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The first book I started after moving to my new flat was chosen for me by Liz – who had actually bought it for me one Christmas. She was helping sort the tbr cupboard (yes cupboard!) and thrust this one at me to read next – I hadn’t known what my next read was going to be. I really don’t know why I hadn’t read it before – the perils of a large tbr I suppose things get forgotten about. So, despite the fact that I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, A Bite of the Apple is definitely a book right up my street. Liz knows me, she knew I would love this, I did.

For anyone who has scanned bookshop shelves looking for that tell-tale apple on the spine of a book – or who, like me, has far, far too many dark green spined VMCs to house – this book is a joy. Part memoir, part history of Virago including thoughts and reminiscences of over forty years of feminist publishing, this is the story of a publisher and a movement. The excitement and vision that started it off – the passion, determination and belief that made Virago the success it was, and still is – is all here.

“It was common to think of the literary tradition that runs from Jane Austen through Ivy Compton-Burnett to Barbara Pym as a clever and witty women’s view of a small domestic world. This was not a ghetto we accepted. The female tradition included writers of vast ambition and great achievement: mistresses of comedy, drama, storytelling, of the domestic world we knew and loved. I saw a large world, not a small canvas, with all human life on display, a great library of women’s fiction.”

Lennie Goodings has been with Virago almost since the start, when Carmen Callil founded the iconic press, she really has seen it all. She began part time in 1978 in the one roomed Virago office, accessed by five flights of steep stairs. She had no idea then, that in time she herself would become the publisher, but she did know that she had found her home.

Throughout these years Lennie Goodings worked with some incredible writers, some pretty big names too – and here she describes those working relationships. Remembering her meetings with women like Maya Angelou, Rosamond Lehmann, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Dunant and Sandi Toksvig among many others. These glimpses of the women, who for some of us lets be honest, are our heroines, is wonderful, Lennie Goodings shows how many of these writers had just as much passion and belief in what Virago were doing as those working for the publisher at the time.

However, like with any organisation of its kind Virago had – and still have – their naysayers. Those who think that having a separate publisher for women, somehow diminishes their art – they have the same problem with the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Apparently, and it was news to me, A S Byatt refuses to have her books put forward for the women’s prize – there seems to be a fear from some quarters, that if books are published by a women’s press and nominated for a women’s prize then men won’t read them. (Rolls eyes). So, that there is the problem, isn’t it, still despite over forty years of Virago publishing, there are those who don’t take women’s writing seriously enough. I do my bit, by reading very few men (ha! Sticks tongue out!) Lennie Goodings however puts her case for the need for Virago and for the Women’s Prize rather better than me.

“With fiction, what seems to matter more is the gender of the writer; because even in this new world of outspoken writers and readers it appears not all words are equal. Something seems to happen to a novel when it has a woman’s name on the spine.”

One of my favourite chapters – perhaps not surprisingly was the one about the Virago Modern Classics list that started in 1978 – which includes a marvellous encounter with octogenarian Rosamond Lehmann. The classics of course have been an enormous success – oh and how we cheered when the green spines came back – changed a little for the twentieth century but green again. The first one of course was Frost in May – and was followed by so many more – that are now collected and cherished by people like me. Goodings reveals how the list changed the way women’s novels began to be seen, attracting new readers, becoming a strong and familiar presence in bookshops. Suddenly new life was given to the novels of writers like Rosamond Lehmann who had thought their day was done – and generations of readers can thank the Virago Modern Classics for the books that made it into their libraries.

The Virago that Carmen Callil started in that one roomed office all those years ago is not the same company as it is today. Lennie Goodings discusses how difficult remaining independent was, there were some forthright discussions and disagreements, but things had to change. In 1995 Virago became part of the Little Brown group and Lennie Goodings was there to see that transition through and explains clearly why that was necessary for Virago’s survival. Revealing how the imprint has moved forward, and how many exciting publications have come about since then, that may not have done otherwise. Today, Lennie Goodings is chair of Virago Press – still working with the authors and books that have been her passion for so long.

This was a marvellous book, really giving a lot of insight into the feminist movement of the late 1970s and 1980s – the publishing industry and the books and writers I love. Definitely, a book to keep to refer to again.

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August is of course Women in Translation month – but for some of us it is also All Virago All August, a month in which we read vmc books and books from similar publishers like Dean Street Press and Persephone. I have only managed one Virago book so far, the third volume in Maya Angelou’s seven volume autobiography. I have been reading this alongside Liz and our friend Meg, as ever, I am a bit behind as Liz has already managed to review this one. Singin’ & Swingin’ & Getting Merry Like Christmas focuses on Maya Angelous’s first marriage, her relationship with her young son and the start of her life in showbusiness. 

“Ivonne said, “You know white people are strange. I don’t even know if they know why they do things.” Ivonne had grown up in a small Mississippi town, and I, in a smaller town in Arkansas. Whites were as constant in our history as the seasons and as unfamiliar as affluence.”

Race plays a part in this part of her story too, as for perhaps the first time in her life Maya must learn to build relationships with white people. White people have only featured in her life quite negatively at this point, she spent a lot of her youth growing up in small town Arkansas – definitely a place where white and black didn’t mix. It’s understandable that she is wary of people’s motivations, can she trust them? will they really understand her? So, when a young white woman offers Maya a job in her favourite record shop she is at first rather taken aback.

“Early mornings were given over to Bartok and Schoenberg. Midmorning I treated myself to the vocals of Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole, Louis Jordan and Bull Moose Jackson. A piroshki from the Russian delicatessen next door was lunch and then the giants of bebop flipped through the air. Charlie Parker and Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Al Haig and Howard McGhee. Blues belonged to late afternoons and the singers’ lyrics of lost love spoke to my solitude.”

Maya loves music, it is the perfect job and it allows her to take her son out of weekly childcare and move him back in with her full time. It is here that she meets the man she will marry – a white man of Greek heritage. At first everything seems great. Her son gets on well with his step-father – quickly thinking of him as daddy. However, Maya’s husband is clearly a controlling presence in her life – and soon things are not as happy as they were. Maya has the spirit to get out before things escalate – a single mother again, she needs well paid work quickly.

Maya gets a job dancing in a club – it all sounds a little sleazy, and there is quite a racket going on with drinks. Customers are supposed to buy the dancers drinks, and Maya works out how the customers are being conned and explains the racket to the customers when they offer her a drink.  Her honesty makes her very popular with the customers but not with the other women, who jealously conspire to have her kicked out. Maya is always astonishingly resilient, and it’s not long before she is back on her feet – dancing again. This time she is dancing in proper shows, and it is at this time that she adopts the name Maya Angelou – Maya the name her brother called her and Angelou a corruption of her married name.

When Maya goes to see a performance of Porgy and Bess she is utterly blown away. This all black cast of talented singers, actors and dancers – she feels like she has come home. So, when the chance comes for her to take a small part in the touring production of Porgy and Bess, she jumps at it. It means leaving her son in the care of her mother for months – but she feels it is a chance she can’t pass up. It certainly is an incredible opportunity for the company will be touring Europe and North Africa – places Maya could have probably only dreamed of visiting at this time in her life.

In Maya’s company we travel across Europe seeing these places with Maya’s wide eyed wonder and intelligent curiosity. She naturally wants to experience as much as she can.  Starting out in Canada and then on to Paris, Verona, Rome, Venice, Zagreb, Alexandria, and Cairo – with the company of Porgy and Bess Maya really gets to see something of the world, have adventures and make friends.

“I was really in Italy. Not Maya Angelou, the person of pretensions and ambitions, but me, Marguerite Johnson, who had read about Verona and the sad lovers while growing up in a dusty Southern village poorer and more tragic than the historic town in which I now stood. I was so excited at the incredible turn of events which had brought me from a past of rejection, of slammed doors and blind alleys, of dead-end streets and culs-de-sac, into the bright sun of Italy, into a town made famous by one of the world’s greatest writers.”

 She discovers that in lots of places black people are treated differently than in North America, in fact it seems that black Americans are rather preferred to white Americans. However, she has been away from her son for a long time, and so the time comes when she realises she must leave the company and go home.

On her arrival home, we see how her young son has been affected by her long absence, nervous and hating her to be out of his sight – Maya knows she won’t be able to leave him again. She re-builds her relationship with her son with love and understanding and some guilt over what she has done to him by leaving.

We finally leave Maya and her son – who has now changed his name from Clyde to Guy together in Hawaii as Maya undertakes another performance job, this time though, insisting that her son travels with her.

I had to remind myself that at this point in her life Maya is still a young woman, she has done so much. Her continuing determination and resilience shines as brightly as in the first two volumes – and I am really looking forward to seeing where she goes next.

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I hadn’t even heard of this novel – to my shame – until Virago selected it as their book club read for July. Despite reading a lot of VMC titles, I have probably only joined in with the book club once before, as they so often read things I have already read. I quickly bought a copy of Desert of the Heart so that I could join in – there’s an online discussion on FB that starts later this week.

The novel is described as ‘an undisputed lesbian classic’ which made me feel like I should have heard of it before – but neither it nor its author were previously known to me. Written in 1961 – published in 1964 after twenty-two rejections – it was the author’s first novel. This was a time when sex between people of the same sex was a criminal offence – the novel was a breakthrough piece of work, and caused quite the stir. This edition includes an excellent introduction by Jackie Kay – who really sets the novel in context.

It’s simply a wonderful novel – I was immediately drawn in by Rule’s warm and witty tone, her intelligence and her brilliantly drawn characters; fully authentic and real. Evelyn Hall is an English professor who has come to Reno – for the necessary period of six weeks – to obtain a divorce from her husband George. She has been married for sixteen years. The pair have been living incompatibly for years, the marriage has been childless – and it is finally time to bring it to an end.

From the opening lines, Rule sets out her stall – how only one way of life is considered conventional or ‘normal’ while those living outside of that are somehow other.

“Conventions, like clichés, have a way of surviving their own usefulness. They are then excused or defended as the idioms of living. For everyone, foreign by birth or by nature, convention is a mark of fluency. That is why, for any woman, marriage is the idiom of life.”

Evelyn has come to stay at a B&B run by Frances Parker who lives there with her son Walter. Another woman seeking a divorce is also resident when Evelyn arrives, as well as long-time resident – the almost step-daughter of Frances, casino worker Ann Childs. When they first meet, Evelyn and Ann are struck by how similar in appearance they are – Ann though is fifteen years younger. The two are clearly very highly aware of one another right from the start – though it takes a few days, before they start to get to know one another.

Ann has a very different life, a world that is entirely alien to Evelyn. Working nights at the casino – she finishes in the early hours of the morning, often going straight to her friend – and sometime lover – Silver’s house before heading back to the boarding house. Silver is due to be married soon to Joe – after which Ann’s relationship with Silver will change. Silver is a brilliant creation, generous, tough talking, and no nonsense.  Rule reproduces the sights and sounds of the casino brilliantly – Ann one of a number of ‘change girls’ – who spend hours lugging around a heavy change apron. At the club, Bill is Ann’s boss – there is some residual bitterness between them, after their relationship was ended by Ann.

Soon though, Evelyn and Ann are drawn together – each of them attracted to some similarity in the other. Outside of the casino, Ann is a talented cartoonist – and her bedroom is lined with books, which Ann allows Evelyn to borrow. Despite their obvious differences these women share a not dissimilar intelligence. Ann introduces Evelyn to the incredible beauty of the Nevada desert – and to a sensuousness that is entirely new. The women begin a passionate affair.

“Evelyn wanted to be charming, provocative, desirable, attributes she had never aspired to before out of pride, perhaps, or fear of failure. Now they seemed most instinctive. She was finding, in the miracle of her particular fall, that she was, by nature, a woman. And what a lively thing it was to be, a woman.”

Although at this time a sexual relationship between two women was illegal and definitely seen as being outside the usual conventions, Rule doesn’t present these relationships in such a way. This is a positive relationship – and no spoilers – a hopeful one. Evelyn and Ann are two people who fall in love – in that way perhaps this novel feels like one written in a much later period than it was. What a very long way this is from the depressing rather negative relationships portrayed in The Well of Loneliness that the author discovered when she was fifteen.

“Because I can’t help loving you, your wild, inaccurate emotions, your bizarre innocence, your angry sense of responsibility, your wrong-headed wit, your cockeyed joy, your cowboy boots, your absolutely magnificent body, your incredible eyes. I can’t help it. I don’t know how anyone could.”

The relationship between Evelyn and Ann is complex – the age difference making Evelyn almost old enough to be the motherless Ann’s mother – their strikingly similar appearance underlying this point. Clearly both women have had relationships with men – and there are no real labels applied here – and it is obvious that Evelyn had never considered a relationship with a women in all her life. Ann has had a very cynical view to the accepted romantic ideas of love and marriage – but as she and Evelyn’s relationship develops she has to re-evaluate her prejudices. The story of these two women coming together so unexpectedly is beautifully understated. A wonderful book group choice – I wish I had suggested it to the book group I’m a member of.

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Oh, that feeling, when you experience a writer for the first time – and think ‘I want to read everything now.’ I had been dimly aware of A L Barker for some years, I have had her novel John Brown’s Body (1970) on my tbr shelves for years – and then I acquired Submerged a collection of short stories published by Virago in 2002. The stories themselves were all originally published much earlier in Barker’s career, between the 1940s and 1960s. All of but one of the seven stories in this collection have appeared elsewhere – five of them in collections published by A L Barker earlier in her career. I haven’t gone looking yet – I daren’t, but I can only assume those early collections are hard to find now.

According to the introduction by Jane Gardam, Barker far preferred the short story form to that of novel writing, and this collection shows she was certainly adept at it. She was a prolific writer though, publishing eleven novels and eleven collections of stories (including this one) between 1947 and 2002. There is a seam of darkness running through these stories – for me it never goes too far – but then I love short stories like this – Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson – though their writing styles were different, did that so well too. As Jane Gardam says in her introductions:

“Evil throbs through A. L Barker’s world and is left unacknowledged and unexplained.”

(Jane Gardam – Introduction)

I can’t say too much about these stories for fear of spoilers – but I shall attempt to give a slight flavour of them all

The collection opens with Submerged – the title story. A young boy delights in his secret, underwater world, as he swims in the stream he has been banned from going to by his mother. He is alone here, and he relishes in his isolation. The silence and isolation are disrupted suddenly when two people appear – a man and a woman, in obvious conflict. The boy feels threatened so hides. He is witness to all that transpires – but it is his continuing silence in the wake of the events he witnessed that is shocking, and has terrible consequences for somebody else.

Perhaps the most frightening story in the collection is Someone at the Door for it plays right into the kinds of fear that many people have. That someone threatening might come into out home, and we find ourselves unable to get rid of them. A woman arrives from London at her brother’s cottage in the country to spend Christmas alone. Her brother and his family have gone away, and won’t be back for several days. Rain is falling very heavily, when a stranger arrives at the door, asking to use the phone as his car has broken down. It’s the feeling of not being totally in control of a situation that Barker recreates so well – she stops far short of anything really unpleasant – but the fear is enough, and we all recognise that.

In Men, Those Fabulous Creatures – a woman goes to talk to the residents at a residential home for the elderly. Having sat for a while talking to one resident, she gets something of a surprise later – just as the story she was listening to is reaching its conclusion.

The Iconoclasts – was one of my favourite stories, a story I read before in Wave me Goodbye – a wonderful anthology of wartime stories. There comes a point when the reader watches with horror – we know it won’t end well. It’s a fantastic story of childhood – which I could quite easily say too much about. A young boy plays happily, wrapped up in his own little word of childish superstitions and stories. When an older boy comes to play – he is thrust uneasily into the more knowing world of his exacting playmate. The day will end on a tragedy – that some readers may find upsetting. Barker’s depiction of childhood though is brilliant – despite the fact that she is apparently quoted as having not liked children.

“The visitor put his hands in his pocket, rocked to and fro on his heels and spoke with absolute authority. ‘It’s a twin-engined Blenheim bomber with “mercury” engines and five machine-guns – one in the port wing, two in the turret and two in the blister under the nose. It can carry a thousand pounds of bombs, but I expect it’s on a training trip now.’

Marcus looked sulky, yet he was impressed. Under his breath he muttered, ‘it’s not.’ Just once, without conviction.”

(The Iconoclasts)

Jane Dore – Dear Childe is a rather grim little historical story. Jane is an innocent, loving young girl, a healer. In the seventeenth century she is damned and accused of witchcraft by the local hellfire priest and sentenced to drown.

In A Chapter in the Life of Henry Subito Barker gives us another memorable child with a fierce and fanciful imagination. When his parents leave the stolid, unremarkable Henry on the beach by himself for a while with his comic – Henry decides to turn the time by himself to his own advantage. He wanders off toward one of the local hotels where becoming a little con artist he regales respectable residents with the stories of his life as an Arabian Prince, consuming vast quantities of afternoon tea in the process.

Novellette is one of those very long short stories you can really sink into. At around a hundred pages it is almost novella length. It is the story of a bad marriage, disrupted by a young soldier back from the war. William Felice is just nineteen, back from Dunkirk and injured. After release from hospital, he is billeted temporarily in the country with a draper and his wife Edward and Luise Mallory. William doesn’t think he will care much for the countryside, and goes rather unwillingly to his new billet. The Mallorys are middle aged – Edward concerned more with his little drapers shop than anything else – a little in awe of William’s war experiences. An unlikely affair begins between Luise Mallory and young William. None of these people seem well matched – and Barker shows us the grubby, pointlessness of this relationship – which no doubt young William will shrug off without a backward glance.

This was really a superb collection, which makes me wonder why I have left it so long to read A. L Barker, the introduction does suggest that she never really achieved the recognition and success that she deserved. How true that is of so many women writers of the twentieth century.

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“Thank heaven fasting for a good man’s love.”

(William Shakespeare – As You Like it)

There’s an irony in the title I think – proving that there is much more to this novel by the author of The Provincial Lady than we might at first suspect.

E M Delafield had much to say about society and women’s place within it – that she does so with a light touch, and even with humour is perhaps what makes her such a delight to read. In Thank Heaven Fasting she show us the restrictive absurdity of upper class society in Edwardian England. There is nothing actually to date the setting of this novel precisely; there is no mention of the war, and the attitudes toward society and parental authority seem to place it before WW1. This is a society in which all girls are expected to marry within three seasons of being launched into society, everything in their upbringing and education has been arranged to bring this about.

“Much was said in the days of Monica’s early youth about being good. Life — the section of it that was visible from the angle of Eaton Square — was full of young girls who were all being good. Even a girl who was tiresome and “didn’t get on with her mother” was never anything but good, since opportunities for being anything else were practically non-existent.

One was safeguarded.

One’s religion, one’s mother, one’s maid…. But especially one’s mother.”

Any young woman left unmarried or at least unengaged after her third season is a failure – and so by association is her mother. The years after this third season becoming more and more difficult – with each young woman and her distressed parent having to have just the right excuse ready to defend herself against any implied criticism from curious ‘well-wishers’.

Monica Ingram has been brought up well in Eaton Square she has been protected and cosseted just the right amount – she is obedient and properly educated. Monica knows that she must marry as soon as she can to be a success and she wants to be a success – she wants to marry, to have her own life and to make her parents proud. Anything else is unthinkable. Monica is no protestor to this way of life – she knows nothing else – and the idea of being left on the shelf is terrifying. As the novel opens Monica is about eighteen, she is just about to attend her first ball – her excitement is palpable, after all it’s just possible that she might encounter her future husband at her very first ball.

The ball is being held by Lady Marlowe a friend of Mrs Ingram’s. As she was growing up Monica was forced into a friendship with Lady Marlowe’s two daughters Frederica and Cecily who are a few years older than Monica, with some seasons already behind them, the sisters are already beginning to look like failures and Monica only hopes she can do better. Lady Marlowe has practically given up on her two daughters and is planning to abandon them to her house in the country in her disgust at the close of the present season. This toe-curling exchange between Frederica and her mother Lady Marlowe perfectly showing the pity on one side and the sad, embarrassed desperation on the other.

“‘I don’t want to get married. I hate men. I wouldn’t marry anyone – whoever it was.’

Lady Marlowe gazed at her in astonishment for a moment, and then laughed again.

‘So you’ve reached that stage, have you?’ was all she said.”

These sisters who have spent their whole lives together, are a pitiful pair, Frederica dominating her shy, nervy younger sister, unable to live without each other, and yet caught up in a rather unhealthy dependent relationship. With these characters Delafield reminds us that the fate of the unmarried woman in these days was not at all attractive.  

Poor Monica despite knowing all the rules backwards and inside out, has her head turned by the rather caddish Captain Lane. All her life she has had it instilled in her the right way to act around young men, not to show too much favour toward one man, and only to foster friendships with the right sort of man, a man who could be useful – i.e., marriageable. Monica allows Captain Lane to kiss her – and that is enough to almost completley ruin her chances for good with anyone else.  For one terrible, wonderful week poor Monica believes herself in love – assuming a proposal is imminent. When it all comes crashing down and her naïve foolishness is exposed she is devastated.

Time moves forward and the second part of the novel is called The Anxious Years – Monica has had her three seasons – she remains unmarried and unengaged. Frederica and Cecily are almost completely exiled to the country. The anxiety of Monica’s unmarried state is felt as much by her mother as it is by Monica herself – the only way she can have a real life, a place in society, a home of her own, children, is to marry. Marriage for young women like Monica is a sanctuary from a far worse, more useless, wasted life. This theme of the necessity of marriage and the fate of women who don’t marry is one Delafield wrote about in her earlier much darker novel Consequences. Thank Heaven Fasting is altogether lighter and wittier – Delafield is sharp though, especially in some of her absolutely pitch perfect dialogue.

Whether Monica gets her happy ending I shall leave you to discover for yourselves – although sadly out of print this is not an impossible novel to find second hand.

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Two book reviews in one post from me today. Not something I usually do, but both these books were read for #readingIrelandmonth21 and one is just a very small novella. It also gives me the opportunity to catch up very slightly. Both novels concern visitors – someone returning after a period of time to a place in Ireland.

Time After Time is one of the novels that Molly Keane published later in life – her writing life spanned many years and there was a big gap in the middle. It came a couple of years after Good Behaviour but is a rather less dramatic novel than that. It is in fact a really quite sophisticated novel – here Keane uses great subtlety, pealing back the layers of complexity within a family of elderly siblings. A dark tragic-comedy shot through with Keane’s wicked sense of humour – it gets off to a slow start but the sense of place and the characterisation are just fantastic.

Living in genteel poverty in rural Ireland in the house their mother left them are the Swifts – three sisters: April, May and June and their brother Jasper. Each of them is maimed in some way, Jasper lost an eye as a child, April is almost completely deaf and May has a deformity to one hand, June is small and naïve – and perhaps what may have been termed a little slow. As Emma Donoghue says in her introduction Keane uses these disabilities ‘to create a sense of the grotesque.’ That was something I was conscious of right away; I was just a little uncomfortable to begin with – yet she balances these disabilities with some wonderful abilities and vibrant personalities. Jasper is a wonderful cook the kitchen is his domain and from it he rules the house. June – still called Baby June by everyone – is practical and looks after the outdoors, she cares for the animals with understanding and love. May restores ornaments and makes beautiful pieces of art out of wool, fabric, and flowers; she is president of the flower arrangers’ guild. April the only one who ever married is still in old age beautiful and elegant makes beauty treatments.

This is not a harmonious household, however. These elderly siblings have little in common save their memories of better days, their beloved mother, and a shared youth. The four of them bicker continually, never happier than when getting one over on one of the others. They each have their little foibles – April smokes the odd joint, May sometimes steals things, June is rather fond of the farm hand, Jasper enjoys consulting with a young monk from the nearby abbey and dreams of creating a truly spectacular garden. They each also have their own pet – the sisters each have their own dog of whom they are very protective while Jasper owns a cat.

Into this world comes Leda, a cousin from Vienna who they haven’t seen in decades – and who they assumed rather callously had perished in the war. Leda is blind now, but still every bit as beguiling as she was in her youth – when she was feted and adored like a fairy-tale princess by each of the siblings. For Leda, the past is still very present, everything and everyone still exists for her as it once was.

“These were the submerged days that Leda’s coming rescued from a deep oblivion. Since she could not see Durraghglass in its cold decay, or her cousins in their proper ages, timeless grace was given to them in her assumption that they looked as though all the years between were empty myths. Because they knew themselves so imagined, their youth was present to them, a mirage trembling in her flattery as air trembles close on the surface of summer roads.”

Leda has a motive for suddenly turning up unannounced – she still feels bitterly about something that happened decades earlier. She is a woman who says and does just what she wants – and that takes some getting used to. By the time she leaves change will have come to the house and to the inhabitants. Molly Keane is so good at just turning the knife a little at the end – not everything is as you think it will be.

I had previously read reviews of Maeve Brennan’s stories and possibly of this novella by other bloggers and was determined to try her soon. Read Ireland month gave the perfect excuse. This lovely little edition comes from New Island books – who I discovered when I bought a couple of Norah Hoult books last year.  

The Visitor concerns a young woman, Anastasia King who returns to her grandmother’s house in Dublin after six years in Paris. Anastasia is just twenty-two – when she was sixteen she had followed her mother to Paris after the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Still, she is trying to reconcile herself to that breakup and to abandoning her father. Her mother has recently died and the grieving young woman wants to return to the place she once thought of as home.

However, the welcome that awaits her at her grandmother’s house is less than warm.

“She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes. The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room. She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall. She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her. Anastasia thought, she is waiting for me to make some mistake.”

 Her grandmother, Mrs King is still angry about the breakup of her son’s marriage – a bitterness that increased after he died. She feels Anastasia was disloyal choosing her mother over her father. She blames them both for his death. With her grandmother lives Katharine – some sort of housekeeper – the two have slipped into a sad, joyless routine. Any expectation Anastasia had of a warm home-coming is quickly dispelled. We see the grandmother as a domineering personality – one Anastasia’s mother had to escape, the marriage to her older husband had not been a success – and naturally, their daughter’s loyalty was horribly divided.

That both the past and the present have begun to have an effect on Anastasia becomes all too apparent – and the image we are left with is a striking one.

I don’t want to say too much more – for to do so might be to spoil it. Brennan’s story is sad and a little disturbing, and really quite unforgettable.

This really was a beautifully rendered little novella – not a word is wasted. I really haven’t done justice to it in this short review. It’s really a little masterpiece. Extraordinary that it was discovered in a university archive after Maeve Brennan’s death.

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I have come to love the writing of Sylvia Townsend Warner – her short fiction is wonderful and her novels all so different to one another they defy categorisation. An intelligent, inventive feminist writer and a weaver of wonderful stories, Sylvia Townsend Warner is someone who continues to fascinate me.

After the Death of Don Juan is an unusual novel – I think I knew that before I read it, and perhaps why it has remained on my tbr for so long. It is very readable nonetheless, a colourful, vibrant novel with a strong sense of place. It was a novel that was born out of Townsend Warner’s concern for what was happening in Spain in the 1930s. The novel was published while the Spanish Civil War was underway and the year before hostilities broke out across the world.

“‘What are you looking at Ramon? What do you see?’

‘So large a country,’ said the dying man. ‘And there in the middle of it, like a heart is Madrid. But our Tenorio Viejo is not marked. I have often looked for it. It is not there, though. It is too small, I suppose. We have lived in a very small place Diego.’

‘We have lived in Spain.’”

After the Death of Don Juan is an allegorical novel set in the seventh decade of the eighteenth century it combines legend and history with rich storytelling to produce something that I recognise would not be to everyone’s taste. (Goodreads reviews are not hugely favourable).

The story opens in Seville, among a group of aristocratic grandees. In this seventh decade of the eighteenth century Don Juan has disappeared. Snatched – so the story goes – by demons, in retribution for his attack on Dona Ana’s father. Don Juan’s own servant was witness to the event. Dona Ana’s father had been fatally wounded by Don Juan in the fight. Grieving for her father, Dona Ana finally marries her betrothed Don Ottavio – though her mind seems more taken up with the fate of Don Juan. Has he really been taken by demons? the story though fantastic is believed true by some – or has he fled to pursue his notorious ways elsewhere?

Dona Ana leads an entourage to the remote Spanish village where Don Juan’s father lives to deliver the terrible news in person. With Dona Ana on the long journey are Ottavio – who reluctantly agreed to the plan – their priest and Dona Ana’s duenna. They also take various attendants including Leporello, Don Juan’s servant, now taken into their employ – the man who apparently witnessed the bizarre and horrifying demise of his former master. The journey to Tenorio Viejo takes seven days, fuelled by Dona Ana’s obsessional pursuit of Don Juan – whether dead or alive, an interest which is rather more earthly than spiritual.

“Morning came, but could not kill him. Not damned, not even dead. The more she thought of it (and she thought of nothing else) the more convinced she became that Don Juan was alive. A man of such strength, of such aristocratic dominance, how should he be killed by a valet? No body, no stain of blood: only a table knocked over, some broken crystal and crockery, and Leporello’s story.”

Travelling across vast estates, over mountains and through villages the group finally reach Tenorio Viejo and become the guests of Don Saturno, Don Juan’s father in his castle. Townsend Warner’s sharp humour is in evidence in the portrayal of events at the castle. The visit which was meant to be short – becomes much longer – with everyone rather uncomfortably trapped together when the wimpishly pathetic Ottavio hurts his foot and is laid up in bed.   

Here Sylvia Townsend Warner turns her attention to the villagers – showing us the difficult lives of the peasants many of whom are dependant in some way on the largesse of Don Saturno. There is already the beginnings of a dispute over irrigation between some of the peasants and the castle. Townsend Warner does manage to breathe some life into these peasant characters, that her aristocratic characters don’t quite have, the olive growers, a miller, and his daughter a schoolmaster – those committed to religious devotion – and a sacristan who guards the door into the church, relishing the small amount of power his duties give him. It is these people the author is clearly more concerned with; I think it’s no accident that her aristocratic characters are more one dimensional. One especially memorable character from the village is Celestina the miller’s daughter, who hoards the money her father gives her for the saying of masses for his silk-worms. She wants the money to pay her dowry to the convent – where she intends to go as soon as she can to escape the marriage that she fears will be forced upon her. This society depicted here is practically a character in itself – one that is vivid and complex and troubled – and feels very authentic.

When the truth of what did or did not happen to Don Juan is revealed it sets in motion a chain of climatic events and an uprising among the peasants. A siege of the castle is attempted – which can only end one way.

A thoroughly unusual but very enjoyable novel – which perhaps could only have been written by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

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Some books sit on our shelves unread and unloved for too long, The Living is Easy is certainly one of those. I can’t remember where or when I go this green vmc but it was long before I was sent the other two Dorothy West books, that I read in 2019. The Living is Easy was Dorothy West’s first novel – and for me it was the last one of her books I had to read. Sadly, she left us only three works – two novels and a collection of stories and essays I highly recommend them all.

Dorothy West was a member of the Harlem renaissance a friend of Zora Neale Hurston. A black American writer who like several other black women writers of her generation fell out of fashion and whose work didn’t always receive the recognition that it deserved. Dorothy West grew up in Boston, and her writing depicts the lives of middle and upper-class black society.

The Living is Easy is a brilliant novel – I loved it – but the central character is hard to like. There is a complexity to Cleo – while we understand why she acts like she does it is hard not to be appalled by the level of control she exerts over her family.

The novel opens in 1914, shortly before the First World War breaks out in Europe. Cleo is married to Bart Judson, a good, gentle man more than twenty yeas her senior. They have a young daughter Judy who is about six as the novel opens – a child with the dark skin of her father, as Cleo is very light skinned this is a constant irritation. This is a world in which skin tone is important, status very much dependent upon such things as skin pigmentation and which street in Boston you live on. The Judsons are fairly well off, Bart Judson is a self-made man originally from the south. He runs a fruit and vegetable business, specialising in bananas – there is nothing he doesn’t know about the storage and ripening of this exotic fruit. Cleo persuades Bart to rent a large ten roomed house on one of the most sort after streets in Boston. Right from the start we see how conniving Cleo can be – if she knows something is to be twenty-five dollars she tells her husband she needs almost double that – squirreling away the rest. Cleo doesn’t love her husband – she almost seems to despise him, though she likes his money – for Cleo love and tenderness are weaknesses she won’t allow in herself and she sneers at in others.

“Cleo, walking carefully over the cobblestones that tortured her toes in her stylish shoes, was jealous of all the free-striding life around her. She had nothing with which to match it but her wits. Her despotic nature found Mr Judson a rival. He ruled a store and the people in it. Her sphere was one untroublesome child, who gave insufficient scope for her tremendous vitality. She would show Mr Judson that she could take a house and be its heart. She would show him that she could bend a houseful of human souls to her will. It had never occurred to her in the ten years of her marriage that she might be his helpmate. She thought that was the same thing as being a man’s slave.”

We get a glimpse into Cleo’s past – growing up in the south with her parents and sisters. Cleo was the eldest, she learned early about how life was different for black girls and white girls. By the time she is in her teens she is working as a kitchen help and must learn to call her childhood play mate Josie, Miss Josephine. She knew how hard life was for the women of the family – Cleo understood who really ran things in their home.

“Men just worked. That was easier than what women did. It was women who did the lying awake, the planning, the sorrowing, the scheming to stretch a dollar. That was the hardest part, the head part. A woman had to think all the time. A woman had to be smart.”

When the chance comes to go north, Cleo grabs it. While working in the home of another wealthy white woman, Cleo meets Bart. Bart represents security – as his wife she can achieve the status and social respectability she craves, for herself and for her sisters.

Now with the large house in the right part of the city secured – Cleo plans on getting her sisters to come and live with her. However, she has no time at all for their husbands. Cleo sets about bringing Lily, Serena and Charity to Boston, separating them from their husbands in the process with lies and misdirection. They each bring a child with them. Cleo rules the roost – everyone dances to her tune, but Cleo’s power comes from the weakness of others which she seeks to exploit. Her sisters are naïve, they haven’t Cleo’s sharpness of mind, they are easily manipulated and Cleo can only ever see the harm she is doing as good.

“It was a blessed morning, a morning a man could ease the worry on his mind and listen to the laughter of little children. And Cleo, God help her, was standing between himself and the sun. Peace was no part of her. She was born to bedevil. God pity her, she would cut off her arm for these sisters of hers with the same knife she held at the tenderest spot in their hearts.”

Cleo’s sisters and the children all love Bart, they recognise his goodness and hard work, Cleo sees this as just another weakness and it irritates her. She seems incapable of grasping that the war in Europe will have a severe effect on Bart’s business.

Alongside the story of Cleo, her sisters and their fortunes – we have the stories of some of their social circle. Cleo’s friend Thea Binney, who is waiting to marry her doctor fiancée, and her brother Simeon, who runs a newspaper for the black population of Boston. The Binneys are a family that have enjoyed great social respectability. This society is a finely balanced one it seems, the black middle class in Boston hold themselves apart from other poorer black people, and although not living in the segregated south, they are still completely insular – white Boston remaining another world entirely.

The Living is Easy is an absolutely brilliant novel – it depicts a society as the author must have known it. Cleo is a monstrous character, and yet we understand where it comes from, and towards the end of the novel I started to feel a little more sympathy for her – though not much.

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

I read my first Nancy Spain book – Not Wanted on Voyage six years ago – (rather shocked when I looked it up, I thought it might be two or three) and so was delighted to receive this new edition from Virago of Death Goes on Skis. There is another Nancy Spain novel due for reissue in the spring.

Nancy Spain was quite a character, something of a household name in the 1950s and 60s, a writer and broadcaster she made regular appearances on TV shows like Juke Box Jury which I may have heard of but am too young to have ever seen.  In her introduction to this edition Sandi Toksvig talks about what a fan she has always been of Spain’s and how for her, Nancy Spain paved the way for other gay women to make their way in multimedia – before that was even a thing.

Nancy Spain is not a conventional storyteller – so her mystery novels do not really follow the usual conventions either. Death Goes on Skis is farcical and funny, her characters bright, witty and devastatingly sharp. The detection part of this novel (and the only other one I have read) kind of takes a back seat – as Spain’s society types try to figure what is going on while not taking too much of a break from their usual pursuits, which so often seem to include, gossip, flirting, gambling, and the consumption of champagne and in this novel a bit of skiing.

I think it would be fair to assume that what was considered funny in 1949 may not always be considered entirely appropriate in 2020. So, the one slightly odd note for me throughout the novel was the name of the fictional country Spain chose as her setting– Schizo-Frenia. Maybe not the most offensive thing I have read but it just jars a little.  

Miriam Birdseye with her usual little troupe of admirers is off to the slopes – though Miriam seems more interested in gossip and champagne than skiing. Fellow ski resort guests include Miriam’s fellow amateur sleuth Natasha Nevkorina with her husband Johnny DuVivien and stepdaughter Pamela. Also, of the party are the wealthy Flahertés: handsome playboy Barny, his wife Regan and their two rather horrible children their governess, Roasalie and Toddy and Kathleen, Barney’s cousins. Barny’s mistress Fanny Mayes (AKA Lady Sloper) and her husband are also of the party. We first meet these characters as they travel to the ski resort by train. Miriam and her companions Roger and Morris arrive later. So, the scene is set – as they say.

“At Unteralp Miriam Birdseye cantered from the near funicular to the funicular. She ran, an easy first of her little school of chums. They were none of them athletes.

She looked very spectacular and cheerful, with her lovely long legs moving like a race-horse. Her ridiculous hat (something like a coal-black church steeple) threw a fantastic shadow across the platform.

The sun had now come out and everything seemed altogether gayer. Miriam often had this effect on the weather.

Fanny Mayes was not pleased.”

Soon a death occurs, which some people assume is suicide but is soon shown not to be. This brightens things up considerably for Natasha who was rather worried about being bored. She is soon getting stuck right into trying to figure it all out – consulting with Miriam every now and again, who to my mind never seems to do very much at all.

Barney has taken to skiing in a big way and his technique has been so praised that he decides that despite everything else that is going on he will enter the skiing championships which are being held on the slopes above the hotel. Natasha has taken a bit of a shine to Barney as has the governess who writes letters to her old friend all about her ‘Mr Rochester’. Natasha has begun to regret her marriage to Johnny and decides she will have to leave him.

When a second death occurs, it does begin to look as if things are all pointing in the direction of one person. However, Miriam and Natasha (with Johnny’s help) are on the case – well sort of – and gradually they begin to unearth some of what has been going on. However, with the local authorities keen to tidy things up quickly and neatly will the culprit ever be brought to book?

“It was indeed snowing. The wind, whirling up the valley from Kesicken, or down from Mönchegg, was unable to make up its mind which way it was prevailing. Clouds of snow blew off the pile of firewood, like spray. Little drifts formed behind chairs on the wooden duckboard and shifted backwards gradually. The outlines of everything outside the hotel slowly became muffled.

Johnny could see Regan Flaherté’s body ahead of him, outside the front door. It lay curiously twisted, already half covered with snow. The wind blew in his face and soaked him.”

Nancy Spain’s characters are not all very likeable – and are not supposed to be – they are all a type and she writes this type well. Armchair detectives may find this frustrating as a mystery novel – there are few clues to follow and as I said all that seems to take something of a back seat. Miriam Birdseye the supposedly brilliant society sleuth does not do very much – though she has a sharp eye which little escapes. All in all, this is great, witty escapism, a little dated in places perhaps but I am always happy to read things in the context of the times anyway. I definitely want to read more of these, so it is exciting that Virago have begun to re-issue them.

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Despite there being several Edith Wharton novels that I have to read for the first time – this was my third reading of The House of Mirth. It was picked as our December read by my book group – and it was a pleasure to re-read it – even though there was a tiny bit of my brain that hoped it would end differently this time. Certainly, this re-read reminded me how much I like Edith Wharton’s writing, I really must get to those unread Whartons that I have tbr.

One of Edith Wharton’s most famous novels, The House of Mirth is a brilliant portrayal of early twentieth century New York society – with its own peculiar rules and privileges. Lily Bart is the beautiful, spirited unconventional heroine, surrounded by a set of superficial society friends. Lily is someone who breaks these unwritten rules, she is judged – talked about and suffers in a way no man of her social standing would have done, as a woman there were certain expectations placed upon her – and in this world of wealthy alliances and marriages of convenience there are few choices for a woman like Lily.

Lily is beautiful, sophisticated, and witty, born into the upper echelons of American society she is however impoverished, living on the charity of her wealthy aunt and her friends. She is also twenty nine and unmarried – what Lily needs is a wealthy husband, of the right background – in order to continue living the life she was born into. She has a terrible fear of poverty – and is always in want of more money.

“Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury. It was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in.”

Yet this is something Lily has struggled to execute – never fully committed to the final, calculated act of marrying simply for money – though she won’t marry without it either. Lily is accepted by the old money of her ‘set’ as well as being courted by those of the nouveaux riches.

As the novel opens Lily bumps into a friend Lawrence Selden – and before heading off to a house party to which Selden says he won’t be going – agrees to have tea with him in his flat. Shocking behaviour for a single woman in these times. As Lily leaves Lawrence’s flat, she runs into businessman Mr Rosedale – who sees through her hurried, clumsy lie – that she was visiting her dressmaker – rather putting Lily at an unpleasant disadvantage. At the house party hosted by her friend Judy Trenor – Lily sets about the unpleasant business of snaring herself a wealthy husband in the shape of the rather dull Percy Gryce – though her heart isn’t really in it. When Lawrence Selden arrives for the weekend after all – Lily’s obvious preference for him upsets more than one member of the house party. Any advantage she had with Percy Gryce is lost – but Lily does not seem to mind much – her friend Judy is beside herself with frustration determined to see her friend well and safely married if she can. Lawrence Selden and Lily are clearly attracted to one another – but Selden is as impoverished as Lily – and they are well aware they cannot marry each other and remain in the society they are so much a part of.

“There is someone I must say goodbye to. Oh, not you – we are sure to see each other again – but the Lily Bart you knew. I have kept her with me all this time, but now we are going to part, and I have brought her back to you – I am going to leave her here. When I go out presently she will not go with me. I shall like to think that she has stayed with you.”

Lily is hopeless with money – is in debt because of the gambling that is so big a part of the circles she moves in (where everyone else seems to have pots of money) – and does not understand very much about investments and the like. Foolishly she allows Judy Trenor’s husband Gus to give her financial advice – allowing him to take over her investments in order to increase her paltry income at a much needed time. She allows him to flirt with her and is quite blind to where her extra income is coming from really and what Trenor might expect in return.

Lily seems to lurch from one mistake to another – as a woman in this society she isn’t allowed such mistakes – and she finds herself talked about viciously. Finding herself more and more on the outside of the social circle she had been so much a part of before. She finds herself in an increasingly worse position, friendless and desperate with less and less money, determined to repay the money Trenor gave her though with little hope of being able to do so. Ostracised and cruelly whispered about by her former friends in a society that cares more about how things appear than the truth of the matter – Lily’s fears of poverty seem about to be realised – and she finds herself horribly alone.

“As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.”

Wharton is clearly critical of this society which she knew so well from the inside. She shows us it from the woman’s perspective, with all its cruelties and inconsistences its absurd rules and petty conventions. The House of Mirth remains as readable as ever it was, a novel with a lot to say it is wonderfully compelling with a truly unforgettable heroine at its heart.

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