Posts Tagged ‘virago books’


“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”

I love the writing of Willa Cather, and I have been trying to spread out her books so I don’t read them all too quickly. I just have some story collections and The Professor’s House left to read (although I think I have read that before – I just can’t remember it).

I have seen Death Comes for the Archbishop described as Cather’s masterpiece, and given the quite wonderful writing, and the scope of the novel I can understand why. Personally, it isn’t quite my favourite (that would be A Lost Lady) but it is still, quite simply wonderful – and definitely in my top three. Some of Cather’s best known novels deal with the realities of rough pioneer life in Nebraska, and the creative life of great singers. This novel is very different to those.

Willa Cather became interested in the deserts and Indian villages of the American South West years before writing this novel, and found the story of the Catholic church in that region of great interest. She formed a friendship with a Belgian priest on a visit to Santa Cruz and it was from him that she learned a great deal about the traditions of the people in New Mexico and the stories of the nineteenth century French priests who are the quiet heroes of this novel.

In 1848 on a summer evening in Rome, three cardinals and a missionary gather for their evening meal, and together decide the fate of one, simple French parish priest; Jean Marie Latour. Father Latour is go as a missionary to New Mexico, taking the Catholic faith with him, into a vast region of desert, adobe villages and native American peoples.

“One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me not to rest so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

Accompanying Father Latour on his marathon journey to Santa Fe – a journey on horseback, taking months, – is old friend Father Valliant. The two were in the seminary together in France as young men, and together had set out on their missionary life together. Death Comes For the Archbishop takes place over a period of around forty years, beginning when Father Latour is a young man.

“In New Mexico, he always awoke a young man, not until he arose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry ‘To-day, to-day,’ like a child’s.”

The story of Father Latour’s ministry, and the life he makes for himself among the rocky landscape of New Mexico, is told in a series of vignettes spanning several decades. We witness the friendship which exists between Father Latour and Father Valliant, the perilous journeys on horseback or on donkeys as the Frenchmen journey into the furthest reaches of their territory, and meet the people they minister to.

In these stories, we meet a host of memorable characters. An old rogue Pare Martinez, and his friend the miserly Father Lucero. Dona Isabella, who is so vain of her youthful beauty she almost loses everything in a lawsuit rather than admit her real age. Magdalena, a young woman whose violent, husband sets his murderous sights on the two French priests, is rescued by the two men, and restored to a better life. One of Father Latour’s most unlikely friends perhaps, the Navajo Eusabio.

Throughout his ministry in New Mexico, Father Latour dreams of building a cathedral, using the golden yellow stone from the desert, a Romanesque Cathedral in a simple French style, that will celebrate his faith and stand for it after he is gone. The death of the title, is merely one event out of many, in the course of a life well lived. Death comes for the Archbishop as it must come for us all one day, and when it does, he is in a place he loves, surrounded by people who know his worth. The ending I felt was sheer perfection, there is a feeling of everything being in its right time.

Throughout this novel Cather weaves together, the French culture and spirituality of the priests with the traditions, history and vibrant stories of the people of New Mexico.

“Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!”

This exquisite novel – which I loved more and more the further on I got with it, is a story of faith and the nature of love and friendship. Set against a backdrop of a beautiful, wild, untamed land which existed on the edge of the American civilisation of the nineteenth century, it is surprisingly tender.


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On Saturday, I went down to London with Liz to meet other Librarything/blogging friends for a little catch up and book buying fest. If there is one thing my little old house doesn’t need its books – but while book shops exist – I buy books.

I like a train journey, plenty of time for Liz and I to chat and read – it was lovely. I was reading an old green Virago Death Comes For the Archbishop – by Willa Cather which I have now finished – wonderful! Liz was reading A Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller.

On arrival in London we headed straight for Charing Cross Road, where Liz and I met Karen, Luci and Claire and enjoyed a marvellous lunch at Gaby’s a falafel place where I would definitely eat again.

There was time for a good old chat too at lunch, and as we marched purposefully between bookshops. Luci had gifted us all books – she always arrives with a bagful ready to find new homes, I snapped up a beautifully pristine green Virago called None Turn Back by Storm Jameson. It is the third in the trilogy which began with Company Parade – which I read a while ago – just need the second volume now.


We happily rooted through the shelves at Any Amount of Books and Henry Pordes on Charing Cross Road, two simply wonderful shops where I have found glorious treasures in the past. On Saturday, I bought one book in each.

Saraband by Eliot Bliss I found in Any Amount of Books, another greenie – which I didn’t know anything about but it is in superb condition, and looks really good. It is apparently similar to Frost in May – no bad thing. It is a coming of age story about a young girl who lives with her grandmother, develops a close friendship with her cousin Tim, and is sent to a convent school.

My next purchase came a couple of doors up at Henry Pordes.
The Orchid House by Phyllis Shand Allfrey. It is a novel set in the decline of the colonial era on a Caribbean Island.

We made a quick stop at the Oxfam bookshop – where I have found things in the past – but didn’t buy anything (shocking I know) Luci donated the rest of the books she had brought to give away. We hurried on to the London Review Bookshop, where I treated myself to a new hardback.

2016-11-20_20-00-28The World Gone Mad – the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939 – 1945. I think I have a strange fascination with war diaries and memoirs, and still have the Persephone edition of Mollie Panter Downes London War Notes to read.

We reached the Persephone shop just as it was getting dark, and perhaps Lamb’s Conduit Street is seen at its most atmospheric at such times. I bought six Persephone books, four as gifts so I can’t show a photograph of those – though two are for Liz’s Christmas present and one for her birthday in January – she has been instructed to forget.

The two I bought just for myself were:

Every Good Deed and other Stories by Dorothy Whipple – a new Whipple, I could not buy it – and I can’t wait to read it, I might save it for the Christmas holidays.
Long Live Great Bardfield; the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood, who I had to confess to knowing nothing about but it does look excellent.


It was a lovely day, rounded off by half an hour in a pub close to the Persephone shop – they didn’t have a machine to make my tea – so I had mulled wine- and my goodness it was nice. Liz and I then walked back to Euston where we caught our train home, having thoroughly enjoyed our busy, bookish day.

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(I must admit to not liking this film tie-in edition, because Uncle Philip -Tom Bell in the photo – is all wrong, so I shall be forced one day to buy another nicer edition *sigh*)

The Magic Toyshop was chosen by my very small book group as our November read, and I was quite simply delighted by it. This, was something of a surprise, because I am never very sure about novels which I think vaguely of as being ‘a bit odd.’ I put Angela Carter in the same category as Barbara Comyns – (rightly or wrongly), two writers I have only read once before, and have skirted around ever since. Some years ago, I read The Bloody Chamber stories – for another book group, and I did like it (though it is a bit odd).

The Magic Toyshop is fantastically imagined, brilliantly written, with intensity and a wonderful dream like quality. Characters and situations are instantly memorable, and it is a book I can imagine reading again. The writing is so beautiful, descriptions are simply glorious, I look forward to reading it again one day so I can fully appreciate them.

“Melanie let herself into the night and it snuffed out her daytime self at once, between two of its dark fingers.
The flowers cupped in the garden with a midnight, un-guessable sweetness, and the grass rippled and murmured in a small voice that was an intensification of silence. The stillness was like the end of the world. She was alone. In her carapace of white satin, she was the last, the only woman. She trembled with exaltation under the deep, blue, high arc of sky.”

Melanie is fifteen years old, the eldest of three siblings, she has a good life in her family home with its lovely garden, bedrooms to spare a Shetland pony and her happy parents. Her father, a writer, is at last enjoying some real success, and Melanie has grown up in a house that smells of money. While her parents are away the children are cared for by Mrs Rundle, who makes lots of bread pudding and has an obese cat.

At fifteen, Melanie is beginning to discover something of her sexuality, she’s curious, growing up fast, a child awakening, with her beloved Edward Bear never far away. One day she tries her mother’s wedding dress on and goes outside into the garden late at night, finding  herself locked out of the house. She is forced to scramble awkwardly up a tree to her bedroom, ripping the dress in the process.

“She parcelled up the dress and stuck it in the fork of the tree. she could carry it up with her and put it away again in the trunk and no one would know it had been worn if they did not see the blood on the hem, and there was only a little blood. The cat put its head on one side and turned it sequin regard on the parcel; it stretched out its paddy paw and stroked the dress. Its paw was tipped with curved, cunning meat hooks. It had a cruel stroke. There was a ripping sound.”

Melanie is dismayed at the damage to her mother’s dress, feels like a foolish child, who will one day soon need to confess to what she’s done. However, the very next day a telegram arrives, and Melanie knows instantly what it contains, her parents have been killed. Melanie and her siblings are sent to live with relatives of her mother’s, Uncle Philip – who Melanie has only seen in an old wedding photograph – and his family in London.

To Melanie, this is not the London she has imagined London to be, and Uncle Philip is not the Uncle Philip of the photograph. Uncle Philip has a toyshop, there’s a puppet theatre in the basement, and Uncle Philip creates life size puppets which he cares for obsessively while seeming to hate everyone in the house. The household consist of red haired Aunt Margaret – struck dumb on her wedding day, cowed by her bullying husband and her two younger brothers Finn, who dances while the almost silent Francie, plays his music – at night, while Philip is out. Loving, gentle Aunt Margaret, loves Melanie and her siblings, particularly little Victoria, while Jonathon seems strangely self-sufficient.

At first Melanie is horribly alone and slightly disgusted by this strange new world, a dilapidated, dirty house and the two red haired Irish brothers, themselves none too clean, and her strangely silent aunt who communicates by scribbling on a pad. In time, Melanie find she loves her aunt, Finn and Francie, gradually becoming part of their world, she allies herself with them against the villainous Philip. She longs to give Aunt Margaret a present for Christmas, though none of them have any money, and Philip has no interest in celebrating Christmas.

Melanie finds herself drawn to Finn, though she is sometimes afraid of him too – not quite ready for the feelings he awakens in her.

“Everything went black in the shocking folds of his embrace. She was very startled and near to sobbing.
‘Caw, caw,’ echoed his raincoat.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ he said. ‘It is only poor Finn, who will do you no harm.’
She recovered herself a little, though she was still trembling. She could see her own face reflected in little in the black pupils of his subaqueous eyes. She still looked the same. She saluted herself. He was only a little taller than she and their eyes were almost level. Remotely, she wished him three inches taller. Or four. She felt the warm breath from his wild beast’s mouth softly, against her cheek. She did not move. Stiff, wooden, and unresponsive, she stood in his arms and watched herself in his eyes. It was a comfort to see herself as she thought she looked.”

Uncle Philip is a terrifying presence, his rages and his rules, oppress the strange little household, where his puppets take precedence. Uncle Philip draws his family into the stories he creates with his puppets, later after weeks of ignoring her presence in the household, he insists that Melanie take a starring role in a particularly disturbing story. Something has to give, and Finn takes drastic action.

The Magic Toyshop has elements of a Gothic fairy-tale, a coming of age tale and quirky romance, it’s compelling, disturbing and charming all at once.

I absolutely loved this book, I hope you can tell (this review is being written much faster than usual – it might be one of those weeks!) and I would love to explore more Angela Carter – but oh where to start? Angela Carter experts; please advise.


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I’m never sure how much I like Angela Thirkell, which might sound odd having already read four of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels and the collection of High Rising short stories. overall, I think I do, although there were moments in those previous books that I got a bit irritated with the fluffy silliness. I realised, when looking back at those previous novels, that the stories haven’t entirely stayed with me. Though there is something very comforting about Thirkell’s world, I have learned not to take her too seriously. I find it faintly absurd that she is constantly likened to Barbara Pym and Nancy Mitford, she is not like either of them, she is, quite frankly, not as clever or as witty, as Nancy Mitford nor as sharp as Barbara Pym. August Folly, is probably the silliest of those that I have read, and possibly my least favourite, it was also the last one I read – well over a year ago. I think I was put off going back for more, despite still having two Thirkell books unread, but I did, and I’m glad that I did.

Summer Half – is light, bright breezy, and often very funny, I found lots to enjoy in it, I certainly preferred it to my last Thirkell novel, and will definitely read more.

The school setting of Summer Half attracted me, and I was in the mood for something old fashioned and cosy, and Thirkell fitted the bill. My reservations (whilst remembering this is not the sort of book to take too seriously) is in the way Thirkell writes women. Here we have the vapid, selfish, beauty, the sweet tempered little home-maker type and the talkative, teenage classics and Shakespeare loving romantic school girl, more than once described as rather Amazon like. I’m not sure I am entirely comfortable for each female character – to be a type. Still, I probably shouldn’t apply twenty-first century sensibilities to a 1930s comedy, because these ‘types’ probably exist, then as now. Thirkell writes her characters well, and they perfectly suit the period and the light, comedic nature of the novel.

Colin Keith, a law graduate, decides it is time he begins to earn his own money. Realising with some dismay that it will be years before he will earn money as a lawyer, he sets his legal training to one side to take a job as a school master at Southbridge School for the summer term. After which he will decide whether to return to the law, in the chambers of Noel Merton.

At home, his family greet Colin’s news with equanimity – looking forward to hearing how Colin gets on, his father though, hoping he will return to the law after earning some money. Younger sister Lydia declares she would rather die than be a school master. Noel Merton, whose offer of a place at his chambers, Colin has deferred, comes to stay with the Keith family, and is initially attracted to Kate, Colin’s other sister, the home-maker, who always seems to have her sewing kit to hand.

Southbridge school is a traditional boarding school, classics, sports days, scholarships with many boys eventually destined for Oxford. Colin is asked to take the mysterious sounding ‘mixed fifth’ – one member of whom is Tony Moreland – the hilarious child character (now several years older) we first encountered in High Rising. He is I am glad to say – slightly less ludicrous, though every bit as irrepressible as he was in that first book. Colin, not certain really, if he’ll ever get used to boys, seems to be accepted without much comment by his charges. Distracted as they and almost everyone else is by the chaos which surrounds headmaster Mr Birkett’s daughter Rose. The Birkett family live in the headmaster’s house within the school grounds, invitations to the headmaster’s Sunday suppers are eagerly anticipated, and no one can help but be aware of the drama which follows in Rose’s wake. Silly, feather-brained Rose has engaged herself to Philip Winter, one of her father’s assistant school masters.

“Mr Birkett was more concerned for his assistant master than for his daughter, and said as much to the ardent suitor. Philip replied that no one had ever properly understood Rose.
‘I dare say not,’ said the harassed father. ‘I don’t understand her myself, and I don’t suppose you do. But it is always awkward when a junior master is engaged to the Head’s daughter, in fact I’m almost sure it is forbidden in Leviticus. I won’t have the school work upset by it, and as Rose is barely eighteen I’m not going to let her marry yet. Forgive my being brutal Philip, but Rose is a very silly girl, and not good enough for you.’”

Colin is installed in the house presided over by Everard Carter, who is totally smitten with Colin’s sister Kate – when they eventually meet, though he assumes she likes Noel. Philip, also living in this house, is horribly jealous of Colin, who Rose has become instantly interested in, unaware that nobody else even likes his fiancé. Tony Moreland and his friends Eric Swan and classics star; Hacker are senior boys in the house. Hacker, with his chameleon Gibbon, who nearly burns the house down, was my favourite character.

Rose can’t help but crave attention – whenever a new male appears, she flirts and prattles nonsense to attract their attention, there’s no malice in her, she is just extraordinarily silly. She drives everyone ever so slightly mad, and it becomes the mission of several characters to separate the increasingly miserable Philip Winter from his ridiculous fiancé.

“Why the excellent and intelligent Birketts had produced an elder daughter who was a perfect sparrow-wit was a question freely discussed by the school, but no one had found an answer. Mrs Birkett felt a little rebellious against Fate. She had thought of a pretty and useful daughter who would help her to entertain parents and visitors, perhaps play the cello, or write a book, collect materials for Mr Birkett’s projected History of Southbridge School, and marry at about twenty-five a successful professional man in London. Fate had not gone wholeheartedly into the matter.”

There are sumptuous teas, messing around on the river, lots of misunderstandings talk of classics, scholarships and Oxford. It is all very 1930s – the seriousness of the outside world which existed at this period, at no time intrudes into what is essentially good comfort reading. I suspect that in 1937, with Europe in turmoil, the world teetering on the brink of war, Summer Half would have been a glorious bit of summery escapism, which I think it still is.

angela thirkell

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blueskies jack and jill

I came to these two short novels by Scottish born, Australian writer Helen Hodgman with no expectations at all. At first I found the voice a little unusual, but certainly intriguing and very readable. Blue Skies is a novella of post-natal depression and domestic stagnation which results in suicide and murder.

“The beach waited in its early-morning perfection just for me and the odd dog-exerciser. When the sun rose higher, the pale yellow sand became an almost desert blaze. The black rocks crouched like primitive worship stones, antipodean Stonehenges.
Later, when the noon blaze subsided, the local women came down. Those nearest could walk laden with bright beach-bags and babies, carting the many necessities for enjoying an hour in the open. Those from further up the road would drive, the wheels of their small economical second-cars spurting up dust sprays and rutting the sand at the edge. Most people gathered together towards the end of the beach. The hitherto mysterious rocks were then pressed into domestic service, their flat tops used as tables, their crevices as storage spaces for cold drinks and for keeping bits of clothing out of the sand.”

Finding Blue Skies to be very well written, with its atmosphere of unsettling claustrophobia, that unusual voice pulled me right in. In the first novel of the two we find ourselves in Tasmania – where a young wife and mother finds the empty afternoons hang heavily, the clock always reading three o’clock. She watches her new next door neighbour Olive mow the grass, with indifference, take the baby down to the beach where she listens to the chatter of the other young mums who gather by the sea.

“I stopped going to the beach.
I concentrated my efforts not on airing the baby but on abandoning it. By being polite and behaving well, I could buy myself bits of free time. The person I had mostly to be nice to was my husband’s mother. This was because she lived at a pram-pushable distance and loved looking after the baby. Not every day: that wouldn’t have been right. But she was good for two days a week.
Tuesdays and Thursdays. On these days I could take off and forget the street, the beach and three o’clock in the afternoon.”

Two days a week the narrator travels by bus to the local town, where she shakes off the mantle of married young mother, for clandestine meetings, lunch, drinking and posing for photographs she stumbles through her life with seeming unconcern. On Tuesdays she sees Jonathon, who she used to work for, on Thursdays it’s Ben the photographer – married to her best friend Gloria. Hodgman brilliantly recreates a sun drenched sensuality and domestic danger. There is a pervading sense of impending disaster, as this troubled young mother lives only for Tuesdays and Thursdays, encountering a predatory bus driver along the way.

beach - tasmaniaAt home, the young mother plays the part of dull James’s wife and Angelica’s mum to the best of her ability, but she views her little family as belonging more to her mother-in-law than to her. Next door Olive continues to cut the grass; the clock still says three o’clock.

Blue Skies runs to only about 105 pages, and so it’s quite possible for me to say too much, it is perhaps obvious that the young woman at the centre of this memorable novella is suffering from post-natal depression, although this term is never used. All I will say is that the ending is bizarrely shocking – and memorable.

Jack and Jill is just a few pages longer than Blue Skies, and its themes are as equally unsettling. Hodgman won the Somerset Maugham prize for this short novel in 1978.

“…the advantage would be all on her side. Jack had done her so much harm already. She could draw on the credit for a lifetime.”

It opens with a shocking scene; a small child left alone with her dying mother, is found several days later by her father, in a terrible state while her mother lies now dead in another room. The child is Jill, her father Douggie, after the death of his wife, the two live a hand to mouth sort of existence on their New South Wales outback property. The time scale of this novel is something like thirty years, taking us from the depression ridden era to the changing times of the 1960’s.

When Jill is still an adolescent Jack arrives looking for work, and Douggie takes him on. From here on in, begin all of Jill’s problems. It is the start of an uncomfortable relationship, certainly it’s no boy meets girl romance. Jill is attracted and repelled by Jack – horrified by her first violent sexual experience when she is too young, and Jack is selfish, predatory and obsessive – she naturally turns away from him. As Jack goes off to war he says –

“You’ll be sorry you treated me this way when I’m dead.’ He flung her aside and marched away, vowing to love her forever.
‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ he yelled back at her. ‘So there.’
Jill picked up her book and thoughtfully squashed a line of ants that had strayed between the pages.”

Jill finds herself influenced hugely by Miss Thomas, a teacher who sees a lot of potential in Jill, and so while Jack is off at the war, Jill is at university. Jack returns from the war, confined to a wheelchair – still crazy about Jill. Jill runs away to England, where she discovers Barnaby – the child hero of the series of successful children’s books she writes. She sails home, writing to Jack from aboard ship.

“She was writing to Jack, telling him how she was coming back to him after all because – east, west, home’s best, and better the devil you know. Keep it simple she thought.

She airmailed the letter in Bombay, which seemed a suitably overwrought and exotic place from which to seal her fate, and settled down to enjoy the trip.”

Back in Australia Jill enters into a sexless marriage – where she holds the balance of power, writing her Barnaby books while Jack lives in hope, carving wooden crucifixes. The Raelene arrives, a fan of Jill’s books she offers to help with some secretarial tasks – and stays – her presence threatening to change everything.

The ending of Jack and Jill is also a surprise – but for different reasons to Blue Skies – but it is every bit as memorable.

When I looked this book up on Goodreads – before starting to read it – I was nearly put off reading it by the lacklustre responses it seemed to have collected from other readers. I wonder why that is – because I think Helen Hodgman is a very good writer, she surprises her reader’s and that is something I appreciate. True, her characters are not very likeable – that never really bothers me, I actually often find that a reason for really liking a novel or story – unlikeable characters so often much more believable and certainly more interesting than likeable ones. I’ve done a bit of online searching, and found very little about Helen Hodgman, though it does appear she wrote a few other novels. They will quite definitely be worth checking out. Hogdman’s landscape is recognisably Australian, and that from someone who has never been there, and stopped watching neighbours in the 1990s – but I am a sucker for a strong sense of place. Perhaps some of you will know something more about Helen Hodgman and fill me in – but for me she appears to be a really very good writer who has been forgotten. Perhaps she is better known down under – I hope so.

helen hodgman

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Pamela Frankau is the author of one of my favourite ever Virago books – The Willow Cabin. I have been meaning to read more of her novels for ages, but only recently managed to acquire a couple. Pamela Frankau was a popular and prolific writer once upon a time, and I find it sad that she is read so much less now, her novels out of print (except for a few POD VMC editions two of which I snapped up the other week). I wasn’t sure which of the two to read first – so I went for the fattest.

The Winged Horse – like The Willow Cabin, takes place in both America and England, it is a brilliantly Compelling novel of power, truth and dishonesty.

It is 1949 and English newspaper tycoon J. G Baron is a tough no nonsense, charismatic businessman with interests on both sides of the Atlantic. His adult children appear to lead charmed lives at the family house in the English countryside. Favoured employees get invited for weekends, and J.G absolutely believes in the perfect world he has created there with his family. However, while his son Tobias is conscious of never quite measuring up, and his youngest daughter Liz is young, unsure and often afraid, it is only Celia his eldest daughter who recognises J.G for what he is. For J.G is something of a tyrant – his hypocrisy and self-deceit know no bounds. His power is not the bellowing, red faced bully-boy type – but of a quieter more insidious kind that casts a long, dark shadow.

“ ‘My daughter, the late Mrs. Valentine West,’ Baron said. Baron’s family jokes did not vary, they were the clichés of a lifetime; they could be distinguished sharply from his public words, his coarse or his agile phrases; they were stock, paterfamilias stuff, oddly out of date. She could remember his using this worn example when her mother was unpunctual.’ “

As the novel opens, Celia is in the process of separating from her American husband, and travelling by ship with J.G and his entourage back to England, with her young son. J.G has just enticed cartoonist Harry Levitt away from his employers, to work for him, and Harry is aboard ship too. Levitt is drawn to Celia, but Harry is a practised dissembler, and despite connecting briefly, Celia recognising him as such is more interested in going home, seeing her brother and sister again. Harry was stationed in England during the war, and carries a dream of a life there with him, his main reason for accepting J. G’s offer.

Back home at Carlington, Celia sets about settling herself and her son into the newly refurbished nursery wing. Levitt is drawn further into the circle which includes family friend and neighbour; Anthony Carey for who Liz harbours deep feelings. Tobias loves to fly, has been hanging around in France with a much older married actress – much to J.G’s disapproval, his happy go lucky attitude hides his sense of never making his father happy. It is Anthony Carey – sometimes called ‘thank God for Anthony’ or ‘that poor Carey’ by Celia, Liz and Tobias – who J.G favours.

“Downstairs in the green library, Tobias glanced at his watch; it was worn on the right wrist, face inwards, so that he could look at it unobserved. Many people, he reflected, wore their watches this way; there was no need to feel that it was a special anti-J.G device.”

When a tragedy rips through the family, Harry Levitt is on hand to help, and while J. G’s most audacious self-deceit conceals his pain – other members of the family struggle to cope. Traumatised, Celia decides to take a house in London, and her father goes on a trip. Harry Levitt continues to draw cartoons for J.G’s newspapers, spending more and more time at Carlington, seeing Celia in London rarely, he begins to get closer to Liz.

When Harry is sent back to America by J.G for ‘a couple of months’, he understands that it is the beginning of the end for his association with the Baron organisation. He leaves a much sadder man than he arrived. What he unwittingly leaves behind will inspire a betrayal and lead to the slow destruction of a once happy man. Around the same time Celia gets word that her estranged husband has helped himself to some of her money, and travels back to New York to sort it out. Finally, here, Celia and Harry come together again, Celia makes Harry a better man, but J.G does not approve. Stuck in the States trying to sort out the financial mess her estranged husband has caused her, it is not long before J.G turns up like the bad penny he is, and offers to sort everything, as long as she ditches Harry. Celia is not that kind of girl – and so she and Harry resign themselves to having no money (luckily she does still have a small house on Martha’s Vineyard – like you do).

“Celia carried the toy aeroplane out on to the rough lawn and pointed it into the wind. It was a fragile hollow thing of aluminium, attached to a rod and a reel; now the wings revolved frantically, with a spinning, humming noise; they turned into two blurred lines and she could let it fly. The wind took it; she reeled out the line and let it go.”

The title of the book comes from a song, a song the siblings sang as children and particularly associate with Tobias. It is a song to be bellowed, a song of happiness and that feeling of running down a hill with the wind at your back. It is also the name of a piece of art work, which is inspired by a lie, one lie leading to another as they always do.

I’m conscious, that in trying to avoid spoilers, I’m perhaps not making The Winged Horse sound as good as it is, but it really is excellent. Frankau is superb at building relationships between her characters, her characters are not all perfect, they are real people, living within a recognisable world, even if it is one of sixty pus years ago. There is compassion and understanding in her writing, and even J.G Baron is dealt with, with some sympathy.

So this is the second novel by Pamela Frankau that I have loved, I have a third; A Wreath for the Enemy waiting to read, but Frankau was the author of something like thirty novels. I came across one in a second hand bookshop recently – the third in a series, it was a first edition priced at £25 – I had to sadly walk away.

pamela frankau


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the world my wilderness

I have been juggling various reading challenges this month, completing my #20booksofsummer, and reading things for both All Virago/All August and #WITmonth.

I have had The World my Wilderness on my shelves for years, part of my #20booksofsummer list – which I completed last week, it also fitted beautifully into All Virago/All August.

Rose Macaulay was a hugely prolific and popular writer – and The World my Wilderness was the novel she published in 1950 following a decade of silence. Of Macaulay, Penelope Fitzgerald in her introduction to my VMC edition, says:

“Rose Macaulay was born in 1881, and died in 1958. As a young woman she went bathing with Rupert Brooke, and she lived long enough to protest, as a well-known author and critic, against the invasion of Korea.”
(Penelope Fitzgerald, 1982)

That was enough to make me want to know Rose Macaulay a lot better. The World my Wilderness was my first ever novel by her – one which at the time apparently surprised her fans, more used to social satires.

The World my Wilderness is a wonderful novel, set in the fragile post-war world still reeling from the difficulties and betrayals of the war years, it is a novel which explores beautifully, the damage parents do to their children.
It is 1946 and Barbary Deniston has been living in France with her beautiful, indolent mother Helen throughout the war years. Their home at the Villa Fraises in Collioure, an area occupied by the Germans during the war is a place of relaxed freedom and sunshine. Helen, divorced from Barbary’s father, married a wealthy Frenchman widely seen as a Nazi collaborator.

“Barbary slipped from the room, as quiet as a despondent breath. She and Raoul had acquired movements almost noiseless, the sinking step, the affected, furtive glide, the quick wary glancing right and left, of jungle creatures.”

Barbary and her stepbrother Raoul, have run wild together, associating with the defiant and dangerous local Maquis (Resistance) who defied the Germans and betrayed the collaborators. Here, Barbary learnt about danger, betrayal and death, and in the hands of the Gestapo; sexual assault. A free spirited artist, hedonistic Helen’s attention these days is largely taken up with Roland the young son she had with her second husband, Barbary is often ignored. With her husband recently drowned in highly suspicious circumstances, Helen decides to pack Barbary off to England to her father and stepmother, Barbary’s elder brother who had remained in London after his mother fled to France, arrives to collect his wild and untaught sister. Raoul travels with her, packed off to an uncle, Helen freed at last of two responsibilities.

Barbary is seventeen, though appears much younger – her childlike rebellion, and search for her place of safety making her vulnerable as if her development to adulthood has been arrested by her wartime experiences. There were moments when I found it hard to see Barbary as a seventeen-year-old – although teenagers of 1946 were not the teenagers we know today. A few times, Macaulay uses the word children for Barbary and her (albeit slightly younger) stepbrother – the word jarred a little for me – though why should it? – teenagers are more adult now than then, no doubt the reason for that word seeming inappropriate to a modern reader.

Scruffy, stubborn and untamed Barbary is not ready for the mixture of formal, English politeness and bomb damaged austerity that exists in post-war London. Barrister Sir Gulliver Deniston; Barbary’s father is stiff and starchy, his new wife the always correct, tweedy Pamela is very conventional, about as unlike Helen as it is possible to be. Both are shocked by Barbary’s unconventional wildness, the results of Helen’s rather neglectful parenting. There’s a feeling that Sir Gulliver has not entirely recovered from Helen’s desertion of him before the war, while Pamela resents any reference to the woman she feels unable to compete with.

“Suddenly the bells of St. Paul’s clashed out, drowning them in sweet, hoarse, rocking clamour. Barbary began to dance, her dark hair flapping in the breeze as she spun about. Raoul joined her; they took hands, snapping the fingers of the other hand above their heads; it was a dance of Provence, and they sand a Collioure fisherman’s song in time to it.
The bells stopped. The children stood still, gazing down on a wilderness of little streets, caves and cellars, the foundations of a wrecked merchant city, grown over by green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife, rosebay willow herb, bracken, bramble and tall nettles, among which rabbits burrowed and wild cats crept and hens laid eggs.”

Desperately unhappy; Barbary looks for somewhere she can feel safe, that makes sense to a girl who ran with the Maquis, instructed by them in sabotage and thievery. Craving the world that she has left behind, Barbary finds a wilderness in the wastelands created by the bombs which rained down upon the streets around St. Paul’s. Here Barbary finds similarities to the life she led in France, meeting an odd collection of characters, hiding from policeman, stealing from shops. Invited to a shooting party in the Scottish Highlands, Sir Gulliver and Pamela whisk Barbary off before she has barely got used to being away from France. Barbary raises a few eyebrows with her unconventional behaviour, finally, running off back to London, and the ruined buildings where each day she escapes the claustrophobic atmosphere of her father’s house. Still running around with Raoul, the pair take over the ruins of an abandoned flat, while Barbary paints in the ruins of a church. Their new friends; deserters and thieves, people looking for a place to hide. Getting into rather more trouble than she bargained for, Barbary ensures that her father and stepmother will have to entertain her mother, who finally rushes to be with the daughter she had so brutally thrust from her.

In The World my Wilderness we have guilt and redemption. The hurts created by the ravages of war in people and their places are explored with great compassion and understanding. Macaulay knows what it is to be young, and also what it is to be lost.


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