Monday, 2 December 2013

E.M. Delafield

It is 70 years ago today that E.M. Delafield died, much too young, at her home in Devon.  She had been ill for some time, enduring the rather primitive treatments for cancer that were available in the 1940s, but had kept up her cheerful spirits almost until the end - Kate O'Brien remembers her climbing a fig tree in the garden in September 1943, and according to Maurice McCullen she was giving a lecture in Oxford just days before her death.  I had the great privilege of visiting the Delafield archive at the University of British Columbia earlier this year, and of reading the opening chapter of the novel she never finished, an appetising combination of marital disharmony and intergenerational conflict spiced with wartime tensions.  It was impossible not to imagine the witty and moving book this could have made, and the picture of wartime Britain that it would have left us, and then all the other novels that EMD might have written.  By the late 1930s she was really in her stride as a writer; where would her work have gone next?

EMD has been the topic of my PhD thesis and I've spent the last four years reading her novels, short stories, journalism and plays.  When I started the thesis I was slightly nervous of focusing it on her work, wondering if I would get sick of it after several years' intimate acquaintance.  Thankfully, I haven't at all; sometimes I find her work frustrating, sometimes challenging, but always and endlessly interesting.  Middlebrow fiction is supposed to be slight and amusing, but Delafield's work repays re-reading with a careful eye; there can be an awful lot going on in her most frivolous works.  One of the things that is usually going on, of course, is humour, and her jokes also stand up to repeated scrutiny.  The more I read, the more I find to admire, and the more of her journalism I read the more I am amazed by her work ethic.  How on earth did she find the time to write all that?

One of the reasons that I love EMD and the women writers of her generation is that really, they weren't supposed to be there.  A whole generation of women - Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay, Vera Brittain, May Sinclair, Sylvia Townsend Warner, the list goes on and on  - who were brought up in the vague expectation that they would probably marry, who scraped up what education they could get, often against the wishes of their parents, and who somehow transformed themselves into writers, critics and campaigners.  Instead of disappearing from view into respectable matrimony, they left us their books. Anyone who has suffered from impostor syndrome (probably nearly everyone) can take heart from their lives.

There is a particular significance to the seventieth anniversary of a writer's death; in the UK at least, their works come out of copyright in the following year.  I expect we'll see a lot more new editions of Delafield next year, which is good news for her fans.  But I really wish she'd made it to her eighties, and written the novels she probably had planned.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Women Must Work by Richard Aldington

"I want a life that is full and interesting.  I should like to work at something which had a purpose beyond mere money-making.  I should like to mix with people who would make my life fuller.  I want to live with or near a man I love and who would love me, and I think I'd like to have a child, but I don't want that in squalor and misery.  As jam for it all, I'd like to live part of the time in London and part in a lovely place [...] I would try to do things to help other women."

Etta Morison is a plucky Edwardian heroine from a dull seaside town who wants more from life than providing companionship to her narrrow-minded parents and possibly marrying one of the boring young men local society finds acceptable.  Supported by her suffragette friend Vera, she manages to learn typing and shorthand and - by denying herself new clothes and books - saves enough to run away to lodgings in London, where she begins the dispiriting business of trying to find a job.  Her first success, working at an export company, is achieved not because of her skill but because of her good looks: the manager Mr Drayton picks her out of a line-up of young female job-hunters.  When Mr Drayton's interest in her becomes more (or less) than professional, Etta resigns, but is rescued from penury by Ada Lawson, another suffrage campaigner she has met through Vera.  Living as secretary at Ada's London house and at her beautiful country retreat, Dymcott, Etta gets to know Ada's nephew Ralph, and the two fall in love in the summer of 1914.  The war will affect their relationship - and Etta's aspirations for the future - in unexpected ways.

As the quote above suggests, Etta is a forward-thinking young woman, who rejects the tie of marriage and the tiresome constraints of respectability in pursuit of her own life, a pursuit that takes her through war work, a disastrous retreat to a farm, motherhood, and into the dubious world of business.  Richard Aldington is best known for the First World War novel Death of a Hero, which exposed the effect of war on a male protagonist: here he shows how women - especially successful war-workers like Etta, who were criticised for profiting from the war - were maimed and altered by conflict.  The novel has a lot in common with books like Radclyffe Hall's The Unlit Lamp, Winifred Holtby's The Crowded Street  and E M Delafield's  The Heel of Achilles, all novels in which middle-class girls seek some other sort of life than that of a traditional wife and mother  Aldington's novel differs in that he sees his heroine through the war and the twenties, and also in the greater sexual frankness that he has Etta express.  The focus on sexuality also suggests a revisioning of Wells's Ann Veronica, and indeed one contemporary reviewer makes that exact comparison, not to Aldington's advantage.  None of the reviews I found seemed bothered by the sexually explicit content, even though there had been a row over the censorship of Death of a Hero when published in 1929.

The theme that struck me when I thought back over the book was how much Etta is helped out by women, often feminist women.  Ada Lawson gives her a job; a friend in later life, Kitty Mendip, helps Etta to get into the world of advertising; and the indefatigable Vera not only helps Etta to set out on her independent life but props her up throughout, particularly during their futile experiment at 'real living' on a smallholding.  Etta often reaches rock bottom, but it is invariably a female hand that is held out to lift her up again.  The conclusion of the book, in which Etta gets what she wants in some ways, but is compromised in many others, makes a rather ironic mockery of all this sisterly support, especially if we think on to what Etta's life might be like after the novel closes.  I think you could read the novel as a prequel to Delafield's Faster! Faster! and those of you who've done so (or who don't mind being spoilered by my review) will know how well things turn out for Delafield's hard-working heroine.

Etta is sometimes attractive, sometimes infuriating, sometimes sympathetic, and generally well-rounded. Some of the minor characters are a little two-dimensional, although Vera and Ada Lawson do achieve a fuller characterisation - Ada in particular is often defined by what she doesn't do or say, in a strangely effective way - and I also liked the characterisation of stuffy Mr Morison, Etta's father.

Aldington is known as a modernist but the prose style in this novel is straightforward, the timescale in standard chronology, with only the occasional bit of stream-of-consciousness to hint at a modernist approach. I found the narrative voice, which points out when Etta is deceived or deceiving herself with some emphasis, rather like Hardy but without Hardy's sustained ironic tone.  I'm now interested to try Death of a Hero for a point of comparison.  Women Must Work is out of print and there are no electronic copies around, although second-hand ones are available.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Keeping Up Appearances by Rose Macaulay

This is a very difficult book to write about, and it's particularly difficult to explain why it is such a good and enjoyable book without giving away its secrets, secrets which are part of why it is so enjoyable.  Rose Macaulay's novel has to do with identity, its construction and presentation, and its sudden dissolution.  Half-sisters Daisy and Daphne Simpson are modern young women in 1920s London; Daisy is the illegitimate daughter of an upper-class man, now dead, and the expansive, lower-middle-class Lily Arthur, now married to a painter and decorator in East Sheen.  She feels every bit of the awkwardness of her position, aware that the upper-class family who employ her are being deceived, equally aware that her much-loved mother knows Daisy is slightly ashamed of her.  Daisy supplements her income by writing novels and journalism under the name of Marjorie Wynne.  Marjorie dutifully turns out articles on various "Woman Questions": can women have genius?  can they have children and a career?  Daisy rather despises this debate, and the way her editor constantly forces her to consider the 'human question'; she dreams of writing about "inhuman things, about books, about religion, about places, about the world at large, about things of which intelligent people had heard".   Macaulay is very funny at the expense of her own profession and gets well stuck in to the debates about highbrow and lowbrow writing that were prevalent when she published this book in 1928.

So the novel plays with ideas and conflicts about class, gender, and literary status, which makes it sound very serious, but the tone is Rose Macaulay's usual one of arch humour, and consequently it is very funny.  The Folyot family - upper-class progressive intellectuals - are very cleverly drawn, just stopping short of caricature, and Daisy's mother Lily is a complete joy, and a terribly attractive character, with her fondness for a little nip of brandy and her sympathetic understanding of her daughter's position.  The frightful (to Daisy, at least) scene where the Folyots and Daisy's East Sheen family are brought into uncomfortable proximity is painfully hilarious.  The narrative asides are also very witty: I particularly enjoyed Macaulay's observation that Lily achieves "comfort in her ugly house  [...] in the only way which it is ever achieved, by extravagance".  So true, and so elegantly expressed.

This novel is out of print, but there are secondhand copies around, as there was a Methuen paperback reprint in the 1980s.  Simon has reviewed this at Stuck in a Book and there is also a review here at Reading 1900-1950 -  do note the spoiler warning at the top!  However, if you do inadvertently read a spoiler (as I did, because the Methuen paperback includes one on the very first page) it shouldn't affect your enjoyment of this book.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Walking Home by Simon Armitage

This is Simon Armitage's account of his attempt to walk the Pennine Way, travelling against the wind and with the sun in his face from North to South, towards his home village of Marsden in Yorkshire.  Kindly strangers offer him a bed for the night, transport his luggage (a vast suitcase nicknamed the Tombstone) between stops, or simply walk with him along this most demanding of paths.  Every evening, he gives a poetry reading, in venues that range from pubs to village halls to people's sitting rooms, and the trip is funded by the donations people leave in a (clean) hiking sock.  Armitage has written and spoken a lot about walking, and recently was part of the Stanza Stones project, writing  poems to be carved into rocks in the hills between Marsden and Ilkley.

The links between writing and walking are well-explored, not least in Rebecca Solnit's marvellous Wanderlust, but this book adds a great deal more to our understanding of the connection between these two fundamental activities, and of the importance of walking to an individual writer.  It's also a compelling account of what it's like to walk a difficult, arbitrary long-distance path, of the fears and doubts that pull at the sense of achievement.  At the outset of his walk, Simon Armitage realises that he is "the weakest link" in the chain of strangers and friends who are making his walk happen: "Failure seems unavoidable, with humiliation and shame the inevitable consequence".  Lost in the mist on Cross Fell, "a truly terrible place" pitted with shafts from old iron workings, he experiences "the dismal misery of not knowing where I am, or perhaps losing any sense of who I am, as if the mist is bringing about an evaporation of identity, all the certainties of the self leaching away into the cloud".  Near the end, however, he contemplates the possibility of not finishing the Way, a deliberate act that transforms apparent failure into "the triumph of personal accomplishment over public affirmation".

A lot of books about long walks are not terribly well-written and can't avoid the obvious label of pedestrian.  This is not one of those books.  It is beautifully written with an attention to the details of the walks, the readings, the spare rooms of strangers, and especially to the textures of the places Simon goes.  Here is a typically precise and evocative description of walking through a forest:

Stumps of old trees are footstools upholstered in velvety green moss.  Pine resin is the first thing I've smelt for hours.  Except at the very top where their tips bend and flex like fishing rods in some mad struggle, the evergreens absorb the bruising gusts and deafening surges of wind, so there's nothing but static and stable air at ground level where I walk.  And somewhere above me, where their coats are thickest and fullest, the trees have absorbed all suggestion of rain, so down here it's dry and cushioned, every footfall received and relaunched by a thick mattress of spongy,brown needles.  A form of twilight gathers under the canopy, a cloistered stillness.

As well as being beautiful, it is also very funny, attentive to the bathetic moments that inevitably follow feelings of achievement; Armitage is comically self-deprecating about his performance at the readings, something he describes as "little more than a man in a creased shirt holding a book in his hand for three-quarters of an hour".  Every turning-out of the sock after the evening's reading is a source of humour.  I love walking, and have dabbled with shorter long-distance paths, but even if you never want to walk further than the corner shop, this is a really rewarding book, absorbing, funny and moving.

Simon Armitage is undertaking a similar walk on the South West Coast Path in August and September this year, so there will be another book to look forward to soon.

The Twenty-Third Man by Gladys Mitchell

Dame Beatrice Bradley has taken a refreshing sea voyage to the island of Hombres Muertos where she plans to take a little holiday and watch the lizards sunning themselves in the garden of her hotel.  The island gets its ominous name from a cave which houses the mummified bodies of twenty-three men, all seated upright around a table and arrayed in masks and robes.  Dame Beatrice's fellow guests at her hotel are an odd lot: Caroline Lockerby, whose husband has recently found that pub crawls and Teddy-boy gangs are a fatal combination, and her highly nervous brother Telham; Mr Clun, just released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter; Karl Emden, an energetic lothario; and the occasionally resident Drashleighs, who are bringing up their adopted son Clement on a neighbouring island, using those free-thought educational methods soundly mocked in any number of twentieth century novels. 

Then there are the residents, the frankly bonkers Mr Peterhouse and sinister Mrs Angel, reputed to be a white slave trader with links to Buenos Aires; Senor Ruiz and his virtuous daughter Luisa, who own the hotel; and the rest of the islanders, including a group of villagers who live in cave houses and some curiously moral bandits.  Dame Beatrice's restful holiday is disrupted when Karl Emden is discovered in the cave of the Dead Men, taking a mummy's place at the table and wearing his robes and mask, and with a knife protruding from his back.  There are too many possible suspects, and Dame Beatrice has to return to London to find the roots of the murder in the earlier lives of Caroline, Telham and Clun.  Her perky assistant Laura takes her place on Hombres Muertos, bringing her small baby, who proves to be a useful means of getting people to talk to her.  Between them, the two women unravel the mysteries of the island and of Emden's death.

I've never read any Gladys Mitchell novels before and this was rather like a Golden Age murder mystery as written by Ivy Compton-Burnett.  There is lots of dialogue and little exposition; characters move from the hotel terrace to the beach in the turn of a paragraph, with no description of how they climbed down the steps or dawdled on the terrace. There is also a lot of rather arch humour; Dame Beatrice is witty and sharp, and Laura is permanently amused by the assumptions people make about her.   The mystery unfolds as Dame Beatrice thinks about the evidence she uncovers, but we are not party to all her thoughts and assumptions, so the mystery is sustained until the end.  This was pretty light but enjoyable and the style, which effaces clues rather than revealing them, kept me on my toes. 

This book is available, with several others, as a Vintage paperback; there are a few other reprints out there as well.  Gladys Mitchell wrote sixty-six books in her long career, so there is plenty of choice to sample from.  Incidentally if you enjoyed the highly frivolous Mrs Bradley Mysteries, made by the BBC a few years ago, Diana Rigg's incarnation of the character seems not to bear much resemblance to the Mrs Bradley on the page, although she is an equally enjoyable creation.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Potterism by Rose Macaulay

I'm indebted to Kate Macdonald's podcast on this book for reminding me I had it and that I really ought to read it.  Potterism the concept derives its name from Mr Potter, a newspaper magnate, whose vast press empire promotes vague, opinionated, palatable reading material for a conservative and rather dim public who do not want their preconceptions challenged.  This has, unsurprisingly, made him very rich indeed and sees him elevated to the peerage.  His wife writes Potterist fiction under the name of Leila Yorke, turning out novel after novel of a similarly bland and palatable character: 

They were pleasant to many, readable by more, and quite unmarred by any spark of cleverness, flash of wit, or morbid taint of philosophy. Gently and unsurprisingly she wrote of life and love as she believed these two things to be, and found a home in the hearts of many fellow-believers. She bored no one who read her, because she could be relied on to give them what they hoped to find—and of how few of us, alas, can this be said!

The Potters are arch-materialists: Leila's refrain is "whatever life brings we can use", and this tendency has passed itself on to their children.  The Potter twins, Jane and Johnny, are just as much materialists as their parents, but have ranged themselves, after an Oxford education, with the Anti-Potter-League, a loose association of young people who are committed to defeating the deadening influence of the Potter press.  This association centres on Arthur Gideon, a charismatic idealist who is in love with Jane, although he rather despises her.  Jane is a fairly monstrous character, frankly out for what she can get, and what plot there is in the novel focuses around her relationship with Arthur and the consequences of her impetuous marriage to a beautiful young man who her sister loves.

The narrative of the book switches between a rather arch third-person narrator and three of the central characters: Leila Yorke, Arthur Gideon and the more marginal Katherine Varick, a rigorously objective scientist and Anti-Potterite.  These narratives are very well achieved: Arthur Gideon manages to keep up his earnest idealism without being dull, while Leila Yorke's section shows what an awful writer she is but still manages to be funny.  Here is the opening of her section:

Love and truth are the only things that count. I have often thought that they are like two rafts on the stormy sea of life, which otherwise would swamp and drown us struggling human beings. If we follow these two stars patiently, they will guide us at last into port. Love—the love of our kind—the undying love of a mother for her children—the love, so
gloriously exhibited lately, of a soldier for his country—the eternal love between a man and a woman, which counts the world well lost—these are the clues through the wilderness. And Truth, the Truth which cries in the market-place with a loud voice and will not be hid, the Truth which sacrifices comfort, joy, even life itself, for the sake of a clear vision, the Truth which is far stranger than fiction—this is Love's very twin.
Macaulay keeps this up beautifully throughout Leila's narration and it is all highly amusing, particularly Leila's descriptions of her Spiritualist enthusiasms.  But while this is a sharp and funny book, it is also a sad and tragic one; it doesn't have quite the sudden gear change that marks The Towers of Trebizond, however, probably because its view of life in general and journalism in particular is so satirical.  The novel also gives a fascinating  portrait of London society just after the First World War; the consequences of the war sometimes emerge sharply, but can be quickly effaced.  Arthur Gideon has lost a foot during the conflict, but this is dealt with in two paragraphs and barely mentioned again; Jane recognises how she has profited from the war, gaining advantage through the work she undertakes that will help her career afterwards.  The book is also a fascinating insight into contemporary attitudes to cultural values and what would later be called the battle of the brows, being highly critical of populist, commercial literature and journalism, while recognising its ascendancy.

Potterism seems to be out of print, although there are some print-on-demand editions around; you can also get an electronic copy from Project Gutenberg.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Elsie and Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson

Despite reading endless books about women workers during the First World War, I'd never heard of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, household names in their day and the most photographed women of the War.  This is probably because their story is so exceptional.  Elsie, a trained nurse and midwife, and eighteen-year-old Mairi, formed part of an ambulance corps which went out to Belgium in the early days of the war; they became the only women to work permanently within shouting distance of the front line at their first aid post in the little Belgian town of Pervyse.  Working independently, outside military organisations, their experience of the war was probably unique among women.

Elsie and Mairi had met before the war through their shared passion for motorcycling, and it was Mairi's ability on her bike that brought her to the attention of Dr Hector Munro when he was selecting members of his ambulance corps.  Mairi recommended Elsie to him, and the two women would work together for the rest of the war.  Elsie is an impressive character: she divorced her first husband for his violence and infidelity - no mean thing in Edwardian England - and trained as a midwife in the East End of London.  A strong-minded and determined woman, she helped develop medical understanding of how to treat war casualties, insisting that they be given proper rest and first aid before they were transported to a hospital, saving many lives and giving great comfort to those who would not have survived the journey.  She also brooked no suggestion that the Belgian front line was no place for a couple of women to work, either defying or ignoring orders to leave that came from various military authorities.

Mairi is no less impressive, a young woman dealing stoutly with scenes of death and devastation from her first days in Belgium, and enduring the privations of war service from their first aid post, a series of cellars in the bombed-out houses of Pervyse.  She had defied her mother to come to Belgium, although her father had encouraged her and for a short while joined the women, taking on the job of servicing their ambulances.  Both women made regular fund-raising trips back to Britain, speaking to large audiences and appearing alongside the music-hall stars of the day; Mairi's old school was very proud of their alumna and raised a great deal of money to support the women's work, which was entirely dependent on donations.  As well as caring for the wounded and joshing with the German troops dug in only a hundred yards or so from their post, the two women formed a little social centre for Belgian and British soldiers; Elsie eventually married a Belgian officer, changing her name from the memorable Knocker to the impressive if awkward Baroness de T'Serclaes. 

Diane Atkinson's book brings their remarkable story to light, giving a vivid impression of the hardship and effort they endured in Pervyse, and finishes the story by telling of their later lives.  Both women also entered war service during the Second World War and both were repeatedly honoured for their work.  As well as writing their story, Diane Atkinson is also campaigning for a statue of Elsie and Mairi to be erected in London.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

 I came to this book through a recommendation from Kate Macdonald in her excellent series of podcasts, Why I Really Like This Book.  I'm with Kate on this one - I really like Miss Pym Disposes.  Published in 1946, but clearly taking place in interwar England - the Second World War is never mentioned or hinted at - Tey's novel is a good companion read to Gaudy Night.  Before the novel starts, Lucy Pym has escaped via a timely inheritance from her work as a full-time French teacher; having leisure in which to read and think, she has - much to her own surprise - written a popular and best-selling book on psychology.  Now something of a celebrity, she has been asked by her old school friend Henrietta Hodge to deliver a guest lecture at the Leys Physical Training College, where Henrietta is now Principal.  Lucy at first finds the environment of the College intolerable - the first bell of the day rings at half-past-five, and the food is revolting - but as she gets to know the students she is rather seduced by the Leys and the opportunity it gives her to spend time with the young.  It is the end of the academic year, and the students are tense under the pressure of examinations and the annual Demonstration of their gymnastic prowess; the graduating students are also anxious about getting a job.

Henrietta, as headmistress, allocates her students as she sees fit when the Leys is asked to fill a vacancy; the drama of the novel revolves around her choice to give a plum job, teacher at a prestigious girls' school, to Barbara Rouse rather than Mary Innes.  Barbara Rouse is a brilliant athlete but no scholar; Mary, with her intriguing face, the sort of face "around which history was built", is that tiresome thing, a high-achieving all-rounder.  Everyone at the Leys thinks that Mary should have been given this job - except Henrietta, who obstinately insists it will go to Rouse (the students are habitually known by surnames in the novel).  This decision causes an initial row and an eventual tragedy, and Miss Pym finds herself with knowledge that might change many lives.

The title comes from a quote from Thomas a Kempis, "Man proposes, but God disposes".  Miss Pym has several opportunities - all of them unwelcome to her - during the novel to acquire information and to choose whether and how to use it - in short, to take upon herself the responsibility for disposal.  Will she - because of or despite her knowledge of human psychology - get it right?

The atmosphere of the Leys is both appallingly healthy - all the girls and most of the staff are fit and well-nourished - and emotionally strained.  The Anglo-Brazilian student Teresa Desterro, known in the College as the Nut Tart because of her origins and her glamorous clothes, tells Miss Pym that "you cannot expect them to be normal", that the stress of the final term sends all the girls somewhat insane.  Sometimes this can be a little sinister: when the girls hear that Miss Pym is going to stay on for a few days, she hears a chorus of voices through her bedroom window: "Miss Pym, we are so glad that you are staying [...] Yes, Miss Pym.  We are glad.  Glad.  Miss Pym.  Yes.  Yes.  Glad, Miss Pym".  No wonder she then hears an inner voice suggesting she get away from the Leys by the first available train.  In a novel of this period set in an all-female establishment, it's impossible not to wonder if lesbianism is implicit, and indeed powerful affections between women are an important part of the plot, but Tey approaches this so subtly that I'm still not quite sure what she was really implying, and her implications are mediated through Miss Pym, who may have her own reasons for further obscuring the meaning.

This is an artful, fascinating little book that resonated with me for a long time after I finished it, and I quite want to read it again now to see how it was done.  The book is full of charming and interesting characters and Lucy Pym is not the least of these; she is a long way from the starchy spinster the title might lead you to expect.  When her hand is kissed by a famous actor, "somebody behind tittered, but Lucy liked having her hand kissed.  What was the good of putting rose-water and glycerine on every night if you didn't have a little return now and then?" The Nut Tart herself is a joyful and exuberant character, and the sub-plot involving the famous actor shows Miss Pym off to good effect.

The narrative is witty and combines light and dark to great effect.  This was my first Tey and I see there are lots of others (and a series of books in which she appears as a detective) so I have plenty more to enjoy.

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.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

I'm a bit of a Sayers novice, having only got around to reading Whose Body? last year.  Gaudy Night fits in with the theme of my current PhD chapter, so I had an excuse to finally read it.  This is one of those books that I've read a lot about, as it crops up frequently in critical works, so much so that I was well aware of whodunnit before I opened the book.

Gaudy Night starts with Harriet Vane's visit to her old Oxford college, the fictional Shrewsbury College, which is holding the titular Gaudy, a reunion dinner for former students.  Harriet has, somewhat unwillingly, agreed to go to meet an old friend she hasn't seen for many years.  Harriet's enjoyment of the Gaudy is mixed; the old friend proves bland and disappointing, but she is pleased to renew her acquaintance among some of the dons.  Harriet has a certain notoriety about her; she is a writer of crime novels and she has been previously implicated in a murder case.  Both of these matters bring some unwelcome attention and involve her more deeply in Shrewsbury affairs.

It emerges that unpleasant practical jokes are being played on the inhabitants of Shrewsbury.  Harriet herself received an anonymous note during the Gaudy, and found an obscene drawing blowing about in the quad.  Summoned by the Dean of the College, Harriet finds that the anonymous letter-writer has been busy at Shrewsbury and now proofs of a new book have been muddled and damaged beyond use.  The Dean is unwilling to call in the police, but perhaps Harriet can help.  She returns to Oxford on the pretext of doing some academic work, and begins to investigate.  Off-stage for much of the novel, Lord Peter Wimsey nevertheless makes his presence felt; Harriet's thoughts are caught up by his reiterated proposals of marriage.  He also appears occasionally to help Harriet and charm the women of Shrewsbury.

The theme of this book is really the question, what should women do with their lives?  Should they marry, work or both?  If they work, what work is suitable?  Is being a wife really a job in itself?  Harriet is caught between these choices, drawn to the academic life but pulled back again by the idea of marriage to Peter.  It is this theme that both drives the plot and Harriet's emotional journey.  Sayers has a good look round it, with voices raised in support of women's work in general and women's scholarship in particular, but also antagonism towards the working woman and especially the working mother clearly on display from some characters.

Compared to Whose Body?, this book is vastly more sophisticated in terms of structure and style; the characters are more developed and there is much less comedy, although I think Sayers must have been quite keen on the farcical crime scene; Peter's nephew Lord Saint-George also provides a touch of humour, as does the undergraduate who falls in love with Harriet.   The plot evolves fairly slowly (a previous reader of my library copy has written "STILL NO CRIME" on page 39) but the book is very absorbing even when you do know how it turns out.  Now I plan to read Strong Poison and get the first part of Harriet Vane's story ...

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Diary without Dates by Enid Bagnold

This little book is an episodic, fragmentary account of Enid Bagnold's work as a VAD nurse during the First World War.  Based at a hospital somewhere on the outskirts of London, she tries to soothe and cheer the patients, sees her talents for bandaging and splinting improve, chafes under the authority of the professional nurses, and listens to the stories of the men under her care.

Her hospital is a separate, calm, quiet place, with dimly lit corridors and wards, a place of retreat for healing, recovery and sometimes death. She describes her patients, their often hideous injuries, without flinching but with compassion; she is sharply critical of the lack of pain relief that is given to them, especially to those who will soon die.  The men under her care sometimes talk about the war, but more often talk of their lives away from the war: jobs, sweethearts, families.  The men appear briefly, tell their names and a little bit of their story, and then fade away, but Enid seeks out their brief variety:

Watchmakers, jewellers, station-masters, dress-designers, actors, travellers in underwear, bank clerks ... they come here in uniforms and we put them into pyjamas and nurse them; and they lie in bed or hobble about the ward, watching us as we move, accepting each other with the unquestioning faith of children.
Enid, of course, has also been plucked out of her natural sphere, covered up by a uniform and set down in a hospital, managed by women not of her own class.  There are elements of comedy in Enid's account of her relations with a managing Sister who does not much care for her, and in Enid's frequently-expressed sense of her self as rather ridiculous:

I lay in my own bath last night and thought very deep thoughts, but often when we think our thoughts are deep they are only vague.  Bath thoughts are wonderful, but there's nothing 'to' them.

The narrative, such as it is, deals with Enid's own attitude to the war and its effects, and her views are complicated.  She has great compassion and sympathy for her patients, and likes to talk to them, but she has no time for those who would bring the war to a premature end and by the end of the book she asserts that "every sort of price must be paid" so that the war may be won.  But at the same time she recognises that the army is training more men "to fill just such another hospital as ours".  Her book makes no attempt to reconcile her understanding of the futility of war with her belief that this war must be fought and won.  These contradictions are part of the "divine astonishment" that she can now only feel occasionally; otherwise there is no astonishment, only acceptance of the contradictory emotions and thoughts of wartime.

This book is almost the opposite of Testament of Youth, not only in terms of Enid's thoughts on the war but in terms of length - my copy is 125 pages long - and style, which is fragmented and impressionistic rather than detailed and realistic.  Lovers of Testament of Youth will, however, find much of interest here, as will anyone interested in women's experience of the Great War.  This seems to be out of print, although there are print-on-demand copies available and the Virago edition (which has a sympathetic introduction by Monica Dickens) is available second-hand; you can also read it online at Project Gutenberg.  

Book Snob's review tells us a bit more about Bagnold and the consequences of her writing this book; reviews have also been written by Fleur Fisher, Geranium Cat, and Just One More Page who shares my astonishment that patients were allowed to smoke as much as they wanted - a full ashtray is a sort of achievement.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

2012 reading challenge

I'm sure you're on tenterhooks about my reading challenge. I read 25 of the 50 books I hoped to read, discarded a couple because I discovered there were good reasons that I hadn't read them, and found that another couple of books were more reference titles than books to sit down and read from cover to cover.  

Of the ones I did read, there were a few undiscovered gems, some that went straight on the Oxfam pile, but a lot of generally enjoyable reading ensued from the challenge.  However, I haven't really reduced the proportion of unread books in my library, thanks mainly to a bumper year for book tokens, something I find very difficult to complain about.  I have got more into the habit of returning charity shop finds to the charity shop they came from, especially for crime and modern fiction.  Possibly having 10% of your books unread is a healthy proportion, a useful resource to draw on should funds dry up or libraries close.  Possibly I'm just better at acquiring books I want to read than I am at actually reading them. 

There are a few blog posts to come about the books I did read, but there will be no 2013 reading challenge as 2013's big challenge is to finish writing my PhD thesis.   A very happy new year to anyone reading this, and best of luck with any challenges you may meet in 2013.