“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:

“Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” (Anna Christie, (Greta Garbo) 1930)

You may remember, back in the mists of time (14-20 October), the 1930 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Although I took part, I’d hoped to do two posts, but was far too disorganised with the second one. Karen kindly said I could sneak in a late entry, so here it is, very much overdue and very much overlong!

My excuse is I’m having renovations done in my tiny flat and the whole place is in disarray to say the least. It has made me clear out 19 sacks of books to the lovely charity bookshop, but the overall effect on my shelves has been negligible. Which makes me think I should just give in and accumulate books until they take over entirely and smother me. A good way to go in my opinion.

Back to 1930! Do have a look at all the wonderful posts from people who managed to post on time – it turned out to be a great year 😊

Firstly, some cosy crime courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series, The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton.

The titular village is a pretty place in East Anglia, but somewhat isolated and insular “with that curious half-mistrustful air not uncommon among the natives of East Anglia.” 😀

Strangers are not welcome in High Eldersham, and Samuel Whitehead, retired police officer and local publican, was one such stranger. Still, he seemed to have settled in relatively well right up until the point that someone stabbed him to death. Inspector Young is called in from Scotland Yard and immediately suspects one of the locals:

“He knew from experience that brutal murders, inspired by some entirely inadequate motive, were not uncommon. They were nearly always due to the workings of an unbalanced mind, brooding over some fancied grievance until the lust of blood was awakened. Then the hitherto harmless and peaceful individual became a criminal… He would await his opportunity and deliver the blow. And, the deed once perpetrated, he would return to normal sanity. It was not unlikely that the murder of Whitehead was due to such causes.”

It’s hardly a robust theory. Young is not an idiot though, and he quickly unearths the titular secret, although that doesn’t tell him who murdered the pub landlord, or why. He decides to call on his old friend Desmond Merrion “a living encyclopaedia upon all manner of obscure subjects which the ordinary person knew nothing about.”

And so the professional and amateur detective set about solving the mystery, which to modern readers won’t be much mystery at all – its very clear what’s going on. That’s not a criticism though. I suspect in 1930 it wasn’t quite so obvious, and it doesn’t matter now – the comfort of these plot-driven golden age stories is watching everything play out exactly as it’s supposed to, and I enjoyed following Young and Merrion as they discovered the extent of the dastardly deed.

While it’s not the most sophisticated in terms of plot or characterisation, The Secret of High Eldersham still has enough about it to pull you along. It also doesn’t fall foul of many of the prejudices of GA detective fiction either. Despite the bizarre opinion of East Anglians that I quoted at the beginning, in fact the residents aren’t made too yokely; there’s no racism/anti-Semitism that I can remember; and the loveliness of the female love interest isn’t dwelt upon and she’s actually allowed to have a personality.

Burton doesn’t hang about – there’s very little filler here. He gets on with telling the story and once that’s done, it ends. So, a quick, cosy crime read, perfect autumnal reading as the nights get longer for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Simon also reviewed TSOHE for the 1930 Club and you can read his review here.

In my last post I looked at EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady which included this entry:

August 31st.—Read The Edwardians which everybody else has read months ago—and am delighted and amused. Remember that V. Sackville-West and I once attended dancing classes together at the Albert Hall, many years ago, but feel that if I do mention this, everybody will think I am boasting—which indeed I should be—so better forget about it again, and in any case, dancing never my strongest point, and performance at Albert Hall extremely mediocre and may well be left in oblivion.”

Although I don’t have much in common with the Provincial Lady’s life of ease, like her I enjoyed The Edwardians, which Sackville-West told Virginia Woolf she was writing to ‘make my fortune. Such a joke it will be, and I hope everybody will be seriously annoyed.’

Although she saw it as a joke, its not really a comic novel. It tells the story of Sebastian, heir to the country estate of Chevron, and his sister Violet. Chevron is VSW’s beloved Knole, which she couldn’t inherit due to having ovaries, and which Virginia Woolf also immortalised as the home of Orlando.

The chapters are told from the point of view of different characters, beginning with adventurer Leonard Anquetil, who is not of the same class as the rest but has been invited to Sunday dinner because they think he will be amusing.

“And now the rest of the day must be got through somehow, but the members of the house-party, though surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them, showed no disposition to be bored by each other’s familiar company, and no inclination to vary the programme which they must have followed on innumerable Sunday afternoons since they first emerged from the narrowness of school or schoolroom, to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand. Leonard Anquetil, watching them from outside, marvelled to see them so easily pleased. Here are a score or more of people, he thought, who by virtue of their position are accustomed to the intimate society of princes, politicians, financiers, wits, beauties, and other makers of history, yet are apparently content with desultory chatter and make-believe occupation throughout the long hours of an idle day. Nor could he pretend to himself that on other days they diverted themselves differently, or that their week-end provided a deserved relaxation from a fuller and more ardent life.”

Through Anquetil, our introduction to the lives of the privileged class is a sceptical one at the least, scathing at most. Yet VSW adored Knole, and through Sebastian’s feelings for Chevron we learn how feelings of home run deep, even when that home is a vast estate populated by many.

“Everybody, from Sebastian downwards, obtained exactly what they wanted; they had only to ask, and the request was fulfilled as though by magic. The house was really as self-contained as a little town; the carpenter’s shop, the painter’s shop, the forge, the sawmill, the hot-houses, were there to provide whatever might be needed at a moment’s notice. So the steward’s room, like the dining-room and the schoolroom, was never without its fruit and delicacies.”

Meeting Anquetil has an enduring effect on both Sebastian and Violet. Sebastian’s conflicted feelings about his class, privilege and the society he operates within are brought more to the fore.

“One half of Sebastian detested his mother’s friends; the other half was allured by their glitter. Sometimes he wanted to gallop away by himself to the world’s ends, sometimes he wanted to give himself up wholly to the flattering charm of pretty women. Sometimes he wished to see his whole acquaintance cast into a furnace, so vehemently did he deprecate them, sometimes he thought that they had mastered the problem of civilisation more truly than the Greeks or Romans. “Since one cannot have truth,” cried Sebastian, struggling into his evening shirt, “let us at least have good manners.” The thought was not original: his father had put it into his head, years ago, before he died. But this brings us to Sebastian’s private trouble: he never could make up his mind on any subject. It was most distressing. He had, apparently, no opinions but only moods,—moods whose sweeping intensity was equalled only by the rapidity of their change.” 

We follow Sebastian as he has affairs, becomes a fashionable man about town, and tries to figure out what he wants. In the background of this is his younger sister Violet, who seems a more determined and clear-sighted individual:

“She felt inclined to say, “Very well, if you want the truth, here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid—too stupid to recognise their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which sometimes are artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real. Whatever happens, the world must be served first. In spite of their brilliance, this creed necessarily makes them paltry and mean. Then they are envious, spiteful, and mercenary; arrogant and cold. As for us, their children, they leave us in complete ignorance of life, passing on to us only the ideas they think we should hold, and treat us with the utmost ruthlessness if we fail to conform.””

The plot is slight but I think it’s meant to be – one of VSW’s points is that nothing much happens to these people. I came away with a mixed picture of aristocratic life; on the one hand there is an unflinching portrayal of wasteful, privileged lives, but on the other hand, they are never entirely condemned. I suspect this mirrors VSW’s conflicted feelings on the issue, and it also stops the novel from being too judgemental and bitter.

I didn’t enjoy The Edwardians as much as the other Sackville-Wests I’ve read ( All Passion Spent and Family History) but maybe that’s because I didn’t find Sebastian particularly engaging. I felt Violet was off having a far more interesting time, living in her own flat, hanging out with Bohemians and falling in love. I would have liked to hear more about that, or even some more about their wonderfully bitchy mother. But that’s just personal preference and I do find VSW’s writing to be a great read.

To end, the classic musical Puttin’ on the Ritz was released in 1930. Imagine if you’d never heard that well known ‘reasonably straightforward syncopated 5/4 time signature’, you might struggle with it…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #30

Sleepless Nights – Elizabeth Hardwick (1979) 151 pages

Sleepless Nights is a fictional autobiography, told by a woman with the same name as the author. It begins:

“It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and grey squares and diamonds. How nice it is – this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home.”

The distorted memory means the reminiscences, memories and life story are like the crochet blanket: a series of separate pieces that come together to form a whole. So what we have are memories that dart back and forth across the woman’s life, a memory from marriage prompting a memory from childhood, prompting a memory of a neighbour, interspersed with a letter to a friend, prompting a memory of a bohemian young lifestyle in New York…

It is very cleverly written. It feels more coherent than I expected when I began the novella, and it effectively conveys the way memory works: we don’t sit and remember the beginning of our lives, working through sequentially to the current day.

“I like to remember the patience of old spinsters, some that looked like sea captains with their clear blue eyes, hair of soft, snowy whiteness, dazzling cheerfulness. Solitary music teachers, themselves bred on toil, leading the young by way of pain and discipline to their own honourable impasse, teaching in that way the scales of disappointment.”

I sat and read this straight through, but you could also just dip in for a paragraph and out again. Hardwick is master of the astonishing image:

“It has happened that someone I do not know is staying in the apartment with me. One of those charitable actions insisted upon by a friend. The stranger, thin as the elegant crane outside the window, casts a shadow because she has arrived when I was thinking about the transformations of memory. She fills the space with both the old and the new twilight, the space reserved for thoughts of my mother.”

Sleepless Nights has been published by NYRB Classics, always a reliable choice. I read it in an old VMC edition, which told me it was hailed as a literary masterpiece. I think if I was being super-picky, this might be my slight reservation. Its hugely impressive as a piece of writing but it didn’t fully move me. This is obviously a very personal thing, but for me to love a book I need strong characterisation. The narrator remained slightly enigmatic: she emerged to a degree from her memories but often she was in the shadows of them, the light cast on other people.

While enjoying a somewhat grim, dingy time as a young woman in New York, there are memories of seeing Billie Holliday live. Hardwick captures her talent, the tragedy, glamour and grit of her life very effectively. While she doesn’t shy away from what addiction did to the singer, she allows her some beautiful images too.

“Her whole life had taken place in the dark. The spotlight shone down on the black, hushed circle in a café, the moon slowly slid through the clouds. Night – working, smiling, in make up, in long silky dresses, singing over and over, again and again. The aim of it all is just to be drifting off to sleep when the first rays of the sun’s brightness begin to threaten the theatrical eyelids.”

And so to end, here is Lady Day herself:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #28

Familiar Passions – Nina Bawden (1979) 160 pages

Trigger warning: this post mentions rape and sexual assault

Like Eudora Welty who I wrote about yesterday, it was last year’s NADIM that saw me finally pick up one of Nina Bawden’s novels (for adults, despite the fact I’d loved her as a child). Devil by the Sea was truly unsettling and I was keen to read more. The lovely Ali over at heavenali had sent me this novella with another which I won in her giveaway, and its confirmed my childhood view that Bawden is a brilliant writer 😊

Familiar Passions begins with James telling Bridie, his much younger wife of 13 years, that he wants to leave her.

“After a brief interval he went on speaking flatly, in a measured voice, like a chairman reading a company report. ‘There are a couple of things I feel I ought to say. To sum things up. One is, that considered as a parental team, we haven’t done too badly. Adrian’s defection from the middle class norm, though disappointing, is not unusual for the times we live in.”

James is repugnant. At first he seems cold and self-serving, but its worse than that. The night they split up, Bridie wakes to find James raping her.

“She did not know she was afraid of James. If she had been told she would have laughed.”

Although James has suggested she stay on as a housekeeper so he has a nice home to return to in the UK while he works abroad (!) Bridie decides she is getting out.

“ ‘You don’t have to stay, you know,’ as if consoling a scared child.

The words came unbidden, without conscious thought, but as soon as she had spoken them she understood why she had addressed herself like this, as if she were someone younger and weaker than she was. It was the only way she could force herself to act.”

Bridie never seems a victim in this. She is still young – only 32 – having married James at 19, when he was a widower and raised his two children, as well as having a daughter together. She has no work experience and worries how she will get on in the world, but she is a good mother and her step-children both like her, probably more than they like their horrible father.

“The children’s faces sustained and calmed her. It came to her with the force of something she had always known but only now acknowledged, that they were the only reason she had stayed so long; their pictures, the only thing she would take with her.”

Bridie goes home to her parents. They adopted her as a baby and she has no idea about her biological parents. Her father Martin is a psychologist, her mother Muff was a nurse.

“She had always orchestrated her emotions in this way to get and keep her mother’s sympathy; softening down the discord of her coarser feelings and playing up the tender sounds that pleased her mother’s ear. Perhaps Muff’s liking for a sweet, clear tune was what was called bringing out the best in people. But it wasn’t bringing out the best in her, Bridie began to feel. Only something that, although not altogether false, was never quite the truth.”

Bridie housesits for a patient of her father’s, in Islington which is portrayed as rather rough and down at heel – how times have changed! She gradually adapts to and starts to enjoy her new life, but the ending of her marriage prompts her to find out about her birth and origins. In doing so, she uncovers way more than she ever bargained for…

Familiar Passions is a pacey novella but it never feels overplotted. The betrayals and revelations that emerge are the type that can exist in any family. It’s very much of its time – particularly in Bridie’s attitude to being raped (and later sexually assaulted) and her awareness of how few options she has.There is anger here for sure, about the limited roles and choices for women, but it never overwhelms the narrative or characterisation.

Familiar Passions is resolutely unsentimental about families but also shows how valuable they can be: how destructive but also how nurturing, in their own unique and deeply flawed ways. Ultimately it’s a hopeful novel, about realising who you are and finding your own way; bound up as both those things will be in who you have been in the past and where you have come from.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #27

The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty (1972) 180 pages

Last year’s Novella a Day in May introduced me to Eudora Welty, when I read and loved The Ponder Heart. I was very happy to revisit her again this year, with her Pulitzer Prize winning novella, The Optimist’s Daughter.

This isn’t as comic as The Ponder Heart. Instead it’s a quiet study of people experiencing the immediate aftermath of grief. Laurel lives in Chicago, but travels back to New Orleans at the time of Mardi Gras, to be with her father who is having eye surgery.

“At the sting in her eyes, she remembered for him there must be no tears in his, and she reached to put her hand into his open hand and press it gently.”

She is an only child and her mother died several years ago. Her father, Judge McKelva, remarried after 10 years, a much younger woman named Fay. Fay is completely self-centred and unable to see beyond her own needs. She can’t believe that the older man she married has the audacity to be ill and frail.

“ ‘All on my birthday. Nobody told me this was going to happen to me!’ Fay cried, before she slammed her door.”

Spoiler: the Judge dies, and Laurel and Fay return to Mississippi to see him buried. Here, Laurel rediscovers the compassion and care of a community who have known her for her entire life. (This being Welty the cast of characters includes someone named Miss Tennyson Bullock). She moves around the home she once knew and remembers her mother and father.

“In her need tonight Laurel would have been willing to wish her mother and father dragged back to any torment of living because that torment was something they had known together, through each other. She wanted them with her to share her grief as she had been the sharer of theirs. She sat and thought of only one thing, of her mother holding and holding onto their hands, her own and her father’s holding onto her mother’s, long after there was nothing more to be said.”

The Optimist’s Daughter is a gentle tale, about memory, loss, love, community and pain. It’s about how our experience of these is unique to us. It’s a novella full of images around sight, and it shows how seeing clearly demonstrates the need to be kind to ourselves and others.

I’m fast becoming a huge Welty fan.