Novella a Day in May 2020 #29

The Birds on the Trees – Nina Bawden (1970) 196 pages

The Birds on the Trees was sent to me a long while ago now, by the lovely Ali at heavanali. Ali’s a great advocate for Bawden’s writing and it was her enthusiasm that got me picking up one of my favourite childhood authors again as an adult. I’ve really enjoyed the Bawden I’ve read so far and The Birds on the Trees was no exception.

The story concerns the very ordinary middle-class Flowers family and what happens when the eldest son Toby experiences mental health problems.

He is kicked out of school for smoking drugs and returns home refusing to follow his parents wishes to attend a crammer in order to sit his Oxford entrance exam. His hair needs a cut and he’s not washing. He’s spending a lot of time dressed in a burnouse. His parents Maggie and Charles are at a complete loss as to what to do.

“Now, for the first time (their first, real crisis?) he saw what drove her was something more like fear: she raced through life as over marshy ground, fearing to stand still in case she sank in quagmire.”

This all sounds pretty mild but we never really find out what’s going on with Toby. He’s diagnosed with schizophrenia but this is questioned by a family friend and doctor, who thinks Toby has drug-induced psychosis. In a prologue we see Toby as a small child telling neighbours he’s been abandoned by his parents at Christmas, that they don’t feed him, and then later that his parents are dead. Clearly something’s wrong, but Bawden never offers trite answers as to what that might be – was Toby always unwell? Was he neglected in some way?

Very little of Toby’s speech – and never his thoughts – are provided to the reader. The Birds on the Trees is a study of a family under immense strain, but the family member who’s instigated the crisis remains remote. This is a masterstroke as it keeps us in a similar position to his family: at a loss as to why things are unravelling so considerably.

One of the rare times we hear from Toby is when he’s trying to impress potential girlfriend Hermia, and the fantasy, arrogance and pretension of what he says just brought home his youth to me:

“‘I have left school. But I haven’t made up my mind. Eventually, I expect, I shall go into something interesting and creative, like publishing or films. Or perhaps the theatre, though the standard’s so terrifying low at the moment, one would have to be careful. I mean, it would be so easy to write a play just for commercial success, one would have to watch out that one wasn’t corrupted.”

The family are distant from each other, but in a very ordinary way. Maggie and Charles take their frustrations out on each other, middle child Lucy starts stealing and youngest Greg is convinced he’s adopted. At one point Lucy attacks her aunt with grape scissors, which I again thought hinted at something deeper troubling this family, but it’s not clear. Maggie’s mother can’t see what all the fuss is about:

“ ‘I never heard of such a thing,’ Sara Evans said. ‘Taking a boy to a psychiatrist because he refuses to have his haircut!’”

I really enjoyed the portraits of the rest of the Flowers family, which were so well-observed, both psychologically – as I would expect from Bawden – and physically:

“The skin on his face was loose and baggy: he was always folding and pleating it as if it was an ill-fitting garment he happened to be wearing.”

 Toby deteriorates and although fears about heroin addiction prove ill-founded, he cannot get out of bed. He is hospitalised and treated with ECT, which would be practically unheard of now. Although the treatment of Toby has dated, and to some extent the attitudes of the family, I thought this novel hadn’t dated nearly as badly as it could have done. This is because Bawden is so good at characterisation and so psychologically astute that the examination of these people under pressure, both individually and as a family, remains fresh.

I read a review from when The Birds on the Trees was nominated for the Lost Man Booker Prize that criticised the novel for being too optimistic in its ending. Maybe I’m just a miserable so-and-so but I didn’t think it was that optimistic. I thought it was one character allowing a brief moment of hope, when the reader knows things are unlikely to get any easier…

“How could you ever really understand why people behaved as they did? Oh, you could guess…but it was like trying to find your way through some intricate underworld of caverns and passages by the light of one flickering match!

Novella a Day in May 2020 #14

No Signposts in the Sea – Vita Sackville West (1961) 156 pages

Continuing with the Virago theme from yesterday, here is another of their delightful offerings. I do enjoy Vita Sackville-West’s writing and I feel like she never gets the recognition she deserves. I suppose when your name is forever linked with the genius of Virginia Woolf, you’ll always suffer by comparison… No Signposts in the Sea is her final novel and it’s a brittle, slightly flawed gem.

Edmund Carr is a successful journalist and self-made man, who knows he doesn’t have long to live. As a result, he has followed the woman he loves from afar, Laura Drysdale, onto a cruise to unnamed places which seem to be southern Pacific islands.

The narrative is entirely from Edmund’s viewpoint, and at first I thought I’d struggle because that viewpoint seemed to be relentlessly bitchy one:

“ ‘it is lucky for some people,’ I say to Laura, ‘that they can live behind their own faces.’”

However, Edmund’s incredibly painful situation – both in terms of his life nearing its end and his unspoken love for Laura (possibly a reference to Petrarch?) means that he is more vulnerable than he has ever been.

“Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.”

As he reflects on life and on the nature of romantic love, Edmund does develop as a character and begins to soften his brittle, urbane exterior:

“I realised for the first time how greatly our apprehension of people depends on the variation of conditions under which we see them, and thought it possible that we may never truly perceive them at all.”

Certainly the reader sees more of Laura than he does. In our objectivity something is obvious to us that Edmund remains unaware of, caught as he is in his obsession, his jealousy, and his confusion. Sackville-West shows how much those early romantic feelings can often be a reflection of the lover’s insecurities, fantasies and desires, and very little to do with the loved one.

“I heard her say no, no more coffee thank you, and it was as though she had said Edmund, my darling, I love you.

Love does play queer tricks.”

No Signposts in the Sea is a romantic novel in its way though, because it suggests that by moving beyond these infatuated feelings, a deep love and rewarding companionship – such as Vita enjoyed with Harold Nicholson – is possible.

Less romantic are the racist views in evidence among the white, privileged, cruise passengers, sadly of its time but surely beginning to be outdated in 1961.

I didn’t think No Signposts in the Sea was a strong as some of the other novels I’ve read by Sackville-West. The characterisation is a bit thin, especially regarding Edmund’s love rival, Colonel Dalrymple. Vita Sackville-West was extremely unwell as she wrote this so could not have been at the height of her powers, but there is still much to enjoy.

“Dusk began to fall; I wished never to arrive; I wished to continue forever between land and water in a dream region so wild and beautiful.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #13

The Aloe – Katherine Mansfield (1916, this edition 1983) 79 pages

The Aloe was Katharine Mansfield’s first punt at writing her short story Prelude, and so while it’s not entirely satisfactory as a fully realised story in its own right, there’s still a lot to enjoy here.

It begins with the Burnell family moving to a new home further out in the New Zealand countryside. The opening is told from the children’s point of view as the three of them are old enough to realise what is happening but too young to take an active part. I thought Mansfield captured the detailed minutiae of children’s lives so well:

“Kezia liked to stand so before the window. She liked the feeling of the cold shining glass against her hot little palms and she liked to watch the funny white tops that came on her fingers when she pressed them hard against the pane”

Once they arrive at the larger, more remote house, the attention shifts to the adults. Mansfield is incredibly subtle in her characterisation, drawing psychologically astute portraits but leaving the reader to work out what it means for this group of people to be living together.

Stanley Burnell is optimistic and eager about the move, little realising the various pressures it places on the women of the household, mainly because he is out in town all day:

“He was enormously pleased – weather like this set a final seal upon his bargain – he felt somehow – that he had bought the sun too and got it chucked in dirt cheap.”

His wife Linda is neither entirely happy nor completely unhappy, but certainly she is part of a generation of women given to mysterious ailments like headaches which enable her to spend a day in a room closed off from the rest of the household. She able to do so because her mother Mrs Fairchild is so capable and domesticated:

“There was a charm and grace in all her movements. It was not that she merely ‘set in order’; there seemed to be an almost positive quality in the obedience of things in her fine old hands.”

One piece of characterisation I really liked was Beryl, Linda’s sister. There is a hint that she may be trying to seduce her brother-in-law, mainly through boredom and a need to feel loved. As she writes a letter to her friend full of news that she knows is insincere, superficial prattle, she has this insight:

“Perhaps it was because she was not leading the life that she wanted to – she had not a chance to really express herself – she was always living below her power – and therefore she had no need of her real self – her real self only made her wretched.”

In lesser hands Beryl would just be a flighty, flirty, dreamer with the potential for real destruction, but Mansfield shows how all the women are forced into certain roles because society doesn’t give them the choices it affords to men. This is never didactic though; the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.

The Aloe only covers two days in this family’s life (though Mansfield ultimately wrote three short stories about the Burnells) but so much is explored, reading it is still a rich experience. My only reservation is that my delicate sensibilities could have done without the duck-killing scene (which I skimmed.) The novella does end rather abruptly but then it was never quite intended to be read as it is now.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #4

Not to Disturb – Muriel Spark (1971) 96 pages

I really enjoy Muriel Spark. I like her creepy, unsettling tales, her dark humour, the ways things are not fully explained… Not to Disturb has all of this in bucketloads, but it means it’s a very hard book to review! At times I wasn’t sure what story I was reading, and now I’ve finished it I’m still not sure. I enjoyed it immensely, but in the wrong mood this could be a very frustrating read.

It’s set in a Genevan villa on a stormy night. The villa is home to the Baron and Baroness Klopstock who are locked in a room with their secretary, Vincent. The Baron’s brother lives with an unspecified affliction and is nursed in the attic. He punctuates the night with howling.

Meanwhile, the servants are in their quarters discussing the evening ahead and already referring to the Klopstocks in the past tense. Heloise, the heavily pregnant maid, is reflecting on who of many possibilities could be the father of her unborn child which may be Pablo the handyman’s, but is cut short by Monsieur Clovis:

“ ‘We have serious business on hand tonight, my girl, so shut up,’ says the chef. ‘We have business to discuss and plenty to do. Quite a vigil. Has anybody arrived yet?’ “

Quite what the business is and why the servants know about it advance is never fully specified. We know there will be a death though, because the butler tells us:

“ ‘There was sure to be something unexpected,’ says Lister. ‘But what’s done is about to be done and the future has come to pass. My memoirs up to the funeral are as a matter of fact more or less complete. At all events, its out of our hands. I place the event at about 3am so prepare to stay awake.’

‘I would say 6 ‘o’clock tomorrow morning. Right on the squeak of dawn,’ says Heloise.

‘You may well be right,’ says Lister. ‘Women in your condition are unusually intuitive.’”

There’s also the couple at the gatehouse who are completely oblivious to the machinations, three people in a car lurking around the grounds waiting for Vincent, and everyone is staying up all night so they look bedraggled and upset when the press arrive as planned in the morning.

Not to Disturb is farcical, sinister and satirical. There’s a fairly horrible almost-rape scene but generally  things verge on the metaphysical rather than the visceral. It’s baffling and unsettling and I whizzed through it with great enjoyment. If ever a novelist was ill-suited to write a novel called Not to Disturb, it’s Muriel Spark 😀

If you’ve come to the end of this post and feel I’ve not told you anything useful about the novella, I’m really sorry! But in that way I may have conveyed some of the experience of reading Not To Disturb

“You are a lost generation.” (Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway, 1920)

Miracle of miracles, I have managed to join in with the 1920 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. My reading capacity is still not great due to all that’s happening in the world and my work remains manic, so I thought I might not make it, but here we go on it’s final day: a hastily written and fairly incoherent contribution from me 😊

Firstly, Queen Lucia by EF Benson, the first in his hugely popular Mapp and Lucia series. Back when we were allowed in bookshops, I’d picked up a lovely box set of the first three novels from my favourite charity bookshop so I’m glad the 1920 Club gave me an incentive to get started.

We meet Emmeline Lucas arriving back in her home of Riseholme from London, and deciding to send her fly on ahead with her luggage, in order to cause a stir amongst her neighbours:

“dramatic instincts that formed so large a part of her mentality, and made her always take by right divine, the leading part in the histrionic entertainments with which the cultured of Riseholme beguiled, or rather strenuously occupied, such moments that could be spared from their studies of art and literature, and their social engagements.”

Immediately we know all we need to know: nothing happens in Riseholme, and Lucia is the centre of nothing happening.

“Mrs Lucas amused herself, in the intervals of her pursuit of Art for Art’s sake, with being not only an ambassador but a monarch…Mrs Lucas, busy and serene, worked harder than any of subjects, and exercised control that was both popular and autocratic.”

Lucia is an unmitigated snob with pretensions of cultured appreciation: she is called Lucia in deference to her constantly peppering her talk with Italian phrases, a language she doesn’t speak; she names the rooms in her house after Shakespeare plays; she visibly winces at what she perceives to be poorly played music, in order to demonstrate her delicate sensibilities to her audience.

Lucia is of course, completely clueless. She is bourgeois and has no appreciation of art except in using it to structure her own artifice for the other equally clueless inhabitants of Riseholme. Her neighbours are both in thrall to her and object to her unchallenged reign. Georgie is her BFF  who resents and adores Lucia (Benson can’t say he’s gay but devotes a good paragraph to explaining why there is no romantic interest between them); Mrs Daisy Quantock her frenemy and rival for being the epicentre of whatever the next Big Thing in Riseholme will be.

“the hours of the morning between breakfast and lunch were the times which the inhabitants of Riseholme chiefly devoted to spying on each other. They went about from shop to shop on household business, occasionally making purchases which they carried away with them in little paper parcels with convenient loops of string, but the real object of those excursions was to see what everybody else was doing, and learn what fresh interests had sprung up like mushrooms during the night.”

The plot is slight, as it’s meant to be, I think; Benson is showing the intrigues of an entirely ordinary, respectable English village. Daisy and Lucia jostle for the favour of a Guru, later Lucia is nearly dethroned when a genuine prima donna buys a holiday home in the village.

When the guru first made an appearance, my heart sank, expecting casual racism in spades. While there is undoubtedly some of that present, my sense on reading the novel was the portrayal was supposed to play to stereotypes. Without giving away spoilers, I think I was right, and what is being satirised is the ignorance of Riseholme residents.

Although the portrayal of Lucia and her acolytes is clear-sighted and relentless, it’s not cruel. Benson exposes their pretentions but he never leaves his characters devastated, only slightly chastened and all to quick to bounce back into their risible ways. This is gentle, genteel comedy and it’s never unkind.

I can’t say I found Queen Lucia laugh-out-loud funny, but I know fans of the series think the later books are better. It certainly raised a smile, had wonderful characterisation and provided some much-needed escapism during these troubled times.

The BBC adapted Mapp and Lucia in 2014. I’m not entirely convinced from this trailer, although Steve Pemberton looks perfectly cast as Georgie:

 

Secondly, as a big fan of Golden Age detective fiction, I have to include some as 1920 was a significant year in the genre, when Agatha Christie published Poirot’s first outing The Mysterious Affair at Styles. From the reviews I’ve read from other bloggers joining in with the 1920 Club it sounds a great read which I’ll definitely be catching up on. Another GA title from this year which I’ve chosen for this post is Freeman Wills Croft’s first novel, The Cask. You can read it in full here.

It begins with the titular cask arriving in London on a steamer. As a Londoner I enjoyed the description of the working docks, a time long gone:

“His goal was St. Katherine’s Docks, where the Bullfinch was berthed, and, passing across Tower Hill and round two sides of the grim old fortress, he pushed on till he reached the basin in which the steamer was lying. She was a long and rather low vessel of some 800 tons burden, with engines amidships, and a single black funnel ornamented with the two green bands that marked the Company’s boats. Recently out from her annual overhaul, she looked trim and clean in her new coat of black paint.”

Very different now, when it’s all massively overpriced flats and restaurants:

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The cask is discovered to hold gold sovereigns and a human hand. Broughton, the clerk from the shipping company sent to check some cargo for a fussy client, seemed to me to have rather a cavalier attitude towards the grisly contents:

“That a serious crime had been committed he felt sure, and that it was his duty to report his discovery immediately he was no less certain. But there was the question of the consignment of wines.”

All the same, it’s not long before Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is on the trail. The first seven chapters depict a farcical chase around London after the extraordinarily well-travelled cask, before it is finally found and the murder victim therein exposed.

Burnley has to travel to France to investigate further, which I found rather glamorous considering it took a whole day, two trains and a ferry to get to Paris. There are also trips to Belgium and to Glasgow as Burnley and his French counterpart Inspector Lefarge piece together the activities of the titular container.

Despite it being an early title in the genre, there’s still some GA tropes to enjoy in this novel, including a diagram in Chapter VI of something I’m not sure really needed elucidating, but I’m very fond of maps and room plans in GA crime so I welcomed it nonetheless:

Blessedly, there aren’t too may of the prejudices often found in GA crime, despite my fears when the French setting became apparent. But Burnley likes France and is friends with Lafarge, which was a pleasant surprise. The working classes however, are somewhat colourfully portrayed:

“‘See ’ere, boss,’ the words now poured out of his mouth in a rapid stream, ‘I’ll tell you the truth, I will, swelp me Gawd. Listen to me.’”

As a lifelong Londoner I can assure you this is *exactly* how we sound, swelp me Gawd.  Thankfully Croft soon abandons attempts at depicting the lower orders loquaciousness:

“Palmer’s statement, divested of its cockney slang and picturesque embellishments was as follows:—”

The Cask is a good, solid mystery. The puzzle is set up and we follow the police as they piece together what happened, step by step. If that makes it sound boring, it really isn’t. All the clues seem to point to one suspect but like the police, we’re really not sure he did it. I enjoyed this as an undemanding read but one that sustained my interest and attention, which is praise indeed at the moment, as I have the attention span of a particularly distractible goldfish.

To end, if there’s one thing associated with the 1920s, it’s the flapper. Here’s a clip from the 1920 silent film of that name, the whole of which is available to view on YouTube, and from this trailer looks quite fun:

 

“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.” (Capt. Spaulding, Animal Crackers (1930))

This is my (incredibly long – apologies!) contribution to the 1930 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week so do join in if you have a chance!

The two novels I’ve chosen are lovely Virago Modern Classics both concerned with the role of women in society, specifically the work that they do, but beyond that they could not be more different. I’ll begin with a scathing indictment of war, before moving on to some light relief via a comic presentation of upper middle-class privilege…

Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet was written as a response to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, from a female perspective. It is a work of fiction but Smith aims to narrow the gap between fiction and reality by calling the narrator Helen Smith and writing from a first person perspective.

Helen has gone to France to volunteer as an ambulance driver, leaving behind her comfortable middle-class existence, much to the delight of her jingoistic mother. Helen and the other young women she works with share no such illusions, as her friend Tosh points out:

“No Smithy, you’re one of England’s Splendid Daughters, proud to do their bit for the dear old flag, and one of England’s Splendid Daughters you’ll stay, until you crock up or find some other decent excuse to go home covered in glory. It takes nerve to carry on here, but it takes twice as much to go home to flag-crazy mothers and fathers…”

In this short novel Smith documents the experience of war for those not engaged in trench warfare but shockingly, dangerously close to it. Her gaze is unflinching:

“We hate and dread the days following on the guns when they boom without interval. Trainloads of broken human beings: half-mad men pleading to be put out of their misery; torn and bleeding and crazed men pitifully obeying orders like a herd of senseless cattle, dumbly, pitifully straggling in the wrong direction, as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader, herded back into line by the orderly, the kind sheep-dog with a ‘Now then, boys, this way. That’s the ticket, boys’,  instead of a bark; men with faces bleeding through their hasty bandages; men with vacant eyes and mouths hanging foolishly apart dropping saliva and slime; men with minds mercifully gone; men only too sane, eyes horror-filled with blood and pain…”

Not So Quiet is not a plot driven novel as such.  Instead it documents one woman’s experience, and how she is utterly destroyed by it. In addition to the horror of the men used as machine gun fodder, she sees England’s Splendid Daughters live infested with fleas, eating slop, needing illegal abortions and desperately trying to find some reprieve. For a whole generation the war wreaked absolute devastation of land, industry, mind, body and soul.

“We young ones doomed to live on without belief in anything human or divine again are the ones to be pitied.”

Not So Quiet is not a subtle novel. By that, I don’t mean it is badly written, its extremely well written. Smith is furious, and not interested in presenting a considered, moderate view. Some things do not warrant a moderate response, and the horrors of war are one of those. The world she depicts is unrelenting and nightmarish.

“I become savage at the futility.  A war to end war, my mother writes.  Never.  In twenty years it will repeat itself.  And twenty years after that.  Again and again, as long as we breed women like my mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington.  […]

Oh, come with me, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington.  Let me show you the exhibits straight from the battlefield.  This will be something original to tell in your committees, while they knit their endless miles of khaki scarves,…. something to spout from the platform at your recruiting meetings.  Come with me.  Stand just there.”

Reading Not So Quiet recently meant I was reading within a context of our Prime Minister pandering to the fascist fringe using inflammatory language around Brexit. This offensive rhetoric encourages people to forget that the EU was set up to promote peace and co-operation in Europe, after two twentieth century wars tore it apart. I wish more people would read things like Not So Quiet to remind themselves of experiences they’ve been lucky enough not to have to live through.

”What is to happen to women like me when this war ends … if it ever ends. I am twenty-one years of age and I know nothing of life but death, fear, blood, and the sentimentality that glorifies these things in the name of patriotism”

Deep breath… enough politics from me. But I hope I’ve shown how No So Quiet is still a relevant novel and an urgent one.

Secondly, a chance to recover with a light, fun novel about no greater tribulation than how to plant indoor bulbs. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield is not fluffy though – it is witty and incisive about social mores and the knots people, especially genteel British people, tie themselves in to avoid appearing rude. Again, it’s not a hugely plot driven novel, having been written as a weekly serial for Time and Tide magazine. It documents the titular lady’s experience of genteel middle-class life, with her disinterested husband Robert falling asleep behind The Times, son Robin away at boarding school, and daughter Vicky in the charge of Mademoiselle, the French governess.

“Robert takes the boys back after dinner, and I sit in hotel lounge with several other mothers and we all talk about our boys in tones of disparagement, and about one another’s boys with great enthusiasm.

Am asked what I think of Harriet Hume but am unable to say, as I have not read it. Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.”

One ongoing source of tension in the Provincial Lady’s life is her aristocratic neighbour, Lady Boxe, who is self-dramatizing and unable to conceive of any situation other than her own:

“Why not just pop into the train, enquires Lady B., pop across France, and pop out into Blue Sky, Blue Sea, and Summer Sun? Could make perfectly comprehensive reply to this, but do not do so, question of expense having evidently not crossed Lady B.’s horizon. (Mem.: Interesting subject for debate at Women’s Institute, perhaps: That Imagination is incompatible with Inherited Wealth. On second thoughts, though, fear this has a socialistic trend.)

The Lady’s days seemed to be filled with social events she finds tedious, writing innumerable letters, negotiating with servants and managing debt in a most peculiar way:

“Robert startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold—which he has hitherto ignored—is better. I reply that it has gone. Then why, he asks, do I look like that? Refrain from asking like what, as I know only too well. Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.

Customary painful situation between Bank and myself necessitates expedient, also customary, of pawning great-aunt’s diamond ring, which I do, under usual conditions, and am greeted as old friend by Plymouth pawnbroker, who says facetiously, And what name will it be this time?

Visit four linen-drapers and try on several dozen hats. Look worse and worse in each one, as hair gets wilder and wilder, and expression paler and more harassed. Decide to get myself shampooed and waved before doing any more, in hopes of improving the position.”

The Diary of a Provincial Lady could so easily be tedious but its so well written that instead it is an utter delight. I would generally have very short patience with well-to-do ladies with very little to fill their days, but the Provincial Lady knows that a lot of what she expected to concern herself with is completely frivolous, and she’s taking an askance view of it all, while not really putting anyone down (not even Lady B).

“Lady B. amiably observes that I, at least, have nothing to complain of, as she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman. Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr. Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally.”

The Diary of a Provincial Lady is a quick read, and one that can be dipped into, given its episodic, diary structure. It’s a welcome bit of escapism in these troubled times!

“Lady Frobisher, who would be so delighted if Robert and I would come over for tea whilst there is still something to be seen in the garden. (Do not like to write back and say that I would far rather come when there is nothing to be seen in the garden, and we might enjoy excellent tea in peace—so, as usual, sacrifice truth to demands of civilisation.)”

Jacqui has also reviewed The Diary of a Provincial Lady for the 1930 Club and you can read her excellent post here.

To end, I was tempted to choose a clip from Anna Christie as it was released in 1930 and I love Greta Garbo. But instead I’ve gone for this anthem about female working life from the only person who can convincingly rhyme ‘kitchen’ with ‘ambition’:

“Genius and virtue are to be more often found clothed in gray than in peacock bright.” (Van Wyck Brooks)

This is my contribution to the third Persephone Readathon, hosted by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility.

It became apparent very quickly this year that my 2018 book buying ban would have no discernible impact at all if I didn’t rein it in again. So although not officially on a ban, I hadn’t bought any books since March and I’m trying to get that TBR stack down a bit further. This post covers the last two Persephones I had left in the pile… please note the use of past tense there. Those of you who follow me on twitter will know this happened a few hours ago:

I live opposite the greatest charity bookshop ever – what am I supposed to do? Two still had the bookmarks! I left 3 more Persephones behind in there (OK, so I already had those, but still…  😉 )

Firstly, Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson (1934), which is Persephone No.81. This simple story was an absolute joy. Unassuming spinster Barbara Buncle is desperate for money after her dividends stop paying out due to the financial crash. She decides to write a novel, and as she frequently asserts she has no imagination, she bases it on her village and the people she knows.

The novel is a smash hit, and the villagers are furious, apart from the doctor and his wife:

“I confess it amused me, Ellen – I know this is heresy in Silverstream, but it amused me immensely. It didn’t strike me as satire, nor could I find anything nasty in it. You can read it both ways… I’m pretty certain that its just a simple story, written by a very innocent person – a person totally ignorant of the world and worldly matters – perhaps even rather a stupid person.”

He’s only part right. Barbara Buncle has no side to her, so those who read the novel, Disturber of the Peace, as a satire are wrong. But she is not stupid. She is clear-sighted and that is what has enabled her to make such piercing portraits of her neighbours. The socially pretentious local bully Mrs Featherstone Hogg is determined to root out whoever has written about her in such unflattering (honest) terms:

“Once they knew who it was they could decide what was to be done, everything depended on who the man was. Whether it was the sort of man who could be terrorised, ostracised, or horse-whipped. At the very least he could be made to apologise and hounded out of Silverstream.”

Yet for all their objections, the villagers start to blur the lines between fact and fiction even further. A romance invented by Barbara develops in real life, and a deception she thought she invented turns out to be right on the money.

Barbara remains humble and somewhat bemused by it all. She is a sweet, endearing heroine but not overly saccharine. She has a strong practical streak and this is what led her to write in the first place and write so honestly.

 “It represented food and drink to Barbara Buncle, and, perhaps, a new winter coat and hat; but above all, freedom from that awful nightmare of worry, and sleep, and a quiet mind.”

Miss Buncle’s Book is charming. The portraits of the villagers are colourful but not silly, the plot is escapist but not ridiculous. A perfect antidote to our troubled times.

Secondly, Saplings by Noel Streatfeild (1945), which is Persephone No.16 and wasn’t remotely escapist. It charts the disintegration of a family during the Second World War. A clever stroke by Streatfeild is that the Wiltshire family has every privilege: they are well off, able to send their children to family members rather than generally evacuate, they can buy houses away from the city and the father isn’t called up to military service. Yet still the conflict wreaks havoc on both the adults and their four children.

I don’t know if it was because I read all of Streatfeild’s children’s books when I was young and her voice somehow set off a distant echo with me, but I loved this from the start. The opening scene sees parents Alex and Lena with their four young children, Tony, Laurel, Kim and Tuesday, at the beach. This being an interwar middle-class family, they also have a nanny and governess with them. Just as well, because Lena is not remotely maternal. She believes a mother’s role is to look lovely and be charming, and her children will never be her priority.

“He wanted to be a family man, bless him. The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and if it came to that, mistress too, and she meant to go on being just those things. It didn’t matter giving into him occasionally, letting him be all father. When they were alone she would brush all that away and have him where she wanted him.”

I found the frank discussion of Lena’s sexuality surprising for a novel of the period, and Streatfeild doesn’t judge her harshly because of it, but shows rather how this private need of Lena’s unfortunately has far-reaching consequences. The pressures of war will drive everyone close to breaking, and Lena’s focus on her own needs is disastrous for her children. However, I don’t want to say too much about plot because it’s very easy to give spoilers, and the joy of Saplings is seeing the subtle portraits of the four children emerge.

 “Laurel had been crying. Her cheeks had a stiff shiny look. Alex’s heart was wrung. He wanted to sit down by her and tell her how gloomy the house would be without her. That of all his children she had more tentacles round his heart. That he detested packing her off to a boarding school. That every night he would look for her funny plain little face and brisk plaits and would mind afresh because they were not there. But he had never spoken to her like that and tonight, poor scrap, was not the night to start. One word might start her crying again.”

Laurel and Tony probably suffer most. They are the eldest two and in very different ways the things left unsaid by adults effects them both profoundly. Streatfeild is expert in portraying children’s points of view without ever being patronising or sentimental and we see how the unthinking actions of adults are taken as grave injustices by the children. This could have so easily gone wrong: Saplings portrayal of the impact of war on children could have been mawkish and sickly-sweet. But actually it is even funny at times: Kim is a self-dramatising and demanding presence, and Streatfeild shows how he is charming but also, like his mother, entirely self-focussed and constantly playing to audiences.

 “Kim thought of chalk blue butterflies. He raised his eyes to the ceiling. He looked like a Hollywood choirboy rounding off a film in which the her or heroine’s soul in the in the last reel flies heavenwards.”

Saplings is expertly written and I really felt I was alongside the four children, immersed in their world. It shows the waste of war for everyone, adults and children alike. What is particularly devastating though, is the suggestion that the adults are in a better position to recover than the children. The war will end, but you only have one childhood, and for Tony, Laurel, Kim and Tuesday theirs has been torn to shreds by warfare, and by adults who systematically fail to recognise what the children need and offer them sanctuary.

“To keep homes safe was basically what most men were fighting for. Lena and Alex’s home was just the sort of set-up he himself was fighting to keep. Beautiful, orderly, full of children.”

Last year when I took part in the Persephone readathon I ended on Visage’s Fade to Grey in honour of those covers. Frankly, I think I outdid myself. This time, try as I might. I couldn’t think of an 80s classic to shoehorn in, so instead here’s a mention of Noel Streatfeild in a Hollywood blockbuster. You’ve Got Mail has always baffled me: why would you get together with the corporate capitalist pig who destroyed your family business and has lied to you almost constantly? Anyway, this is a nice mention of Streatfeild’s children’s books (2.18-3.10) and then I recommend watching The Shop Around the Corner which You’ve Got Mail is based on, but unlike the remake, is utterly charming.