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Posts Tagged ‘virago books’

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.

rebeccawest

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birds-on-the-trees

Following on from my reading of In my Own Time by Nina Bawden – I was anxious to read the novel she wrote based upon her experiences as mother to a son later diagnosed with schizophrenia. In life, of course, Nina Bawden’s son Niki killed himself in 1981, so for me there was added poignancy to a novel only published in 1970 – a time when perhaps she believed the worst of his problems were behind him. Some of the stories about this fictional son I recognised from In My Own Time as being stories of Niki.

The Birds in the Trees is beautifully observed with great insight and honesty, it is a novel about parents and children and family life with all its complexities. In 2010 The Birds on the Trees was nominated for The Lost Booker – voted for by readers, Bawden lost out to Troubles by J G Farrell (another excellent novel). The Lost Booker was for books published in 1970 – as changing Booker rules that year meant many novels lost out on being considered.

Toby Flowers is the boy/young man at the centre of this novel – which is told in the varying voices of his family – his mother and father, younger sister and grandmother. These first-person narratives dropped into what is largely a third person narrative, works so well – giving the novel an added intimacy.

“Mummy and Daddy are dead,’ the child said, softly but distinctly, so that Mr Tilney could not pretend he hadn’t heard. Not that he wished to: after the first chill, the sad little statement opened doors in his mind that had been closed for a long time.”

The novel opens with a prologue – in which we meet Toby as a young boy. Toby arrives at a neighbour’s house – late on Christmas Eve saying no one is at home. The neighbours are naturally concerned, have had experience of a hungry Toby turning up in their kitchen before – of course none of it is true. Yet Toby is a lovable little chap – he doesn’t seem to know he’s lying and causing acute embarrassment for his young parents.

Toby’s mother is Maggie, a writer, his father Charlie a journalist. Since early childhood Toby; the eldest of three siblings, has been self-absorbed and awkward, but as he gets older his behaviour gives his family even more cause for concern, when there is a suggestion of drug use. Toby’s ideas for his future differ from those of his mother, when he is expelled from school in his A level year – it highlights the fact that Toby is unlikely to fulfil the expectations his parents once had for him. Toby refuses to discuss his obvious unhappiness and Maggie and Charlie struggle to understand and support the son who they love so much. As Charlie says:

“”All generations face, on the surface, much the same problems; each knows its situation to be unique. Ours, for example. Children before the war, emerged through it into parenthood, Freud in one hand, Spock in the other, into a world where truth is relative, uncertainty a virtue, nothing known… Except guilt, possibly. That is our hall-mark. Out parents did their duty, knew what was right; our sins were original, no fault of theirs.”

Maggie’s mother gives her advice from a distance – which infuriatingly is of the ‘he should cut his hair and knuckle under’ variety. Aunt Phoebe – Charlie’s wealthy, widowed sister, is unhelpful too when she visits – incurring the wrath of twelve-year-old Lucy, who adores Toby and is quick to defend him. Toby has taken to wearing a burnouse pulled up over his head – in which he seems to shield himself from the world. Later, Lucy becomes convinced – following a throw away remark from her younger brother Greg, that the two of them must be adopted – Toby so much the focus in their young minds for all the love affection, worry and attention in the Flowers household. Lucy is a fabulous character, she’s observant, yet only partly knowing, she is rather afraid to fully understand the things she only has an inkling about, the things she overhears. She is often isolated from everyone else, the middle child, the only girl, she is anxious and lonely. The fragility of the relationships within the family are exposed by everyone’s concerns over Toby, memories of former times triggered in Sara (Toby’s grandmother) and Maggie. We get a glimpse of Sara long married to a wildly eccentric, difficult man, Maggie thinks she should leave him, carve out a few years of happiness for herself, yet here too we see one family member not fully understanding the point of view of another. Bawden is brilliant at recreating these family dynamics.

Maggie and Charlie’s friends are drawn into the drama too, Including Elsa; the promiscuous widow of Charlie’s best friend and Angus a psychiatrist friend – married to an old school friend of Maggie’s who Maggie and Charlie decide to consult professionally about Toby. At a party hosted by Elsa, for her son’s twenty-first Maggie and Charlie, are accompanied by Toby (wearing his burnouse) – who having grown up with Hugh is a good friend. Elsa is all bright, unconcern about Toby, while Maggie tries hard to like her.

“’Darlings…’ Her cool cheek touched theirs, her lips sucked air. She took Toby in her arms and kissed him on the mouth. ‘Sweet Toby, you look marvellous in that get up. The girls will go down like ninepins. Go and take your pick – they’re all down in the boat house.’
Bright red and breathing hard, Toby retreated backwards, as if leaving a royal presence. ‘That is the most super boy,’ Elsa said. ‘I wish I were younger.’ She sighed, put her hand on Maggie’s arm. ‘It really is the most frightful thing about the school. I’m so terribly sorry.’”

In this novel Bawden is particularly adept at portraying the truth of a family in crisis, the self-recrimination which goes on, the guilt, arguments, grief the small (and not so small) betrayals which come out of dysfunctional family life. Maggie and Charlie can’t help but project their own wishes for Toby on to him, this is difficult for Toby to cope with, he is very clear about what he does and doesn’t want. Bawden doesn’t give us a nice and tidy resolution, there are none in such cases – although there is definite hope. Reading, The Birds on the Trees with the benefit of hindsight I am struck by how even that small amount of hope was denied her in the end.

nina bawden

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deep-water

Deep Water was Virago Press’ pick for their February book club. I had wanted to join in with the book club at least once – so was delighted they picked a book I hadn’t read and one by an author I have wanted to read for a long time. Patricia Highsmith is probably best known for the Ripley novels and Strangers on a Train, this novel perhaps one that is less well known. Based solely upon the evidence of reading this, I will be reading a lot more novels by Patricia Highsmith.

Deep Water isn’t a typical mystery/thriller, it is deeply psychological, suspenseful and subtle. Highsmith forces us to side with a murderer, against all his potential victims. Somehow, we see their faults before his, feel his frustration, wanting him to succeed, against our reason.

“Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reason that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance. His rationalization of his attitude was a flimsy one and didn’t fool him for a minute, though it crossed his mind every time he saw Melinda dancing: she was insufferably silly when she danced. She made dancing embarrassing.”

At the centre of this novel are married couple Melinda and Vic Van Allen, a couple whose marriage has descended to one of mutual destruction. Neither of them seem to wish to end the marriage, each completely caught up in their peculiar brand of domestic misery. They have one young daughter Trixie, who is six, and since her birth Melinda has had no interest in her husband. Vic now sleeps in another wing of the house on the other side of the garage. He has his own interests outside his small printing press business, including the breeding of snails. He is an affable, likeable man, intelligent and studious, a good friend, neighbour and father. The Van Allens live in the quiet, affluent, town of Little Wesley, where Vic is highly regarded by his friends and neighbours.

Although Melinda has no interest in her husband, she does have quite a lot of interest in other men. Vic now finds himself in a rather embarrassing position. Melinda entertains her series of male conquests at their house, evening drinks, turn into very, very late nights. Vic, happily stays up to thwart Melinda’s plans. She insists that these men accompany her and Vic when they are invited to friends’ houses, where she dances with them, not her husband. It is a world of cocktail parties, pool parties, barbecues, and practically all day drinking. Vic and Melinda are invited everywhere, and wherever they go, Melinda brings a third guest.

Every few months, Melinda seems to have a new friend – and Vic is never quite sure just how far things go, though it is generally assumed these men are Melinda’s lovers. Everyone in their social circle sees how Melinda acts, and what Vic must put up with, and how it appears he is doing nothing about it. With Vic out each day at the Greenspur Press of which he is justly proud – employing two other equally enthusiastic local men – Melinda is free to please herself. She takes very little interest in her young daughter, and is drinking more and more. Her misery is evident, and yet cleverly, Highsmith makes her anything but sympathetic. Melinda is unfaithful, an inattentive, uncaring mother, she drinks heavily – so naturally the reader has little sympathy for her. Highsmith understands exactly how her readers will react to her characters – we fall into her trap and it is quite brilliantly done.

A few months before the novel opens, one of Melinda’s previous conquests was murdered in New York, the culprit not yet found. As Melinda continues to flaunt her affairs right under Vic’s nose, Vic decides to try and frighten the most recent off. He hints that he was responsible for the murder – and that if he ever had a problem with one of Melinda’s friends he would just kill him. The man concerned is seriously rattled, and gossip begins to seep through Little Wesley. Many of Vic’s friends immediately suspect the truth of what Vic was doing in saying what he did. There are other people, who know Vic less well, who seem to take it seriously. Melinda thinks the whole story is ridiculous, it gives her just one more reason to scoff.

However, Vic hadn’t counted on the real murderer being unearthed and splashed all over the newspaper. Vic is right back in the embarrassing position he was in before, and Melinda has a new man on the go. The lines between Vic’s real self and the one he has pretended to, blur, and it isn’t too long before Vic really does have blood on his hands.

“Vic watched the next few seconds with a strange detachment. Melinda half standing up now, shouting her opinions at the coroner – and Vic felt a certain admiration for her courage and her honesty that he hadn’t known she possessed as he saw her frowning profile, her clenched hands – Mary Meller rising and taking a few hesitant steps towards Melinda before Horace gently drew her back to her seat.”

Wilson, a local resident and part of the same social circle as the Van Allens, though not really a friend, watches Vic closely – joining forces with Melinda against him, Wilson becomes a thorn in Vic’s side.

“Vic kept looking at Wilson’s wagging jaw and thinking of the multitude of people like him on earth, perhaps half the people on earth were of his type, or potentially his type, and thinking that it was not bad at all to be leaving them. The ugly birds without wings. The mediocre who perpetuated mediocrity, who really fought and died for it. He smiled at Wilson’s grim, resentful, the-world-owes-me-a-living face, which was the reflection of the small mind behind it, and Vic cursed it and all it stood for. Silently, and with a smile, and with all that was left of him, he cursed it.”

Highsmith is apparently known for writing charming, likeable psychopaths and villains and in Deep Water she does just this.

This was an excellent read, intelligent and compelling, it is also very hard to put down. I am looking forward to exploring more by Patricia Highsmith.

patricia-highsmith

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in-my-own-time

Carrie’s War was one of the books of my childhood, I think I have carried the memory of that book and the 1970s TV adaptation of it with me ever since. I rediscovered Nina Bawden as an adult, and it was like re-connecting with an old friend. I’ve come to believe that not everyone enjoys Nina Bawden’s writing as much as I do. Naturally – as with many prolific writers – her novels do vary a little in quality. Although I have read only about eight of her twenty adult novels, I have found her to be a writer of great insight and a superb storyteller.

With In My Own Time , Bawden tells her own story – in a series of, frequently very honest – vignettes starting naturally enough with her childhood. I loved every word of this book, and was rather bereft when it was over, not only did I love the stories of Nina Bawden’s life, I realised as I neared the end – that I really liked her.

Nina Bawden was born in 1925 in London, this collection of memoirs opens with memories of her family, aunts, uncles, grandparents and her own parents. Family stories of a ship’s cook, and an old tramp – the memory of whom, Nina’s mother would rather have had erased completely.

In the years before the war, the child Nina always made up stories to amuse herself and her younger brother. Showing an early aptitude for art, which Nina’s mother was keen to encourage, Nina was sent for extra art tuition, which she hated, and from which whooping cough delivered her. During the war, Nina was evacuated, an experience she used later for her famous children’s novel Carrie’s War – though Bawden, stresses that story was not her own. Nina was moved between foster families several times, the families she stayed with all rather different to her own, though she recalls them here with some affection and gratitude. Relating the time when her mother came to visit, and Nina worked hard to protect her latest ‘auntie’ from her mother’s probable scorn, if she realised what a hopeless housekeeper Nina was staying with. When in the first year of sixth form, Nina, along with many of the other girls billeted nearby returned to London. Nina stayed with her friend Jean for a while. The Blitz was over, but flying bombs and land mines were common.

“I was curiously unafraid. There was even an exquisite excitement sometimes, listening to the engines of death above me. If I were to write about living in a city under siege, I would be able to describe the sharpened sense of that danger gave to ordinary life, the exhilaration of having survived the night, the bomb, the mine, but it would seem crudely insensitive to write about someone who was not in the least afraid. I was afraid of lots of things; the dentist, being alone in a house (listening for a clicking latch, a creaking stair) but I was not afraid of bombs. Of course emotions fade from memory, or sometimes, if remembered, seem unbelievable after a lapse of years.”

Soon Nina joined her mother in the country, a farmhouse in the Welsh Marches. In 1943 Nina went to Oxford. She had been going to read French, but soon transferred to Modern Greats. While at Oxford, Nina met Margaret Thatcher (though she wasn’t yet Mrs Thatcher) and Richard Burton, who she hadn’t found especially attractive. She recalls fire watching in the university buildings, playing planchette on the roof of the Bodleian library, and sleeping on a camp bed in the museum, it was undoubtedly a happy time.

nina-and-austenIn 1946 Nina married her first husband, Harry Bawden, with whom she had two sons. Later Nina met Austen Kark on a bus, and left her husband for him, she is pretty matter of fact about this, and there isn’t a word of criticism for her first husband whose name she kept for her books. Having published some short stories her first novel came out in 1953. Who Calls the Tune, came out to very good reviews. A mistake Bawden made over the naming of one particularly unpleasant character, lead to a letter, very nearly making it her last novel – it taught her a valuable lesson – to thoroughly ensure her character names weren’t names of people she had once known. Bawden describes how she wrote, an adult’s novel one year, a children’s novel the next. Admitting that some autobiographical material seeps in, Bawden considers central characters to be generally too complex, needing to be known by their creator too thoroughly to be completely taken from life. She was fortunate in her publisher; sticking faithfully to George Hardinge as he moved from one publishing house to another from 1954 until 1987.

The most moving section of this book however is in Bawden’s descriptions of her family – their life together, their trials and tribulations. Nina’s sons Niki and Robert were young enough to accept their stepfather Austen quite happily, though their own father was still involved in their lives too. Later Nina had a daughter; Perdita with Austen, Austen had two daughters from his first marriage, with whom Nina seems to have had a good relationship when they visited. However, it was Nina’s eldest son who was to give her the greatest worry and heartache. Niki’s problems began to surface when he was just a boy, and Nina and Austen did all they could to find the help Niki needed. Later he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and here Nina remembers him with honesty and sadness but overwhelmingly with great love.

“He was a loving, valiant child. Once, when he overheard us groaning about some alarming and unexpected bill, he packed up his best toys, weeping, and gave them to us to sell. And one summer holiday, when he jumped off a breakwater and landed on a nail and the matron at the cottage hospital stitched up his foot without an anaesthetic, he sat quite still on Austen’s lap and made no sound. But my mother had been right when she had called him vulnerable. He was more fragile than his brother and sister, more unsure of himself, more easily upset, and as he grew older, in his teens, his fragility became more apparent. Sometimes you could see his face betraying inner terror, as if he were shivering inside his skin.”

Niki’s story is a sad one, and his mother fights hard for him, she writes about him with striking honesty – and I really felt for a woman who I knew went on to face other tragedies after this book was written. Austen was killed in the Potters Bar rail crash of 2002 – and (herself injured) Nina Bawden’s own evidence formed a vital part of the investigation and she later appeared as a character in David Hare’s play about the crash. Her final published book was Dear Austen (2005) a letter she wrote to her dead husband about that crash and all that followed. Nina Bawden died in 2012, a few months after her daughter Perdita’s death.

In My Own Time is a wonderful memoir, and it has convinced me to read more Nina Bawden novels this year.

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the-wind-changes

This is quite a difficult novel to review, it is fascinating in many respects – especially as it was Olivia Manning’s first novel. Though the plot – is a simple one, a portrait of three complex people set against a backdrop of rising tensions.

Olivia Manning is probably best known now for her Balkan and Levant trilogies. I read The Balkan Trilogy a very long time ago, and have been meaning to re-read it for a while. The Wind Changes was sent to me this Christmas by my Librarything Virago secret Santa, and I enjoyed it a lot.

The setting for The Wind Changes is Ireland, 1921 – just before the Anglo-Irish truce. Olivia Manning’s mother was from Ulster, and she spent many holidays in Galway and Co. Clare with her cousins. The descriptions of the beach at Carrickmoy are those of someone who knew the area viewing it with the nostalgia that the distance a few years and childhood memories bring.

“Strange things were washed ashore here. Here the children found the bodies of the whip-tailed skate and of devil fish that were good to eat but when caught had to be beheaded at sea that their frightful appearance might not frighten away custom. Sometimes they found dead monsters that, living, ventured so seldom toward the land there was no common name for them. Amongst the stones they found coins worn thinner than paper and the marvellous, fine vertebrae bones of great cod, and sometimes lifebelts and wreckage bearing the names of ships long ago lost and forgotten. Once they found a sailor’s tunic and once a plait of yellow hair.”

The novel opens as Elizabeth Dearborn a young art student and Arion, a middle-aged writer sit in a car in the mist awaiting the arrival of Sean Murtough at a pier in Ireland. Sean is an Irish republican rebel, Arion and Elizabeth sympathisers. Sean is young, but the Catholic rebels are looking to him to return Riordan their legendary leader from exile. The three are a peculiar group, and although Elizabeth has been sleeping with Arion – she is soon drawing closer to the younger Sean. Sean’s plan, the plan other republicans are counting on is to bring Riordan back to Dublin by the end of that week, where he will take his rightful place as their leader and start to heal the wounds left by the memory of the Easter rising of 1916.

“The evening began to fall. Outside Ballingar their way was barred by a crowd that flowed loosely and waveringly over the road. Men and women stood talking in twos and threes. They talked with the eager impotence of anger whilst large groups of police and Black and Tans, arm in arm for mutual protection, moved silently round the fringe, Sean blew his horn. People turned their faces whitely towards the car but did not move. The police made no attempt to clear a way. Their power had gone. Had they given an order it would have been an excuse for a riot.”

Sean is a crusader, subject to mood swings and self-doubt – he is too reliant upon Arion to be a credible instigator of dangerous plots. Sean doesn’t much like Elizabeth at first, later his dreams of a united Ireland means he has little interest in spending time with Elizabeth really. Sean is sick, he believes himself doomed, dying of consumption like two of his brothers and a grandfather, his third brother was killed during the Easter Week Rising, shot by the English.

Elizabeth, with her memories of a childhood spent largely in Carrickmoy, is lonely, unsure of what it is she wants from her life, or how to go about finding it. Elizabeth is most surely a portrait of Olivia Manning herself as Isobel English asserts in her introduction to this VMC edition. Olivia Manning; had admitted to great loneliness around this period, had studied art, had connections to Ireland and appears to have had her own opinion about the British rule in Ireland.

Arion is an Englishman, a novelist he also reports on the troubles for an English newspaper. He has left his wife some years earlier, and has two daughters and a son still at Eton. Arion is a republican sympathiser, but his English accent can either get him into trouble or out of it when the Black and Tans are stopping cars on the road out of Dublin.

All three are separated and oddly connected by their loneliness none of them seem happy. Tension builds as the week progresses. The scent of betrayal is in the air as the day for Riordan’s return draws nearer.

I really enjoyed Olivia Manning’s writing, and it has made me keener than ever to re-read The Balkan Trilogy.

olivia-manning

 

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thetrueheart

How could I not love the author who created Laura (Lolly) Willowes and Mr Fortune? – who enthralled me with Summer Will Show and captured my imagination with The Corner that Held them (not a book I expected to love at all). My devotion, however is now fully assured after reading The True Heart – which I believe is every bit as good as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s famous novel Lolly Willowes.

My knowledge of old myths is pretty sketchy – I know the basic outline of some but I have never had much interest in them if I’m honest. The True Heart is apparently a (very loose) re-telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche – though don’t let that put you off. If you weren’t aware of that then it wouldn’t matter – and it wouldn’t alter the delightfulness of this imaginative love story.

The story is set in Victorian Essex, the Essex marshes, Southend and London in 1873. Sukey Bond is just sixteen when she leaves the Warburton Memorial Female Orphanage. A positon has been found for her as a farm maid in the Essex Marshes. Sukey is taken part of the way with Mrs Seaborn, the wife of the rector of Southend. Sukey – whose record of behaviour at the orphanage was so exemplary she won prizes, is immediately impressed with Mrs Seaborn.

“…raising her eyes to Mrs Seaborn’s face she knew that this lady could only take her where it would be good for her to go. Mrs Seaborn’s grey silk dress, as it swept over the lawn, seemed to sing a low tune. Her shoulders were rounded and drooping, her voice stroked the ear. She was like a dove, and the small onyx buttons on her dress were like doves’ eyes.”

New Easter is the farm where Sukey is sent, the landscape charms her, and though young, she is quite capable of the work. Prudence is the young woman who greets her, she used to have Sukey’s job but now she is about to become engaged to one of the sons. Sukey mistakenly believes there to be three sons in the family, though one, Eric is treated with derision by the other two and their father. In time, we learn that Eric is not a member of that family, he is in fact the son of Mrs Seaborn, sent to live at the farm, out of the way, as gentle, country loving Eric is deemed ‘an idiot’ and subject to seizures. Mrs Seaborn is ashamed of her son, and Sukey soon must revise her previous opinion of the woman who had so charmed her previously.

Sukey is drawn to Eric, he leads her to an abandoned orchard and gives her sour apples as a gift. Their love is innocent, but real, and Eric wants them to climb through the church window to be married. Sukey must explain about vicars and banns. When their relationship is revealed Mrs Seaborn arrives and takes Eric away, back to Southend where he was never happy.

“So this was love: – she wished that she were not so ignorant about it. This love was so sweet a thing that it seemed almost an ingratitude never to have thought about it, never to have looked forward to its coming. If she had known, she would have prepared herself, she would have made her heart into a nest for it, but here she was, a girl who scarcely knew how to kiss, unpractised in endearments save those which she had given to Tansy the heifer or to the funny little pigs, accepting love without any of the repaying graces which are love’s due.”

Sukey is determined to find him, she knows that only she can love him, and care for him the way he needs to be cared for. Sukey leaves the farm, walking to Southend, sleeping in barns, befriended by an old tramp, the first of a host of characters who Sukey meets in her quest to get Eric back. She gets another job in Southend, a servant in the home of a family with seven children, it is here that Sukey hears more news of the Seaborn family, and realises the only person who can help her is Queen Victoria herself. Holding the memory of Eric in her mind, Sukey sets out for London, for an audience with her Queen.

“In the moment between getting out of the carriage and entering the Palace, Sukey received a violent disjointed impression of what a fine day it was. The warmth of the air seemed in an instant to have clothed her with a new body; she saw tree tops above a wall, stirring under their May-time plumage with a wanton grace and laziness, and it was as if she had never seen such things before; she glanced up, and instead of looking at the blue sky, she thought she was looking into it.”

The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is superb – as always, I actually find her very readable, and I defy anyone not to absolutely love Sukey and her Eric. There is a wonderful fairy-tale quality to this novel – there’s a feeling that all is possible. Despite Sukey being young, orphaned, friendless and a servant she is determined to marry outside her class. She knows that only she can love Eric, and so in the way of fairy-tales, so much that should be impossible, becomes possible.

It won’t be long before I read more Sylvia Townsend Warner, I think she is a really superb writer.

sylvia Townsend warner

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the-adventures-of-elizabeth-in-rugen

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen is the third in a series of autobiographical novels by Elizabeth von Arnim which starts with her novel Elizabeth and her German Garden. The second novel The Solitary Summer I have yet to read, (or even possess) but I don’t think it really matters which order one reads these novels, they don’t follow on really in the conventional sense.

This beautifully written novel took me right away from the here and now, to another time and a place I must admit to not even having heard of. In that first and probably more famous novel, Elizabeth is content to stay in her home, delight in her garden, her children and poke gentle fun at her husband The Man of Wrath. In this novel, Elizabeth is a little older, a little more jaded perhaps, she needs a break from her home, and so we join her on a journey round an Island in the Baltic sea. Elizabeth von Arnim’s descriptions of Rügen are wonderful, and I am now keen to follow in the footsteps of Elizabeth one day and take a trip around Rügen myself.

“Round this island I wished to walk this summer, but no one would walk with me. It is the perfect way of moving if you want to see into the life of things. It is the one way of freedom. If you go into a place on anything but your own feet you are taken there too fast and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.”

In 1901 the real Elizabeth (Countess von Arnim) took a well needed break from home, children and husband to travel around Rügen with a woman friend, they travelled by horse drawn carriage, and were away about ten days. Nothing very particular happened on her holiday, nothing that the writer could weave a story out of. So, the writer invented some adventures, and some humorous characters and the novel based loosely upon her own trip, and celebrating the place she loved so much, came into being.

The Elizabeth of the novel; like the woman who created her was a woman needing a break from the domestic realities of home, having come across a map of Rügen she was determined to explore it independently of her husband. Convention dictated that Elizabeth did not travel alone, and she could find no woman friend to join her, she contented herself with her old maid Gertrud. Gertrud, at least could be trusted to be mainly silent, content with her one small bag, and her knitting, Elizabeth feels it will almost be like travelling alone. Travelling first by train to Miltzow, Elizabeth and Gertrud begin their journey, they transfer to a carriage at Miltzow, pulled by a pair of horses and driven by their coachman for the journey; August. The two women are settled in the back, hemmed in by Elizabeth’s luggage.

“The carriage was a light one of the victoria genus with a hood; the horses were a pair of esteemed at home for their meekness; the coachman, August, was a youth who had never yet driven straight on for an indefinite period without turning round once, and he looked as though he thought he were going to enjoy himself.”

During her eleven days away from home, Elizabeth has a series of memorable mini rugenadventures, including getting left behind on the road as August drives on, unaware he has lost his passengers. In everything she does, and with everything she sees Elizabeth brings the Island of Rügen at the beginning of the twentieth century to life, its beauty, its hoteliers and sightseers, even a fisherman and his son who take the travellers and their carriage over to Vilm.

If you have ever taken a holiday in a small place, you will probably have found you see the same people over and over again, you may even run into someone you know (it’s happened to me in Devon). Like so many holiday makers, Elizabeth does meet the same people again and again, particularly the dreadfully snobbish Bishop’s wife, and her son – a very personable young man Brosy Harvey-Browne. The Harvey-Brownes turn up at regular intervals, the Bishop’s wife pushing herself more and more onto poor Elizabeth as she travels around the island.

“You must be dying for some tea,’ I interposed, pouring it out as one who should pour oil on troubled waters.
‘And you should consider,’ continued Charlotte. ‘that in fifty years we shall all be dead, and our opportunities for being kind will be over.’
‘My dear Frau Nieberlein!’ ejaculated the astonished bishop’s wife.
‘Why, it is certain,’ I said ‘You’ll only be eighty then, Charlotte, and what is eighty? When I am eighty I hope to be a gay grandame skilled in gestic lore, frisking beneath the burthen of fourscore.’
But the bishop’s wife did not like being told that she would be dead in fifty years, and no artless quotations of mine could make her like it; so she drank her tea with an offended face. “

Deciding to take advantage of some bathing machines in one place early in her tour – Elizabeth watches her unknown neighbour in the other of the two cells available for bathers. The woman enters the water from the platform and shrieks. Elizabeth is determined to do nothing so ridiculous. So, Elizabeth follows suit, and when she enters the cold water, she too shrieks, worse than that she finds herself clinging on to the unknown woman in the water. Dimly aware that she has seen the woman before, Elizabeth has no idea until later, when both women are out of the water that her fellow bather was none other than her cousin Charlotte, who she’s not seen in ten years. Charlotte is something of a bluestocking, who went to Oxford and married her Professor, a much older man, who she is now trying to evade. An early feminist Charlotte is very serious, wanting to promote the idea of female liberation, she doesn’t really appreciate Elizabeth’s wry humour, neither is she very keen on her cousin’s obvious desire to interfere in bringing her and her husband back together.

This is a truly wonderful book, Elizabeth’s vivid descriptions, astute observations and her tongue in cheek humour make this a joyful read. I adored the feeling of being in a world with an entirely different pace of life. It was absolutely what I needed.

eva

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