I won’t wait so long next time.

Elizabeth Hardwick

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familiar passions

During September the Virago group over on Librarything were reading the novels of Nina Bawden, Familiar Passions was the second I read, and my final read of the month.

In this novel Nina Bawden considers how those familiar passions of the title – which are found within all families – are apt to be repeated in successive generations.

Bridie Starr is a mere thirty-two – and perhaps the one thing that dates this really very good novel is that Bridie is viewed by almost everyone around her as being more matronly than any thirty-two-year-old is seen these days. At nineteen Bridie married James, swapping the warmth and security of her parents’ home – where she was their most cherished adopted child (they lost a child in infancy) – for marriage, motherhood and a new name.

“Bridie, love,’ he said. ‘Bridie Starr. A pretty name. At least I gave you that, if nothing else. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be Mary Mudd.”

Before her marriage she was Mary, but her insufferable, new husband’s mother bestowed the name Bridie upon her and it stuck. Step-mother to James’s two children, of whom she was very fond, Bridie later had her own daughter Pansy – now eleven and at boarding school.

After an expensive dinner on their thirteenth wedding anniversary – James drives Bridie home in silence – where he calmly announces that he wishes their marriage to end. James explains that he is being transferred to Paris, that he doesn’t want Bridie to accompany him, but in fact remain behind as a sort of housekeeper to take care of the house and perhaps cater for any future guests. Nice! We are left in no doubt about what kind of a man Bridie has been married to, an unpleasantly selfish man – who congratulates his wife on having produced a pretty daughter – what with her being adopted he could never be sure what genes she might be passing on. Bridie leaves the family home in the very early morning, going straight to her parents’ home in London – with not too much regret for the marriage that is behind her. Hilary and Martin Mudd envelope her immediately in their unconditional parental love and support – outraged at the treatment of their daughter by her thoughtless husband.

“Standing at the foot of her parents’ double bed, raincoat dripping on the fluffy carpet, Bridie smiled. How James would laugh if he could these tired old phrases – what he had called her mother’s ‘original remarks.’ How dare he laugh, she thought, remembering with shame how she had once laughed with him. How sycophantic she had been, how treacherous, how ignorant! Her mother simply spoke as she thought and felt, innocently using, in pain or happiness, the words others had used before. And why not? The crucial human situations never changed.”

Bridie is afraid though that she will have no future. Feeling rather redundant back in her parents’ house, she is worried for the relationship she has with her step-daughter who is about to become a mother – and wondering how her daughter Pansy will react to the news. Having spent some time back in the parental home, Bridie takes over the flat of an elderly lady – Miss Lacy, a patient of her Psychiatrist father. Visiting her sister in America Miss Lacy requires a tenant to care for her cat Balthazar. Bridie is grateful for what she sees as a temporary refuge.

Bridie realises that she wants to know something of her own mysterious past, following a conversation with a lonely old woman at the side of a canal.

Bridie decides to ask her dad about the circumstances of her adoption – and surprisingly he points her toward her adoptive mum, saying – that she had known her mother best after all. Gradually the story of Bridie’s birth mother and the circumstances surrounding Bridie’s birth during the Second World War is revealed, unearthing family secrets.

Bridie sets off on a journey to retrace the steps of her birth mother and adopted mother – who both spent time sheltering in the countryside during the Second World War. It was a time of isolation – the men off fighting there was little to do in the countryside marooned in a tiny cottage with an ailing aunt or on a farm with two young children to keep occupied. Bridie learns something about her birth mother’s unhappy marriage, and the mistake she made during the war which resulted in Bridie (then Mary). Bridie finds the farm where her birth mother was staying during the war, and here she meets Philip, it’s pretty much lust at first sight, and she is soon back in her flat practically waiting by the telephone – in the way one did in those far off days before mobile phones.

As Bridie contemplates the possibility of meeting the woman who gave birth to her, her parents are anticipating the arrival of Martin’s two warring sisters – who have not spoken in many years.

As I have said before Bawden writes families perfectly – and she does so here too. It is very much a novel of the seventies – women marry young, are dependent upon men and either seek to replace them when everything goes wrong, or, as in the case with Bridie’s birth mother, stick with destructive relationships.


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It seems I am a little behind, the 10th of September and I am only just reviewing my final book of August.

The Vet’s Daughter is only the second book by Barbara Comyns that I’ve read, the other being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which is a wonderfully quirky, slightly sad little book. Comyns is an interesting writer, her prose is very readable, deceptively simple, yet her stories are visionary and unusual, combining realism and a little surrealism. As a reader one detects a sparkling, lively imagination. Having read the author’s own introduction this Virago edition, I think I can see where this strange slightly out of kilter world comes from.

“I was born in Warwickshire in a house on the banks of the Avon and was one of six children. Our father was a semi-retired managing director of a midland chemical firm. He was an impatient, violent man, alternately spoiling and frightening us. Our mother was many years younger and lived the life of an invalid most of the time. I remember her best lying in a shaded hammock on the lawns, reading and eating cherries, which she was inordinately fond of, or in the winter sitting by the morning-room fire and opening and shutting her hands before the blaze as if to store the heat. Her pet monkey sitting on the fender would be doing the same.”
(Barbara Comyns in her introduction to The Vet’s Daughter 1980)

I loved the opening of the novel, which serves to pull the reader immediately into the world of Alice Rowlands, our unforgettable narrator.

“A man with small eyes and ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need of me to say and I saw he was a poor broken down creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee caps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me.’ And left this poor man among the privet hedges.”

Alice is of course the vet’s daughter of the title, and her home life is dominated by her father, a cruel bullying man subject to sudden rages of temper. Alice by comparison to her father is a gentle innocent, her mother cowed by her marriage is very sick, and we know immediately she won’t last long, and Alice will be left alone with her unpredictable father. The house has a dark, sinister atmosphere – and when (on page 6) her father sells a sack of furry creatures – brought to him to be destroyed – to a vivisectionist, the reader can be in no doubt about what kind of man Alice’s father is. Alice’s life is lonely, restrictively dull and uneducated. She longs for romance – for a different life away from her father.

“Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once. Perhaps…”

The only kind person in the vet’s house following Alice’s mother’s death is Mrs Churchill, who works as cook, and with whom Alice spends more and more time. While Alice’s father is away for a few weeks the business of the vet’s surgery is taken care of by Henry Peebles, the first ever man to treat Alice with kindness and consideration. Alice calls him Blinkers to herself, and starts to meet him in secret after her father’s return.

Her father arrived home with a young blonde woman in tow; Rose Fisher – a barmaid from The Trumpet – Mrs Churchill is scandalised by the appearance of a woman she renames ‘the strumpet from the Trumpet.’ Rose claims she will be Mr Rowland’s housekeeper but it seems no one believes that little bit of deception for a second. Rose is an over confident, blowsy young woman, who soon at home at the vet’s house, seeks to re-make young Alice in her own image.

Alice is briefly rescued from her life with her father – by going to live as companion to Henry Peebles’ mother in the countryside. Mrs Peebles is marooned in her own home – terrified of the two servants who run her house to suit their own needs. Alice and Mrs Peebles become friends and Alice is determined to get Henry to dispense with the services of the sinister couple.

“In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me – and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought “I mustn’t break the gas glove”. I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.”

Alice’s world has been one of constant shocks, and during this turmoil Alice has discovered she a has strange ability – levitation – which over the coming months she practises with. It isn’t long before more change comes – this time to Mrs Peebles’ house, and Alice is obliged to return home to her father. When Mr Rowlands and Rose learn about Alice’s strange ability they seek to exploit it. Alice’s destiny leading to an extraordinary, and probably inevitable moment on Clapham Common.

I really loved this novel, and I am certainly determined to read more – I have a copy of Who was Changed and Who was Dead tbr.

barbara comyns

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Saraband was one of those chance Virago finds. I knew nothing about the book, and nothing about the author. Now all I know about the author is the small amount gleaned from Wikipedia and the introduction to my VMC edition can tell me.

Sadly, Eliot Bliss published only two novels – her second novel Luminous Isle is described as extraordinary by Paul Bailey in his introduction. Her poetry was discovered after her death, and Wikipedia cites the possibility of a third novel which can now not be traced. Eliot Bliss was born Eileen Norah Lees Bliss at a Jamaican army garrison, later she changed her name to Eliot out of respect for George Eliot and T.S Eliot. Both her novels are said to be heavily autobiographical.

 “There was a long mirror in the room, and she went to it. Stood in front of it. And very slowly she saw her soul emerge out of the flesh. Smiling; more so. A truer edition of herself. A light, intensely delicate thing.”

Saraband is the coming of age story of Louie Burnett, who grows up with her mother, younger brother and adored grandmother Lulu, surrounded by a confusing number of aunts and uncles. She acknowledges to herself that she loves her mother less than her grandmother, her father Byng is another adored figure, though largely absent due to the First World War. She is a sensitive, thoughtful young girl, so much goes on in her mind, she’s imaginative and inventive.

‘Whenever she went out for a walk by herself, smelling the cold air all along the road, with the trees stark and white on either side, the exciting feeling took hold of her, the feeling that at any moment she was going to meet somebody or something. She had had it for years ….’

Upstairs in her grandmother’s house there’s a spare room, which Louie has had exclusive use of, here she can explore her magical kingdom, Pomoroyal; a private world of her own invention. She has already decided she loathes boys, following an unfortunate incident with a boy at her day school who smashed her much loved doll. So, the news that a boy cousin will be coming to live with them – following his mother’s death – is very unwelcome. Particularly as Tim will have to be given the room that to her is Pomoroyal.

Tim, is not the boy that Louie had imagined, instead of a rough, bully Tim turns out to be a finely dressed polite boy and about as unlike the horrid boy who broke her doll as can be imagined. Tim, is musical, his talent impresses Louie, and saddens her too, as she imagines she will never be able to do anything so wonderful herself. Louie and Tim become great friends, it is a relationship that will teach Louie a lot about friendship, one that will last the changing years that lie ahead.

Louie is sent to a convent school, here she meets the fabulous spirited Zara, who breaks the rules. Zara is the first of three important female friends, each of them unusual, who help Louie see the world differently. It is while she is at school, that Tim brings her news of her father’s death in the war. It is a wonderfully poignant scene, Eliot Bliss depicting an overwhelming grief perfectly.

“In that moment she was swung out into space and the world seemed to cease to exist. She was leaning against iron-grey railings on the deck of a man-of-war in mid ocean. There was a high wind blowing and a grey swell on the sea and the ship pitched. There was nothing at all in sight but sea, the grey sea it was. Byng had told her to stay there and he would come to her in a minute, and so she would stay, although it was extremely cold. The wind seemed to scrape one’s cheeks. She moved her knee against something and found it to be the hard, raised pattern of the piano seat, and that she was looking at the picture of the Vatican which hung inside its velvet frame over the piano. Tim came across the room to her and put his hands on her shoulders.”

Following her father’s death, the family finances have changed to the point that Louie knows she may have to earn her own living. So, she enrols at a secretarial college – the college is portrayed brilliantly by Bliss, with it’s terrifying sounding exercises. One had to work one’s way from the top floor to the bottom in order to finally graduate. And while Louie is still very much coming to terms with the strictures of room one, she meets Jonquil, another interesting, free spirited young woman.

Another dear friend is Barty, a woman who lives in a house near Lulu’s summer country home. Barty, Miss Berringer lives alone with a lady-housekeeper – of whom the village postmistress certainly doesn’t approve. Neither does Louie, recognising her to be a very unpleasant woman. Barty lives under this woman’s quiet tyranny, and there comes a day when Louie feels she must stage a very crucial intervention.

Saraband is a lovely, slow-moving novel, there is frequently a dreamlike quality to it, the prose poetic and emotional.


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E.H Young is a fabulous Virago author – and Chatterton Square – her final novel proved to be a fantastic pick for my third All Virago/All August read of the month. Although I have still to read a few of her novels – especially those early hard to find ones – I feel confident in saying that Chatterton Square is almost certainly her best novel. It is complex, multi-layered and fantastically readable.

The setting is Upper Radstowe – the setting of the majority of E H Young’s novels, a thinly disguised Clifton – the genteel, prosperous suburb of Bristol where she herself lived for a time. However, the canvas of this novel like many of her others is far smaller than that, almost the entire story taking place at the titular address.

We are in familiar territory with many of the themes of this novel, those of marriage, provincial life and morality. However, the novel also explores pre-war attitudes, it is the late 1930s and the prospect of another war is at the back of everyone’s mind. Naturally, the possibility of war is contemplated with some pain by those who lived through one war and still bear the scars – either physical or mental. Meanwhile the next generation, face the possibility of having the best years of their lives stolen – and well they know it.

Chatterton Square – not really a square is more of an oblong – has seen better days. Still although fashion has deserted this small corner of Upper Radstowe, these are houses with small gardens, basement kitchens and some – like the Frasers – have balconies. The Frasers occupy a corner of Chatterton square – here live – Rosamund Fraser, her childhood friend Agnes Spanner and Rosamund’s five almost adult children. Agnes, we learn lived a sad, small diminished life with her controlling parents. So, with Rosamund’s husband; Fergus, choosing to live abroad, away from his family – Rosamund took the opportunity to save her friend – bringing her in to the warm, lively family she has never had for herself.

Sitting at right angles to the Fraser household, live the Blacketts; Herbert and Bertha – and their three daughters, Flora, Rhoda and Mary. Herbert Blackett is one of the most pompous, self-obsessed, self-deluded men I have come across in fiction, I could cheerfully have throttled him. He is however, a brilliantly complex character deftly explored. It is testament to Young’s extraordinary skill, that towards the end of the novel, when the reader has spent almost 400 pages loathing him, she allows us to see him defeated, and it is a surprisingly poignant moment.

Mr Blackett is proud of his quiet little submissive wife, in his eyes she is perfectly proper, conventional and loyal. He loves to see her blush if he mentions their honeymoon in Florence almost twenty years earlier. Yet, unknown to him, Bertha loathes him, she suffers his embraces, quietly despising him. Her one consolation that he has no idea what goes on in her mind, mocking him silently keeps her sane – but the reader longs for her to tell him exactly what she thinks – as surely must at some point. There is breath-taking complexity in the characters of the Blackett household, Flora so like her father that her mother can criticise him, through her irritation with a daughter she is unable to like. Rhoda so like her mother – more and more so as the novel progresses. Her father simply cannot understand his middle daughter – and she in turn doesn’t like him at all, and doesn’t really try to hide it. There is a wonderful moment when Rhoda catches a cold, angry look on her mother’s face directed at her unseeing husband, and understands all.

“He pitied widows but he distrusted them. They knew too much. As free as unmarried women, they were fully armed; this was an unfair advantage, and when it was combined with beauty, and air of well-being, a gaiety which, in women over forty had an unsuitable hint of mischief in it, he felt that in this easy conquest over, or incapacity for grief, all manhood was insulted, while all manhood, including his own, was probably viewed by that woman as a likely prey.”

Of course, Herbert Blackett does not approve of the Fraser household. Suspicious of Rosamund as she is without a husband, he is appalled when he discovers she is not, as he had assumed a widow, declaring that her husband must have found himself obliged to leave her. Rosamund, manages her family very differently to Mr Blackett, she doesn’t interfere in her children’s lives, they enjoy an enormous amount of freedom, but come to her often nevertheless. Late at night as the household settles down, Miss Spanner or one or other of the children visit Rosamund in her bedroom, where confidences are shared, worries discussed, minds put at rest.

The two households are brought together partly by their proximity to one another and by the friendships which begin to develop between some members of the two houses. Piers Lindsay, disfigured by his injures picked up in the First World War, is Bertha Blackett’s cousin, we sense that there were some tenderer feelings between them once – but Piers returned just too late from the war, which Herbert had not fought in. Now Piers has returned unexpectedly to the area. Herbert Blackett is deeply resentful of Piers and his war wounds he considers an easy way of eliciting sympathy. Rosamund Fraser is drawn to Piers, recognising the goodness in him, his companionship is easy and comforting. Bertha is also fond of Piers, noticing of course, his visits to her neighbour.

“She blushed to remember how once, and for a short time, she had listened for certain tones of Mr Blackett’s voice and watched for certain movements of his long hands and found delight in what was only endurable now because she had learnt to enjoy disliking it. And he did not know, he had not the slightest suspicion, that was the best of it, and suddenly, when she and Piers were sitting in the twilight as Rosamund had pictured them and while Rhoda had left them for a few minutes, Mrs Blackett laughed aloud, a rare occurrence, and it was yet another kind of laughter which Mr Blackett had never heard.”

Alongside the anxieties of a possible war – are the burgeoning friendships and romances between various characters from the two households. However, it is the depiction of the Blackett marriage that will live long in my mind, Rosamund Fraser is a fabulous character, wise, warm unconventional and loving, but for me it is Bertha Blackett (what a name!) who is the real heroine of Chatterton Square.

E H Young

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the orchid house

I like to try and read a variety of VMC books during the annual Librarything All Virago/All August. The Orchid House is a novel quite different in tone to my last Virago read – This Real Night. Slightly reminiscent of The Wide Sargasso Sea, (although that novel is vastly superior) The Orchid House is set on the island of Dominica (although the exact location is only really implied). The novel is far more character than plot driven, written with a strong sense of place, and told with great subtlety. The novel was made into a TV series for channel 4 here in the UK, as can be seen by my TV tie-in cover – I will be going in search of the series now.

Phyllis Shand Allfey was born on the island of Domenica and this novel is said to have been based on her own early life. Born into an elite white family she nevertheless saw herself as a West Indian, and was a socialist activist, journalist and Dominican politician. She also wrote several collections of poetry and a collection of short stories.

The story is largely narrated by Lally, the ageing Dominican nurse who supervised the growing up of three white, Creole sisters at Maison Rose with their mother and war damaged father, in the years following the First World War. Maison Rose is a house is full of characters, Christophine the cook, her son Baptiste, her daughter Olivet and Buffon the boatman – who have all been around the family for years. The house is steeped in memories for Lally, memories of when Miss Stella, Miss Joan and Miss Natalie were children, waiting their father’s return from the war, playing with their childhood friend Andrew. Now Lally’s working days should be at an end, but she can’t resist one last return to Maison Rose when she hears the young ladies she cared for in their infancy are returning.

“Madam sat down in my one room house and told me why she was happy. ‘Lally, the children are coming home to visit us,’ she said. ‘Imagine, Lally, after all this while we shall see the children again. For many weeks we have been making plans, and letters have been passing between us. And now, it seems to be coming true.’
‘It’s a long while,’ I said.
‘But you know the reasons,’ Madam said. ‘You know the reasons, Lally.’
Madam was right. I knew all the reasons; for she had never kept anything from me. I knew that Miss Stella and Miss Joan had married poor men and had babies, and Miss Natalie had married rich old Sir Godfrey, but before she could even have a baby the awful thing had happened, the car had gone over the cliff and Sir Godfrey had died. ‘And how are you feeling, Lally?’ asked Madam. ‘A little stronger?’
‘I never felt better,’ I told her. For I guessed what she was going to ask of me, and joy took away the ache in my stomach and the stiffness in my legs. I would nurse Madam’s grandchildren before I died. I would see Miss Stella, Miss Joan and Miss Natalie again.”

In the past, Lally watched her precious girls grow up amid the lush vegetation of their island home – running in and out of the Orchid house at their grandfather’s home L’Aromatique nearby. As young women, each of them left for England or America, married men Lally can’t quite envisage, the youngest sister now a widow, bringing much needed money into the family. Now Lally awaits their return, each sister expected on long awaited visits, two of them with young sons in tow – their husbands left behind. Lally is a wise, watchful old woman, not much gets past her – it never did. In the days before Miss Stella arrives – the eldest of the sisters, and also Lally’s favourite – she remembers fondly those far off days when the house rang with the voices of the three young sisters. She remembers the return of the master from the war – damaged, clearly suffering from shell shock, he came to rely heavily upon the wares peddled by the sinister Mr Lilipoulala who arrives from Port au Prince with the mail boat. The master is still in thrall to Mr Lilipoulala – of whom Miss Stella was always so afraid – he too is expected in the coming days.

The sisters each still love the same man, Andrew, the friend of their childhood, who stayed on the island, and now lives at Petit Cul-de-Sac, with Cornélie the sisters’ mixed-race cousin, and their child. Andrew, sick with TB does little but lie around the garden of their tiny home. Once the sisters whispered to Cornélie through the railings of her convent school, now Cornélie regards each of them with some suspicion.

“The house was empty of men. It was a house of women, like Maison Rouge in the old days. Madam had said to me that the girls would bring life to the place. They had brought more than that – they had brought sons and torment and love complications beyond the endurance of an old dark-skinned Methodist like me.”

Stella arrives first with her son Hel – beautiful, romantic and nostalgic for the days of her girlhood, Stella wastes no time in seeking out Andrew. Back in America, her German husband and his family await her return at the farm where she has been living a not very easy life. Now, returning to the place where she could always find solace she reflects on her marriage, and whether she wants to return to the farm. Joan arrives next from England, bringing her young son Ned with her. Ned, wakens something in his war damaged grandfather – making a touching connection which surprises everyone. Joan, brings her political activism with her – desperate to bring unions into the lives of local workers. Natalie arrives last, by sea plane, a very wealthy young widow, she brings Eric – her Canadian pilot lover with her. The island works its magic on each of the sisters in turn, leaving something of themselves behind them.


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