Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Apricots at Midnight by Adèle Geras

My housemate Melissa (not to be confused with a different housemate Melissa, who has also written the odd book review for SIAB) wanted to borrow a book, and ended up with one I was given but have yet to read - Apricots at Midnight (1977) by Adèle Geras. As always, I encourage my friends to write reviews for SIAB. This is seldom taken up, but thankfully Melissa said yes, and wrote this fab review! Do (as always) make my guests feel welcome in the comments section... and enjoy the review:

Small pleasures. I picked this book off Simon’s shelf at his first words of description, without waiting for the rest: ‘That one is a children’s book.’ I love books written for children; the unpredictable-but-safe plotlines, the freshness of the detail, the firing of the imagination; and this one did not disappoint.

Actually, this is the sort of book that as a child I didn’t really appreciate. It’s one of those books which describes someone’s childhood memories, and why, I would wonder, should I read about another person’s everyday life when my own was so interesting and there were plenty of books about daredevil escapades, fantastic worlds, or true-to-life explorations? It’s only through growing up (a little bit) that I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of the everyday and of simple, happy memories.

This book is built around a quilt; a quilt sewn together, patch by patch, by the narrator’s elderly relative Aunt Pinny, from fabrics picked up throughout her life. Each patch is tied to a story, the cue to a memory of long ago. The apricots of the title relate to the first ball Pinny attended, a little girl sneaking down to join her working mother for a midnight snack.

A child’s perspective is so different: everything is fascinating, but nothing is truly surprising. For Pinny, the line between make-believe and reality is not particularly important; there’s no disappointment when the adventurer Major Variana admits his limp was gained by dropping a crate of oranges on his foot rather than being bitten by a crocodile, and no questioning of his reassurance ‘That was the only made-up story, I promise you’. In her old age, Pinny retains this childlike ability to take her experiences at face value, so that the tone of the book hinges slightly on the fantastic.

The individual salient events, people and places slowly build a picture of the beauty of Pinny’s daily life. The emergent character in the backdrop is her mother: thrown from prosperity at the death of her husband, and fighting to build a life for herself and her daughter on the strength of her dressmaking skills. She is the constant in Pinny’s life, tying the book together, providing stability and a structure. It is she who first suggests the quilt and teaches a tiny Pinny to hold a needle and make her first stitches. Like a fairy godmother, she can always produce something from whatever nothing is to hand: a garden for a convalescent Pinny from scraps of flowered fabric; an extra sixpence when Pinny’s allowance isn’t quite enough for the music box she wants to buy; an overnight job at Mrs Triptree’s ball so that Pinny can see the ladies in their beautiful costumes.

There is a chance for Pinny to be involved in everything she does – sitting in on meetings with unusual and exotic guests, contributing a not-so-successful stuffed zebra to the soft toy stall at the church fair, cutting out the jam tarts for a picnic. Her tears and remorse on the day she is delayed picking Pinny up from school, and gratitude to the teachers who took the child home for tea and entertained her, is a moment of revelation for Pinny:
It occurred to me then that I had not once, even in the worst depths of my misery, thought what it must have been like for her, knowing she would not be at the school gates, knowing that she was making me more and more unhappy every minute she was not there.
Her selfless love and care for Pinny comes out at every turn. On one occasion, she covers for her daughter, losing a rich client in the process, when the little girl recovers a roll of cloth that she believes belongs to the future king and queen of Borneo but was actually the client’s curtains. I fell in love with her at the point when she stretches a tiny budget to provide Pinny with bulbs for her garden:
I do not remember that we had trouble finding the money. I was too excited at the prospect of my own garden. But now I can see that my mother must have gone without something she needed or wanted, in order to save what was necessary.
Her generosity is not reserved for her daughter alone: when Pinny asks a visiting gentleman at a loose end to stay, she hesitantly but not unwillingly opens her home to him until he is able to find his feet again.

To my delight, one of the stories turns out to take place in Oxford. This is Pinny’s first taste of what she calls ‘the country’. ‘”It’s not the proper country, Pinny,” my mother warned me. “Oxford is a large town, and quite near.”’ Unperturbed, Pinny’s imagination runs wild: ‘Milkmaids in mob caps and farmers in knee-breeches, small houses with roses growing round the doors, stiles, carthorses, shepherds coming down from the hills at sunset, wooden bridges curving over brooks.’

The reality is quite different, of course, but turns out to be no less exciting. Not least, St Giles’ Fair, ‘the most splendid, exciting, glorious fair in the whole world’, as Pinny’s Oxfordian friends, Miles and Kate, delightedly inform her. The description is priceless, a snapshot of the fair a century before I experienced it. Some things are quite different – the long-banned prizes of live goldfish, the penny charge for each game, the steam powering the organs. The exhilaration of the fair, however, is unchanged over generations, and the bright colours of the rides which draw the children’s attention, the reckless spending on hopeless attempts at skewering a prize, the loud music and bustle of the crowd, sound tantalisingly familiar.

Ten patches, ten stories; yet a quilt is so much bigger than that. I’m left wondering what else is in there; the stories that Pinny would not tell till her listener was older, the ones she perhaps would never tell at all? 

Monday, 30 March 2015

Virginia Woolf's Garden

For one of my Christmas presents, my brother made a very impressive sacrifice - by buying me a book about an author he is, ahem, not fond of. Sadly, he does not love our Virginia, but that is not a unique perspective. (More on Colin's reading, or lack thereof, another time perhaps... if I can bring myself to admit that my twin brother hasn't finished reading a book in over six months...) (Sorry Colin!)

Anyway, this was one of my favourite Christmas presents, and will probably appear on my end of year favourite books - mostly because of how sumptuous it was to read. And by 'read', I mean 'look at photos'. 

Which isn't to say that there is no writing - not by a long chalk. Caroline Zoob, who was tenant of Monk's House for quite a few years and whose efforts largely helped restore the garden, writes winningly of the process and the Woolfs' lives. But the beautiful photography by Caroline Arber was certainly my favourite thing about the book. It really is beautiful, and made me (with my complete ignorance of all things gardening) want to take up horticulture. I pretty swiftly shifted to wanting to take up visiting more gardens that other people have put effort into, but never mind.

Using Virginia and Leonard's diaries and letters, alongside other resources, Caroline recreates what the experience of creating this garden was like for both of them, and traces its development alongside their lives - past Virginia's death in 1941 and all the way to Leonard's in 1969. There aren't all that many contemporary photographs of V and L in the garden,but what resources there are have been wonderfully mined. And it becomes very clear that the garden was Leonard's passion particularly - with his experimentation with rare bulbs, unusual arrangements, and complex garden design. Virginia's primary delight was her writing shed, and she jokes about envying the garden for the attention it receives from Leonard.

If one knew nothing about the pair, there is enough biographical detail in Zoob's writing to make the book completely accessible, but without overdoing it for those of us already very familiar with the Woolfs' lives (which, after all, is probably a high percentage of those who would want to read a book called Virginia Woolf's Garden). The area I would have loved more detail is what happened to the house after Leonard died; how it came to the National Trust, and how various residents experienced living there. There are only two or three pages which discuss Zoob's life there - and, considering this is an almost unique perspective, I would have loved more...
When we arrived at Monk's House we knew very little about Virginia. To begin with, I found the intensity of some of the visitors disconcerting. On a day when the house was closed, I came home to find a woman weeping at the gate, overcome by the thought that Virginia's hand had touched that very gate as she left the house on her way to the river. I did not have the heart to tell her that Virginia had left the garden through a different gate at the top of the garden, long since disused. Instead I made soothing noises and offered to make her a cup of tea.
Perhaps Zoob modestly thought people wouldn't be interested - but, oh, I would certainly have been!

Something I wasn't quite so interested in was the element of garden design in the book. I certainly recognise that many people would love these sections, but it was like double Dutch to me - or, indeed, like Latin. At least they came with pretty pictures. And I was very impressed by the tapestry garden design, also (I think) by the photographer Caroline Arber, that appeared throughout - for example:

Of the making of books about Virginia Woolf there is no end - and I, for one, am delighted about it. This one has to go near the top of Woolfenilia, and I heartily recommend it as a coffee table book (if such things still exist) and as a fascinating, detailed account to read thoroughly too.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Song for a Sunday

I don't love The Beatles, I have to confess... but this version of Let It Be by Aretha Franklin is incredible.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

A Curious Friendship (sneak preview)

I'm going to be writing about it more fully in the next issue of Shiny New Books, but (since today is publication day for this book) I thought I had to bring A Curious Friendship by Anna Thomasson to your attention. Especially since I saw her give a lovely talk about it at the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday, to a gratifyingly large number of people.

Why gratifyingly large? Because the people A Curious Friendship is about aren't really household names. It's a biography of the friendship between Edith Olivier and Rex Whistler. Now, a lot of my blog readers will know who they are, and may have read Olivier's glorious 1927 novel The Love-Child (which I wrote about in my DPhil at length) - but perhaps won't know much else.

Thomasson's book takes us from their meeting, when Olivier was in her early 50s and grieving her beloved sister, and Whistler was a 19 year old art student newly arrived in a Bright Young Thing set. Their friendship would last two decades, and encompass many achievements and emotions. And A Curious Friendship is a really, really excellent book. Whether or not you're interested in them, you can't help but be impressed by the compelling way Thomasson tells their story, and the way she brings two quite different trajectories into one whole. As she said in the talk, it is neither about Olivier nor about Whistler, but about a third entity: the two of them together.

As I say, my full review will be out soon - but don't wait til then; go and grab a copy. It's a real delight, and an emotionally involving one (I cried a bit, not gonna lie). My one hope now is that Thomasson will be allowed (and willing) to edit a collection of their letters. Please.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers

I'm afraid (to give you advance warning) this is going to be one of those reviews about a book that I finished ages ago. So, apologies if I get a bit vague. It's also a review about a novel that I'd been intending to read for about a decade: Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers. Back when I joined dovegreybooks in 2004, it was the novel that everyone was talking about. Dutifully, over the following ten years, I bought five novels by Vickers - but had never read any of them until somebody chose Miss Garnet's Angel for my book group. So, was it worth the wait?

Well, I remain conflicted. I didn't love it as much as I thought it would, but that is largely because it wasn't quite what I expected. I thought it might be a charming tale of a spinster wandering around Venice, heartwarming and witty in turn, and perhaps not without a healthy dose of the fey and whimsical (which I am sometimes - nay, often - in the mood for). Well, that's not quite what it was.

It does start off in a similar vein (as you may well know). Julia Garnet's closest friend dies and, lonely and unattached, she decides to go to Venice for six months. Before long she has managed to become entangled with a handsome art dealer named Carlos, a young boy who runs errands for her and whom she unsuccessful tries to teach English, and a young man and woman engaged in restoring a church or something. Incapable of making friends in England, she seems beset with them here.

So far, so charming. But did I mention that Miss Garnet's Angel mirrors the Apocryphal account of Titus? And that that story is also retold in sections between chapters (that, I have to confess, I started skipping)? This is a technique with some literary precedence - Stella Benson did it in the 1930s with Tobit Transplanted, which I've yet to read - but I don't know the original story well enough to notice how close the influence was.

So, why was I not entirely sold? Well, I guess I found the writing and plotting just a bit blah. Here's an excerpt I noted, though I forget why...
The notion which had come to Julia Garnet, as she lay looking at her fingers twisting the fringe of the pearl-white coverlet (which, she had learned, during the course of the Signora Mignelli's care of her, was a survivor of the Signora's once extensive dowry), was that there existed in life two kinds of people: those who tangled with their fate, who took issue with what life brought them, who made, in short, waves, and those who bore heir circumstances, taking life's meaning from what came to them, rather than what they wrested from it.
It seemed to her, lying watching the bars of the sun cross the white walls and making them jump from side to side as she tried the child's experiment of winking alternate eyes, that from her limited knowledge St George, Florence Nightingale and Old Tobit fell into the first class, while Socrates, Jane Austen and Tobias fell into the second. Jesus of Nazareth, she decided after further contemplation, belonged to both categories - and so possibly did Karl Marx.
And I suppose there's no reason why Vickers should have created a sweet character in Miss Garnet; I have myself to blame for my expectations. I'd have loved either a sweet character or an amusingly cantankerous one. What we actually got was rather an unpleasant woman, I thought. She thinks, of a friend who visits, 'There were horrible depths of meanness in her character - no wonder she found herself on her own now.' Well, Julia G, you're also on your own now. And how come you absolutely loathe your closest friend, who has made the effort to visit you?

These things I could perhaps have forgiven, but the tone of the novel takes a serious knock on a couple of occasions, where Vickers launches into sexual controversy (including paedophilia) for no obvious reason - and certainly no sense of consistency in the novel.

I'm aware that these may not be popular opinions, particularly given the praise I've heard lavished on Vickers over the years. I didn't hate the novel by any means (if I had, I'd probably have reviewed it far more quickly! I love writing those reviews, when of sacred cows), but I did feel rather disappointed. It simply didn't do very much for me, and left me a tiny bit underwhelmed. It was fine. Which does not a compelling review make, does it?

Shiny New Books competition

Just a quick note to say, guys, there are four awesome books available in the Shiny New Books competition - one chosen by each of the four editors, including my choice of Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf - and all you have to do for a chance to win is tell us about your ideal book club members (in the comments on the homepage).

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Back from holiday (with, yes, books)

The Thomases had a very lovely time in beautiful Pembrokeshire. We were right by the coast, and in a gorgeous area - a house about every half a mile, and nothing else but unspoilt, craggy countryside. So we spent our time reading, walking, and playing games. Here we are...

Our Vicar and Colin did rather more walking than me and Our Vicar's Wife; we turned our attentions to painting instead. We have curiously different styles - Mum does beautiful, accurate watercolours. I go for bold colours and slapping it on and seeing what happens... here is what happened.

We went to Haverfordwest in search of secondhand books (well, the others may have had different reasons for going, but that was mine); sadly the two the town had were now closed, but I bought a couple in an Oxfam. Then we headed over to St. David's, a city with fewer than 1800 residents (my kind of city!), and stumbled across this bookshop. It's tiny, and crammed to the rafters - including one wall of books which all seemed to be from the early 20th century. That sort of faded red hardback that calls to me... and all very cheap, which helped me add another eight to the pile for less than £8 in total. And here they are:

Dames of the Theatre by Eric Johns
I remember seeing the name May Whitty on the front, and now I forget who else was there (and I'm sat in a different room now...) but it's dames of the theatre from the generation before Maggie and Judi.

My Dear Timothy and More For Timothy by Victor Gollancz
I keep buying biographies and autobiographies about publishing sensations, but have yet to read any of them... Gollancz addressed his to his grandson Timothy, which (as a concept) could be brilliant or mawkish...

The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbuy by David Gadd
I can't resist a book about Bloomsbury now, can I?

The Knox Brothers by Penelope Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald's biography of Charlotte Mew was astonishingly good, and I'm sure she'll be equally adept turning her hand to the Knox brothers.

House in the Sun by Dane Chandos
I very much enjoyed Abbie by Dane Chandos, so would love to read more. 'His' (it was a duo) most famous book seems to be Village in the Sun, so I'm assuming this one is related?

The Humbler Creation by Pamela Hanford Johnson
I've read two books by PHJ - loved one, disliked the other - so I need to try and third and settle the score one way or the other.

O, The Brave Music by Dorothy Evelyn Smith
I read one of Smith's novels a couple of years ago and enjoyed it, so it seemed wise to nab another.

Adventures of Bindle by Herbert Jenkins
I've got four Bindle books now, so I really should get around to reading one of them.

The Mystery Man by Ruby M. Ayres
How do I know about Ruby Ayres? Not sure, but the name rang a bell and it was 20p, so how could I go wrong? Anybody read her?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Shiny New Virginia Woolf

I think there are a whole bunch of things from Shiny New Books Issue 4 that I haven't mentioned yet - and Issue 5 is less than a month away!  So, for Virginia Woolf fans, here are some links to explore (since I wrote THREE posts about Woolf for that issue, folks):

1.) Essays on the Self
A lovely edition, from Notting Hill Editions, with a selection of some of Woolf's best essays (and... some others too.)

2.) A Room of One's Own
You probably don't need me to tell you what a ground-breaking, phenomenal, and brilliant book this is - but, in case you do, click through.

3.) Five Fascinating Facts about Virginia Woolf
I love a Five Fascinating Facts post, and had fun putting this one together about Ginny.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Our Vicar's Wife's Persephone Prize essay

And, as promised - here is Mum's entry to the competition!

‘How did I get here?’

The life-changing choices of ‘superfluous’ women and ‘expendable’ men in works by seven writers from the Persephone bookshelf.

We all make choices throughout our lives. In this essay I aim to explore the concept of ‘choice’ by looking at some of the diverse outcomes dictated by even the smallest choice in six Persephone novels and with reference to ideas in Ruth Adams’ A Woman’s Place. The effects ofchoice’ are not restricted to women, but I will start my exploration here.

Choices made on the cusp of womanhood can dictate what kind of life a ‘girl’ will live. The ‘girl figure (as opposed to the ‘woman’ in so many books on the Persephone bookshelf) is often regarded as an unwritten page, to be moulded by the man who claims her.

In Family Roundabout, Richmal Crompton writes of Mrs Fowler in these terms, as she recalls the early days of her marriage to Henry:

‘He had been ten years her senior, and she had fallen in love with him at their first meeting, realizing even then how unlike she was to the wife he wanted. He wanted, she knew, a ‘little woman’, clinging, adoring, self-effacing; ready to accept and defer to his judgement – a replica, in short, of his mother. And deliberately, determinedly, she had set to work to make herself that woman, becoming, for love of him, stupid and docile, hiding her intelligence as though it were some secret vice’.[1]

In many of the portraits of adult social life, mores, and manners, the ‘Persephone woman’ is defined by rigid strictures often imposed by more powerful figures in society. Sometimes these are men, sometimes women of an older generation.  The expectations thus placed upon the young, mould their choices and narrow their sphere. We watch them struggle with their desire to move out into the wider world, snared and captured by the subtle pressures exerted by home and family - as seen in Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, where a seemingly innocent arrangement brings a family’s security tumbling down in ruins.[2]

Choice of employment (or none), of marriage partner, and of personal happiness appears constrained. From within a cage of respectability, the young woman may perhaps look enviously on her more sophisticated and independent sister. However, the ‘unhappy woman’, the ‘woman jaded by the world’, a figure of hollow pride and flawed character[3] is designed to attract dislike or in some cases pity from the reader. As Henry James pointed out in What Maisie Knew[4] and The Awkward Age,[5] ‘Knowledge’ (of the world) sullies. The girl who adopts worldly values, who sneers at society or holds its values cheap, finds every back turned and all her influence – and life choices - gone. Such attitudes remained powerfully entrenched in British society, well into the twentieth century.

It was all too easy, in the Edwardian and post Edwardian era, for a woman to become ‘superfluous’. As Ruth Adam writes in A Woman’s Place:[6]

‘On the whole the man’s world which came to an end with the Great War was a pleasant enough one for wives – at least compared with any previous period. But it was a very harsh world indeed in which to be a spinster. Spinsters had to face the fact that they were a nuisance to everybody, because there was no provision for them to be independent of a man’s help, in an economy set up by males for males.’

A woman without a husband could remain a daughter or a niece, or become an aunt – like Anne Elliot,[7] or a poor relation – such as Fanny Price,[8] of a century before. But for many, the reality would have been more akin to Daphne du Maurier’s un-named heroine, who would become the second Mrs de Winter, but whom we first meet as the poorly paid companion of a tyrannical American woman, whose character has been ruined by too much money and too little understanding.[9]

As we look at women whose characters have been determined by the society around them, it is refreshing to meet the occasional (and usually central) character who sets out to buck the system. The woman who, side-lined by spinsterhood, poverty or the bullying management of others seeks her destiny outside the group, comes into print as a breath of fresh air in a claustrophobic world. In some of my favourite books this woman is not the feisty heroine of twenty-first century literature, but instead a quiet, unassuming character who, with almost accidental determination finds herself popped, like a mollusc out of her confining shell, to bask on a sunnier shore.

D E Stevenson’s delightful Miss Buncle[10] repeatedly asserts that she has ‘no imagination’, but her ‘golden boy’ (clearly a figment of an active imagination) transforms the village and the lives therein.  A seemingly innocent and simple soul, she wreaks havoc as her neighbours see themselves drawn ‘warts and all’. Such characters offer a ray of hope and the possibility of a better chance in life for one with the courage to seize it.

Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew[11] accidently tumbles into an entirely different world when she innocently answers an advertisement. Thrust into the Bohemian orbit of Miss LaFosse, she finds herself, for the first time, both visible to her employer and regarded as a person with thoughts and opinions worth hearing. As New York reviewer Priya Jain writes:

Miss Pettigrew, after all, is a woman who finds her true self amidst girl talk and female solidarity. And though she thrills at the romantic hi-jinks that are erupting around her, it's the relationships between the women that drive the narrative. As Miss LaFosse presses her for help with lover number two, Miss Pettigrew transforms. "For the first time for 20 years some one really wanted her for herself alone," Watson writes, "not for her meager (sic) scholarly qualifications. For the first time for 20 years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton."  [12]

Such a scenario might suggest that the remedy to a ‘world run by men’[13] lies with women alone. But Watson does not exclude men from the provision of happiness and the expression of generosity and kindness. Michael’s love for Miss LaFosse is broad enough to offer Miss Pettigrew a way out of poverty, insecurity, and obscurity. Her happiness is bound up in his own desire for happiness.  One will secure the other. If Watson had so wished, the story could have ended there, but the inclusion of Joe in the last paragraph includes a ‘beau’ for Miss Pettigrew. The happiness of the two women is balanced by that of the two men.

In Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout the need to break away from family is explored through the eyes of ‘two widowed matriarchs who embody opposite kinds of mothering’.[14]Aykroyd speaks of this inter-war period as ‘one of upheaval for women’.

To be married,’ she writes, ‘and have children was no longer a woman’s only acceptable destiny’.

But for all her sharp insight into the inequalities, faults and human frailties underlying family life, Crompton nevertheless manages to entertain and amuse her readers. She draws characters with redeeming features – ones with whom the reader can sympathise.

All these catalysts could be thought of as quaint or exaggerated characters, but the whole point of their delineation is to inject simplicity and honesty into a tired and artificial world: the weary world so often portrayed being that of Britain between and around the two world wars. Certainties are gone, and in reaction to this, society has sought to impose a rigid set of petty rules which will keep everyone in their place. Any escape is worth the throw of the dice. Deliciously, in many of the books of the period, the wicked get their just deserts – but not in all.

In Consequences,[15] E M Delafield uses a restricted palette, focusing on a small community and a narrow social class. She sets the book between 1889 and 1908. By this strategy she is able to minutely explore the frustrations and restrictions of her own childhood, and emergence into adult life. Her subjects are girls from whom the full truth is hidden. They are forced to make their choices ‘in the dark’. Hers is a sharper, more incisive pen. Her description of Alex’s disintegration when her beloved Mother Gertrude is about to leave her shows the raft of unreality upon which Alex has based her life choices. Alex believes she is dedicated to God, but is confronted by the truth: she desires only the love of Mother Gertrude.

‘She knew that she had thought herself to be answering a call of God, when she had been hearing only the voice of Mother Gertrude…
Physical pangs of terror shot through her from head to foot as she realized to what she had bound herself, which now presented itself to her overstrung perceptions only in the crudest terms...
…There was nothing, anywhere.
And with that final certainty of negation came a rigidity of despair that no terms of time or space could measure.’

The tragedy of Alex’s choices works its way through to the end of the book. Perhaps the saddest line of all is the very last, spoken to Cedric, by Barbara:

‘…Alex was such a pretty little girl!’

However, women are not alone in this accident of choice.  During the twentieth century racism restricted opportunity for countless people, giving birth to the ongoing struggle for recognition, freedom of action, and equal rights for all, regardless of race, creed or colour. In Dorothy Hughes’ The Expendable Man [16]we are confronted by a set of outcomes dominated by racism. The ‘expendable man’ is one Dr Hugh Densmore. He picks up a hitchhiker named Iris Croom. He is black and the girl is white. When she is found dead, Densmore is accused of her murder, and in the racist culture of Arizona during Kennedy’s presidency, the probability is that Densmore will pay for a crime he did not commit. In 1963 America a black man was of as little account as single women in early 20th century Britain.

Densmore’s plight is triggered by his choice to pick up the solitary white girl – goaded into it by the racist chanting of street thugs. A simple choice, which seems insignificant, comes to assume huge significance affecting the lives of many. This is a recurring theme throughout the books I have selected. In all of them choices are made for all manner of apparently trivial reasons - ranging from a dip in the interest rate[17] to the muddling of two advertisements, [18] and from the accident of geography (bringing disparate families into collision)[19] to the trivialities which drive them apart.
The ‘expendable’ men and ‘superfluous’ women in these books all begin life as innocents, moulded by time and place, society, manners, mores, and accident. Growing and maturing, they are forced to make choices which are sometimes based on partial knowledge – or deliberately contrived ignorance. Sometimes they are coerced into a course of action, other times they may have to choose the lesser of two evils. Some texts examine their plight with great sensitivity and seriousness (as in Consequences), others pick out the ridiculous and take the reader on a roller-coaster of entertainment (as in Miss Pettigrew) only touching on the pathos and the unfair luck-of-the-draw which makes one character privileged and another deprived.

In these texts we see riches versus poverty, black versus white, and truth versus lies. The human condition is seen to be affected both by huge upheavals in world history and by the minutiae of daily life. However, it is foolish to believe that our era has a better, truer grasp of the meaning of freedom of choice than those which went before us. We must acknowledge the delicacy of the pens which deal with the treatment of men and women, creed and colour, and social and educational status with such wit and generosity: those of Crompton, Delafield, Hughes, Stevenson, Watson, and Whipple (not forgetting the insights of Adam in A Woman’s Place).

I write this on a day of autumnal gales and lashing rain, and I consider myself lucky to curl up before a glowing hearth, surrounded by the elegance of my chosen Persephone books; dipping into the wit and wisdom of a time when the central heating didn’t always work, academic study for women was thought unnecessary or unnatural, and girls were schooled only for marriage. The times are different, but the writers are just the kind of people with whom one could enjoy afternoon tea and a debate about the role of choice in the shaping of a life. I can imagine a heated argument about earnestness as opposed to frivolity as the best tool to sculpt the message of a book; and the scones might grow cold as Crompton does battle with Delafield over the matter of servants. This is their delight – they used what power they had to write about what they saw about them. In subtle ways (and thanks to Persephone) their power reaches into the 21st century: the power to make us look askance at our own lives. Have we accepted restricted choices? Are we part of a generation which seeks to restrict the choices of others? Do we, through ignorance or lack of interest, consider our own happiness as more valuable than that of our weaker neighbours?

Our world is much smaller today than when these authors were weaving their stories. We have every possible aid to help us discover the outcomes of actions we take. But a few hours enjoying the incisive wit of these seven writers might sharpen our vision. Hopefully, with a wry smile and genuine feelings of warmth towards our fellow men (and women) we will find ourselves better equipped to make good choices. We may even begin to understand ‘how we got here’ and, more importantly, see more clearly the way that we should go.

[1] Chapter One, Richmal Crompton: Family Roundabout (1948) Persephone Book 24
[2] Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance (1953) Persephone Book 3
[3] E.g. Mrs Featherstone Hogg in D E Stevenson: Miss Buncle’s Book (1934)  Persephone Book 81
[4] Henry James: What Maisie Knew (1897)
[5] Henry James: The Awkward Age (1899)
[6] Ruth Adam: ‘The Superfluous Women’ in A Woman’s Place (1975) Persephone Book 20
[7] Jane Austen: Persuasion (1817)  Chapter 7 (little Charles’ fall) ‘It was an afternoon of distress, and Anne had every thing to do at once; the apothecary to send for, the father to have pursued and informed, the mother to support and keep from hysterics, the servants to control, the youngest child to banish, and the poor suffering one to attend and soothe; besides sending, as soon as she recollected it, proper notice to the other house, which brought her an accession rather of frightened, enquiring companions, than of very useful assistants.’
Chapter 12… Captain Wentworth’s: “no one so proper, so capable as Anne.”
[8] Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (1814) Chapter One: "There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris," observed Sir Thomas, "as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up: how to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin; and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. I should wish to see them very good friends, and would, on no account, authorise in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different. It is a point of great delicacy, and you must assist us in our endeavours to choose exactly the right line of conduct."
[9] Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca (1938) Chapter Four: (Maxim and the girl who becomes the second Mrs de Winter) “Your friend,” he (Maxim) began, “she is very much older than you. Is she a relation? Have you known her long?” I saw he was puzzled by us.
“She’s not really a friend,” I told him, “she’s an employer. She’s training me to be a thing called a companion, and she pays me ninety pounds a year.”
“I did not know one could buy companionship,” he said; “it sounds a primitive idea. Rather like the Eastern slave market.”

[10] D E Stevenson: Miss Buncle’s Book (1934) Persephone Book 81
[11] Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938) Persephone Book 21
[12] Priya Jain (March 05, 2008) http://www.focusfeatures.com
[13] Ruth Adam: Chapter One in A Woman’s Place (1975) Persephone Book 20 ‘At the beginning of the reign of King George V, it was taken for granted that the birth of a daughter must be a disappointment, in any walk of life, because men were in short supply and it was a man’s world.’
[14] Juliet Aykroyd: Preface to Richmal Crompton: Family Roundabout (1948) Persephone Book 24
[15] E M Delafield: Consequences (1919) Persephone Book 13
[16] Dorothy B Hughes: The Expendable Man (1963) Persephone Book 68
[17] D E Stevenson: Miss Buncle’s Book (1934) Persephone Book 81
[18] Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938) Persephone Book 21

[19] Richmal Crompton: Family Roundabout (1948) Persephone Book 24

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Off away...

...I'm off on hols for a week, with plenty of books! I've scheduled a couple of posts, but only a couple... see you soon :)

Thursday, 12 March 2015

My Persephone Prize essay

The Persephone Prize was announced yesterday - many congrats to the winner; their winning essay will be published by Persephone soon, I believe. I didn't expect to make the shortlist, and (indeed) did not, but it was only today that I realised that I'd accidentally sent an early, incomplete draft... doh! But I'm sure I wouldn't have won anyway.

I asked them if I could publish my essay here - and they said I could. And so below is my (complete! I think... I'm now wondering if I've misplaced the final version...) essay about forms of adoption in some Persephone titles; soon I'll be posting my Mum's (aka Our Vicar's Wife's) entry too. I just thought, since we spent time writing them, we may as well share our efforts with the wider world! Here goes... 

‘I must try to make her feel at home!’: forms of adoption

Persephone Books, it could be argued, performs the work of an adoption agency. That is one, at least, among its many roles and activities. Novels, biographies, cookery books, and more, are found neglected and unappreciated – and given new homes; firstly between dove grey covers, joining a united family bearing the same likeness, and then in actual homes of readers across the world. It is appropriate, then, to look at the forms of adoption which appear in a selection of Persephone’s novels. While actual adoption is not (I believe) given centre stage in any Persephone novel – although some, like The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham, seem almost to be crying out for it – there are versions of it which can be seen in several, particularly in Doreen (1946) by Barbara Noble.

Looking through the Persephone catalogue, it quickly becomes apparent how many of the books show how wartime disrupts families – which is, of course, a truism. The Second World War splits up a family in the moving non-fiction work On the Other Side: Letters to my children from Germany 1940-46 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckberg; it creates an unusual family in Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country, where Cressida Chance’s large home (‘big enough to be a hotel’[1], as one character thinks) houses an increasing number of paying guests; it is the catalyst of a search for family and identity in Little Boy Lost by Marghanti Laski.

In Doreen, the Second World War does both actions: it disrupts a family and it creates a new one, while continually asking what it means to be a family. Doreen is the young child who is evacuated to the countryside, to be away from war-torn London. Her mother is poor and fiercely protective, but recognises that she must place her child’s safety over her own happiness (and the picture is complete with a dead child neighbour, Edie, who acts as a warning of what could have happened had Doreen not moved to safety). If adoption is the transferral from one home to another, then Doreen has not only done this, she has had her first home changed out of recognition (‘it was a come-down living in two rooms after you’d had a whole house to yourself’[2]), and has already experienced life in another quasi-home: the air-raid shelter that she finds diverting but hardly domestic.

Although shy on arrival, it is not long before Doreen has found her place in her new surroundings:

With a child’s chameleon adaptability she had acquired the colour of her new background. She was the daughter of the house, petted by Francie, teased by Geoffrey, exercising an affectionate authority over Lucy’s giggling simplicity. She was as much at ease as she had been at home, and her domain was wider.[3]

Noble does not paint a portrait of a cruel or alienating couple; Francie and Geoffrey Osbourne (Doreen’s new ‘parents’) are welcoming and kind, although with different perspectives. Perhaps almost as important as Doreen’s adoption (albeit temporary) into this household is her transition to a new home and new surroundings. Doreen explores not just the people that make up a family, but the idea of a landscape and a building as a sort of family; it is familiarity with a landscape and architecture that ultimately creates a home.

The home is extremely important in many Persephone novels (and not just those that focus a title upon it: A House in the Country, The New House, The Home-Maker, House-Bound). Few could forget the vivid interior scenes in The Victorian Chaise-Longue or the cosy domestic bliss of Greenery Street. Doreen is one of Persephone’s explorers of the domestic:

Left to her own devices, she liked to from room to room, mounting first the flight of stairs to the floor which contained her own bedroom and then the further flight which nowadays was very little used and which led to what had been the servants’ bedrooms and a lumber-room. She was fascinated by the thought of such a large house to contain three persons.[4]

Alongside this (to Doreen) fantastically large house, she is presented with a series of microcosmic or skewed homes – not just the air raid shelter, but the Obsournes’ shed, and the toy house she is given as a present. The image of the home recurs, multiplying itself through the novel, and echoing the central problem facing this form of adoption that falls short of adoption: the multiplicity of options facing Doreen. For, of course, as a friend says to her sympathetically: ‘“You’ve got like two mothers, haven’t you, Doreen?”’ The ‘like’, interrupting the flow of the sentence, demonstrates that the sentiment cannot be simple. She does not have two mothers; she has not transferred from one family to another (or one home to another), but remains part of two families, and torn between them: ‘She cried because she had learned to love more than one person and it seemed that this was some kind of crime.’[5]

A similar situation arises in Family Roundabout (1949) by Richmal Crompton, where Mrs Willoughby and Mrs Fowler are in unspoken competition for the role of grandmother – the former ‘outraged’ when the latter appears to usurp her position; ‘That this woman’s futility should have brought Jessica to a sense of duty when her own authority had failed!’[6] These non-romantic rivalries between women – particularly those that are not voiced – evoke a certain distinct variety of domestic anxiety and unsettledness. The difference here, of course, is that both of Crompton’s women have equal standing – relationally and socially. Much of the tension in the dynamics of Doreen develops from the class distinction – which comes to a head when Mrs Rawlings visits (as Geoffrey queries, ‘“Is Mrs Rawlings going to take her meals with us?”’[7])

In Doreen, the third corner of the triangle comes in the form of Doreen’s father, but he is never a serious contender for a family, and – in the swift-moving train and pipedream house – does not provide a stable option for a home. Doreen’s loyalties are torn between these two homes, and only in the throes of a fever is she able to embrace both options: ‘Doreen herself seemed to regard them without discrimination.’[8]

Mrs Rawlings senses the struggle, and thus gives one of the few mentions of ‘adoption’ in the novel:

[There] wasn’t any reason for carrying on as if they’d adopted the child. She’d soon put a stop to that kind of talk. Some people – give ‘em an inch and they’d take an ell. But it was a nice room – it was nice for Doreen to have a room to herself.[9]

Like Doreen herself, who relishes the ‘privacy and seclusion of her own bedroom’ and the ‘charm of possession’,[10] Mrs Rawlings recognises the importance (articulated so famously by Virginia Woolf, although perhaps not envisioning quite this set of circumstances) of a room of one’s own. Independence is somehow found in this warren of dependencies.

The idea of adoption was not brought about solely by war, of course, nor was evacuation the concept taken to its extremes; Leonora Eyles writes it Unmarried But Happy of ‘several cases where a lonely woman has taken on a little orphan of the air raids (I imagine quite illegally, but there was not much law in those dark nights) and made for it and herself a happy home.’[11] But, in Francie, we see elements of the stereotype held up by those discussing adoption earlier in the century: the woman who adopts for the sake of her own emotional needs. In her 1977 memoir Woman in a Man’s World, Rosamund Essex wrote about adopting her son, David, at the beginning of the Second World War: ‘in the days when I adopted there were so many abandoned and unwanted children that it was far better to have at least one parent rather than none’.[12] (The choice facing Doreen – of two mothers – was not, of course, facing David.) From an early age, Essex had wanted to adopt to avoid becoming ‘an acidulated old spinster’;[13] precisely the variety of person that some writers in the interwar period had warned against adopting. The advice given in the many guides for (or treatise on) spinsters considering adopting was: don’t. For instance, Laura Hutton writes in The Single Woman and Her Emotional Problems (1935) that ‘child adopted because the adopting mother’s affections are starved is [likely] to suffer serious psychic damage’[14]

Francie is not a spinster, of course, and her marriage is a happy one. But her childlessness (and her unhappiness about this) is an overarching theme in the novel: ‘“I’ve always felt sorry for children who weren’t really wanted. […] That’s partly why I’ve always wanted children of my own – because at least they couldn’t ever feel like that.”’[15] It is even suggested that she chose her husband because she ‘wanted someone [she] could mother’; the same phrase used in a (fairly repellent) book called Wasted Womanhood: ‘Life is without meaning to her unless she “mothers”.  It may be her husband […]’.[16] While individual women have, of course, always found fulfilment in different things and different aspects of their lives (some wanting career, some wanting romantic love, some wanting filial love, and many desiring a combination of the above), there was a dominant line of thought in the early 20th century that childless women had ‘an incessant aching longing for the fulfilment of that primary feminine instinct’, to quote Mary Scharlieb’s pessimistically-titled The Bachelor Woman and Her Problems.[17]

This is certainly true for Francie. While there is no indication that Doreen suffers ‘serious psychic damage’ (at least from this particular avenue), it quickly becomes clear that she is initially more comfortable with the casual, undemanding affection of Francie’s husband – who, at the outset of the novel, isn’t particularly enthusiastic about the idea of temporarily adopting an evacuee. He remains affectionate but not overwhelmed by the need for this surrogate daughter:

Was he abnormally detached or Francie abnormally involved? And if the latter, was it with Doreen as an individual, the affectionate, impressionable little girl who had fitted so smoothly into their household during the past six months, or with a symbol of childhood only, the representation of an idea? Long before Doreen had made her appearance, there had been a niche prepared for her.[18]

Earlier in the novel, Noble writes that it ‘did not surprise Francie to find that the child she had imagined and the child who had materialised should blend so smoothly.’[19] She becomes almost a Frankenstein figure. The same sentiment is seen in a fantastic novel of the 1920s: Edith Olivier’s The Love-Child. In this instance, the child has quite literally been ‘imagined’ and ‘materialised’; an imaginary childhood friend, Clarissa, is inadvertently brought to life by the lonely spinster, Agatha. This scenario seems entirely born from the starved emotions discussed by some interwar commentators, and Olivier’s novel shows how this miraculous event cannot be controlled by the woman; her ‘love child’ eventually changes and leaves her.

In Doreen, of course, there is no fantastic panacea. Olivier’s Agatha has to go through the formalities of filling out adoption forms, to explain the sudden appearance of Clarissa, but Francie does not have even this procedure to turn to; inherent in the evacuation is its finiteness. ‘The happiness she brought them was a borrowed happiness. She was on loan to them’[20] More than that, the home that is enlivened by Doreen’s presence will also revert back to its previous state – and it is this domestic consideration that is on Francie’s mind: ‘One day Doreen would go back. This house which bounded her existence would be once more a house without a child. And that would be hard to bear.’[21]

Perhaps Franice and Geoffrey would have been good candidates for adoption. This form of it, though, only emphasises the absence of children in the longterm home; Noble’s novel expertly shows the possible heartbreak for all concerned as the aftermath of the kindness of evacuation.

And now to turn briefly to another Persephone novel, published not long beforehand but with a very different form of adoption. If the Second World War brought about disruption to families through bombings and evacuation, then the First World War left its own legacy. Agatha (in The Love-Child) was of the generation that had ‘two million surplus women’ (the much-mentioned figure of how many more women there were than men in the 1920s). This, necessarily, led to large numbers of women who neither married nor had children, chastised by those interwar commentators, such as the one who proclaimed in 1920 that ‘it behoves all who can in any way assist in the replenishing of the diminished population of these islands to do so to the best of their ability.’[22] Also among their number, perhaps, is Miss Pettigrew – of Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938).

Although the reader is not vouchsafed elaborate detail about Miss Pettigrew’s past, and the ‘surplus women’ situation may or may not have been the cause of her current life, but we know early in the novel that ‘there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.’[23] Later on, she confides that she has never been kissed, but ‘still ha[s] Feminine Instincts. Deep in the female breast burns a love of the conquering males.’[24] Yet it is not really sexual love that is foregrounded in the conclusion to the Cinderella story Miss Pettigrew experiences. She is thrown into a frantic and complex world of romance, intrigue, and even drugs – and, yes, she closes the novel proudly announcing her ‘beau’ – but ultimately the happy ending to the book is Miss Pettigrew’s own form of adoption. 

There is no child at the centre of the adoption; it is not even entirely clear who is adopter and who adoptee. It takes place in the final pages, when Miss LaFosse (who has introduced Miss Pettigrew to this new world) asks Miss Pettigrew to look after her house:

“Michael and I are getting married. Quite soon. But Michael has a kink. He will live in a big house with big rooms. He says he spent all his youth with a family of nine all cooped in a little flat with the walls closing in on him and never a room to himself, and He Will Have Space. He has his eye on a beautiful house now, but it is immense. We are both to live there. I can’t look after houses. I know nothing about looking after houses.”[25]

In the same way that Doreen and Francie see their relationship through houses, and interaction with them, so Miss LaFosse talks only of the house – repeated almost like a mantra in this speech. Michael’s childhood resembles Doreen’s (although she is able to think fondly of the ‘familiar, cluttered rooms and friendly, crowded streets’[26]), and he is equally beguiled by the idea of an expansive home; one that exceeds necessity and thus permits freedom. Miss Pettigrew’s response is not unlike Doreen’s excitement at the room of her own:

Miss Pettigrew began to tremble. It was little a great light bursting with a radiance that spread and spread. It was fear gone for ever. It was peace at last. A house to run almost her own. How she had longed for that! Marketing, ordering, like any other housewife.[27]

It is not the husband that makes the housewife, in her case; it is simply the house. Or, rather, the home; like Doreen, Miss Pettigrew has experienced a series of quasi-homes – acting as a governess, rather than part of the family – and the spectre of another looms on her horizon: ‘“There was nothing for me but the workhouse, and now you offer me a home.”’[28] She has been adopted into the household. Her temporary stay with Miss LaFosse – effectively an evacuation from her dreary life into the safety of companions and friends (even if the danger of other aspects) – is made a fixed and permanent adoption, albeit an unconventional one. And, at the same time, she is also adopting Miss LaFosse and Michael – becoming, in some way, their caregiver and parent figure.

[1] Jocelyn Playfair, A House in the Country (1944) (London: Persephone Books, 2002) p.19
[2] Barbara Noble, Doreen (1946) (London: Persephone Books, 2005) p.8
[3] Doreen p.59
[4] Doreen p.89
[5] Doreen pp.125f
[6] Richmal Crompton, Family Roundabout (1949) (London: Persephone Books, 2001) p.206
[7] Doreen p.56
[8] Doreen p.206
[9] Doreen p.63
[10] Doreen p.89
[11] Leonora Eyles, Unmarried But Happy (London: Victor Gollancz, 1947) p.33
[12] Essex, p.48
[13] Essex, p.15
[14] Hutton p.138
[15] Doreen p.16
[16] Doreen p.87; Charlotte Cowdroy, Wasted Womanhood (London: Allen & Unwin, 1933) p.82
[17] Mary Scharlieb, The Bachelor Woman and Her Problems (London: Williams & Norgate, 1929) p.54
[18] Doreen p.165
[19] Doreen p.48
[20] Doreen p.217
[21] Doreen p.110
[22] Joseph Dulberg, Sterile Marriages (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1920) p.10
[23] Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (1938) (London: Persephone Books, 2000) p.2
[24] Miss Pettigrew p.208, p.220
[25] Miss Pettigrew p.231
[26] Doreen p.38
[27] Miss Pettigrew p.232
[28] Miss Pettigrew p.233