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Playing the Harlot was my final book in my A Century of Books, it fitted into my 1996 slot by virtue of the fact it was initially rejected for publication in 1963. Playing the Harlot – or, Mostly Coffee – was Patricia Avis’ only novel and ultimately foreshadowed the author’s early death – who never lived to see it published.

Avis is brilliantly witty, so often it feels as if her little asides and observations have come straight from life. Particularly interesting of course is the character Rollo – who apparently is her Larkin.

“Rollo, never employed on enterprises to which he might debit his travelling expenses, had arrived on the six o’clock bus. Since then he had been explaining to Mary in the sitting room the consequences of having been obliged to eat savoury rice for lunch. Pete was still out testing the dip-switch mechanism against the garage doors.”

During the 1950s Patricia Avis was an angry young woman among a large group of literary angry young men, including Philip Larkin, all of whom became quite well known – while Patricia Avis was forgotten. Her novel was a Roman à clef, focussing on that literary circle she was a part of. This, it seems the reason the novel was rejected by publishers who were concerned about the potential slander of literary figures.

It is women however who are at the heart of this novel, Mary Gallen – brought up and educated abroad, and her friends Theo and Abigail. Avis paints some wonderful portraits of these easy living young people.

“Theo grabbed a raincoat off the bannisters and rushed downstairs, missing all the splits in the linoleum, which had been known to trip people up.
Coming back was much more sedate. She had a young man with her, a tall, thin, stooping young man in spectacles. And he was wearing a pink check wool shirt half tucked into a pair of shrunken chocolate-coloured corduroys held up by an old school tie. One half of his face was concealed by a tongue of uncombed hair. The other half, sketchily shaven, looked kind and content.”

Avis highlights that post-war generation, a generation beset by political and social aimlessness. They are intellectuals, cynics, closet homosexuals and adulterers.

We first meet Mary when she is a young student, living in convent halls – and drinking coffee with Rollo – the Larkin figure in this novel. Mary writes to her wealthy parents in Argentina often, asking for money or permission to do things she suspects they won’t approve of. As the novel opens Mary is writing to ask to be allowed to move out of the hated convent halls and into Theo’s flat.
Mary marries Pete, a medical student – and they set up home with an Irish housekeeper and her two adopted children ruling the roost. Yet, it is with Rollo that Mary has an affair. Like the author herself, Mary decides to go to Paris to continue her studies, it is the beginning of the end of her marriage. Here Mary meets Martin, who she later marries.

Playing the Harlot is a very feminist novel in what it has to say about sexual politics and the place these women find themselves in in society. Mary, Theo and Abagail are all intelligent young women, and yet, they largely serve as accessories in the lives of their men. Theo; herself a medical student, marries a student lecturer and is later buried in domesticity. Abagail an art student, marries an ageing European count.

Mary throws herself at life – full of life and optimism, always looking for love and acceptance. Her relationships unsuitable and unfulfilling. Throughout her various relationships – which are sometimes with men who prefer men, she is plagued by a series of miscarriages. The lack of sympathy and support is very noticeable. Mary lies in a nursing home until discharged, and then just gets on with it. The novel is very readable, and Avis’ dialogue is particularly good, the characters all sympathetic and believable – it is certainly a novel of its time (of when it was originally written that is) providing fascinating a portrait of the literary circles in which Avis moved.

Overall I didn’t love this novel, but it is a very interesting novel, well written and quite compelling in its way.

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cof

Dedicated to the memory of Virginia Woolf, Olivia was Dorothy Strachey’s only novel. Published under the pseudonym ‘Olivia’  it is a subtle classic of lesbian literature. It is more of a novella really at just 114 pages in this edition, and I’ll be honest – I picked it mainly for its length as I near the end of my A Century of Books. The Afterword reveals that the French school featured in this novella is loosely based on Marie Souvestre’s Allenswood Academy, attended by both the author and Eleanor Roosevelt, which in itself is rather fascinating. I’m not sure why – but I wasn’t altogether certain that I would enjoy Olivia – perhaps I read a review of it somewhere which put me off – however, I enjoyed it enormously. What a shame it is that Dorothy Strachey only ever published this. Dorothy Strachey’s writing is beautiful, and there is a lot that is very quotable from this slim volume.

“Was this stab in my heart, this rapture, really mine or had I merely read about it? For every feeling, every vicissitude of my passion, there would spring into my mind a quotation from the poets. Shakespeare or Donne or Heine had the exact phrase for it. Comforting, perhaps, but enraging too. Nothing ever seemed spontaneously my own.”

A woman recollects the final year of her education, a year when she discovered life at its fullest, found passion and in a sense, herself.

Olivia is sixteen when she is sent to Les Avons a finishing school near Paris, run by two mademoiselles. This is a school of an entirely different kind. It is a school where there are few rules, where laughter and passionate discussion are actively encouraged. Olivia revels in this atmosphere so unlike anything she has experienced before.

However, the freedom and fun of Les Avons is superficial, beneath the surface are raw emotions, jealousies and destructive allegiances.

“How hard it is to kill hope! Time after time, one thinks one has trodden it down, stamped it to death. Time after time, like a noxious insect, it begins to stir again, it shivers back again into a faint tremulous life. Once more it worms its way into one’s heart, to instil its poison, to gnaw away the solid hard foundations of life and leave in their place the hollow phantom of illusion.”

The school is run by Mademoiselles Julie and Cara, once so close, the two are each acting against the other. Each of the headmistresses have their circle of acolytes – powerful emotions have been unleashed beneath the roofs of this French school. Olivia doesn’t really understand the nuances of everything that is going on at Les Avons, the tension between Julie and Cara, is a puzzle to her but she has no understanding for what their relationship might have been. Olivia; fresh from England is too caught up in a complete infatuation for Mademoiselle Julie.

“Love has always been the chief business of my life, the only thing I have thought—no, felt—supremely worth while, and I don’t pretend that this experience was not succeeded by others. But at that time, I was innocent, with the innocence of ignorance, I didn’t know what was happening to me.”

The girls regularly gather around Mademoiselle Julie for impassioned debate, to present their essays and to hang upon her every word. Olivia waits for the headmistress’s visits to her room, for the slightest look, the touch of her hand.

oliviaWhile Olivia is wrestling with these new and unexpected feelings for her headmistress and making an unexpected friendship with another of Mademoiselle Julie’s favourites, Mademoiselle Cara is plotting one final act of betrayal.

I am surprised that this delicate little novella isn’t better known. I know vintage books brought out a new edition of this one a few years ago, which has hopefully raised its profile a little.

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mde

Radclyffe Hall became famous – perhaps infamous in her day – for her novel The Well of Loneliness a ground-breaking novel in lesbian literature. I loved that novel – although it gets increasingly bleak and is not terribly positive. I was compelled to keep reading and didn’t at all mind Hall’s rather flowery writing style. Before writing that novel Hall was already a published novelist and poet. The obscenity trial that followed the publication of The Well of Loneliness resulted in an order for all copies to be destroyed. A Saturday Life was published three years before that book which was to cause such an unwarranted furore. It is an altogether lighter book, a comic novel about a precocious child, artistic experience and the possibility of reincarnation.

Sidonia Shore is the only daughter of the gently vague Lady Prudence Shore, a woman whose head is generally somewhere in Ancient Egypt. Her husband, himself a great Egyptologist has died, and she is determined to carry on his life’s work and ensure his name is not forgotten. Her daughter Sidonia is only seven years old as the novel opens, when the child’s nurse finds her dancing naked in the drawing room. When challenged, Sidonia bites the nurse and the shocked woman has no choice but to rouse Lady Shore from her Egyptian ruminations. Sidonia’s mother is rather at a loss as how to deal with her eccentric child – and enlists the help of her friend Lady Frances Reide who lives nearby and is a frequent visitor.

Sidonia is clearly a precocious child – and Frances suggests that her mother enrol her in the Rose Valery dance school in Fulham. Here the pupils – under the tutelage of their teacher, endeavour to recapture the soul of Ancient Greece.

“Sidonia’s first appearance at the Rose Valery School was positively melodramatic. To begin with, she looked so extremely unusual, with her pale face and shock of auburn curls. She was little and quiet and immensely self-possessed, not at all put out by the groups of gaping students. The moment Rose Valery set eyes on the child she had, or so she said afterwards, great difficulty in stifling a scream of pleasure.”

Prudence and Frances can only hope that Sidonia is able to express herself artistically at the school, while keeping her clothes on. Sidonia behaves impeccably to begin with – but she finds clothes so restrictive for dance – and soon removes them, dancing naked before her classmates in the cloakroom. Frances has some work to do in persuading Rose Valery to allow Sidonia back after this – she has been receiving letters from uncles after all. For a few years Sidonia is happy dancing at the school – but the strictures of the school and clothing begin to take their toll on her talent, and her dancing changes. Soon Sidonia finds she no longer loves dance – and completely gives it up.

Over the next twenty years, Frances continues to support and counsel Sidonia and her mother. Sidonia changes artistic discipline every few years. With extraordinary enthusiasm she takes up each new interest, perfecting and obsessing over each new talent as it crops up. Sidonia appears to have the most extraordinary talent for everything she takes up. Piano, wax modelling, sculpture and singing are each taken up fully embraced and then discarded. Lady Shore can barely keep up, so lost in her own world is she, that her daughter’s artistic developments are a constant confusion.

a saturday life2When she is in her sculpture phase, Sidonia is working under the tutelage of Einar Jensen alongside a roomful of other students who she never really gets to know. She is determined to be awarded the travelling scholarship, and to go to Italy and continue her studies there. Once Sidonia is set on something it’s sure to happen – and she does win the scholarship and persuades Frances to accompany her to Italy. Frances is a wonderful foil to Sidonia’s wild enthusiasm, wryly sardonic, sensible and practical – she’s not keen to go to Italy – she is far more at home, spending time in the predictable though vague company of her old friend. However, Sidonia gets her own way as usual.

It is in Italy, that Frances first learns about a Saturday Life in an old book she buys. It provides one explanation for Sidonia’s taking up and throwing off of artistic disciplines. A theory requiring a belief in reincarnation.

“People who are living a ‘Saturday life’ are said to have no new experiences, but to spend it entirely in a last rehearsal of experiences previously gained. They are said to exhibit remarkable talent for a number of different things; but since they have many memories to revive, they can never concentrate for long on one. This also applies to their relationships with people, which are generally unsatisfactory.”

In Italy Sidonia is introduced to the Ferraris, a family of singing teachers – old friends of Frances’. Soon, Sidonia has lost all interest in sculpture and taken up singing as if she was born to it. Frances is furious at her wasting the scholarship and its not long before she returns to England – happy to be more and more in the company of her old friend Prudence. When Sidonia returns to London, she meets David, falling hopelessly in love. David is quite a contrast to the rest of the book, and like Frances I had my doubts about him. He is a traditional type with fixed ideas about women.

“‘I think that you ought to have married. Why haven’t you married, my dear?’ He stood surveying her critically, but his eyes were not altogether unsympathetic. She thought: ‘Supposing I tried to explain? And began to laugh softly to herself. ‘Bless you!’ she said, ‘I’ve never wanted to marry.’
‘All women do,’ he told her.
‘Not being a woman, how can you know?’
‘Because I’m a man, I suppose.’

The reader of course understands early on that Frances is a lesbian, Hall gives us plenty of clues. Living alone, wearing rather masculine clothes, quietly devoted to Prudence. She is easily the most interesting character in the book.
The ending is enigmatic – has Sidonia found her last great fulfilment in life – will it be a happy ending?

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cof

In Margaret Laurence’s final novel most of her characters are searching; searchers for home, family or creativity, water or scavenging in town dumps. The Diviners; the final novel in Laurence’s Manawaka sequence (though I still have to read number three and the collection of stories) is though a novel of outsiders.

At about 400 pages, I thought twice about reading this, as I am trying not to pick anything too big as I race toward the end of my A Century of Books. I had wanted to read this so long, I decided it didn’t really matter – I should read what I wanted to. So very glad I did, I loved every bit of this novel, not a fast read, but a thoroughly absorbing one, beautifully written it proved a real treat spending time with this book. An epic novel, which is already considered a classic of Canadian literature. Strangely, the novel has also been banned several times by school boards for blasphemy. I find that absurd.

Manawaka is the fictional prairie town that first appeared in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. The Diviners is the story of Morag Gunn, a fiercely independent writer, her difficult relationships with her Métis lover Jules Tonnerre, and her daughter Pique. As we first meet Morag, she is a forty-seven-year old woman, living near a river. Her eighteen-year-old daughter has gone away for a while and she is worrying about her, watching the river – trying to get her mind back to her work. Here, Morag is alone but has friends close by – neighbours who pop in frequently. Old Royland, the water diviner is one.

“No boats today. Yes, one. Royland was out, fishing for muskie, seventy-four years old this year, Royland. Eyesight terrible, but he was too stubborn to wear glasses. A marvel that he could go on working. Of course, his work did not depend upon eyesight. Some other kind of sight. A water diviner. Morag always felt she was about to learn something of great significance from him, something which would explain everything. But things remained mysterious, his work, her own, the generations, the river.”

The story moves back and forth between Morag’s present – where she struggles with her work and her relationship with her daughter, and the past as she grows up more and more desperate to escape the town of Manawaka.

Morag Gunn wasn’t born in Manawaka – her parents died when she was just five years old – and she goes to live in Manawaka with an army friend of her father’s and his wife – who agree to take the orphaned child in. Christy Logan and his wife Prin (short for Princess) are an odd choice as guardians for such a young child. Morag has never lived in town before – it all seems very strange – and she has never met Christy and Prin before she is taken there by a neighbour. Christy is the town scavenger – he spends his days at the nuisance grounds (the town tip) he gets rid of the things people don’t want – a keeper of secrets, and a finder of things. His wife Prin is an enormously large woman, who stays mainly in the house.

“‘She’ll be alright Christie,’ the Big Fat Woman says. ‘She gotta get used to us. Leave her be, now’
‘I was only trying, for God’s sake, woman,’ sounding mad.
‘You want to see your room, Morag?’ the woman says.
She nods. They mount the stairs, the woman going very slow because fat. The room is hers, this one? A thin bed, a green dresser, a window with a (oh – ripped, shame on them) lace curtain. A little room. You might be safe in a place like that, if it was really yours. If they meant it.”

Christy and Prin are kind people – and though Morag is often slightly ashamed of them – in the way children are when their adults are so obviously different to other children’s – she becomes used to them. Christy is a good teller of tales – stories that Morag carries with her – she is both fascinated and repelled by his life at the nuisance grounds (I shall forever now, think of a rubbish dump as the nuisance grounds). However, as Morag grows up – she becomes more and more dissatisfied with life in Manawaka, knowing that when the time is right, she will break away.

Morag is made tough by this strange life in the prairie town. It is here in Manawaka though as a teenager that Morag first meets Jules Tonnerre, (nickname Skinner), Jules and his family are outsiders, Métis living on the outskirts of town, they are subject to all the usual prejudices. While Jules is away at the war, Morag a junior reporter on the town newspaper is sent to report on the fire at the Tonnerre home, where Jules’ sister and her children are killed. It is a scene that will haunt them both over the coming years.

the diviners

Morag does leave Manakawa – she goes to college where she meets new friends and lovers, marries the wrong man and longs for a child. One day, she meets up with Jules again, though their relationship is never destined to be conventional, she takes the chance to break away one more time.

Laurence’s characters are wonderfully memorable – her storytelling is rich and poignantly written. My first novel of the month will be one that is hard to beat. I don’t think it matters that I am reading these books slightly out of order, but I am looking forward to reading The Fire Dwellers even more now.

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cof

It’s funny how a book can sometimes surprise us. I very nearly didn’t read this novel at all. I have had it tbr for absolutely ages, and it was the only book I had for 1922 in my ACOB. I have no memory at all of where it came from. When I was in my teens I read Precious Bane, Mary Webb’s best-known novel, in fact, my sister and I were both obsessed with it for a while. I think I read Gone to Earth too, but I can’t remember that one at all – it certainly didn’t leave an impression in the same way as Precious Bane did. Seven for a Secret was the fourth of Mary Webb’s six novels, coming two years before Precious Bane.

Mary Webb is known as the writer Stella Gibbons parodied in her novel Cold Comfort Farm. A Shropshire novelist and poet. Mary Webb’s work is very much rooted in the Shropshire landscape she grew up in. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that I mightn’t get on so well with Mary Webb now Her obvious romanticism might have suited my teenage years but would probably irritate me now. Mary Webb is very descriptive, – her storytelling comes from the same tradition as writers like Sheila Kaye-Smith (who I also read recently) and Thomas Hardy – to whom this novel is dedicated. Hers is perhaps a style that won’t suit everyone, there is an old-fashioned quality to it, but unexpectedly I loved it.

The one aspect to the novel I might take slight issue with is Webb’s use of dialect, true she does it spectacularly well – but I’m never sure if dialect is really necessary. Can’t a writer merely tell us that a person speaks with a particular accent, throw in a few colloquialisms and allow the reader’s imagination to do the rest? That’s probably how a modern writer might approach it. Of course, Mary Webb was writing at a time when this kind of romantic writing was more in vogue than it is now. I found I got to grips with the dialect fairly quickly – but I could understand it putting some readers off.

I saw seven magpies in a tree,
One for you and six for me.
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
That’s never been told.

Gillian Lovekin is eighteen as the novel opens, living with her father, on his farm in the Shropshire hills. Gillian is a very pretty girl, a head full of dreams and longings – including for men to lose their hearts to her. She imagines herself in a fabulous gown, and dreams of experiencing London. There is in Gillian, a little of that slightly self-important selfishness that the young girls can sometimes have. She’s young, apt to make errors in the pursuit of happiness.

Gillian and her father are looked after by Mrs Makepeace – whose second husband Jonathan works on the farm too – he is quite a character, in a constant battle with every inanimate object in his path – if there is an accident to be had, Jonathan will have it. Mrs Makepeace’s son from her first marriage; Robert Rideout is Mr Lovekin’s cowman-shepherd. A thoughtful, dreamy character his strong, kind hands induce the cows to produce more milk, ewes drop their lambs safely. In his own time, he writes poetry in secret, and has slowly but inevitably fallen in love with Gillian. However, neither Gillian or her father consider a cowman-shepherd as suitable husband material. Robert has a friend Gipsy Johnson, who tells Robert a sad, perplexing tale of a lost child. In time Robert comes to think he can solve the mystery.

While Gillian is away visiting her aunt, a stranger; Ralph Elmer comes to live at the old inn ‘The Mermaid’. Elmer is a big personality and seems to have his finger in a lot of pies. He is accompanied by his mute housekeeper Rwth, and his surly old manservant Fringal. Right from the start Robert is unsettled by Elmer.

“And with the acute intuition of the poet he saw that Gillian would assuredly come back; that she would meet Elmer; that Elmer’s philosophy of self would go down before the passion she would arouse; that maybe she would be his.”

Gillian arrives home, and Elmer sets his cap at her – he enlists the sinister Fringal in his plan – which certainly doesn’t include marriage. Robert finds the distance between himself and his old friend Gillian widening. Gillian is hugely fond of Robert, her affection is growing, but it is as if she is too stubborn to admit it.

Meanwhile Robert can’t help but wonder about Elmer’s housekeeper Rwth – the girl is horribly bullied by Elmer – helpless and shrunken into herself she is a rather pitiful figure. On his visits to the inn Robert can’t help but show her simple kindness – and from then on, the girl gazes out of her attic window across the fields to the farm where he is working, utterly smitten. Gillian is also drawn to the strange silent girl, the two make jam together and Gillian starts to teach Rwth how to write so that she can communicate at last.

“The fresh summer breezes came in, laden with hay and moss and bracken scents. Dysgwlfas Farm miniature but clear, met their eyes when they looked up from their work. And sometimes, when the wind was in the right quarter, they could hear the pleasant high note of the machine, and the shouts, made soft and short by distance, of Jonathan and Robert and their helpers as they lugged the hay.”

Gillian is at heart a good and loving young woman – over the course of the novel, she begins to lose that giddiness we saw in her at the start, and we recognise the great capacity she has within herself to love.

The stage is set for betrayal, secrets to be unearthed, and the lives of good honest people to be unsettled by the stranger in their midst. I found it a very compelling read. There are a few ends to be tied up at the end of the story – and one or two of these are slightly rushed – but that didn’t stop me enjoying this novel immensely. I flew through the last fifty pages barely breathing.

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pirates at play

I think I must have had this book tbr for quite a while – and I couldn’t remember where I got it until I saw that it had been registered on bookcrossing (not by me) – so that’s where I got it. Violet Trefusis is a name often coupled with that of Vita Sackville West, because of the relationship they had in the years following the end of the First World War. In her introduction to this edition Lisa St Aubin says that Pirates at Play is an apt name for a novel by someone who herself was a social pirate.

“When she writes about falling in love, about flirting, about manipulating the world around her, she is writing about what she knows.”
(Lisa St Aubin – introduction)

I have of course read several Vita Sackville West novels, and for the most part enjoyed them immensely. Her novel Challenge was the exception – and I read somewhere that Violet Trefusis had something of a hand in it. However, I couldn’t remember at first whether I had read Violet Trefusis herself before. A delve into my own archives reveals I read the letters Violet to Vita edited Mitchell A Leaska, in 2010 and it seems Violet got on my nerves a bit. That’s interesting, and maybe revealing as I vaguely remember starting another Violet Trefusis novel (no idea which one) some years ago and giving up on it.

At this point I should say that I did really enjoy Pirates at Play – though something stopped me from really loving it – and I felt I should have done really, it is well written and witty, and Trefusis’ characters are wonderfully vivid. Her descriptions of Italy and the English country estate of the aristocratic Caracole family are also stunning, creating an evocative sense of place. Violet Trefusis was a gifted writer, of that I am in no doubt.

“The ferocious day, striped white and black, like a zebra, was declining at length, as though loath to let go. A nimbus of dust hung over the bridges, never free of the shuffle of feet. At the angle of the Ponte Vecchio, Beppino, the blind guitarist, scratched at his instrument with the frenzy of one affected with erysipelas, raising his moonstone eyes to the Heavens, whenever he heard a foreign language spoken.”

Trefusis is sharply observant about the society she knew so well, in some ways she is poking gentle fun at it. It is a novel about love in many forms, wish fulfilment and society. Trefusis’ female characters are by far the strongest, beautifully well drawn, they sparkle off the page, however, some of her male characters are rather two dimensional.

The pirates of the title are two very different families, one English, one Italian. Elizabeth Caracole (pronounced Crackle) is the daughter of an old aristocratic family, living on a grand and beautiful estate. Her parents decide to send her to be finished in Florence. Golden haired Elizabeth is to live in the home of a Papal Count (the pope’s dentist). The Papagalli family boast one extraordinarily beautiful daughter; Vica and five sons. Florence is a marvellous setting for this romantic comedy, set during the frantic, roaring twenties.

“Do you think that love has to be requited to be genuine? On the contrary, it thrives on indifference.”

Elizabeth is known to turn male heads herself – and here she is entering into a house full of men! Vica is ambitious and has her own plans, which are set to be thwarted by the very formidable old Principessa Arrivamale. For Elizabeth, Florence is a whirlwind of new experiences, and five brothers to get to know. A grand ball is held with half of Europe it seems to attend. As soon as the old princess sets eyes on Elizabeth, she decides she wants the beautiful English aristocrat as a wife for her nephew Gian Galeazzo – little knowing that Vica also has her sights set on him herself (the princess insists on dismissing Vica as being merely the dentist’s daughter). The princess is a fantastic creation, ever so slightly terrifying, she bullies her companion Miss Walker (Valka) horribly and is quite obviously used to getting her own way. Elizabeth knows she isn’t in love with Gian but allows herself to have her head turned – so swept up, as she is, by all these new experiences she is having in Florence. Elizabeth is all set to get herself into a situation.

Two Englishmen then arrive in Florence too, and set about ruffling feathers and undoing carefully laid plans. One is Charles; Elizabeth’s adored brother, the other is Peter – in Florence at Elizabeth’s mother’s request –  Elizabeth’s great childhood friend, himself in love with Elizabeth, and conscious of his almost penniless state. Naturally, Charles takes one look at Vica and is hopelessly smitten. Poor Charles is something of an innocent – and really not equal to Vica’s manipulations.

Pirates at Play is certainly well written and entertaining, yet there is just something about Violet Trefusis’ voice that I don’t engage with quite as much as I would like.

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toldbyanidiot

I have previously read two Rose Macaulay novels; The World my Wilderness and Crewe Train, firmly establishing Rose Macaulay as a writer I had to read more of. I spent a tiring, slow reading week with this book and it was wonderful company. Told by an Idiot is an earlier novel than either of those other two, and I think a rather more serious one. Rose Macaulay’s list of works on Wikipedia is considerable, though only a few are in print, so I have just purchased two more Macaulay novels from ebay. In this novel Macaulay charts the ever changing social, political and religious fortunes of England from the 1870s to the 1920s through the eyes of one family.

As the novel opens, Mama and Papa Garden live in their comfortable London home with their six children, the eldest Vicky is already twenty-three – the youngest Una a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl.

“One evening, shortly before Christmas, in the days when our forefathers, being young, possessed the earth, – in brief, in the year 1879, – Mrs Garden came briskly into the drawing-room from Mr Garden’s study and said in her crisp, even voice to her six children, “Well, my dears, I have to tell you something. Poor Papa has lost his faith again.””

Mr Garden changes religion like people of today change their mobile phones, from Anglicanism to Ethicism, to Catholicism to Christian Science – and everything in between. The family are well used to it – and his long suffering, ever supportive wife embraces whatever the latest thing is – no matter what her own private thoughts.

It is their children however who are at the centre of this novel, and in 1879 and the 1880s they are what is seen as the modern generation. Conventional Vicky’s younger sisters Stanley and Rome (here again Macaulay’s unusual androgynous names for women) and their brother Maurice at Cambridge are the epitome of late Victorian modernity. Stanley is passionate for a social cause, Rome is charming, urbane and cynical, she tries not to engage too fully with anything, taking life as it comes, and finding so much of life highly amusing.

“Life was to her at this time more than ever a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. She went on her way as usual, reading, seeing pictures, hearing music, meeting people, talking, smoking, bicycling, leading the life led by intelligent dilettanti in the small, cultivated nucleus of a great city.”

Maurice, with his first from Cambridge is an angry young man, who writes for a newspaper. Una grows up and marries a farmer, delighting too much in country life to do anything else, and Irving becomes a business man with some conscience and the ability to make money.

Vicky becomes a typical late Victorian matron, marries Charles, they argue a little from time to time, but Vicky loves him, and children inevitably arrive. Stanley marries and has children too, but her marriage is less successful, as is Maurice’s who marries a shallow, silly woman without really knowing her. Rome finds her one true love, though he is married to someone else.

Throughout the years, as various politicians come and go, as new technologies and new fads come along, and wars are fought, the older generation continue to be confounded and outraged by the younger generation. Though sometimes, the modern generation is even too outrageous for one another. Stanley’s husband is horrified and repulsed when she takes to wearing ‘bloomers’ to ride around London on a Bicycle.

“’It’s better to be elegant, dirty and dangerous than frumpish, clean and safe. That’s an epigram. The fact is women ought never to indulge in activities, either of the body or the mind; it’s not their rôle. They can’t do it gracefully.”

No wonder, perhaps that in middle age Stanley becomes a suffragist.

The third generation of Gardens grow up in a world where the Boer war is talked about by everyone – including children. Young Imogen is mortified when a child at school says her Uncle Maurice is pro Boer – and Imogen tries to explain that she isn’t pro -Boer herself but she can see their point. Imogen is a wonderful character, if Rome reflects one part of Macaulay’s own character, then her niece Imogen reflects the other part. Imogen; Vicky’s daughter, wants nothing more than to be a bright blue-eyed boy and join the navy. Her head is filled with stories in which she casts herself as Denis, a brown-skinned, blue-eyed young naval man. Imogen longs for adventure, to break away from the role cast for her by society. There is a wonderful scene where Imogen and her brother spend a Sunday morning riding around the underground for a penny. Those readers who love Imogen as much as I did will cheer for her as the novel draws to a conclusion.

Macaulay writes movingly about the realities of the First World War; those modern Victorians are in their sixties as the novel comes to an end – and England in some ways has changed and yet we see that in all the ways that matter people don’t change all that much. The older generation will always shake their heads at the younger generation, no matter what generation that is.

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