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delta wedding

Delta Wedding was my first book read during May. I chose it to tick off 1945 of my ACOB – and I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. I know lots of people really like Eudora Welty’s writing, but my only previous experience of her writing was not very successful. In 2012 I began reading her later novel Losing Battles, (1970) a book of something like 400 pages, I read about half of it before giving up in frustration. I had really wanted to like it but just couldn’t get to grips with it. I felt I needed to give Eudora Welty another try and this much earlier Welty novel was a charity shop find last year. Good news, I enjoyed Delta Wedding very much indeed, so much in fact that I might revisit Losing Battles one of these days.

Right from the start I was drawn into the story by the exceptional writing and evocative sense of place. It is a novel which deserves slow, considered reading, and while there isn’t a huge amount of plot – the story of a large, Mississippi family, in the weeks around the wedding of their daughter to the plantation overseer, is quite wonderful.

“People are mostly layers of violence and tenderness wrapped like bulbs, and it is difficult to say what makes them onions or hyacinths.”

In September 1923 nine-year-old Laura McRaven travels on the Yellow Dog train from Jackson Mississippi to the family plantation of Shellmound on the Mississippi delta. Laura’s mother has died, and at Shellmound she is enveloped by the enormous Fairchild family – her mother’s family. The cast of characters is huge, and it took me a while to get to grips with who was who. I found some names confusing, a child with the same name as his father and several older aunts called by their husbands’ names; ie Aunt Jim Allen – and Aunt Robbie married to Uncle George – it doesn’t take much to confuse me.

As Laura arrives the family are beginning to gather for the wedding of Dabney the prettiest of the Fairchild children. She is still only seventeen and about to marry an older man, Troy Flavin, a man from the mountains, the family overseer and there is the feeling that deep down the Fairchilds don’t fully approve. Though everyone treats Dabney with all the deference due to a beautiful young bride to be, giving her advice, and gently teasing.

“‘Don’t ever let this husband of yours, whoever he is, know you can cook, Dabney Fairchild, or you’ll spend the rest of your life in the kitchen. That’s the first thing I want to tell you.’”

The day to day events in the lives of this large, proud Southern family are portrayed with humour and affection. Children race around the house and grounds, drawing, poor motherless Laura into their games and their world, while the adults concern themselves with wedding preparations and family gossip. Aunt Ellen is the mother of the bride, mother to eight and expecting again, married to Uncle Battle she is a warm loving presence. Uncle George, the firm family favourite is due to arrive soon from Memphis with his wife Robbie – though when he finally turns up, he is alone, Robbie having apparently left him. This is just about as shocking a thing as any of the Fairchilds have ever heard, that she should leave George! George of course can do no wrong, though we see him as a little less than perfect.

As with all families, stories are told and retold, some quickly taking on an almost legendary status. Like the recent story; told to Laura and then repeated later by the adults – of George walking the railway trestle with young Maureen, as his wife watched nearby. Maureen’s foot got caught in the rail just as the train was coming, George stayed to free the child’s foot as the train raced toward them. Tragedy was averted, but the story of such a close call is hard to resist.

Dabney, the child bride is in love – after her marriage she will move into another family house on the plantation, Marmion. She has her head in the clouds, appearing at table just whenever she feels like it – Laura notices. She is girlish and romantic but despite her youth she knows what she wants and the life she wants is just within reach. The old maiden aunts gift her a small, treasured night light, the object seems to be symbolic for Laura and the aunts and perhaps even for Dabney too.

“Life was not ever inviolate. Dabney, poor sister and bride, shed tears this morning (though belatedly) because she had broken the Fairchild night light the aunts had given her; it seemed so unavoidable to Dabney, that was why she cried, as if she had felt it was part of her being married that this cherished little bit of other peoples’ lives should be shattered now.”

 

Capturing a time and place perfectly Delta Wedding is the story of long, slow Southern days, a complicated loving family, and ultimately a celebration of a way of life. So very pleased I gave Eudora Welty another chance.

eudora welty

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cof

(Bear with me everyone – I know I should be doing my round-up post for April – but I really didn’t want to do another round-up post so soon, so I haven’t. It may see what I did there – turn up later in the week).

This beautiful anniversary edition of Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water was one of those beautiful editions Virago sent me to celebrate the VMC anniversary. This edition and the other anniversary editions are out in a day or two I believe – and they are beautifully produced editions.

This novel completely blew me away. I haven’t read Janet Frame before –  I had heard of her famous autobiography An Angel at my Table – though I can’t say I knew the name of Janet Frame in connection with it. I feel as if I should have done – because Janet Frame’s own story is extraordinary – and rather terrifying. New Zealand writer Janet Frame spent years being admitted to psychiatric hospitals where she was treated with ECT and insulin. While she was still a patient in hospital, Janet Frame’s first collection of short stories was published, and won a prestigious award. The news of the award led to her doctors cancelling her scheduled lobotomy, I just shudder at what would have happened to this wonderfully talented woman had not that news filtered through. Frame was eventually discharged from hospital – and went on to enjoy a long and prolific writing career, she left New Zealand for some years and travelled in Europe and the US. While in London Frame was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and her psychiatrist encouraged her to keep writing.

Faces in the Water, the second of Frame’s novels, takes us to the world of New Zealand’s psychiatric wards. It is really quite dazzling; Frames prose is perfect. This heavily autobiographical novel has difficult themes, telling the painful stories of women like Frame. Yet, somehow, I didn’t find it a difficult novel to read, a lot of it is shocking and rather disturbing – but somehow it manages to be a compelling and even enjoyable read.

Istina Mavers is the narrator of this novel, a young woman and former teacher who has lost her sense of herself, and her grip on reality. Istina finds herself in Cliffhaven – a psychiatric hospital.

“And at times I murmured the token phrase to the doctor, ‘When can I go home?’ knowing that home was the place where I least desired to be. There they would watch me for signs of abnormality, like ferrets around a rabbit burrow waiting for the rabbit to appear.”

Here she is surrounded by other patients, introduced to the often frightening routines and rules and subject to the vagaries of those supposed to be caring for her. Here, Frame reproduces the sense of powerlessness and fear endured by patients on a daily basis, brilliantly.

Each morning Istina and the other patients wait anxiously to see whether they will be called in to breakfast – or instead selected for the terrifying ECT treatment. The fear of this horrific treatment is quite palpable. Almost like a prisoner granted an exercise period, Istina walks in the grounds, glimpsing the world beyond, a world she no longer feels a part of.

“We stood at the gate, considering the marvel of the World where people, such is the deception of memory, did as they pleased, owned furniture, dressing tables with doilies on them and wardrobes with mirrors; and doors they could open and shut and open as many times as they chose; and no name tapes sewn inside the neck of their clothes; and handbags to carry, with nail files and make-up; and no one to watch while they were eating and to collect and count the knives afterwards and say in a frightening voice, ‘Rise, Ladies.’

In time Istina is discharged and she goes North to stay with her sister, brother-in-law and their children. However, it isn’t long before Istina is back in hospital – this time the hospital is Treecroft – with different rules, different ways of doing things, but always the same fear – that you are one of those who will never go home.

“And the days passed, packing and piling themselves together like sheets of absorbent material, deadening the sound of our lives, even to ourselves, so that perhaps if a tomorrow ever came it would not hear us; its new days would bury us, in its own name; we would be like people entombed when the rescuers, walking about in the dark waving lanterns and calling to us, eventually give up because no one answers them; sometimes they dig and find the victims dead.”

Later, following a short period back home, Istina is back where she started at Cliffhaven – years have gone by, and it seems as if her whole world has been that of a psychiatric ward where others make crucial decisions for her. Here Istina first hears that her doctors are considering the operation – the leucotomy (aka lobotomy) – and she is terrified. All around her nursing staff talk brightly of the wonders of the changed personality. She will be able to leave hospital get a job – yet Istina remembers those taken out the back doors to the mortuary, or left shells of their former selves.

Faces in the Water is an extraordinary novel, written in lyrical, luminous prose it is honest, heart-breaking and raw. I think it is wonderful that Virago have brought out this new edition of this novel – I urge everyone to read it.

janet frame

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dewey24hrreadathon

For the first time ever, I have decided to join in with the #readathon which – I am reliably informed (Twitter) has something like 1500 people signed up to it. With varying start times depending on where in the world you are the UK readathon will be 1.00pm Saturday 28th April – 1.00 pm 29th April. (I believe that’s the official start time – but I am sure it is flexible, so people can do what works for them.)

I have watched the festivities from afar before and had it in the back of my mind to try it. It was Liz who gave me the nudge – she has decided to join in, and as I will be seeing her later today, we can do a few minutes of readathon together. Other friends will be present we might have to do social too. Actually, it is the Birmingham bookcrossing meet up today – so none of our booky friends will turn a hair at our getting our books out. A lovely bookish weekend beckons – in fact I am going to a literary festival event tomorrow (after readathon is finished luckily). Now I have decided to take part, I am quite excited.

Oh, and no I will not stay up all night! – I am frankly incapable of such madness – though I might manage to stay up an extra hour or so.

I know some readathoners post regular updates on their blogs – but I have decided to just come back and update this post. Due to an arrangement to meet friends for lunch and the Birmingham bookcrossing meet up, I won’t get properly started till at least 4 o’clock this afternoon UK time – but that still gives me 21 readathon hours to play with.

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So, I have come up with a small readathon pile – small because – terrible admission coming up: I am a fairly slow reader. Yes, I read quite a lot – but in terms of pages read per hour (it depends on what I am reading Agatha Christie reads faster than Virginia Woolf let’s be honest) my stats wouldn’t be impressive. I have chosen Trick by Domenico Starnone my Asymptote book club read. Translated from Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri, a literary novelist in her own right. I have meant to get to it for three weeks but kept getting waylaid by other things. I started it last night but was too tired to read very much, by the time 1.00 today comes I should think I will be fifty or sixty pages into it, and it isn’t a long book. Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay – a British Library Crime Classic, that will tick off 1934 in my A Century of Books. I am also hoping to read at least a few of the essays in the Writers as Readers collection from Virago – it is a gorgeous celebration of VMC – and I have been itching to read it. My Persephone biannually has been languishing unread by the bookcase, so I added that to the pile too.

So… happy reading everyone who is joining in with readathon this weekend and come back later to see how I get on.

bookcrossersUpdate 1 : I ended up reading a little more than I had anticipated this morning before the official UK start time of 1.00 o’clock (50 pages – which won’t count). So at 1.00 (just as I was meeting friends) I was ninety pages into Trick by Domenico Starnone.

The bookcrossers helped Liz and I celebrate the beginning of readathon we all got our books out, read for a few minutes, to the amusement of everyone in the cafe I’m sure, and posed for a photo. Liz and I were photographed collapsing into giggles behind our books. lizandme

I left the cafe and my lovely friends at 3.15 and caught the bus home (finally time to read properly) arrived home at 4.10 locked the door, ran upstairs to change into cosy clothes and then sat down to read. Tea was made, snacks taken out and at 5.45 I finished Trick such a lovely book. Total pages read during official readathon period 101.

Time to start book 2.

Update 2.  I started my second book – Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. I do get easily distracted – social media is a terrible draw. Anyway, several short breaks actually helped me to keep going. I had a break of about an hour to watch something on TV and then came back to my book. I haven’t finished the book yet – just under 70 pages to go and I am done in. It is 1.30 am here and I am about to go to bed, having read 205 pages of it.

So in total I have read 306 pages – the readathon doesn’t end till 1.00 pm here so I have set my alarm for 8.00 – I might even wake up earlier – when I will finish Murder Underground and perhaps get a couple of those VMC essays read.

Update 3 Suddenly it’s Sunday and the readathon officially ends in twenty-five minutes time – all that reading certainly makes the hours fly by. As I said I set my alarm for 8.00 am and dutifully rose when it rang, despite having not gone to sleep as quickly as I had hoped. I expect I had something like 5 and half hours and I certainly felt a bit the worse for it when I came down to make that first cup of tea. I read the final 69 pages of Murder Underground – a mystery I found very enjoyable – luckily it really is a hard one to put down.

writers as readers1So I moved on to my third book – it’s a book of forty essays – a little over 400 pages I knew I would only get a bit of it read. Writers as Readers is a wonderful celebration of VMC writers published for the fortieth anniversary of VMC. I read the introduction and six of the essays: Margaret Drabble on Jane Austen, Angela Carter on Charlotte Bronte, Beryl Bainbridge on Emily Bronte, Maggie O’Farrell on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth Jane Howard on Elizabeth von Arnim and A.S Byatt on Willa Carter. Every one of them hugely readable.  That amounted tings learo 76 pages.

I’m off for a shower and to search for paracetemol – I have given myself a headache – as I have to go out in a couple of hours.

Total pages read: 451 – across three books.  (Oh and yes, I may well do this again – although I am frankly staggered and overawed by the stats produced by some readers. I said I was a slow reader though – oh well!)

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Happy birthday VMC

VMC40

This May sees the fortieth anniversary of Virago Modern Classics – an imprint I read voraciously. I expect most of you will know that I greatly prefer the old green VMCs that were published from the end of the 1970s through to the 1990s. Some of the more recent designs I have been less thrilled with – although I do have a great love for the hardbacked designer editions. Not only are they beautiful but the novels and short stories selected for that edition are wonderful examples of the wide variety of women’s writing in the mid twentieth century. Elizabeth von Arnim, Daphne Du Maurier, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Jenkins, Barbara Pym, Angela Carter and Molly Keane are all represented in those beautiful hardback editions and I have been unable to stop myself from collecting a few of them.

For the fortieth anniversary Virago are releasing thirteen sparkly new paperback editions of some of their most popular and enduring works – these are glorious editions perfect in every way. There are French flaps – what more do you need to know? The range of books and authors chosen is perfect however, something for everyone I should think. Authors include Rosamond Lehman, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Taylor, Rebecca West and Muriel Spark.

In addition to these beautiful new editions Virago are publishing a beautiful hardback – Writers As Readers: A Celebration of Virago Modern Classics. Handily it matches nicely those hardback designer editions I so love. Essays by writers about writers, we have for example Margaret Drabble writing about Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen on Antonia White, Anita Desai on Rumer Godden. An utterly delicious book in every way.

So, and try not to hate me, I was gifted a gorgeous package of celebratory material by Virago a few days ago. I think I squealed. I wasn’t the only one to be so spoiled, lots of other Virago readers and bloggers were treated too. I got a beautiful copy of Writers as Readers, a tote bag, four of the beautiful new paperbacks, postcards and bookmark featuring the new designs. I feel very fortunate. The paperbacks I received are: Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor, Frost in May by Antonia White and Faces in the Water by Janet Frame (one I haven’t read). They were perfect choices as Lehman, Taylor and White are authors I absolutely love.

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Click on the titles below to go to my (rather old and often rather slight) reviews of these books.

cofFrost in May (1933) was famously the first ever VMC published – Antonia White went on to publish three more novels featuring the same character (though with a changed name). That quartet contains such exquisitely powerful writing, and superb storytelling that it quickly became one of my favourite series of books.

Weather in the Streets (1936) by Rosamond Lehmann is a novel I have been meaning to reread for ages. It is the sequel to Invitation to the Waltz – but stands alone just as well I think. Despite having only read it once I think it is my favourite Lehmann novel.

A View of the Harbour (1947) is one of the Elizabeth Taylor novels that I have only read once too – I remember loving Taylor’s depiction of a small seaside community. Again, very overdue a reread.

Rereading is a bit of a luxury this year as I am trying to do ACOB – but at least I know which of my two editions of these books I will be reading when I do get a chance.

I am thinking I may read Faces in the Water very soon – I love being introduced to a new author, and happily 1961 is still waiting to be ticked off in my A Century of Books. I am also going to start dipping into that Writers as Readers book.

So, a very happy birthday Virago. Long may these beautiful editions and publication of these women writers continue.

writers as readers

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celia

I’m mixing up the order of my reviews here – with two other books waiting to be reviewed I decided to slot this one in first, for Jane’s lovely E H Young day. I have quite literally just finished the book – in fact more than half this review was written, while I was still reading, so intent was I upon the deadline. For today would have been Edith Hilda Young’s birthday. E H Young is definitely one of my favourite writers, so I really wanted to get my review up on the right day.

I chose Celia to read, one of only a couple E H Young novels I have still to read, and which fitted nicely into my ACOB.

In this novel there were some slight echoes of Chatterton Square – my favourite E H Young novel – in it’s depiction of middle class marriage. This is certainly a recurring theme for E H Young, and in this novel, she shines a keen light on three slightly mis-matched marriages.

“A family isn’t several separate persons. It’s a lot of–of dismembered people. Somebody has your head and another one has your hands and you have bits of all the others fastened onto you. You don’t belong to yourself, but then, they, poor things, don’t belong to themselves either.”

We find ourselves back in the familiar territory of Upper Radstowe between the wars, here forty-five-year-old Celia lives in a flat with her two children and architect husband. She is uninterested in the physical side of their relationship, contemptuous of her husband’s dull little house designs, though she keeps smiling kindly, and never rocks the boat. Tired too, of scrimping and saving for her family – while her brother’s family live so much more comfortably. Her only help is her daily, Miss Riggs, with whom Celia has a somewhat frank relationship. Miss Riggs lost her one love in the war, she talks about Fred as if he were only recently there. Celia often envies Miss Riggs her chaste memories of Fred, never having experienced the realities of married life.

Here we have the minutia of everyday life – the oppressiveness of domesticity, the weariness of years unvaried and unchanging. Celia is a typical E H Young character she wryly observes those around her and gives a good talking to where it’s needed. Though she hides her keen intelligence behind a veil of gentle vagueness. However, there is a frustration too.

“Men, she thought, always had this resource of attributing their failures to women…
‘Must we do everything?’ she asked herself angrily … ‘Bear their children and bring them up, manage the money, do without nearly everything we want and pretend we don’t want anything.’”

Susan; Celia’s niece – accompanies her aunt’s wealthy friend Pauline Carey on a short trip to Paris. Susan arrives home full of everything she did and saw, charmed by Mr Milligan Mrs Carey’s brother. Years earlier – unknown to everyone – Celia had loved Richard Milligan and it is the memory of this lost, long ago love that sustains her now. Susan delights in how like her aunt people say she is, and Celia imagining Richard seeing that likeness can’t help but feel a small pang of jealousy.

Celia, her brother John, and her sisters May and Hester were born into a family of drapers. John took on the shop, now a large, successful business and benefited from his father’s will more than any of his sisters. John – like his father before him – doesn’t approve of independence in women. Hester (who we don’t meet) has taken herself off to London and lives independently to the great disapproval and suspicion of John. May is married to solicitor Stephen, has three daughters – one of whom; Susan has turned the head of Celia’s son Jimmy – despite their being first cousins. John married Julia, a woman who sees herself as the perfect wife and mother, and to date has conformed to John’s ideal– they have six children. Julia is small, pretty and easily brought to tears – she sees it as her duty to dress nicely for people when she visits them – never mind the weather.

Celia, May and Julia – trip in and out of one another’s houses Julia and May meet up daily on their way back and forth to the shops, happily bickering. They are each watchful, as they carp and prey upon each other’s misdemeanours. Celia must also deal with her mother-in-law Mrs Marston who lives further along the terrace. It is, Celia acknowledges to herself, a somewhat narrow life.

Stephen suddenly announces he wants a little holiday of his own, a day or two away by himself – he has no idea where he will go and announces blithely he may just sleep under a haystack. No sooner has he told May, then he is off – and May trudges around as if she has been suddenly widowed. Julia, meanwhile, realises her eldest son Robert is desperate to not go into the drapers’ shop with his father as he is destined to – and sets herself up to save him.

“And she thought they were all rather pathetic, these men and women of her family. They were all more or less mis-mated yet they could not and they did not wish to break their bonds. Even she could not break hers. Though the one attaching her to Gerald had worn thin, it held still, and primitively, unreasonably, she resented the idea that the one from him to her had worn thin too.”

So, while Celia had often imagined May and John’s marriages to have been more successful than her own, we see, as the novel progresses, that none of these relationships are ideal.

E H Young’s domestic settings are not always comfortable – she portrays marriages of disappointment or inequality in this and other novels, and in doing so seems to question the very institution itself. She was, I firmly believe an important writer – and despite her legion of fans has been sadly neglected. Surely, she is someone who should be re-issued and introduced to a whole new audience.

E H Young

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Mad puppetstown

My first read for this year’s Read Ireland month was Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane, it seems I often read Molly Keane for Read Ireland month. I enjoy her books a lot, but I honestly think that this might be my favourite of hers to date. I have quoted quite extensively from the novel – apologies to those who find that tedious – I had marked so many passages, that for me, show the exquisite nature of Keane’s writing.

Mad Puppetstown is a wonderful evocation of an Irish childhood in the early twentieth century, before the First World War. On page one Molly Keane describes the world as it was – as it would have been for her. The novel begins:

“Then : –
They said: “You naughty man!”
They wore hair nets and tortoise-shell combs.
It was more than fast to accept presents from men.
You bought a blood four-year-old up to weight for £60.
There was no wire.
The talked about “the ladies” and “motor-cars.”
“By George!” they said, but never used Americanisms; such were not known.
Their top boots were shorter and their spurs were worn lower down on the heel.
You loved with passion.
You did not trouble to keep your sense of humour ready in the background.
Love mattered.
Manners mattered.
Children mattered.
Places and dependents mattered too.
Money bought much more.
People drove about in dog-carts and pony traps.
Invitations were issued to tea.
Tea parties mattered too.
Women who powdered their faces were fast
Women who painted them – bad.
Hunting, low wages, feather boas, nipped in habit coats, curly bowlers, bunches of violets, black furs and purple hats were much in vogue.
A book called Three Weeks was both enjoyed and abused.
Champagne was a frequent drink. Women never drank whisky.”

Like poetry, I wanted to learn those lines and recite them. I was captivated immediately both by the world I found myself in, and Molly Keane’s glorious voice – her writing is always fabulous – somehow, I had forgotten how good she is.

Into what Molly Keane calls ‘those full-blooded’ days young Easter Chevington is born and raised. She is eight as the novel opens, living in her father’s country house of Mad Puppetstown with her father, Great-Aunt Dicksie, her two adored boy cousins Evelyn and Basil and their beautiful widowed mother Aunt Brenda. The children live a charmed life – running free, and slightly wild in the Irish countryside, surrounding the house. It is a way of life Molly Keane describes to absolute perfection. Easter and the boys brought up with the ways of horses, learning to shoot woodcock and snipe in the woods. Playing with Patsy; the boot boy, teasing the Peacocks in Aunt Dicksie’s garden – and tormenting the life out of O’Regan who works in the garden. It’s a joy of a childhood,with dogs, ponies and a riot of adventures.

“Out of the schoolroom window at Puppetstown you looked across flat water – where Giles, the swan, sat in immemorial calm and the dogs hunted water rats and moorhens – over the Long Acres, where young blood horses moved in a stately decorum of beauty, away to the chill breasts of the mountains yielding themselves only to the slow rapture of a sunset; thin and stark at any other time and remote as the grey women of the Sidhie that men had seen about their secret lakes. Mandoran, Mooncoin, and the Black Stair were these mountains’ lovely names and whatever was afar and unknown and remote unto themselves in the children, was joined and linked to the dispassionate ecstasy of these mountains.”

The family suffer the loss of Easter’s father during the war but are otherwise unaffected by a conflict Evelyn and Basil are thankfully too young for. Aunt Brenda – who always meant to re-marry but never did get around to it – enjoys the company of a British army Captain from the local garrison. Meanwhile, Ireland is in the grip of another war, a war forgotten by those back in England. Patsy the boot boy receives whispered orders through the window late at night – which he dare not ignore.

“Meetings by night: oaths to the darkened land sworn, signed and forgotten: drillings and revolver practice and always the romantic cup of dizzy words…”

Throughout the dark hills surrounding Mad Puppetstown men gather to whisper threat and plot – and so when violence touches the family at Mad Puppetstown, Aunt Brenda hurriedly takes her sons and niece away to England. Great-Aunt Dicksie will not be moved, refusing to surrender her family home – she bolts the doors, turns the ponies loose and settles down to living alone with just Patsy, in a house that starts to decay around her. Aunt Dicksie becomes more and more eccentric, so very lonely at first – the echoes of her family are in the very walls around her – she learns in time to live alone. Taking refuge in her garden, spending far too much of the little money she has on seeds and bulbs for her garden, she takes to wearing the old clothes from the wardrobes upstairs rather than buy new ones.

In England the cousins are educated and groomed for British society, it’s a world away from Mad Puppetstown. As Evelyn falls in love with an English society beauty, Basil starts to yearn for Ireland, and Mad Puppetstown. Easter turns twenty-one and her father’s house now belongs to her, so she and Basil decide to run away – heading back to Aunt Dicksie and the home of their childhood. However, neither Aunt Dicksie nor the house is as they remember.

I simply loved every bit of this novel – compulsively evocative – and for those who have been irritated by such things in other novels – rather less of the huntin’, fishin’, and shootin’ that was such a part of Molly Keane’s own life.

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I’ve really come to love Olivia Manning’s writing, and so I was delighted when I received The Doves of Venus as part of the Librarything Virago secret Santa parcel exchange. This accompanied me on the journey home from Devon almost two weeks ago now and proved to be one of the highlights of last month. Sometimes it is hard to write about a book I loved as much as I did this one, as I can’t really be objective. So, I should probably keep this simple.

Actually, the plot is very simple, but Olivia Manning brings so much to the story, her exploration of the characters is absolutely spot on. As always, her characters step fully formed from the page, they have a past and a future – and speak with the voices of people Olivia Manning herself must have known.

Eighteen-year old Ellie leaves her home in the provincial seaside town of Eastsea in search of independence. In Eastsea, Ellie’s mother runs a restaurant, and favours Ellie’s sister – who is about to get married. Ellie’s help is wanted – and everyone in the town seems to think it entirely appropriate that Ellie should stay and help her mother – and completely scandalous that she has gone off to London instead. Ellie is suffocated by the atmosphere of home; the small-town mind is not hers – she seems to be able to do nothing right anyway – and is always getting on the wrong side of her mother. Having done a night school art class at the technical college Ellie has her sights set on the art world.

In London, Ellie takes a small bedsit in Chelsea and manages to get a job at a furniture studio – initially in packing – but soon she is moved to the ‘antiquing’ room where she paints bits of furniture. She also acquires a middle-aged lover Quintin Bellot – who has a much more laid-back attitude to their affair than Ellie – who has fallen head over heels. The affair is destined to be a short one, with Ellie learning quickly, the complexities of a married lover.

“During her weeks with Quintin she had lived, it seemed like the ‘Snow Queen’ girl, in a garden where it was always summer. Now she was shut out from the summer garden of love.
‘My fault’ she said
All female gossip, all advice given in women’s magazines, made it clear that a woman thrown over had only herself to blame.”

Quintin is harried continually by his estranged wife – Petta; a familiar figure around the pubs on the Kings Road with her circle of assorted bohemians. When Petta leaves her most recent lover, she lands back at Quintin’s flat – much to his irritation – charming his housekeeper Mrs Trimmer and setting up home in his dressing room. Petta is manipulative and slightly hysterical, bitterly resentful toward all of Quintin’s ‘little girls’ – shrugging off her own indiscretions, a previous marriage and an abandoned daughter. She yearns sadly for a time that is long gone, a world she understood, the world as it had been when she was young.

“‘Why is it all so dismal now? What happened to life? What’s missing from it? It used to be such fun. It’s true, conditions were different. Money bought things then. Everyone had country cottages: they picked them up for a few pounds. Other people did the work for us – but it wasn’t all that that made life fun…’”

When Quintin tells Ellie, he won’t be able to see her anymore, she is devastated – but is determined to believe he will come back to her in time. In the meantime, Ellie concentrates hard on impressing with her work at the studio – and ignoring her mother’s attempts to get her to go home. Ellie is at the bottom of the rung at the studio – her tasks quite menial – she attempts to win the friendship of colleagues Denis and Bertie and when a new girl Nancy starts the two become firm friends.

Although she doesn’t see Quintin again for months – Ellie unknowingly spends time in a world not so far from Quintin. Nancy introduces Ellie to her uncle. Tom Claypole an old roué – who is also related to Quintin. Tom loves to surround himself with young girls, the doves of the title (nothing inappropriate occurs, Tom’s a gentleman). Ellie and Nancy spend several delightful weekends at Clopals – Tom’s country home. Nancy wants to put Tom’s mistress Maxine’s nose out of joint – and the two enjoy dancing attendance on the old man – who is a generous host. There is a wonderful exchange between Nancy and Tom about equal pay for men and women – an argument that rumbles on still.

“Recently she had spoken to Daze, the chief of staff, and had been told that there was one wage scale for men and another for women.
Tom nodded his approval: ‘Men need more money.’
‘They don’t need more’ said Nancy crossly, ‘they just get more, that’s all. Prices aren’t reduced for me because I’m a woman. You bet they’re not.’
‘Surely my dear girl, you’ve discovered by now that you’re living in a man’s world. You must try to gain things by your charms. We men are delighted to reward you, but we won’t disarm ourselves in your favour, Why should we? Eh?”

As the months pass, Quintin is never too far from Ellie’s thoughts – though the image of him fades a little – and she stops seeing him everywhere she goes. When they do meet again, he is no longer quite the romantic figure he was. Ellie has had to learn how to live in London on little money – and with few friends – she loses her job and is terrified to be in debt to her landlady. Ellie’s determination to remain independent sees her through – and by the time the novel ends she is a stronger, wiser young woman – who has found a new happiness for herself.

The Doves of Venus is a brilliant novel – which has reminded me I should get back to the Pringles and read The Levant Trilogy – having finished my re-read of The Balkan trilogy some months ago.

olivia-manning

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