Friday, 31 December 2010

Annual reading meme 2010

How many books read in 2010?
Around 75 - there are nearly 40 books blogged here, a couple still to get blog posts, and the other 35 relate to my studies.  I've ignored books where I read only a chapter or two, and those I'm reading for the second time.

Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
About one-third fiction, which - given the number of critical and historical works that I've read this year - is unsurprising.

Male/Female authors?
Only about 15 by male authors, which is less than I thought, but perhaps it is to be expected that the historians of feminism and theorists of feminist autobiography are women - Martin Pugh the honourable exception.

Favourite book read?

I can't pick favourites, but would particularly recommend Jane Robinson's Bluestockings, EMD's Mrs Harter, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and for pure self-indulgence Armistead Maupin's Mary Ann in Autumn.

Least favourite?
I really didn't like The Bolter, Frances Osborne's life of Idina Sackville.  An opportunity wasted.

Oldest book read?

It is a tie between EMD's Zella Sees Herself and Clemence Dane's Regiment of Women, both published in 1917.

Newest?
Probably Mary Ann in Autumn, which is only just out.


Longest book title?
Of all the books I read, and to give a taste of my unblogged reading: Sidonie Smith's Subjectivity, identity, and the body: women's autobiographical practices in the twentieth century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).  Of those blogged here, The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765.

Shortest title?
Probably Jill by EMD.

How many re-reads?
Around a dozen, I think - mostly for the purposes of study, and including The Well of Loneliness which is above and beyond the call of duty.

Most books read by one author this year?
E M Delafield takes that prize - I've now read all of her works, which included 10 novels and 2 volumes of short stories this year.

Any in translation?
By a Slow River by Philippe Claudel, and Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver.  I also read, but didn't blog, Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers.

And how many of this year’s books were from the library?
I'd say around 50.  I'm trying not to buy historical or critical works unless they are really essential, as I have two university libraries as well as the British Library at my disposal, and have no real excuse for doing so.  I have added to my stock of copies of EMD's works, and have done well with secondhand bookshop finds this year, but book space here is getting ever tighter.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin

I'm a long-standing admirer of Maupin's Tales of the City series, and his latest book continues the story of the band of friends and enemies linked to 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco.  Mary Ann Singleton returns from Connecticut to San Francisco, her second marriage in ruins, to confide this and other problems to her oldest friend, Michael Tolliver.  Michael is still working as a gardener and married (or not married, depending on the Californian legal position during the time the novel covers) to Ben, a much younger carpenter. Returning to San Francisco allows Mary Ann to rediscover other old friends: DeDe and D'orothea still live at Hillsborough but now have grandchildren; Anna Madrigal is the aged flatmate and mentor of transgender Jake; and Mary Ann's somewhat estranged adopted daughter Shawna is a well-known and fearlessly frank blogger.  Her reconnection to San Francisco will sustain Mary Ann through her various crises, but also force her to confront well-hidden aspects of her past.

Maupin, as usual, is incredibly skilled at drawing together what initially seems like a disparate set of people, and in this novel he has a lot of deft fun with various loose ends left in the earlier books.  His excellent characterisation allows the people in his novel to change and grow in ways that are consistent with their previous incarnations.  He also has the advantage of a ready-made younger generation of characters in  Shawna and her contemporaries, which prevents the novel becoming merely a heartwarming reunion of old friends; and, as usual, he is not afraid to explore the grimmer aspects of life in a city.  I devoured this book in a few hours on Boxing Day, and I'm already looking forward to reading it again.

The kind friend who gave me this went to hear Maupin read, and he was, inevitably, asked whether there would be more books in the series.  While he didn't rule it out, he did point out that he can't keep Anna Madrigal alive forever, and in fact I think he (or perhaps Anna herself) has sliced a few years off her age in this one. So there may be more to look forward to - but in the mean time all the Tales books are eminently re-readable.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Thirties: an intimate history by Juliet Gardiner

This vast book gives an overview of the political and social history and at the same time reaches deep into the authentic voices of the 1930s, drawing on diaries, letters, and forgotten published texts.  In her preface, Juliet Gardiner acknowledges the various and partial ways in which the decade has been depicted: the long decline towards world war, the effects of the great Depression, the inexorable march of progress and modernity.  Her history seeks to recognise the validity of all these accounts and to explore all of them in great detail, and in this she undoubtedly succeeds.  If there is anything you would like to know about 1930s Britain - and one of the advantages of this book is that it is definitely a history of Britain, not of England - it is probably in here somewhere.

The scope of her project, and the level of detail she seeks to include, sometimes make the book an unwieldy read; at nearly a thousand pages, the hardback is literally unwieldy.  Consequently I read this book rather slowly, the odd chapter here and there, and probably missed some of the narrative drive as a result.  However, Gardiner's achievement is extraordinary and the place she gives to the authentic voices of the period provides a refreshing and, as intended, intimate view of this fascinating period which has so many parallels with our own.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Long Week-End by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge

Anyone who has read histories of the interwar period in Britain will have come across references to this book.  Published in 1941, the book's stated purpose is "to serve as a reliable record of what took place, of a forgettable sort, during the twenty-one year interval between two great European wars".  Structured in thematic but chronological chapters, this approach allows Graves and Hodge to cover all sorts of ephemera alongside a thorough outline of the political upheaval of the period, as well as some excellent jokes.  The overall tone of the book, however, is both rather cynical and quite conservative.  Social and political campaigns are often attributed to the workings of fashion rather than conviction: feminism, for example, can be a threat, a joke or a force for good, depending on context.  Writing on demobilisation after the First World War, they note that "A million men found that their old jobs had either disappeared or were held by someone else - usually a woman, or a man who had escaped conscription", which is a familiar presentation of the employment position at that time, if not entirely borne out in other accounts.  A few pages later, however, women war workers are being described rather differently:  "The women who only a year or so earlier had been acclaimed as patriots, giving up easy lives at home to work for their Country, were now represented as vampires who deprived men of their rightful jobs.  By Trade Union pressure they were dismissed from engineering, printing and transport work, though cheap and efficient workers, and from the factories where they had worked on munitions." Possibly it is the opportunity for a bit of union-bashing that accounts for this change of heart.

There is a vast amount of detail in this book, particularly of the sort of domestic matters that often escape other histories, and accounts of the way the trends and events of the period actually affected day to day life.  The authors also have an unexpected familiarity with women's fashions - I wondered if one of them sat down with a huge stack of Vogue magazines to furnish the details of hemlines and hats.  The chapter titles can be idiosyncratic; "The Days of the Loch Ness Monster" covers press reporting of the Monster, press sensationalism in general, yo-yos, mechanisation, the music-hall and literary trends.  This variety, and the entertaining and witty style of the text, makes it an engaging read, however the reader feels about its political positioning.  It is also invaluable to the scholar of the period, giving a sense not only of what happened, by of how it was presented by the media of the day, and the influence of newspapers and broadcasting on social attitudes.  The Long Week-End seems to be out of print, but there are a lot of cheap second-hand copies around.

Monday, 6 December 2010

My Life in Books 2010

This year's version, at the prompting of the Victorian Geek:

Using only books you have read this year (2010), cleverly answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It’s a lot harder than you think!
 
Describe yourself: That Lady (Kate O'Brien)
How do you feel: Slightly Foxed (Quarterly)
Describe where you currently live: The Crowded Street (Winifred Holtby)
If you could go anywhere, where would you go: The Bridge (Maggie Hemingway)
Your favourite form of transportation: The Bolter (Frances Osborne)
Your best friend is: The Optimist (E M Delafield)

You and your friends are:
Regiment of Women (Clemence Dane)
What’s the weather like: A Reversion to Type  (E M Delafield)
Favourite time of day: The Long Week-End (Graves and Hodge)
If your life was a: Country Dance (Margiad Evans)

What is life to you:
The Entertainment (E M Delafield)
Your fear: The True Deceiver (Tove Jansson)
What is the best advice you have to give: Try Anything Twice (Jan Struther)
Thought for the day: Turn Back the Leaves (E M Delafield)

How I would like to die:
By a Slow River (Philippe Claudel)
My soul’s present condition: Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)

Posts on The Long Week-End and The Entertainment will follow shortly ...

Monday, 29 November 2010

Slightly Foxed Quarterly

I was delighted and astonished to win a subscription to the Slightly Foxed Quarterly in a competition at The Dabbler.  My first copy (Number 27, Autumn 2010) arrived a few days after I found out I'd won, and has been an enlightening and entertaining read.  This issue has several articles on forgotten writers - H.A. Manhood and Rupert Croft-Cook were new names to me - as well as evaluations of better-known writers including Thoreau, Graham Green and Madame de Sevigné, so a catholic (and slightly Catholic) selection.  The essays are short and pithy, designed to entice the reader to explore the subject further, giving little hints of the qualities and characteristics of the subject; many of the essayists foreground the personal pleasure and resonance that their subject has for them, in particular the sensual pleasures of reading the work concerned.  The last piece, on the earliest origins of painting and paper, connects to this slight emphasis on the materiality of books, as well as letting us in on some academic gossip - historians of paper are a combative lot, and the leading Chinese paper historian, Pan Jixing, turned to the study of gunpowder for a while as it was much more peaceful.

The magazine is the size of a small book, eminently portable, and with the high production values of the Slightly Foxed Editions.  I can see that the Quarterly will be a pleasure for the year to come, and no doubt bookish friends will be getting birthday subscriptions.  Many thanks to Slightly Foxed and to the Dabbler for the chance to enjoy it.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I'd meant to get around to reading Marilynne Robinson for some time, since her prizewinning work has been so much praised; I'm also drawn to writers who don't write that many novels, as it's usually an indication of quality.   Housekeeping is her first novel and deals with the orphans Ruth and Lucille and the adults who try to raise them in the isolated town of Fingerbone, by a lake and among the mountains of north-west America, notable for its dampness and its proximity to a long railway bridge across the lake.  Ruth narrates the story; the elder daughter, she can remember life with her mother Helen before the girls came to Fingerbone and the care of her grandmother.  In dense, poetic language, Ruth describes the town, the people, their life with their respected and respectable grandmother and, after her death, their increasingly erratic aunt Sylvie, and the choices the two girls will make as they grow up. 

Robinson makes the landscape of her novel vivid to the reader, the power and magnetism of the lake developed so that it is almost a character in its own right; the growth and decay of the family home becomes a depiction of the lifespan of a living being.  The language of the novel is rich and detailed, humorous as well as sad, achieving a great subtlety.  The book brings great empathy to its characters, opening the reader's mind to the possibilities of those moments when choices direct future paths entirely, and whether those choices are in fact choices at all.  Ruth's narrative voice is used with expertise; what Ruth does not mention, or mentions only in passing and without apparent comprehension, contribute as much to the meaning of the book as her more detailed retellings of her life.  This is a book to be read and re-read, and I have the pleasure of her three other novels ahead of me.

Three Marriages by E M Delafield

This book comprises three long short stories with a common theme.  Each story, set in a different period, considers the consequences of meeting the love of your life after your affections are promised elsewhere.  Firstly, we have The Wedding of Rose Barlow, set in the 1850s.  Rose is a young girl of sixteen, and her mother Rosabel contrives to have her marry one of her own old flames, their cousin Gilbert Harrington.  Rose is compliant and happy enough to marry Gilbert, who is wealthy and likely to be away in India with his regiment much of the time, but her placid content is disrupted when she falls in love with Pierre, a young music tutor descended from exiled French aristocrats.  The young lovers renounce each other and Rose goes to join her husband in India.  There, she will be caught up in an uprising, involved in a siege, and make a dramatic escape attempt by river.  The second story, Girl-Of-The-Period, is set in 1897 and deals with the rather priggish Violet Cumberledge, a modern young woman who is determined to embark on a rational marriage; it is her fiancé Harvey who will first lose his heart to another.  However, Violet, having judged Harvey soundly, will soon find that physical attraction gets the better of her, too.  In the final story, We Meant to be Happy, Cathleen Christmas is living in a small town and married to a bank manager some years her senior; their marriage is happy, if lacking in passion, until Cathleen meets the newly arrived Irish doctor, Maurice Kavanagh.  The rest of this post contains spoilers, so please don't read on unless you want to hear what happens.

Each of Delafield's protagonists is caught out by their inexperience of love and passion; Rose because she is young and naive, Violet because she considers herself above emotionality, and Cathleen because she considers falling in love an unlikely possibility.  The consequences of this allow Delafield, in two of the stories at least, to explore some uncharacteristically sombre subjects, particularly in her handling of Rosabel Barlow's enduring love for the man she encourages to become her son-in-law, and Cathleen's shameful realisation that it would be a relief if her husband were to die.  Rose, who is characterised as brave, dutiful and virtuous, gets her due reward.  Violet's story is the most humorous, contrasting Violet's affected modernity with the genuine liberation of Peggy, the art student that Harvey eventually marries; the farcical end to the story, in which Violet literally wrestles with a rival for the attentions of a cad, sees her hoist so thoroughly by her own petard, and made so ridiculous, that a comical reading is the only possible one.  Cathleen, the narrative suggests, should have known better, and she is punished by being trapped in her marriage with her sickly husband and her disapproving sister-in-law as a permanent house guest.  Delafield's characterisation of the sarcastic, hypochondriac Blanche is a particularly egregious example of the demonised spinster in interwar fiction, and made me wince.

The setting of part of The Marriage of Rose Barlow in India is interesting, and very unusual in Delafield's fiction, which is usually confined to England.  For the modern reader, fiction set in the Victorian colonies can be difficult reading, and while there are some characters whose views of the Indians are unreconstructed, the narrative itself is fairly even-handed, with Indians cast as both persecutors and rescuers.  This representation seems to be historically accurate; the Siege of Cawnpore described in the novel is a real event. According to Wikipedia, some men did escape by swimming down the Ganges, as Calcott, Lefanu and Marshall do in Delafield's story.  There was a rumour that two young Englishwomen had also survived, which may have inspired Delafield. Rose's endurance of the Siege, the subsequent attack on the banks of the Ganges, and the journey downriver, is extraordinary, and can be read as a test of her love for Pierre; against all odds, she returns to England and the possibility of marriage to a man she genuinely loves.  It can also be read as an unremitting punishment for her foolishness in marrying a man she does not love, however, and that reading gives it more in common with the final story, which hands out a life sentence to its hapless protagonist.  "Girl-of-the-Period" borrows its title from Eliza Lynn Linton's series of essays of the same name. Linton published these essays in the 1860s as part of an antifeminist campaign against the New Woman and her challenge to notions of womanliness.  Violet, thoroughly satisfied with her own modernity, has some aspects in common with Linton's New Woman, but her failure to recognise that she is, in fact, rather old-fashioned is given a satirical twist by Delafield's reference to a work that predates Violet's story by thirty years.  Delafield, like many other writers, seems to have used the short story as an opportunity to go further than she often did in her novels, as her excursions into the exotic, the farcical, and the relentlessly punitive in this book indicate.

Three Marriages is a worthwhile, absorbing read, and there are secondhand copies out there, albeit at a price.  The first two stories are available in a US version published as When Women Love. I'm not sure why the third story is omitted; perhaps it was too English in tone and setting to appeal to the American publisher.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane

Clemence Dane's 1917 novel attempts to persuade the reader that lesbianism is inferior to heterosexuality and that single-sex education should be avoided.  The former position is not particularly radical for 1917, and while Dane's representation of lesbian relationships might seem unusually frank to 21st century eyes, it is worth remembering that, for many of her readers, nothing sexual would have been imputed to the "friendships" her novel describes, however "unhealthy".  The latter position is, of course, informed by the former, and it is lesbianism that is the main target of Dane's critique.  Unfortunately for her, she chooses to do this by creating a monster: Clare Hartill, second-in-command to the ageing Headmistress at Utterbridge Girls' School, is manipulative, vain, egotistical and utterly ruthless.  She also joins that large group of monstrous characters who are far more interesting than their righteous opponents. 

The plot of the novel revolves around Clare's love for Alwynne, a young teacher at the school; Alwynne returns her love, but Alwynne's Aunt Elsbeth is determined that her niece will not dedicate her life to Clare.   The women's relationship is complicated by Louise, a young girl that Clare has singled out for attention, and turned into one of her most devoted worshippers as a result.  Louise's story and its repercussions will, eventually, bring about the end of Alwynne's regard for Clare.

The narrative wants to condemn Clare, but also needs her to be charismatic and attractive.  This sets up a permanent tension between the need to prove Clare to be bad but to also keep the reader's attention on her.  Clare is certainly bad and often terribly cruel, but when tragedy strikes, the narrative apportions the blame; Clare is certainly partly responsible, but not - as Alwynne's heterosexual rescuer suggests - wholly so.  Roger, who appears in the last third of the novel as Alwynne's suitor, is an inadequate foil for Clare, and in fact they never meet.  It is another woman - Elsbeth - who is eventually able to put Clare at a disadvantage, although, as Alison Hennegan's introduction to the Virago edition points out, the end of the novel is very ambiguous about Clare's future.

I found the writing very uneven.  There are some fantastic sections, such as Alwynne's vision of a calendar year as a path leading through "a wide country", from the snowy fields of January, through the glades of spring and the stony hill of autumn to the brightly-lit welcoming house of Christmas.  The narrative makes frequent excursions into interior monologue, but broken up with ellipsis which makes it jerky and fragmented.  Alwynne's scenes with Roger are marked by an arch, artificial style that contrasts unfavourably with the direct and open communication she shares with Clare.  The text is also littered with symbolism that reads like a Freudian primer - Roger shows Alwynne a hiding-place produced by splitting open a tussock of grass that is long, like women's hair; Alwynne breaks Clare's bell in a fit of temper; Roger's conquest of Alwynne is achieved in a railway train.  The introduction tells us that Dane was famous for her naivety regarding sex, and perhaps this is a symptom of that, but her unconscious mind was certainly working overtime when she selected her metaphors. 

While the book is not an easy read for many reasons, it's undoubtedly interesting, anticipating much of the sharpened anxiety of the interwar period about unmarried women and the renewed promotion of marriage as the proper career for girls.  The other interesting aspect is the way in which the narrative, and the characters, escape their author's agenda, complicating her meaning in surprising ways.  This is less surprising if Dane herself was lesbian, as a book I've just been reading suggests; if this was so, the novel begins to look more like a way to contain and interrogate her own fears and doubts about her sexuality. 

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Suburban Young Man by E M Delafield

E M Delafield wrote The Suburban Young Man in seven weeks, and ten years or so after its publication suggested she should "never have perpetrated" the novel.  It gets a footnote to itself in Q D Leavis's Fiction and the Reading Public, as an example of the use of the 'surburban idiom' which QDL deplores for its lack of seriousness.  These are inauspicious omens.  However, the book isn't as bad as all that, and its theme is interesting: Antoinette, daughter of the aristocracy driven by post-Great War poverty to work in an insurance office, falls in love with the married brother of her employer.  Peter, the object of her affection, is a fiction writer doing mainly serial work but hoping to improve the quality of his output.  He lives in Richford, a generic London suburb, with his Scottish wife Hope and their twin sons.  The resolution of the affair between Antoinette and Peter will engage with issues such as inter-class love and marriage, the significance of divorce, and the relationship between the suburb and the city.

Peter is slightly anomalous in the suburb; he does not leave for the City every day like his neighbours, and is involved instead a world of creativity and fiction.  In Antoinette's world, he blends in reasonably well on the surface, while always aware of the differences between them.  Antoinette's working life is seen by her family as a caprice, although her widowed mother cannot afford to support her daughters; the family relies on a wealthy uncle.  Antoinette's different attitudes to work and class set her apart from her family; even her sister Sheila, who does not have the excuse of belonging to an older generation, is shocked by Antoinette's willingness to consider a marriage outside of her own class.  Peter is contrasted with his brother Sydney and sister-in-law Norah, who epitomise the vulgar stereotype of the suburbanite.  Peter, Antoinette and, surprisingly, Hope, however, all find that real people live either side of the social and geographical barriers that usually separate them.

Unfortunately, the effect of the speed of writing of this novel is rather evident.  Characters are broad and undeveloped, making them nearer to caricature.  This is particularly true of the frightful Norah, depicted as a vulgar, greedy and amoral slattern, and also to some extent of Lord Halberton, a family friend of Antoinette who appears to be a stuffed shirt entirely devoid of personality.  The description of suburbia relies on stereotypical devices which are snobbish in effect and undermine Antoinette's frequent assertion that good things can come from the suburbs. The plot developments are often awkwardly achieved and there is far too much of Antoinette's musings on whether it would be right to pursue a relationship with Peter.  Several times in the novel Antoinette determines to "have it out" which then leads to three pages discussing how this should be achieved before any actual conversation takes place. Dramatic events are deferred for days by illness or bad weather, stretching any suspense very thinly.  Peter and Antoinette themselves are often less interesting than the supporting cast, which made it hard to care that much about the outcome of their story.

On the positive side, Antoinette's mother Lady Rochester is an amusing creation; attractive, high-handed and also vague, the fond relationship between mother and daughters is an unusual one.  Hope is also interesting in the way she approaches the problem of Peter's love for Antoinette, although the token Scottishisms in her vocabulary grated on me after a while.  On the whole, while it's not without merits, seeking out this book may only be for Delafield completists or those working their way through all the books Q D Leavis couldn't stand.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Other readers

I've been reading a lot of library books lately, and have therefore been exposed to the marks and traces of other readers.  The most amusing example I've found is above: this is the first page of F R Leavis's Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture, first published in 1930.  I particularly like the fourth commentator, who either can't resist the temptation to instruct while insulting, or vice versa, and adheres to a high standard of punctuation even when writing graffiti.  Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture is a short book and there is only one copy in my university library; it's therefore particularly heavily inscribed with other readers' marks. Paragraphs are underlined, starred, marked with arcane groupings of vertical lines and curly brackets, and key words are noted across the top of pages.   Page corners are creased where they have been turned down.  There is something ironic in this accumulation of evidence of mass readership on a text concerned with the preservation of a cultural elite.

In other books, readers have corrected typographical errors; one reader of a Delafield novel had carefully corrected the author's grammar.  Unfortunately, their grasp of the use of the subjunctive was less sophisticated than EMD's, and the correction itself was wrong.  Sometimes you get a sense of the reader's response through their marginalia, an exuberant "YES!" against a provocative statement or a bracing "Nonsense!".  Changes in our sense of what is acceptable provokes readers to label racism and sexism where they encounter it. 

I never, now, write or mark books, although I was encouraged to by previous English teachers: my A level copy of Keats is covered in pencil scribblings.  Instead, I'm addicted to the use of page flags and post-its, which leave no trace for later readers.  While I find it distracting when people have underlined bits of text - the eye is inevitably drawn to that sentence at the expense of others - the written annotations can be amusing, as above, and sometimes enlightening.  They remind me that reading is not necessarily a solitary, individual activity, but can be a communal one, and that my understanding of a text draws inevitably on that of other readers, be they critics or marginal commentators.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

A Reversion to Type by E M Delafield

This novel, another one of Delafield's Edwardian period pieces, deals mainly with issues of social class and with parenting, with a couple of perhaps unwise excursions into genetics.  The Aviolets have lived at Squires for many years; they are dyed-in-the-wool rural gentry, related to half the families in the county, utterly traditional in attitude and utterly repetitive and predictable in behaviour.  Their equilibrium is disturbed by Rose, the widow of their younger son Jim, and her child Cecil.  Jim is a dissolute character who is packed off to Ceylon after an incident with a housemaid about five years before the novel begins.  On the boat he meets Rose, tall, pretty, and working-class; she has grown up in her uncle's pawnbroking business in London.  They marry after their shipboard romance. Cecil spends his early years in Ceylon, cared for by an ayah while Rose attempts to manage Jim's drinking; she fails, and after he dies she returns to England where her in-laws have offered her a home.  The plot of the novel revolves around the differing opinions of the Aviolets and Rose over Cecil's upbringing, and Cecil's tendency to weave elaborate and fantastic stories, or 'lies' as the Aviolets see them.  Rose is determined that Cecil should not go to a boarding school, fearing that it will make his tendencies worse, and this brings her into constant conflict with the Aviolets, particularly Ford, the eldest son.  All the Aviolets despise intimacies and personal remarks, and these comprise most of Rose's conversation; they cannot abide scenes, and Rose's temper will create more than one during the novel.  Rose eventually allows herself to be persuaded to try a prep school for Cecil, and this is the beginning of more serious problems for the boy.

Delafield makes use of the family doctor, Maurice Lucian, as a more neutral observer of this family drama; he is also called upon to explain the family dynamic both in terms of psychology and in terms of heredity; there is a long speech towards the end of the book about the doubtful genetic heritage of the Aviolets that sits rather awkwardly and suggests to me that EMD was winging it rather.  Lucian also provides the romantic element in the novel, which is a little superfluous in my view but was probably necessary to make it sell; it also makes it slightly reminiscent of The Little Stranger.  The book stands or falls by the character of Rose, and Delafield has created an engaging, entertaining portrait of a woman determined to do her best for her son and to make her way in the world with integrity.  Rose is, at first, bored witless by life at Squires and its unchanging routines, and then comes to despise the lassitude and superficiality she finds there.  Her desires to raise her child herself, and to find meaningful work, are contrasted with the vacant Lady Aviolet, interested only in her neighbour's intermarriages, and then with Ford's wife Diana, unable to have children of her own, who regrets that she lacks Rose's energy and spirit, as well as Rose's friendship. 

Delafield has a certain amount of fun at Lady Aviolet's expense: "No Amberley [her maiden name] has ever been clever that I know of.  In fact, Sir Thomas and I have often wondered how Ford turned out clever, because the Aviolets have none of them ever been in the least odd either".  There is also some comedy to be extracted from Rose's Uncle Alfred, a devoutly religious man, and his assistant Felix Menebees, a fan of novels featuring "Frank Bellomont, the Gentleman Crook", who is utterly devoted to Rose and yearns to travel.  However, this Edwardian novel does not stop short of the First World War, and the sombre tone that overtakes Cecil's story will affect the other characters as well.

This is an early Delafield, and you can trace the development of her ironic voice and thematic interests, but later works show more subtle characterisation and greater structure to the narrative.  Aviolet can be added to the long line of unpronounceable surnames EMD bestows on her characters - was she afraid of being sued, I wonder, if names were at all likely? - and in fact she enjoys a joke about its difficulty in the novel itself.  The most interesting aspect of the novel is its use of a working-class woman as protagonist; I think the only other EMD that does this is the very different Messalina of the Suburbs.

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Saturday, 4 September 2010

Bluestockings by Jane Robinson

Jane Robinson's book surveys the development of university education for women in England, from its earliest origins in the 18th century until the start of World War II.  Robinson focuses mainly on the period from the late 19th century onwards, and includes an account of development of formal school education for girls, which led in turn to a demand for the opportunity to study at a higher level.  She goes on to describe the founding of the Oxbridge colleges for women, the opening of provincial universities with no gender bar, and the gradual infiltration of women into institutions that were not always ready or willing to receive them.  All of this is illuminated by personal accounts, memoirs and diaries of the women who studied and taught in these institutions; these are usually inspiring, sometimes rather tragic, and often extremely funny.  I particularly liked the nervous sixth-former, arriving at at St Hilda's expecting a rigorous interview, only to find herself making shadow-puppets in the firelight with the English tutor.  Clearly she was good at it, as St Hilda's offered her a place.

Robinson is very good on the arcane rules of institutions, getting under the skin of what can seem like gratuitous regulation so that the reader understands the rationale, and gives a wonderful sense of what daily life could be like for the female undergraduate in the first half of the twentieth century.  The resistance to women students from institutions (particularly Cambridge) and families (one enterprising father offered his daughter a pony if only she would give up her idea of going to college) is also well-described, including the wider establishment's antipathy to the female scholar, who, it was thought, would damage her chances of producing healthy stock by keeping her nose in a book.  I was also interested to find how socially mixed interwar university students could be, with scholarships, contributions from schoolteachers, and occasional quiet waiving of fees all helping to get girls from poorer backgrounds into higher education.

Now women outnumber men in higher education in England and Wales, at least on undergraduate programmes, and there is no need to struggle to be taken seriously as an applicant because of your gender, except perhaps in some subject areas. Parents are much more likely to expect their daughters to go to university than to oppose such a plan.  It's good to remember the pioneers who bucked convention on our behalf, so that university education for women became a norm, not an exception, and Jane Robinson's book celebrates them in great style.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

St Deiniol's Residential Library

I'm just back from a few restful but productive days at St Deiniol's, Britain's only residential library.  The library was started by Gladstone to provide an opportunity for scholars to consult his personal library; 32,000 of Gladstone's books formed the core of the collection, and he left £40,000 in his will to develop the library further.  The current library building went up in 1902, and became residential in 1905.  The current collection develops Gladstone's interests in theology and history, but has been continually increased and improved over the years, and there is a good variety of stock in literature and the humanities.  I've spent the last few days reading various histories of English feminism and consulting biographies of leading twentieth century feminists, all in good supply; last time I was there I spent most of a day reading E M Delafield's Victorian Ladies and Gentlemen, and there is a section of twentieth-century fiction that came as a bequest and has the largest collection of Melvyn Bragg novels that I've ever seen in one place.

Anyone can stay there - you don't need to be a scholar or a member of the clergy, although those two groups probably dominate among the visitors - and for a very reasonable rate you get half-board accommodation and access to the library from 9am to 10pm each day.  It is a marvellous place to work; the distractions are few, the responsibilities of daily life are all dealt with, and the library itself is a peaceful and beautiful environment, rather Arts and Crafts in style.  I did the amount of reading in three and a half days that would normally take me three weeks.  Coffee break chats with fellow residents are enlivening - one of our fellow guests was researching transvestite women monks in Egypt - and there's a fair amount of gossip about bishops to be overheard.  St Deiniol's started as an "inclusive Anglican community" and the Warden is always a minister of the Church of England, but proselytising is not allowed and the library welcomes those of all faiths and none.  Godless heathens like me will not find the atmosphere uncomfortably spiritual.
 
The Library is in Hawarden, a few miles from Chester; Hawarden has its own station but it's quicker to get the bus from Chester station, which will also take you back into Chester again if you fancy an outing.  There are walks in the park of Hawarden Castle, Gladstone's family home, and through the nearby woods, provided you can tear yourself away from the library and its tempting books. 

The Chip and the Block by E M Delafield

Delafield's 1925 novel is part Bildungsroman, part family drama, combined with some ironic contemplation of the lot of the writer.  The Bildungsroman element concerns Paul Ellery, the oldest child of Mary Ellery and her husband Chas, a novelist.  Paul is around ten at the opening of the novel, and we follow him through family trauma, school and university until he attains the adult pleasures of work and sex.  Paul, like his creator, is very interested in people and their psychology; he analyses those around him, searching after their motivations.  The family drama concerns the eponymous chip and block.  Chas Ellery, the block, is a determined egotist and intolerably pretentious; his youngest son Victor, very like his father in many ways, constitutes a perpetual challenge to Chas's authority and status.  Victor remorselessly exposes his father's pettinesses and stupidities, until a final confrontation and literal battle of wills allows Victor to demonstrate the significance of his forename.

The Provincial Lady, during her wartime adventures, comments that "writers are too egotistical to make ideal husbands for anybody", and Chas Ellery bears this out.  His ceaseless attention-seeking - when one of his children is ill, he invariably takes to his bed - and self-dramatisation are, it is implied, behind the early death of his kind and attentive first wife Mary; they nearly finish off her successor, the calm and rational Caroline.  As a writer, Chas is initially committed to the principles of realism; this commitment does not make him rich.  But the approach and content of his work change, and he begins to gain recognition and status.   Chas seeks constantly to maintain his position as the artist of the family, the representative of high culture; he defends this position against the predations of low culture arising from his children's reading material and the praise of servants for his work.  The public needs to buy his books to ensure his success, but when they do he dismisses them as mere sheep, following a literary trend.

Covering the period from the mid-1890s to 1913, this novel does not engage with the First World War; as with many of Delafield's Edwardian-set novels, the presence of the war hangs over the future of Victor, Paul and their sister Jeannie at the close of the book, when they have reached adulthood and found ways of living that suit them.  An unusual aspect of this novel is its frankness about sexual matters.  Jeannie professes a chaste sort of sexual freedom, declaring that kissing young men to whom one is attracted is only natural; after she makes an advantageous marriage to a rich, older man, it is strongly suggested that she continues an affair with her first love.  Paul has been "shown life" in Paris and London, a reference to "soiled pink ribbons" equating "life" with visits to brothels; later, he will enjoy a lighthearted sexual relationship with his widowed landlady, Mrs Foss, who shares and develops Jeannie's views.  The Times Literary Supplement suggests that the "episode with Mrs Foss is discreetly handled", which is true, although the straightforward way in which their relationship is presented, with none of Delafield's customary ironies, seems to me uncharacteristic.

For the novel to work,  the reader needs to agree that Victor is more likeable, and Chas more tiresome.  Delafield achieves this through Paul's narrative viewpoint; his affection for Victor is clear-sighted but genuine, but his love for his father is very muted.  Victor does not crave attention in the way Chas does, but rather shuns intimacy and dependency, and is committed to his ideals and principles, which Chas discards as soon as their glamour is worn off.  Paul himself is a likeable and interesting character, and the interactions between Victor, Chas and old Mrs Ellery, Chas's mother, provide considerable humour.  Paul's story is interesting enough to merit its place in the spotlight, but it has to be balanced with the war of attrition between Chas and Victor, of which sometimes there is more than enough.   The novel also has to move easily between sad and serious events, such as the death of Mary Ellery, and high comedy, and sometimes you can hear the gears changing.  Delafield handled this aspect better in Mrs Harter, although perhaps she had the advantage there of a retrospective narrative in which the first-person narrator already knows what will happen and can draw more heavily on irony to adjust the tone. 

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

Another beautiful translation of a Tove Jansson work for adults, this was a lucky Oxfam Bookshop find.  In Jansson's usual cool and lucid prose, we read about Katri and her slightly simple brother Mats, who live in a small coastal village; Mats works, informally, at the local boatbuilders, and Katri worries over how to establish a secure life for them.  The answer seems to come through a local artist.  Elderly Anna Aemelin lives alone in her family's house on the edge of the village; she is wealthy, drawing pictures of the ground in the woods near her house; with the addition of flowery rabbits, these drawings form the basis for bestselling children's books and all the marketing paraphernalia that goes with this.  Anna seems naive and unworldly; Katri takes advantage of this to establish herself as a prop and support for Anna, and before long Katri, her large dog, and Mats are all established in Anna's house.  Jansson explores the peculiar ambiguities of this situation.  Who is relying on whom?  Who is being exploited, and how?  Can good things arise from bad intentions?

The timing of the novel moves from the frozen certainties of deep winter to the fluid possiblities of spring.  Katri, blessed with an analytical and mathematical mind, is forced to consider irrationalities such as love and conscience; the innocent Anna discovers new reserves of guile.  The genuine affection that both women have for Mats - and that he has for them - controls their subdued power play and pushes them on towards resolution.  Around the three protagonists, the villagers watch and comment on events at Anna's house and in the boatyard.  And throughout the story Anna's relationship with her art is shifting and changing, leading to exciting and novel possiblities.

Anna's work as an artist echoes some of the themes of Fair Play, but this book considers different themes, of negotiating, comprehending and telling the truth.  It is written in a blunt, exposed style that contrasts with the ambiguities of the story, almost to the point of disingenuousness.   The snowy landscape and Jansson's prose are both pure and cool, but conceal as much as they reveal.  This gives the novel a compelling quality; you are constantly drawn on by the need to comprehend, to see what is underneath the frost.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Turn Back the Leaves by E M Delafield

Turn Back the Leaves does not start well.  Its first sentence runs like this: "In an era when hansom-cabs still jingled their way through the streets of London, and to the rollicking air of 'The Man Who Broke the Bank' and the rock-swing-crash of 'Ta-ra-ra Boom de Ay!' Edmunda Floyd and Charles Craddock fell in love with one another".  Not at all enticing, but thankfully things improve very quickly.  I'm going to discuss the outcomes of the plot in this post, so look away now if you don't want to know what happens.

The story of Edmunda's seduction by Charles is the prologue to the main part of the story.  Edmunda is the much younger wife of the fervently Catholic Sir Joseph Floyd, owner of Yardley who always wished to be a monk, but has been persuaded by his confessor that his duty is to marry and produce little Floyds who will inherit his estate and continue the Catholic family line. This same tactic persuades him to take back Edmunda even after she has given birth to Charles Craddock's daughter; Edmunda bears four more children in as many years and dies after producing the much-desired son and heir.  Sir Joseph, after a decent interval, marries Edmunda's older friend, Teresa Delancey, mainly to provide a good Catholic stepmother for his children.

The novel then proceeds episodically, with the narrative point of view shifting between central and peripheral female characters.  We meet the ten-year-old Stella, living an odd life with a nanny, a housemaid and a governess in a London flat, through Chloë Bourdillon, a New(ish) Woman still hoping for matrimony at 28; when Teresa succeeds in persuading Sir Joseph to accept Stella at Yardley, we see the house and meet the children through Stella's eyes.  Later chapters will pass the point of view to Cassie Floyd, the youngest daughter.  The novel has no real protagonist: Stella's story fades out of sight as other family dramas take precedence, and minor characters move in and out of the novel in a realistically contingent way.  Delafield handles the changes of point of view skillfully, never allowing her younger characters to understand more than is likely; the shifting point of view, and the long timespan of the book from 1890 to 1923, allow layers of meaning to be built up both for the reader and for the Floyd children.

The main theme of this book is the disastrous effect of Sir Joseph Floyd's extreme form of the Catholic faith.  He is ascetic, convinced that everyone s eating too much; obsessed with an idea of sex as sinful; terrified that his children's innocence may be corrupted in some way.  The young Floyds are condemned to wear exceptionally modest clothing and forbidden to make friends with non-Catholics.  As the Catholics in their immediate area are thin on the ground, their social lives are necessarily limited, and their chances of marriage very slim.  When Sir Joseph's piety tips over into religious mania, this is explained in part by the marriage choices of previous generations: he is the son and grandson of first cousins, clearly desperate to find a Catholic spouse.  Delafield provides a preface to the novel, stressing that it is not intended as a criticism of the Catholic faith, but certainly it can be read as a criticism of the practice of Catholicism in upper-class English society at that time.

Doing your Catholic duty has particularly negative implications for the women of the family.  Edmunda is killed by repeated childbearing; Teresa Floyd attempts occasionally to rationalise with her husband, but when that is beyond use she must dedicate herself to caring for him; Cassie, who hoped to escape Yardley into some sort of work, and managed this for a while during the war, is trapped there when Helen, her only unmarried sister, becomes a nun.  Their other sisters are estranged from their parents after their marriages: Veronica marries a Protestant who will not promise to bring up their children as Catholics, and Stella marries a divorced man.  However, Catholic duty  certainly does not favour Joey, the youngest and only boy.  Unspecified trouble at school (possibly an episode of homosexual behaviour) causes great difficulty between Joey and his parents; before leaving for the Western Front, he tells Cassie that he hopes a bullet will solve all his problems.  There are relatively few male characters in the novel, but those from outside the family, particularly Tom and Peter Neville, represent and articulate the views of worldly rationalism to the Floyds, opening the eyes of some of the children to alternative points of view.  The novel is fair-handed, however, and characters such as Cassie and Veronica give a sense of the value of their faith without being unreasonably pious. 

There is an underlying strand in the novel that suggests that frustration of sexual instincts is unhealthly.  Both Sir Joseph and Helen fear sexuality and its expression and will go to immense extremes to avoid it.  The Yardley standards of modesty extend to social behaviour, with fairly innocent acts being characterised as "fast" or "disgusting".  Chloë Bourdillon ages into a plump and pop-eyed spinster, still yearning for male attention and sublimating this desire into sentimental friendships with much younger women.  The characterisation of Chloë is harsh and unattractive, and conveys no sympathy for the plight of the surplus woman.

Turn Back the Leaves is unusual among Delafield's novels set in the Edwardian period in that it includes the First World War in the narrative; most of these novels end without engaging with the war, leaving a sense that the books are unfinished in some way, that the triumphant marriage or exciting new career is about to be cut short by world events.  Including the war helps Delafield emphasise the fossilised nature of Yardley and Sir Joseph, both of them unable to adjust to a rapidly changing modern world, as well as dramatise more intensely plot strands like the estrangement of Veronica.  It is also a war event that pitches Sir Joseph into insanity; the loss of Joey in combat is more than his fragile psyche is able to bear.

The novel has obvious parallels with Brideshead Revisited, which - in elegiac rather than critical terms - also seeks to show us upper-class Catholicism.  Sir Joseph is an extreme version of Bridey, who wanted to be a monk but, as eldest son, could not; Joey has echoes of Sebastian Flyte; and elements of Julia Flyte's struggle between love and duty can be seen in the stories of all the Floyd daughters.  I wonder if Evelyn Waugh ever read the novel.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Another of Sarah Dunant's historical novels, this book is set in Ferrara in 1570.  At the city's Benedictine convent of Santa Caterina, a young and unwilling novice, Serafina, is resisting her induction into convent life.  For a while, she works alongside the dispensary sister, Suora Zuana.  Zuana has been sixteen years in the convent, entering when the death of her doctor father left her unprotected and  unmarriageable.  A reluctant entrant herself, she has come to value the regime, its stabilising repetitions and rituals, and the opportunity it has given her to continue her study of medicine and herbalism.  For most of the novel, the narrative point of view switches between these two women, as they grapple with the politics and complexities of the convent, the city that holds it, and the changes affecting the Church itself.

This alternating narrative allows Dunant to retell events from two viewpoints, and so doing to ratchet up the suspense and maintain a compelling plot which comprises both deeply personal and wider political matters.  The Council of Trent, held in 1563 to address the issues arising from the Reformation, threatened the liberty of convents to govern themselves, to work with local communities, and began to prevent nuns from pursuing study, art, and music.  Santa Caterina is famed for its choir and the musical settings composed within the Convent; it produces delicious cakes and sweetmeats for Carnival; and Zuana's remedies are greatly prized by the Bishop, a martyr to his haemorrhoids.  Zuana's medicines can be powerfully effective and are valued within the Convent as a means of helping the sisters stay well to do God's will.  But there are factions within the convent that seek a greater asceticism and more charismatic exhibitions of faith: ecstasies, visions and stigmata.  The current liberal doctrine overseen by the Abbess may be preventing the holy sisters from achieving closeness to God.  Serafina will find that she is a battleground for the conflicting forces within the Convent.

Throughout the book, Dunant and her characters use the metaphor of the Convent as a body, a single organism that must be nurtured, balanced and healed as necessary.  This metaphor is played out almost literally on the body of Serafina, who will be starved, drugged and purged over the course of the novel.  My complaint about the other Dunant novel I've read, The Birth of Venus, related to the cheekiness of the ending: I'm obliged to say that she is at it again in this book, but the final part of the story is perhaps a little more credible here.  In any case,  it does not detract from a highly enjoyable read.   There is also a helpful bibliography for those interested in the history of conventual life.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Who Was Sophie? by Celia Robertson

Celia Robertson has written a memoir of her maternal grandmother, known in her final years as Sophie Curly, but who started life as Joan Adeney Easdale in 1913. Joan published three volumes of poetry when she was a young woman; her work was published by the Hogarth Press and received positive critical attention. By the time Celia was growing up, her grandmother was a drunken, mad bogeywoman kept at bay through legal process; a solicitor dealt with correspondence between Sophie and Celia's mother Jane. When Celia was seventeen, Jane decided to take her to meet her grandmother for the first time; the squalor of her flat, and its bizarre arrangements for catching burglars, were frightening, but the physical reality of Sophie, a tiny and frail old woman, counteracted the images of Sophie as an insane and monstrous creature. Celia continued to visit Sophie regularly after that; following Sophie's death, she was inspired to write the book, to piece together the journey that took Joan/Sophie from young poet to a bag lady haunting the rougher pubs of 1980s Nottingham.

"Poignant" is the word from the TLS review chosen for the front cover, and the poignancy of this book is undisputed and powerful. Joan's descent into madness, her treatment at Holloway Sanatorium, the loss of her children (and their loss of her), and the poverty, violence and squalor of her final years are terribly sad. Celia Robertson's obvious affection for her grandmother, and kindly, loving attention to the story of her life, mitigates this sadness and exposes the value of Sophie's story even at the points where she is, apparently, at rock bottom. Joan is told repeatedly by psychiatrists that she should give up her writing and devote herself to domestic duties. She does, but Joan is a hopeless housekeeper, clumsy, forgetful and unable to budget at all; domestic work for her is no cure. Virginia Woolf appears several times in the narrative, and the story of Woolf's illness is an obvious parallel with Joan's, pointing up an underlying theme of the book: choices for women artists, in the first half of the twentieth century, were limited and often dangerous.

Celia Robertson is overt and frank about the gaps in Sophie's story, the things that can be known and learned about her, and the things that must be guessed at or assumed. This book seems to me to be a brave undertaking, to try to understand the truth of a chaotic life of such a close relative. Who knows what she might have found? What she did find can be disturbing enough. She is also clear that this is her story of Sophie, that other Sophies exist, and could be narrated, by those that knew and loved her. It is Robertson's approach to the narrative, as well as the twists of Sophie's story, that contribute to a richly enjoyable and consuming book.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

By a Slow River by Philippe Claudel

Claudel's novel (also available in English translation under the title Grey Souls) combines a mystery story - three young women will die during the course of the novel - with an extended contemplation of the workings of memory and the nature of truth.  Set in a village close to the front in World War I, the novel is narrated by the local gendarme, who is professionally involved in two of the deaths.  These two deaths - a murder and a suicide - will come to affect him as profoundly and as personally as the death of his wife Clémence in childbirth, and the unravelling of the cause of the deaths forms the structure of the novel.

Our narrator is attuned to the workings of hierarchy in French society in general and in the justice system in particular. The caste separations between the semi-aristocratic or professional classes and the peasant/servant class are marked, but are being challenged by the effects of war and of the early twentieth century in general.  The narrator exemplifies this: he comes from peasant stock, but his work brings him into the world of the bourgeoisie, and he watches it defend itself against intruders, dismissing and abusing the proletarians that pass through its machinery.  The village he lives in is curiously untouched by the war; columns of soldiers pass through, and many young men have vanished, but enough are in trades that exempt them from war service. There is a new hierarchy to be negotiated, separating those who have fought and died in the war from those remaining at home.

 He also grapples with the slippery nature of memory and the elusiveness of truth.  On the first page, he speaks of "calling forth a lot of shadows"; the figures of memory can be insubstantial and two-dimensional, yet the narrative makes the key figures of the story vivid on the page.  He points up his own unreliability, yet throughout the narrative there are literal and metaphorical loaded guns, waiting to go off in the third act, that will both reinforce and subvert his assumed lack of control of his story.

It almost goes without saying that this book is profoundly sad.  Both plot and narrative style work to develop an air of melancholy, ennui and a fatalistic lack of agency that infects key characters with profound lassitude.  Because of this, I found it rather difficult to read for long periods, and had to approach it in short bursts.  Probably not a book to be picked up during low periods, but definitely one worth reading during happier times.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Jill by E M Delafield

The eponymous Jill (or Jacqueline; Jill is a nickname and the character is referred to by both names throughout the novel) is the nineteen-year-old daughter of Pansy Morrell, a demi-mondaine who has made a career of living off various gentlemen friends in America, France and England.  Jill comes into the lives of two married couples: stockbroker Oliver Galbraith and his highbrow, fastidious wife Cathie; and Oliver's second cousin Jack Galbraith and his fashionable wife Doreen.  Oliver and Cathie earn enough to pay super-tax, live in comfortable circumstances in Chelsea Park Gardens, even though the super-tax means they have to choose between a car and a lady's maid for Cathie.  Jack Galbraith served in the Great War but is effectively unemployed, living on his name and his status.  He and Doreen live at a Kensington hotel where they are supposed to lend tone and attract the right sort of guests in return for free accommodation; their daily post invariably comprises unpayable bills.  Jack attempts to interest Oliver in a scheme for extracting oil from shale beds in Cornwall; the trip to Cornwall, although it fails to secure a business deal, allows them both to meet Jill.

Delafield uses her familiar technique of doubling and mirroring characters in this book.  Oliver and Jack are two sides of the same coin, one successful, the other struggling; both, at the start of the novel, are cut off to some extent from their own emotional responses.  Cathie, serious and fastidious, is set against Doreen, who is not above extracting money from her admirers; prostitution is strongly implied if not explicitly stated.  Both women are unsatisfied with the condition of their marriages.  Jill moves between these two couples and in both cases is a cause of reflection and reconsideration of their relationships.  Jill herself is a free spirit; an unconventional upbringing has left her strangely naive in some respects and highly sophisticated in others.  Her candour and free emotional responses are liberating for some of those she encounters; others find them tiresome or dangerous.  Most of the characters project onto Jill; either their own emotions, or their own ideas of how she should behave; she is adaptable but retains, always, her own point of view.  Her outward mutability is perhaps a reason for the narrative's random use of her two names.  Jill/Jacqueline does not mind what she is called; her identity is secure enough to allow her to bear any number of names.

Delafield valued the observational quality of her writing and its strengths and weaknesses are reflected in this book.  Readers of The Way Things Are will recognise the accurate representation of a mildly unsuccessful upper-middle-class marriage in the portraits of Oliver and Cathie; her attempts to depict the seedy world inhabited by Jack and Doreen, however, suggest that she had observed this only from a considerable distance.  When the novel takes an odd turn towards the thriller genre in its later stages, Delafield seems even more unsure of her material.  However, there is much to enjoy here.  The characterisation of Oliver, in particular, goes further than many of Delafield's novels in its exploration of the reasons for a husband's lack of demonstrativeness; Cathie is, at times, an enjoyable satire of the serious committee member.  The book also contains one of the few depictions of pregnancy that I've come across in Delafield's work, and we hear several characters' views on motherhood and family planning.  The plot of the novel also has some interesting, and perhaps inadvertent, things to say on the value of paid work for women.

Jill is hard to find (three copies on AbeBooks at the moment) and rather expensive. My library copy has been helpfully annotated with blue pencil by an earlier reader, who points out when EMD has used the same word rather too many times on the same page, and inaccurately corrects her grammar on page 106.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The Pelicans by E M Delafield

The Pelicans gets its title from the legend of the pelican mother feeding its chicks on its own blood, and there is certainly an abundance of mothers in the novel.  Sisters Rosamund and Frances Grantham have lost their own mother at the start of the novel; orphaned, they are taken in by their only relative, cousin Bertha Tregaskis, who prefers to be called Bertie. The sisters acquire other substitute mothers over the course of the novel: pretentious Nina Severing, a composer who once enjoyed brief success and whose star has long since faded, takes a shine to Frances; the vague Lady Argent provides help and shelter to both girls; and Frances, eventually entering a convent, acquires new mother-figures in the shape of Mrs Mulholland, doyenne of the convent's lady-boarders, and Mère Pauline, her Mother Superior. There is only one father in the novel; Frederick Tregaskis is taciturn and misanthropic, but occasionally understanding. Bertie Tregaskis is a ridiculous character at the start of the novel, energetic, fond of fresh air and indefatigable in conversation.  She considers herself as altruistic as the pelican of the title, but is in fact an early incarnation of a monstrous Delafield egotist, controlling, self-absorbed and unable to recognise that her daughters have the right to live their own lives, as Rosamund shrewdly observes.  I found Bertie's characterisation satirical rather than humorous, although the scene in which she encounters the even more self-important and voluble Mrs Mulholland, and feels as if "she were listening to a caricature of herself", is one of high comedy.  The novel requires us to recognise Bertie's true values, as Rosamund does, and this is a little hard to reconcile with the Bertie of the opening chapters.

There is a lot of humour in the other characters, however; Morris and Nina Severing's ongoing battle of wills, and Lady Argent's naivety and charm, both generate a good deal of fun. These characters, ranged around Frances and Rosamund, contrast with the highly serious and eventually tragic events that will overtake them. Sometimes the changes of mood are too abrupt, showing Delafield's inexperience as a novelist; the overall change of tone, as the impact of Frances's decision to become a nun shows its effects, feels rather as if two books had been joined together. Delafield's characterisation of Mrs Mulholland exemplifies this shift in tone: initially highly ridiculous and pompous, Mrs Mulholland eventually has serious things to say about faith and religion, and serious emotions to feel, but the reader needs to be able to reconcile her ridiculousness with the kindness and generosity perceived by some of the other characters.

The Pelicans was written during 1916 and 1917, and Great War Fiction's review suggests that the change in tone might have been due to Delafield's wartime experiences and the darkening mood of the country at that time, although the setting of the novel is Edwardian.  It has much in common with Zella Sees Herself, particularly the themes of motherhood and conversion to Catholicism; Delafield also begins to consider what will be a rich subject for her novels, that of unhealthy sibling relationships.  There is a facsimile reprint of the novel available, although the quality isn't that great, and a secondhand copy is probably best for those tempted by this rather intriguing early Delafield.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson

In The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson sets out to describe the two years following the Armistice in the terms of the cyclical sequence of emotions that accompany grief and mourning.  In chapters headed Wound, Shock, Denial, Release, Resignation and so on, she draws on personal and establishment archives, diaries and letters to bring us the authentic voices of the times.  The social and political uncertainty, and sometimes unrest, of the era is also clearly narrated.  Through this dense and detailed account, forgotten stories of this period are retrieved and celebrated.

As in her previous book, the highly enjoyable A Perfect Summer, Nicolson draws on the writings of the celebrated and eminent, and also on those of the obscure, so we get a range of voices and opinions from the most powerful - the King and Queen - to the least, in the form of the memories of those who were small children at the time.  Often Nicolson uses key figures - T E Lawrence and Nancy Astor are good examples - to exemplify the ways in which a wounded society sought to repair and rehabilitate itself through establishing heroes and forcing change.  She also retells some of the stories of hope from the period, particularly the story of Harold Gillies, a plastic surgeon who did pioneering work to repair soldier's damaged faces; Gillies's cousin Archie McIndoe started the more famous Guinea Pig Club after the second world war, drawing on the techniques and approaches Gillies had established, which included using artists such as Kathleen Scott and Henry Tonks, Professor of the Slade, to help draw and model reconstructed faces. She is also very good on the position of women, who had achieved the vote and could get an Oxford degree, but were being encouraged back to the home to make way for returning war heroes in need of jobs.

Nicolson has created a narrative of this two year period in which the shock and grief of the first World War are gradually accommodated and accepted, and in which the possibilities of hope for the future began to be permissible. Her last chapter, which describes the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920, suggests that this funeral helped to heal the scars of the war, and her ending, which quotes Winifred Holtby, exuberantly in love with life, suggests an open doorway to a new world.  However, she does not overstate her case; the ongoing problems left by the war are recognised, as is dissent from the establishment view of the meaning of the war and its value.

In A Perfect Summer, Nicolson had the advantage of diaries and letters which were maintained throughout the period of her narrative, giving her a continuous set of voices to draw on.  In this book, voices appear only briefly, or disappear altogether, often because the writer has died.  This can be seen as a disadvantage in narrative continuity and maintenance of an argument, but is perhaps an advantage in depicting the uncertainty of the times she describes, the suddenness of loss, the fragmentation of identity suffered by so many.  It also helps remind the reader that the cycle of mourning is not a machine that runs in order; some people will be stuck forever in Denial, which some will move backwards and forwards through painful emotional states before reaching the promised land of Acceptance. The discontinuity of voices also speaks of the social divisions between those who sought to restore a pre-war society and those who sought the opportunity for change.  This book is, understandably, much less humorous than its predecessor,but it brings into the light a period heavily overshadowed by the war and the Twenties, and is a careful, nuanced account of the people who lived through this interval between times of more revolutionary change.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose

Over fifty years after her death, Marie Stopes's name remains synonymous with contraception.  There is a chain of private sexual health clinics in the UK that is still called after her.  Most people will also be aware of her pioneering work in sexual guidance, which first articulated for a mass audience idea that good sexual relations were at the heart of happy marriages, and indicated frankly how these were to be achieved.  This book contextualises her work on sexuality and fertility control among her other achievements and her complex personal life.

Marie's mother, Charlotte Carmichael, was a suffragette and a scholar in her own right, although unable, during her own youth, to undertake formal study at a university.  Charlotte was in some ways a detached mother, with exacting standards that Marie found impossible to satisfy, but committed to the education of her daughters. Affection came more from Marie's father Henry, but her parents' marriage was not harmonious and Henry died when Marie was in her early twenties.  Marie was something of an academic prodigy; she completed her undergraduate degree in Botany and Geology at the University of London in two years, moved to Munich to undertake a PhD, and followed this up with a Doctor of Science again in London; at the time she was the youngest person in Britain to gain this award. Her specialism was paleobotany, in particular the fossils to be found in coal, and this specialism took her down many coal mines and on a research trip to Japan where she undertook long and arduous journeys in search of specimens.

Working in Manchester as a lecturer, with several complex romantic entanglements involving both sexes behind her, Marie began to write poetry and prose with a strongly autobiographical tone.  June Rose quotes enough of her poetry to give the reader a sense that, despite her facility with rhyme and metre, poetry was not really her metier, but at this time she was already working on a text that would eventually become Married Love.  Invited to Canada to study the carboniferous flora of New Brunswick, she met, and within a few days had agreed to marry, Reginald Ruggles Gates, a fellow scientist specialising in genetics.  Their marriage was unsuccessful, both emotionally and successfully, and was eventually annulled, but in its aftermath, and drawing on both her scientific knowledge and her own personal experience of unsuccessful marriage, Marie published Married Love to instant acclaim. Shortly afterwards she married the wealthy Humphrey Roe, who was to support her writing career and her crusading zeal for contraceptive advice with money, time and unconditional affection.

Rose is very good at evoking Marie's immense self-possession and overweening self-confidence.  She had no respect for the boundaries that kept women out of politics and science, and crossed many of them herself, but this was achieved only by maintaining a self-belief that can seem unbearable or ridiculous.  She can also be self-serving, making use of people and organisations while it is of advantage to her, and passing on from them when her need or interest has faded.  This tendency is perhaps at its most acute in her relationship with her son Harry.  Marie had longed for a child for years and, after giving birth to a stillborn baby, was overjoyed at Harry's birth when she was 44.  She was an attentive, if sometimes eccentric, mother. Until he went to boarding school, Harry wore only knitted trousers or kilts, because Marie believed ordinary trousers would damage the development of his genitals.  But when Harry proposed to marry a girl Marie disapproved of, for an entirely petty reason, she cut him out of her life.

The biography is very fair, however, in identifying Marie's achievements and recognising that her less attractive characteristics enabled her to break new ground and contribute hugely to the conditions of women's lives.  Her unbearable self-confidence was necessary to allow her to write, as a woman in the early 20th century, about contraception and women's entitlement to sexual pleasure.  It also allowed her to withstand and to counter criticism from such establishment forces as the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the British Medical Association.  Even if she had been self-deprecating and kind, her enthusiasm for eugenics and the improvement of "the Race" would make today's readers uncomfortable.  However, her books changed many people's lives greatly for the better, helping women take control of their fertility, and heterosexual couples achieve happier sex lives; June Rose includes many letters of thanks from enlightened readers.  Marie's sexual radicalism ended there.  Despite some emotionally charged relationships with women, she characterised homosexuality as a disease, and was at endless pains to demonstrate that her advice and guidance was for married people.

Rose's book is well-crafted and gives a balanced, nuanced reading of Marie's life, her successes and her failures. It presents her as a flawed but determined individual, sometimes using her grandiose ideas to propel her to greater achievements, sometimes going too far and doing damage to her own reputation.  Rose is particularly good at understanding and explaining the rather mystical nature of Marie's attitudes to sex, which led her to announce herself as a prophet and to publish A New Gospel, which she claimed had been dictated to her by God.  If I have one criticism it is that the latter part of Marie's life is given less attention than her early years; but to be fair, her early years are so packed with incident that it would be difficult to summarise.  The book is also very entertaining, particularly when Marie's self-assurance leads to unusually egregious acts of self-promotion.  It also gives a very good introduction to the context for Marie's work, particularly in terms of political, religious and social attitudes to sex and contraception.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Miss Ranskill comes home, after four years on a desert island, to an England utterly changed by the second World War.  She shared the desert island with Mr Reid, the remarkably capable man Miss Ranskill always calls the Carpenter.  But at the start of the novel, the Carpenter has died and Miss Ranskill must bury him.  Inadvertently, she also buries their only knife, without which survival on the island is impossible.  This decides her to attempt an escape in the boat the Carpenter has built.  Reaching England after no little difficulty, she finds her problems are only just starting.  Lacking an identity card and a ration book, she cannot buy new clothes to replace her decayed tweed suit.  New, incomprehensible terms have invaded the English language. She is also, inconveniently, officially dead.

Miss Ranskill is used to great humorous effect by Barbara Euphan Todd to satirise the more ridiculous aspects of wartime life; I particularly liked her reaction to the painted line round the bath, intended to save water.  Miss Ranskill, in the house she is sharing, has the last of three baths, and simply fills the bath with as much hot water is left, whether it rises above the line or not; otherwise, the fuel that heated the water would have been wasted.  This view, unsurprisingly, is not shared by her housemates; Miss Ranskill has failed to Do Her Bit.  There is also some gentle challenge to the boundaries of the English class system.  Her friendship with the working-class Carpenter is suspected on all sides; even on the island Miss Ranskill knows that she could never bring her friend home to meet her sister: "The man is neither fish, fowl nor good red herring now that you've made a friend of him."  The two friends shared many stories of their home lives on the island, and Miss Ranskill conceives of a mission: she will visit the Carpenter's widow, and give the boat he built to his son.  But her overtures of friendship are as inappropriate in a working-class home as they are in her middle-class one.

The Carpenter and his son point to some unassuming Christian allegory.  Miss Ranskill is always (reasonably enough, I thought) furious whenever anyone hints, with prurient delicacy, at a possible sexual relationship between the two friends on the island, and invests their chaste affections with a strongly spiritual, transcendent quality.  She pursues her mission with the diligence of a pilgrim, and in doing so discovers another that will help her fit less awkwardly into the War Effort.

Satire and allegory are achieved with great subtlety in the book, which is also hugely funny.  I particularly enjoyed Miss Ranskill's schoolfriend Marjorie, now an officious ARP warden and having the time of her life in the war, puzzling over why there had been no black-out on the island: "I should have thought you'd have rigged up some kind of screen ... unless you wanted to be neutral?", and sister Edith's inability to comprehend that the Times had not been available to the castaways.   Miss Ranskill is an endearing heroine, resourceful and assertive, and her passage from bewildered refugee to woman with a plan is rather inspiring.

This is another Persephone retrieval, and one of the best of the Persephones that I've read.  I'll be recommending this, tiresomely and repeatedly, to anyone I think might possibly enjoy it.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

That Lady by Kate O'Brien

Apparently, at this year's Hay Literary Festival, Antony Beevor suggested that "novelists ought to mark in bold type the bits they made up".  He might be mollified by Kate O'Brien's forward to That Lady, which states firmly that "what follows is not a historical novel. It is an invention arising from reflection on the curious external story of Ana de Mendoza and Philip II of Spain."  O'Brien extracts from her reflections a novel that deals with a complex blend of political intrigue, love, jealousy, religion, and humour.  

Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli and owner of many other complicated titles, is a widow at the start of the novel, but still probably the most powerful woman in Spain.  Rich in her own right, the friend and confidante of Philip II, she is able to rise above the scurrilous and unfounded rumours which suggest that she is the King's mistress.  Her appearance - she is thin, not traditionally beautiful, old at 35 by the standards of the day , and wears a silk eyepatch following a fencing accident when she was a child - confounds the gossip about her; many believe her virtuous because they find her ugly.  Ana, knowing she is both committing a sin and taking a significant political risk, takes as a lover the King's Secretary of State, Antonio Perez.   It is not long before their affair begins to excite gossip and political intrigue, which adds to the already complex and personal political situation centred around Philip and his government of Spain.   The lovers are denounced by Juan de Escovedo, a political enemy of Philip, who endorses his elimination.  After Escovedo's murder, the King becomes aware of the true nature of Ana's relationship with Perez, and the consequences for the lovers are terrible.

Philip's intransigent desire to punish Ana and Perez is only part of the story.  Buoyed by her wealth and status, Ana is overconfident about her power and her ability to manage Philip.  Perez has similar faith in his invincibility.  Both, eventually, suffer at the hands of an absolute monarch who has no need to invoke the law to imprison and torture.  Ana is a faithful Catholic, and denies herself the consolation of the church while her affair with Antonio continues, but her story shows us that we need to beware of earthly powers as well as heavenly ones.  At the heart of Ana's story is a rather modern theme - the right to a private life.  Ana is a political figure, a landowner, a manager of estates, but she continually asserts that her private relations are nobody else's business; they dishonour nobody, they threaten nobody, because nobody has the right to be interested in them.  This assertion will lead to her imprisonment and eventual death.

It is often said that historical novels are really about the period in which they were written, and in this 1945 work it's possible to read the Spain of Philip II, exhausted by wars, wealthy but unable to feed its people, and struggling to maintain its imperial conquests, as a metaphor for Britain at the end of the Second World War, especially Ana's reaction to the decay of her estates during her house arrest.  Ana is forced to cede the management of her estates to the King's representative: "When Ruy lived and in the six years after his death that I was in nominal charge of Pastrana, this estate and its people were prosperous.  Now it's being run by the government, and I can tell from looking out of that window, walking through my own garden - even if none of the people ever came to see me - that for some reason that no one can quite fix on, that is no longer true."  The fear of the ascendant middle-class bureaucracy so common in novels of the interwar and war years is clearly indicated here.  There are also echoes of Franco's autocratic rule over Spain: Ana's power is not threatened by increasing democracy but by a greater despotism.  But the politics of the novel merge with echoes of fairy tales; Ana is imprisoned and, like the Sleeping Beauty, her house decays and her garden becomes overgrown.

There is also a personal reading of this work: Kate O'Brien based her characterisation of Ana de Mendoza on her friend, E M Delafield.  At first it is somewhat hard to reconcile a one-eyed sixteenth-century Spanish aristocrat with the author of the Provincial Lady, but Ana's unfailing good humour, affection for her friends and (most of) her children, and endurance of suffering are all reminiscent of Delafield's biography.  Kate O'Brien spent a lot of time with Delafield during her last illness, and perhaps her friend's stoicism inspired Ana's:

"Ana was feeling ill that evening, in pain all through her body, but this most exquisitely tragic-comic piece of news, which she refused to accept as more than some travelling man's fantasy, roused her to a mood of mockery that was rejuvenating and even analgesic."

This is a detailed and complex book; the political machinations of the key characters, the back story which must be conveyed to help the reader make sense of the present, and the many dramatic events make it a demanding read, especially for a reader who (like me) knows practically nothing about this era in Spanish history.  But it is a rewarding book, opening up many ideas and images to the reader, who cannot fail to be charmed by Ana, her bravery and her wit, or moved by her eventual decline.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Matchmaker by Stella Gibbons

In this 1950 novel Stella Gibbons explores the little comedies and dramas of life in rural Sussex immediately after the second world war.  Alda Lucie-Brown comes to live at dreary, isolated Pine Cottage with her three daughters, Jenny, Louise and little Meg.  Alda's husband Ronald, a university lecturer, is still on military service abroad, helping with reconstruction work in Germany, and the family has lived a peripatetic life since their home in Ironborough, a prosperous provincial city where both Alda and Ronald have deep roots, was destroyed in the war.  Alda and the girls make friends with their immediate neighbours, the Hoadleys at the nearby farm, and Mr Waite, who keeps battery chickens and is fond of transcendent literature.

Alda is the matchmaker of the title, interfering first in the love life of her old friend Jean.  Jean has reached her early thirties without marrying, although there has been a procession of unsuitable men in her life; her father has recently died, leaving her his profitable kitchenware business.  Alda thinks that Mr Waite, for all that he is gloomy and old-fashioned, will do well for Jean, and develops their acquaintance.  Alda goes on to encourage Sylvia, a would-be actress with dyed hair working as a land girl for the Hoadleys, to consider Fabrio, an Italian prisoner of war also working on the farm, as a potential suitor.  All this is played out against a background of rural life, farm work, riding lessons and a convent school for the girls, with Ronald's occasional visits when on leave.

The underlying theme of the novel seems to be getting people into their rightful place.   Alda, displaced from her native Ironborough, takes a fairly superficial attitude to life at Pine Cottage; she will not be there for long and will not see at close hand the consequences of her matchmaking.  Fabrio is exiled from his impoverished Italian home and sufficiently disconcerted to consider Sylvia as a potential wife, rather than Maria, the girl at home who writes to him every week.  Mr Waite has been somehow deprived of the managerial business position that he grew up expecting to have; marriage to Jean would restore this to him.  The novel valorises people like the Hoadleys, who are in the appropriate setting and making it work for them; and Mr Hoadley's parents, who live, as Mrs Hoadley says, "very rough".  Sylvia and Fabrio's visit to the elder Hoadleys in their patchwork house brings out fastidious disdain in Sylvia, but the narrative is quite approving of their way of life.  Perhaps the strongest condemnation of the effect on place of the wrong sort of person is the description of the decline of the Linga-Longa cafe, once the clean and respectable Blue Plate, now infiltrated by gipsies, lorry-drivers and dirt, and unsuitable for Alda and her daughters.  The novel flirts with the possibility that people may move between cultures through the relationship between Sylvia and Fabrio, but ultimately takes a conservative view of such mobility: people, whatever their background, are better off where their roots are.

In order to fit in the right, appointed place, people must be of the right type; the novel therefore inevitably deals in stereotypes.  The Italian prisoners of war are portrayed as dirty, untrustworthy and over-emotional; Sylvia's semi-bohemian, theatrical and Communist family are described as dirty (again), vulgar and unintelligent; the London friends of Jean's original suitor are hard, fashionable and superficial.  There is a good deal about the grubbiness of Italian peasant life, and the novel sentimentalises their poverty as perfectly appropriate for peasants, indeed much the best thing for them.  This, alongside the general snobbishness which also permeates Nightingale Wood, can make the novel an uneasy read.  Alda, with her golden hair and sparkling hazel eyes, is probably intended to be as attractive a meddler in others' affairs as Flora Poste; although she is probably as interfering as Flora, she lacks Flora's ability to divine what people really want from life, and to give it to them while, serendipitously, getting her own way.
 
The novel's attractive qualities lie in its contingent, happenstance approach to plot; things happen that have no particular bearing on the twin love stories.  Jenny and Louise go to school for the first time, and find it difficult, but no crisis ensues; a storm threatens the harvest, but the neighbours and farmworkers all pull together to get the wheat in before the storm can break - which it never actually does.  Stella Gibbons seems fond of this type of anticlimax and uses it to tease the reader.  There are also lyrical descriptions of the charms of country life in the summer, with picnics and bicycle rides featuring prominently.  Criticising Sylvia's taste in films, the narrator praises films like This Happy Breed and I Know Where I'm Going! which "took a story from everyday life and touched it with poetry"; I suspect this was also the ambition of this novel.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes, 1911-1947

Marie Belloc Lowndes was a novelist, playwright and (auto)biographer and the sister of Hilaire Belloc; both children spent their early years in France and Marie retained a slight French accent throughout her life.  Their mother, Bessie Parkes Belloc, was also a writer and friend of such literary figures as George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.   She married F S A Lowndes, a journalist on the staff of The Times, and was acquainted with a great many of the artistic, literary and political figures of her time.  This is evidenced by a photograph in the book of her autograph fan, signed by dozens of celebrated people including Oscar Wilde, Edmond de Goncourt, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill.

This book, edited by her daughter Susan Lowndes Marques, comprises a selection of letters and autobiographical pieces.  The diary sections are often, in fact, extended reminiscences of experiences some time in the past, rather than a record of events as they occur, although these also form part of the text, as do letters to Marie Belloc Lowndes from her correspondents.  The autograph fan does not overstate her network of connections: she seems to have known, and usually lunched with, pretty much everybody of significance in early 20th century French and English history.  A prolonged reading of the book, I found, led to a great desire not to see any more names dropped.  But for any student of this period, her reflections and commentary on the politicians and writers of the time are illuminating; there is also a good deal about the characters of the 19th century that she had known personally or through her mother.

A devout Catholic, Marie had a rather sweet if naive tendency to believe that people were usually good at heart. The long section on the Abdication, in which she gives her view of Mrs Simpson as a virtuous woman in love with Mr Simpson, is idiosyncratic to say the least.  This hopeful approach to human nature does not, however, leave her as frequently disappointed with her fellow beings as you might expect, and her letters and diary writings are good-humoured and amusing; even the privations of the Second World War fail to daunt her spirit.  Marie Belloc Lowndes is probably best known now as the author of The Lodger, a crime novel which inspired the silent Hitchcock film of the same name.  Both are worth a look.