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Some books sit on our shelves unread and unloved for too long, The Living is Easy is certainly one of those. I can’t remember where or when I go this green vmc but it was long before I was sent the other two Dorothy West books, that I read in 2019. The Living is Easy was Dorothy West’s first novel – and for me it was the last one of her books I had to read. Sadly, she left us only three works – two novels and a collection of stories and essays I highly recommend them all.

Dorothy West was a member of the Harlem renaissance a friend of Zora Neale Hurston. A black American writer who like several other black women writers of her generation fell out of fashion and whose work didn’t always receive the recognition that it deserved. Dorothy West grew up in Boston, and her writing depicts the lives of middle and upper-class black society.

The Living is Easy is a brilliant novel – I loved it – but the central character is hard to like. There is a complexity to Cleo – while we understand why she acts like she does it is hard not to be appalled by the level of control she exerts over her family.

The novel opens in 1914, shortly before the First World War breaks out in Europe. Cleo is married to Bart Judson, a good, gentle man more than twenty yeas her senior. They have a young daughter Judy who is about six as the novel opens – a child with the dark skin of her father, as Cleo is very light skinned this is a constant irritation. This is a world in which skin tone is important, status very much dependent upon such things as skin pigmentation and which street in Boston you live on. The Judsons are fairly well off, Bart Judson is a self-made man originally from the south. He runs a fruit and vegetable business, specialising in bananas – there is nothing he doesn’t know about the storage and ripening of this exotic fruit. Cleo persuades Bart to rent a large ten roomed house on one of the most sort after streets in Boston. Right from the start we see how conniving Cleo can be – if she knows something is to be twenty-five dollars she tells her husband she needs almost double that – squirreling away the rest. Cleo doesn’t love her husband – she almost seems to despise him, though she likes his money – for Cleo love and tenderness are weaknesses she won’t allow in herself and she sneers at in others.

“Cleo, walking carefully over the cobblestones that tortured her toes in her stylish shoes, was jealous of all the free-striding life around her. She had nothing with which to match it but her wits. Her despotic nature found Mr Judson a rival. He ruled a store and the people in it. Her sphere was one untroublesome child, who gave insufficient scope for her tremendous vitality. She would show Mr Judson that she could take a house and be its heart. She would show him that she could bend a houseful of human souls to her will. It had never occurred to her in the ten years of her marriage that she might be his helpmate. She thought that was the same thing as being a man’s slave.”

We get a glimpse into Cleo’s past – growing up in the south with her parents and sisters. Cleo was the eldest, she learned early about how life was different for black girls and white girls. By the time she is in her teens she is working as a kitchen help and must learn to call her childhood play mate Josie, Miss Josephine. She knew how hard life was for the women of the family – Cleo understood who really ran things in their home.

“Men just worked. That was easier than what women did. It was women who did the lying awake, the planning, the sorrowing, the scheming to stretch a dollar. That was the hardest part, the head part. A woman had to think all the time. A woman had to be smart.”

When the chance comes to go north, Cleo grabs it. While working in the home of another wealthy white woman, Cleo meets Bart. Bart represents security – as his wife she can achieve the status and social respectability she craves, for herself and for her sisters.

Now with the large house in the right part of the city secured – Cleo plans on getting her sisters to come and live with her. However, she has no time at all for their husbands. Cleo sets about bringing Lily, Serena and Charity to Boston, separating them from their husbands in the process with lies and misdirection. They each bring a child with them. Cleo rules the roost – everyone dances to her tune, but Cleo’s power comes from the weakness of others which she seeks to exploit. Her sisters are naïve, they haven’t Cleo’s sharpness of mind, they are easily manipulated and Cleo can only ever see the harm she is doing as good.

“It was a blessed morning, a morning a man could ease the worry on his mind and listen to the laughter of little children. And Cleo, God help her, was standing between himself and the sun. Peace was no part of her. She was born to bedevil. God pity her, she would cut off her arm for these sisters of hers with the same knife she held at the tenderest spot in their hearts.”

Cleo’s sisters and the children all love Bart, they recognise his goodness and hard work, Cleo sees this as just another weakness and it irritates her. She seems incapable of grasping that the war in Europe will have a severe effect on Bart’s business.

Alongside the story of Cleo, her sisters and their fortunes – we have the stories of some of their social circle. Cleo’s friend Thea Binney, who is waiting to marry her doctor fiancée, and her brother Simeon, who runs a newspaper for the black population of Boston. The Binneys are a family that have enjoyed great social respectability. This society is a finely balanced one it seems, the black middle class in Boston hold themselves apart from other poorer black people, and although not living in the segregated south, they are still completely insular – white Boston remaining another world entirely.

The Living is Easy is an absolutely brilliant novel – it depicts a society as the author must have known it. Cleo is a monstrous character, and yet we understand where it comes from, and towards the end of the novel I started to feel a little more sympathy for her – though not much.

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

I read my first Nancy Spain book – Not Wanted on Voyage six years ago – (rather shocked when I looked it up, I thought it might be two or three) and so was delighted to receive this new edition from Virago of Death Goes on Skis. There is another Nancy Spain novel due for reissue in the spring.

Nancy Spain was quite a character, something of a household name in the 1950s and 60s, a writer and broadcaster she made regular appearances on TV shows like Juke Box Jury which I may have heard of but am too young to have ever seen.  In her introduction to this edition Sandi Toksvig talks about what a fan she has always been of Spain’s and how for her, Nancy Spain paved the way for other gay women to make their way in multimedia – before that was even a thing.

Nancy Spain is not a conventional storyteller – so her mystery novels do not really follow the usual conventions either. Death Goes on Skis is farcical and funny, her characters bright, witty and devastatingly sharp. The detection part of this novel (and the only other one I have read) kind of takes a back seat – as Spain’s society types try to figure what is going on while not taking too much of a break from their usual pursuits, which so often seem to include, gossip, flirting, gambling, and the consumption of champagne and in this novel a bit of skiing.

I think it would be fair to assume that what was considered funny in 1949 may not always be considered entirely appropriate in 2020. So, the one slightly odd note for me throughout the novel was the name of the fictional country Spain chose as her setting– Schizo-Frenia. Maybe not the most offensive thing I have read but it just jars a little.  

Miriam Birdseye with her usual little troupe of admirers is off to the slopes – though Miriam seems more interested in gossip and champagne than skiing. Fellow ski resort guests include Miriam’s fellow amateur sleuth Natasha Nevkorina with her husband Johnny DuVivien and stepdaughter Pamela. Also, of the party are the wealthy Flahertés: handsome playboy Barny, his wife Regan and their two rather horrible children their governess, Roasalie and Toddy and Kathleen, Barney’s cousins. Barny’s mistress Fanny Mayes (AKA Lady Sloper) and her husband are also of the party. We first meet these characters as they travel to the ski resort by train. Miriam and her companions Roger and Morris arrive later. So, the scene is set – as they say.

“At Unteralp Miriam Birdseye cantered from the near funicular to the funicular. She ran, an easy first of her little school of chums. They were none of them athletes.

She looked very spectacular and cheerful, with her lovely long legs moving like a race-horse. Her ridiculous hat (something like a coal-black church steeple) threw a fantastic shadow across the platform.

The sun had now come out and everything seemed altogether gayer. Miriam often had this effect on the weather.

Fanny Mayes was not pleased.”

Soon a death occurs, which some people assume is suicide but is soon shown not to be. This brightens things up considerably for Natasha who was rather worried about being bored. She is soon getting stuck right into trying to figure it all out – consulting with Miriam every now and again, who to my mind never seems to do very much at all.

Barney has taken to skiing in a big way and his technique has been so praised that he decides that despite everything else that is going on he will enter the skiing championships which are being held on the slopes above the hotel. Natasha has taken a bit of a shine to Barney as has the governess who writes letters to her old friend all about her ‘Mr Rochester’. Natasha has begun to regret her marriage to Johnny and decides she will have to leave him.

When a second death occurs, it does begin to look as if things are all pointing in the direction of one person. However, Miriam and Natasha (with Johnny’s help) are on the case – well sort of – and gradually they begin to unearth some of what has been going on. However, with the local authorities keen to tidy things up quickly and neatly will the culprit ever be brought to book?

“It was indeed snowing. The wind, whirling up the valley from Kesicken, or down from Mönchegg, was unable to make up its mind which way it was prevailing. Clouds of snow blew off the pile of firewood, like spray. Little drifts formed behind chairs on the wooden duckboard and shifted backwards gradually. The outlines of everything outside the hotel slowly became muffled.

Johnny could see Regan Flaherté’s body ahead of him, outside the front door. It lay curiously twisted, already half covered with snow. The wind blew in his face and soaked him.”

Nancy Spain’s characters are not all very likeable – and are not supposed to be – they are all a type and she writes this type well. Armchair detectives may find this frustrating as a mystery novel – there are few clues to follow and as I said all that seems to take something of a back seat. Miriam Birdseye the supposedly brilliant society sleuth does not do very much – though she has a sharp eye which little escapes. All in all, this is great, witty escapism, a little dated in places perhaps but I am always happy to read things in the context of the times anyway. I definitely want to read more of these, so it is exciting that Virago have begun to re-issue them.

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Despite there being several Edith Wharton novels that I have to read for the first time – this was my third reading of The House of Mirth. It was picked as our December read by my book group – and it was a pleasure to re-read it – even though there was a tiny bit of my brain that hoped it would end differently this time. Certainly, this re-read reminded me how much I like Edith Wharton’s writing, I really must get to those unread Whartons that I have tbr.

One of Edith Wharton’s most famous novels, The House of Mirth is a brilliant portrayal of early twentieth century New York society – with its own peculiar rules and privileges. Lily Bart is the beautiful, spirited unconventional heroine, surrounded by a set of superficial society friends. Lily is someone who breaks these unwritten rules, she is judged – talked about and suffers in a way no man of her social standing would have done, as a woman there were certain expectations placed upon her – and in this world of wealthy alliances and marriages of convenience there are few choices for a woman like Lily.

Lily is beautiful, sophisticated, and witty, born into the upper echelons of American society she is however impoverished, living on the charity of her wealthy aunt and her friends. She is also twenty nine and unmarried – what Lily needs is a wealthy husband, of the right background – in order to continue living the life she was born into. She has a terrible fear of poverty – and is always in want of more money.

“Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury. It was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in.”

Yet this is something Lily has struggled to execute – never fully committed to the final, calculated act of marrying simply for money – though she won’t marry without it either. Lily is accepted by the old money of her ‘set’ as well as being courted by those of the nouveaux riches.

As the novel opens Lily bumps into a friend Lawrence Selden – and before heading off to a house party to which Selden says he won’t be going – agrees to have tea with him in his flat. Shocking behaviour for a single woman in these times. As Lily leaves Lawrence’s flat, she runs into businessman Mr Rosedale – who sees through her hurried, clumsy lie – that she was visiting her dressmaker – rather putting Lily at an unpleasant disadvantage. At the house party hosted by her friend Judy Trenor – Lily sets about the unpleasant business of snaring herself a wealthy husband in the shape of the rather dull Percy Gryce – though her heart isn’t really in it. When Lawrence Selden arrives for the weekend after all – Lily’s obvious preference for him upsets more than one member of the house party. Any advantage she had with Percy Gryce is lost – but Lily does not seem to mind much – her friend Judy is beside herself with frustration determined to see her friend well and safely married if she can. Lawrence Selden and Lily are clearly attracted to one another – but Selden is as impoverished as Lily – and they are well aware they cannot marry each other and remain in the society they are so much a part of.

“There is someone I must say goodbye to. Oh, not you – we are sure to see each other again – but the Lily Bart you knew. I have kept her with me all this time, but now we are going to part, and I have brought her back to you – I am going to leave her here. When I go out presently she will not go with me. I shall like to think that she has stayed with you.”

Lily is hopeless with money – is in debt because of the gambling that is so big a part of the circles she moves in (where everyone else seems to have pots of money) – and does not understand very much about investments and the like. Foolishly she allows Judy Trenor’s husband Gus to give her financial advice – allowing him to take over her investments in order to increase her paltry income at a much needed time. She allows him to flirt with her and is quite blind to where her extra income is coming from really and what Trenor might expect in return.

Lily seems to lurch from one mistake to another – as a woman in this society she isn’t allowed such mistakes – and she finds herself talked about viciously. Finding herself more and more on the outside of the social circle she had been so much a part of before. She finds herself in an increasingly worse position, friendless and desperate with less and less money, determined to repay the money Trenor gave her though with little hope of being able to do so. Ostracised and cruelly whispered about by her former friends in a society that cares more about how things appear than the truth of the matter – Lily’s fears of poverty seem about to be realised – and she finds herself horribly alone.

“As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.”

Wharton is clearly critical of this society which she knew so well from the inside. She shows us it from the woman’s perspective, with all its cruelties and inconsistences its absurd rules and petty conventions. The House of Mirth remains as readable as ever it was, a novel with a lot to say it is wonderfully compelling with a truly unforgettable heroine at its heart.

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With thanks to Virago for this stunning review copy.

I don’t often re-post old (slightly edited) reviews – but I felt compelled to do so when Virago sent me this simply delicious new hardback edition of Black Narcissus. This sumptuous new edition is released to coincide with the new BBC adaptation. I read it a little too recently to re-read it just yet – plus you know – too many books! However, I do love Rumer Godden’s writing and this one is rightly judged to be a classic. This new edition comes with a lovely new introduction by Amanda Coe – which I really enjoyed reading. Coe’s introduction sets Godden’s novel in context – exploring the complexities in it. She reveals how when she was adapting the novel for the new BBC miniseries she was able to be more faithful to the context of the book than that classic 1947 film.

“Godden’s wonderful book sets out a complex vision of the variety, necessity and danger of desire, rendered into a story that is completely pleasurable. I envy anyone reading for the first time.”

(Amanda Coe – Introduction)

The film of Black Narcissus was released in 1947 in Technicolor, which not all films were in those days. It was quite the melodrama starring Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons and was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

This is a novel of unsettling passions that have been repressed set against an extraordinary landscape.

The novel opens as Sister Clodagh prepares to leave her religious community in Darjeeling for Mopu in the Himalayan mountains to the north. Here Sister Clodagh will take on the role of Sister Superior to a small group of nuns who will be helping to set up a convent school community in an abandoned palace. The palace was once known as ‘the House of Women’ built for a harem of the General who leased the land from the British rulers. Now the General’s son, another General has given the palace to the Sisters of Mary – believing a school and hospital just what the poor local people need. Before they leave, Mother Dorothea lets Sister Clodagh know that she has some reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for this responsibility. Clodagh is certain she is ready for the challenge, and leads her fellow sisters; Sister Ruth, Sister Briony, Sister Honey and Sister Philippa – confidently towards a new adventure.

The group of sisters begin the long trek up the hills to their new home, a palace wreathed in scandal, set against a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Mopu is home to tea growers, snow-capped mountain peaks and the glorious flora and fauna one associates with India. As always Rumer Godden portrays the landscape and people of India, beautifully and with obvious affection.

“It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn; across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.

Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on a hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.”

 The sisters have a lot of work to do to make the old palace ready to use as a school and dispensary, and they set to work as soon as they arrive. An elderly Chinese woman Angu Ayah has had caretaking responsibilities at the palace and she stays on to help the sisters in their duties. One of the first people the sisters meet is local British agent Mr Dean – who they have been told will be on hand to help the sisters should they need it. Mr Dean is an informally dressed whisky drinker who rather shocks the sisters with his relaxed laid-back attitude and teasing humour. Mr Dean exudes a strength the nuns will have need of in the months ahead, and later, as they come to know him better they discover in him an ability to great sympathy and understanding.

The General’s nephew and heir, the young General Dilip Rai comes to the sisters to learn French, and a beautiful young girl Kanchi – who the locals have gossiped about wildly – has been placed with the sisters at the request of her uncle. Kanchi is soon surreptitiously keeping a close eye on the handsome young General – who, himself has an unusual effect on Sister Clodagh. Something in the character of the young General reminds her of her ill-fated romance with a neighbouring boy; Con – back in Ireland before she took holy orders.

“As he walked he kicked the stones away from him and slashed at the bushes; he looked pretty and naughty as a child, though he was nearly a full man; tall and beautifully built, not like a hill man but like a young Rajpit.

He slashed with his cane at the bushes, and she was suddenly back, walking down the Wishing Lane at home with Con; the green damp lane that led from the House gates past Skinners Farm to the lake, and Con was slashing at the hedge to show his temper.”

Mr Dean’s promise that the sisters will fail in their mission look set to come true as the nuns show time and again a lack of understanding for the people they are living among. The people have their own traditions and long held superstitions – and these are soon at odds with the inflexible attitudes of the sisters. Other troubles, passions and little jealousies play a part in causing the community difficulties as one of the sisters starts to show signs of mental illness. The magical landscape seems to beguile each of the sisters – distracting them from their purpose and allowing them, at times, to dream. Throughout the novel there is an air of forbidden passions rising to the surface, which Godden explores with wonderful subtlety.

Despite the drama and tragedy towards the end, the novel is much quieter than that old film, which I remember as being quite melodramatic.

I am looking forward to the new adaptation – which I believe airs next month. Will you be watching?

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One of November’s reading events is MARM (Margaret Atwood reading month) which I have enjoyed joining in with before. For months my intention had been to finally read MaddAddam the third book in the trilogy of the same name, and to re-read Cat’s Eye which I read many years ago but can’t remember too much about. Both those are fairly chunky, and I am still reading fairly slowly, so I had a re-think. I decided to re-read Surfacing – which I remembered absolutely nothing about and would also count towards novellas in November.

This is a beautifully written short novel – there is a subtle complexity in the narrative – and several layers to be explored. There is a lot that is metaphorical and a good deal of introspection as the narrator explores her past and present self, and her past and present relationships. This is a novel about human behaviour, identity, personal and national, grief, loss and memory.

Surfacing was Margaret Atwood’s second novel published in 1973, a young unnamed divorcee returns to the remote Quebec island of her childhood to look into the disappearance of her father. She is travelling with her lover Joe, and another couple, David and Anna. David and Joe have been making an odd sort of film during the journey, filming anything that takes their fancy on a rented camera – the film is to be called Random Samples – because that is essentially what it is.  

Our narrator left the rural community where she grew up, to live a different kind of life. Her childhood home was a remote place on the side of a lake where she remembers her father taking the boat out on to the water, going off on expeditions with his friend Paul who lives nearby still, her mother invariably ill. This is the place where her brother almost drowned once. She had left, married, and never returned – her parents never knew about the divorce – she never told them the truth about her marriage or why it ended – she had sent them a postcard once and that was that. She had felt unable to return, unable to explain.

“They never knew, about that or why I left. Their own innocence, the reason I couldn’t tell them; perilous innocence, closing them in glass, their artificial garden, greenhouse. They didn’t teach us about evil, they didn’t understand about it, how could I describe it to them? They were from another age, prehistoric, when everyone got married and had a family, children growing in the yard like sunflowers; remote as Eskimoes or mastodons.”

Now her mother is dead, and her father appears to have vanished from his lake side cabin. Contacted by her father’s old friend Paul – she has come to try and find out what happened but has no intention of seeing her father if he should show up.

Now returning to the place where she grew up, she is overwhelmed by memories, glimpses of her mother sat on the sofa in the cabin by the lake – which after several years away looks smaller than it once did. She and Joe, David and Anna – opt to stay in the cabin, the men decide they should stay the week – enjoy the lake while they have the chance. The women undertake the domestic tasks, Anna we learn tries never to appear before her husband without make up on. There is a lot of feminist themes here, ideas of gender and identity explored by Atwood in her portrayal of these two couples. The lake is an important metaphor for all that is going on beneath – those memories that immediately start to surface – those things that lie hidden away unseen. The lake dominates the landscape here and the story.

“I learned about religion the way most children then learned about sex, not in the gutter but in the gravel and cement schoolyard, during the winter months of real school. They would cluster in groups, holding each others’ mittened hands and whispering. They terrified me by telling me there was a dead man in the sky watching everything I did and I retaliated by explaining where babies came from. Some of their mothers phoned mine to complain, though I think I was more upset than they were: they didn’t believe me but I believed them.”

Gradually we come to see that all is not well in either of these relationships, Anna and David’s apparent married idyl – hiding a really problematic, disturbing relationship. Our narrator is not happy, she is clearly psychologically scarred by things that happened in the time before she returned to the island. She and Joe want different things, and he seems unable or unwilling to see things from her point of view, and there is still so many things she has not talked about to him. She is a classic unreliable narrator – as the novel progresses we wonder how much of her perspective we can really trust.

“I leafed through all the men I had known to see whether or not I hated them. But then I realized it wasn’t the men I hated, it was the Americans, the human beings, men and women both. They’d had their chance but they had turned against the gods, and it was time for me to choose sides. I wanted there to be a machine that could make them vanish, a button I could press that would evaporate them without disturbing anything else, that way there would be more room for the animals, they would be rescued.”

There is quite a strong anti-American vibe throughout the novel – our narrator sees the Americans that come to the area as a disease – she wants nothing to do with them. This seems to be some sort of paranoia – as gradually we begin to see this fragile young woman’s mental state deteriorate – the narrative becomes more fractured.

I thoroughly enjoyed this re-read- and at the same time understand why after about thirty years I had remembered nothing about it. It was like reading it for the first time, which was a treat – as reading Margaret Atwood almost always is.

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I had been looking forward to reading this novel so much, Liz gave it me for Christmas, after she had read it – and I had initially intended to read it much sooner. It didn’t disappoint at all, I was enthralled – plunged into the world of 1920s politics and union activism, written by a woman who knew this world from the inside. This is one of the few novels about working class people/politics/suffrage written by a woman that I have read – and will now sit alongside novels like South Riding, The Call, No Surrender, National Provincial and I’m Not Complaining in my mind. There should be more of these novels and if anyone knows of any I have overlooked please let me know. I would also recommend the short stories of Malachi Whitaker.

Clash was the first novel by Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, her second novel The Division Bell Mystery was re-issued by the British Library as part of their Crime classic series. Wilkinson also wrote several interesting sounding books of non-fiction about politics and peace. She was a fascinating woman – but not wanting to turn this into a long biography of the author – I will direct you to her wiki page – looking at her photo it is hard not to see Ellen Wilkinson in the character of Joan Craig in this novel.

Clash is a novel about the General Strike of 1926, its aftermath, and the terrible conditions that miners families were living in. Cleverly Wilkinson shows us two worlds – the world of the northern miners, union activists and the Labour movement and the world of London society – a left wing group of very nicely off people whose intentions are honourable enough, but really whose world is so vastly different to that other one as to be from different planets.

“There came to her at that moment the queer clearness of vision that sometimes happens when the body falls asleep of itself. Through the clatter of the crowded restaurant she seemed to see England – the great steel towns of the north, the mining villages she knew so well, the little homes in which she had stayed during her organising tours. Decent men and women working far too hard, crowded together in uncomfortable homes. Lack of obvious things like baths and hot water, lack of comforts, and, for at least five years, lack of food and warm clothes. What fine stuff they were, what excellent material out of which to build a fine race. And instead…muddle.”

The novel opens in May 1926 – Joan Craig a young trade union organizer returns to her small Yorkshire office utterly exhausted after addressing another in a long line of meetings. Despite her exhaustion she jumps at the chance to accompany her chief William Royd to London. He has been summoned to a meeting of union executives by the General council – something is going to happen, and happen soon, Royd believes it will be the General Strike.

In London Joan is thrust into a rather different world than the one she is used to – and she can’t help but be seduced a little by it. She stays at the home of Mary Maud Meadowes – a wealthy woman who is also a supporter of the Labour movement and the union activism that Joan, Royd and other characters we meet are involved with.

Joan isn’t able to get into all the meetings that are held over the next couple of days, she waits with a roomful of others while the union executives meet. However, Wilkinson faithfully recreates the noise, the excited fervour and crush of eager delegates at a unique time. There’s a feeling that perhaps real change is possible.  Here she meets writer Tony Dacre and Gerald Blain, a naval captain who had been horrifically injured during the war. Tony is forty, unhappily married to a cool, society friend of Mary Maud’s. Gerald is fully committed to the socialist cause, the son of a wealthy man who made money out of the war, and whose money he refuses to touch. Despite everything that is going on, Joan’s head is turned by Tony, who within hours of meeting the young union organiser is himself completely smitten.

There’s a little bit of tension as the unions negotiate with the government, but of course the negotiations fail, and the strike is called – whereupon everyone is thrown into a riot of activity. Joan’s passion for the cause marshals support for the strikers, as she travels the country, platform to platform speaking to huge gatherings snatching sleep and meals where and when she can.  

“Cheer after cheer rose as Joan stepped to the front…Against the packed mass of men of the platform behind her, she stood like a living red flag, the spirit of revolution.”

When the strike is over – there is work still to be done. Joan takes a brief holiday, remaining in London at Mary Maud’s house and seeing rather a lot of Tony. Tony wants to leave his wife for Joan, but he would also expect her to give up her work. Mary Maud can’t help but interfere, worried about Joan, knowing how vital her work is to who she is, there has been a suggestion that Joan could stand as a Labour candidate in the next election. Mary Maud understands that even in these more modern and enlightened times (ha!) women are not usually allowed to have it all, she knows that Joan must choose.

A call from William Royd has Joan scuttling back up north, this time to the mining communities still suffering desperately. Leaving Tony behind in London, whose interest in socialist causes has waned a little now the excitement of the strike is over – Joan gets right to the heart of the problems affecting the communities she knows and understands and might possibly represent one day. The spectre of Tony remains, especially when he sends her expensive gifts – which get spread out across the room where she is staying in a mining family’s home – a stark reminder of two different worlds. She enlists the help of Gerald Blain who has become a good and loyal friend – someone who understands Joan, the causes and wants to work for the same things she does.

This is a fabulously immersive and fascinating novel – for anyone interested in left wing politics of this period it is a must – there is a wonderful feeling of authenticity about the characters in this novel – people drawn from life I am sure. I would love someone to re-issue this novel – which even more than ninety years on still has a lot of resonance.

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In these strange and sometimes sad times that we have all been living through the past few months – many of us have found ourselves turning to a certain kind of book to get us through. We all have our different escapes in reading material, for some it is cosy or vintage crime, for others light modern fiction – whatever works for you – I understand that need. For me, I like fiction from a bygone age – I read all sorts of backlisted fiction, the literary and non-literary alike. In these times I have sometimes turned to books that lifted me a bit, helped me forget the reality of 2020 for a while.

There are times though when we need a happy ending – a nice setting, characters we love – those books that we lay aside fully satisfied with a great daft grin on our faces.

There are some titles that may immediately spring to mind to those of you who like these kind of books too – The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M Delafield, Miss Buncle’s Book by  D.E Stevenson, The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett  and of course Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. So, in case you are in need for a little something in a similar vein – I have a few recommendations. These are books that are unashamedly feel good, funny, or just light, bright and charming. Many are well written too – great characterisation, sparkling dialogue and amusing set pieces – just what a stressed out reader may be in need of for a weekend of quiet reading. Many of the books below, I really could have done with this year!

Patricia Brent Spinster (1918) Herbert Jenkins

An effervescent little gem, a feel good little fairy tale to be read with a wry smile. Living the shabbily genteel existence of a paying guest at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, is attractive twenty four year old Patricia Brent. Secretary to a “rising” politician with an absurdly socially ambitious wife, Patricia is lonely and stifled by life. One day Patricia overhears a conversation between a couple of her fellow residents – a spiteful couple of “old cats”, called Miss Wangle and Mrs Mosscrop-Smythe – pitying Patricia’s loneliness, with some relish. So, Patricia rashly tells a lie – which has all sorts of consequences. Sadly, out of print, while second-hand copies may be found, I am sure that this is available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg.

 Our Hearts were Young and Gay (1944) Cornelia Otis Skinner

Cornelia Otis Skinner, an American actress, writer and screenwriter co-wrote Our Hearts were Young and Gay with her good friend Emily Kimbrough, a memoir about their travels in Europe in the 1920’s. It is difficult to see where Kimbrough’s collaboration is exactly as the book is written in Skinner’s first person narrative. None of that seems important however as the book is full of charm and humour, and both women come across quite hilariously full of adorably lovable quirks and eccentricities. My edition also came with some adorable little illustrations.

The True Heart (1929) Sylvia Townsend Warner

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 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.

84 Charing Cross Road (1970) Helene Hanff

Probably a book that needs no introduction. It’s a long time since I read it, and I would love a chance to re-read it. Twenty years of correspondence between Helene a writer living in New York and an English second-hand book dealer in the famous Charing Cross Road in London. The two famously never meet, and this book is as poignant as it is joyful – but I had to include it, because what a wonderful portrait of friendship and book collecting it is.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945) Susan Alice Kerby

Of course, Dean Street Press had to have a place in this list of books. There were probably more I could have included. Miss Carter and the Ifrit is whimsical and charming and a brilliant little escape. Miss Georgina Carter is a woman in her late forties – she lives alone in a small London flat and works in the censorship office. Her life is one of fairly dull, predictable routine, she feels like she has rather missed out on life, nothing of any interest could possibly happen to her now, she believes. An Ifrit (like a genie) is released from a piece of wood she throws on her fire – and her life is suddenly wholly different.

Something Light (1960) Margery Sharp

Light, effervescent and endlessly charming. Something Light, is aptly named, but Margery Sharp’s writing is excellent, her characterisation faultless. Instantly likeable; Louisa Datchet is a woman who has achieved the milestone of thirty. A moment it seems likely to focus the mind. Dear Louisa, has always been a good friend to needy men. She now decides, quite suddenly that she wants to get married – and having decided to do so, she immediately sets about it, with, needless to say, mixed results.

Business as Usual (1933) Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford

Recently re-issued by Handheld Press Business as Usual is full of delightful period detail, humour and spirit. Ann Stafford’s charming, line drawings are reproduced alongside the text as they were originally in 1933.

Written in letters it tells the story of Hilary Fane, a young woman from Edinburgh who having finished with university wishes to spend a year earning her living in London before returning home to be married. The novel faithfully recreates the reality of work, shopping and conventional society while also acknowledging the poverty and even illegitimacy that existed alongside it. In no way a novel that preaches however, it is instead a novel of light, bright intelligence, deeply charming and ultimately heart-warming.

Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940) Romilly Cavan

Beneath the Visiting Moon is a little longer than some of the other Dean Street Press titles I have read – a fully satisfying novel that combines family life, romance and the trials of growing up. Scott recommended it particularly for fans of Guard your Daughters, and I can see why, although this novel isn’t as dark as Tutton’s brilliant novel, there are shadows, glimpsed fleetingly at a distance.

What we do have though is a genteelly impoverished family living in a large house in a typical English village – characters are wonderfully well drawn, their voices distinct. There is a large supporting cast of eccentric characters, in whom we can see some slightly darker elements hidden beneath the surface.

The Mrs Tim books (1932-1952) D.E Stevenson.

This is a bit of a cheat because there are four Mrs Tim books. The first one Mrs Tim of the Regiment is published by Bloomsbury, and the next three books have been re-issued by Dean Street Press. I still have number four waiting to be read. The first book if I am honest is the one I liked least – but generally these stories of a regimental wife before during and after the Second World War, are a delight. In the company of Hester Christie, we experience life, love, motherhood, friendship, romance, and work, with charming humour.

Home Life (1986) Alice Thomas Ellis

In 1985 Alice Thomas Ellis began producing a weekly column in the Spectator called Home Life. These short pieces were collected together in four volumes of which this is the first – and I really will have to collect the other three (not sure how easy they are to get hold of though). This book was an absolute joy – and I would happily have read on and on had there been more. These articles about the author’s own family life are full of fun, tongue-in-cheek observations and ruminations – a (not so) Provincial Lady of the 1980s perhaps. She is also very honest, blithely referring to visiting her son’s grave almost in passing – you begin to feel very much one of the crowd.

So, if you’re looking for something joyful to read to shut out 2020 you could do a lot worse than one of these. Happy reading.

Oh, and look what just arrived – a bit more joy here too I should think.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

I have written before about my feelings towards Angela Thirkell – how I want to like her more than I do, how I get more than a little irritated by her world view – her snobbery and casual xenophobia. So, I’ll not repeat myself – you can read some of my thoughts about her in my previous posts like Before Lunch, The Headmistress, The Brandons and others, I have now read quite a few Thirkell – like I say I really do want to like her. Growing Up is set in the middle of World War Two – and as many of you know I do like a wartime novel – (written during the period for preference). As it was All Virago All August too – I decided to give dear old Ange another go – and while she will always irritate me I have to say I did really enjoy this one.

Angela Thirkell was a prolific writer, her famous Barsetshire novels number nearly thirty. It would seem that Virago – for reasons best known to themselves I am sure – are publishing these Angela Thirkell novels out of order, and I have certainly not been reading them in order. There are characters in this novel who I am reliably informed appear in earlier novels in a younger and unmarried state – so if you are reading these novels in strict order there may be unwitting spoilers ahead.

Wartime or not Thirkell’s world is still very recognisably her own. Her class conscious snobbery is present – but is less objectionable. Her working class characters less infantilised than in previous novels, though their overflowing love and deference toward their ‘social superiors’ is hilariously unrealistic. I suppose what I would quite like to see – but never will – is a rabble rousing left wing character to come lurching down the village street loudly proclaiming the end of the class system – posting notices of union meetings on the lampposts.  

Wartime has brought change to Barsetshire and Beliers Priory is now a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. The Priory’s owners: Sir Henry and Lady Waring have moved themselves into the old servants’ quarters – which they are finding surprisingly comfortable and practical.

“Lady Waring sometimes wondered if she ought to be so comfortable, but as Sir Harry worked in town four days a week on matters connected with regimental charities, spent two days hard work on county jobs and was rarely free on Sundays, besides doing a good deal of the gardening, she hoped her comfort would be forgiven, wherever these things are judged, because it made a restful home for her husband.”

The hospital is run competently by Matron – who having lost her cat in an unfortunate shooting incident is given charge of a new kitten Winston – she is very much a cat person and enjoys extolling Winston’s virtues every chance she gets. There are some wonderfully entertaining characters in this novel, from the absurdly emotional Selina Crocket and her mother Nannie Allen to the gamekeeper Jasper who believes his grandmother returns from time to time in the form of a black hare and is determined to shoot her. Laura Morland and Dr Ford pop up when Laura gives a talk for the men at the hospital. Her son, Tony Morland now older and less annoying and in uniform also shows his face, and we see that poor Dr Ford has never really got over his dislike of the young man. Laura finds herself among a large gathering of fans as she comes to deliver her talk – and Matron explains carefully how she got one of the nurses’ uniforms wrong in a previous novel.

“Mrs Morland, in spite of her large and constant public, was always surprised, interested and pleased to hear than anyone had really read her books, though sometimes a little depressed by the way in which her friends lent their copy, to one another, and she took very seriously any technical criticism that came her way.”

The Waring’s niece Leslie arrives for a visit – she has not been well – and very much needs time to recover herself. Having worked in a hush-hush job with the navy she was torpedoed on the way home from America and her nerves are frayed from the experience and overwork. So, when the Warings are asked to house an intelligence officer and his wife, they agree with some reluctance. Their guests turn out to be Lydia and Noel Merton – and with them they bring a breath of fresh air – Lady Waring is soon enjoying Lydia’s company, and Leslie makes a great friend of her. Walking from the station to the Priory upon her arrival, Lydia was delighted to have bumped into another old friend – who is billeted nearby – and soon it seems as if the attentions of almost everyone locally are centred on Beliers Priory in one way or another.

This is a novel written at a time when the outcome of the war was still uncertain – there was still a lot of anxiety about for people with loved ones abroad. Both Leslie and Lydia have brothers serving abroad that they are desperate for news of – and we are reminded of the impact of war with the knowledge that Sir Henry and Lady Waring’s only son was killed in the First World War. Dunkirk is talked about with some reverence – and in the hospital now housed in Beliers Priory there are plenty of reminders of what war can mean. Wartime also brings new opportunities for women – both Lydia and Leslie have benefitted from the chance to do things they never would have done in peacetime. Neither of them really want to be idle – they wish to be useful and busy – and they both have a lot to offer.

Against the backdrop of war and all the uncertainty it brings Thirkell tells a story of a community coming together – a little romance and perhaps just a bit of hope for the future – all being well.

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The Last of Summer was Kate O’Brien’s sixth novel, written during the Second World War it concerns those last few weeks of the summer that lead to the break out of hostilities between Great Britain and Germany. It is clearly a novel written by an author in full control of their craft, setting and characterisation are quite perfect, tense, and claustrophobic atmospheres spine tingling in their realness. There is not a huge amount of plot in this novel – and there doesn’t need to be – there is so much to enjoy for its own sake. To read this novel is like taking a slow, meandering walk on a late summer evening through the twisting lanes of a new and unexplored place.

The novel opens as our heroine Angèle Maury arrives at the station of Drumaninch, she asks directions of the porter there – before setting off to walk to the home of her aunt by marriage that she has never met.

Angèle, a young French actress, had been travelling in Ireland with friends when she decide to cut them loose and go instead to the family home of her dead father. Maury is a stage name – her name by rights is Kernahan like that of the people at Waterpark house. Waterpark house is the big house of the district – one in which many of the locals take something of an interest. Angèle arrives unexpected and unlooked for and for one person at least, unwelcome – most of the family at Waterpark house unaware even of her existence.

“…there were people, female shapes, in the semi-circular embrasure of an enormous, outflung window. The girl advanced towards two blurred heads, half-closing her eyes. The northerly aspect of the entrance façade, with its sober ilex trees, had seemed almost cold, had indeed suggested a somewhat menacing detachment from the bright day; the hall and the maidservant’s voice had been cool and almost friendly, and unsteadied her.

‘What’s that you’re raving about Delia? The children’s cousin – from France, did I hear you say?’ The voice was chuckly and uneducated. A civilised and soft one answered it lightly.

‘You did Dotey. You heard her say it.’

The latter speaker extended a pretty hand, with a silver thimble on the middle finger, towards Angèle.

‘This is unexpected’ she said amiably.”

Angèle’s father was Tom Kernahan – one of three brothers. Waterpark house is now ruled over by Hannah Kernahan the widow of Ned, Tom’s brother. Now she is assisted by her eldest son, also called Tom. Tom is very much the golden child of the family, the heir and the eldest son, the expectations of the family and the locals lay heavy on his shoulders. Also living at Waterpark house are Tom’s two younger siblings; charming Martin and Jo, who likes to gamble but has pretty much decided to enter into the religious life, their mother’s impoverished cousin Dotey and the lovably ridiculous Uncle Corney – the last of those three brothers.

It transpires that Hannah was the only member of the household who knew of Angèle’s existence but had never seen fit to share her knowledge with the rest of the family. Angèle’s father had left the family home more than twenty-five years earlier – gone to France and married a French actress, and it seems thought no more of by his family in Ireland. Now his daughter is alone – her mother also dead – and she arrives at Waterpark house wishing to make some kind of sense of the past. Hannah is very much the matriarch here – her world is one of certainty and order – we see her often through the eyes of others, variously, a saint, a martyr, and a steely eyed arranger of how things should be. Into this world comes the young, pale exotic French beauty that is Angèle Maury daughter of an exiled father and her actress mother – she can’t help but disrupt this closed, ordered little world immediately. The reader senses early on a certain kind of fire in Hannah – a woman capable of fighting to keep her world the way she sees it.

Angèle is swept up immediately by her cousins, especially Martin and Jo, who want to know all about her and have her stay the whole summer. Tom initially stands at something of a distance, yet he too is clearly very affected by her arrival. Uncle Corney is charmed beyond reason by Angèle, and Dotey takes all her direction from Hannah – who is altogether harder to read. In the coming days Angèle is introduced to some of the locals, who take a great interest in her presence – and speculate about her and Tom from the beginning. There is plenty of time to get to know her new family on long summer days at Waterpark house and on a day out to Carahone – with its amusements, merry-go-rounds, aunt sallies and brass bands. Within days Martin has fallen in love with Angèle, and Angèle and Tom with one another.

“Tom turned from the window swiftly when he heard the tone of her voice.

‘I’ve been asleep a long time, I think,’ he said, and he spoke fast now and his voice shook. ‘In a way, I’ve never been awake. But since you came, since I saw you – and all today – I see. I used to love all this’ – he looked about him as if at things that were strange to him – ‘as if it were life, as if it were the whole of things. And now, if you weren’t here, if you were to go, it would be meaningless. I see that you’re the reason for it all – and that you are a part of it for me now, and that I must give it all to you and keep you here.”

All these brooding family tensions exist within a world of anxiety, raising tensions in Europe – everyone gathered round the radio for the night time news. What will war mean for the men of this Irish household? – will they go to fight for the British or not? And what will war mean for Angèle’s beloved France and her mother’s family who are all in Paris?

The Last of Summer is a slow, intense read – very beautifully written it captures perfectly a particular time and place.

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Translated from French by Francis Golffing*

Sitting down to write this review and it suddenly seems to be a very long time snice I read the book – it is about 2 weeks. I really should be better organised with reviews – and make proper notes.

A Fine of Two Hundred Francs is a book of four stories – one of them the length of a novella – each telling tales of French resistance. Written at around the time theses events would have been happening, these stories are an incredible chronicle of a unique period in French history. However, the woman behind these stories is herself a fascinating figure. Russian born Elsa Triolet was an author and essayist of many books as well as a translator of Russian literature. She emigrated to France on her marriage in 1918 and was later decorated for her heroic role in the French resistance. She was a major literary and political figure in Europe – the first woman to win the Prix-Goncourt and became a peace activist after the war.

These stories were originally published illegally – the title of the final story and the collection is taken from the code used to signal the Allied landings in Normandy.

The Lovers of Avignon tells the story of Juliette Noël a beautiful young typist who lives in Lyons with her beloved aunt and the young Spanish boy she recently adopted. The war is a big disrupter of family life however, and following the death of her brother, Juliette has become involved with the resistance. She is asked to go to Avignon, an important message must be delivered – it is risky – but Juliette shrugs away the danger – telling her aunt and the child she will be home soon. In Avignon she meets Celestin – the man she is tasked with connecting with. It is Christmas time, and they have a few precious hours to spend together – pretending to be lovers – walking the ancient walls of Avignon reading the inscriptions left by recent real lovers in the years before the war.

“They had Christmas dinner in a restaurant. The whole country had made a desperate effort to dine well, or merely to dine, this Christmas. They ate Turkey with chestnuts. The waitress wore a starched apron. There were carnations on the table, bits of mistletoe overhead, and a little Christmas tree in the corner. The room was heated, and the garden behind the windows was celebrating Christmas. When they had finished their coffee they went up to Fort Saint-André.”

I think many of us can appreciate the poignancy of trying to make things as normal as possible during times that are anything but normal.

When Juliette returns to Lyons it isn’t long before she is faced with real potential danger – when Celestin turns up again. The fear here is palpable, the sense of being watched of everything being at risk.

The longest of the four stories is The Private Life of Alexis Slavsky and it isn’t until late into the story that any mention of the resistance is made at all. This is the story of an artist – drifting from Montparnasse to Lyons to the Alps – often in the company of his wife Henriette, he must hide his Jewish blood (a grandmother) while he attempts desperately to ignore much of what is happening around him and continue with his work. His bohemian lifestyle is little suited to wartime, and Alexis is often an irritated and frustrated man. Elsa Triolet is said to have based this character on Henri Matisse who apparently complained about the interruption to his work the war brought. Alexis continues to drift through France and through these days of war, he manages to have an affair – an infatuation that hurts Henriette a good deal before his eyes are finally opened to what is happening all around him, the risks that others are taking so that people like him can be safe. The woman who helps open his eyes is Louise – a journalist he knew in Paris, now working with the resistance. Part of Louise’s story is told in the next story in the collection.  

In Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree Louise, who we met towards the end of the previous story, has survived Nazi interrogation, and even escaped from a concentration camp. She is now lying low, at a safe house in the French countryside waiting to re-join the maquis. Louise passes the time reminiscing about her childhood in Russia, recalling her relationship with her mother and sister- and the world of their childhood. It’s a wonderful portrait and one I suspect is quite autobiographical, like Triolet, Louise writes her thoughts and memories in a notebook and buries them for safety under a peach tree when the time comes for her to leave.

The final story, termed the epilogue – A Fine of Two Hundred Francs is also the shortest piece. Like the previous three stories though it is rich in detail and enormously atmospheric. The story recreates the action that was undertaken when that code was broadcast on the radios that were being listened to in secret all over France. A small village in France and the resistance are ready for action, there is a parachute drop and everyone is ready to do their part. The Germans retreat but only after having left a trail of devastation and violence in their wake. The villagers suffer terrible reprisals for their resistance and Triolet brilliantly portrays the shocking realities of these times for ordinary people.

“They left havoc behind them; yawning doors, windows smashed by rifle butts. Everyone suffered his share: those who liked the Boches and those who didn’t, those who had ‘nothing to reproach themselves for’, and those who had.”

Throughout this book Elsa Triolet reveals a reality that can only come from someone who was there. It is an extraordinary testament to war and the unbelievable courage of those who were caught up in the occupation. I couldn’t help but wonder – what would I have done? Who would I have been?

* The translator is unacknowledged in my old VMC edition, so I took to Twitter to ask for help. Francis Golffing was the name suggested to me – and it looks probable it was. *

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