Showing posts with label persephone. Show all posts
Showing posts with label persephone. Show all posts

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

Greenbanks the novel is the story of the Ashton family of Greenbanks the house, a stone house of "no particular style or period" in the fictional Lancashire town of Elton.  We're plunged into full family life in the opening chapter, joining the Ashtons for Christmas dinner a year or two before the outbreak of the First World War.  Robert Ashton is the handsome head of the family, still an enigma to his wife Louisa; their grown-up children and grandchildren surround them.    The family's prosperity comes from the timber trade, and the overall picture is of solid, middle-class Edwardian comfort and ease.

Dorothy Whipple's narrative is episodic, perspective shifting between family members, and it shows how social change and family drama gradually erode that comfort.  Indeed, some of that comfort has been dearly bought: Robert Ashton is a committed philanderer and has brought his wife Louisa shame and humiliation, although she is no longer bitter about this, preferring to take pleasure in her children.  Death and war will bring change and conflict to the family, and there will be further disruption as the women of the family start to reject their husband's expectations and do more with their lives.  There's no real polemic here, however; Dorothy Whipple simply allows the family stories to develop, exposing the love and the resentment that often co-exists between relatives.

Louisa is the central focus of the narrative, but not quite the unchanging point in a changing world; she is capable both of weathering change and initiating it herself, and of disrupting convention in her own way, as when she takes a notorious local "fallen woman", Kate Barlow, to be her companion once all the children have left home.  Louisa loves Kate, but Kate does not really want her love or her pity, and Louisa's well-intentioned act does not end as she might have expected.  Louisa also loves Charles, her rather useless but charming son, and Rachel her granddaughter.  Rachel is the child of the century, living through the First World War as a schoolgirl and entering the 1920s eager for the new opportunities open to women.  I found Louisa and Rachel's mutually affectionate, uncomplicated relationship very moving, and Whipple signals their easy understanding from the first chapter, when little Rachel is enjoying her Christmas dinner:

She considered her grandmother, then removed the spoon from her mouth and, in spite of potatoes and gravy, smiled widely.  Louisa bent her head and smiled back.  moth wrinkled their noses slightly as if to say: 'Isn't all this nice?'
There is a lot of lightly ironic humour throughout the novel, especially at the expense of stolid, pompous Ambrose, Rachel's father, who "always had a great deal to see to", is given second-best cigars by his father-in-law, and is silently resented by his wife Letty, who persistently wonders why she doesn't like housekeeping.  Louisa also has a comic turn of phrase: Charles at the piano has, she considers, hands "as stiff and inadequate as a couple of pork chops".   Rachel's naive and enthusiastic interactions with the world are also often gently comic.  But sad and even tragic things also happen; Dorothy Whipple's flat, almost toneless style allows the narrative to express both humour and sorrow without awkward changes of gear.  The characters are treated with even-handedness: Charles is ineffective but loveable and eventually heroic; Ambrose becomes a high-handed Victorian father, forbidding Rachel from taking up an Oxford scholarship, but is an object of pity at the end of the book. 

With High Wages, this is the Whipple I've enjoyed the most, for its episodic style and its gentle interest in the lives of women throughout this fascinating historical period.  There are affinities, I think, with E.H. Young's William and Lettice Cooper's The New House, especially in terms of intergenerational relationships and the provincial setting.  The Persephone edition is, of course, beautiful and has a fascinating Afterword by Charles Lock.

Book Snob has written an enthusiastic review of Greenbanks; Lyn at I Prefer Reading wasn't so sure.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Harriet is the tragic story of a young woman's exploitation.  Based on a real case, the 'Penge Mystery' that gripped 1870s London, the novel explains how Harriet, a woman with what we would now call a learning disability and also a three thousand pound legacy, falls into the hands of Lewis Oman and his brother Patrick.  Patrick is an unsuccessful artist with a wife, the beautiful Elizabeth, and two small children; Lewis works as an auctioneer's clerk and is, at the start of the novel, romantically involved with Elizabeth's sister Alice Hoppner.  Harriet is living with her mother, Mrs Ogilvy, who genuinely loves her daughter and has cared for her as best she can; Harriet likes the theatre, nice clothes and shoes, is fastidious, and can hold simple conversations.  However, she is not easy company and her mother occasionally sends her away for a few weeks as a paying guest.  The Hoppners are cousins of some sort, and it is while staying with them that Lewis meets Harriet.  Discovering the extent of her fortune (Harriet's wealth would have the purchasing power of over a million pounds today) he determines to marry her.  Mrs Ogilvy's attempts to prevent the marriage by legal means fail, and Lewis and Harriet marry.  For a while, they live together in London; Mrs Ogilvy attempts a reconciliation with her daughter but is rebuffed.  When Harriet becomes pregnant, Lewis uses this as a pretext to bring Alice to live with them, but once the child is born he decides to take things even further.

Elizabeth Jenkins makes a compelling and horrifying novel out of this story.  As Rachel Cooke's  Afterword to the Persephone edition explains, she stuck very closely to the source material, barely changing the characters' names and keeping the suburban south London location for much of the action.  What the novel does so well is show how people slip by degrees into crime, how acquiescence turns to commission, and how much guilt can be ascribed to those who see what is happening, but choose not to understand it.  Much of this narrative focuses on Elizabeth, who agrees to house Harriet and her child and, slowly, is drawn into perpetuating her neglect.  Midway through the novel, she realises that Alice has taken one of Harriet's beautiful dresses and unpicked it to remake for herself, but she "looked away without saying anything".  This connivance is the foundation for Elizabeth's eventual conception of Harriet as inhuman: "It wasn't, after all, as if Harriet felt anything" and her collusion is fuelled by her overpowering love for her husband, Patrick.  The network of relationships between Lewis, Patrick, Elizabeth and Alice is deeply intense, the brothers in particular shown as enmeshed in a folie à deux that clearly cannot end well.  What is most troubling, however, is the four's calm acceptance of the luxuries provided by Harriet's money while she is imprisoned and neglected upstairs.  In this scene, Patrick has just announced that he has boarded up Harriet's window:

"They all stretched out their feet to the comforting glow; the afternoons were drawing in fast, and the firelight turned them in their afternoon drowsiness to Egyptian figures, ruddy and black."

Patrick and Elizabeth can hardly afford coal under normal circumstances; the news that Harriet can no longer see out of the window, or have her bare room ventilated, does not disrupt their comfortable afternoon drowsiness in any way.  But Jenkins, while she is convinced of the guilt of the Omans and Alice, also carefully notes those who could have done something, but did not; passing tradesmen who saw Harriet, the servant Clara, Mrs Hoppner, the police and other authorities to name a few.  However, she also shows their reasons for not acting on their suspicions, particularly in the case of naive and powerless Clara.  This reminded me a lot of the debate around various recent and ghastly child abuse scandals, and the debate around individual and collective guilt for crimes of this sort.   I also really enjoyed Jenkins's writing style, which is lucid, expressive and powerful.  Here, suburban Alice, rejected by Louis for Harriet,  has her first encounter with the delights of a Kentish spring:

"But when in one of her solitary walks she came across a thicket of whitehorn, standing in ethereal brillance against the dark wood-side, it gave her a pang of such sharpness that she almost felt her unhappiness had never really come upon her until this moment.  She retraced her steps in horror, and from that time she half unconsciously shunned anything beautiful in scent or sight or sound that the countryside offered [...] when the time of the full moon grew near, she would wake within the narrow space of four bare walls, the patches of radiance reflected on the wall as if through prison bars, and the great golden face gazing in upon her, forbidding her to sleep; forbidding her, in that strange silence and light, to cry."

Jenkins cleverly evokes the early signs of Spring, which most readers would find pleasurable, to explore Alice's psychology; her rejection and fear of natural beauty helps establish her as someone who might well reject prevalent moral standards.

This book is without a doubt disturbing, without being in any way gratuitous, but, as I said above, entirely compelling.  I've not read any of Jenkins's other work but will be seeking it out.  The Persephone edition is, as always, beautifully produced, and the Afterword is enlightening on the real case that inspired the novel.  Desperate Reader and Harriet Devine have both written interesting reviews of this book, and there is an Observer piece by Rachel Cooke about the real case behind the text.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The New House by Lettice Cooper

It is 1936, and Rhoda Powell and her widowed mother Natalie are moving from their large family home, Stone House, to a smaller house in the same northern English town.  Rhoda's younger sister Delia comes to help on moving day; she is about to be married and will therefore be leaving her job in a London laboratory. She suggests that Rhoda should apply for it and leave home.  Rhoda initially dismisses the idea of leaving her mother, but gradually she realises how much she wants a more independent life.  Will she take this opportunity, or will her sense of loyalty and duty prevail?

The novel is set over a single day and follows the Powells as they pack, dispense cups of tea to the removal men, and unpack in their new house.  As well as Rhoda and her mother and sister, we also meet her brother Maurice, struggling to run the family engineering business; his wife Evelyn, hungry for social success and more money; and Aunt Ellen, Natalie's sister who never married and cared for their mother all her life.  Natalie is outraged by the circumstances of the move; petted and spoiled all her life, she cannot understand why Rhoda and Maurice are allowing this to happen.  Rhoda's sudden expression of her wish to leave home knocks her even further off balance: she takes Rhoda entirely for granted as her helpmeet and companion, fretting when Rhoda fails to put her needs first, jealous of Rhoda's friends and other interests.  There is a loving mother hidden inside Natalie, but she is mainly suppressed by the demanding child that is the personality she shows the world.  As well as the drama unfolding between Rhoda and her mother, two sub-plots run through the novel: the difficulties emerging in Maurice's marriage, and the stoical existence of Aunt Ellen, who suppresses thoughts of her unmet needs and counts her blessings.

This family drama is set firmly in its social context.  Maurice is troubled by his increasing sympathy with the principles of socialism, a sympathy entirely unshared by his wife.  A colleague has made the radical decision to pay himself what he pays his employees, but Maurice knows that Evelyn would never accede to such a redistribution of wealth.  Stone House will be sold to a property developer and its large garden accommodate better housing for the working class.  Natalie is appalled to realise that she will be able to see her neighbours' laundry from her new house; the new house, by the way, is an enlarged lodge that once belonged to the local manor house, and sounds delightful.  Both Natalie and Evelyn are disturbed by the emergence of the poor from their slums where they were decently hidden from sight, and by the new power of tradesmen, and no amount of chaffing by the rest of the family will shift them from this position.  Lettice Cooper also makes a definitive link between the oppression of the poor under capitalism, and the oppression of daughters like Rhoda within the family; Rhoda is well aware of her position, poised between the accepting dutifulness of Aunt Ellen and the greater independence of Delia.

If this all sounds rather worthy, it isn't; it's made entirely pleasurable by Lettice Cooper's lovely writing.  Maureen Duffy's introduction to the Virago edition makes the link with Jane Austen, which is a good comparison, but as well as light irony, fairness and lucidity runs through her prose.  There are also passages that are just straightforwardly beautiful, like this one, in which Rhoda contemplates the nature of change:

It was the newness of the seaside when you went out after tea the first evening; the newness of your bedroom in a friend's house, when you were shown into it, your bag there, just brought up, and the jug of hot water covered with a towel; the newness of your first foreign journey, walking from the boat to the train through strange voices, thinking, I'm in France!  It was precious because it went too soon.  Other things succeeded, but never that particular enchantment.  This fragile bloom was on the whole house, the rooms they had not slept nor eaten in, the garden where they had picked nothing, and the tangle of neglected flowers not of their growing.

Cooper is also good at dropping in little epigrams, little comments about life, which are so clear and obvious you wonder why they have never occurred to you before.  When Rhoda, for example,  remembers a moment of childhood epiphany, she suddenly realises that "it was these moments that made you disinherited; you were homesick in life because there were so few of them".  The Manchester Guardian called this novel Chekhov in Yorkshire on its first publication, which gives you an indication of its beauty and insight.

Lettice Cooper's writing career lasted over sixty years, and she lived to see her work be reissued by Virago and reach a new audience.  The New House is still available from Persephone, and there are secondhand copies around of her other nineteen novels, which range in theme from 1930s Yorkshire to stories set in Florence and a novel about the 1972 miners' strike in Britain.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Years ago, I read my mother's library copies of One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet, as well as her Follyfoot series as a horse-mad child, but I'd never read any of her novels for adults until now.  Harriet Lane's introduction to the Persephone edition places this book alongside other iconic novels of young womanhood like I Capture the Castle and The Pursuit of Love, and thematically there are certainly similarities.  In the opening chapter, our heroine Mary, during a stormy night in World War II, hears that her husband's ship has been sunk.  The phone line to her isolated Essex cottage has blown down and any telegram will have been sent to her London home.  While she waits out the hours before she can find out whether her husband is dead or alive, she thinks back over her life to date.  

Mary has been brought up by her mother, her father having died in the first war when she was a baby, and her mother's brother, Uncle Geoffrey, a jobbing actor specialising in "silly-ass" parts.  They live in a flat in London's Olympia, but Mary loves best her long holidays at Charbury, the Somerset home of her paternal grandparents, where she can lead a country childhood, riding, hunting, and staging mock hangings in the playhouse with her young cousins.  One cousin, the handsome Denys, will be Mary's first love, until he scuppers his chances by getting off with a blonde at his college ball.  Mary is uninterested in education or a career, telling her mother that schoolwork is pointless because she just wants to get married and have twenty-six children, their names going right through the alphabet.  However, she is forced through a good school, has a short-lived flirtation with drama school, before being sent to Paris to learn dress design.  In Paris, she acquires some sophistication and a glamorous French fiancé.   Will Mary make a good wife to an upper-class Frenchman, or will her love of England prove disruptive to Pierre's plans?

 One of the things this book has in common with I Capture the Castle is its profound expression of love for England, particularly the English countryside, which is imbued with a beauty and authenticity that cannot be achieved by London smartness or Parisian elegance.  I wondered if it had been written in exile as Dodie Smith's book was, but it seems not - except to the extent that anyone in wartime Britain was in exile from the country they once knew.  It is the episodes at Carbury that no doubt prompt comparisons with The Pursuit of Love, but Mitford's children are tougher,more heartless and much funnier than Mary and her cousins.Hannah Stoneham's review draws out the similarities between Mary's growing love for Denys, and Cassandra's romantic awakening.  But Mary is, to me, less interesting than Cassandra, more ordinary and rather aimless, although I don't doubt that she is extremely representative of some girls of her period.  I was more interested in her mother, a sparky, energetic woman who makes a career for herself and maintains an independent life when she could probably have lived off her in-laws; in Uncle Geoff's slightly seedy theatrical world which blossoms into unexpected success; and in her ghastly maternal grandmother, self-dramatising, critical and repellent.  I agree with Hannah Stoneham that Mary is most interesting in her worst moments, asserting her sense of entitlement, disrupting a drama school examination, moping about with jealousy when Denys takes a friend out shooting; she acquires a bit of drive and vigour at these times, even if - or perhaps because - she is being irritating.

As the introduction warns, there is some outrageous snobbishness on display in the novel, and some very ouchy anti-Semitism, probably entirely typical and realistic, but it's as well to brace yourself.  One of the things I found slightly odd about the narrative is that Mary's memories are not presented as such; there is no reflection from the older, married Mary on her younger self as we see her move between Charbury, school, London and Paris, or any sense that these stories are being remembered by her rather than told to us by Monica Dickens, and only the chapters that bracket the novel remind us that times have moved on.  This book is definitely comfort reading, a "hot-water bottle book" as Harriet Lane has it, but I'm not sure it would keep the chill out for me as effectively as some of its literary peers do.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

It's Persephone Reading Weekend in literary blog land, hosted by cardigangirlverity and Paperback Reader, who have some tempting competitions for Persephone enthusiasts.  I've read all my Persephone editions, but I did have a Penguin edition of High Wages knocking about, and decided this was a prime opportunity to give it a try.

High Wages opens in 1912, when seventeen-year-old Jane Carter gets a job in Chadwick's, a draper's shop in the fictional Lancashire town of Tidsley.  Jane is bright and ambitious, and the novel tracks her successful progress at Chadwick's; the war is good for the drapery business, and Jane becomes a valuable employee, if a constant thorn in the side of cautious, dim Mr Chadwick.  Jane longs for a shop of her own, and thanks to her friendship with motherly Mrs Briggs, who has come up in the world but doesn't much like it, Jane is able to leave Chadwick's and set up her own dress shop.  In other ways, however, Jane's life runs less smoothly.  Her friendship with Maggie, who also works at Chadwick's, is lost when Maggie's young man Wilfred shows a preference for Jane.  Jane likes Wilfred, who works at the library and is well-read and intelligent, but her eventual passion is for Noel Yarde, a young solicitor who marries the local heiress.

Dorothy Whipple crams a lot of interesting stuff into High Wages.  Jane's progress and development are interesting in their own right, but Whipple also brings in the social constraint of small-town life, and the ways in which the Great War chips away at notions of rank. We get an insight into how a lively young man like Noel can be reduced to a silent, uncommunicative husband, hiding behind his newspaper.   But her main theme is that of business, and how business and its success and failure can have far-reaching effects on the personal lives of those who rely on it; it is the vagaries of business that really drive the plot.  Her characterisations have depth, and even when a character appears only briefly - like the seaside landlady that Jane and Mrs Briggs stay within Blackpool - she gives colour and texture to the depiction.  There are also some entertaining comic episodes, particularly Jane's regular battles with Mr Chadwick and the moment of high farce when she encounters a cad at the Tidsley Hospital Ball.

If I have one quibble about this book, it is that I was unconvinced by the ending.  I won't give it away, but Jane's choices at the end of the book seem slightly out of character to me.  I also thought the ending rather rushed, as if Dorothy Whipple had run up against her publisher's deadline, and hurried it to a close.  But in terms of interest and enjoyment, High Wages sits alongside Someone at a Distance and The Closed Door among Dorothy Whipple's fiction, and I can quite see why Persephone have published it.

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.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

William, an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

Another Persephone reprint, William is the story of the sudden impact of war on two people who thought it could never possibly come.  William is a suburban clerk, suddenly precipitated into freedom by the death of his overbearing mother, who leaves not only their home, but a significant some of money.  William uses his freedom to devote himself to political life as a left-wing Internationalist in the years before World War I.  Through his political work he meets Griselda, who shares William's causes and has long been an active and commited suffragette, even to the extent of a spell in Holloway.  The opening chapters, with their descriptions of William and Griselda's limited intellects and understanding of the ideals they espouse, could come out of H G Wells:  we are in familiar territory, mocking the suburban clerk, his undeveloped body and mind.  But the rest of the novel will take us far away indeed from the Diary of a Nobody landscape.

William and Griselda marry in July 1914 and choose an isolated location for their honeymoon: the Ardennes forest in Belgium.  For a while, all is appropriately blissful.  Then one day they visit the farmer's wife who is cooking their meals, and find it deserted.  Faintly alarmed by this, and rather hungry, they eventually decide to walk back to the nearest town, and find that it is occupied by the German army.  From an English-speaking officer, they learn of the war, and that they are now prisoners.  This is only the beginning of a nightmare which will see William renounce his previous ideals of pacifism and internationalism.

This was Cicely Hamilton's only novel - she is better known as a playwright and non-fiction writer and journalist, as well as a prominent suffragette - but shows a skilful handling of her narrative and plot.  You would expect a playwright to rely more on dialogue, but Hamilton's descriptive passages are lucid and powerful.  I found the meaning of the book, which you might expect to be clearly political given Hamilton's suffragette background, rather ambiguous.  Willam and Griselda's political campaigning and militancy are mildly mocked, and their self-satisfied radicalism swiftly punctured; William has no experience to back up his political convictions, and it is suggested that Griselda's attraction to suffragism is more to do with the opportunities it brings for attention and notoriety, rather than because of a deep commitment to a feminist cause.  William's political transformation into patriotic Englishman after the atrocities he experiences is reactive and emotional and therefore unsustainable; faced with the reality of war service behind the lines in a clerical role, the passion that inspired him melts away.  Their social positioning within the novel could allow an ironic reading of their suffering, but the narrative tone is straightforwardly sympathetic and the descriptions of their plight harrowing.  William seems to me to attempt to come to terms with the experience shared by thousands of Englishmen in the immediate and raw aftermath of the Great War, hinting at the critique of that war as futile which would be articulated more explicitly by later writers.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Miss Buncle's Book by D E Stevenson

Another Persephone publication, Miss Buncle's Book is a highly entertaining story of a rural English village in the early 1930s, with some unexpected excursions into metafiction.

Barbara Buncle, spinster, lives in a cottage in the idyllic village of Silverstream. Her income depleted following the Wall Street Crash, she turns to writing to prop up her finances, having gone into the options of fiction and chicken farming as possible money-spinners with her maid, Dorcas. Dorcas is not keen on hens' feet, so Miss Buncle writes her novel. Mr Abbott (chosen because he is the first publisher in the London phone book) knows a winner when he sees it: Miss Buncle's book, can be read both as a straightforward romance of rural life or as a satire. She has taken characters from Silverstream and depicted their unvarnished foibles and characteristics. In the second half of her book, a mysterious Golden Boy with a pipe passes through the village, and under the spell of his music, the villagers act in odd ways: a woman throws over her cruel husband for a new lover, a pair of home-loving ladies set off for Samarkand, and two long-single villagers realise their love for one another and marry.

Published as Disturber of the Peace, and under a pseudonym, Miss Buncle's book is a runaway success. Its enigmatic qualities lead to controversial reviews which stimulate sales. Once it is read in Silverstream, however, and the villagers begin to recognise themselves, it generates real controversy. A stream of villagers visit Mr Abbott and call for the book's suppression. A village meeting is held to try to discover the author, and have him or her horse-whipped. Lawyers are pestered about libel cases. But, under the spell of the book, strange things begin to happen. The bullying Stephen Bulmer is suddenly much nicer to his put-upon wife and cowed children. Major Weatherfield, enjoying the book in his bath, is inspired to visit his neighbour Dorothea Bold and propose marriage to her. Ellen King and Angela Pretty, longtime companions, are persuaded to travel to Egypt for the sake of Miss Pretty's health. Miss Buncle's book itself is Silverstream's Golden Boy.

But Miss Buncle needs to write another book, and thankfully a second Golden Boy appears in the shape of Sally, a neighbour's grand-daughter sent to the country to rest. Pretty, seventeen and self-possessed, Sally works her own magic on Silverstream: the Vicar is made to realise that his fiancée loves not him, or his charitable ways, but his money, and Barbara is much improved by a new hat and hairstyle. Barbara's second book draws on the effects of the two Golden Boys and describes the effects of Sally, and the publication of Disturber of the Peace, on Silverstream and on the book's author. Mr Abbott remarks that he "had never before read a novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a woman who wrote a novel - it was like a recurring decimal". The reader of Miss Buncle's Book can move the decimal point further back. Cleverly, Mr Abbott's criticisms of certain aspects of the plot echoed this reader's own; D E Stevenson has anticipated the claims of improbability that might be raised. In Miss Buncle's Book, we read Miss Buncle's book again and again through the eyes of different readers, creating a multiple perspective and multiple layers of fiction, and challenging and reforming our own impressions and opinions.

Aline Templeton's introduction points out the very surprising "warmly described lesbian relationship between gruff Miss King and pretty Miss Pretty" and indeed, their relationship seems to be well accepted and even admired by Miss King's old friend the village doctor, who counsels her against leaving Miss Pretty. Unfortunately he does this by explaining that, as Angela Pretty is weak and feminine and will wither unless strong, masculine Miss King is by her side, but you can't have everything. Interestingly, Miss King makes the same sort of allusion to The Well of Loneliness as appears in EMD's Challenge to Clarissa; the book caused worry to women living together, but they decided to ignore its implications. In both books, this ambiguous reference can either be read as a denial or an avowal of a lesbian relationship; but in Miss Buncle's Book there seems to be little ambiguity elsewhere.

This is a book that will bear re-reading, as Mr Abbott spots; it is funny as well as clever, describing a variety of characters effectively, and keeping them well in play. D E Stevenson was a best-seller in her day, and I hope we may see more of her work from Persephone.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Making Conversation by Christine Longford

This coming-of-age story, reprinted by Persephone, is both witty and touching. We meet Martha Freke, a schoolgirl during the first World War, and follow her through adolescence and on to Oxford. Martha is continually beset by the problems of making conversation: a misunderstanding of the meaning of "adultery", caused in part by her headmistress, leads to her eventual expulsion from school; it is never clear whether she should argue with adults or simply agree with everything they say. The narrative is slightly episodic, and we see Martha take up and drop religious, philosophical and romantic interests, greatly influenced by her peers. She has the advantage of a rather glamourous mother, separated from her father and taking in interesting, sometimes foreign, lodgers; the local Vicar supplies a number of camp young aesthetes and pacifists; and at Oxford she is distracted from her studies by the pleasures of new frocks and hats, and hamfisted flirtations. Unsuprisingly, this ends badly, and Martha is dispatched to Prague as an au pair, her Oxford place given to "the better woman" Martha was keeping out.

The book is slight, but funny; the scene in which Martha, parroting uncomprehendingly the hints given by her mother, suggests that her Headmistress is pursuing a lesbian affair with a fellow teacher, is highly amusing, with Martha mystified by the outrage her comment generates. The depiction of Martha's interview at Oxford will make anyone who has been through this process cringe with recognition. Martha's various useless suitors and her fellow students are wryly observed. It's not quite up there with Nancy Mitford in the humour stakes, as the introduction suggests, but it's good fun all the same.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Happy birthday, Persephone Books

Persephone are 10 years old this year. They were celebrating at one of their London bookshops on Thursday last week, and as I happened to be in London for work, I went along. The place was thronged with readers lured by the three-for-two offer and the promise of champagne and buns. Perhaps they'd all be consumed by the time I arrived, because tepid mineral water was the order of the day, but I made good use of the special offer, and went home with:

William - an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, playwright, suffragette and author of Marriage as a Trade and the lyrics to March of the Women, which I've had the pleasure of singing this year. This was Persephone's first book and I've been hankering after it for some time.

Plats du Jour by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd, a book that brought continental food within reach of British cooks during the late 1950s, or at least within reach of their imaginations.

and finally Miss Buncle's Book which tells of the impact on a small English village when one of their number publishes a bestseller which consists of thinly-veiled portraits of the local characters.

Despite the cock-up on the catering front at their birthday party, I can wholeheartedly recommend Persephone's output to anyone interested in women's writing and the 20th century - although there are some earlier books too for diehard Victorianists. There are some marvellous books to be found in that elegant grey livery, and Persephone are responsible for leading me to some inspiring work, particularly Leonard Woolf's The Wise Virgins which gave me the theme for my MA dissertation, the marvellous Every Eye by Isobel English, and Marghanita Laski's tense, powerful Little Boy Lost, the book that led me to Persphone after reading Nicholas Lezard's review in the Guardian. Happy birthday, Persephone, and here's to another shelf-ful of French grey spines.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves

This Persephone reprint of a 1912 Fabian Society tract was a Christmas present; like A Christmas Carol it served as a salutary contrast to the feasts and presents. Reeves reports on the outcome of an experiment in Edwardian Lambeth, in which the Fabian Women's Group recorded in meticulous detail the income and expenditure of poor families. Reeves emphasises firmly that these are the hardworking poor; the men do not drink, some hardly smoke, the women do not spend their few shillings at the pictures or on a new hat. Instead, the family's income is usually spent on rent for unhealthy, often vermin-ridden rooms, which work out dearer per cubic foot than a house in a middle-class area; burial insurance to avoid the shame of a pauper's funeral at the almost inevitable death of a child; and the bread, margarine and tea which forms the greater part of the family's diet - a diet less nutritious than that provided in contemporary workhouses. When rent, or the price of coal, or the breadwinner's travelling expenses, go up, the amount remaining for food goes down: the women and children will always eat less if that means paying the rent. Unhealthy accommodation and poor diet make for sickly and undersized children, although they are not without spirit: my favourite was Joey, who, when asked to explain the meaning of Christmas, replied "You get a bigger bit of meat on your plate than ever you seen before ... and when 'E dies, you get a bun". Reeves' tone is generally mild and neutral; the simple reporting of the Women's Group discoveries is shocking enough without emphasis, and the point is clearly made: you cannot raise a healthy family on round about a pound a week. In her final chapter Reeves calls for the introduction of a minimum wage, and for the State - which has already taken some responsibility for children by prohibiting child labour - needs to meet the other half of this bargain by ensuring they are properly housed and nourished, through grants to parents. The book gives great insight into women's lives at this time, of both the Lambeth mothers and the rather ghostly "visitors" who helped them track their budgets and expenditures, and who are often kind, sometimes patronising, but usually generous in their view of what makes a good parent and a good housekeeper. I wish it had not reminded me so forcibly of David Widgery's Some Lives, published in 1992 and showing families struggling with the same problems: little money, poor food and poor housing, and consequent illness and death.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Closed Door by Dorothy Whipple

Short stories exploring the themes of parents and children, especially the way parents exploit and control children for their own ease or pleasure. Slightly too keen on a happy ending, but the constraints of family life, especially for adult daughters reared to be used as cheap servants for their parents, were well-expressed. An interesting read with Singled Out in mind, showing how difficult it was for unmarried young women to make their own way in the world without their parents' support and consent, and with echoes of E M Delafield's Consequences, in which a mother's iron grip on her daughter is only broken by escape into a convent.

Every Eye by Isobel English

This was a tiny masterpiece. Not unlike Diana Athill's novel Don't Look at Me Like That, this novel shifts between the youth and middle age of a young woman growing up, and middle-aged, in the mid-century, tracking the sometimes benign, sometimes malign influence of her aunt by marriage. The writing is exquisite, the miniature plot well handled and compelling. Isobel English was a friend and contemporary of Muriel Spark and Olivia Manning, and there are points of comparison with both here.

The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff

I found this hard to read initially, because the family's anxieties over their journey were so acutely realised. But once they had reached Bognor, their pleasures were equally convincing. The family is on the cusp of a change in the way they take their holidays, partly because the two older children are now adults starting to seek their own pleasures, and partly because holidaymaking itself is changing - Mrs Huggett's shabby B&B will no longer do. This change, and the family's dawning perceptions of it, give the novel its tension and interest.