“Don’t let people know the facts about the political and economic situation; divert their attention to giant pandas, channel swimmers, royal weddings and other soothing topics.” (George Orwell, I Have Tried to Tell the Truth: 1943-1944)

How depressing is it that Orwell not only hasn’t aged at all, but seems more pertinent than ever? Let’s distract ourselves from the dystopian nightmare we’re living with a few books… here is my contribution to the 1944 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Do join in!

Firstly, The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann. Told from the point of view of 10-year old Rebecca in the years just before World War I, it is the story of a captivating older woman, Sibyl Jardine and her extraordinary family. Sibyl was friends with Rebecca’s grandmother, and invites Rebecca and her siblings to pick primroses on her property. Rebecca is entranced by the charismatic Mrs Jardine from the start:

“It sounded strange to us that a person should so reveal her feelings: we did not say things like that in our family, though I dreamed of a life where such pregnant statements should lead on to drama and revelation.”

But Mrs Jardine’s magnetic nature comes at a price. People are manipulated by her, dominated by her, and subdued by her:

“Now that Mrs Jardine had gone, the electrifying meaning with which her presence always charged the air began to dissolve. The arrows of her words fell harmlessly out of the copper beech on to the grass around us, and we kicked them aside and drew together, an ordinary group of children going for a picnic.”

Yet because it is told from the point of view of a child, we never quite get to the core of Sibyl Jardine. She remains enigmatic, always slipping out of reach:

“Mrs Jardine, pausing at the end of the herbaceous border, mused. For the first time in her actual presence the sense pierced me directly: that she was wicked. A split second’s surmise. But when next moment I looked up at her, there was her profile lifted beautifully above me, serene and reassuring as a symbol in stone.”

The Ballad and the Source is an odd novel. The child’s point of view is not child-like; the events of Mrs Jardine’s life are melodramatic to say the least (abandoned children, incest, mental illness) and much of the novel is reported speech as Mrs Jardine and her maid Tilly tell Rebecca the life story which is wholly unsuited to a child’s understanding. It has also dated: regional accents sound stereotyped and the portrayal of mental illness is clumsy.

Yet the novel is beautifully written and highly readable. It demonstrates the high price paid by women for emancipation when they have no power. Ultimately what propelled me through the novel was the character of Sibyl Jardine. Like Rebecca, I found her complex and compelling, and I couldn’t wait to see where this intriguing woman took me next.

Secondly, The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault. Set between the wars, it follows seventeen-year-old Elsie Lane as she leaves her Cornwall home to find her older sister Leo. Elsie’s parents are in a deeply toxic marriage and Elsie escapes into fantasy, trying to make herself invisible. As a result she is immature and naïve:

“She was a dim, unobtrusive girl. One might conjecture that she had been afraid to grow up, lest the change should attract attention to her […] The fact that she went nowhere, met nobody but her mother’s friends, and lived in a world of her own imagination had suspended her in the most awkward stage of adolescence for quite three superfluous years.”

It is a visit from locum doctor Peter which spurs her into action. His half-baked ideas about psychology means he seduces timid female patients to cheer them up, not noticing the heartbreak and disappointment he causes when he fails to follow thorough on the fantasies he has encouraged. He is not cruel or vindictive, but he is vain and self-centred:

“His dislike of hurting anyone was entirely genuine, as traits which people use for effect often are; and from this it followed that if anyone insisted on being hurt by him, he found the injury hard to forgive.”

Elsie thinks the drama of running away will bring her and Peter together. When she finds Leo, her sister is living on a houseboat on the Thames outside London, with the lovely Helen. Leo dresses boyishly and writes Westerns for a living; to the reader it is entirely obvious how Leo is living her life but Elsie never realises what her sister’s sexuality is. The Friendly Young Ladies is quite progressive in its portrayal of how sexuality is not fixed, and how being gay is not a source of torture and self-loathing (it was written as an antidote to The Well of Loneliness):

“Her way of life had always seemed to her natural and uncomplex, and obvious one, since there were too many women, for the more fortunate of the surplus to rearrange themselves; to invest it with drama or pathos would have been in her mind a sentimentality and a kind of cowardice.”

(Interestingly, my Virago edition, published in 1984, still referred to Mary Renault as emigrating to South Africa ‘with her close friend Julie Mullard’. I wouldn’t have expected such coy obfuscation from a progressive late-twentieth century publisher.)

Peter ends up visiting the houseboat and trying to seduce both Leo and Helen. He knows they are in a relationship, but his vanity knows no bounds:

“Eccentricity in women always boiled down to the same thing. She wanted a man.”

What ensues is a comedy but one that contains sadness and hurt. The delicate balance of relationships in the houseboat is upset and changed irrevocably by Elsie’s naïve blundering and Peter’s vain manipulations.

I really enjoyed The Friendly Young Ladies. Elsie and Peter are both infuriating, but also funny and fondly drawn. The relationships between the four and the neighbour Joe are shown as complex and subject as much to what is not said as what is voiced. The character studies are carefully drawn and wholly believable.

My edition of this novel included an Afterword by Mary Renault in which she observes:

“on re-reading this forty-year-old novel for the first time in about twenty years, what struck me most was the silliness of the ending.”

So, not a flawless novel, but very much a readable one.

To end, 1944 was the year my mother was born. It was a home birth (no NHS!) and my grandmother heard this song being whistled in the street outside the window. Mum’s a big Johnny Cash fan so this is the version I’ve plumped for:

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“Slumps are like a soft bed. They’re easy to get into and hard to get out of.” (Johnny Bench)

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:

“Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?” (Ernest Gaines)

Although June was Pride month, in London it culminated with a Pride parade during the sunny weekend just gone, so this week’s post is two novels involving LGBT+ themes.

The first thing that struck me on picking up Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928) is that Penguin Classics have managed to disprove what I had previously taken to be an absolute truth: that film tie-in covers are always repulsive. Apparently not when Tilda Swinton is involved (credit also to Billy Zane’s arms):

Orlando is a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, and the novel is full of references to her: her family, history, homes, lovers. As Orlando, Woolf makes Vita someone who is not bound by the laws of time, or by gender. At the start of the novel, Orlando is a young man living in Elizabethan England. I took Shakespearean Studies for my MA and I enjoyed Woolf poking fun at the nobleman poets of the time:

“He was describing, as all young poets are forever describing, nature…Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural apathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and metre…one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.”

The oak tree on Orlando’s estate is a recurring motif, as Orlando writes throughout their life the epic poem The Oak Tree:

“To the oak tree he tied [his heart] and as he lay there, gradually the flutter in and about him stilled itself; the little leaves hung, the deer stopped; the pale summer clouds stayed; his limbs grew heavy on the ground; and he lay so still that by degrees the deer stepped nearer and the rooks wheeled round him and the swallows dipped and circled and the dragonflies shot past, as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer’s evening were woven web-like around his body.”

He is popular in the Elizabethan court and romances a Russian princess named Sasha (based on Vita’s lover for many years, Violet Trefusis). Sasha ultimately breaks his heart and Orlando retreats from court, but is later and ambassador to Turkey for Charles II. While in Constantinople he falls asleep for several days and wakes quite altered:

“Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatsoever to alter their identity.”

This change enables Woolf to make several pointed comments about gender roles:

“For women are not (judging by my own short experiences of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.”

Ultimately though, Woolf is not interested in preaching. Orlando is an enjoyable romp through the centuries with plenty of sly digs at writers of the past and satirising of British society through the ages. It’s also about the difficulty of writing, both biography (Woolf-as-biographer addresses the reader directly to highlight these difficulties) and fiction as Orlando struggles with The Oak Tree and takes centuries to finish it (I enjoy Sackville-West’s writing but apparently Woolf didn’t rate it much).

For me, Orlando isn’t Woolf at her best, but I don’t think it was intended to be; she referred to it as ‘a writer’s holiday’. However, like all her writing, it is multi-layered and lends itself to re-reading. For all its complexities it’s a surprisingly easy read and can be whizzed through if you’re not stopping to read footnotes to catch all the allusions 🙂

Secondly, The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst (1998). This was a lesson to me to keep an open mind. If I didn’t rate Hollinghurst as a writer I would never have picked up this novel from the description on the back, taken from The Times review: “Alex drops a tab of ecstasy, provided by young Danny, and embarks on a bewildering voyage of self-discovery in a drug-fuelled London club scene”. To me, that sounds like an incredibly tedious premise for a novel. Thankfully, it seems The Times book reviewers were as inept then as they are now* and this is not what the novel’s about. What The Spell is about is dealing with the pain of heartbreak, and the awkward negotiations of intimacies when you’re male and British and don’t say what you feel.

Alex is nursing a broken heart when his ex-partner Justin invites him to spend the weekend with him and his new partner, Robin. Robin’s son Danny is there and Alex and Danny start a relationship. Alex is conservative; he works for the government and lives a quiet life. Danny is several years younger and completely different:

“He took in the jumble on the mantlepiece, but didn’t study the the curling snapshots too closely for fear of cutting himself on the grins and glints of Danny’s world. He had an impression of life as a party, as a parade of flash-lit hugs and kisses, in a magic zone where everyone was young and found to be beautiful.”

Robin is also negotiating his relationship with Danny and Hollinghurst captures the pain and guilt of the divorced parent:

“Even though the marriage had broken up eighteen years ago, Danny’s visits still left Robin with an aftertaste of disappointment, of adulterated sweetness; sometimes they had been anxious charades of the life they might have led together, but played out with an eye on the clock and a mawkishness which shifted from one to the other.”

Over the period of their relationship, as The Times review mentioned, Danny introduces Alex to London nightlife:

“He could easily argue the feeling away as the elation of drink and dancing and the company of a thousand half-naked men. Though the men were beautiful, it was true, in the cascades and strafings of coloured light.”

The Spell isn’t Hollinghurst’s most sophisticated novel but it’s simplicity makes it touching. It’s a look at a period of time in four ordinary, connected lives, written before he went onto the broader scope of The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child. It’s about how we deal with pain, both big (bereavement, heartbreak) and small (the tiny hurts we cause one another each day). The final image is one of friendship, and as this endures, one of hope.

To end, the theme of this year’s London Pride was #PrideMatters. It’s about the importance of Pride as people who are LGBT+ still face discrimination and abuse. A pretty depressing state of affairs in 2018. And I am struck yet again at how audacious Jimmy Somerville was in making this video 34 years ago:

*Not that I read the Murdoch rag but instead base my opinions on the much more reliable source of Twitter. I saw Matt Haig’s tweet about their review of his latest book which showed all the nuanced understanding of mental health that you’d expect 😦

“It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.” (Elizabeth Taylor)

Today is Elizabeth Taylor Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, which gave me a chance to read the last two novels I had of hers remaining in the TBR (thankfully I’ve not yet read all her work – roll on the end of the book-buying ban…).

Firstly, The Sleeping Beauty (1953), which tells the story of Vinny, a man who is a reliable shoulder to cry on for all his female friends.

“It was his business to be loved – a mission created afresh with everyone he met – and he was always conscious of another’s coldness.”

When Isabella’s husband dies, he is down to visit her at her coastal home like a shot.

“ ‘You are welcome to follow me to the ends of the earth’ Vinny seemed to be assuring people when he was introduced.”

Vinny should be seen as a model of compassion, but instead Taylor’s sharp eye shows him as vain and very much driven by his own needs. Isabella’s son Laurence, courting a young nursemaid staying at a local B&B, doesn’t take to him as he thinks he has plans to marry Isabella. The thought crosses Isabella’s mind too, and she finds comfort in planning how she will turn him down. What neither of them know is that firstly, Vinny is already married (though separated) from his wife Rita “[who] had, in fact, a great distaste for the truth and was forever tidying it up or turning her back on it.” and secondly, that Vinny has fallen in love at first sight with Emily, who he saw on the beach.

“When they had gone from view, he turned back to the room, and found it dark now, and very small.”

Emily is a blank canvas in many ways, perfect for Vinny’s romantic sensibility.

 “Nearing fifty, Vinny felt more than ever the sweet disappointments only a romantic knows….the imperfectly remembered and the half-anticipated. Past and future to him were the realities; the present dull, meaningless.”

Emily has been in a car accident and her heart was broken when her lover subsequently dumped her, unable to cope with her changed appearance. She is still beautiful, but in a strange way, as Vinny’s mother observes:

“anything passive she abhorred, and Emily’s dead-white skin, her lack of expression, about which Vinny had found no words to forewarn her, no heart to explain or discuss, annoyed and repelled her. She could sense Emily’s life drifting by in an incurious desuetude.”

The Sleeping Beauty has a determinedly unromantic male lead, and a beauty whose awakening is for his benefit not hers. Taylor shows how we attempt to construct our lives around our desires and how that can cause pain rather than delight for ourselves and those we love. She is very funny (such as Isabella and her friend Evalie being avid racing gamblers, hiding this from her son, who is also betting and hiding it from his mother) but overall the tale is unsettling. If the romance will result in happily-ever-after for any of those concerned is left for the reader to decide.

“ ‘Oh, I am nothing without you,’ she said. ‘I should not know what to be. I feel as if you had invented me. I watch you inventing me, week after week.’”

Secondly, Angel (1957) a hilarious portrait of a writer supposedly based on the romantic novelist Marie Corelli. Angelica Deverell decides before she’s even left school that she’s going to be a romantic novelist. This is despite not liking love, or novels:

“Until now she had thought of love with bleak distaste. She wanted to dominate the world, not one person.”

“She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her”

Angel is one of the most rampant egotists ever committed to paper. She is a terrible writer without life experience, knowledge or taste to draw on, and yet she is hugely popular – her readers don’t care about her error-ridden purple prose. Her fame insulates her from the world and so she is able to continue her entirely ego-driven existence, never bothering to look beyond herself for anything. She is physically astigmatic but psychologically myopic to the point of blindness.

Maybe I’m lacking compassion but I didn’t find Angel remotely sympathetic. She is appalling. The pathos comes through her mother: baffled by her daughter, and yanked from her home by Angel’s material wealth. I found this passage heart-rending:

“At a time of her life when she needed the security of familiar things, these were put beyond her reach. It seemed to her she had wasted her years acquiring a skill which in the end was to be of no use to her: her weather-eye for a good drying day; her careful ear for judging the gentle singing sound of meat roasting in the oven; her touch for the freshness of bacon; and how, by smelling a cake, she could tell if it were baked: arts, which had taken so long to perfect, now fell into disuse. She would never again, she grieved, gather up a great fragrant line of washing in her arms to carry indoors.”

Amazingly, Angel does have people who care about her, repugnant as she is. Theo, her publisher, takes a paternalistic attitude and worries she will never get what she wants:

“Love, which calls for compliance, resilience, lavishness, would be a shock to her spirit, and upset to the rhythm of her days. She would never achieve it, he was sure. For all the love in her books, it would be beyond her in life.”

Nora is a devoted friend and lives with Angel for the majority of their lives, even during Angel’s marriage to Nora’s feckless brother Esme:

“ ‘I read one of your books.’ he said, sounding as if it were rather a surprising thing to do.

She blinked, jolted by what he had said. She always supposed that everyone had read all of her books and had them nearly by heart, that they thought about them endlessly and waited impatiently for the next one to appear.”

Her marriage is held together through Esme’s lies and Angel’s unrelenting capacity for self-delusion, despite the fact she doesn’t enjoy the honeymoon:

“Greece was especially disappointing. It was nothing like her novels.”

 Angel is an astonishing character study and the story of one writer’s life. What is most astounding is that the grotesque Angel is apparently not too far from real life; apart from the fact that she was probably gay and more interested in the esoteric, Marie Corelli seems to have been very much like Angel. Certainly like Corelli, Angel refuses to acknowledge her waning star following the First World War when people don’t want overwritten romances anymore.

Angel never has an epiphany, she remains resolutely vain, deluded and solipsistic until the end. The novel is a comi-tragedy, carefully balancing absurd excess with sharp-eyed psychological insight.

“She went to the Royal Garden Party in violet satin and ostrich feathers with purple-dyed chinchilla on her shoulders; amethysts encrusted her corsage and mauve orchids were sewn all over her skirt where they quickly wilted. Glances of astonishment she interpreted as admiration.”

 “Arrogant and absurd she had been and remained; she had warded off friendship and stayed lonely and made such fortifications within her own mind that truth could not pierce it”

Ultimately, Taylor treats Angel kindly:

“I am frightened, she suddenly thought. But there was nothing to be frightened of; not even poverty now. I have come such a long way, she told herself, and done all that I wanted and there is nothing to fear.”

In life and in fiction, I like people who walk to the beat of their own drum. Angel certainly does this. I think the reason I couldn’t stand her is because she is so utterly self-focussed. She has zero interest in other people or in the world. Taylor is such a skilled writer that her horrible main character does not detract from the joy of this novel. The comedy is gentle; although we laugh at Angel it is in disbelief rather than cruelty. There is also enough reality and pathos through the characters that surround her to ground the novel away from Angel’s delusions.

Elizabeth Taylor is such a wonderful writer. Any novel of hers is an absolute masterclass in astute, humane, witty style. The fact that she is an Underappreciated Lady Author is an absolute travesty.

To end, I saw a documentary recently about female singers and Annie Lennox was part of it, looking bloomin’ amazing in every shot. Here she is singing about an angel:

“A Persephone cover is a guarantee of good reading.” (Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books)

After a month of daily posting about novellas I was planning at least a week’s break from blogging, but I couldn’t resist joining in with Jessie at Dwell in Possibility’s Persephone Readathon. Here are two short Persephones that just missed out on being part of Novella in Day in May as they were over 200 pages (but not by much).

Firstly, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson (1937) which is Persephone No.53.

This is the story of a young Scottish heiress from childhood to young adulthood, framed by the visit of three tourists to the estate of Keepsfield.

“This transition to the atmosphere of another world is bewildering to modern personalities. The three strangers were conscious of a nakedness of spirit that made them uneasy spectators of a grandeur which was more than material. The old caretaker had slipped into the background, as caretakers do.”

The caretaker, Mrs Memmary, has been on the estate since she was a girl, and she tells one of the Tourists, Mrs Dacre, the story of Lady Rose. Rose is a child filled with joy, and a passionate attachment to her homeland, so far so that she names her kitten after a mighty clansman:

“Rose went out onto the sun-drenched west terrace, cuddling Rob Roy, who by now wore a small pink silk handkerchief round his head to protect him from the sun.”

She is a debutante and presented to the Queen, who takes a shine to her. It is at this moment, stepping into society for the first time, that she realises what her wealth and position truly mean:

“She was important? She, Rose Targenet aged eighteen, who had done so little but rejoice in the beauty and happiness of life. Of course her importance was not her own quality; it was because of her Papa.”

However, while she is important, she has no power. This is Victorian Scotland, and she must make a good match, securing the future of her lands and providing a male heir. We know that she managed this, as Mrs Memmary tells the tourists early on that all the splendour they see in the home is entailed to the heir, and Lady Rose is seeking a rich tenant to help pay for the upkeep of the estate.

The Victorian marriage market is poked gentle fun at during this overheard conversation between Rose’s mother and a family friend, regarding the Poet Laureate:

“If poor Alfred must write about what he calls love, he might at least explain that it is an emotion to be openly enjoyed by the middle classes.”

Although Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary could be seen as a light novel, it actually has serious points to make about the role and rights of women in the period. (It was written in in the 1930s and was apparently a great favourite of the Queen Mother, which I find fascinating. Makes me see her in a whole new light.)

Rose ends up in a loveless marriage to someone who is not horrible, but just completely cold and repressed:

“She had cried on her bed all the afternoon, realizing bitterly that in 1874 married women had no rights, even if they were countesses. She didn’t cry now, for she had the children, and in any case crying did no good after 10 years.”

Meanwhile, her friend Susan is in no better position having avoided marriage altogether:

“But what have I got? Just a piece of needlework and two disappointed elderly minded parents, and all the time in the world on my hands. If I had my way women would be free to do the same things as men; come and go as they wished, and read and talk, and be doctors and lawyers and financiers, and Members of Parliament, and newspaper writers, Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

So what happens? We know Lady Rose is a strong character who at times is willing to defy authority, and we know she has been abroad for a long time. Mrs Dacre isn’t at all happy with what Mrs Memmary tells her:

 “ ‘You mean – that was the end of Lady Rose’s story? It seems a vague, disappointing ending.’

‘Vague?’ The old woman thought for a moment and said, ‘But in real life things go like that. Our stories have no ending. We come into the light for a little while, and then we move away into the shadows and nobody sees us anymore. It is better that way.’”

A good point, but Mrs Memmary has held something back. I don’t think I’m a great genius in guessing what it was in Chapter 2, but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel at all. I promise you it’s not a vague, disappointing ending.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is in some ways a romantic novel: the country house and Scotland are both described with ravishing beauty, and it is a novel about being true to yourself and following your heart. But Ferguson also doesn’t shy away from portraying the price that is paid for these things, suggesting the price may be worth it but it can also be a high one.

Secondly, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer (1958) which is Persephone No.77. Ruth Whiting lives in a commuter town with her husband Rex. Their two sons are away at boarding school and their daughter – whose conception necessitated their marriage – is studying at Oxford. Ruth is not happy:

“In all the years of her marriage, a long war in which attack, if not happening, was always imminent, she had learned an expert cunning. The way to avoid being hurt, to dodge unhappiness, was to run away. Feelings of guilt and cowardice presented no problems that couldn’t be overcome by dreams, by games, by the gentle sound of her own voice advising and rebuking her as she went about the house.”

Rex and Ruth aren’t together very much – he has a flat in London during the week and comes home at weekends.

“For Rex and herself there was no longer any hope or possibility of change; there was no longer any choice to be made. They lay, fully grown, capable of every crime and every greatness, paralysed by triviality.”

Mortimer’s unflinching eye and scathing attitude is cast wider than the intricacies of marriage; it also takes in the other couples in the area:

“The relationships between the men are based on an understanding of success. Admiration is general, affection not uncommon. Even pity is known. The women have no such understanding. Like little icebergs, each keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality. Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and below the demarcation line are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from a lack of love; a few have talent, useless to them as a paralysed limb.”

Ruth seems on the verge, if not in the midst of, a breakdown. She is struggling to get out of bed and Rex engages a housekeeper/nurse.  However, what begins as a dissection of suburban 1950s marriage develops into something more political when Ruth’s daughter Angela tells her she is pregnant. The father, fellow student Tony, is selfish and callow:

“It was obviously not going to be necessary to impress on him the seriousness of the situation. He looked like a curate settling down to discuss dry rot in the organ loft.”

So Angela, unlike her mother, does not want to tie herself into marriage to an unsuitable man for the sake of an unwanted baby. The rest of the novel follows the hoops both Ruth and Angela have to jump through in order to secure an abortion. (This  particularly resonated at the time I read it given the recent vote in Ireland). What Mortimer demonstrates is the ways in which women’s lives are circumscribed and the huge fallout this can have: on mental health, physical health, participation in society, participation in our own lives.  Although she is acerbic, and undoubtedly it is a resounding cry for women’s rights to be acknowledged and given their due importance, I think above all, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a plea for kindness.

“He would probably go through his entire life imagining that he was real; but not one person would owe him gratitude, remember his comfort.”

To end, I said when Novella a Day in May was over I’d go back to shoehorning late 20th century pop tunes into posts at every opportunity. So here we go, a 1980s celebration of those beautiful Persephone covers:

Novella a Day in May #24

The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford (1945, 192 pages)

The Pursuit of Love was Nancy Mitford’s first novel in a trilogy about the Radletts, a bonkers upper class family.

“My Uncle Matthew had four magnificent bloodhounds, with which he used to hunt his children. Two of us would go off with a good start to lay the trail, and Uncle Matthew and the rest would follow the hounds on horseback. It was great fun. Once he came to my home and hunted Linda and me all over Shenley Common. This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish weekenders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls.”

The narrator is Fanny, cousin to the Radletts and rather different in temperament. Her mother leads a peripatetic life according to which man she is with, earning her the nickname The Bolter. Fanny is therefore raised by her lovely Aunt Emily, and the two have a placid, ordered existence, but it is the chaotic holidays Fanny spends with the Radletts which occupy the story.

“The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waves of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives.”

It’s thinly disguised biograpy of course. The Radletts are home educated along similar lines to Nancy and her famous sisters: in French and horsewomanship, and not much else.

“They picked up a great deal of heterogeneous information, and gilded it with their own originality, while they bridged gulfs of ignorance with their charm and high spirits, they never acquired any habit of concentration, they were incapable of solid hard work. One result, in later life, was that they could not stand boredom, Storms and difficulties left them unmoved, but day after day of ordinary existence produced an unbearable torture of ennui, because they completely lacked any form of mental discipline.”

Fanny focuses the story on that of Linda, her cousin and best friend. Linda is more like The Bolter than Fanny ever is, and has a disastrous marriage to a Tory followed by a disastrous affair with a communist, before finding a true love. The Pursuit of Love is not romantic though, Mitford’s comic eye is far too sharp for that. If it wasn’t for this, my inverted snobbery may have come to the fore and left me thinking ‘So what? Who wants to read about a bunch of ill-educated, over-privileged idiots?’ Well, as it turns out, I do. I find Mitford truly funny and accomplished in her writing. No-one escapes her wit, least of all the upper-classes and their mores:

“The behaviour of civilised man really has nothing to do with nature … all is artificiality and art more or less perfected.”

She’s not above the downright silly either, such as describing a baby as “the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig”.

The Pursuit of Love does provide some intriguing insights into the mid-twentieth century landowning classes though, such as their attitude to travel in the post-war period:

“it would never have occurred to the Alconleighs to visit the continent for any other purpose than that of fighting”

The Pursuit of Love is very funny but there is a brittleness there; a sense that things easily splinter and true sadness and tragedy are only ever just below the surface. The ending emphasises this element and is truly moving, all the more so as it is something of a jolt given what has gone before.

Novella a Day in May #15

The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald (1978) 123 pages

The Bookshop was Penelope Fitzgerald’s second novel (I reviewed her first here) and her first to be nominated for the Booker, which she later won with Offshore. It’s set in 1959 in the small Suffolk coastal town of Hardborough. This is not a picturesque seaside resort but a damp, isolated place:

“The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold.”

Florence Green decides to open a bookshop in Hardborough and buys The Old House, a 500 year old derelict property:

“The Old House was not haunted in a touching manner. It was infested with a poltergeist which, together with the damp and an unsolved question about the drains, partly accounted for the difficulty in selling the property. The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though perhaps he alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.”

Florence is a lonely widow, but she is not a pushover. As the forces of the town (mainly Mrs Gamart who wants The Old House for an arts centre for no other reason it seems than she is bored and used to getting what she wants) conspire against her, she doesn’t give up. Astutely, she acquires several copies of a book she has never read by an author she has never heard of, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and it causes quite the stir, raising much-needed profits for the shop.

She also has her allies. The reclusive Mr Brundish, proudly from an old Suffolk family, is on her side. Christine Gipping, an eleven year old with 2 broken front teeth, proves a tenacious keeper of Florence’s lending library and not easily put off by supernatural elements:

“Florence did not expect her assistant to return; but she came back the next afternoon, with the suggestion that if they had any more trouble they could both of them kneel down and say the Lord’s prayer. Her mother had advised that it would be a waste of time consulting the Vicar.”

The Bookshop is an absolute gem. The portraits of the inhabitants of Hardborough fully realised and idiosyncratic yet believable. The plot is simple but taut, the writing witty. Fitzgerald achieves a perfect balance of compassion without sentimentality.

“She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to matters of self-preservation.”