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My third and final read for this year’s #DDMreadingweek was The Glassblowers – an incredibly vivid historical novel based on the author’s own family history. Two other readers (at least) have written about this novel this week, and so I don’t feel it necessary to go into too much detail.

Set in eighteenth-century France, this is a novel of a family, their struggles, and tragedies during an extraordinary period in the country’s history. The novel is narrated by Sophie Duval – who now an elderly woman tells the story of the family history to her long-lost nephew, taking him back to the world of the glassblowers and the turbulent, frightening years of The French Revolution.

“Perhaps we shall not see each other again, I will write to you, though, and tell you, as best I can, the story of your family. A glass-blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty, but he can, with that same breath, shatter and destroy it.”

Sophie’s mother Magdaleine, married into a glass-blowing family in 1747, a world her own father warned her was a closed world, a world totally different to the one she had grown up in. Magdaleine comes to embrace this world, taking up a managing role, as well as raising five children. She is a formidable, respected figure around the glasshouse, a great help and support to Mathurin her husband. The family move between glasshouses, renting houses as their fortunes wax and wane. This is a world with its own ways and traditions and Magdaleine takes them all on as her own.

Three boys are born first, Robert, Michel, and Pierre, later two daughters, Sophie – our narrator – and her younger sister Edmé. The three sons are expected to enter the world of glass-blowing, following their father in the art to become fully fledged master glass blowers. The eldest Robert is the most gifted, he becomes a master glass blower, as does Michel in time. Pierre is less committed to this world – and is apt to take himself away from the glasshouse. Only Robert’s great problem is that he had his head turned by beauty, and a gracious way of living as a young boy. He aspires to wealth and prestige, to grand houses and fine possessions. Robert’s ambitions are set to be his undoing – his speculations costing him more and more each time. Robert is annoyingly optimistic, he never sees what he is doing to his family, he is always convinced of his own success. His wife Cathie and their son Jacques will in time become victims of Robert’s destructive, gambler like attitude.

Sophie tells the story of this family, of her siblings their glassblowers trade and the world in which they live, that becomes changed forever, as does France itself with the revolution. Sophie marries François in 1788, in a double ceremony, her younger sister Edmé marrying at the same time.

“Something within each one of us had been awakened that we had not known was there; some dream, desire, or doubt, flickered into life by that same rumour, took root, and flourished. We were none of us the same afterwards. Robert, Michel, François, Edmé, myself, were changed imperceptibly. The rumour, true or false, had brought into the open hopes and dreads which, hitherto concealed, would now be part of our ordinary living selves.”

The peaceful world of the glassblowers is coming to an end – the country is seething with discontent following a terrible winter, hunger, and poverty the driving force. Rumour and gossip help to fan the flames of revolution. They all hear about the storming of the Bastille in Paris – and it is said that brigands roam the countryside, ready to steal goods and damage property. The whole of France are entering into uncertain times.

 “‘Where do they go, Sophie, those younger selves of ours? How do they vanish and dissolve?” “They don’t,” I said. “They’re with us always, like little shadows, ghosting us through life. I’ve been aware of mine, often enough, wearing a pinafore over my starched frock, chasing Edmé up and down the great staircase in la Pierre.”

While Sophie tries her best to hold the family together, Pierre finds his calling as a notary, Michel and Edmé both great patriots, become revolutionary leaders in their community. Robert continues to speculate – and is declared bankrupt, more than once – and his way out of the mess, is to leave the country, a decision which horrifies his brothers especially.

In telling the story of the French Revolution du Maurier moves her characters around quite a bit – from place to place, house to house – similarly to the way she did in The King’s General. It allows her characters to see and experience more, creating movement and drama in the story.

The descriptions of the fear unleashed at various times over the years of revolution are well done, du Maurier understands, the loss, the rage and patriotic fervour unleashed at such times. There are many incredibly vivid scenes. The historical detail is extraordinary, I learned the other day (via a Twitter conversation), that she spent years researching this – it shows. The one thing I missed rather was a strong sense of place – something I always associate with Daphne du Maurier – I really didn’t get that in this novel. Nevertheless it is a really ambitious novel, in fact so much happens it is difficult to write about. Recommended to those who like a good historical novel with a large strong family at the centre of it.

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My second read for this year’s ~DDMreadingweek was the story collection The Doll, a collection of mainly very early short stories by Daphne du Maurier. These previously lost stories brought back by Virago are very good. No matter how early in her writing life they were penned they show du Maurier’s remarkable talent at the short story form. As Polly Samson writes in her introduction to this edition, many of the themes in these stories were very much du Maurier’s own preoccupations at this time. She had escaped the claustrophobia of her father’s house in London, for Cornwall – her relationship with her parents was complex and often distressing. These are stories of obsession, innocence lost, and human frailties.

The collection opens with The East Wind, set on a small, isolated island, an island rarely come across by sailors. The inhabitants are almost childlike in their innocence – generations of inbreeding have left them a quiet, peaceful people, who get on with their daily lives and think nothing of what might lie beyond their shores. The main occupation is fishing, the sea and the island’s tiny harbour a focal point for the island. One day, the wind changes, and with the storm comes a ship, obliged to weigh anchor in the harbour, the men from the ship come ashore and make themselves known to the island’s population. The sailors bring brandy with them, they also bring lust and sexual desires, never felt before in this little Eden are unleashed leading to violence and death.

The title story The Doll was apparently written when Daphne du Maurier was just twenty. It’s definitely the creepiest story in this collection – it seems surprising that this young woman would have conceived of this story in the 1920s. It makes the reader wonder what was going on in her life around the time. A waterlogged notebook is washed ashore. The notebook tells the story of a jealousy and obsession. The woman at the heart of the story is called Rebecca – that name creating a frisson of recognition where Daphne du Maurier is concerned, but of course she isn’t that Rebecca – that is all in the future. The narrator of the story develops an obsession with Rebecca – who he meets at a party. However, even at their first meeting there is something darker in the narrator’s first thoughts of her.

“Her throat was very long and thin, like a swan’s. I remember thinking how easy it would be to tighten the scarf and strangle her. I imagined her face when dying – her lips parted, and the enquiring look in her eyes – they would show white, but she would not be afraid. All this in the space of a moment, and while she was talking to me. I could drag very little from her. She was a violinist apparently, an orphan and lived alone in Bloomsbury.”

(The Doll)

Yet it is Rebecca’s own obsession that we are most surprised by. A life sized, mechanical doll called Julio. The images that du Maurier leaves us with here are rather disturbing, she creates atmosphere so well though. A story that may give the reader chills, but a fascinating, memorable early piece, nonetheless.

Du Maurier’s subjects vary considerably. In Now to God the Father – a society clergyman, very definitely doesn’t practice what he preaches and a young woman will suffer for it. While in the stories Piccadilly and Mazie – we are witness to the depressing realities of a life of prostitution. In Tame Cat – a young woman travels home, excited to be finally grown up. Now she believes life will begin. She is hurt therefore, and rather bewildered when her mother begins to see her as a rival – and Uncle John, who her school friends had once joked was her mother’s tame cat, is not quite what she thought. It is a rude awakening.

“And the chair was still empty, and the room looked lifeless and dull, and she was a little girl whose mouth turned down at the corners, who bit the ends of her hair, who wriggled with hunched shoulders, sniffing in a hankie, ‘It isn’t fair.”

(Nothing Hurts for Long)

One story I especially liked was Nothing Hurts for Long. A woman awaits the return of her husband after three long months working away. She begins to prepare herself in the morning, excited and happy, her pet canary sings cheerily in its cage. She imagine exactly how her husband’s home coming will be, arranges with her cook what food will be eaten. Then a friend rings up in great distress, and she runs over to console her, only half there, constantly thinking of the evening and her husband’s return. Later she will have cause to remember her friend and her words when her husband’s home coming isn’t as she had envisioned it. He arrives much later, has already eaten. Suddenly there’s a sense of everything being changed.

Du Maurier also shows us several incompatible relationships. In Frustration, a young couple marry in some haste, but then life isn’t as easy as they imagine, and really, they end up no better off than before. In A Difference in Temperament a young couple clearly love one another, yet she can’t bear for him to be away from, starting to imagine all sorts, while he is resentful of her needing him to be always there. We see the beginning of a relationship, that heady, excited middle bit and then its sudden collapse in the story Week-End. Similarly in And His Letters Grew Colder we see all stages of an illicit relationship – through to its bitter end, through the letters of the man. It’s a clever little story, because although we don’t hear from the woman herself, there’s enough context for us to almost hear her between the lines.

There’s a strange dream-like quality to The Happy Valley – in which a woman experiences a recurring feeling of déjà vu. Her recurring dream starts to feel as if it is coming true – and the world around her begins to have an other worldly feel to it. The final story in the collection is The Limpet – originally published in 1959, it is a much later story than the rest. It concerns a woman who blames the ill fortune that she feels has followed her through life – on her habit of always putting others before herself. Of course, as the reader sees immediately she has done no such thing. She is completley unaware however of how manipulative she has always been, and how ultimately she has ruined the lives of several people around her.

As early stories go, these really are good, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Here du Maurier shows us many flashes of the writer she would become, and all in all it was a pretty good start.

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My first read for this year’s #DDMreadingweek was The Loving Spirit – Daphne du Maurier’s first novel. It’s an impressive debut – revealing her talent for weaving compelling stories together with her love for Cornwall.

The Loving Spirit is the story of a family across a period of about one hundred years. The family are the Coombes a family of boat-builders in Plyn a small coastal town in Cornwall. The boat yards and harbour of Plyn are a hive of activity in the early nineteenth century – it’s a place that du Maurier brings breathtakingly to life, place being so important in her writing.

The novel starts on the day that Janet Coombe marries her cousin Thomas. Janet had grown up with a fierce love of the sea, an untamed spirit that made her long for the kind of sea-faring adventures only reserved for men. She has always longed for the freedom of the sea, and spends many hours gazing out across the sea from the cliffs, dreaming of what it might feel like to sail off to new places, at one with the ocean.

“Now the mist had lifted, and Plyn was no longer a place of shadows. Voices rose from the harbour, the gulls dived in the water, and folk stood at their cottage doors.

Janet stood still on the hilltop and watched the sea, and it seemed that there were two sides of her; one that wanted to be the wife of a man, and to care for him and love him tenderly, and one that asked only to be part of a ship, part of the seas and the sky above, with the glad free ways of a gull.

Then she turned and saw Thomas coming up the hill towards her. She smiled and ran to him.”

Janet knows that can’t be her life, she puts aside her dreams and settles down to marry Thomas, a good kind man, a boat-builder who she loves and looks forward to sharing her life with. They move into an ivy-clad house standing away by itself – here Janet and Thomas raise their family. Thomas makes his living in the Coombe boat yard, a proud craftsman, looking forward to passing on his skills to his sons.

Janet has a deep love for her family, but that restless spirit remains a part of her, a yearning always for the waves. It’s this spirit that will be passed down through her children to her descendants.

“She gave to both Thomas and Samuel her natural spontaneity of feeling and a great simplicity of heart; but the spirit of Janet was free and unfettered, waiting to rise from its self-enforced seclusion to mingle with intangible things, like the wind, the sea, and the skies, hand in hand with the one for whom she waited. Then she, too, would become part of these things forever, abstract and immortal.”

Janet and Thomas have six children four boys and two girls. The eldest, Samuel will follow his father into the boatyard. Mary will stay at home, caring for her parents and later helping to care for the children of her siblings. Joseph is the third child born, a boy who looks like his mother and inherits that wild restless spirit, and yearning for the sea. Joseph’s wildness gets him into trouble time and again as he is growing up, only his mother can really calm him, only she really understands him, theirs is a unique bond. Joseph’s love for his mother is unsurpassed – he carries her with him always. From the time he is a little boy Joseph knows he will be a sailor. Younger brother Herbert will also, in time follow Thomas and Samuel into the Coombe boat yard. The youngest daughter will become a farmer’s wife, her husband a man that will show great friendship to Joseph and his children as the years pass. Philip on the other hand, is entirely different to the rest of the Coombe siblings. Philip has no interest in boatbuilding or sailing, he grows up to be a bitter, resentful man. He becomes clerk to a local shipbroking firm, intent on being a gentleman, he eventually rises to become the head of the company and a wealthy man by Plyn standards. His spite, and jealousy however will have a long and terrible reach.

A ship is built in the Coombe boat yard, built by Thomas and his sons – a ship that will be named the Janet Coombe, a ship which will be skippered by Joseph, taking goods from Cornwall all around the world.

As with so many Daphne du Maurier novels there is a lot that I can’t say for fear of spoiling it for others. What she does so well though, is to create a family, four generations are explored, their hopes, dreams, weaknesses, highs, and lows. The stories of the individual characters weave together across the decades, telling a story of the sea, boat building, family, and Cornwall.

The story follows Joseph, a renowned figure in Plyn, through the years of his tumultuous life. Joseph’s first love is the sea, but he marries twice and has four children.  His eldest son Christopher is the focus of the next generation and his fear for the sea and sea-faring will put him at odds with the father who loves him. The novel ends with Christopher’s daughter Jennifer at the end of the 1920s.

This is a wonderfully immersive novel, an escape that the reader really can’t help but be swept up by.

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Hello and welcome to the fourth #DDMreadingweek. It is that time of year again, which means that later this week, it will be Daphne’s (and my) birthday. That’s on Friday, when Daphne would have been 115 years old, I will be considerably younger.

I won’t be posting everyday – but I hope to get three book reviews up this week. Full disclosure: at the time of writing I have read two books, started the third and am behind on my review writing – so it’s possible review number three might be late. Anyway, I hope that won’t matter too much, as I know there are other DDM fans taking part this week, and I am so looking forward to seeing what everyone reads. As in previous years, there will be a dedicated page here on my blog – where I will be sharing other reader’s links to reviews. A way of finding great recommendations and maybe discovering new blogs to follow.

How to join in

  • You don’t need to be a blogger
  • Read a DDM novel, short story, story collection, or biography.
  • Tell us what you are reading on Twitter, or Instagram using the hashtag.
  • Share photos of your DDM read or your DDM books using the hashtag on Twitter or Instagram – (I am a bit rubbish at Instagram, but I keep trying.)
  • Post your thoughts about the book you have read on Goodreads – and share the link to that on my blog or on Twitter – use the hashtag so I don’t miss it.
  • Post comments/links on my blog, or on the blog posts of others.  

Giveaway – UK only, due to postage costs, sorry int’l readers.

I seem to remember I did a giveaway on the first #DDMreadingweek – and haven’t done one since.

There are two prizes – a first prize that I have provided, and a second prize provided very kindly by Virago – which will be sent out by them. I will enter everyone for both prizes – and on Sunday do two random name draws, the first name drawn will win the first prize, the second name drawn will win the second prize.

For the first prize I went shopping, I hope you all don’t mind that I chose the prize myself.

First Prize – VMC designer hardback and matching mug – Rebecca

I decided to offer a special copy of my favourite DDM novel Rebecca and the matching VMC mug. I already had this edition of the book and this mug, so there was no danger of me deciding to keep it for myself. These vmc designer edition hardbacks are delightful, such a pleasure to hold, and read. Every year I am so tempted to reread Rebecca – I loved it so much both times I read it. However, there are still DDM’s I haven’t read for the first time. As for the mugs, I have the full set. So, whether you have never read Rebecca before – or you rather fancy a beautiful new edition of an old favourite I hope I can tempt a few of you with this prize.

Second PrizePoster – with thanks to Virago

Virago are offering a lovely, professionally printed cover image from The Birds – which will make a lovely poster. I can just imagine that striking image in a frame on the wall next to someone’s bookcase. Unfortunately, I don’t have an image of the poster to show you, but if you know what that cover looks like you will get the idea.

To enter the draw for either prize – simply pop a comment below telling me how/when you first discovered Daphne du Maurier and why you love her writing.

Winners will be contacted by email or Twitter DM. The First Prize will be sent out by me within two weeks of the draw. The winner of the second prize will have their name and address sent to Virago who will send out the prize, if you’re entering the draw then I assume you are consenting to me sharing those details with Virago should you win.

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As I think I mentioned before I will be occasionally taking part in a series of themed reads with the Librarything Virago group. February is North American authors, so many to choose from, but I had a book, newly reissued by Virago that I was desperate to read. The Narrows by Ann Petry is an incredible novel – one I feel will be hard to do justice to in a review. I read The Street by Ann Petry at the end of 2019 – probably her best known novel – but I am stunned that The Narrows has been out of print so long – especially as it is considered her masterpiece by some. The Street (1946) was the first novel by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies. More recently the author Tayari Jones has called for a revival of her work – she certainly deserves to be better known.

The Narrows is a longer book than The Street, a little over 500 pages, but it is definitely a novel that is worth spending a little extra time with. It is told in the third person, with the perspective shifting between characters, and some parts told in flashback. It is, overall a more complex novel than The Street, but utterly compelling.

This is a novel about so much, it’s about love, lust, class, racism, tabloid journalism, the truth and betrayal – Petry writes her story flawlessly, giving us characters we won’t easily forget. Most of the characters inhabit the area of Monmouth, Connecticut called The Narrows – a Black community within what is a largely White town.

First there is Abbie Crunch a middle aged Black woman who lives on Dumble Street and rents out rooms. She is a rigidly respectable woman. Her dead husband’s hat is still on the hat stand – she thinks of him often. Her closest friend is F K Jackson (Frances) an undertaker.

Malcolm Powther is a butler at the Treadway estate, the Treadways one of the largest employers in the town – he’s the only Black member of the household staff. He and his wife Mamie become Abbie Crunch’s new boarders – bringing with them their three children. Mamie is younger than Powther, buxom, blues singing and unfaithful. Abbie greatly disapproves of her.

“Watching her, you could almost believe it was a dance of some kind, the dance of the clothes, the wetwash dance. I don’t dance. I never could, Abbie thought, I haven’t any sense of rhythm and yet she hangs clothes and I think about dancing. I don’t believe she’s got a thing on under that dress.”

Their youngest child is J. C – his mother explains to a shocked Abbie that he can decide what the J. C stand for when he is older. J. C starts to hang around Abbie – in time becoming her little shadow. Malcolm Powther adores his wife and can’t stand the thought of losing her so puts up with her infidelities, not letting her know that he knows, but driving himself up the wall at the same time. He is proud of his work, a neat, precise little man, Mrs Treadway has told him the house was never as good before he took it over. He has an uneasy friendship with Al, the White chauffeur – but is silently wounded when he hears him using the n word.

Link Williams is Abbie’s adopted son, though the two have had a difficult relationship. He is now in his mid-twenties but when Link was eight years old Abbie’s grief over the death of her husband led her to abandon Link, who took refuge with Bill Hod at The Last Chance bar down the street. Link has been seeking refuge with Bill regularly ever since – Bill is a kind of father figure – though one not averse to dishing out violence. Bill is the complete opposite to Abbie – and Abbie hates the very sight of the man. After graduating from college and spending a few years in the army, with nothing else on the horizon Link has returned to work alongside Bill and Weak Knees the chef at The Last Chance – Abbie is appalled at this waste of his education.

One late night as thick fog rolls in across the river, Link Williams is on the dock area when he hears a woman’s footsteps running in terror. This is how he meets a young woman called Camilo – a woman who in the limited light Link mistakenly takes to be a pale skinned Black woman. The two retreat to a nearby bar – where Link realises his mistake – Camilo is a White woman. However, Camilo is not completley honest with Link about who she is – as the two begin a tempestuous love affair.

Their relationship is one of complex emotions and many misunderstandings. Camilo was as shocked by Link’s blackness as he was by her whiteness. They each bring their own assumptions and prejudices about race to this fragile relationship, in the midst of which they remain capable of great passion. Place is also a big part of Petry’s story, The Narrows is a Black area within a White town in a predominately White state – Camilo has stepped outside the divisions of both race and class in her association with Link. One of the things that is particularly interesting to note is how various characters see themselves, and see others.  Over a period of a few months these two lovers indulge in furtive meetings, often using hotels in New York, a city where they can be a little more invisible.

“People like to see a king uncrowned, like to see a thoroughbred racehorse beaten when he’s running at the top of his form and has outrun everything in sight. They wanted to see that the king, the top dog, the best man, has a flaw, can be beaten like them, is vulnerable like them, can be defeated, unfrocked, uncrowned, knocked down, and thus brought right down to their level.”

There is a lot I can’t say about this novel for fear of spoilers. Truths are unveiled, and a terrible betrayal is practised – which will have consequences for several characters. When a major scandal erupts it seems everyone from the town is drawn in. Popular opinion is seldom kind.

This is a fantastic novel – an early contender for my best of the year list.

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This year the Librarything Virago readers group, which I have mentioned from time to time in the past, are hosting a series of monthly themed reads. This month the theme has been nuns, teachers and governesses – and there are plenty of those in the literature beloved of VMC readers. I have managed to read two books for this month’s theme – and I had intended to review them before now, but that hasn’t happened. So I am glad I am managing to squeeze in a double review post to the end of the month.

The books I chose were I Will not Serve by Eveline Mahyère translated from the French by Antonia White (a wonderful vmc novelist herself) and Spinster by New Zealand author Sylvia Ashton-Warner (not to be confused with Sylvia Townsend Warner). The first is a novel about the relationship between a pupil and a teacher (and soon to become nun) and the second is about a teacher of mainly Māori children in a small New Zealand town. Two fairly different novels, yet both fitted the theme perfectly, and both coincidentally first published the same year.

I Will not Serve – Eveline Mahyère translated by Antonia White

Sylvie is a seventeen year old schoolgirl due to take her Baccalaureate at the convent school of Sainte-Thérèse. She is an impetuous, rebellious young woman, an unbeliever who sees God as her rival. Three months before her crucial exams she is expelled from the school, for Sylvie has fallen passionately in love with her teacher, Julienne. Julienne, a former architecture student is setting out on the path to becoming a nun – and it is especially from this suffocation (as she see it) that Sylvie wants to save her.

So Sylvie returns home – from where she writes imploring, adoring letters to Julienne, refusing to forget her, and forcing Julienne to enter into a correspondence. The novel is written in both first and third person narratives, Sylvie’s letters and journals giving the reader a very intimate, intense perspective, before moving to a third person narrative, which changes the perspective. The first few letters Sylvie writes go unanswered, but she is persistent – obsessive in her pursuit.  

It is the tone of these letters that is immediately striking – the hectic, overblown nature of the sentiment – it smacks of youthful obsession, all very of the moment. Mahyère’s portrait of this troubled young woman is quite brilliant.

“I’m frightened. I’m frightened of everything you’ve never told me, of what you dream about when you sit at the organ, when you go to your Gregorian Chant Choral Society, or even simply when you’re getting up in the morning to go off to those classrooms all adorned with revolting little plaster statues of Sainte-Thérèse.”

She writes begging Julienne to meet her, making it almost impossible for her former teacher to refuse. In the meantime Sylvie encounters the fashionable bohemianism of 1950s Paris, frequenting jazz clubs and bars, she spends much of her time with her best friend Albine, and her cousin Claude who has been pursuing Albine with little success.

Julienne agrees to meet Sylvie, more than once – but Julienne is set on her path, she is quite ambivalent to Sylvie and her feelings, and this becomes hard for Sylvie to take. Sylvie’s moods become more and more erratic as she moves from ecstasy one minute to the depths of despair the next.

The novella ends with a desperate act – that the reader feels coming from the start, and although Sylvie is not the most sympathetic character the reader can’t help but feel sympathy in some way for this overwrought young woman.

The story of Eveline Mahyère herself is a sad one, and one wonders how much of Sylvie was in Eveline, for a few months after she wrote this her only novel, she took her own life. The novel was published posthumously a year later.

Spinster – Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Sylvia Ashton-Warner was herself a teacher of little Māori children – she taught for many years, and like the teacher in this fictionalised account developed a psychological approach to the teaching of reading. Her method focused on a key vocabulary which would be different for each child – depending upon what their interests and experiences were, what was going on in their little lives at that moment. The development of this technique comes about two thirds of the way through the novel – and really fascinated me, as someone who has worked with children for a long time.

Spinster is the story of Anna, a spinster teacher of young children in a small New Zealand town. The children she teaches are mainly Māori but there are a few white children too. She takes the infant class – and their classroom is an old prefab building across from the main school building where the older children are taught.

Anna is a passionate woman, though she is unsure of herself around men, she tries to make the best of herself on those days when she will be seeing the men in the school – the headteacher and the other junior teacher, Paul. However Anna is really only fully at ease with herself when she is her garden, or in the small back room in the house near the school where she lives. As the novel opens, Anna is having to take a little drink of brandy in the mornings to get herself out of the door and down the road to school – for she often struggles with her role of teacher, and doubts her own abilities. However, she does adore her ‘little ones’ and longs to fill their minds.

Anna enters into a rather odd relationship with Paul – the other teacher at the school – he is several years younger than Anna – there is a sense of her continually holding back, which is more than just sexual. In her mind she returns to a relationship she once had which was never consummated, grieving for the children she might have conceived had it been.

For Anna the teacher, the shadow of the inspector looms large. He visits the school on a few occasions, and it always seems to send Anna into a mild panic. This made me smile, how little things have changed it seems.

“‘Mr W. W. J Abercrombie, senior inspector of Primary Schools’ begins the Head portentously at morning tea…

‘Don’t say that terrible word! Don’t speak like that in front of a woman!’

‘The new Senior inspector,’ carries on the Head beginning to laugh ‘is on his rounds. Making the acquaintance of his teachers.’

‘Oh no no no, don’t say that! Oh no no, you mustn’t say that!’

Paul Vercoe looks up from his tea at me. ‘We heard it last night at an Institute meeting.’”

However it is the recreation of that prefabricated infant classroom which is the real joy of this novel. The portrait of a busy, chaotic classroom and the lively, noisy bunch of children that Anna gives her heart to – is brilliantly authentic. She gives voice to the children, recreating their speech patterns, their clamour, and infant squabbles. The children are an infectious little bunch – and Ashton-Warner recreates them with great affection.

Two quite different but fascinating novels from my collection of unread old green viragos – what treasure that old VMC list had in it.

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Two reviews today in a bid to catch up a little – apologies for the long post. Two quite different novels with nothing to connect them, except they are both excellent and come highly recommended by me.

China Court – Rumer Godden (1961)

I read China Court for Rumer Godden reading week, which was back toward the beginning of December, and can’t really explain why I have waited till now to review it, because I loved it. It was a slow reading week that week, and I spent almost the whole week reading that one book – and in a way that was a joy, because the book was so lovely, I enjoyed spending time in the world of China Court, meeting a host of different people from below and above stairs who had lived there.

Tracy Quin is the daughter of a screen star, she grew up in a variety of places around the world, but China Court where she lived for a while as a child, with her grandmother is the place that really has her heart. Tracy returns to Cornwall, and China Court after her grandmother’s death. The house is full of memories for Tracy, the place she always meant to return to – and now she feels it might be too late. Her grandmother’s death has set in motion certain events – there are things which must be sorted out – decisions to be made. The relatives start to gather – the aunts and uncles who all have very strong opinions which they are happy to share. Tracy feels as if she is losing China Court just as she has found it again. It is a special place to her because of Mrs Quin her grandmother, who dedicated herself to the gardens for so many years.

“In summer the beds are like the flowered stuffs sold in shops, blue, white, and pink. The garden is filled with the scent of lilies that sometimes wins against the clove smell of the pinks, and at night there is the scent of stocks and white tobacco flowers. In late July, the great bushes of hydrangeas, blue and purple, have heads as big as dinner plates and sway across the drive if they are heavy with rain.”

As Tracy comes to terms with her loss, and tries to reconcile herself to the idea of the loss of China Court, she meets Peter St, Omer who farms Penbarrow on her grandmother’s land. Peter is from a once prosperous family, in the area, a family with a long complex history of its own. Peter’s future is now as much tangled up in what happens with China Court as Tracy’s is.

Alongside the story of Tracy, Peter, and the aftermath of Mrs Quins death – Godden evokes the stories of the previous four generations. For me that is what made this novel so special, the way Rumer Godden weaves these stories almost seamlessly through the main narrative. In this way we get to know the cheating Jared, the sad, beautiful Lady Patrick, the embittered Spinster Eliza, who finds an unusual outlet for her dissatisfaction, and Ripsie, an outcast orphan and her love for two brothers, who rose to become a powerful matriarch at China Court. It’s testament to Godden’s skill that she is able to weave so many stories through the central narrative – all these people step fully formed from the pages. The people and places of a Rumer Godden novel are always extremely well drawn, making her novels fully immersive and compelling. A real pleasure to spend time with. The only very slight issue I had with this lovely novel was the last few pages (no spoilers) it jarred quite a bit, and includes a scene which I found rather dated.

One of the main delights though is the story of a very special book collection – no spoilers, but book collectors will adore it.

Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan (2020)

This is a novella that has been reviewed widely by other bloggers, a much loved novella, and I can see why. It was also recently featured on the BBC TV programme Between the Covers. Small Things Like These is a slight, powerfully told novella – set in a small Irish town in 1985 in the run up to Christmas.

“It was a December of crows. People had never seen the likes of them, gathering in black batches on the outskirts of town then coming in, walking the streets, cocking their heads and perching, impudently, on whatever lookout post that took their fancy, scavenging for what was dead, or diving in mischief for anything that looked edible along the roads before roosting at night in the huge old trees around the convent.”

This was a gorgeously written novel, beautifully, elegantly spare, not a word is wasted in this emotional little story. The novel is dedicated to the women and children who were kept in the Magdalene laundries during that most dark period in Irish history.

Bill Furlong is a family man, and coal merchant, it is his busiest time of year, but there is also a recession on. His wife and five daughters are preparing for Christmas, looking forward to the Christmas celebrations in the town. Bill has known hardship in his life – and he is well aware of how different his life, and the life of his mother could have been. His mother had been very young and unmarried when she gave birth to Bill, but thanks to the kindness and support of a local wealthy woman, who gave Bill’s mother both a home and a job, becoming in time like family to them both – he grew up in safety and love.

Keegan shows us what a cloak of secrecy there was around certain issues in small towns like this in Ireland. These are good people, but they have grown up knowing some things aren’t spoken about, some things just are, and at the heart of all of that – is the church.

One of Bill’s regular customers is the local convent, the nuns there run a training school for girls – of course what it really is, is a mother and baby home. Things known, but not spoken of. One morning while delivering coal to the convent Bill makes a discovery that leaves him with a big dilemma. He discovers a young girl, cold and dirty locked in the coal shed – she begs him to find out what he can about what has happened to her baby. Bill takes the girl inside to the nuns, who make a great show of gently scolding her, feeding her and warming her up, while pouring out cups of tea to Bill. It’s one of those terrible situations where everyone really knows what is going on.

Bill is horrified by this experience, should he maintain the silence that surrounds such things, or expose the convent? He is left in no doubt that speaking out will risk his daughters’ futures as they attend the school attached to the convent. He speaks to his wife – she urges him to leave well alone – but Bill is horribly conflicted, and can’t quite forget the young girl he met that morning.

“…he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?”

Claire Keegan is a well known short story writer, and although I haven’t read her stories yet – it is evident that this is an author in superb control, the ability to tell the story of this town and its secrets in under a hundred pages is phenomenal.

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Still working my way through the books I read in November. The Optimist’s Daughter at around 180 pages was one of the slight novels I chose for #novnov. Eudora Welty was a prolific short story writer publishing twelve collections of short stories between 1936 and 1988 and as well as some essays she also published six novels. My experience of Eudora Welty has been somewhat mixed – I began reading her penultimate novel Losing Battles some years ago – but got totally bogged down in it – I couldn’t finish it. I have kept the book among my green viragos though, so do intend to try again one day. Three years ago I read Delta Wedding, Welty’s second novel – and absolutely loved it. The Optimist’s Daughter was Welty’s final novel first published in 1972 it won the Pulitzer prize in 1973.

The story revolves around Judge McKelva, his middle aged daughter Laurel and his second wife Fay. For many years Judge McKelva has been a familiar and respected figure in the community of Mount Salus, Mississippi. The people looked toward the judge, his gracious wife Becky and their daughter Laurel as nice, well bred people living their lives in a reliable manner.

“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much, Laurel thought.”

However, when ten years after the death of his first wife, old Judge McKelva marries again – everyone is taken rather aback. Fay is just a little younger than Laurel, a silly, self-absorbed woman from Texas.

As this novel opens Laurel has travelled from her home in Chicago to New Orleans where her father is in hospital – being treated by an old friend who had moved away from Mount Salus. The Judge had contacted Laurel to say he had been having ‘trouble with his seeing’ – and Laurel had felt concerned enough to jump on a plane. Right from the start the reader feels an unspoken tension between Laurel, Fay and Dr Courtland who is treating Judge McKelva. The Judge talks about getting pricked in the eye by the climbing rose that everyone in Mount Salus appears to think of as Becky’s climber. Fay dismisses the whole thing as something and nothing – seeming not to want to share her husband with these others who have such a long history with him. Laurel and Fay must stay in a local hotel while the Judge undergoes a routine operation – and period of recovery.

When the Judge dies suddenly, and unexpectedly the two women are forced to return together to the McKelva house in Mount Salus. Here they are surrounded by a host of friends and neighbours, people with long memories and deep affection for the Judge and his first wife. Laurel a woman who was widowed young, is surrounded by the women she still thinks of as her bridesmaids – the girls she grew up with. Everywhere in this house are memories of the past – things that recall moments of Laurel’s childhood, and the relationship her parents had.

“When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake, for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams.”

Laurel is numb by the suddenness of death, while Fay is prostrated by the thought that such a thing could happen to her! The house gets filled up with people – those who can’t believe the Judge is gone – for them it is the end of an era, there’s an absence they hadn’t reckoned on. They speak of Becky, Laurel’s mother as if she has only recently gone – and treat Fay with a kind of baffled politeness.

Arrangements for the funeral get underway, with Laurel ably assisted by Missouri – the servant who Judge McKelva had once brought home after Missouri had acted as a witness at court. With Fay having taken to her bed, everything falls to Laurel. On the day of the funeral, Fay’s family, that she had previously denied – turn up, voluble, and slightly boorish – but essentially harmless – they are nicer by far than the sullen, deceitful Fay. After the funeral Fay decides suddenly to return to Texas with her family for a few days, leaving Laurel alone in her former family home.

Everywhere there are little signs to remind Laurel of Fay’s arrival in her father’s life, nail polish on her father’s desk, a bread board she remembered her mother using for years, absolutely ruined. These days alone, give Laurel the chance to come to terms with her past and how she left her father alone. She comes to a better understanding of herself and her parents, and so when Fay returns to claim the house for herself, Laurel is ready to leave with her own memories intact.

This is a beautifully balance, nuanced little novel which I can imagine gets even better with subsequent readings.

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The fourth volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography; The Heart of a Woman sees Maya becoming immersed in the world of writers and artists in Harlem, going on to work in the civil rights movement and becoming involved with African freedom fighters. I have been reading these volumes alongside two good friends, Liz, who many of you will know from her blog Adventures in Reading, Running and Working from Home, and our non-blogging friend Meg. It’s been lovely to be able to discuss the book with them – each of us I think impressed by her extraordinary resilience.

This volume takes up Maya’s story a little while after the end of the last book where we left her working in Hawaii. Following on from her tour with the cast of Porgy and Bess, and her showbusiness work in Hawaii, Maya was living for a short time in a commune with her son Guy. It’s just a stop gap though, soon Maya and Guy are on the move again (they move frequently). Guy is a teenager now, growing up and keen to take on the responsibility he believes he should as a young man. Maya has reason to fear for Guy, the constant moving around means he has few friends, and as a teenager he is at risk of being targeted by other black youths.

“They were young black men, preying on other young black men. They had been informed, successfully, that they were worthless, and everyone who looked like them was equally without worth. Each sunrise brought a day without hope and each evening the sun set on a day lacking in achievement. Whites, who ruled the world, owned the air and food and jobs and schools and fair play, had refused to share with them any of life’s necessities–and somewhere, deeper than their consciousness, they believed the whites were correct. They, the black youth, young lords of nothing, were born without value and would creep, like blinded moles, their lives long in the darkness, under the earth, chewing on roots, driven far from the light.”

For a while, Maya goes back to singing, but she in unsatisfied with her work. She is aware of the work being done in Harlem, the efforts of Martin Luther King. She decides to go the New York, and discover Harlem for herself.

“It was the awakening summer of 1960 and the entire country was in labor. Something wonderful was about to be born, and we were all going to be good parents to the welcome child. Its name was Freedom.”

In Harlem she is introduced to the Harlem Writer’s Guild, where she meets Paule Marshall, author of Brown Girl, Brownstone that I read last year. This is one of a number of extraordinary encounters in the book – including an ageing Billie Holliday, Martin Luther King and Malcom X. Soon Maya is working for a key civil rights group in Harlem, helping produce a review show to raise vital funds. Her focus and organisational skills impress, and it isn’t long before Maya is running the Harlem office of the SCLC.

It is here in New York that Maya is introduced to African freedom fighters, she gets swept up in their passion and politics, she is inspired by their similar causes. It is around this time that Maya meets yet another unsuitable man Vusumzi Make an African freedom fighter – who says he wants to marry her. Maya is engaged to another man at the time, so she has a decision to make. She finishes the relationship with her fiancé and throws her lot in with Vus – they don’t actually marry legally – but Maya travels with him to London and Egypt. Her new role as an African freedom fighter’s wife – is not quite what she expects, Vus is a charmer who racks up debts and expects Maya to act like an African wife – but Maya is a capable, independent woman, frustrated by inactivity she starts to feel jealous at the influence of Vus on her son. As a reader, we know this is another relationship that is doomed from the start – but Maya tries to make it work for Guy’s sake.

While Maya is in Africa she learns how different black Americans and black Africans are – there is also a difference in how she is treated as a black American. Africa is an emotional experience. Reminding Maya as she flies from Egypt to Ghana about the millions of African people stolen from their homeland by the evils of the slave trade. At the airport in Accra Maya and Guy are surrounded by a wonderful sea of black people, one thing they notice though is that some of these people are actually wearing the uniforms of airline pilots.

“Three black men walked past us wearing airline uniforms, visored caps, white pants and jackets whose shoulders bristled with epaulettes. Black pilots? Black captains? It was 1962. In our country, the cradle of democracy, whose anthem boasted ‘the land of the free, the home of the brave,’ the only black men in our airports fuelled planes, cleaned cabins, loaded food or were skycaps, racing the pavement for tips.”

In Ghana, Maya and Guy face more challenges when Guy is involved in a terrible car accident. How Maya always manages to land on her feet – walking calmly away from difficult situations is incredible. She doesn’t always make the best decisions in her personal life – and it is clear that her son was affected adversely by the constant moving around and the times when Maya had to leave him in the care of others when she was working. However, she is utterly devoted to her son, and everything she does is with the best of intentions, and she is always honest.

What next for Maya? Goodness knows, there are three more volumes to go.

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The first time I heard of E. Arnot Robertson was several years ago when I acquired a copy of her novel Four Frightened People (1931) – which I read in March 2015. It’s a book many people don’t really like – and while I did like it, it made me fairly uncomfortable in places – it is of its time, I suppose, but that isn’t always palatable now. Ordinary Families is a very different book, none of the things that made me and other readers so uncomfortable in her earlier novel are present. E. Arnot Robertson was a very popular novelist during the 1930s and 40s, publishing eight novels, I would venture to suggest however, that she isn’t very well known today.

Ordinary Families is a coming of age novel – though one firmly rooted in the Suffolk marshes, a place Robertson knew well – unlike that jungle of her earlier novel. Our narrator is Lallie, one of four children of the eccentric Rush family. They live in the sailing village of Pin Mill on the Suffolk marshes – where all things boating, bird watching and inter-family rivalries dominate their days. The Rush children have all been brought up to understand the Rush family sense of humour and a sense of fair play, encouraged to fend for themselves from quite early on.

“I do definitely remember, though, stretching my ankles ecstatically to straining point as I knelt, resting back on my heels, so that the spongy ground should make long black stripes of dampness, like those on the beech-boles just behind us, all the way down the front of my brown stockings, and not only patches on the knees and toes. This was luxury: no other children, we had gathered, were encouraged to get as wet as we were – who else would have been allowed to play in February on the marsh by the river? – Certainly none of our friends.”

The Rush father is quite a character, an impossibly handsome former adventurer, who once crawled across the mountains in Chile and nearly starved on an expedition to Greenland. Now his sense of fair play is such – that during a regatta race he handicaps each of his four children, to give the neighbours a chance – only all his children win. Accusing his son Ronald of cowardice when he suggests pulling out of a race because his boat is unseaworthy Rush snr damages their relationship forever.

Lallie is the third of the Rush children – living in the shadow of her very beautiful younger sister Margaret. Lallie is considered ‘Brainy’ only this isn’t really a compliment, she is a keen observer of the natural world – the descriptions of which are particularly lovely, spending hours by herself in the marshes and along the estuary where she lives. As she grows up, Lallie turns her observant eye on the people around her, her family, and the neighbours in Pin Mill. There are times when she both loves and hates her ‘ordinary family.’

“Religion went bad in mother. It was just her luck to lose her faith when her children were growing independent of her and she needed it, after it had coerced her into bearing six children in her early married life, when she would rather have remained father’s gay out-of-doors companion – the girl he married and sometimes seemed vaguely disappointed that he had lost, in this devoted nurse to his children. If religion had to leave her stranded sometime, why could it not have done so before, when she would have found compensations? But unlike Mrs Cottrell, who dressed well, talked well, kept house well and drew well, all with one hand as it were, mother was a bad manager. Mrs Cottrell might be late for everything social, but she would never be late for spiritually, like this.”

Their biggest rivals locally, are the intellectual Cottrells – when the Cottrells hold a glitzy party – and don’t invite the Rush family, the relationship between the two families breaks down completley.

The novel spans at least ten years – during which time Lallie grows from a young girl into a young woman. She and Margaret spend eighteen months at a finishing school in Belgium – although the time is rather glossed over. The family are amused when Lallie starts writing letters to the Times about wonders of the natural world she has observed – but Lallie is very much her own person, and goes her own way, remaining very much attached to the natural world around her. Already rather over-awed by her sister’s beauty Lallie is rather shocked at Margaret’s casual attitude to sex – Lallie is sexually aware herself though, drawn to one particular man – who she decides to hold out for, no matter what.

I have lots of unread old green Viragos on my shelves – and what I love about them, is that I’m not always sure what I will get. There is always a few surprises in exploring these novels that have perhaps fallen out of fashion, and are little talked about now – the Rush family were wonderfully eccentric and made for excellent companions while I was reading this. After my first unusual experience with E Arnot Robertson in 2015, I was very pleasantly surprised by this novel.

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