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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

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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cof

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.

pshandallfrey

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this real night

As many of you will know, August is All Virago/All August over on the Librarything Virago group. I can’t manage to commit to just reading Virago all of August but I love the excuse to read some of my Virago volumes.

This Real Night is the second book in Rebecca West’s Aubrey family trilogy; A Saga of the Century (there are editions which publish all three books together). The trilogy begins with The Fountain Overflows . I read that wonderful book back at the end of February while I was on holiday with friends in Iceland, I hadn’t meant to leave it quite so long before catching up with these characters again. This Real Night and Cousin Rosamond were published in the 1980s following Rebecca West’s death, from the manuscripts that she left behind. The third book I know is unfinished – and while part of me does still want to read it – I can’t get excited about an unfinished novel.

This Real Night starts a few years after the events of The Fountain Overflows, we find ourselves in the 1900s, in those days before the First World War so changed the world for a generation of young people. Cornelia, Mary and our narrator Rose are now grown up, they discover a freedom to being grown up, happy to throw of the bonds of childhood.

“A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness. When one is quite little one labours under just such physical and mental disabilities as might be inflicted by some dreadful accident or disease; but while the maimed and paralysed are pitied because they cannot walk and have to be carried about and cannot explain their needs or think clearly, nobody is sorry for babies, though they are always crying aloud their frustration and hurt pride.”

In the wake of Piers Aubrey’s disappearance, the family fortunes have improved. Clare has a good grip on the purse strings for the first time ever, and the family enjoy the friendship and support of Mr Morpurgo, their father’s friend. The sisters’ beloved younger brother Richard Quin is still at school, he too growing up fast – and considering Oxford in the not too distant future. Cornelia, following the devastation of having to accept that she doesn’t possess the fine musical ability of her mother and two sisters, has become an art dealer’s assistant. Mary and Rose are at music college, desperately trying for artistic perfection.

“Great music is in a sense serene; it is certain of the values it asserts. But it is also in terror, because those values are threatened, and it is not certain whether they will triumph in this world, and of course music is a missionary effort to colonise earth for imperialistic heaven.”

Cordelia marries early – and everyone seems to think it for the best. Cordelia is the odd one out in the family, she is rather spikey and can be difficult, though it is sad that she always seems to fall foul of her mother and sisters. Cousin Rosamond decides to train as a nurse, striding out towards independence she remains close to the Aubreys and is especially adored by everyone’s favourite Richard Quin. Rose and Mary begins to notice a little change in Cordelia after her marriage – although their relationship remains strained.

“Our enemy had gone away, had not just left our house, but had vanished. Someone whom, it often seemed, we did not love enough.”

One of the things the Aubrey siblings still enjoy more than anything is their visits to Aunt Lily, who they first knew as children, when her sister was convicted of the murder of her husband. Lily’s daughter was a school friend of Mary and Rose, and although she now lives with her dead father’s family (who prevent her from seeing Aunt Lily) the Aubrey’s retain their old affection for the unfortunate woman. Lily works in The Dog and Duck a small inn on the Thames, taken in by her old friends Aunt Milly and Uncle Len. It is a rough, colourful environment – quite at odds with their more genteel, artistic upbringing, but Mary and Rose particularly love their visits. Here they are exposed to all kinds of new experiences. I love this collection of characters, who Rebecca West portrays realistically but with affection, resisting I felt, the trap of caricature that some writers of a certain class have been known to fall into.

As the world descends into war, change comes to the Aubrey household, there is probably an inevitability to the ending – and Rebecca West’s depiction is delicately poignant.

If I am honest, I think, that The Fountain Overflows is a rather better novel, although I enjoyed this enormously – a chance to meet again familiar old friends. This Real Night probably could be read as a standalone novel but if you did, you would miss an enormous treat.

rebecca west

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thebattleof the villa f

My final read for July, was by Librarything author of the month Rumer Godden; The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, which transported me to Italy while I myself travelled to Paris.

One of the things I have come to appreciate in Rumer Godden’s novels for adults, is the way she writes children and young people. She always seems to fully understand their view of the world, the way they feel the hurts and disappointments that force them to grow up.

In The Battle of the Villa Fiorita we meet Hugh (14) and Caddie (almost 12) – they have an elder sister who they speak about from time to time, but who we never actually meet. As the novel opens, Hugh and Caddie have just arrived in Italy, following a long, arduous journey mainly by train from London. They have run away.

“She and Hugh were both gilded in sun; the things they held, the grips, coats, and net, had edges of light as had Hugh’s bare head, Caddie’s panama. Light bathed their tired dusty faces, their clothes which were crumpled and dishevelled as only clothes that have been slept in all night can be; it lay on their hands and legs, their dusty shoes, a light more warm and gold than anything they had known, but, ‘It’s Italian,’ said Caddie as if suspicious of it.”

They are on a mission to win back their mother – return her to their father and the family home. Their mother Frances (usually called Fanny) Clavering has recently been divorced by their father, following an affair with a film director, who she met whilst he was filming near to the family home. Now, Fanny has left England with her lover Rob Quillet. They are staying at the Villa Fiorita near Lake Garda, planning to get married in the near future.

The viewpoint is not always that of the children, Fanny is a woman whose life had seemed perfectly happy, married to dull, frequently absent Darrell Clavering. While she hadn’t been able to claim that she was miserable, meeting Rob, awakened something in her, showing her what her life had actually been, and what it could be instead. The narrative takes us back to when Fanny first met famous director Rob Quillet, their attraction to one another – and the tentative beginning of their affair. Fanny was torn, recognising the danger signals she tried to back away, pulled back by her feelings, which were so strong and so unexpected. Despite this, she attempts to carry on with her life, forget about Rob, concentrate on running Stebbings with seamless efficiency, socialising with other local country wives and keeping her mother-in-law Lady Candida happy. However, in time, Fanny begins to realise she can’t exist without Rob, and two of her friends are suspicious after one of them spots her in London with him.

Hugh and Caddie have had their world turned upside down, while they had been away at school the grownups silently got on with managing the scandalous situation. By the time they knew anything, it was practically all over. Stebbings; the loved country home, that is so familiar, has been closed up, a modern flat in London is where they will live with their father and the housekeeper/nanny Gwyneth. The pony, Topaz, which Caddie won in a competition, and is almost her sole reason for living, is stabled in the country, and Caddie doesn’t know when or if she will be able to see him. All they want is for everything to go back to normal, stunned by a kind of grief, they have been unable to see Fanny as being anyone other than their mother – they are only just seeing that she is also a woman in love.

“At the top of the walk Fanny and Rob stopped, dazzled by the sun after the shade. Because of the brilliant light, and because his eyes were so tired, Hugh could not see them clearly; the whole garden and the lake had become a blur, but, standing in the flood of evening light, framed against the green leaves and the spirals of mauve flowers, they looked illuminated, glorified. ‘A couple,’ Hugh thought before he could stifle the thought, not his mother and Rob Quillet but a man and woman close together.”

We can’t help but sympathise with the children, it is bad enough when parents’ divorce, but Hugh and Caddie have been abandoned by their adored mother, everything they took for granted has altered and they don’t quite recognise this new world they are being asked to live in.

villaThere is a selfishness to childhood which we only really recognise when we look back on it. I admit, that while I sympathised with the children, I got very annoyed by their blind selfishness too. Hugh and Caddie want their mother back, and they go all out to get her. Fanny is happier than she has ever been in her life, on some level the children recognise this – but easily discount it. Fanny is already beset with terrible guilt for what she did to her former husband, and especially her children, and having them appear at the villa – just as she and Rob are about to go out to dinner – shakes her resolve. Rob is apparently made of sterner stuff – and starts to arrange for the children to be returned immediately. However, things don’t go quite according to plan, as Hugh is struck down with food poisoning and Rob, allowing Caddie to get under his skin – she reminds him so much of her mother – can’t bring himself to send her off alone. It is arranged that the children will stay for a fortnight – when their father will have returned from a work trip. Once it has been agreed that the children will stay, Rob sends for his own daughter Pia – an impossibly stylish ten-year-old brought up by her grandmother. Pia is immediately dismissive of sad, scruffy Caddie, who can’t help admiring Pia despite her unfriendliness. Hugh, meanwhile who has been stomping around the villa in confused fury for days finds himself rather drawn to the little girl.

With three unhappy children in the villa, banding together, the battle lines are drawn, but will the children realise that their actions have consequences before things go too far?

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is an absorbing novel, I loved the children and their fiendish plotting, and while I felt for them, I also felt for the adults, whose future happiness or unhappiness lies in the hands of their children. I was left with mixed feelings about how Godden ended her novel, and found myself thinking about it for several days after I had finished.

rumer godden

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afternoon of a good woman

Nina Bawden’s 1976 novel Afternoon of a Good Woman, is a slight, serious novel about a woman’s self-examination and guilt.

As the novel opens we learn that Penelope has decided to leave her husband.

“Today, Tuesday, the day that Penelope has chosen to leave her husband, is the first really warm day of spring. Her decision, last-minute but well researched, happens, through some chance (or perhaps characteristic) ineptitude, to coincide with her sitting, at ten o’clock in the morning, in judgement on her peers.”

Penelope is a magistrate, proud to be the good woman of the title – she is a good mother and a good wife of twenty years. Her husband; Eddie, writes successful tv dramas, and once wrote a novel which has been an enormous success, but now he has become lazy in his routine, and Penelope feels she must nag him into work. Eddie’s fist wife is in a psychiatric hospital – where she has been for years, and where Eddie still visits. His guilt, that he drove her there with his novel which she saw as a terrible betrayal – and about which Eddie was forced to think differently when he looked at it through her eyes.

Today Penelope will become more aware than usual of the fragile line between good and bad. The cases which will come before her on the day she leaves a note on Eddie’s typewriter keys – will be sad, pathetic and unglamorous – but will give her plenty to think about. The case of a middle-aged man charged with indecent exposure – forces Penelope to wonder how her own sex life might sound the details were blandly and emotionlessly read out. Then there is the more convoluted case of theft brought against Abel Binders, which the judge instructs the jury to dismiss – but the jury have other ideas and want to hear the defence after all – much to the irritation of the bench.

“Apart from one woman who has fallen asleep, plump chin on fur collar, the jury listen attentively to the Judge’s instruction like good children in class. When he has finished some of them frown as if the intrusion of what seems a subjective moral assessment into this court of law is somehow improper. How are they to know what has gone on in Abel Binder’s mind? Or perhaps they are simply confused. One elderly man is cupping a blue knuckly hand at the back of his ear, although he has not appeared deaf before. It is confusing, of course that innocence should emerge in the course of prosecution evidence. Incongruous anyway.”

Throughout the day, as the business of the court rumbles on – Penelope reflects on her past, the things for which she still feels guilt and sadness. She remembers her step-mother Eve – who she had loved so jealously when her father brought her home, that she had resented Eve’s own children. The young Penelope had not really understood Eve’s fragility and vulnerabilities – had enjoyed caring for her when her father was working away, caring for Eve the best she can before and after school. Not realising she should be getting help for Eve, Penelope unwittingly leaves her in harm’s way. When Eve ends up hospitalised Penelope goes to live with Auntie and Uncle – a house in which she feels awkward and constrained, and where Eve’s illness is never mentioned. She remembers the lies she told in that house.

“When she first became ill, I enjoyed looking after her. If I came home from school to find her still in her nightdress, sitting limply before the empty grate, or weeping into a stack of dirty dishes in the kitchen, I lit the fire, washed the dishes, made supper for us both. If there was nothing to eat in the house, I took Eve’s purse and ran to the corner shop, later on; when it seemed that Eve was feeling too tired to go out at all, I took charge of the ration-books and began to shop regularly, on the way to and from school. I felt strong and competent, looking after my poor little stepmother, and though I hoped she would be better soon, for her own sake, I was glad to have been given this chance to show what I could do for her.”

Penelope examines her difficult sometimes heady relationships with her step-siblings, which included meddling in the abusive marriage her step-sister entered into – and which led indirectly to a sudden tragedy. Looking back at her adolescence and young womanhood, she explores her first all-consuming love – which has never gone away, comparing it with how she has felt about Eddie.

As the court day ends. Penelope will leave, carry out her plans, she telephones Desdemona, Eddie’s friend and editor, a sign perhaps of Penelope’s guilt, though she is certain she is doing the right thing for both of them.

As ever, Nina Bawden brings her unique understanding of complicated families and the relationships inside them to this novel. It is an intelligent novel about people who feel very real. Penelope is a flawed heroine; many readers won’t like her – though I find such characters so much more interesting.

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