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I have had Brown Girl, Brownstones among my stack of unread Viragos for some time and when I was looking for a virago to read recently it caught my eye. I realised I knew nothing at all about the author – and went off in search of a little information. Oh, what did we all do before the internet?

Like the heroine in her debut novel – Paule Marshall was born in Brooklyn, New York her parents having emigrated from Barbados some years before. She is the author of several works of fiction, short stories and an autobiography, all published between 1959 and 2009. I really felt I should have heard more about this writer, who I discovered only died last year. I was pleased to see though that some of her work seems to be still in print. I believe it is this novel – her debut that is her best known book – but I am now keen to read more by her.

Brown Girl, Brownstones is a coming of age story; Selina Boyce is the younger daughter of Barbadian immigrants living in Brooklyn, New York during the Depression and Second World War. It is very evocative of a time and place and of a community. Marshall shows us with some poignancy what it was to grow up black and female. Mark Twain reputedly said – ‘history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes’ – and I think there is a lot that rhymes here. Selina wants her own identity, born in the US, she wishes to go her own way, a different generation to her parents she doesn’t want to be just like them and their friends at the Barbadian Association.

“‘I don’t care, I won’t be like them!’ she replied as savagely, and angrily struck the water with her foot so that the spray burst in a white design before them and then dropped. ‘I won’t be cut out of the same piece of cloth.’

As the novel opens it is 1939 and Selina is ten years old. Her ambitious mother Silla is a factory worker, who has leased the brownstone where the family live – other parts of the house are rented out to tenants about whom she complains loudly. Selina’s father Deighton is lazy and unreliable but very charming and Selina adores him. While Silla works hard in order to achieve her objective of buying the house where they live – her husband has a head full of fantasies and half formed plans.  Selina’s older sister Ina is already becoming something of a mysterious figure for Selina as the older girl walks that path between adolescence and womanhood. One of the tenants of the house is Suggie Skeete – a woman who Selina’s mother disapproves of deeply – as she trails a succession of men upstairs to her room. She is one of a number of people who Selina befriends and takes an interest in – as she tries to make sense of the world around her. Selina desperately tries to reconcile the loyalty due to her mother with the world her father reveals to her through his dreams of building a house back in Barbados. She is constantly caught up in the battle between them. In time we come see that Selina is rather more her mother’s daughter than we might think at first.

Mothers and daughters is a strong theme here and I was struck by this speech by Selina’s boyfriend later in the novel, another character with a difficult controlling mother.

“‘Mothers? Hell, they seldom say die! Fathers perhaps. Like my poor father. He just acts like I don’t exist. But not mothers. They form you in that dark place inside them and you’re theirs. For giving life they exact life. The cord remains uncut, the blood joined and all that that implies. They hold you by their weakness, their whining, their sickness, their long-suffering, their tears and their money…We’re all caught within a circle of women, I’m afraid, and we move from one to the next in a kind of blind dance.’”

The novel is written in the third person, but the viewpoint is always that of Selina – from the beginning we see this difficult relationship with her mother. Cleverly, and rather tellingly Marshall refers to Silla through Selina’s eyes as the mother, not her mother. Silla is a dominating figure, an important member of the local Barbadian community. Often gathered around her in the kitchen are other women from the community, listening almost wordlessly as Silla expounds her views on all sorts of issues in her broad Barbadian dialect. The Barbadian Association is nearby, through which much of what happens within the community passes and with which she wishes Selina would become involved as she grows up. As the novel progresses Silla becomes an ever more tragic figure – her drive and her ambition sees her lie, cheat and betray in the name of improving the family fortunes.

As Selina grows up, she becomes interested in dance – she joins a dance class and is befriended by some white girls. Her mother wants her to go to medical school, but Selina has no desire to do that. Her experience of the Association is not a positive one, and she can see her older sister edging nearer and nearer the settled conventional life that their mother approves of. She meets a young artist in the doorway of the association and takes to meeting him behind her mother’s back.

Selina has many things to learn about her own culture and what it is she really wants. Now older, Selina must also face up to the reality of the racism that is everywhere around her – there is a sense that her childhood had protected her from this to a degree, but there comes a time when she is a child no longer and her eyes are fully opened. It is a brilliantly written scene – deeply poignant and very affecting and will shape the decisions Selina makes next.

“The woman there must have carefully arranged her smile before Selina had entered. While she had been dancing down the hall perhaps or finishing her punch with Rachel, the woman’s mouth, eyes the muscles under her pale powdered skin must have been shaping that courteous, curious and appraising smile. Months, years later Selina was to remember it, since it became the one vivid memory of that evening, and to wonder why it had not unsettled her even then. Whenever she remembered it – all down the long years to her death – she was to start helplessly, and every white face would be suspect for that moment.”

Brown Girl, Brownstones is a quite brilliant novel – a novel full of extraordinarily well drawn characters, rich voices written with honesty and anger.

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Red Pottage is a late Victorian novel that is satisfyingly many things at once. A novel of what was then termed ‘the New Woman’ while also having something of the sensation novel about it. It is a novel that satirises the smug, complacency of the middle classes and some aspects of the clergy – demonstrating how women needed independence. Here is a story of a close female friendship, romance, adultery, a suicide pact and the search for fulfilment. It zips along at a marvellous pace, becoming hard to put down. There are times when only a really good late Victorian novel will do for full immersive absorption – and this novel ticked so many boxes for me that I was genuinely sad to finish it.

Mary Cholmondeley became almost an overnight celebrity upon the publication of Red Pottage – it was a huge best seller. Her previous novels had met with only quite modest success. She was hugely influenced by the novelist George Eliot – she is also the aunt of the novelist Stella Benson (who I have yet to read).

“Every year I live I am more convinced that the waste of life lies in the love we have not given, the powers we have not used, the selfish prudence which will risk nothing, and which, shirking pain, misses happiness as well.”

As the novel opens we meet Hugh Scarlett – a man trapped in an affair with an unhappily married woman. His infatuation with her is over – but her husband Lord Newhaven has discovered their relationship and insists that Hugh enter into a pact with him – they draw lots – he who draws the shortest will be duty bound to die by their own hand within five months. Listening on the other side of the door – Lady Newhaven is desperate to find out who drew the shortest.

Earlier that evening Hugh was introduced to Rachel West – a young woman who everyone knows for her sudden and unexpected inheritance. The daughter of a self-made man who later lost everything, Rachel has not had an easy life. Having lived independently and in quite severe poverty for some years in the East End of London making her living as a typist – Rachel has come into an enormous fortune. She has had her heart broken by a man who was clearly not worthy of her – and now she is a very eligible prospect indeed. Hugh Scarlett finds himself drawn to Rachel with very genuine feelings – but his entanglement with the Newhavens hardly makes him a fitting suitor.

Rachel’s great friend since childhood is Hester Gresley – she had previously lived with her aunt Lady Susan Gresley with whom she enjoyed a life of great sympathy, patronage, and society. However, upon her aunt’s death Hester was obliged to go to live in the country with her clergyman brother and his wife.

“Life had not spoilt Rachel. Lady Susan Gresley had done her best to spoil Hester. The one had lived the unprotected life and showed it in her bearing. The other had lived the sheltered life, and bore its mark upon her pure forehead and youthful face.”

The Rev Mr Gresley is pious and serious clergyman – fond of his sister, he disapproved of the life she lived in London before coming to live with him. Many of the things Hester does or doesn’t do fills him with despair – and Hester’s life is narrowing because of it. Hester is a writer – she has published to some great acclaim a novel about the East End of London. She is now writing her second novel.

Rachel is invited to stay at the country home of the Newhavens – which isn’t far from where Hester is now living. Lady Newhaven is miserable, unable to get in touch with her former lover – she is casting round for a confidante unaware that Rachel has recently got to know Hugh Scarlett quite well. As Rachel’s friendship with Hugh begins to look like something more – it becomes clear that Lady Newhaven is not ready to let him go – is desperate to speak to him, sending him letters which Hugh burns unopened.

Mary Cholmondeley presents us with a marvellous cast of characters; Richard Vernon, a business acquaintance of Lord Newhaven and cousin to Hester and her brother – he is a no nonsense straight talking breath of fresh air recently arrived home from Australia where he made his fortune. Here is another man who recognises in Rachel a woman of strength and intelligence – and with whom he wouldn’t mind throwing in his lot. The kindly, moderate and very sensible bishop who provides something of a foil to Hester’s brother, the socially ambitious Pratt sisters and their brother – and the wonderfully well drawn society wife Sybell Loftus.

“People, like Sybell, believe one can only sympathize with what one has experienced. That is why they are always saying, ‘as a mother,’ or ‘as a wife.’ If that were true the world would have to get on without sympathy, for no two people have the same experience. Only a shallow nature believes that a resemblance in two cups means that they both contain the same wine.”

Hester pours all her energies into finishing her new novel. As her previous novel told a great truth about the East End of London, this novel will seek to tell the truth about the clergy – in a way that many of the clergy will object to. To Hester her book is her child – it is everything to her. Recovering from a bout of illness at the home of her friend the bishop – Hester can little imagine what terrible consequences her absence from home will have on her literary ambitions. It is easy to see in Hester something of Mary Cholmondeley herself who knew first-hand the creative struggle for women writers and the need for independence.

This was such a great read – and yet another novel that should be back in print. Some second-hand copies can be found – although how easily I’m not sure – and for kindle users it is available free.

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Chosen by my book group at my suggestion, Dusty Answer was a re-read for me – more than ten years after I read it the first time. Rosamond Lehmann’s first novel – it is a novel of self-delusion, sexual awakening and the search for an understanding of one’s self. The rather odd title is explained by the novel’s epigraph.

“Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul

When hot for certainties in this our life!”

(George Meredith)

That there are no certainties in life is something that we all learn sooner or later – and something that the novel’s central character Judith Earle is shown as she moves from late adolescence to young womanhood. This debut novel was published to great acclaim and some sensation in 1927, capturing the voice of an inter-war generation, albeit that of a particular class. One of the things my book group buddies and I discussed the other evening via Zoom – was how this privileged group of young people were essentially idle, they had no constraints upon their time or their movements and enjoyed the kind of freedom we don’t usually associate with the 1920s. I couldn’t help but think how different their lives and freedoms would have been had they been born into a working class environment.

Judith Earle is the only child of an elderly academic father and a socialite mother. Brought up in a large house in the Thames Valley overlooking the river, she has always been captivated and a little in love with the Fyfe cousins who appear from time to time in the house next door. They are all a little older than her – glorious enchanting creatures to her from early childhood – and they pass in and out of her life throughout her childhood and adolescence. As the novel opens Judith is eighteen, she will be going to Cambridge in the coming months, and now suddenly with the First World War at an end, the Fyfe cousins have arrived again in the house next door.

Inevitably things have changed – the war would alter that generation forever – and the Fyfe cousins are not unaffected. One of them – the most golden of all the golden boys killed in the war – but not before he married imprudently his cousin Mariella and left her with a child. Now, Julian, Martin, Roddy and Mariella are back, and Judith picks up the threads of her long held enchantment with them once more. The Fyfes are a difficult bunch for the reader – especially perhaps the modern reader – to like, but I like unlikeable characters. We wonder what they do – and what the point of any of them are. In fact, Judith herself is not wholly sympathetic, though we may recognise in her, that painful idealism that comes with youth. Judith fills her time waiting for a summons from next door – and as her relationship with the Fyfes is re-established she falls madly in love with Roddy, the most dissolute, unreliable, and feckless of them all.

“There was sadness in everything—in the room, in the ringing bird-calls from the garden, in the lit, golden lawn beyond the window, with its single miraculous cherry-tree breaking in immaculate blossom and tossing long foamy sprays against the sky. She was sad to the verge of tears, and yet the sorrow was rich—a suffocating joy.”

With her father newly dead, and her mother hotel hopping around Europe, Judith goes to Cambridge. It is a wholly new experience for her – having never gone to school but been educated at home. The depiction of a women’s college in Cambridge feeling much more like that of a boarding school – and Lehmann presents us with this new and fascinating world through the eyes of the inexperienced Judith. Here she meets Mable Fuller – a rather pathetic character – studious and unpopular she tries to persuade Judith into friendship, but Judith has already been captivated by another golden being. Despite still being firmly attached to her friends the Fyfes – longing for her infrequent meetings with them, Judith becomes fascinated by another student – Jennifer – with whom she falls in love. Probably more of an intense infatuation than a real love – but these things can feel pretty similar when you’re young – and Judith often seems a little younger than her years. Jennifer is beautiful and charismatic, hugely popular – her room is generally a mass of young eager bodies stretched out on the floor around her, talking earnestly and worshipfully.

One of the things Lehmann uses beautifully in this narrative is memory, throughout the novel Judith is held by her memories of the past. Often, the memory of things said and done with the Fyfes when she was much younger. Here though is Judith suddenly recalling Jennifer – after a period of time apart. Memory is such a powerful thing.

“And, in a flash, with the uttering of the last words, Jennifer came back, slipping the clothes down off white shoulders and breast, talking and laughing. A tide of memories; Jennifer’s head burning in the sunlight, her body stooping towards the water – the whole of those May terms of hawthorn blossom and cowslips, of days like a warm drowsy wine, days bewildered with growing up and loving Jennifer, with reading Donne and Webster and Marlowe, with dreaming of Roddy… Where had it all gone?”

With Cambridge behind her Judith returns to the family home – and the Fyfes who inevitably have re-appeared next door. She is longing for some quality time with Roddy – she is so certain of him it is almost painful to watch.

“Mamma was fast asleep at home, her spirit lapped in unconsciousness. Her dreams would not divine that her daughter had stolen out to meet a lover. And next door also they slept unawares, while one of them broke from the circle and came alone to clasp a stranger.”

The reader has little hope that either of these intense relationships will bring happiness or fulfilment to Judith – and indeed she has a lot to learn and a lot to suffer by the time the book ends. A beautiful, evocative novel of a generation that Lehmann thoroughly understood – here is a world of class privilege that can feel uncomfortable today, yet Lehmann presents it to us faithfully and as a social document of that world it is fascinating.

Rosamond Lehmann’s prose is gorgeous, many beautiful descriptions that can stop the reader in their tracks – assuming they like description. Very much enjoyed having the excuse to read this one again.

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Fiction that reflects the times in which it was written is so much more interesting for me than historical fiction – there is a resonance which is hard to recreate after the fact. So, this collection of Second World War stories was a perfect read for me. Wave me Goodbye is a superb collection of women’s voices portraying a period that continues to fascinate.

In these stories we see clearly women’s lives and participation in the war. It’s a different role to the male role – often more domestic, those daily struggles to keep everything together. There is humour and pathos in these stories, and together they depict a world of gas masks and shelters, the drama and devastation of being bombed out, the agony of watching a loved one go off to war. With such a range of writers collected together we see a variety of viewpoints too; it is a collection that is a must for any reader interested in women’s writing of this period.

It can be hard to accurately review an anthology of stories, especially with such a range of fascinating writers in one volume. A few of the stories I had read before in other collections, stories like Goodbye Balkan Capital by Barbara Pym, Miss Anstruther’s Letters by Rose Macaulay and Goodbye My Love by Mollie Panter Downes and a few others but it was no struggle to read those again. Alongisde these we have some of the greatest women writers of the period, Olivia Manning, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, Margery Sharp, Jean Rhys and Sylvia Townsend Warner among others, a veritable who’s who of women writers. However, I can naturally only really give a flavour of this collection.

The Collection opens with When the Waters came by Rosamond Lehmann. A woman and her children spending the war in the country are shocked when a great thaw comes suddenly in February and floods the village. I couldn’t help but think that this might have been something of how it felt to suddenly find yourself living in a country at war.

“The thaw came in February, not gradually but with violence, overnight. Torrents of brown snow-water poured down from the hills into the valley. By the afternoon, the village street was gone, and in its stead a turbulent flood raced between the cottages.”

At once the familiar landscape altered, disorienting and potentially dangerous.

In The lovely leave by Dorothy Parker a wife anticipates the upcoming leave of her husband. He is due to have twenty-four hours, and she remembers how she had allowed her husband’s previous leave to be spoilt – and is determined to not make the same mistakes.

I really enjoyed The Mysterious Kor by Elizabeth Bowen – which starts in an almost dreamlike fashion, Arthur and his girlfriend Pepita walking together in a London street. Pepita muses about the mysterious Kor – quoting some lines of poetry about a magical seeming place that is far and away from the reality of their lives.

“This war shows we’ve by no means come to the end. If you can blow whole places out of existence, you can blow whole places into it.”

Arthur is on leave and he and Pepita walk back to the flat she shares with Callie – Callie has agreed that Arthur can stay on the sofa while he is in London. Callie welcomes them eagerly with cocoa – happy to experience something of their lives vicariously.

In Night Engagement by Margery Sharp a mother sees the nightly escape into the air raid shelter as the perfect opportunity for her daughter Doris to meet a nice young man. Each day they decide which shelter would be best – later discussing the merits of anyone Doris met the night before. When Doris is trapped under a collapsed building with a young railway worker, Doris’s mother wastes no time in going round to introduce herself to the young man’s mother and the two women begin to make plans as they await the re-emergence of their offspring.

Yet another side to the many domestic difficulties is highlighted in The Sailor’s Wife by Ann Chadwick. A naval wife is desperate to find lodgings for herself her baby and for her husband when he is on leave. She has come to a coastal town where her husband’s ship will dock and leaving her child at the hotel – she walks despondently from house to house around the town practically begging for a place to stay.

As we progress further into the collection, we begin the aspects of the end of the war, and its immediate aftermath.

“A new road, which ran a lane’s length from the farm, was being built by German prisoners, still retained though the war was long over, and from eight in the morning until dusk there was a sound of continuous noisy activity about the moorland farm, as they grey-green figures broke up the stones which were brought in by lorries from the neighbouring stone quarries. The old people, who were called William and Mary Illingworth, had but often seen the prisoners, but had not yet spoken to one of them.”

In The Mandoline by Malachi Whitaker a German prisoner of war is brought to the home of an elderly couple by his guard. The prisoner wants to borrow the couple’s mandoline to play at the camp’s concert. Now, I was mightily confused by a mandoline (not mandolin) and google couldn’t help. Still, the story is a tenderly observed piece and beautifully written.

Altogether this was a quite marvellous collection, and clearly right up my street. Highly recommended for likeminded readers.

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It is difficult to properly convey what it is like to read a Barbara Comyns novel to someone who hasn’t read her before, though I suspect many of you will have read her before. Her easy, straightforward style may seem to have a blasé innocence but there is a lot more going on. Combining matters of middle class domestic poverty – something present in all her fiction – with the unpleasant, cruel, and even macabre at times, she presents her readers with a world which feels slightly skewed, though completely recognisable. The Skin Chairs in the eighth of Comyns’ eleven novels I have read – I have one more tbr – and there are two that I may have to give up ever finding, so rare do they appear to be. It is classic Comyns, the sixth of her novels to be published. 

Frances is the first person narrator of The Skin Chairs, and the novel opens shortly after her tenth birthday. Frances is one of six children and she has been sent to stay with her Lawrence relations for a few weeks while her tired mother has a rest. Soon after her arrival, Frances’ father dies suddenly, plunging the family into quite serious penury. Aunt and Uncle Lawrence are well off, horsey and horribly patronising. Aunt Lawrence is especially rather bullying, and the sensitive Frances frequently finds herself in the wrong. Her cousins: Charles, Ruby and Grace are clearly products of their upbringing, Grace the closest to Frances in age is who Frances spends the most time, but she is capable of childish spite that leaves Frances in tears.

Frances’ mother is obliged to give up the beloved family home and is strongly encouraged by the Lawrences to take a much smaller house nearby called The Hollies. They can’t afford a maid, and so Frances’s older sister Polly undertakes much of the domestic work – seeming more capable and organised than their mother, who is distressed by their new circumstances, rather weak and easily cowed by the likes of Aunt Lawrence. The family are required to spend Sunday lunches with the Lawrences – well just a couple of them are asked each week, a lottery none of them wish to win. Frances’ siblings Esme and John come home from boarding school – new day schools will be attended by them instead. The youngest two are Clare – born with one hand, and Toby.

“One night I dreamt that Mother’s head had been severed and made into a pork pie. Although it was pork pie, I could still see it was a dead head. There was another fearful dream that Father was floating down the canal, all enlarged with water, and that eels were living in him.”

As I said Frances is a sensitive child, beset by disturbing dreams and very observant of the people around her. In the company of her cousin Ruby, Frances meets Vanda, a beautiful young widow with a baby called Jane. The story of Vanda and baby Jane is a typically horrifying Comyns tale. Frances is smitten by the baby, her maternal instincts roused by a child the reader instantly knows is horribly neglected. Frances ranges quite freely around the village and the local area, meeting a host of colourful characters.

It is also with Ruby that Frances is taken to the house where the General lives. A house known primarily for the skin chairs, a set of chairs covered in human skin, poor Frances is horrified and fascinated by these chairs, wondering what happened to the souls of the men whose skin adorns them.

“One chair certainly was lighter than the rest and I carefully sat on it, expecting something strange to happen; but it was exactly like sitting in any other uncomfortable chair. My bare arms touched the back and, remembering what it was made of, I stood up and wiped my arms with my handkerchief. With a feeling of awe I gazed at the chairs thinking of the poor skinless bodies buried somewhere in Africa. Did they ever come to see what had happened to their skins or had they forgotten all about them?”

Frances makes herself a little hide away in an abandoned barn – her own home away from home. The idea of home is clearly something important to Frances. She tries with limited success to keep out of the way of the very odd Mrs Alexander who has taken a liking to Frances. Mrs Alexander drives around in a very conspicuous yellow sports car and keeps pet monkeys – and is generally considered very odd by the villagers. Another new arrival in the village is Mr Blackwell – another individual the Lawrences definitely disapprove of – but who heralds some change for Frances’s family.

This wonderfully quirky Comyns novel that describes an adult world through a child’s eyes is full of odd and surprising images. It joins The Juniper Tree and The Vet’s Daughter in my top three Comyns novels.

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Antonia White: the author of the Frost in May quartet – a truly wonderful series of novels – suffered all her life from terrible writer’s block. It was only after her death that this short autobiography was discovered – she had spent the last fifteen years of her life working on it. The book is edited by her daughter Susan Chitty. As Once in May deals with just the first six years of the author’s life – and it is quite extraordinary in its recall and its ability to recreate those so long ago childhood feelings.

The opening few chapters – as is usual I think with autobiographies – concerns Antonia’s parents and grandparents and their parents. Her father Cecil Botting: a classics schoolmaster, came from a family of Sussex farmers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. It was from her mother that Antonia (actually born Eirene Adeline) took her surname, hating Botting, and all the childhood teasing that went with it, and who could blame her. Both of her White grandparents had sadly died by the time she was a baby, so she never knew them. The Whites were upper middle class, and Antonia’s mother’s mother who died when she was a baby, had been the second wife of a much older man.

Eirene – or Antonia as I shall continue to call her was born in 1899, the only child of Cecil Botting and Christine White. The family lived in Perham Road in London for many years, from where Cecil Botting was able to easily get to St. Paul’s School where he taught, and from where he often tutored students in the evenings. Here the family had just one servant Lizzie, who adored Antonia and could never bear to see her reprimanded. Despite having been a little disappointed not to have had a son, Cecil Botting believed he could just as easily turn his daughter into a good Classics scholar and set out to do so from the time she was very small.

“I know for certain that I was three when my father decided once again to try and impress something on my memory. This time his effort was not wasted as it had been over Queen Victoria’s funeral. I could not forget the first line of the Iliad if I tried or the circumstances in which I learnt it.

He must have been longing from my birth for the day when he could begin my classical education.”

One thing that really made me sit up in surprise (I don’t know if I disbelieve this or not) was Antonia’s assertion that she had a couple of very clear memories from babyhood. She calls these her first lucid moments – the black rails of her cot above her surrounded by white hangings. Later, questioning her parents it was revealed that she did indeed sleep in such a cot. Antonia herself seems more surprised by those things from very early childhood that she cannot remember that she would have thought would have made more impression on her but clearly didn’t.

However, what she does remember is remarkable. No doubt her memories are fuelled by those conversations about the past that occur in all families, but considering she was writing this book well into her seventies, her recall and feeling for those long ago years is perhaps surprisingly sharp.

Antonia White recounts those first few years of childhood through a series of delightful vignettes. She writes with great affection of the toy dog Mr Dash that her mother presented her with on her parents return from a holiday. There is Antonia’s experience as a bridesmaid and the glorious hat which her mother later appropriated for herself. Then, at four years old in Kensington Gardens Antonia falls in love – the object of her affection a little boy, who at seven years old seems almost grown up to her. The two become almost inseparable visiting one anther frequently for years – but in these early days the game of Mr and Mrs John Barker is invented in the nursery.

Most evocative of all though is Antonia’s description of her summer life at Binesfield, the country home of her father’s family. The cottage in West Sussex gave Antonia a taste of a very different life – the toilet was outside to begin with. Here her grandmother’s sisters Agnes and Clara lived, and Antonia looked forward all year to her summer visit.

“The night was cloudy, though here and there in a rift twinkled a star or two, the first I had ever seen, for I had never been out of doors so late. The excitement of driving at night through the damp, sweet-smelling air almost made up for not being able to see the country I was so longing to see. The light from the fly’s lamp, in whose aureole fluttered moths and tiny insects, showed u hedgerows and now and then a white gate or a cottage. I kept asking eagerly ‘Is that Binesfield?’ every time a dark bulk with a glimmer in some of its windows loomed up ahead of us. But the answer was always ‘Not yet dear.’”

It was also here where religion was first put on the agenda. Up to this point Antonia had received no religious education at all, at Binesfield it was suddenly suggested she say her prayers before bed. Of course, we know that later in childhood Antonia and her father converted to Catholicism (Frost in May was also very autobiographical).

It seems that Antonia White originally intended this to be a longer work of autobiography, and it is tantalising to imagine what she might have written had she be able to go on. Still, what remains in the most beautiful evocation of childhood, which is a must for those of us who loved the Frost in May quartet.

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In a continuing bid to find comforting, diverting reads I happened across The Little Ottleys. It is a trilogy of three novels originally published between 1908 and 1916, Liz who also has a copy, and who provided me with this copy at Christmas decided she would read a long with me. I had already read the first book Love’s Shadow a couple of years ago and having refreshed my memory by reading my review, flicking through the book and re-reading the final chapter I decided to simply go straight on to book two Tenterhooks. In that earlier first novel we were introduced to Bruce and Edith Ottley a young married couple and their young son who live in a very small flat (I suspect not really all that small) in Knightsbridge. They are part of the modern London society of the Edwardian age and in that first novel we follow the fortunes of Edith, Bruce and several of their circle. Several wonderful characters in book one like Cecil and Hyacinth don’t reappear in books two and three, which disappointed me initially, but nevertheless all three books are full of warmth and wit and sharp society observations.

As the second novel Tenterhooks opens a few years have passed and baby Archie has been joined by a little sister – accidentally named Aspasia and nicknamed Dilly by her brother. Archie is now about seven and Dilly four. Bruce, who we learned in book one is a terrible hypochondriac and very irritating generally, is not much improved, and Edith is very long suffering. She isn’t really in love with her husband, though she accepts he needs her, and she does her best. Archie to my mind shows rather too many of his father’s traits to be as adorable as I think we meant to find him, though in him Ada Leverson has written a marvellously precocious child.

Bruce is very concerned with becoming part of the fantastic social circle that surround the Mitchells, an older couple who live in a rather enviable house. Bruce works with Mr Mitchell but to be invited to dine is something else and Bruce is very excited when he is issued with a verbal invitation, anxious that everything go perfectly.

“On Sunday evening Bruce’s high spirits seemed to flag; he had one of his sudden reactions. He looked at everything on its dark side. ‘What on earth’s that thing in your hair, Edith?’

‘It’s a bandeau.’

‘I don’t like it. Your hair looks very nice without it. What on earth did you get it for?’

‘For about six-and-eleven, I think.’

‘Don’t be trivial, Edith. We shall be late. Ah! It really does seem rather a pity, the very first time one dines with people like the Mitchells.’

‘We sha’n’t be late, Bruce. It’s eight o’clock, and eight o’clock I suppose means—well, eight. Sure you’ve got the number right?’

‘Really. Edith!… My memory is unerring, dear. I never make a mistake. Haven’t you ever noticed it?’”

Naturally, Bruce has made a mistake, and drags poor Edith out to the wrong address on the wrong evening. Happily, the mistake is rectified, and the following week the Ottleys find themselves enjoying an evening with the Mitchells. Here they meet Mr Aylmer Ross, a widower who has one son, and with whom Edith almost immediately locks eyes. Aylmer becomes a friend to both Ottleys, but particularly to Edith. The two find themselves perfectly suited to the other – and struggle to control their feelings. Aylmer wants Edith to leave her husband for him, but Edith is very conscious of her duty to Bruce and the children, and despite being given very great cause by Bruce on more than one occasion sticks resolutely to her marriage. Bruce makes a total idiot of himself with more than one woman, and the reader begins to think Edith might do better to cut loose.

Three more years have passed as Love at Second Sight begins. Archie is now away at school. Edith and Bruce have settled back into an easy seeming existence where neither of them refers to Bruce’s stupidity of the previous novel. Neither of the Ottleys have seen Aylmer Ross for three years, he left London for reasons we know all too well, but of which Bruce is clueless. Staying with the Ottleys is Madame Frabelle, a widow who they were introduced to by the eternally forgetful Lady Cannon (Leverson makes Lady Cannon’s forgetfulness and confusion funny, yet I think there must be something sad and serious about it in reality). Madame Frabelle is a little older than the Ottleys being around fifty – but she has made a great friend of both Edith and Bruce. She is quite a character, insisting that she has a great understanding of everyone and manages to talk a lot of great nonsense and get away with it.

“And this was one of the curious characteristics of Madame Frabelle. Nobody made so many gaffes, yet no-one got out of them so well. To use the lawyer’s phrase, she used so many words that she managed to engulf her own and her interlocutor’s ideas.”

She is particularly sympathetic to Bruce, claiming to understand his particular needs, Bruce rather loves the way she looks after him.

The First World War has begun by now (this final novel published 1916) and Edith receives word that Aylmer Ross had volunteered to go to the front despite being well beyond the age required to do so – and having been injured is on his way back to London to complete his recovery. Edith is naturally drawn back to him, visiting him, sometimes by herself and sometimes in the company of one of the children or Madame Frabelle.

They find their feelings for one another as strong as ever. With Bruce being ever more self-absorbed Edith can’t help but wonder about her decision of three years earlier, she has no fear of losing her children, Bruce would never be bothered with them, but what of society? How will the situation resolve itself? and will Edith find the happiness that has been sorely lacking in her life?

This really was a perfect bit of Edwardian escapism, Ada Leverson is deliciously witty and it is often hard to reconcile these novels being over a hundred years old, as they remain so very readable.

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My first read this year for read Ireland month was Loving Without Tears by Molly Keane (published originally under her pseudonym of M J Farrell). I think I always read Molly Keane in read Ireland month – it’s always a pleasure – she portrays her world to absolute perfection.

This is a novel about family manipulation, set against a stunning landscape of rural, coastal Ireland. A large house overlooking the sea, here Angel ministers to her family with charm and selfishness. Angel is a brilliantly drawn character, a beautiful monster, who always believes she is doing right. I’m sure it’s no accident that Keane chose the name Angel for this character. Some of those closest to her, know exactly what she is, even if she doesn’t know herself.

“’Honey and vitriol, my sweet, that’s you. Oh, you’re just a big lovely ice-cream full of steel shavings.’”

Angel’s only in her late forties, but she’s been widowed for years, since when she has dedicated herself to her children. The war isn’t long over, and her son Julian – only twenty-one – is due back after almost three years away. Her daughter Slaney is eighteen, Angel has also been bringing up her niece Tiddley alongside her children since childhood – she is a year or so older than Julian. The household is completed by Birdie (former nurse, now cook housekeeper) a little younger than Angel, it’s clear she isn’t ready to give up on life, love and romance even if her employer assumes she has. Her nemesis in the kitchen is young Finn Barr, who Angel has decided to train up as a butler – he is a very rough diamond and Birdie resents his presence and doesn’t try to hide it. Keane’s wonderful humour is in evidence in the portrayal of these two.

“Finn Barr came into the kitchen with a gun in his hand. Coming into Birdie’s kitchen like that was as inappropriate as if he came with a leopard’s skin over his shoulder, a sling with a stone in it and a grape-stained mouth – there was the swagger in his entrance.

Finn put the gun among the china on a dresser and clattered two carefully covered plates of sandwiches on to a tray. Birdie swept them off the tray.”

 Oliver lives in his own house in the village, he is Angel’s estate manager and friend – she had come across him in Austria before the war recovering from TB and brought him home.

The novel mainly takes place on one day – a device I really like – just the last thirty pages or so set a few weeks after the main events. It is the day of Julian’s return; a day Angel has looked forward to and planned for. As excited as a child, she has planned surprises for him, consulted with Birdie over the dinner menu – everything must be the way she has envisaged it. Oliver tentatively suggests that perhaps Julian will have changed after almost three years away, war and untold experiences, but Angel won’t be told. She already has a fixed idea of how Julian’s return will be. Meanwhile, without Angel’s knowledge Slaney is falling for long time family friend Chris.

Tiddley is the same as ever, nurturing her garden, hiding in her shed, quick to tears and made happiest by her piano. Tiddley has been learning to play, she loves her piano, playing with rather more enthusiasm than talent perhaps, the thought of losing the piano likely to break her heart. Angel’s financial situation however has raised the question of selling the piano – making Tiddley horribly anxious. Tiddley is also awaiting Julian’s return with delight – the two have always had a special relationship – though no one has guessed at the true nature of Tiddley’s feelings.

“A little dark well on a mountain road she was to him, closely stone-lipped. But below the narrow depths lay the perfect water which he knew and needed. He was sitting in the sun now, the dust of heather in his throat. He was waiting to dip a cup.”

When Julian finally arrives, he has a surprise for his family – an American fiancé several years his senior. Sally believes she has healed Julian from the horrors he encountered during the war, experiences his mother just hasn’t considered. She is a beautiful, highly fashionable widow, tough talking when she needs to be, she’s a woman of the world. Sally is in for more than she bargained for in Angel’s house. With Sally and Julian comes Walter, Sally’s late husband’s English butler, who turns Birdie’s head the moment he walks through the door.

Angel is floored by Julian’s announcement, she puts on the bravest face she can, but Sally isn’t fooled for a moment, she knows the battle lines are drawn. However, her past isn’t far away, and Julian back under his mother’s roof is in danger of becoming someone else. Discovering Slaney’s burgeoning romance enrages Angel – and she immediately starts to interfere, knowing her little comments to Slaney about Chris and to Chris about Slaney will be destructive. Noticing Birdie’s interest in Walter, Angel can’t help but take steps there too – she isn’t ready for anything to change.

However, there are signs of change everywhere, Birdie knows Angel well, she sees what she is up to, and Tiddley is ripe for rebellion, and even Slaney is better at circumventing Angel’s interference than her mother realises. Over several hours family battle lines are drawn, truths acknowledged, and Angel has her work cut out for her.

A thoroughly enjoyable novel – especially if you enjoy a well written monster. The ending will satisfy most readers I am sure. For me, a really lovely start to my Read Ireland reading.

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

The new Zora Neale Hurston editions from Virago are utterly beautiful, stunning cover designs, that made me actually ‘oooh’ when I opened the envelope. I read Their Eyes were Watching God a few years ago, a fantastic depression era set novel, it’s the story of Janie and her great love for Tea-Cake. Dust Tracks on a Road is the autobiography of the woman who wrote that great modern classic, beautifully written, it is an extraordinarily intimate and revealing portrait with hundreds of quotable passages. There is such wisdom and inspiration in this book, better than that, I found I really liked Zora from the first page.

“I am not tragically coloured. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

Recounting her rise from a Southern childhood lived in poverty, to when she was taking her place among the leading artists and intellectuals of the Harlem renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston is never less than entertaining and honest.

“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

Born in Florida in the 1890s, she was the fifth of eight children. Reliving her childhood memories here, little Zora comes across as a bright, inquisitive child with lots of spirit. She fell foul of her father – a baptist preacher – early on, he favoured the boys and her sister Sarah, her mother frequently having to get between them. It’s clear that her upbringing was central to creating the woman she became. She writes wonderfully about the town of Eatonville where she grew up, describing the people and what it was like to grow up there, it’s a vivid picture of a unique black community, the first all-black town in America.  

Zora was only in her teens when her mother died, and life started to change. When her father re-marries, Zora’s stepmother is a woman keen to establish herself in her new home, she bullies her way into position, leaving Zora no choice but to leave. Zora travels, she works where she can, doing what she has to, including working for and travelling with an actress and her theatrical group – often meeting people who help and support her, recognising her great potential.

“I had hundreds of books under my skin already. Not selected reading, all of it. Some of it could be called trashy. I had been through Nick Carter, Horatio Alger, Bertha M. Clay and the whole slew of dime novelists in addition to some really constructive reading. I do not regret the trash. It has harmed me in no way. It was a help, because acquiring the reading habit early is the important thing. Taste and natural development will take care of the rest later on.”

Her dream is to continue her education, to go to college. It was the philanthropy of others that helped her on her way, and she put it to good use.

She studies anthropology – travelling around the US to research folklore and anthropology. Later chapters of the book read more like essays, and in these essays, Hurston discusses the lives of black people in America, religion and love. The chapter entitled ‘My People! My People’ is particularly powerful, in this chapter she discusses her race, and the experiences of black Americans in the period before the war. She is thoroughly thought provoking and wise, she has an acute understanding of people and society.

“It seems to me to be true that heavens are placed in the sky because it is the unreachable. The unreachable and therefore the unknowable always seems divine–hence, religion. People need religion because the great masses fear life and its consequences. Its responsibilities weigh heavy. Feeling a weakness in the face of great forces, men seek an alliance with omnipotence to bolster up their feeling of weakness, even though the omnipotence they rely upon is a creature of their own minds. It gives them a feeling of security.”

I loved Zora Neale Hurston’s spirit, her intelligence and her way of looking at all sorts of things. Strangely perhaps she discusses her writing quite lightly, it is of less focus than other things in the book, though it’s clear it was important to her. Zora Neale Hurston lived until 1960, and it is sad to remember she died in relative obscurity, her place of rest an unmarked grave until the 1970s.

I am now looking forward to reading Jacob’s Gourd Vine (1934), Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel, the story of John Buddy Pearson, who discovers a talent for preaching. A novel which is also apparently highly autobiographical, based on the life of her father.

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I had started to think that there were two sides to E M Delafield. The side she shows us so delightfully in The Provincial Lady so beloved of many of us, satirical, tongue in cheek with superbly sharp observances. Then there are her significantly more serious books like Consequences and The War Workers in which she shines a light on aspects of her society. However now I realise that is too simplistic, I am saying that with all the confidence of someone who hasn’t read all that many Delafield, though I have been wanting to read a lot more for years. In this novel I can definitely see aspects of both of the above – themes explored in both The Provincial Lady and Consequences are in evidence.

The central character in The Way Things Are is a little reminiscent of The Provincial Lady (earlier though and less hilarious) it’s a kind of subdued Provincial Lady and 1920s Motherland (BBC comedy if you haven’t seen it you must.) Her topic isn’t especially comic though, at the centre of this novel is a woman dissatisfied with her life and her marriage. E M Delafield explores how women like her character Laura could be trapped by marriage – though readers can’t help but recognise that these trappings were rather comfortable. In the hands of another writer, this could be a really rather sad novel, however there is lightness and humour here, and while there is a serious point about marriage being made, Delafield knows how to keep her readers engaged.

Laura Temple is a wife and mother in her early thirties, living comfortably in the country beset with all the usual domestic problems and feeling deeply unsatisfied. She is married to Alfred, he is desperately dull, but in no way a bad man, or unkind, he spends most of his time outdoors, and is mainly interested in vegetable matter. Laura is also a writer, she has had some success with getting some stories published, though her writing takes something of a back seat to everything else.

“Laura now admitted to herself – what she had not admitted to herself at the time – that she had been rather anxious to be married, just when she first met Alfred.

The war was over, and there had been a question of her returning home, which she did not want to do, and so many other people seemed to be getting married… She wanted the experience of marriage, and she was just beginning to be rather afraid of missing it altogether, because so many of the men belonging to her own generation had gone.”

Alfred has a habit of being quite strict with their two spirited little boys and otherwise hides himself behind The Times to prevent himself having to engage too much in matters domestic. Each morning Laura wakes to the knowledge of what the day has in store, that includes wrangling with her sons, their Nurse, the domestic staff, and trying to come up with an interesting menu that won’t upset cook. She is a little intimidated by her servants, terrified of them giving notice – which they all seem to with hilarious regularity.

Laura’s two boys are Edward and Johnnie, Edward is the eldest, a quieter more thoughtful boy, far better behaved than the younger precocious, temper tantrum throwing, Johnnie. Laura though, seeing something of herself in her younger child favours Johnnie, she knows that she does, and while acknowledging it to herself she does nothing to redress the balance, and my heart broke a little for Edward. Laura went down in my estimation here, although I didn’t totally dislike her, I found her very annoying on lots of occasions, and my sympathies were often with her husband and children.

There are some fabulous peripheral characters, Edward and Johnnie sometimes go to a dancing class with some other children. Here Laura is plagued by a boastful mother who is keen to show her own little darlings in their best light, much to Laura’s chagrin.

“‘It’s very nice of you to say so, but then,’ returned Mrs Blakewell more brightly than ever, ‘Cynthia has danced ever since she could walk.’

Laura thought: ‘I wonder whether the mere fact of being a mother does really reduce one, conversationally, to the level of an idiot.’ Aloud she said: ‘Yes, of course.’”

One of her near neighbours is Lady Kingsley-Browne, who has a grown up daughter Bébéé (Laura, her sister Christine and Alfred call her Bay-Bay when speaking of her in private). Bébéé is a hit with eligible men, and her mother has high hopes for her and the richest commoner in England. When Christine comes to visit her older sister, local entertainments are organised, and Laura meets a friend of Christine’s; Marmaduke Ayland (known as Duke). He is a good looking, thirty five year old single man, who immediately sees more in Laura than her marriage and motherhood – and Laura is ripe for that kind of attention. Laura finds herself falling in love with Duke, arranging secret meetings when she goes to see Christine in London, revelling in the attention he gives her. Duke wants them to be together – but their love affair – if that is what this is, is pretty tame. Laura is plagued with guilt about her husband and children, she can’t possibly give up her children, and Alfred is totally undeserving of any betrayal.

Ultimately, there is a kind of acceptance in Laura for the kind of life she is living and must continue to live. Also, her great love for Duke is unconvincing, it’s more that she craves the affection that Alfred doesn’t show, desperate for romance before she is firmly middle aged, Laura falls in love with an idea. Her ‘romance’ is contrasted with those of her sister and Bébéé – who are younger with a more modern approach to romance.

The final few lines of the novel are just brilliant – and possibly quite poignant. A little less brilliant than The Provincial Lady perhaps, The Way Things Are is a more reflective novel and I liked it enormously.

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