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cof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the diviners

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

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

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cof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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pirates at play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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toldbyanidiot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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mde

Today has been declared Elizabeth von Arnim day by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock in her year long celebration of underappreciated lady authors. I have read quite a number of von Arnim novels, I love her voice so much. One of her most famous books of course is Elizabeth and her German Garden, which was published anonymously in 1898. EvA went on to write two more ‘Elizabeth’ books – The Solitary Summer and The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904). I don’t suppose it matters which order one reads these books, and in fact I read The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen a couple of years ago.

In many ways there is very little to say about The Solitary Summer – so you may be glad to hear that this post is likely to be fairly short.

“What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden.”

The Solitary Summer was a delightful little read, in the company of Elizabeth, The Man of Wrath, the April, May and June babies we spend the summer in the German countryside. Here, Elizabeth assures her doubting husband that she wants nothing more than to spend a summer alone – alone meaning no visitors, her husband and children will have to be present. Yet, Elizabeth longs to be free from the constant whirl of polite society.

“May 2nd. Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes.”

However, Elizabeth’s alone – is not quite my alone – and neither is it quite what she had envisaged. Aside from The Man of Wrath and the April, May and June babies, there is the governess, the gardener and a new parson to be appointed to her husband’s living. Toward the end of the summer – much to poor Elizabeth’s exasperation, there is a soldier, a lieutenant staying in her house – a man she exhausts herself just trying to avoid.

Elizabeth glories in her garden, realising she has made mistakes in the past – she takes her husband’s advice and employs a new gardener – and soon she is glorying in her larkspurs and roses. She sneaks out of the house early before anyone is awake, and glories in her garden as it wakes.

“Here was the world wide-awake and yet only for me, all the fresh pure air only for me, all the fragrance breathed only by me, not a living soul hearing the nightingale but me, the sun in a few moments coming up to warm only me.”

the solitart summer

When the children don’t need occupying, or even when they do, there are forest walks to be enjoyed and mud banks to be scrambled down. When it is raining, Elizabeth has her books, her wants are really very simple, and very restful. Her joy in the simple things is really quite infectious. Unfortunately, my garden doesn’t inspire quite the same feelings in me and would take precisely 37 seconds to walk around.

In the company of Elizabeth, we meet the poor women of the village who are too afraid of cold/dirt to let their babies go out of doors. This allows us a (not entirely comfortable) glimpse of the different levels of German society. However, Elizabeth von Arnim is a wonderful observer of people, as always, she is warm, witty and wise – and I continue to love her writing very much.

“If one believed in angels one would feel that they must love us best when we are asleep and cannot hurt each other; and what a mercy it is that once in every twenty-four hours we are too utterly weary to go on being unkind.”

We realise in time, that Elizabeth does indeed love her Man of Wrath, he is even more affectionately portrayed in this book than in German Garden. Elizabeth seems happiest in her garden with her babies under the summer sunshine, and soldiers, parsons, husbands and babies apart – she did manage to get a more or less solitary summer.

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cof

I love Barbara Comyns writing, her way of looking at the world, is deliciously eccentric. My favourite to date is probably The Juniper Tree – a book I couldn’t stop thinking about. When reading Comyns – one can’t help but wonder where her rather skewed view of the world came from. Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns’ debut novel gives us something of an idea. Although described as a novel, Sister by a River has the taint of memoir about it as Comyns used her first novel to tell the story of her childhood.

It is a story of chaos, genteel poverty, sibling squabbles, unsuitable governesses and antics on the river running past the family home. Her childhood was obviously quite extraordinary. It’s hard to know if Comyns viewed any part of it as happy – but it quite clearly informed her writing and ignited her imagination.

“When we were very young people would sometimes forbid us to play on the path that ran by the river, but it didn’t make any difference, we always did. We used to fall in but were never completely drowned, the village children often were though. There was a family called Drinkwater and no less than five of them were drowned, they were a very poor family, the mother was very handsome and fierce looking, with a figure rather like a withie, which was quite suitable because she stripped the withies on the river bank as her living, most of the village women did and after they were stripped they were made into baskets and cradels.”

(NB spelling errors in quotes entirely deliberate)

The novel is narrated by young Barbara – we see the world through her eyes, and in her words and with her own sometimes eccentric spelling. This narration is odd at times, it is much more like that of an adult recalling childhood than a child themselves.

Barbara is one of six sisters – though one doesn’t appear in the story, as she wouldn’t like it. Told in a series of usually short chapters and vignettes, with titles like – Aunts Arriving, God in the Billiard Room, It wasn’t Nice in the Dressing Room and Mice and Owls, Comyns recreates a childhood full of unreliable adults and the animals that fall foul of them. It is a story that is colourful and strange, told with humour and some affection.

“Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsofilia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’ which was a favourite expression.”

However, Comyns’ light, bright, breezy tone is very deceptive, behind the humour there is a lot that is really rather dark. Comyns wraps that darkness in witty anecdotes but that is her way of talking about times which must have been frequently alarming, unpredictable and sometimes violent, which she is oddly matter of fact about, it’s her way of highlighting an upbringing that must have at times taken its toll.

Barbara’s parents were generally responsible for the violence – towards one another or unwanted animals, they are neglectful and inconsistent allowing the children to run pretty wild. There are plenty of disturbing events, her father threatens to shoot himself, a local child drowns in the river. Barbara’s mother, who went deaf following the birth of her sixth daughter, is vague, their father frequently bad tempered and beset by money worries.

“One evening we elder ones returned rather late after a visit to the cinema, we were all kind of in a coma, degesting the film we had just seen, but we were soon rudely awakened, there was an awful uproar, Mammy was screaming and crying in the morning-room, and Daddy bellowing away like a bull, as we came into the room he hurried out without speaking to us, he locked himself in the billiard-room, always his stronghold during rows. Mammy was in the most frightful state, it was difficult to make out what had happened, she seemed almost crazy, and I felt all sick.”

sistersby a riverThe household reminded me of the Mitfords, though maybe the Mitfords were less dysfunctional. There are unattractive aunts, a messy grandmother whose bedroom smelt of vinegar. None of the adults seem to have much going for them. The elder sister Mary bullies the other sisters badly and Barbara grows up closest to her sister Beatrix. Childhood ends as it must, crashing to a sudden halt when tragedy strikes.

Comyns storytelling is much more than her quirky, humorous anecdotes might have us believe. This is a quick engaging read, not my favourite Comyns but one I couldn’t help thinking a lot about. What, strange and frightening days of childhood lie behind this novel?

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open the door

My first book for August and the Virago group’s All Virago all August was Open the Door! By Catherine Carswell. It accompanied me on a short trip to Belgium – which was lovely – but during which I didn’t get a huge amount of reading time. Another thing about travelling – and why do I always forget this – but the ‘mood’ lighting in hotels is not good for readers. I really should always take my kindle which at least has its own back light.

Anyway, on with the book – which I thoroughly enjoyed – the kind of novel I think of being ‘a proper Virgo book.’

The author of Open the Door! published only one other novel, like the heroine of this novel she was born in Glasgow. This her first novel is apparently very autobiographical. In the company of Joanna Bannerman – who we follow from childhood to when she is thirty years old – we visit, Edinburgh, London and Italy. Joanna is a brilliantly drawn character, I have seen a couple of reviews of this book, saying she was an unsympathetic character, I didn’t think so. Joanna is flawed – she makes some selfish decisions, but she is warm – craves love and is capable of great kindness. Aren’t we all capable of small acts of selfishness? We all hide from the world our little vanities and caprices, but they make us human, and Catherine Carswell shows us the truth of this in her character of Joanna Bannerman particularly, but in all her characters.

“She was poised and keen, a hawk in mid-air, a speck of perfect bliss upheld in perfection of readiness for the predatory swoop”

As the novel opens it is 1896, Joanna her older sister Georgie, and younger brothers Linnet and Sholto are accompanying their mother Juley on a dreaded visit to their Edinburgh relatives. Juley is a little vague and a little disorganised, even then, she relies on her children to help her organise themselves. As the years pass she will come to lean on her children more and more, while also wanting to retain some control of the household affairs. Juley is another wonderfully drawn, complex character.

This Edinburgh visit is especially memorable, for it is here that the family first learn that the children’s father has died suddenly of pneumonia. The Bannerman children have been brought up within a religious evangelical environment, and the children’s mother Juley – is a particularly strident believer – though she changes churches regularly. There is one last family holiday at their holiday cottage in Duntarvie a place of rural perfection and happiness for Joanna that she is destined to carry with her through life.

As she grows older, the artistic Joanna begins to pull against the conventionalities of this evangelical Glasgow life. She seeks life with a great energy and passion – longs to free herself of the restrictions of her background. Her studies at the School of Art open new horizons for Joanna – she is ready to grab at life and eager for love. She enters into a sudden failed engagement, and then shortly afterwards marries a man she barely knows, an Italian, Mario. She leaves everything she knows and travels to Italy, with her new husband, experiencing sex for the first time, and is less than impressed.

‘This droll device, this astonishing, grotesque experience was what the poets had sung of since the beginning’.

Mario seeks to control her, imprisoning her within the walls of his home, with his own personal wardress watching Joanna – Maddalena his devoted sister.
Thankfully, it isn’t long before Joanna is free again, and back in Glasgow, living again with her mother and siblings. Her dream though is to go to London. She surrounds herself with artistic, interesting friends and lovers including Phemie, Lawrence and the much older, married Louis Pender.

“Ah, how remorselessly the stream swept away all the debris of winter it could reach! As Joanna watched it in fascination she was one with it, and she rejoiced. Her life – was it not as that flood? Was it not muddy, littered, unlike the life she have imagined or chosen? But it was a life. It moved.”

mdeJoanna finds employment and happiness in London, living in two small rooms in the home of a family whose disabled children she becomes particularly fond of. Holidays are spent in Scotland with the family, but in London there is always Louis Pender – her married lover. Louis will never leave his wife, they will always be subject to the little lies and intrigues of an affair – and in time these begin to tell on both of them. Will Joanna ever find the loving fulfilment she craves?

Open the Door! Is the story of a young woman’s awakening, her search for love, independence and happiness is brilliantly and compellingly told. Joanna is both trapped and in time released by her large capacity for love.

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