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Posts Tagged ‘VMC’

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

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

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

Patricia Brent Spinster (1918) Herbert Jenkins

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

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

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

The True Heart (1929) Sylvia Townsend Warner

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

84 Charing Cross Road (1970) Helene Hanff

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

Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945) Susan Alice Kerby

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

Something Light (1960) Margery Sharp

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

Business as Usual (1933) Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford

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

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

Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940) Romilly Cavan

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

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

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

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

Home Life (1986) Alice Thomas Ellis

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

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

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

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘This is unexpected’ she said amiably.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from French by Francis Golffing*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from Yiddish by Maurice Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul

When hot for certainties in this our life!”

(George Meredith)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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