Oh dear Reader, its been a long time. Being British, I blame the weather. The hot period we had slowed my reading pace to that of a particularly lethargic snail, putting paid to my plans for the second half of #WITMonth. Then it took me far beyond the hot weather to recover firstly my reading and then my blogging and I posted absolutely nothing in September, despite hoping to participate in the wonderful Persephone Readathon hosted by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility. Thankfully Jessie said I could post ridiculously late, so here is the first of 2 very much belated posts looking at some lovely Persephone reads.
Firstly, Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple (1953), which is Persephone No.3. I was trepidatious regarding this novel: a weak man cheats on his wife. Boo-hoo. But so many bloggers love this novel and of course they didn’t steer me wrong. It’s completely wonderful. Whipple is so witty, her writing is so perfectly judged, and her psychological insights so clear, that this novel was a brilliant study of human relationships. This is going to be a very quote-heavy review…
The novel begins with a portrait of an elderly matriarch whose son lives close by with his family.
“ ‘Why don’t you come and live with me? This great empty house…!’ said old Mrs North from time to time.
But her invitation was not accepted and she really didn’t want it to be. As it was she was able to nurse a perpetual grievance against her daughter-in-law for not coming to see her more often, and if she had her on the premises, she would have had to let that grievance go.”
Mrs North decides that she would like a companion though, so she advertises and chooses a young French woman, Louise, from the respondents. Louise is icy and brutal:
“The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her. Happy people were so boring. It was unintelligent to be happy, Louise considered. Her face took on an expression of cold reserve.”
She has been hurt in the past, but all the same, it is hard to feel any sympathy for her. She is shallow as a puddle, only interested in material gain. She cares nothing for people because she looks down on them all.
“She hated men, she told herself. But unfortunately it was through them that women had to get what they wanted, at any rate, women like herself. She was no career woman. No slaving in an office or profession for her. For a woman gifted in her own particular way as she was, there would be no need for that, she remarked to herself, as if discussing the situation with a friend such as she had never had.”
Mrs North adores Louise, because she is charmed by her. The rest of the family see her a little more clearly, but she still becomes embroiled in their lives. Avery and Ellen are happily married, their children are well-adjusted. Ellen is a homemaker while Avery works in town as a publisher; their separate spheres suit both as Avery wines and dines clients and Ellen runs the house and enjoys her garden.
“Ellen was what she was because she had never had reason to be otherwise. She had everything: a handsome husband, money, children, a charming house. All the same, Louise quite liked her.”
Louise returns to England a second time and at this point her affair with Avery starts. Whipple doesn’t demonise Louise, brutal and self-obsessed though she is, because she is a fully realised character. She is wholly believable as a damaged woman who wreaks havoc with total disregard for those who stand in her way. She has an affair with Avery because it suits her. She believes she will gain from it and so she makes it happen.
Whipple is brilliant and capturing the tragedy of lives torn apart when there are no huge scenes and you have to carry on to some degree.
“The first silence fell between them. Although, like an early snowflake, it didn’t lie. It melted away in the morning, and everything seemed as before.”
The tragedy of the disintegration of the North’s home is presented clearly and without sentimentality. Their daughter Anne is perhaps the greatest casualty:
“Until now, Anne had run joyfully forward, but now she was halted. She shrank back. She had learnt suspicion and distrust and most of all the fear of life that sickens the youthful heart and from which it takes so long to recover, if recover it does.”
Yet the adults suffer too. Ellen has had her complacent contentment ripped away from her, leading a life she never imagined.
“She added a boiled egg to the belated tea, to make one meal do for two. She had joined the great army of solitary women who have boiled eggs at night, the women without men.”
Meanwhile Avery, stuck with Louise because his pride won’t let him beg Ellen for forgiveness, soon realises that all he was depended on the bedrock of his home:
“His assets had been self-confidence, ability to get on with people, good looks, good humour, and much charm. Where were they now?”
Someone at a Distance manages to be both simple and hugely complex. The plot is straightforward and the circumstances it portrays are ordinary. Yet the psychology of the characters and the fallout of the betrayal are subtle and multi-layered. There is plenty here about the role of women: Louise feels trapped in bourgeoise circumstance and gets out the best way she knows how; Ellen has to learn to deal with the practicalities of finance while realising all that she did in building a home was so easily overlooked, by both herself and her family:
“She wondered if she would ever be able to take pleasure in things for themselves. For twenty years she had evidently taken pleasure in things so that she could use them for her husband and her children, pass them on to them in the way of beauty or food or comfort.”
This would be a great read for a book group. I can imagine the 3 adult characters would really divide people, with some seeing Louise as an all-out villain, Avery as a spineless creep and Ellen as pathetic. I didn’t feel this way, much as I disliked Louise, thought Avery an arrogant fool, and wanted to subject Ellen to a lecture on female emancipation. I found it very human and very believable, incredibly sad but not without hope.
Secondly, Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (1949) which is Persephone No.28. This short novel is a heart-breaking portrayal of the impact of war on individuals, and how wounds that are unseen can tear people apart.
Hilary Wainwright is a British poet, who lost his wife and child in the Second World War in France. He knows his wife is dead, but there is a glimmer of hope that his son survived. Hilary has been so damaged by the conflict though, that his wish to be reunited with his son is complicated:
“If only the boy were already found, he thought, if I were married to Joyce, if my life were established, my conscience quieted and the old enchantments finally dead. But to achieve this I must kill the enchantments, myself undergo the agony of their death which will be the final death of the happiness Lisa and I has together. But I have no courage, I recoil from the pains of leaving the past behind.”
On the one hand Hilary makes his son a cipher: a symbol of perfection, of lost innocence, of what can never be regained. He’s not sure he wants him found. On the other hand, he wants his flesh-and-blood son back. The search, propelled by a man, Pierre, who feels he owes a debt to Hilary’s dead wife Lisa, leads to an orphan called Jean. Hilary is never sure the small boy is his, and as they spend time together it is apparent that both are lost:
“ ‘Hardly any boys get presents in wartime, because – because people are busy making guns.’ He meant his voice to sound reassuring but it came out choked with anger. The child looked frightened, but whispered doggedly, ‘The other boys have birthdays, and they get presents.’”
Hilary is far from perfect: he is selfish and not particularly likeable. Yet it is so clear that he is selfish because he cannot get past his own fear that love will open him to hurt again, and any more pain may mean he collapses completely. All the same, I couldn’t really see why, if he liked Jean and felt a connection, he didn’t just adopt him anyway. But then I think genetics are the least of what makes a family. Even without my investment in wanting to know if Jean is Hilary’s son, Little Boy Lost is a compulsive read, precisely written and tightly plotted.
Laski captures the absolute devastation of war: the wreckage of France, the malnourished orphans, the lost souls, without didacticism. She shows the futility of violence, and the struggle for humans to find meaning and integrity in the face of a world that seems intent on blotting these things out:
“The only good thing we can do, the only goodness we can be sure of, is our own goodness as individuals and the good that we can do individually. As groups we often do evil that good may come and very often good does not come and all that is left is the evil we have pointlessly done.”
To end, a tenuous link to say the least. Bing Crosby was in the film adaptation of Little Boy Lost, which by all accounts is pretty dire. So instead of a clip from that, here is Lord High Commander David Bowie singing Heroes on the Bing Crosby Show: