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stoneangel

The librarything Virago group have chosen to read Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence during June, giving me the excuse I needed to try a writer of whom I had heard rather good things.

The Stone Angel is the first books in Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka novels – though my understanding is that place is the only real link, and that each novel stands alone. I also have A Jest of God the second Manawaka novel sitting on my tbr – and I am now really looking forward to it. Oh I do love discovering a new author.

In this beautifully written novel, Margaret Laurence explores the life of one woman, Hagar Shipley, moving back and forth through different periods of her life. As the novel opens we get a snapshot of Hagar’s childhood, as aged ninety Hagar begins to reflect on her past.

“Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young.”

Living with her son Marvin and his wife Doris, Hagar is sick, irascible and worried she is about to be shipped off to a care home. Hargar’s voice is wonderfully strong, she has lived a long life, there is a sense that her life has not been happy. She is sharp tongued, a difficult woman, devoid of warmth – she doesn’t give her son or daughter-in-law any credit.

“I can’t change what’s happened to me in my life, or make what’s not occurred take place. But I can’t say I like it, or accept it, or believe it’s for the best. I don’t and never shall, not even if I’m damned for it.”

Born in the small rural community of Manawaka, during another century, Hagar was the daughter of a successful Scottish store-owner. The apple they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree – and her father Jason Currie was a difficult man, an unforgiving, harsh disciplinarian. There are two brothers, and Aunt Doll – the widow hired to help look after Jason’s motherless children. The surrounding community – like communities everywhere I suppose had its snobberies and pretensions, one of Hagar’s school fellows despised because of the sins of her mother. Hagar marries a man her father least wants her too – Bram Shipley is older, a widower with grown up daughters. Hagar’s father is furious, incapable of forgiving, he never sees Hagar again, never meeting her sons Marvin and John.

Initially Hagar had felt very attracted to Bram, yet she barely knew him, and very soon that attraction gives way to a very unhappy marriage. Hagar is embarrassed by her husband; his country ways shame her.

“And yet – here’s the joker in the pack – we’d each married for those qualities we later found we couldn’t bear, he for my manners and speech, I for his flaunting of them.”

Bram was a bit of a half-hearted farmer – and money is tight. Hagar was reduced to selling eggs to other households – which she found fairly humiliating. Eventually, Hagar leaves Bram, taking her younger more favoured son John with her.

There are so many things the reader can take from this novel – but the thing that was most affecting for me was the fear and isolation that great age brings with it. Hagar has not been a particularly warm person, she’s failed to recognise the gratitude she owes her eldest son, whom she never appreciated or understood. After having made a reckless bid for freedom, which sees Hagar sleeping in an abandoned building and swapping confidences with another wanderer, Hagar finds herself in hospital. Here she battles her loss of independence, frailty and the nightly noises of the hospital around her.

“The room at night is deep and dark, like a coal-scuttle, and I’m lying like a lump at the bottom of it. I’ve been wakened by the girl’s voice, and now I can’t get back to sleep again. How I hate the sound of a person crying. She moans, snuffles wetly, moans again. She won’t stop. She’ll go on all night like this, more than likely. It’s insufferable.”

Hagar Shipley isn’t a particularly likeable character – but Margaret Laurence portrays her in such a way that she is – in a way – a kind of everywoman. Flawed, grumpy and frightened, she has behaved badly (and I think she knows that deep down) but her anxiety comes from a real place – who of us doesn’t fear a loss of independence, having others make decisions for us? Margaret Laurence allows Hagar to be sympathetic – when actually she is frequently rather monstrous – but I liked her – and I bet other readers do too.

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Ripley

I read my first ever Patricia Highsmith novel; Deep Water, in February, I realised I had been overlooking a superb writer, and consummate storyteller.

The Talented Mr Ripley, the first of a series of five novels, is probably her best-known novel, made into a film starring Matt Damon and Jude Law in 1999. I saw the film, although it was a long time ago, I realised as I was reading the book that there were some notable differences between the book and the film. This irritated me – everyone knows the book is always better – so why do filmmakers go to the trouble and expense of adapting a book for film, and then change the original story? Argh, it makes me cross!

I feel as if everyone knows the essential outline of the story – so I do hope that I’m not going to give away any major spoilers.

Patricia Highsmith is noted for writing likeable anti-heroes. Tom Ripley must surely be the best of these. A small time con artist, we first encounter him in a New York bar. He realises he is being followed and thinking he is about to be arrested is surprised to be approached by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf instead. Mr Greenleaf has lost sight of his son Dickie who is living in Italy, he wants him home to work in his business. His letters having failed to have the desired result, Mr Greenleaf – recognising in Tom an acquaintance of his son’s – asks Tom to go, all expenses paid to Mongibello in Italy, intercept Dickie and persuade him home to the United States. Seeing a wonderful opportunity, Tom grossly exaggerates his friendship and possible influence with Dickie – and agrees to the trip.

“Mr Greenleaf was such a decent fellow himself, he took it for granted that everybody else in the world was decent, too. Tom had almost forgotten such people existed.”

Tom has been struggling to make a living, lives in a fairly insalubrious apartment, committing pointless acts of fraud, bitter at the lot he has been dealt in life. Tom despises himself – he longs to be someone else, having lost his parents young, there is a hated aunt somewhere in the background who rubbished him as a child, and to whom he writes dutifully from time to time. He looks at families like the Greenleafs and imagines how it might have been had he had the life he deserved. He gets invited to a gracious dinner at the Greanleafs enviable house – and is soon enough on his way to Italy to look up Dickie Greenleaf – living the charmed life that should have been his.

Arriving in Mongibello Tom wastes no time in running into Dickie and his friends on the beach below the house Dickie has taken, Dickie hardly remembers Tom of course, but invites him to lunch. Dickie is in the company of Marge – an aspiring writer, who Tom instantly realises feels more for Dickie than he does for her. Slowly, bit by bit – like the hustler he is, Tom insinuates himself into Dickie’s life. Tom can’t help but notice how alike he and Dickie are physically, apart from a slight difference in hair colour, he watches Dickie – how he moves, how he dresses – how sure of himself he is – how different to how the world sees Tom Ripley.

“He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed. Not many people in the world knew how to, even if they had the money. It really didn’t take money, masses of money, it took a certain security.”

ripleystillTom likes to boast how he can imitate people easily, change his appearance, forge signatures. Marge doesn’t like Tom, and he feels just the same about her. She tells Dickie that she thinks Tom is gay – and has designs on him, Dickie laughs it off – but is surprised when he catches Tom trying on his clothes. Tom talks himself out of awkward situations quite easily – and he is soon back in Dickie’s good books, planning trips to other parts of Italy, laughing about the deal Tom made with Dickie’s father. Dickie agrees to joining Tom on a short break to Sanremo where they plan to hire a boat, Tom is delighted that Marge won’t be joining them, but he does fear that Dickie is beginning to tire of him. Tom realises that in order to live the life he wants with Dickie’s money he must take drastic action – kill Dickie, and assume his identity somewhere else.

What follows is an extraordinary cat and mouse game – can Tom really pass himself off as Dickie – avoiding people who knew Dickie – slipping in and out of personas? How long can this double life last?

“This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time. He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes.”

The Talented Mr Ripley is a brilliant examination of a fascinating personality – Highsmith explores Tom Ripley’s psychology through the games he plays, the chances he takes and the split-second decisions he makes. He is an outsider more comfortable as someone else than himself. He is undoubtedly a sociopath, but he is also a thief, a liar, and of course in time, a murderer – and yet Highsmith portrays him in such a way that we are able to sympathise with him – at least some of the time. He never quite emerges as the monster we know he should be.

I really need to read more Patricia Highsmith – he writes such compelling, intelligent thrillers. I will certainly look out for the other Ripley books. But the one I really want to read next is Strangers on a Train.

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a little love a little learning#

Nina Bawden writes families particularly well. She understands the dynamics and difficulties, and here she brings her knowledge of step-families to this revealing portrait, which shows just how fragile happiness can be. A Little Love, A Little Learning was published more than ten years into Nina Bawden’s long publishing career – it is a great example of all she does well.

People have asked me before which Nina Bawden novel they should start with, well this wouldn’t be a bad place to start – although I could also recommend Devil by the Sea, The Birds on the Trees and Circles of Deceit and Ruffian on the Stairs. Certainly these novels of family are all faithful recreations of domestic life and its complexities.

It is the year of the coronation, and Joanna, 18, our narrator Kate 12 and seven-year-old Poll are living happily in Monks Ford – a suburban commuter town on the banks of the Thames – with their mother Ellen and their adored step-father Boyd. The children play in their garden, building a camp under the trees, walk to and from school, part of a friendly suburban community who all think the world of Boyd – the local doctor. Boyd has surrounded his step-daughters with wise, unquestioning love, he and Ellen always answer their questions with honesty – the children have grown up with a strange encyclopaedic medical knowledge, quite matter of fact about all kinds of things their peers have no idea about. Ellen and Boyd are very modern parents allowing the girls to develop understanding about things other 1950s parents are still shielding their daughters from. While Boyd is attentive and loving, Ellen is sterner, finding it much harder to show her feelings.

Kate, is fascinated by Boyd’s patients, so proud of the only father she has ever known, she is resentful of Poll’s teacher and their neighbour Miss Carter whose devotion to Boyd verges on the embarrassing. Joanna has reached the brink of adulthood, about to finish school forever, concerned about getting old she has her sights set on local swain Will. Often full of complaint about her younger sisters, she is allowed to have the bedroom she shared with Kate to herself, Kate is therefore forced to share with Poll. Poll loves to play make believe games, and sometimes Kate plays with her, although the games seem a little old for her now. Kate is very impressionable, imaginative with a wonderful sense of the dramatic, she is also prone to telling the odd lie – and digs herself into all sorts of uncomfortable holes. Like so many other great child narrators, Kate is growing up and struggling to understand everything around her – she simply doesn’t grasp the possible consequences of her lies and interference.

“The year Aunt Hat came to us, my main ambition – apart from rescuing someone from drowning or winning the Victoria Cross – was to go down to Jock’s Icecream Parlour in the main street of Monks Ford and eat as many Knickerbocker Glories as I could pay for.”

Everything starts to change when Aunt Hat comes to stay. Aunt Hat isn’t a relative, she was a good friend of Ellen in the days before Boyd came into her life. It was a different time that the younger girls can only remember dimly if at all, and Aunt Hat was Ellen’s only friend. Aunt Hat is very different to Ellen, working class, gossipy and a little indiscreet she hints at problems in the past, and helps to evoke the memory of the girls’ absent father – who they have been oddly incurious about thus far.

“She sat with her skirts lifted to the flames and looking quite ordinary. I felt a slight disappointment – only slight, because Lady Macbeth would really have been rather difficult to live up to – and then shyness. She was a complete stranger to me. She said, ‘I don’t suppose you remember your funny old Aunt Hat, do you? Well, here she is, turned up like the proverbial bad penny.
For a moment I had the queer feeling that there was someone else in the room. It was a feeling that was distantly familiar, a faint echo in my mind. Then I remembered slices of fresh bread, buttered, and stuck with brightly coloured hundreds and thousands. I could almost taste the grittiness of the sweets on my tongue: it went with grazed knees, consolation, and a strange habit of talking about oneself in the third person.”

Though Kate is almost disappointed in her first sight of Aunt Hat – having imagined her to be some kind of Lady Macbeth character she is quickly won over. Aunt Hat’s background seems wonderfully colourful to the three sisters, her husband imprisoned for beating her and her son. Temporarily homeless, Hat brings her noisy, chaotic world to the polite, ordered world of suburban Monks Ford. Aunt Hat is a fabulous character, though as it turns out it may not be Hat’s indiscretions that turn everything upside down, but the girls themselves.

Boyd’s medical practises are brought into question through local gossip, when he inherits some money from a neighbour and old friend. Miss Fantom has been living in reclusive disharmony with her brother who has never got over having to leave India. The two live in separate parts of the house, and Boyd and the children some of their only visitors. The children have often played in the Fantoms’ garden. Many years earlier, when Miss Fantom was about thirty, she befriended the lonely teenage Boyd – an innocent friendship which was naturally gossiped about. When Miss Fantom dies, Kate’s silly lies look like they could cause trouble for her step-father who has been left a sizeable amount of money by his patient.

This is one of those novel where in a sense not a huge amount happens – and yet it remains very compelling, and perfectly told. I think Bawden is at her best when portraying middle-class families, especially children within those families. Bawden manages to make this both poignant and funny – she strikes the balance just perfectly.

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AfarcryfromKen

I recently reacquainted myself with Muriel Spark, aware that I hadn’t really given her much of a chance only reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie some years ago. Last month I read and rather loved The Driver’s Seat, I already had several other Muriel Spark books tbr – but succumbed to buying this pretty VMC designer edition of A Far Cry from Kensington a book I had wanted to read for some time.

The novel is narrated by Mrs Hawkins (Agnes – sometimes, though rarely called Nancy). Thirty years in the future from the main events in the novel – Mrs Hawkins, lying sleepless in another part of London, recalls the time she was a publisher’s assistant in the mid-1950s. Rationing is still in place, and Mrs Hawkins a young war widow goes to live in a rooming house in Kensington. Here live an odd set of characters, they move in and out of each other’s lives and each other’s rooms, it is largely a happy, harmonious household, presided over by kindly Irish landlady Milly. There are the Carlin’s a quiet, middle-aged couple, a young district nurse, Kate, young secretary Isobel; fresh from the countryside who every day checks in by phone with her daddy – medical student William and the most memorable, colourful character Wanda – a Polish seamstress. Milly and Mrs Hawkins crouch together on the half landing watching through the communal window into the house next door as the Cypriot couple who live there conduct a late-night row. It is a very companionable existence, but by all these people she is always called Mrs Hawkins, her large, matronly appearance giving her an air of capability.

At this period, Mrs Hawkins had begun to make her way in the publishing world. Working in offices in a Queen Anne house for Ullswater and York Press, in days when jobs in publishing are highly sought after. The firm are already in some financial trouble and their final days aren’t too far off. It is through her work here that Mrs Hawkins first comes into contact with Hector Bartlett a writer who Mrs Hawkins scathingly labels a ‘pisseur de copie’ meaning that he urinates dreadful prose. It is a phrase she returns to time and again – one which doesn’t always go down very well with others. It is as if she can’t help herself – for the repetition is rather overdone and starts to pall, and as Hector is involved with successful novelist Emma Loy who is very influential in the publishing world, Mrs Hawkins’ days are numbered at Ullswater and York. Mrs Hawkins is really very unpleasant to Hector – but quite frankly he deserves it – I liked Mrs Hawkins, though, from other reviews I have seen, perhaps not all readers do.

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.”

The satirical portrait of the London publishing scene is brilliant, jobs in the industry seen practically as the holy grail of a professional life. Though it is Milly’s rooming house and the peculiar mystery surrounding the anonymous letter sent to Wanda that makes this novel so good. Wanda reacts to the letter with hysterical wailings, and her terror at the implied threat from ‘the organisation’ who accuse her of tax evasion.

“I took Wanda up a cup of tea at about five o’clock. She was awake and crying. She had got right into bed and unloosed her hair. It was the first time I had seen her with this quantity of natural corn-coloured hair about her face and shoulders. She made a very impressive sight. It occurred to me she might well have a lover, or at least an admirer, someone who courted her and who had a rival, a rejected vindictive somebody, or a jealous woman whose man Wanda had attracted. Perhaps we don’t observe each other well enough, I thought. Seeing a sex-potential, I could see the range of suspects was vastly increased. But I didn’t like to say, right away, ‘Wanda do you know of any man, woman, who could be sentimentally roused for you? – I didn’t say this because at that moment she would certainly have exploded with indignation. The image she showed to the world was that of a church-going seamstress and dedicated widow.”

The whole house become involved in Wanda’s distress, inevitably the residents looking to one another in the search for a culprit. Who could be responsible for such cruelty? The story of Wanda takes a rather darker turn than I had expected, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised – I’m beginning to see, Muriel Spark doesn’t do conventional narratives. There is another peculiar sub-plot involving ‘the box’ a mysterious instrument, said to have incredible healing properties produced through radionics, did people in the 1950s believe in a such things? – I don’t know.

I enjoyed A Far Cry from Kensington as much as The Driver’s Seat, they are quite different novels. Compelling with vibrant characters and a wonderfully quirky narrator – it is actually really entertaining.

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theprofessor'shouse

During May, the Librarything Virago group are reading books by the wonderful Willa Cather. The Professor’s House was the last of her novels I had left to read. I had heard mixed reports of it, but I think it is a small masterpiece – although I would probably say the same about several of her other books.

A beautifully introspective little novel, in The Professor’s House Cather introduces us to Godfrey St. Peter a mid-western university professor. St Peter and his family have lived for many years in an ugly though rather loved house which they are finally moving out of – their two daughters married and off their hands, finally Mrs St Peter can have the house she has dreamed of. As the contents of the old house are moved into the new house, the Professor remains in his study in the old house – surrounded by the objects he has lived with for so long. Books, papers, his old couch, and the dress making forms left behind by Augusta with whom Professor St Peter has shared his study twice a year – and now feels oddly at home with.

“The low ceiling sloped down on three sides, the slant being interrupted on the east by a single square window, swinging outward on hinges and held ajar by a hook in the sill. Walls and ceiling alike were covered with a yellow paper which had once been very ugly, but had faded into inoffensive neutrality. The matting on the floor was worn and scratchy. Against the wall stood an old walnut table, with one leaf up, holding piles of orderly papers. Before it was a cane-backed office chair that turned on a screw. This dark den had for many years been the Professor’s study.”

As the summer continues the Professor is less and less inclined to make that one last move – and relocate his attic study to the new house. Instead he keeps on the old house, making his way each day to his beloved study – surrounding himself with the objects with which he is most familiar. Here Professor St Peter recalls his life, and the people he has loved; his wife Lillian, his daughters; beautiful, pretentious Rosamond and Kathleen lost in her sister’s shadow, but the person he remembers most is Tom Outland.

“But now that the vivid consciousness of an earlier state had come back to him, the Professor felt that life with this Kansas boy, little as there had been of it, was the realest of his lives, and that all the years between had been accidental and ordered from the outside. His career, his wife, his family, were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him. All these things had nothing to do with the person he was in the beginning.”

Tom, a brilliant young pioneer, whose discoveries relating to a gas have brought about great engineering advances. Tom’s legacy is now quarrelled over, the subject of jealously and betrayal.

Rosamond was engaged to Tom before he went off to the First World War and is killed. Now Rosamond is married to prosperous engineer Louie Marsellus, as his heir Rosamond was able to pass on her former fiancé’s discoveries, and the couple have benefitted greatly. Meanwhile Kathleen is married to a less wealthy man, Scott McGregor a journalist – who was once also a friend of Tom Outland’s. So, when Louie waxes lyrical at dinner about Tom – a man he never met – and reveals the house he is building is to be called Outland – Scott and Kathleen are more than a little irritated.

The Professor is a tired man, torn between the past and the modern progresses he sees around him – like the new house, so much better appointed and convenient a real step up – he doesn’t really want to be there.

The book is told in three sections – of unequal length – the first section; ‘The Family’ being the longest, the middle section tells Tom Outlands story, taking us to the beautiful landscapes of New Mexico. Here a young Tom while exploring the mesas of New Mexico finds carved into the rock, long abandoned villages – evidences of an earlier civilisation. Learning more about these cliff dwellers becomes all consuming, and leaving his friend Rodney Blake behind to take care of things Tom sets out for Washington to find someone to take his finds seriously. The final section – just called ‘The Professor’ – sees Godfrey St Peter contemplating his own place in the world – as, with the rest of the family on holiday he spends all his time in his study.

“He could remember a time when the loneliness of death had terrified him, when the idea of it was insupportable. He used to feel that if his wife could but lie in the same coffin with him, his body would not be so insensible that the nearness of hers would not give it comfort. But now he thought of eternal solitude with gratefulness; as a release from every obligation, from every form of effort. It was the Truth.”

The Professor’s House is a quiet novel, a novel of memory, loss and which contrasts modern advances with more traditional living.

(Just a note to add – I am currently off work unwell – long story – so my reading and reviewing routine, such as it was, is completely up the spout. Which is why this post is appearing at a time I don’t usually post things.) Bear with me. 😊

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mr skeffington

Over on the Librarything Virago group, the author of the month for April is Elizabeth von Arnim, appropriately enough. Despite the temptation, I decided not to re-read The Enchanted April as I had three or four unread von Arnims on my shelf, two of them from my classics club list.

Mr Skeffington was Elizabeth von Arnim’s last published novel, written when in her 70s it certainly shows a certain preoccupation with ageing – (as did her 1925 novel Love). Elizabeth von Arnim’s adorable irony is present from the first page, her voice is instantly recognisable. I quickly settled into this occasionally poignant story of Fanny Skeffington’s self-evaluation, as she approaches her fiftieth birthday. (Spoiler, a certain book blogger not a million miles away will herself be approaching that birthday in thirteen months’ time – so, despite still having this year’s birthday to get out of the way first, I entirely sympathised). Although, I must say I do take great exception to the idea of fifty being as ancient as it is regarded by everyone in this novel.

Lady Frances Skeffington managed to rid herself of a husband with a roving eye, finding it hard to forgive dalliances with seven successive typists. Fanny seems to rather congratulate herself for this, there is little in the way of regret. Attempting to help her dear, adored brother; Trippington, Fanny married a wealthy Jewish businessman, and converted her religion in order to do so – she has never bothered to change it back. There are one or two slightly iffy remarks about Job Skeffington’s Jewishness – but nothing like as bad as I have read elsewhere – and it seem to highlight the attitudes of the times rather than the author’s – at least that’s how I saw it. The wealthy Mr Skeffington, made a very generous settlement upon Fanny when they divorced twenty-two years earlier, and Fanny has lived a very nice life ever since. A large London house, fully staffed, a country cottage, a fabulous social life, and many adoring lovers. Fanny was always a beauty, she knew she was beautiful, and enjoyed it.

Now she is rapidly approaching her fiftieth birthday, she has recently recovered from a long illness, which has ravaged her face, she has been obliged to visit a top beautician and wear some artificial curls pinned into her hair. Still, Fanny doesn’t consider she is too much changed, and believes she can still charm her much younger male admirers (although she is forced to admit they haven’t been around much lately).

One day in her Charles Street house, she becomes aware of Mr Skeffington’s presence, just as if he never left. Of course, she knows he isn’t really there – she hasn’t seen him at all for over twenty years – so it’s most alarming to see him looming at her as she eats her morning grapefruit.

“If she shut her eyes, she could see him behind the fish-dish at breakfast; and presently, even if she didn’t shut her eyes she could see him behind almost anything.
What particularly disturbed her was that there was no fish. Only during Mr Skeffington’s not very long reign as a husband had there been any at breakfast, he having been a man tenacious of tradition, and liking to see what he had seen in his youth still continuing on his table. With his disappearance, the fish dish, of solid silver kept hot by electricity, disappeared too – not that he took it with him, for he was far too miserable to think of dishes, but because Fanny’s breakfast, from the date of his departure to the time she had got to now, was half a grapefruit.”

Worried that she may be going a bit funny – what with that birthday fast approaching, she decides to consult the renowned nerve man, Sir Stilton Byles. Here poor Fanny gets a rather dreadful shock, far from telling her she looks very young for fifty (as she had expected) he says he rather thought she was sixty – and that her love days are over, and she really should have kept Mr Skeffington – poor chap!

Fanny is furious, in a rage she stalks off to Oxford to track down her most recent (very, very young) lover, who she finds in the fond embrace of another girl. On the train to Oxford she runs into her cousin George, of whom she is hugely fond – but even he manages to irritate her by telling her she looks tired, and looking at her in a way she doesn’t like. Also in Oxford, she meets a rather marvellous old lady, who rather grumpily tells Fanny exactly what she thinks – and takes her for being an actress from a touring group because of her painted face.

“What could be sillier in other people’s eyes than a woman kicking up a fuss because she too, in her turn, had grown old, and her beauty was gone? Yet what could be more tragic for the woman, who, having been used all her life to being beautiful, found that without her looks she had nothing to fall back upon? ‘That’s what is wrong,’ she thought. ‘There ought to be something to fall back upon. Somebody ought to have told me about this in time.'”

Slowly Fanny is forced to acknowledge that her looks are not what they were – for a woman known to everyone for her charm and beauty it is a hard lesson. Over the next few weeks as her birthday approaches Fanny meets up with several of the men whose hearts she once broke as she tripped her way charmingly through life. There is Lord Conderley, now married to a nice sensible wife with young children, a rabble-rousing, fasting clergyman Miles in Bethnal Green, Sir Peregrine Lanks hard bitten and so successful, he once turned down the Home Secretaryship, and Sir Edward Montmorency, home after twenty years’ governance in the Pacific. Each of these men help Fanny face who she is now, and never far from her thoughts is Mr Skeffington.

They years have not treated these men any kinder than they have Fanny, they are all drastically changed too – whether it be married and aged, exiled, or embittered. The most poignant change is in that of Miles Hyslup, who Fanny meets again preaching on the streets of Bethnal Green. Miles lives with his worn-down sister Muriel, his heartbreak over Fanny having led him to live a life of austere, religious sacrifice.

I refuse to say anything much about the ending – just to say it was a tiny bit of a tear-jerker.

This is a joyous little read – Fanny is definitely a woman of her time and her class – let’s be clear she doesn’t present as much of a feminist. Von Arnim shows us a society who put a too great importance upon such things as beauty and youth, for women of that class beauty and charm were all that mattered. Each of the men in Fanny’s life had wanted her to be something to them she didn’t want to be – in a sense she was always just herself.

Apparently, this was made into a film starring Bette Davis – I haven’t seen it – so don’t know how true to the book it is – but I would be interested in seeing it.

EVA1

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IMG_20170329_220408_962

Some of you may remember reading my previous reviews of Pamela Frankau novels, for me she became one of those novelists you discover by chance and then want to read everything they wrote. I was given The Willow Cabin as part of a gift – the author was a new name to me – but The Willow Cabin become one of my favourite Virago titles ever. A Wreath for the Enemy is the fourth Pamela Frankau that I have read, prompted by Simon’s recent post about it.

It is a novel told in three sections, characters moving in and out of view – with some brilliantly plotted connections which make this a wonderfully clever novel. The opening is immediately captivating – Pamela Frankau knows how to get her readers hooked.

“There had been two crises already that day before the cook’s husband called to assassinate the cook. The stove caught fire in my presence; the postman had fallen off his bicycle at the gate and been bitten by Charlemagne, our sheepdog, whose policy it was to attack people only when they were down.
Whenever there were two crises my stepmother Jeanne said ‘Jamais deux sans trois.’ This morning she and Francis (my father) had debated whether the two things happening to the postman could be counted as two separate crises and might therefore be said to have cleared matters up. I thought that they were wasting their time. In our household things went on and on happening. It was an hotel, which made the doom worse: it would have been remarkable to have two days without a crisis and even if we did, I doubted whether the rule would apply in reverse, so that we could augur a third. I was very fond of the word augur.”

Our narrator is Penelope Wells, one of several voices that tell this story of non-conformity, friendship and family. As the novel opens Penelope is a precocious fourteen-year-old compiling an anthology of hates (this alone made me love her). She lives in a small hotel on the French Riviera with her poet, father and her stepmother. The hotel is often empty, Francis Wells having a somewhat relaxed attitude to business he is as likely to refuse entry to his establishment as he is to welcome visitors. The walls of the bar are adorned with the photographs of famous guests, and those guests who do arrive are generally eccentric, bohemian types.

Penelope; who calls her father and stepmother by their first name, – has this wonderfully unique way of speaking – her conversation is a delight. Quite obviously, a child who grew up surrounded by adults and her nose in a book – she speaks like the characters she has come up against in fiction. With her powers of imagination and observation, Penelope is ripe to be swept up in a childish infatuation for an English family staying next door to the hotel. The Bradleys are middle-class well behaved, conventional, their meal times run to a predictable timetable – their lives are ordered, unlike Penelope’s life at the hotel. It seems – from a distance to be an ideal life. Francis – much to Penelope’s irritation calls them The Smugs – it’s a pretty perfect name.

“They laughed when I shook hands with them, and Don made me an elaborate bow after the handshake. Then they laughed again.
‘Are you French or English?’
That saddened me. I said, ‘I am English, but I live here because my stepmother is a Frenchwoman and my father likes the Riviera.’
‘We know that,’ said Don quickly. ‘He was shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans and escaped and fought with the Resistance, didn’t he?’
‘Yes. That is how he met Jeanne.’
‘And he’s Francis Wells, the poet?’
‘Yes’
‘And the hotel is quite mad, isn’t it?’
‘Indubitably,’ I said. It was another of my favourite words. Eva doubled up with laughter. ‘Oh, that’s wonderful! I’m always going to say indubitably.’

It is the Bradley children; Don and his sister Eva, thirteen, who Penelope is particularly charmed by. Their lives are so well ordered that Penelope is able to predict exactly when they will appear in the garden. It isn’t long before the three meet – and Penelope delights Don and Eva with her unusual conversation, and tantalising tales of the hotel. Just as Penelope starts to get to know her new friends, the hotel welcomes one of its most colourful and frequent guests; the Duchess – who Penelope doesn’t much like – though the Duchess seems to adore her.

French riverieraHowever, childhood, as we know is full of small betrayals, and Penelope’s fledgling friendship is doomed when the Bradley parents declare the hotel to be an unsuitable place for Don and Eva – who are not so used to such grown up surroundings. The disappointments and betrayals of childhood and adolescence are so formative, they direct so much of what comes next – and how we build relationships.

In the second and third parts of the novel we move forward four and five years respectively, and hear from Don Bradley in England, and other characters. At seventeen, at boarding school, Don is straining against his father’s rigid conventionality – his greatest friend a middle-aged man in a wheelchair who owns the estate where Don goes to ride and mess around happily with horses. Deeply affected by events in France four years earlier, Don is in need of counsel, and in this most unlikely of friends Don had found the friend he lacks in his own father. Crusoe is a straight-talking breath of fresh air to Don – his easy unconventional way of life is attractive. Crusoe challenges Don’s way of thinking – and so there’s bound to be tensions when Don’s parents meet Crusoe.

In the final section of the novel, another year has passed, and we’re are back with Penelope – among others. I’m certainly not going to say too much about this section – but here we meet Cara – another superb creation from Pamela Frankau, brittle, damaged and potentially damaging – whose life is destined to collide with that of Penelope’s.

I still have two other Pamela Frankau novels waiting to be read – but she was pretty prolific – and although out of print – some of her books are available – and I have two more winging their way to me from a rash ebay purchase the other day.

pamela frankau

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