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With thanks to Virago for this stunning review copy.

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

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

(Amanda Coe – Introduction)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricia Brent Spinster (1918) Herbert Jenkins

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

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

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

The True Heart (1929) Sylvia Townsend Warner

The True Heart is apparently a (very loose) re-telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche – though don’t let that put you off. If you weren’t aware of that then it wouldn’t matter – and it wouldn’t alter the delightfulness of this imaginative love story. The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is superb – as always, I actually find her very readable, and I defy anyone not to absolutely love Sukey and her Eric. There is a wonderful fairy-tale quality to this novel – there’s a feeling that all is possible.

84 Charing Cross Road (1970) Helene Hanff

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

Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945) Susan Alice Kerby

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

Something Light (1960) Margery Sharp

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

Business as Usual (1933) Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford

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

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

Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940) Romilly Cavan

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

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

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

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

Home Life (1986) Alice Thomas Ellis

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

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

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

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘This is unexpected’ she said amiably.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from French by Francis Golffing*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from Yiddish by Maurice Carr

I started my WIT reading early, so that I could get some reviews out at the beginning of the month. My first read for WIT is a VMC, ticking off All Virago All August too. Deborah is a highly autobiographical novel by Esther Kreitman the sister of two more famous younger brothers;  Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer, both of them writers, Isaac was the writer of Yentil and won the Nobel prize in literature.

Born Hinde Esther Singer into a rabbinical Jewish family in Poland in 1891. She apparently had an unhappy childhood; her mother disappointed her first child was a girl handed her over to a wet nurse for three years. Like her heroine Deborah she submitted to an arranged marriage and moved to Antwerp. Sadly, there appears to have been some division between Esther and her brothers, they decided not to offer help when she needed it and played no part in getting her work published in Yiddish journals. Her life, and that of her brothers seems to have been quite different. Having read the introduction by Clive Sinclair – it is possible to see a lot of Esther in Deborah.

The novel is set in the early part of the twentieth century (the novel ends around the start of WW1) – as the novel opens Deborah is fourteen. She is living with her parents; the unworldly, rather feckless rabbi Reb Avram Ber, his wife Raizela who is often sickly and her brother Michael. The family are living in a small Jewish village in Poland – the community here speak Yiddish rather than Polish, Reb Avram Ber is the rabbi – the family are poor, and life is very hard. The novel gets off to a pretty slow start – but the portrait of this community is instantly vivid – and I sensed this would be worth sticking with and it is, I was soon drawn into a novel in which in some ways little happens. Deborah is a bright girl, imaginative and romantic she longs for the kind of education preserved for boys, but her fate is to stay at home, to help her mother in domestic tasks, and be content with that.

In a bid for a better life – the family move twice, Reb Avram Ber taking up new appointments that he believes will enhance his family’s fortunes. The first takes them to R- (that’s as close we get to a name) – where Reb Avram Ber takes up a position in a school that is part of a Tsadik’s (spiritual leader) court.

“Deborah found more variety in life than ever she had done in Jelhitz. There the days used to pass with a great sense of security, with no expectancy of strange things to come; from morning to night and from night to morning time used to go its irksome way with unbroken monotony. Now life was unsettled, harsh circumstances played havoc with it. Trouble and cares descended on the family from all quarters, came swarming in like vermin from the walls of a rotten building creeping forth from every chink, and each time one chink as stopped up, two others appeared in its place…”

Life here is not any easier – the Tsadik’s promises seem empty ones, and often the family are left with no money. When freed from her duties, Deborah watches the students hurry across the courtyard coming to and from the school where her father is employed, and it is in this way she first catches sight of Simon – whose name she will not learn for some time. Disillusioned by their experiences in R- they family move again – this time to Warsaw.

Deborah has begun to grow up – she sees the world differently; her brother is allowed all the freedoms denied to her – and she longs to better get to know this city she is living in the midst of. Her father is asked to pass judgement on all kinds of spiritual and family difficulties that are brought to his door – including divorcing a gangster’s wayward daughter from her furious young husband. It is in Warsaw that Deborah begins to understand more about the inequalities in her world – she finds socialism and a group of young radicals, who inspire her. Amazingly, she meets again that student from R- Simon, with whom she falls hopelessly and silently in love with. It is not to be however, and Deborah is heartbroken. Numbed and hardly knowing what she is doing, she agrees to an arranged marriage to a young man in Antwerp – we sense that this will not be the happy ever after that Deborah deserves.

“When they presented Deborah with a long, golden chain and hung it round her neck, she shivered at the touch of the cold metal and at the thought that the most vicious of dogs might safely be tied up with a chain such as this.”

I can’t say too much more about what happens to Deborah from here – but the ending of the novel is powerful – heralding the horrors that were already unfolding in Europe when Esther Kreitman was writing and that would get worse.

Deborah is a vivid and poignant story of a world which we might not see very often in literature, her characters are real – and we know they came from life. Esther Kreitman writes with an unsurprising anger for the wasted lives and the horrifying fate that awaited so many of her community. It is a book that deserves to be better known than I believe it is.

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Two Serious Ladies has sat on my shelves unread for some time, so I was delighted when having suggested it to my book group, they picked it for our July read. An American modern classic, I quite understand why some people are bemused by this modernist novel – it perhaps takes some thinking about. All in all, I really enjoyed it, Bowles’ straightforward narrative voice is very engaging and rather mischievous. Jane Bowles was a woman who appears able to have lived the life she wanted – and in this novel she celebrates female freedom in the stories of the eccentric Frieda Copperfield and Christina Goering.

The novel follows the decline into debauchery of two very different women. Frieda Copperfield and Christina Goering are social acquaintances, part of the same circle they meet at parties and such like, though in the novel they only come together twice, once near to the beginning of the novel, and again right at the end.

The novel opens with Christine Goering as a child – a child as unpopular as she will be as an adult. Disturbingly, the child Christina plays a rather odd game with another child, a friend of her sister’s – which the reader is certain will lead at any moment to the other child’s drowning – it doesn’t. The point of this incident no doubt is to highlight the oddness in Miss Goering and her inability to form normal friendships.

“I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy. I have a friend living with me, which makes it easier.”

As an adult Miss Goering is living in New York with her companion Miss Gamelon – a recent addition to household. She is very wealthy, and she is in a sense trapped by that wealth and her place in society. At a party given by their mutual friend Anna – Miss Goering meets another acquaintance, Mrs Copperfield – who tells Christina she will be going away with her husband. These are the two serious ladies of the title – they are both quite staid though in different ways, one of them trapped by her money the other by a conventional marriage.

Mrs Copperfield accompanies her husband to Panama – where they stay close the red light district of Colón. Here Mrs Copperfield (as she is almost always referred to – reminding us perhaps of her supposed serious lady status) makes an unexpected bid for freedom, taking up with the ladies of the Hotel de las Palmas, a bar and hotel owned by the wonderfully bizarre Mrs Quill. Mrs Copperfield becomes greatly enamoured of the young Panamanian prostitute Pacifica, who she will later take back with her to the states. While still in the country, Mrs Copperfield moves into the Hotel de las Palmas – abandoning her husband to the cheap hotel he chose but she rejected, and his much anticipated trip into the jungle.  

Mrs Copperfield’s adventures in Panama are colourful, liberating, and hilarious. Of the two stories within this novel, this was the one I engaged with the most. Certainly, there is something joyful in the feeling that finally, Mrs Copperfield is a happy woman.

“True enough,” said Mrs. Copperfield, bringing her fist down on the table and looking very mean. “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”

Meanwhile, Miss Christine Goering makes her own peculiar bid for liberation. She decides that she will live on just a fraction of her income and buys a small and not very nice house on Staten Island – where she, her companion Miss Gamelon and her friend Arnold set up home together. The three are not entirely comfortable together – and the odd arrangement is far from ideal. Soon, Miss Goering is making secret trips across to the mainland by ferry, where she starts to haunt quayside bars, meeting men and becoming what can only be described as a high class call girl.

“‘Having a nice time?’ the girl asked Miss Goering in a husky voice.

‘Well’ said Miss Goering, ‘It wasn’t exactly in order to have a good time that I came out. I have more or less forced myself to, simply because I despise going out in the night-time alone and prefer not to leave my own house. However, it has come to such a point that I am forcing myself to make these little excursions.’”

In this 1940s novel, sex is only ever really implied – and it doesn’t seem to be something these two women desire for themselves, especially, maybe not even enjoy that much – but it represents a freedom, an independence from their previous existences.   

As I write this review it is Monday afternoon, and I am a couple of hours away from my book group zoom meeting – and I am really looking forward to our discussion. What will we all think? I am anticipating that we may not all feel exactly the same about the book, that’s fine – we can’t all feel the same about books, and I am secure in my great liking for this book – and especially the character of Mrs Copperfield who I rather adored. It’s a book I like even more as I think about it afterwards, if I didn’t have quite so many books waiting I could almost sit straight down and re-read it immediately.

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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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