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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.

murielspark

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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. 😊

willa cather

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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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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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conversation piece

It’s #readIreland month again – hosted by Cathy – but despite having several qualifying books tbr – I wasn’t sure if I would be joining in. Last year I read a Molly Keane and an Elizabeth Bowen The Little Girls – which ended up being one of my tops reads for last year. I’m not yet sure whether I will get anything else squeezed in for Read Ireland month – I’m still reading very much according to mood – but I like the idea of getting back to Elizabeth Bowen soon.  ireland-month-17

Then writing as M J Farrell, Conversation Piece was Molly Keane’s fourth novel. Like many of her novels – it’s very horsey – if you hate all things fox hunting then it is probably not for you. Oddly enough (and I think I have said this before) although I detest the very thought of fox hunting I don’t mind reading about it when it’s written by Molly Keane. I can’t help but think that the kind of eccentricity one finds among Keane’s characters can’t possibly exist anymore – although I really hope it does. It is these eccentric characters that I read Molly Keane novels for – it is all a world away from twenty first century Birmingham that’s for sure.

Conversation Piece – is perhaps not a very well-known Molly Keane novel, it is also not going to be my favourite – although I certainly enjoyed it. There isn’t a huge amount of plot – not something that ever bothers me – it is much more an evocation of a time, a way of life – and the people who lived it. It is the world that Molly Keane herself grew up in – the sporting calendar running to the seasons of the year with people’s lives completely tied up in it.

Set among the impoverished gentry of rural Ireland, Conversation Piece is narrated by Oliver who – throughout the unspecified time period of the novel – makes regular lengthy visits to his uncle and cousins at Pullinstown. His Uncle is Sir Richard Pulleyns, his cousins Dick and Willow, a little younger than Oliver, they are extremely close – each of them madly passionate about horses. They are also masters of trickery – loving nothing more than to completely outsmart their latest adversary. Gradually Oliver is accepted by them, and drawn into their world – their pranks, their hunts and horse races. Sir Richard is getting on – but he is no push over – quite a match for his difficult children, who generally call him (with affectionate mockery) Sir Richard or the Sir. The house is a shabby riot of confusion, containing almost as many animals as people.

“ ‘ Oh God help me!’ Sir Richard rose to his feet in a sudden helpless early morning spasm of complete and unavailing fury. ‘Put that dog down, sir; do you hear me, put it down. I’ll not have it. Do you know where your nasty ass was this morning, Willow? In the hot-air press! Yes in my own bottom shelf lying on my own bath-towel. What between dogs and donkeys, I can’t call my house my own; I can’t eat my breakfast without being disgusted by you children and your antics…”

The other – important member of the Pullinstown household is James, the butler. An old family retainer – who is very much a part of the family – the house is likely to go ‘all to blazes’ without his competent management. So when, James is laid up ill, a highly irritated Sir Richard – sends his children upstairs to minister to their butler. While James is out of action, the housemaids run amok, and all Sir Richard wants is for things to be back to normal. Willow is followed up the stairs by her baby donkey – who when not munching on James’s discarded poultices is generally found lying by the fire. In their absence one day, James has been ministered to by the slightly disreputable Pheelan, whose remedies consist of smouldering rags, and threaten to set James and the whole house alight. It is in these scenes of absurd comedy that Molly Keane so excels.

“Half-way down the long, scarcely lighted passages to James’s door, a curious and then, all in a trice, a terrifying smell assailed us – a smell of burning. Willow ran. I fell over the donkey, then, recovering myself and a measure of sense, hurried back to where I had seen a Minimax fire extinguisher (ruthlessly bracketed to an Elizabethan chest, that was why I had remembered). When I reached James’s door, the fumes of burning cloth that filled the room choked for a moment all my powers of observation. All I saw was Willow standing dangerously still, one hand on the door-knob, and with his back to her Pheelan bent over James’s bed, from which the fearful smell of burning came with sickening insistence.”

Of course, the majority of Dick and Willow’s energies and time are taken up with hunting, racing and horse buying – some of their antics incurring the grim displeasure of their father. In their company, Oliver becomes almost childlike again – as the three plot against (an appropriately named) Reverend Fox (amongst others) – who’s a bit of a trickster himself. Some of the stories of hunting and horse racing get a bit much if you’re not massively into horses (and I’m not) but there is a lovely appreciation of landscape, Molly Keane’s a very good writer – her descriptions are frequently lovely.

“The demesne walls and big fields of Pullinstown give way to farms fenced with smaller and more intricate carefulness; banks were wreathed and blind in briars or faced up tall and solid with stones; and scarcely a strand of wire did I see, even on the fences that bounded the road. We passed several coverts, gorse growing strong down the length of a wet bog, and a steep hill led us over the curving back of a wood that smelt bitter and shrill as wet woods do smell. The road ran its narrow stony shelf under the shoulder of a rock-strewn hill, darkly crowned with heather, and rich in the dead brown of bracken. Below us a fair hunting country dropped to a vale of grass and grass again, its miles across lost in the mist and shine of the day and the farther mountains were worlds away in faery.”

Sir Richard has his own adversaries among his neighbours – namely Lady Honour – who is not above siding with Oliver Willow, and Dick behind the old man’s back. The disparity between generations is a key theme of this novel, the world is changing and life for houses like Pullinstown must change too in time. Molly Keane paints a portrait of a vanished world. I like escaping into these vanished worlds, one reason I suppose I enjoy reading Molly Keane, I still have several of her novels unread – and I have been contemplating the new biography, written by her daughter. However, I need to clear some space before I buy any more books.

molly keane

 

 

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This month the Librarything Virago group are reading the work of Edith Wharton. I chose Roman Fever a collection of short stories which I have had for some time.

The short story Roman Fever first appeared in 1934 – although this particular collection wasn’t published until 1964 these stories come from across the long period in which Edith Wharton was writing. I assume, therefore, that these stories probably do appear in collections first published during Wharton’s lifetime.

The title story of this collection also appears in The Persephone book of short stories – memorable for its final line – it is the perfect story to start off this little collection, and one I was very happy to revisit. It is a little piece of perfection from Edith Wharton. Two middle ages matrons; Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, are in Rome with their daughters, the two women don’t move from their position on a terrace overlooking the  city they each have reason to remember from their youth.

“ ‘I always used to think’ Mrs Slade continued, ‘that our mothers had a much more difficult job than our grandmothers. When Roman fever stalked the streets it must have been comparatively easy to gather in the girls at the danger hour; but when you and I were young, with such beauty calling us, and the spice of disobedience thrown in, and no worse risk than catching cold during the cool hour after sunset, the mothers used to be put to it to keep us in – didn’t they?’
She turned again toward Mrs Ansley, but the latter had reached a delicate point in her knitting. ‘One, two, three – slip two; yes, they must have been she assented without looking up.”

The two women have known each other many years, first as young women brought to Rome by their mothers, and later living on the same street in New York as married women. Their friendship is gradually revealed to exist only superficially. While their daughters go off together to explore the city, to have fun, the older women stay behind, knitting rolled up in their bags, reminiscing over past days. It’s a masterly example of subtlety, as the true nature of Grace and Alida’s jealousies and a long-held secret are unearthed through their conversation.

The remaining stories were all new to me, they are all excellent in their way, but although there are only eight in the collection, I won’t be discussing each of them. Famous for her stories depicting the upper echelons of New York society, the themes Wharton explores in these stories feel very familiar. Many of these stories show the contradictions in a society of slowly shifting mores. The daughters of women whose lives were once so narrowed by convention, find their lives easier, their lives less judged than their mothers’. In others Wharton details the absurdities of the conventional society she was a part of.

In Xingu Wharton’s wry humour is revealed as she portrays the intellectual snobbery of a society ladies lunch group. The women meet to discuss the latest books or ideas, there seems little enjoyment, and a good deal of anxiety among the women who try to outdo each other in intellectualism. Mrs Roby is the newest member of the group – and the other women are already questioning her suitability.

“…it was now openly recognised that as a member of the Lunch club Mrs Roby was a failure. ‘It all comes.’ As Miss Van Vluyck put it, ‘of accepting a woman on a man’s estimation.’”

Celebrated writer Osric Dane has been invited to attend the next meeting to be held at the house of Mrs Ballinger. All the women are nervous about the meeting – nobody wants to show themselves up in front of the guest. Mrs Roby however, when the great day arrives, has her own interesting way of turning the conversation. Highlighting the snobberies of the women who have been sitting in judgement of her.

Mr Waythorn is a newly married husband in The other two, his wife only thirty five, is twice divorced with a twelve year old daughter. Society is changing, attitudes now much more tolerant to divorced women. However, Waythorn has the embarrassment of having to deal with both of his wife’s former husbands. This is something, society has certainly not prepared him.

Souls Belated is one story in which the hypocrisies of society thwart the happiness of people caught by its conventions. Lydia has left her husband, and is now travelling in Europe with her lover Gannett. Lydia and Gannett find a quiet hotel to settle in temporarily yet they find that the conventions that society put upon them, mean they must either lie about being married – or slip away to Paris and get married. Lydia doesn’t want to get married eager to pull away from the conventions she so hates. So much goes unspoken between Lydia and Gannett, and the reader fears they will remain so.

With The Angel at the grave Wharton highlights the plight of Victorian women who sacrifice their lives to the men of their families. In this case a granddaughter spends her whole life trying to keep the memory of her grandfather and his life’s work alive to others. In doing so, she ends up having no life of her own, it’s a sad and no doubt all true tale of pointless sacrifice, it was also my least favourite out of a truly superb collection.

“All of their friends seem to be divorced; some of them seem to announce their engagements before they get their decree. One of them—her name was Mabel—as far as I could make out, her husband found out that she meant to divorce him by noticing that she wore a new engagement ring.”

Autres Temps… the final story of the collection was certainly (along with the title story) one of my favourites. Again, we see the hypocrisy of society, as the rules applied to the younger generation are not advanced to the older generation who have suffered under their strictures for years. Mrs Lidcote is a woman who broke societies rules twenty years earlier when she divorced, she has been living abroad in exile, shunned by everyone in her society ever since. Upon hearing that her beloved daughter Leila has divorced, and immediately remarried, Mrs Lidcote hurries back to New York. However, she is made aware that society doesn’t care that Leila has divorced and remarried, her daughter isn’t shunned, her remarriage is accepted and her second husband in line for an enviable appointment. Mrs Lidcote begins to wonder whether these new acceptances might not after all be applied to her – that perhaps now, finally she too may be able to find happiness with a man she has held at arm’s length. Society, however it seems is not so rational as all that.

These stories show Edith Wharton at her best, wry, satirical and astutely observed – she examines the changes in society and how it treats those who flout its rules.

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the-fountain-overflows

“You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.”

The Fountain Overflows is possibly one of Rebecca West’s most famous works – the first novel in a projected trilogy – the third of the trilogy not quite finished when Rebecca West died. The Real Night and Cousin Rosamund complete the trilogy and both these novels were published posthumously, – and while I am not keen on unfinished works – I do now very much want to read them both.

The story is that of an Edwardian family in the years before the First World War. Our narrator is Rose, one of three sisters, there is also a younger much adored brother Richard Quinn. As the novel opens the family have recently returned to Britain from South Africa, where we get the impression that things didn’t quite work out – the children’s father Piers Aubrey had run into difficulties. Now the children and their mother are to spend a few weeks on a farm in Scotland, having given notice on their flat in Edinburgh – they intend to follow Mr Aubrey to London as he starts a new job on a newspaper. There is a certain amount of anxiety about money, and whether Mr Aubrey’s job will work out – all of which the children – the three girls at least, are well aware of. Mrs Aubrey, Clare is a former concert pianist, and she spends much of her time giving her daughters musical instruction. It appears that Mary and Rose will follow in their mother’s footsteps, while the elder sister Cordelia, playing violin rather than piano – appears to lack a true musical gift.

Piers Aubrey is very much adored by his children, at least at this early period, though there is a sense that he is unreliable. Despite his obvious talents, he uses what little money the family has to speculate on other ventures, losing money and exposing his family constantly to the risk of absolute penury and the shame of debt. A fighter of causes too, he is loved and always forgiven by his family despite his frequent failures. London seems almost a dream, and there is more anxiety about the arrangements when Mrs Aubrey doesn’t hear from her husband for several weeks. The day arrives however, when letter or no letter, they must start the journey to London, hoping there is a house for them waiting at the other end.

“I cannot remember what I saw that afternoon, because I saw it too often afterwards. But here the road came to an end, running to a wrought iron gateway, flanked by pillars on which two gryphons supported coats-of-arms, and set in a high brick wall. The gates were blind, backed with tarred boards, and this might have been frightening, but reassured, it proclaimed that everybody had gone, the place was private. On the right was a neat terrace of a dozen houses. Just before the gateway, on our left, was our new house. A neat plaque on its first floor gave the figures ‘1810’ and it had the graces of its time.”

Once in London, the children find themselves taking up residence in house their father used to once stay in as a child when visiting an aunt. The family are renting the house from a cousin of their father’s and in time the three young sisters can’t help but worry about the lateness of the rent due to Cousin Ralph.

Mrs Aubrey is a worn out, dishevelled woman, there are moments when her daughters – as much as they love her – feel a little embarrassed by her. They hate being poor – and long for the day when they can be concert pianists and earn money for their family. Yet the children are fortunate at least in their mother – she is no fool – she’s intelligent, a gifted musician, caring and clear sighted she holds her family together. Living close by is Constance, Clare Aubrey’s cousin, she lives in a different kind of neighbourhood, and West allows us to understand that while the Aubrey’s are far from well off they live in a much better, more desirable location. Clare and Rose visit Constance and her daughter Rosamond – dispensing with a poltergeist (as you do) – but are rather taken aback at the sight of the street they find Constance living in.

“Constance lived among the kind of people which in those days were called ‘common’. More fortunate children than ourselves might have called them poor, but we knew better, for most of them were no poorer than we were. They were people who live in ugly houses in ugly streets among neighbours who got drunk on Saturday nights, and did not read books or play music or go to picture galleries and who were unnecessarily rude to each other, and, what was especially degrading, ‘made face,’ as well as well as not having baths every day. We did not despise these people, we simply felt that they did not have as amusing a time as we did.”

Constance is married to another unreliable man, and Rosamond, Rose and Mary often swap notes on their hopeless fathers.

The story of this engaging family is slow to get going but the Aubrey family grew on me, they are very engaging, and Rose is superb teller of their story. The story of the next few years in this house in London is packed with incident. Cordelia is taken under the wing of Miss Beevor – who encourages the pupil she adores to play the violin in public, allowing the poor girl to believe herself to be possessed of a greater talent than she has. Cordelia is desperate to rid herself of the poverty her father has reduced them to – and her ambition is fuelled. Her mother wants only to help Cordelia realise her error – and they enter into that age-old battle, so familiar to mothers and daughter everywhere.

Soon the family are thrust into a drama of another kind entirely – the Aubreys find themselves drawn into a scandalous murder case, when the mother of a school friend of Rose and Mary is put on trial for the murder of her husband.

West’s writing is lovely, the warmth of this family contrasts brilliantly with the struggles and moments of despair inflicted upon them. Clare Aubrey emerges as the family saviour – and is the character I admired the most.

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