Posts Tagged ‘virago books’


Whether she is telling the story of a newly married couple, a level crossing keeper and his badly disfigured niece, incestuous siblings or the oddly magical world of elves and fairies, Sylvia Townsend Warner is a consummate storyteller. Her writing is beautiful, sometimes surprising, frequently rooted in an England long vanished from view – she is both witty and perceptive. She explores with great tenderness, the passions, oddities and quirks of all sorts of people, and there is sometimes a suggestion of delicious irreverence.

“She planted a high Spanish comb in her pubic hair and resumed her horn-rimmed spectacles.
‘There! That’s as much as I shall dress’
‘You look very improper.’
‘I am improper.’ Her young voice was quelling.
Love warmed her. It did not warm him. He moved nearer the gas fire and repelled the thought of his overcoat. He would soon be in it and on his way home. But politeness requires that after making love one must make a little conversation.”
(The Forgone Conclusion – 1961)

During her writing life Sylvia Townsend Warner produced an incredible number of short stories – they appear to run to something like eighteen volumes – though some stories may appear in more than one volume. This selected Stories collection first published in 1989 contain forty stories from across those collections dating from between 1932 and 1977. Through them one can see the author’s own slightly shifting perspectives as the world around her changed – culminating, at the end of the collection with her foray into fantasy with some of the stories from her world of fairies. As probably happens with all large collections of stories there were a very small number that didn’t quite hit the spot – though only four or five in the entire collection – overall this is a superb collection, and could be for some a brilliant introduction to the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner.

I have always found it very difficult to write reviews of story collections, but this one is particularly difficult. Firstly, I read it over a two-week period, setting it to one side for my book group read of Warner’s Lolly Willowes – (I know you wait ages for a Sylvia Townsend Warner review and…) and then Another Little Christmas Murder. Secondly of course, forty stories are far, far too many to write about in detail. As ever all I can hope to do is give a very slight flavour, helped along by a few quotes from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s delightful prose.

The collection opens with A Love Match, the story of a brother and sister, so damaged by the horrors of that war to end all wars, that they turn to one another for comfort, companionship and love. It’s a union which lasts years. Incest – the great taboo – it’s really quite the opener.

The Level Crossing a wonderfully atmospheric story of an old, country level crossing keeper. A former Londoner – he still recalls with a sharp nostalgia the comings and goings of the London streets of his past. His life is now set to the rhythm of the railway, a railway timetable now disrupted by war.

“With a kind of homesickness he would recall the night turn in the goods-yard, the figures under the raw arc lights, his mates shouting, the soft whine of the wind along the metals and how once, seeing a train come in with a white crust still lying on the tarpaulins, he had said to himself: It’s snowing in the country. And picture was in his mind, a picture based on a Christmas card; a white landscape, a church spire, a sunset glowing between bars of cloud like the coals in a grate.”
(The Level Crossing 1943)

He watches with concern, his niece, distressingly disfigured by facial burns, she works in silence alongside her uncle. The two make for an odd family unit – turned on their heads by a group of soldiers billeted with them for a few weeks. It is a beautifully memorable little story.

In one of my favourite stories; But at the Stroke of Midnight, a woman walks away from her home and her dull inattentive husband. Lucy completely disappears without a world and assuming her cousin’s identity, adopts a cat and takes a cottage. It is a story about the finding of freedom, of throwing off the bonds of dull domesticity, but there is quiet despair here. Lucy is no Lolly Willowes though, and when the shine wears off this new life things take an altogether sadder turn.

Cats do play a big role in much of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fiction – she wrote a whole collection called The Cat’s Cradle though none of those appear in this collection. In another sad story Total Loss; a child’s beloved old pet cat must be put to sleep – her parent’s send her off on a day out with relatives while the merciful, necessary deed is done by the vet. It’s an especially cruel piece of deceit with which I am sure even none pet owners can empathise. cats

In other stories we see an elderly musician living for others – as he carefully creeps away from his own home, upon arriving home unexpectedly and discovering his cook in his bed with a married man. A bored, bitter woman stitches a widow’s quilt. In One Thing Leading to Another, a housekeeper to a couple of priests finds all kinds of unexpected things follow when she accidentally puts snuff in the priests’ curry. This is a tongue in cheek, little story, with an ending which made me smile. A Red Carnation sees the disillusionment of a German soldier sent to help the Francoists during the Spanish civil war.

“Portents accompany the death of monarchs. A white horse trots slowly along the avenue, a woman in streaming wet garments is seen to enter the throne room, vanishes, and leaves wet footmarks; red mice are caught in palace mousetraps. For several weeks five black swans had circled incessantly above the castle of Elfhame. It was ninety decades since their last appearance; then there were four of them, waiting for Queen Tiphaine’s predecessor. Now they were five, and waited for Tiphaine. Mute as a shell cast up on the beach, she lay in her chamber watching the antics of her pet monkey.”
(The Five Black Swans 1977)

The last few stories come from the Kingdoms of Elfin collection. Here Warner played around with fantasy, taking us to the world of elves and fairies. We learn their lore, meet the Fairy Queens and changelings. These stories are fantastic in every sense of the word, weird, wonderful colourful and extraordinarily imagined.

The Libraything Virago group have been reading the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner during December, and you can read Jane’s review of A Cat’s Cradle here (which I have just bought a copy of).



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It doesn’t seem five minutes since I last wrote a review of Lolly Willowes – well it’s a little longer than that, but it is only about two years.

Coincidentally, my very small book group chose to read Lolly Willowes (my suggestion, I admit) for our December meet up, the very same month that the Librarything Virago group are reading the books of Sylvia Townsend Warner. Despite having a pretty good recollection of Lolly Willowes, I decided I would re-read it. It was just lovely meeting up with Laura again – one of my friends in my book group, said last night when we met, that she wanted to be Laura Willowes when she grows up – I think that’s exactly how I felt about her too when I first read the book.

Apologies but due to feeling a bit under the weather I haven’t completely re-written my old review – I am simply pasting (and editing) parts of my old review here for anyone who may have missed it. If you want to see what the book group thought of the novel – jump to the end. (There may be mild spoilers).

“…she looked with the yearning of an outcast at the dwelling so long ago discarded. The house was like an old blind nurse sitting in the sun and ruminating past events. It seemed an act of the most horrible ingratitude to leave it all and go away without one word of love. But the gates were shut, the time of welcome was gone by.”

The story itself is tender and a little magical, and I adored the character of Lolly Willowes herself. Laura Willowes (to allow her, her given name) is a dutiful unmarried daughter of twenty-eight when her beloved father dies. Laura had always enjoyed her quiet life in the country, sometimes gathering herbs and making distillations with them. Laura is at one with the countryside, and its yearly round of traditions. Born some years after her two elder brothers; Henry and James, Laura grew up almost as an only child, the apple of her father’s eye. Laura has run her father’s home with ease, helped by the servants, people of good old country stock, who make beeswax furniture polish and pigeon pie. Upon her father’s death Laura is devastated; everything she knows and feels secure in is lost. Her elder brothers and their wives take control, it is quickly decided – that despite Laura having a good income of her own left to her by her father – she should go away from the country to London and live with Henry and Caroline and their two young daughters. Between them; Henry, James and their wives make all the decisions, what furniture Laura will take with her, and how useful she will be. London life will be very different, but Laura submits to the decisions made for her.

Of course, Laura is useful, for that is how she is made, she proves herself invaluable. It is one of Henry’s young daughters who bestow the name Aunt Lolly on Laura – and the name sticks, and Laura is Laura no longer, her life no longer her own. Laura settles her things into the small spare room in the London House that she will now call her own, while her brother and sister-in-law set about introducing her to potential, suitable husbands.

For twenty years Aunt Lolly makes herself indispensable to family life in London. Holidays are taken at Lady Place, her former home where her brother James his wife and son Titus live. Aunt Lolly is taken for granted, she is so very reliable. The years slip by quickly – the girls grow up and begin to make lives for themselves. A war is fought; the world is a different place. In the 1920s Laura finds, at forty-seven, that she wants something different for herself. She has the feeling that something is pulling her towards the countryside again, she longs for woods, and hillsides. Laura decides to break free of the life which has been organised for her realising suddenly that she can have a life of her own. Laura’s realisation coming in a greengrocer’s shop of a quite old-fashioned kind;

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

Laura finds herself drawn to the countryside of Buckinghamshire, and the tiny village of Great Mop. Her family are both horrified and astonished at Laura’s announcement, and at first, they don’t take her quite seriously. Meekly accepting the outrageous mismanagement of her money by Henry; Laura realises she can only afford to rent a couple of rooms in the cottage of Mrs Leek. Here in two small rooms and roaming free in the countryside that surrounds the cottage, Aunt Lolly becomes Laura again, her happiness is complete, and she finds within herself the woman she should always have been. There appear to be unusual forces around the village of Great Mop and the nearby countryside, forces with which Laura is at one. Here the story does get a little odd – the reader has to suspend belief a bit, that’s all. When Titus turns up to stay with his good old Aunt Lolly; his presence upsets the delicately balanced atmosphere of the area, and unleashes forces, that finally bring Laura to an understanding of who she really is.

Published three years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s assertion that all single women should have their own liberty and lives of their own not dictated for them by others.

There are now six regular members who meet as part of what I have come to call my very small book group. Five of us I think it is fair to say loved Lolly Willowes. The sixth member while not actually hating it, was less enthusiastic, but not every member of a group can feel the same about a book, that’s what makes book groups interesting. Being December, the city centre gets very busy which gives us a good excuse to swerve our usual Café Nero haunt and book a table at Pizza Express. So, there is just a chance that Romano pizzas, dough balls and cheesecake got in the way of literary discussion. However, we get around to discussing the novel as well.

We discussed how Laura had been treated almost like a child by her family, who swept her up in their decision making for her, never allowing Laura an opinion. One member suggested that she is treated like a piece of old furniture, removed to London for the family’s convenience. There was some discussion about whether Laura would have had more of a role in life had she not been born into a relatively prosperous family. I suspect had Laura been working lass she would have revelled in a supervisory role of some kind, more able to lead her own life at least. It didn’t occur to anyone in that conventional household, that Laura might want a different life – that she might enjoy being on her own, and not dancing attendance on her brothers’ children. One of the most enjoyable elements of course for all of us – and I am sure many readers of Lolly Willowes is witnessing that re-emergence of Laura (no longer Aunt Lolly) – a woman at one with the natural world – a woman who makes a pact with the devil to free herself. Several of us found Laura’s acceptance of Satan into her life quite entertaining, I loved the way she just looked down at that kitten that appears in her rooms and knows exactly from where he has come. Another question we asked – and I’m not sure I entirely know the answer – was just what the reaction to this novel was in 1926 when it was first published – Wikipedia suggests that it was well received.

sylvia Townsend warner

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the third miss symons

The Third Miss Symons was the first novel published by Flora MacDonald Mayor, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman and professor of classics. It had been preceded by a collection of short stories in 1901, and two more novels and some ghost stories came later. I read F M Mayor’s 1924 novel The Rector’s Daughter in 2015 – it’s a beautiful, poignant novel, though a sad one. It was through the introduction of that novel, that I got the sense that Flora Mayor was more than the quiet, Victorian, clergyman’s daughter we might envisage from her novels – which all do seem to run along rather similar lines. Having read history at Cambridge Flora later became an actress, before eventually turning to writing.

The Third Miss Symons – for me at least, was rather depressing. The Rector’s Daughter was merely sad, it was also compelling and quite brilliant. I was relieved that this was such a short novel, I started it late one evening and finished it the following morning. It offers us a rather bleak and probably not unrealistic portrait of the life of a woman whose destiny it is to never fully connect with anyone, and to remain without a recognisable role or purpose. There is a pall of deep unhappiness that exudes through the novel, I felt the mood and the atmosphere of the novel briefly affected my own mood. No doubt it is testament to the skill of Flora Mayor as a writer that she manages to produce this atmosphere of wasted years so effectively.

Henrietta Symons (generally called Etta) is the third daughter in a large Victorian family, she is a misfit in the middle of the family. An argumentative, cross little girl she grows up to be a querulous woman, without any natural charm or attractions. Etta irritates her mother and sisters, there is little in the way of comfort or softness about her life, while her elder sisters are the pretty, conventionally good Victorian daughters Etta continues a round peg in a square hole. For several years Etta dedicates herself to her younger sister – the fourth daughter born when Etta was eight, Evelyn becomes the focus of all the love Etta is desperate for. While Evelyn is a baby, Etta is allowed to help, and in time the little girl does develop a strong affection for her older sister her ‘little mummie.’ This great capacity for love that Etta, has really should be her saving grace, only it isn’t. Misunderstood by the adults around her, they immediately assume her valiant attempt to replace Evelyn’s dead canary to be nothing more than simple naughtiness.

Unexpectedly, perhaps Etta nearly gets married. Mr Dockerell is not exactly a Prince Charming but he seems to like Etta, and Etta enjoys his good opinion, for a short time.

“And perhaps she loved him all the more because he was not soaring high above her, like all her previous divinities, but walking side by side with her. Yes, she loved him; by the time he had asked her for the third dance she loved him.”

One of Etta’s sister’s returns home and in a bit of spectacularly malevolent spite deliberately turns Mr Dockerell’s head – because she can. Etta’s chance of marriage and a family of her own, is over, and her sister Louie marries somebody else soon after. Etta never really manages to get over her bitterness toward Louie – and in a sense this disappointment blights her life. While Mayor allows us to feel some sympathy for Etta, just like the members of Etta’s own family, we are unable to really like her – or fully engage with her. Etta is one of those difficult people, who without trying, put our backs up, who never seem to fit.

As Etta’s brothers and sisters marry, leave home and start their own families, Etta’s life is further narrowed. As an unmarried daughter at home in a house of servants, her life lacks purpose, and to add insult to injury she is viewed by others as being of little worth too.
As she ages Etta learns little – she never learns how to acquire friends, she has money at her disposal which in middle age she uses to study and travel – yet nothing seems to bring her any kind of fulfilment. In his preface to this edition John Masefield says…

“In a land like England, where there is great wealth, little education and little general thought, people like Miss Mayor’s heroine are common; we have all met not one or two but dozens of her; we know her emptiness, her tenacity, her futility, savagery and want of light; all circles contain some examples of her, all people some of her shortcomings; and judgement of her, even the isolation of her in portraiture, is dangerous, since the world does not consist of her and life needs her. In life as in art those who condemn are those who do not understand; and it is always a sign of a writer’s power, that he or she keeps from direct praise or blame of imagined character.”

Mayor understands Etta completely, the sad, uselessness of Etta’s life – so much of it brought about by her own personality.

This is a novel (novella really, I suppose) that I spent a very short amount of time with, but it felt longer. I think The Rector’s Daughter is almost certainly Flora Mayor’s masterpiece – and I very much want to read The Squire’s Daughter (1929) should I ever come across a copy.

F M MAyor

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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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