Posts Tagged ‘virago books’


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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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.



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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 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.


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“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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