“I like simple things, books, being alone, or with somebody who understands.” (Daphne du Maurier)

This is my contribution to Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week, and much to my own amazement I’ve managed to post on time – hooray! I really enjoyed taking part in 2019 and reading du Maurier’s creepy, unsettling short stories. This time I’ve plumped for two of her most famous novels which I’ve never got round to reading, despite enjoying Rebecca as a teenager.

Firstly, Jamaica Inn (1936), a gothic period drama set in the 1820s. Mary Yellan is 23 when her mother dies, leaving her orphaned and having to live with her Aunt Patience, who is married to Joss Merlyn, landlord of the eponymous coaching inn. Mary would like to live alone and run her own farm, which is clearly a ridiculous notion:

“‘A girl can’t live alone, Mary, without she goes queer in the head, or comes to evil. It’s either one or the other. Have you forgotten poor Sue, who walked the churchyard at midnight with the full moon, and called upon the lover she had never had? And there was one maid, before you were born, left an orphan at sixteen. She ran away to Falmouth and went with the sailors.’”

So off she treks to a “wild and lonely spot” 12 miles outside Bodmin in Cornwall.  Du Maurier does a great job of creating gothic unease, both in the scenery and the relationships within Mary’s family.

“To the west of Jamaica high tors raised their heads ; some were smooth like downland, and the grass shone yellow under the fitful winter sun; but others were sinister and austere, their peaks crowned with granite and great slabs of stone.  Now and again the sun was obscured by cloud, and long shadows fled over the moors, like fingers. Colour came in patches; sometimes the hills were purple, ink-stained and mottled, and then a feeble ray of sun would come from a wisp of cloud, and one hill would be golden-brown while his neighbour still languished in the dark. The scene was never once the same, for it would be the glory of high noon to the east, with the moor as motionless as desert sand; and away to the westward arctic winter fell upon the hills, brought by a jagged cloud shaped like a highwayman’s cloak, that scattered hail and snow and a sharp spittle rain on to the granite tors.”

Joss is violent and binges on alcohol, and Mary’s Aunt Patience is completely destroyed by her marriage. She serves a useful dramatic purpose, providing the reason that morally upright Mary doesn’t report her uncle when it emerges that he makes his money through wrecking: luring ships onto rocks, murdering the sailors and stealing the loot.

“And, although there should be a world of difference between the smile of a man and the bared fangs of a wolf, with Joss Merlyn they were one and the same.”

The portrayals of the criminals in Jamaica Inn are dated, with more than a hint of ableism and classism. But Joss Merlyn is slightly more complex, and there is a sense of the pain he has experienced in his life that has led to him becoming the man he is. By enduring her life at Jamaica Inn, Mary meets her uncle’s brother Jem, and romance ensues:

“He was no more than a common horse-thief, a dishonest scoundrel, when all was said and done[…] Because he had a disarming smile and his voice was not unpleasing, she had been ready to believe in him”

What follows is a well-paced tale of Mary being drawn into her uncle’s life of crime far more than she would like, yet also feeling increasingly alienated from the good people of the town. It was this latter aspect that interested me most. What du Maurier seemed to be exploring was how a woman finds her own way in the world, and how the easiest path may not be the truest one.

“There would never be a gentle season here, thought Mary;”

Through the course of the novel Mary learns that a gentle season may not be what she wants; that her authentic life is one not led within the heart of society. Ultimately she’s quite a tough heroine, and she forges her own path.

At first I wasn’t sure Jamaica Inn was really for me: it seemed a bit formulaic and I’m not really one for gothic romance – usually the men are abhorrent, violence is indulged and somehow supposed to be attractive. Yet Jem could be gentle with Mary and they actually had a laugh together which is not very gothic at all. Sexual attraction is also dealt with frankly, and although it is a romantic tale (a young pretty girl wandering on the wild moors, a ruggedly handsome lover…) in some ways romance is given short shrift:

“There was precious little romance in nature, and she would not look for it in her own life. She had seen the girls at home walk with the village lads; and there would be a holding of hands, and blushing and confusion, and long-drawn sighs, and a gazing at the moonlight on the water […] They would look at the stars and the moon, or the darning sunset if it was summer weather, and Mary, coming out of the cow-shed, wiped the sweat from her face with dripping hands, and thought of the new-born calf she had left beside its mother. She looked after the departing couple, and smiled, and shrugged her shoulders, and, going into the kitchen, she told her mother there would be a wedding in Helford before the month was past.”

I wish I’d read Jamaica Inn after Rebecca in my teens, I probably would have loved it then. Reading it at 44 means it will probably not be amongst my favourite du Maurier – I didn’t find as much to admire as I did with her short stories –  but I thought she put an interesting heroine amongst the romantic tropes and her descriptions of the natural world are stunning. She also succeeded in writing a page-turning ripping yarn, and sometimes that is exactly what is needed when you pick up a novel.

The BBC adapted Jamaica Inn in 2014. I watched it, but the main thing I remember is everyone complaining about the mumbling:

Secondly, My Cousin Rachel (1951) which I thought was excellent. Du Maurier’s voice felt more individual in this and I wondered if in the intervening 15 years she had become more confident in her craft. The story and characterisation seemed more complex too.

It opens with a fairly graphic description of a hanged man that I could have done without, but it serves well in introducing the narrator Philip, orphaned and subsequently raised by his cousin Ambrose, a misogynist landowner, adored by Philip despite his uncompromising ways.

Du Maurier foreshadows the events of the story, and also it’s ambiguity:

“No one will ever guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty?”

Ambrose in middle-age takes his winters abroad, for the sake of his chest. There he meets the titular distant relative, and they marry. Philip is perturbed by this, but not nearly as much as he is when Ambrose’s letters become infrequent, scribbled and paranoid:

“For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay, it may be too late. Ambrose.”

Philip hastens to Italy, only to find Ambrose died three weeks previously and his wife has disappeared. When he returns to England and finds Rachel is due to visit he is determined to expose her for the villain she is. This resolve lasts, ooh, about five minutes:

“I was glad I had the bowl of my pipe to hold, and the stem to bite upon; it made me feel more like myself and less like a sleep-walker, muddled by a dream. There were things I should be doing, things I should be saying, and here was I sitting like a fool before the fire, unable to collect my thoughts or my impressions. The day, so long-drawn-out and anxious, was now over, and I could not for the life of me decide whether it had turned to my advantage or gone against me.”

The local people are equally charmed by Rachel’s beauty and wit. Philip’s friend Louise, the daughter of his guardian, points out Rachel is beautiful – something Philip has not mentioned. The skirting around his attraction for Rachel exposes him as an unreliable narrator, insofar as we would all be unreliable narrators of our own lives:

““How simple it must be for a woman of the world, like Mrs Ashley, to twist a young man like yourself around her finger,” said Louise.

I turned on my heel and left the room. I could have struck her.”

What follows is what du Maurier seems so expert at: building an atmosphere of tense unease, where the truth of a situation remains determinedly obscure. Philip is naïve, but are the more sceptical viewpoints of his friends and advisors any more valid?

“Here I was, twenty-four, and apart from the conventional years at Harrow and Oxford I knew nothing of the world but my own five hundred acres. When a person like my cousin Rachel moved from one place to another, left one home for a second, and then a third; married once, then twice, how did it feel? Did she shut the past behind her like a door and never think of it again, or was she beset with memories from day to day?”

Whether Rachel is conniving and manipulative is difficult to ascertain and this works so well in sustaining tension throughout. It also enables du Maurier to demonstrate how a beautiful woman with very few rights in law is subject to the fantasies and whims of men who hold the power. Rachel remains unknown to the reader because she remains unknown to Philip, and yet he professes he loves her.

Philip is not likeable – he is callow, arrogant, and violent. But he is somewhat sympathetic as he knows so little of life, floundering around in situations he doesn’t understand and is painfully ill-equipped to manage. Ultimately it is this quality that provides the persistent mystery of My Cousin Rachel, a mystery we must all find our own answer to:

“The point is, life has to be endured, and lived. But how to live it is the problem.”

My Cousin Rachel was adapted most recently on film in 2017. I’ve not seen it but it’s certainly beautifully shot if this trailer is anything to go by:

PS Happy birthday Daphne, born on this day in 1907, and to #DDMreadingweek host Ali – have a wonderful day!

“I’m afraid of nothing except being bored.” (Greta Garbo as Camille, 1936)

Way back in the mists of time, 12-18 April to be exact, Kaggsy and Simon ran the 1936 Club. Although my reading has recovered somewhat, my blogging is still non-existent. So although I’d read two novels from the year, I failed miserably to write on them at all. This is my much belated attempt to recover lost ground…

I picked the two novels simply because they were the right year and in the TBR pile, but as it turned out they were thematically linked, both dealing with extramarital affairs. Spoiler alert: don’t do it kids, it causes misery. Yet although both novels show the pain caused by the affairs, they are not moralising or didactic. Rather, they are well-observed character studies of people looking for happiness in the wrong places.

The Weather in the Streets is Rosamond Lehmann’s sequel to Invitation to the Waltz (1932), which in an entirely unhelpful way I hope to blog on in a few weeks. I read the novels in order, but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy the second.

The Weather in the Streets continues the story of Olivia Curtis, now in her late twenties and divorced, living an impoverished bohemian existence with her cousin Etty in London. When her father is taken ill, she catches the train back to the family home and finds herself sitting opposite Rollo Spencer, who was kind to her at the titular dance in the first novel.

“He burst out laughing; and she was struck afresh by what she remembered about him years ago: the physical ease and richness flowing out through voice and gestures, a bountifulness of nature that drew one, irrespective of what he had to offer.”

I thought that was so clever, the capturing of a realisation of physical attraction alongside a foreshadowing of what will follow: “irrespective of what he had to offer”. What Rollo can offer is very little at all, given that he’s married and has entire life away from Olivia, separated by class and circumstance, that she can never be part of.

“She looked away. A bubble of tension seemed to develop and explode between them.”

This tension is acted on and the two begin to see each other. I was particularly struck by the passage describing Olivia’s feelings after they first sleep together. Throughout the novel Lehmann switches between first and third person and here we are entirely with Olivia:

‘Then it was afterwards. He said, whispering:

‘I’m your lover…’

I thought about it. I had a lover. But nothing seemed changed. It wasn’t disappointing exactly…The word is: unmomentous…Not wonderful – yet…I couldn’t quite look at him, but it was friendly and smiling. His cheek looked coarse-grained in the light of the lamp. I saw the hairs in his nostrils…I was afraid I’d been disappointing for him….Thinking: Aren’t I in love with him after all then? …We hadn’t said love once, either of us…Thinking: It’s happened too quickly, this’ll be the end…”

Depicting the ordinariness of it all is a brave move but I thought it was the strength of this novel. It’s not romantic, it’s not two people being swept away, it’s also not sordid or bitter. Its individuals who feel a connection trying to build happiness within their unsatisfactory lives, in a deeply misguided way.

The Weather in the Streets is also excellent in its depiction of the loneliness of an affair. The title is from a scene where Olivia is sat inside Rollo’s car, looking out from behind the window. This separation exists in all her relationships to an extent: she lives in a society where emotions occur out of sight and you certainly don’t impose your feelings on others by daring to discuss them or letting social mores slip for a minute. For example, when your husband might be dying:

“The lurking threats of change, of disaster, retreated before Mother’s impregnable normality. Rather pale, rather drawn and dark about the eyes, but neat, but fresh, erect, composed as ever, preoccupied with the supervision – in retrospect – of the arrival, checking up on detail with nearly all her customary minuteness and relish…Mother was being wonderful.”

The affair exacerbates the loneliness it is attempting to relieve. This is in especially sharp relief when Olivia has to experience an (illegal) abortion entirely on her own – finding the money, visiting the doctor, dealing with the aftermath.

Apparently some contemporary critics thought Rollo was a total bounder. I didn’t read it that way; I thought he was a weak man who has always done entirely what is expected of him and then wonders one day why on earth he isn’t happy. Rather than reflect on his life and try and work out who he is, he carries on doing entirely what would be expected by having an affair.

“He said more than once, ‘Darling, don’t care too much about me, will you?’

‘Don’t you want me to love you then?’ I said.

‘Yes, yes I do terribly. Only you mustn’t sort of think too much of me, will you? I’m not much good, and mind you remember it. Don’t expect a lot of me will you? I’ve never been any use to anyone…’”

It is desperately sad but Lehmann never suggests the story is a tragic one. People endure, but unfortunately so do their unmet needs for intimacy, acceptance and love.

“’Don’t be frightened.’ I did love him, then. It was what one had always longed for, never expected to have – someone appearing quietly at need, saying that – someone for oneself…”

I had less tolerance for the protagonists of Christina Stead’s The Beauties and Furies. They were vacuous and self-obsessed and I was pleased to leave them behind. It was Stead’s excellent writing that both made them so believably unbearable and kept me going to the end of the novel.

The novel opens with Elvira Western on a train to Paris, having left her husband Paul for her young student lover Oliver (the lover’s names are similar and I did wonder if for two such vain people the attraction was how they saw themselves reflected in one another…)

She sits with a lace buyer called Marpurgo, little knowing that he will manipulate how her affair plays out.  He will exploit the very obvious faultlines in the relationship, but it never feels like much of a loss, as from the start Stead casts an ironic eye over the romance:

“ ‘You won’t have any more trouble – in your life! Think of that: here’s someone who loves you dearer than all the world. Put your head on my shoulder…’

It gave her a crick in the neck.”

Oliver sees himself as a Marxist intellectual, although nothing he does really demonstrates either of these aspirations. Elvira’s indolence is repeatedly emphasised and she cannot join Oliver in his pursuit of ideas if she is not warm, rested and fed, such as when he takes her to see Faust:

“she had not liked it although they had a box to themselves, because she was hungry.”

Neither seem particularly invested in the affair, more the idea of the affair. Oliver sleeps with lace-maker Coromandel and actress Blanche, both a contrast to Elvira as they display a degree of self-determinism, not that he’s interested. Elvira meanwhile, seems to just potter about. It’s mentioned that she gave up a promising education, but she seems disinclined to do anything, as Elvira’s husband observes:

“he works in the archives and reads her the political news, and she does nothing at all. She sits in cafes.”

When Elvira becomes pregnant, they both know they are not able to care for a baby, but they also vacillate between keeping it or taking the same decision as Olivia in The Weather in the Streets:

“This second marriage would be even worse than the first, because she had to cope with a brilliant young man’s impatience and disappointment. She said to herself babyishly:

‘I want a baby and a comfortable home: I don’t want to be part of the intelligentsia.’”

Meanwhile Oliver ponders:

“I am sending my seed from generation unto generation, a man full of humility.”

Spare me.

In many ways The Beauties and Furies is a novel of ideas. The sitting around in cafes arguing about politics, psychology and society gives plenty of scope for Stead to explore issues through her characters and it really captures some of the early twentieth century concerns.

“ ‘The real thought of the middle-class woman,’ complained Elvira, ‘is the problem of economic freedom and sexual freedom: they can’t be attained at the same time. We are not free. The slave of the kitchen and bedroom.’”

What stops it being overly weighty is the high degree of scepticism shown towards Elvira and Oliver, and ultimately I read The Beauties and Furies as a satire on bohemian pretentiousness and self-delusion. I’m not sure that’s correct but certainly Stead turns a sharp eye on conceit and hubris. She can be absolutely scathing towards her characters, such as this instance of Elvira becoming distressed:

“her prolific ego, masked in pathos, had them in its tendrils.”

Ouch! Although I couldn’t love The Beauties and Furies I still found much to enjoy. The incisive, well-observed writing did whet my appetite for more Stead – I have Cotter’s England in the TBR and I’m hoping for slightly less intellectual exposition and a bit more character-driven story.

Next I’m hoping to take part in Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week, which is running 10-16 May. Will I manage a post for it before the end of July? Watch this space… 😀

To end, I adore Greta Garbo, which is why I picked a quote from Camille to head the post, and why I’ll end the same way:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” (Shirley Jackson)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that 2020 has been a big old pile of pants. Initially I felt guilty about seeking some escapism – it seemed to be another facet of privilege that escapism was available to me – but now I think if it keeps you sane, do whatever works to come out the other side (and I need to keep reminding myself that there will be the other side…) So here are two enjoyable, light comic novels that have helped me keep possession of my remaining marbles.

Firstly, Kate reminded me that the Lucia novels by EF Benson are perfect for this sort of read. Having read Queen Lucia back in April for the 1920 Club, I was keen to read the sequel Lucia in London (1927), especially as fans of Mapp and Lucia tell me the novels get better as they progress.

It opens with the death of Lucia’s aunt by marriage, who had been very unwell for many years and lived to a ripe old age. All things considered:

“it had been generally and perhaps reasonably hoped among his friends and those of his wife that the bereavement would not be regarded by either of them as an intolerable tragedy.”

But to do so would deny Lucia a chance at self-dramatisation, so of course she goes all out for grief. Her donning of black and a pained expression is wonderfully satirised by Benson, as are the social niceties of bereavement when no-one genuinely cares for the departed:

“Georgie held her hand a moment longer than was usual, and gave it a little extra pressure for the conveyance of sympathy. Lucia, to acknowledge that, pressed a little more, and Georgie tightened his grip again to show that he understood, until their respective finger-nails grew white with the conveyance and reception of sympathy. It was rather agonising, because a bit of skin on his little finger had got caught between two of the rings on his third finger, and he was glad when they quite understood each other.”

It soon becomes clear that Lucia plans to decamp to London, to the aunt’s very swish home, leaving Riseholme reeling. Georgie understands the impulse but is surprised that Lucia is quite so keen to leave:

“He wanted, ever so much, to have a little flat in London (or a couple of rooms would serve) just for a dip every now and then in the life which Lucia found so vapid. But he knew he wasn’t a strong, serious character like Lucia, whose only frivolities were artistic or Elizabethan.”

As readers we know that Lucia is entirely frivolous of course, and she throws herself into the contemporary London scene with gusto.

“What she wanted was the foam of the wave, the topmost, the most sunlit of the billows that rode the sea. Anything that had proved itself billowish was her game, and anything which showed signs of being a billow, even if it entailed a vegetarian lunch with cocktails and the possible necessity of being painted like the artist’s wife with an eyebrow in one corner of the picture and a substance like desiccated cauliflower in the centre.”

As a Londoner myself it struck me that nothing changes: 93 years on and the silliness of the fashionable London scene is still ripe for satirising. Benson pokes gentle fun, nobody is truly despicable or utterly destroyed. Personally I enjoyed the ongoing saga of Georgie’s Oxford bags, bought during “a moment of reckless sartorial courage”. Not everyone can carry off Oxford bags with the aplomb of Buster Keaton, after all:

Life at Riseholme continues at its usual pace – that is, a snail’s. It is a life they all enjoyed, one filled with enough little dramas and crises to keep them all amused. Now however, something is missing:

“Yet none of these things which, together with plenty of conversation and a little housekeeping and manicuring, had long made life such a busy and strenuous performance, seemed to offer an adequate stimulus. And he knew well enough what rendered them devoid of tonic: it was that Lucia was not here, and however much he told himself he did not want her, he like all the rest of Riseholme was beginning to miss her dreadfully. She aggravated and exasperated them: she was a hypocrite (all that pretence of not having read the Mozart duet, and desolation at Auntie’s death), a poseuse, a sham and a snob, but there was something about her that stirred you into violent though protesting activity, and though she might infuriate you, she prevented your being dull.”

Will Lucia make a splash in London? Will Riseholme find their way without her? Will she ever return? What do you think?

“Aren’t you feeling more Luciaphil? I’m sure you are. You must enjoy her: it shows such a want of humour to be annoyed with her.”

You can read Lucia in London online here.

Now a musical interlude, but one of which I’m certain Lucia would not remotely approve. You can’t get more London than Chas and Dave:

Secondly, Ali’s lovely post 10 vintage books of joy reminded me I had Something Light by Margery Sharp (1960) in the TBR, and so I dug it out forthwith. I adore Margery Sharp and her well-observed but gentle humour was just what I needed.

It opens “Louisa Mary Datchett was very fond of men.” Unfortunately for Louisa, this means she keeps running round after various wet blankets, helping them keep on track, buying them yogurt and mopping their brows. She’s getting older and her profession as a dog photographer only just keeps her afloat, so she decides she needs to get married.

“ ‘It’s not the suffragettes who’d be proud of me,’ thought Louisa bitterly, ‘it’s the Salvation Army. I may be the modern woman, the femme sole with all her rights, and I’m very fond of men, but it’s time I looked out for myself.  In fact it’s time I looked out for a rich husband, just as though I’d been born in a Victorian novel…’”

It’s a brilliant piece of characterisation that Louisa doesn’t come across as either a doormat or as mercenary. She’s a kind person, a wee bit lost, and trying to take the best decisions she can for a happy life.

We then follow Louisa’s various adventures trying to gain what she thinks she wants. She spends a week trying to secure a rich husband, another seven days rekindling an adolescent devotion and a further week acting as a housekeeper for a man whose ready-made family are appealing.

That’s pretty much it, plot-wise and there are no real surprises. In no way is this a criticism. A comfort read for me has a nice predictability to it and I enjoy watching things play out as I expect in an entertaining way.

What further makes this such an enjoyable read are the fond portraits of the various characters, and the little details. One suitor is frequently likened to a Sealyham terrier; bamboo framed spectacles are given far too much importance; Louisa wears a “rowdy housecoat, zebras on a pink ground”; the milkman is a constant source of sympathetic wisdom as well as dairy products; Louisa has to try and sell ugly beechnut jewellery on behalf of her Bohemian artist neighbour. Everyone is flawed, believably human, gently ribbed by the author. It’s an absolute delight.

“She was constantly being either sent for, like a fire engine, or dispatched, like a lifeboat, to the scene of some masculine disaster”

To end, an 80s pop classic as always, but presented in a lip sync scene of sibling bonding that makes me smile, and we all need things that make us smile right now:

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 #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:

 

“There are few pleasures like really burrowing one’s nose into sweet peas.” (Angela Thirkell)

Hello lovely bookish blogosphere and a very Happy New Year to you all! May 2020 bring you lots of reading joy.

I disappeared from the interwebs for the last few months of 2019 because pesky real life got in the way. Work was hectic and I had renovations going on in my tiny flat which although minimal, still somehow involved turning my home into a dusty, dirty assault course for weeks on end and all my books piled up in boxes. Definitely #FirstWorldProblems and I’m not complaining, but it did put paid to my blogging, and catching up with all your blogs.

Now my books are back on brand new shelves (grand total of sacks cleared out to the charity shop: 22! Effect on my bookshelves: none whatsoever!) and my computer isn’t under a layer of filth I’m looking forward to posting again and reading all your wonderful words.

While all this was going on I found it hard to read anything too demanding or stressful. This was not the time for reality, especially with the election being part of that reality ☹ I needed escapism. I needed rescuing. And rescued I was, by a woman who died in 1961.

Angela Thirkell was born into privileged circumstances (as can be guessed from the portrait) and was connected to lots of famous types including pre-Raphaelite painters, Kipling, JM Barrie and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Her life wasn’t all roses though, and I think her novels set in Trollope’s  fictional Barsetshire are fully intended to be a pleasant distraction rather than any attempt at portraying reality.

In High Rising (1933) widowed writer Laura Morland arrives in the titular village with her brattish son Tony to spend Christmas (they have a London flat for the rest of the year, obvs). What immediately won me over was that Tony was an immensely irritating child and at no point are readers supposed to find him sweet or endearing:

“Laura wondered, as she had often wondered with the three older boys, why one’s offspring are under some kind of compulsion to alienate one’s affections at first sight by their conceit, egoism, and appalling self-satisfaction […] He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly. Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive.”

Tony is awful, but he’s not a bully or spiteful, and he is unintentionally funny. There’s no sentimentality here about motherhood, or widowhood, as the dear departed is described thus:

“Laura’s husband, that ineffectual and unlamented gentleman”

The death of Laura’s husband meant she had to earn a living and she decided to do so by writing sensation novels:

“I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.’

‘Good bad books?’

‘Yes. Not very good books, you know, but good of a second-rate kind.”

 I know Angela Thirkell didn’t rate her own writing, so it’s hard not to see that as an autobiographical touch, but I think High Rising is a bit better than that. It’s a funny, warm and affectionate portrayal of the village inhabitants and plotted with the lightest of touches.

Laura has a friend, fellow writer George Knox, who lives in Low Rising with his daughter Sibyl. He has a new secretary, Miss Grey, who is viewed with suspicion by all. More suspicious to me was the fact that George was published, because if he wrote anything like he spoke he’d be absolutely unreadable:

“ ‘My dear, dear Laura,’ he cried, sweeping her into a vast embrace, ‘this is divine. I must kiss you, on both sides of your face, owing to my French blood. I was half asleep upstairs, desiccated in mind, ageing in body, and now you are here and everything lives again.”

Can Laura rescue George, foil Miss Grey, find Sibyl a husband and stop Tony from falling on the railway tracks? What do you think? 😉

Secondly Wild Strawberries (1934) which was given to me by Sarah from Hard Book Habit, who sadly don’t seem to be blogging anymore and are much missed for their funny and insightful reviews – fingers crossed for their return.

I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as High Rising, but I did still find it diverting at a time when I really couldn’t manage anything heavier. Matriarch Lady Emily Leslie is absent-minded in the extreme, causing mild-mannered chaos and disarray wherever she goes.

“At her daughter Agnes’ wedding to Colonel Graham she had for once been on time, but her attempts to rearrange the bridesmaids during the actual ceremony and her insistence on leaving her pew to provide the bridegroom’s mother with an unwanted hymn book had been a spectacular part of the wedding.”

Agnes is now mother to a brood of young children and thank goodness she has nannies and maids because she is flaky in the extreme:

“She now lived in a state of perfectly contented subjection to her adoring husband and children. Her intelligence was bounded by her house and her exquisite needlework, and to any further demands made by life she always murmured ‘I shall ask Robert.’”

The Leslie family live in a country pile “its only outward merit was that it might have been worse than it was” where all the children arrive for the summer – kind John, rakish David, their nephew Martin, a callow youth of 17 who will inherit; and Agnes’ niece Mary who is 23 and enjoying a country summer with relations she hasn’t met.

There is no real plot, except a vague momentum towards Martin’s birthday party. The romantic focus comes from Mary falling for David, who is entirely unsuitable, while a more suitable match remains seemingly out of reach… This is not a novel of subtle characterisation, or complex unpredictable plots. In other words, it was just what I needed and I do recommend it for when you find yourself in a similar predicament.

In recent years, as the overprivileged classes in my country seem so intent on bringing us to ruin with a total disregard of anyone who gets in the way of their acquisition of power, I’ve found it hard to stomach my usual comic reads of Wodehouse and Mitford. I still like both those authors, but I just can’t laugh at daft toffs right now, when they’re so dangerous. I think the reason I could still enjoy Thirkell was that her characters are a bit more concerned with reality, such as the need to earn money (for some of them), and she asks us to laugh primarily at human foibles, who happen to be portrayed amongst the upper classes in this instance, but are by no means exclusive.

However, I should include the warning that there are some repugnant racist views and language expressed in both books which, although short-lived, are really horrible.

To end, I’m starting the year as I mean to go on, with rubbish 80s pop videos. Usually there’s a highly tenuous link to the post and I was going to go with Strawberry Switchblade, but I recently discovered the shocking news that my mother has no memory of this duet, so this is for her. I can only assume Gene had the better agent, because he gets chauffeured about in a snazzy tie and cummerbund combo, while Marc has to hang around by the bins:

“I advise nobody to drown sorrow in cocoa.” (Winifred Holtby)

Unusually, just one book from me this week, because it’s a looooooong post, about a reading choice inspired by this post from Ali.

I don’t really watch dating shows, but when I catch a bit of them, I can feel nicely smug listening to people who have tick box criteria for potential mates. It leads me to a tick box list of my own:

  • You’ll never find anyone who ticks all the boxes
  • If you do, I guarantee that for some indefinable reason you’ll feel they’re not the right person for you

So of course, the same applies to the love of my life, books. My tick boxes:

  • Strong female protagonists
  • Ideally older women
  • Left-leaning politics
  • Interwar setting
  • Strong moral centre but not one that is preachy or dominates the narrative
  • Flawed but likable characters who don’t always behave impeccably
  • Unlikely but believable friendships
  • Romantic relationships must be presented non-romantically but without bitterness
  • Evocative sense of place but not overly flowery descriptions
  • Hopeful but realistic ending
  • Novella length or so brilliantly paced and plotted that it feels novella length

I’m never going to find that novel am I? Or if I do, for some indefinable reason it’s not going to work for me…

I loved, loved, loved South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1936). I loved it so much. It was one of those gorgeous bookish situations where you’re racing through it because you can’t bear not to be reading it, but you also don’t want it to end. I’m kind of angry that I’m not reading it at this very moment… 😀

Sarah Burton, worldly and travelled, returns to her home of South Riding in Yorkshire to take up the position of Headmistress in the local girls school:

“This was her battlefield. Like a commander inspecting a territory before planning a campaign, she surveyed the bare level plain of South Riding. Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by the still inadequately enlightened State for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their bodies, to inoculate their spirits with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight.”

Her position will bring her into contact with the local council as she tries to get the school up to scratch. Alderman Joe Astell, somewhat incapacitated by TB, will become a friend:

“He had become a Socialist through love of his fellow men, not through dislike of them, and now he felt an emotional barrier between himself and his neighbours which no logic could remove. He saw himself, an awkward priggish man, with a harsh voice and tactless manner, tolerated simply because illness had reduced his fighting powers, weakened his quality.”

Both he and Sarah feel an antipathy towards the local landowner, Robert Carne of Maythorpe. Carne is in debt up to his eyes, trying to keep his estate running and finance his wife’s exorbitant private mental health hospital bills. His daughter Midge – who may not be his biologically – seems to have inherited her mother’s vulnerability. Carne has a weak heart and is not sure how long he will live. It says something for the complex characterisation of him that as a reader I still felt for him, despite his admission that he raped his wife – the only time that Midge could have been conceived by him.

“He was Robert, elder son of Thomas Carne, steward for one generation of two thousand acres. He felt humble because he knew himself to be an unworthy steward.

He had endangered the farm for his wife’s sake. The shadow of her thin imperious beauty crossed that hot firelit room where rested the two old men who had served Maythorpe better than its owner.”

When Sarah sees him and thinks this:

“I dislike, I oppose everything he stands for, she told herself – feudalism, patronage, chivalry, exploitation…We are natural and inevitable enemies.”

There are no prizes for guessing what happens…

The plot of the novel is centred around local politics and how the decisions taken have a wide- reaching ripple effect. But although Holtby has plenty to say about the state of society and the responsibilities of those in power, what carries the novel are the people behind the positions, the committees and the decisions. She effortlessly weaves together the lives of this disparate group who happen to all live in the same town in the north of England.

A piece of wonderful characterisation is that of Alderman Snaith. He is not a major character although he has a significant part to play, and in a lesser writer’s hands this borderline-corrupt, self-serving aesthete who despises Spring for its fecundity could be out-and-out repulsive. Yet in a wonderful chapter titled Alderman Snaith is Very Fond of Cats he is shown to be damaged in the most horrific way and subsequently a complex man.

But far and away the best characterisation is Mrs Beddows, supposedly based on the author’s mother. She is the first female alderman of the district, in her seventies and age shall not wither her:

“So cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beamed benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages. She wore today a dignified and beautifully designed black gown of heavy dull material; but she had crowned this by a velvet toque plastered with purple pansies.”

Mrs Beddows adores Carne, is a good friend and advisor to Sarah, and endures her tight-fisted husband as best she can:

“The one commodity with which he was prepared to be completely generous was his unasked opinion.”

There’s plenty here about the position of women too; presented not only through Sarah’s relentless pursuit of opportunities and education for her pupils, but in light-hearted ways such as through the contents of Mrs Beddows gift drawer:

“The indictment of a social system lay in those drawers if they but knew it – a system which overworks eight-tenths of its female population, and gives the remaining two-tenths so little to do that it must clutter the world with useless objects. Mrs Beddows did not see it quite like that; presents were presents; bazaars were bazaars, and Sybil was teaching the Women’s Institute raffia work and glove-making.”

South Riding is a rich, passionate novel, full of ideas and peopled with idiosyncratic, believable characters. It’s immediately become one of my all-time favourite books.

 “I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.”

The BBC adapted South Riding in 2011. I watched it but I can’t remember much about it, so it obviously didn’t captivate me as much as the book. I’m going to re-watch it and looking at the trailer now I do think Anna Maxwell Martin is excellent casting for Sarah Burton:

“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.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #31

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison (1970) 164 pages

Trigger warning: this post mentions rape and child abuse

The final post of NADIM 2019! It been a close call at times as to whether I’d manage it but here’s the last novella I’m looking at: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s first novel.

This incredibly powerful novella has been banned in several states schools and the opening sentence tells you why:

“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Percola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”

Through the character of the abused child Percola Breedlove, Morrison interrogates the pervasive, destructive force of racism; what it does to individuals and what it does to communities. It is insidious, yet also visible and commonplace.

“Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs – all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. ‘Here,’ they said, ‘this is beautiful, and if you are on this day ‘worthy’ you may have it.’”

Percola’s parents abuse one another physically, her mother is distant and her father an alcoholic. Yet Morrison at no point demonises them, even when Cholly Breedlove rapes his daughter. There are flashbacks to show how the adults arrived at the terrible place they are now in. Morrison demonstrates how, if a society tells you that you are worthless, a lesser human and without any value, it is extremely difficult not to internalise that judgement on yourself.

“The Breedloves did not live in a storefront because they were having temporary difficulty adjusting to cutbacks at the plant. They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly.”

Told mainly from the point of view of Claudia, a friend of Percola’s, the child’s view stops the violence and degradation being too relentless, but also shows how the youngest and most vulnerable members of society take in what they witness with devastating effect.

Even when not being directly abused, Percola experiences the daily wounds of racism, chipping away at her self-worth, such as the reaction from the shop owner when she goes to buy sweets:

“She looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge. And something more. A total absence of human recognition – the glazed separateness.”

This means Percola passionately believes that if she could possess an outward marker of white ‘beauty’, things would improve for her.

“Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that happen would take a long, long time.”

The Bluest Eye is brilliantly written and highly readable; Morrison never loses sight of the story or the characters under the weight of the immense, important themes she is exploring. It is an incredibly tough read that does not pull its punches, but neither is it voyeuristic or melodramatic. It shows how racism degrades us all and the vital need to strive for something better.

 “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another – physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.”

Here’s Toni Morrison talking about The Bluest Eye and what led her to write it: