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 #27

The Doctor’s Family – Margaret Oliphant (1863) 153 pages

Halfway through the final week of NADIM 2020 and for the first time this month it’s feeling do-able! I don’t want to tempt fate (especially as I’m changing broadband providers this week) but I’m hopeful I might actually complete a novella for every day…

After the brutality of First Love yesterday, I thought I’d take refuge in Victorian gentility. Also, I thought it would make a change from my resolutely twentieth and twenty-first century choices this month. The Doctor’s Family takes place in the fictional town of Carlingford, a setting Margaret Oliphant revisited in four subsequent novels as well as the short story The Rector, which was included in my Virago edition.

Dr Edward Rider has come to Carlingford after his wastrel brother Fred caused him to lose his practice elsewhere. He lives:

“in the new quarter of Carlingford; had he aimed at a reputation in society he could not have done a more foolish thing; but such was not his leading motive. The young man, being but young, aimed at practice.”

Unfortunately Fred has followed him to Carlingford where he does very little except smoke pungent pipes and go out to waste money. However, Oliphant doesn’t paint Fred as evil (to my twenty-first century eyes he sounded depressed) and she doesn’t paint Dr Rider as wholly virtuous. He can be short-tempered and dismissive to his patients, more than once he takes out his anger on his horse (thankfully not dwelt on in detail but still repulsive), and he doesn’t have high ideals about his vocation, though he is a reasonable doctor. In other words, the brothers are flawed human beings each muddling through, and bound by a “strange interlacement of loathing and affection”.

His family suddenly enlarges in a way Dr Rider did not expect, when Fred’s wife, children and sister-in-law all – never alluded to by Fred – arrive from Australia. They rent a house on the outskirts of town and Dr Rider visits initially out of a sense of duty more than any affection, as Susan, Fred’s wife is petty and spiteful, and his children are feral. His sister-in-law Nettie, on the other hand, is capable and practical, and essentially runs their entire lives for them.

Again, the characterisation here is subtle. Nettie isn’t one of Dickens’ holier-than-thou self-sacrificing virgins. Rather she is a determined, independent young woman who sees what needs to be done and does it. Oliphant makes it clear that Nettie gains from the situation, that it suits her.

“Those brilliant, resolute, obstinate eyes, always with the smile of youth, incredulous of evil, lurking in them, upon her bewildered advisor. ‘I am living as I like to live.’”

Short-tempered Dr Rider develops feelings for Nettie and can’t understand how she puts up with her selfish, demanding, draining family. She is less judgemental than he is:

“She knew their faults without loving them less, or feeling it possible that faults could make any difference to those bonds of nature.”

But while the family seem settled in their slightly unconventional ways, events will conspire to change things irrevocably.

This is the first time I’ve read Margaret Oliphant and I enjoyed her immensely. I liked her flawed characters and her resistance to showing situations as morally black-and-white, which can sometimes be the case in Victorian fiction (and I’m a big fan of the period and the women writers). I read The Rector as well (but I’ve not discussed it here as it’s not a novella) and found that story lighter and wittier than The Doctor’s Family. Both together mean I’d be interested to see how Oliphant developed the inhabitants of Carlingford in later novels.

If you like Victorian social realism but can’t face the hefty tomes that genre often involves, if you like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, or if you sometimes wish George Eliot wasn’t so heavily intellectual, then a trip to Carlingford will be just perfect for you.

There are no great surprises for the reader in The Doctor’s Family; things work out exactly as you’d expect. But that is no criticism and especially in these uncertain times, it’s a perfect example of the solace to be found in reading.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #19

Blaming – Elizabeth Taylor (1976) 190 pages

Blaming was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel and features all of her characteristic wit, sharp observation, compassion and lack of sentimentality.

It is the story of a relationship between Amy, a middle-class, middle-aged housewife, and a younger American novelist, Martha:

“Amy seemed to have remained at the age of seventeen, or thereabouts; but it was the English girlhood of her own class and time. The like never come again, Martha, much younger and American, decided.”

They meet on a cruise, and at a desperate time for Amy, Martha is there for her. They have nothing else in common except this shared experience, and when she returns home Amy has no plans to ever see Martha again. Martha has other ideas, and what follows is a brilliant dissection of a relationship built out of a sense of obligation, of politeness, and of unspoken, unacknowledged needs.

What makes this tale so compelling in its characterisation and circumstance is that Martha isn’t a monster. She’s not horrible or domineering or rude, but she’s unaware, a bit selfish and slightly irritating. It’s all so ordinary, and Amy is at a total loss as to what to do:

“Lolling back in her chair, steadily eating biscuits as if to satisfy a long-felt need, Martha dropped crumbs onto her lap, and occasionally brushed them off onto the carpet. She is going to be untidy about the place, Amy was thinking. Two long days. She glanced up at the clock. What could she do with her for all that time? The long evening ahead for instance. They could not – surely – just talk all the time.”

In her portrayal of Amy’s life and wider family, Taylor captures how relatives can also feel a sense of obligation, and even affection, that at the same time is arduous and would easier to live without. Her daughter-in-law and son like Amy well enough, she in turn likes her slightly irritating grandchildren. It would be easier for them all not to spend time together, but that is not how families work:

“He knew she was weeping for herself, not for his mother. She had never been drawn to her – no cosy women’s chats; but in spite of warmth, their relationship was exemplary […]

‘We will make some good plans,’ James said reassuringly. ‘It’s nice of you to care so much. Certainly a long weekend some time can’t be too terrible a strain on anyone.’

So nothing was done.”

In Blaming, Taylor demonstrates how the deepest pain that people experience can – and most often does – live alongside, the boring, the banal, the everyday. She shows how guilt is a powerful motivator for people who aren’t good or bad, just ordinary and fairly decent.

Blaming is a novel where you can sit back knowing you are in the hands of a masterful artist. Taylor is a brilliant, incisive writer, intelligent and humane. Any work of hers is a gift to the reader. 

Novella a Day in May 2020 #14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love does play queer tricks.”

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

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

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

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

Novella a Day in May 2020 #13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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: