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‘Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers’ by Valerie Lawson ***

Since I was a child, I have loved P.L. Travers’ original Mary Poppins stories.  Like many of my generation, I am sure, my first introduction to Mary Poppins was in the incredibly saccharine Disney film adaptation, but I was absolutely thrilled to discover the original, sassy Mary not long afterwards.  I know relatively little about the author, aside what I gleaned from the Saving Mr Banks film, and when I received a copy of journalist Valerie Lawson’s Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, I was eager to find out what else I would discover.

9781476762920Helen Lyndon Goff, who later adopted the pen name Pamela Lyndon (P.L.) Travers, was born in Australia.  Her father, an Irishman ‘nowhere near good enough’, died in his early forties, ‘his life unfulfilled, his family left destitute and forced onto the charity of rich but emotionally chilly relations.’  Travers was the eldest of three girls, and went to live with her maiden aunt for a time when her youngest sister was born, and again with her mother and siblings after her father died.  Travers moved to London in 1924, in order to pursue her career in journalism.  Here, she ‘became involved with theosophy, traveled in the literary circles of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, and became a disciple of the famed spiritual guru Gurdjieff.’  She published the first Mary Poppins book in 1934.

We learn about Travers’ ancestors very early on, as well as the ways in which their decisions affected her life, both as a young girl, and later as an adult.  After the passing of her father, she went through life determined to find her own ‘Mr Banks’, a father figure who would look after her.

In her preface, Lawson writes: ‘[Mary] Poppins has lasted because she is as peculiar as she is kind, as threatening as she is comforting, as stern as she is sensual, as elusive as she is matter of fact.’  She goes on to acknowledge that P.L. Travers stipulated that she ‘did not want a biography written about her after her death’.  As is clear from her biographical subject, she disregarded this, and began her five-year “Pamela Hunt” that took her down ‘unexpected paths, both geographically and emotionally…  Her life was much more than I ever imagined.  My life expanded in the writing of hers.’

Mary Poppins, She Wrote has been split into three separate sections, which correspond to the three stages of womanhood which Travers believed in: ‘The Nymph’ (1899-1934), ‘The Mother’ (1934-1965), and ‘The Crone’ (1965-1996).  Some of the chapters open with an imagined narrative, which features Lyndon as a character.  These are often short, and I would argue that, although they are nicely written, they do not add a great deal to proceedings.

Lawson ponders throughout the various inspiration for Mary Poppins.  She writes of Travers’ fascination for fairytales when she was a child: ‘She liked the wickedest women most…  She was fascinated by the evil forces of the stories, the black sheep, the wicked fairy.’  She then goes on to examine the quite traumatic elements of Travers’ childhood, and the effects of her ‘cool yet unconventional parents’, which culminated in her ‘thriving on what was difficult.’  Throughout, there is a lot of literary criticism of the Mary Poppins books, as one might expect.  Whilst interesting, these sections are sometimes a little longwinded, and the details feel a little repetitive from time to time.  The same can be said for the exploration of Travers’ forays into spirituality.

Mary Poppins, She Wrote has a rather low average rating on Goodreads.  Other reviewers have written about some of the qualms they had with Lawson’s book; these almost always mention her exemplary research, but also her ‘sloppy’ writing, and a feeling of general disinterest in Travers’ own work.  However, as the only comprehensive biography of the rather mysterious P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins, She Wrote is the tome which curious readers will inevitably pick up.

I found the prose of Mary Poppins, She Wrote fitting given the subject matter, and was compelled to read the entirety of the book, but I must admit that after finishing it, I do not feel as though I know a great deal more about P.L. Travers.  Some elements of her life were glossed over, and I would have appreciated more depth of information throughout.  In consequence, Travers still comes across as a figure shrouded in mystery.

Whilst interesting enough, Mary Poppins, She Wrote had an approach which was perhaps a little too detached.  It did not feel, at any point aside from what she stresses in her preface, that Lawson was really connected with Travers.  The construction of Mary Poppins, She Wrote is just a little too choppy.  I would not discourage anyone from reading it, as Travers was a fascinating woman by all accounts, but it is definitely not the most thorough work of biography which I have picked up this year.

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‘Elisabeth’s Lists: A Life Between the Lines’ by Lulah Ellender ***

I remember seeing an interview on television with Lulah Ellender, the author of Elisabeth’s Lists: A Life Between the Lines.  This biography of her grandmother, which she pieced together after being given a book of the varied lists which she had made during her lifetime, really piqued my interest, and I subsequently borrowed a copy from my local library.  I thought that the book would be surrounded by quite a lot of buzz; rather, I was surprised to find that when I looked on the Goodreads page to mark it as ‘currently reading’, the book had just 30 ratings, and 8 reviews.

This Granta publication has been described by the Guardian as ‘a hauntingly beautiful 9781783783830meditation on life and death’, and by the London Review of Books as ‘a perceptive and original book… as much a meditation on the meaning of lists as it is a biography.’  The Spectator says that ‘Ellender researches, uncovers, interprets, comments and responds to the life of her grandmother with uninhibited insight.’

The inspiration for Elisabeth’s Lists came when Ellender’s mother gave her ‘a curious object – a book of handwritten lists’.  From these, all of which were, on the surface, quite ordinary, she began to ‘weave together the extraordinary life of the grandmother she never knew, from Elisabeth’s early years as an ambassador’s daughter in 1930s China to her marriage to a British diplomat and postings in Franco’s Madrid, post-war Beirut, Rio de Janeiro and Paris.’  The lists in Elisabeth’s notebook were written between 1939 and 1957, the year in which she died.  They encompass many things; from ‘an inventory of household linen to a record of the number of eggs her chickens laid over the course of a year, Elisabeth itemised her days, page after page…’.

Ellender, facing the impending death of her mother from cancer, finds solace in these lists.  The ‘small red-brown marbled hardback journal’ was passed to her, she says, as her mother was ‘not sure what to do with it and thinks I might like it.  But there is a spark in her eyes.  She knows it is no ordinary book; she is giving it to me so that I can find things, dig down into my family’s past and show her the treasures I uncover.  She is entrusting me with her mother’s story.’

Ellender goes on to note in her prologue the rules which she made for herself whilst writing Elisabeth’s Lists: ‘It is important to me that Elisabeth’s story is told as faithfully as possible, but I am also acutely aware that this is my reading of her, and that other people may have constructed a different version of this same person.’

I am a prolific list-maker myself, and read with interest the historic practices of list-making which Ellender covers, and which span as far back as writing itself.  She writes of the power which making a simple list gives us: ‘We formulate endless lists of our top films, books or music, of things to do and places to see before we die, as though they might provide both proof of our existence and a legacy for future generations.  We believe that a list can make us immortal.’

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One of Elisabeth’s lists

The chapters within Elisabeth’s Lists are split into geographical places in which Elisabeth either lived, or spent time.  Born in 1915, Elisabeth’s ‘short life was characterised by movement and displacement.  The book of lists mirrors this constant shifting, with numerous lists for various diplomatic postings and items to be put into storage.’  Many of these postings, and the subsequent instability of her life, were bound up with the mental illness which Elisabeth suffered from for a long time.  When living in Peking (now Beijing) in her early twenties, for instance, Ellender writes: ‘Some days her world is blanketed in a crepuscular shroud, people and objects are dim and far away and she feels as if she is standing alone in a vast, empty expanse.  Sometimes she just wants to go home.’

This concept of home, too, is an interesting one, which I feel deserved more space in the book.  When the family move back to London from Peking, Elisabeth is initially excited, but negativity soon begins to creep in: ‘She knows that she “ought” to be feeling happy to be back but she is, in fact, lost and desperate…  She also describes times of feeling unbearably restless, her mind in turmoil, of being violently antisocial and staying in bed for two days of depression.’  There is much historical content included in Elisabeth’s Lists, and for the most part this has been well handled.  Ellender particularly excels at writing about wartime, and how her grandmother, stationed in Madrid, dealt with it.

When Elisabeth gets married, her book of lists ‘becomes a reference point from which she will run her household, and to which she will turn in times of anxiety and bustle and joy.’  She records inventories of wedding presents, of property; lists of guests for the many parties which she threw; menus for entertaining…  Photocopies of some of Elisabeth’s lists have been included in the book; unfortunately, these are often blurred, faint, and not at all easy to read.  This is a real shame, given that the entire biography was inspired by, and is based around, them.

I prefer reading biographies of ordinary people to famous ones; they tend to offer so much more with regard to the real world.  Nothing about Elisabeth can really be considered ordinary; she travelled so much more than many people of her time, and lived with a lot of privilege.  As Ellender notes, ‘Elisabeth’s was an extraordinary existence: a curious mixture of maintaining a British way of life, and discovering the authentic essence of a place.  Looking back over the places she lived we see an existence built on impermanence and marked by contrasts.’

Elisabeth’s Lists is certainly readable, but I did feel as though some portions of it were quite overwritten.  The prose feels a little too flowery, and too overdone at times.  There is an imagined narrative from Elisabeth’s perspective, which uses the present tense; for instance: ‘It is morning.  Elisabeth crouches on a patch of dusty soil, draping some clothes on a rock to dry.  A canvas tent flaps behind her, and nearby, a kettle splutters over a fire.’  Similar sections have been placed randomly throughout the narrative, and seem like something of a creative writing exercise, really; they add very little to the main body of text.  Throughout, Ellender asks a lot of questions which she never then proposes an answer to; this practice became annoying quite quickly.  The assumptions which she makes, too, are unnecessary.

I liked the central idea behind this biography, but overall, it did not feel entirely satisfying.  Elisabeth’s Lists really appealed to me as a reader, but some sections felt overworked.  The assumptions and imagination of Ellender feel repetitive very quickly, and the tone is overwhelmingly simpering in places.

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One From the Archive: ‘Anne Frank: The Biography’ by Melissa Muller *****

In honour of Anne Frank’s birthday on the 12th of June, I thought it would be fitting to repost a review of one of the best biographies I feel I have ever read.

I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year.  I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up.  The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’.  The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.

9781408842102I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites.  It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber.  In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’

In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny.  Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’  Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography.  At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’  Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’

Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative.  The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944.  This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis.  After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy.  They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.

The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city.  Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her.  Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’  A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent.  Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up.  ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age…  The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well.  What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’

Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family.  This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding.  Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed.  Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’  Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions.  Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged…  Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it.  It didn’t suit her character.’

Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates.  Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small.  Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto.  When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank.  His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers.  But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special.  With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything.  He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything…  Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious.  And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’  Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.

Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam…  Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time.  In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’

Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible.  The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout.  Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.

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‘Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s’ by Anne Sebba *****

As readers of my reviews will already know, books which focus on a very particular part of history – a short and defined time period, a distinct group of people, or a specific geographic location – are ones which I continue to seek out.  Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s contains all three elements, and I therefore eagerly picked it up.

9781780226613In June 1940, German troops occupied Paris, changing the lives of all of the capital city’s citizens in many ways, dramatically or otherwise.  Rather than look at a specific group of women  – either those who collaborated with the Nazis, or those who chose too defy them – Sebba examines the ‘moral grey area which all Parisiennes had to navigate in order to survive.’

In order to learn about her subjects, and what they went through during the Occupation, as well as afterwards, Sebba conducted ‘scores’ of interviews and read many firsthand accounts.  She successfully draws together testimonies of native Parisiennes and those visiting the city, for whatever reason, on a temporary basis: ‘American women and Nazi wives; spies, mothers, mistresses, artists, fashion designers and aristocrats.’

The Times Literary Supplement hails her achievement ‘richly intelligent…  Voices, belonging to women of all classes, ages and educational backgrounds, weep and sing through this extraordinary book.’  Author Edmund White notes that Sebba ‘understands everything about the chic, loathsome collaborators and the Holocaust victims, and their stories are told in an irresistible narrative flood.’  Sarah Helm (whose wonderful book If This is a Woman I reviewed here) praises Sebba for not offering ‘an explanation as to why some women chose one course, others another, rightly letting their actions and compelling life stories speak for themselves.’

In her prologue, Sebba recognises: ‘Echoes of the past continually resonate in modern-day France, because what happened here during the 1940s has left scars of such depth that many have not yet healed.  There is still a fear among some that touching the scars may reopen them.’  She writes that her aim is to ‘examine in these pages what factors weighed most heavily on women, causing them to respond in a particular way to the harsh and difficult circumstances in which they found themselves.’  Sebba goes on to say: ‘I want the pages that follow to avoid black and white, good and evil, but instead to reveal constant moral ambiguity, like a kaleidoscope that can be turned in any number of ways to produce a different image.’

Les Parisiennes is incredibly detailed, and impeccably researched.  A great deal of social history has been included, along with tiny details which have perhaps been overlooked by other researchers.  Along with the many women Sebba has chosen to include, she also writes about such things as the very exclusive air raid shelter set up at the Ritz in Paris, which was ‘soon famous for its fur rugs and Hermès sleeping bags.’  Sebba transports her readers to the city, which, despite the dire lack of fresh food, and the scary presence of soldiers, is still largely recognisable in the twenty-first century.

Sebba has included a very helpful ‘cast’ list of all of the women whom she writes about in Les Parisiennes.  These women are variously actresses, the wives of diplomats, students, secret agents, writers, models, and those in the resistance movement, amongst others.  She has assembled a huge range of voices, which enable her to build up a full and varied picture of what life in Occupied Paris was like.  Rather than simply end her account when the German troops leave, Sebba has chosen to write about two further periods: ‘Liberation (1944-1946)’, and ‘Reconstruction (1947-1949)’.  Les Parisiennes is, in consequence of a great deal of research, a very personal collective history.

Les Parisiennes has been incredibly well considered from start to finish.  The impartiality which Sebba gives each account works very well, and allows her to write about so many courageous, inspiring, and formidable women, all of whom did something to shape the city in the war years, and beyond.  The original evidence has been well pieced together, and the chronological structure, which seems perhaps obvious in such a book, serves it well.  Les Parisiennes is thorough and exact, whilst still remaining highly readable.  It is a triumph.

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‘Vita & Virginia: A Double Life’ by Sarah Gristwood ****

I have carried out a great deal of research on Virginia Woolf over the last few years, but had not read anything about her for quite a while.  When I spotted the gorgeous National Trust published hardback of Sarah Gristwood’s Vita & Virginia: A Double Life in my local library, then, I picked it up and borrowed it immediately.

The premise of the book is an examination of the brief love affair which Virginia Woolf and 9781911358381fellow author Vita Sackville-West embarked upon in the ‘heady days of the 1920s’, and their friendship which endured until Woolf’s tragic death in 1941.  Gristwood presents quite extensive biographies of both women, particularly given that her biography is a relatively slim volume.  Vita & Virginia has been split into three distinct sections – ‘1882-1922 Moments of Being’, ‘1922-1930 Orlando’, and ‘All Passion Spent’.  These sections are sandwiched between an introduction and a short piece entitled ‘Afterlife’, in which Gristwood examines the legacy left by both women.

In her introduction, Gristwood writes: ‘… Virginia told a friend, just months before her death, that apart from her husband Leonard and her sister Vanessa, Vita was the only person she really loved.’  She goes on to note: ‘The bond that endured between those two women was predominantly, though not exclusively, one of the heart, and of the mind.’  The two found solace in having similar professions, and also in how much admiration they held for one another.

Firstly, Gristwood details Vita’s rather unconventional childhood, before moving onto Woolf’s, which was shaken with many tragedies.  She examines the writing careers of both women, and the personal struggles which they faced at various points.  Also mentioned are Woolf and Sackville-West’s other affairs and infatuations.  The detail which has been included is rich, and there is certainly no lack of amusement.  Gristwood writes, for example, that ‘When Leonard was away, a playful contract required Virginia… that she would rest for a full half hour after lunch, be in bed by 10.25 every night, have her breakfast in bed and drink a whole glass of milk in the mornings.’

Of course, Gristwood devotes a whole chapter to how the two women met, and how their relationship went on to develop: ‘Vita would encourage her to be a little more adventurous on even the most practical levels – to dress more smartly and spend money.  Later in her friendship with Vita, Virginia would acknowledge how Vita opened new horizons for her.’  The start of their relationship appears to have been a real period of growth for them both.

Throughout, Gristwood quotes extensively from Virginia’s diary, and from the correspondence between the two women.  Contextually, too, Vita & Virginia is very well placed; Gristwood writes about the political climate, the growing fear of war, and the preparations made for this by both families.

Vita & Virginia is essentially part biography, part guidebook to the National Trust protected properties which both Woolf and Sackville-West inhabited throughout their lifetimes.  Of Knole in Kent, passed down through the male generations of the Sackville-West family, for instance, Gristwood understands that the property ‘was a whole world, a small village in itself’ to the young Vita.  Vita & Virginia is filled to the brim with beautiful photographs and illustrations, many of their various dwellings and glorious gardens, which are lovely to linger over.

Vita & Virginia is fascinating.  As something of a Woolf scholar, I did already know a lot of the information which Gristwood relays, but there were elements here that proved to be refreshingly new to me.  I found the biography a delight to read.  Vita & Virginia provides a wonderful introduction to the lives of both Woolf and Sackville-West, and the way in which their relationship evolved over time.  Despite running to less than 200 pages, Gristwood’s well written book feels thorough.  Her omniscient, almost neutral tone suits the book so well, and she gives so much for the reader to consider.

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‘Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas’ by Matthew Hollis ****

Edward Thomas is one of my favourite poets, and when I spotted a copy of Matthew Hollis’ Costa Award-winning biography, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas in a secondhand bookshop in Ypres last year, I could not resist picking it up.  I had originally planned to read it over Remembrance Day but, as with a lot of my reading plans, this did not pan out.

Thomas was killed close to Arras, France, on the Easter Monday of 1917.  The book’s very short preface touchingly ends in the following manner: ‘Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe.  A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart.  He fell without a mark on his body.’

In Now All Roads Lead to France, Hollis takes into account Thomas’ final five years, and ‘follows him from his beloved English countryside to the battlefield in France where he lost his life.’  Thomas’ friendship with American poet Robert Frost, who encouraged his writing, takes prevalence here, but we also learn about his upbringing, and strained, often absent, relationship with his three children and wife, Helen.  We hear about their relationship from its earliest days.
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Now All Roads Lead to France has been split into four distinct sections, all of which correspond to the places in which Thomas found himself – ‘Steep, 1913’, ‘Dymock, 1914’, ‘High Beech, 1915-16’, and ‘Arras, 1917’.  Each also includes a map of the corresponding place.

Hollis begins by outlining the changing face of poetry, from its stuffy, conservative Victorianism, to something new and bold, culminating in the Georgians and the Imagists.  The Georgians, writes Hollis, ‘looked to the local, the commonplace and the day-to-day, mistrusting grandiosity, philosophical enquiry or spiritual cant.  Many held an attachment to the traditions of English Romantic verse…  The style was innocent, intimate and direct; lyric in form, rhythmic in drive, it detailed short sketches of the natural world with larger meditations on the condition of the human heart…  It employed whimsy in the place of calculation…  its subject matter would be as everyday as a country lane or a village fence post.’  Imagism provided the rivalry to this Georgian movement.  The Imagists employed ‘direct treatment, a pared language a relatively free verse…  No sing-song rhythms or cloying subject matter, no abstractions, no ornament, no superfluous word; this was language stripped down to the bone…’.  Hollis, a poet himself, is of course adept in discussing these poetic movements, and commenting upon their importance in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.

Hollis then goes on to introduce Thomas at a real point of crisis in his life.  In 1913, he is thirty-four, with ‘desperately low’ spirits.  A father of three, and married, his depressive episodes caused him to treat his family badly: ‘The only way he knew to break the cycle was to leave; sometimes his absences lasted days, at other times he could be gone for months.  At these moments, even to drag himself home for a weekend was more than he could manage… [and] he convinced himself that they could be happy without him.’  At this point in time, Thomas was an influential critic of verse, ‘and his brilliant, uncompromising articles were the making of many young reputations and the breaking of others’.  Although he had not yet embarked on his own poetic career, he had published over twenty works of prose, and ‘edited or introduced a dozen more’.  Throughout, the author has woven in excerpts from correspondence and diaries – not just Thomas’, but Helen’s too.

Hollis paints a fascinating and detailed portrait of Thomas.  I was particularly taken with the physical description which he crafts of the poet: ‘His expression was grave and detached, but his smile, when it came, could be coy, whimsical or proud.  He rarely laughed…  He spoke in a clear baritone, though often he kept his own counsel, and preferred the company of an individual to a group…  He dressed in a suit of tawny tweed, which was old, sunned and slightly loose, and which, he liked to say, smelt of dog whenever it was damp.  His jacket pockets were impossibly deep, and from these he would pull maps, apples and clay pipes in a procession as apparently endless as the scarves from a magician’s hand.’

Carol Ann Duffy writes that Now All Roads Lead to France ‘entranced’ and ‘inspired’ her, and moved her to tears.  I certainly did not feel that emotional whilst reading Hollis’ biography, but there are scenes which strike such empathy and sympathy from the reader. Now All Roads Lead to France is the author’s first work of prose, but it feels so well-established, and reads as though it has been penned by a master.  This biography is incredibly accessible, and brings together a wealth of research in a readable, measured prose style.

Throughout, Hollis is perceptive and aware of his subject, and charts both his writing process and his bouts of depression.  The cultural detail woven through the book has been clearly set out, and adds another, often important, dimension to the narrative.  Although Now All Roads Lead to France is not a strictly chronological biography, the structure works wonderfully, and the entirety feels well rounded.  Illuminating and exemplary, Now All Roads Lead to France is one of the best biographies which I have read in a long time.

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‘The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter’ by Elisabeth Gille ****

Elisabeth Gille’s imagined memoir of her mother, Russian-Ukrainian novelist Irene Nemirovsky, has been translated from its original French by Marina Harss.  Of Gille’s curious mixture of fact and fiction, The Nation comments that she is ‘not interested in defending her mother’s reputation.  Instead, she sets out to live in her mother’s head.’

71pytdpctqlGille was only five years old when her mother was arrested by the Gestapo for being Jewish.  Nemirovsky had spent over half of her life in France after moving around Europe a lot with her parents, trying to escape the fallout from the Russian revolution.  Gille, understandably, ‘grew up remembering next to nothing’ about her mother, who was ‘a figure, a name, Irene Nemirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian emigre from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew.  To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.’  Both of Gille’s parents were killed in Auschwitz; she and her sister Denise only survived because they were taken into hiding.

In her acknowledgment at the start of the book, Gille writes that her work ‘was imagined on the basis of other books’ – namely those which her mother wrote.  She goes on to say that all of the letters and citations which have been included throughout The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter are authentic, and have been taken from unpublished notes. Gille has attempted, throughout, to capture her mother’s own writing style, and consequently the entire book is written from the imagined perspective of Nemirovsky.  The volume, published in English by NYRB, also includes an interview with Gille, and an afterword written by Rene de Ceccatty.

The Mirador has been split into two sections – November 1929 and June 1942.  The first part takes place in Kiev and St Petersburg.  Here, during Nemirovsky’s childhood, there were ‘pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution’.  At this point, Gille writes: ‘For me, if Finland is winter and St. Petersburg, with its yellow mists shrouding the shores of the Neva is autumn, then Kiev is summer.  We were not yet rich when we lived there, just well-to-do.’  The family eventually settled in Paris, the place where Nemirovsky felt most content.  In these imaginings, particularly of Nemirovsky’s early life, her own mother appears to be a floating figure, flitting around to give orders, and giving much of her attention to clothes and ‘the season’, rather than to Irene.

The imagined memories of Nemirovsky are interspersed with brief snapshots of the author’s life when she was small.  In May 1920, for example, she ‘pulls at her mother’s sleeve; her mother is standing in the middle of the courtyard, reading.  The young woman shifts the book, pushes back her glasses, and smiles.  Her tender, myopic gaze caresses the child distractedly.  The child wrinkles her brow, releases the sleeve, and moves away.’

Gille’s echoing of her mother’s prose style has been lovingly handled, and feels relatively authentic throughout.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was essentially reading a work of fiction.  Like her mother’s, Gille’s writing is poetic and layered, filled with gorgeous and striking imagery.  Every sentence is in some way evocative, and her sentences are beautifully crafted.  A real sense of place and time have been deftly assembled.  When on a cruise down the River Dnieper, undertaken when Nemirovsky was quite young, for instance, Gille composes the following: ‘In the immensity of the Russian sky, the moon looked green, touched by the dying rays of the setting sun and crisscrossed by spectral clouds that slid over its white surface, leaving behind a trail of dark shadows.  The silver domes of the church of Saint Andrew, which we had just passed, still glimmered faintly among the trees.  The immense branches of the forest, which descended to the very edge of the river, draped the shoreline in darkness, but the middle of the current was dappled with metallic-coloured spots as far as the eye could see.’  The historical and social contexts have been well set out too, and unfolds alongside Nemirovsky’s own life.

The Mirador was not quite what I was expecting, and it is certainly unlike the majority of memoirs and biographies which I have read to date.  It was unusual, and I enjoyed the way in which Gille has approached her work.  There are some problems with the narrative, however.  It tends to jump around in place and time with no warning, and can be a little jarring in consequence.  The Mirador does, however, really come together.  It is both mesmerising and memorable, and I very much admire what Gille set out to do here.  The Mirador is vivid and sometimes quite surprising, and highlights a highly tumultuous period of history, and its effects upon one rather remarkable woman.

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‘The Stranger in the Woods’ by Michael Finkel ****

I was so intrigued by Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods, which tells the ‘extraordinary story of the last true hermit’.  This non-fiction book has been praised highly.  Sebastian Junger calls it ‘breathtaking’, and The Wall Street Journal nicely sums the book up, saying that it is a ‘meditation on solitude, wildness and survival’.  Published in 2017, The Stranger in the Woods is Finkel’s second book.

9781471152115The book focuses upon Christopher Knight, who, in 1986, and at the age of twenty, decided to leave his home in Maine.  He drove into the woods, and then disappeared.  Consequently, ‘he would not speak to another living soul for three decades.  Until, that is, he became hunted.’  Knight stayed in a single camp in the woods, not far from his home, surviving ‘by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to scavenge food and survive the harshest of winters.  In the process, he unsettled a community – myths abounded among the locals eager to find this legendary hermit.’

The Stranger in the Woods opens with Finkel setting the scene.  He writes: ‘The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives, but they’re tangled over giant boulders with deadfall everywhere like pick-up sticks.  There are no trails.  Navigation, for nearly everyone, is a thrashing, branch-snapping ordeal, and at dark the place seems impenetrable.’  For Knight, however, who only leaves his camp at midnight, his home is easy to get around: ‘He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken.  On the ground there are still mounds of snow, sun-cupped and dirty, and slicks of mud – springtime, central Maine – but he avoids all of it.  He bounds from rock to root to rock without a footprint left behind.’  Knight is, from the first, fearful of being discovered by those who live in the nearby town, and likes to leave not a trace of himself behind.

Following Knight’s disappearance, he becomes aware of only what is important to his new existence.  ‘He is,’ writes Finkel, ‘unaware of the year, even the decade, and does not know the proper names of places.  He’s stripped the world to his essentials, and proper names are not essential.  He knows the season, intimately, its every gradation…  He knows the moon, a sliver less than half tonight, waning.  Typically, he’d await the new moon – darker is better – but his hunger had become critical.’  Knight becomes as self-reliant as he can, and as his situation necessitates, but he can get the things he needs only by stealing them from local residents.  However, his string of thefts come with a set of moral values: ‘… if it looks valuable, the hermit will not steal it.’

Knight, who soon becomes both fascinating to, and feared by, the people targeted by his thefts, is not what anyone expected him to be.  When he is caught in the act of stealing food from a local summer camp, in April 2013, Finkel describes the way in which: ‘There’s no dirt on him anywhere, and little more than a shading of stubble on his chin.  He has no noticeable body odor.  His thinning hair, mostly covered by his wool cap, is neatly cropped.  His skin is strangely pale, with several scabs on his wrists.  He’s a little over six feet tall and broad-shouldered, maybe one hundred and eighty pounds.’  When asked about his life by local police, Knight responded that he spent the entire winter in a nylon tent, ‘and did not once in all those winters light a fire.  Smoke might give his campsite away.  Each autumn, he says, he stockpiled food at his camp, then didn’t leave for five or six months, until the snow had melted enough for him to walk through the forest without leaving prints.’  He also says that he spent no money whatsoever during his time in the woods.

During his time as a hermit, Knight became sensationalised, almost a mythical creature, and any mention of him used to terrify local children.  Finkel notes that ‘Because of the types of articles that were stolen, one family called him the Mountain Man, but that frightened their children, so they changed it to the Hungry Man.  Most people, including the police, began referring to the intruder simply as the hermit, or the North Pond hermit, or, more formally, the hermit of North Pond.  Some police reports mentioned “the legend of the hermit,” and on others, where a suspect’s full name was requested, he was recorded as Hermit Hermit.’  The local community, almost from the first, became wary and fearful: ‘He seemed to haunt the forest.  Families returned from a quiet trip into town wondering if they were going to encounter a burglar.  They feared he was waiting in the woods, watching…  Every walk to the woodpile provoked a goose-bumpy feeling that someone was lurking behind a tree.  All the normal night sounds became the noise of an intruder.’

Interestingly, Knight was never reported as a missing person, and had no contact with his family from the point of his disappearance.  Upon his discovery, he was completely unaware of what he looked like, had learnt to shave without using a mirror, and had only spoken one word – ‘Hi’ – in twenty-seven years, when he met a hiker in the woods.  He had no physical contact with anyone during his period in hiding.  Following his arrest, Knight became known all over the world, and many were fascinated by his story.  Five different songs were written about him, a local deli created a sandwich known as “the Hermit”, someone offered him land to live on rent-free, and a woman even proposed marriage.  The fact that he refused to speak about himself, or his time in the woods, in public, only intensified the longing of others to know about him.

The Stranger in the Woods is well paced, and is made up of a series of short chapters.  Finkel’s narrative style is easy to read; he has a quite informative and almost poetic prose style, which still manages to be chatty and informal.  He writes throughout of his experience in first writing to, and then meeting, Knight in prison, and detailing his story down.  He comes across as a sympathetic biographer, someone who largely leaves judgement out of his account.  The Stranger in the Woods is a fascinating book, which has made me consider further loneliness and isolation, and how impossible it must be to live alone in such a way as Knight did without disturbing the peace.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte’ by Daphne du Maurier ****

When my copy of Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte arrived, I was pleased to note that it had originally been purchased from the Howarth Bronte shop and still bore a sticker proclaiming this in its bottom right hand corner. Of the du Mauriers which I had planned to read during my du Maurier December project, The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte was one of those which I was most intrigued by. Before beginning to read, I knew a little about Branwell Bronte, but only in the context of his sisters.  I was therefore so interested to learn what he was like as an entirely separate being.

In her introduction, du Maurier sets out her reasons for producing a biography of a figure who was largely overshadowed by the fame of his three surviving sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne: ‘One day the definitive biography of this tragic young man will be published.  Meanwhile, many years of interest in the subject, and much reading, have prompted the present writer to attempt a study of his life and work which may serve as an introduction to both’. 9781844080755

Branwell and his sisters spring to life immediately.  Their sad beginning – their mother dying when Branwell was tiny, and the consequent deaths of the eldest two Bronte sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, in 1825 – caused the four remaining siblings to mould themselves into an impenetrable group.  From the very beginning, du Maurier states that Charlotte, Emily and Anne were all greatly inspired
by their brother, particularly during their early childhood: ‘None of these novels [Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall] would have come into being had not their creators lived, during childhood, in this fantasy world, which was largely inspired and directed by their only brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte’.  She goes on to say that in their childhood, the four children wrote tiny books together in ‘a blend of Yorkshire, Greek and Latin which could only be spoken among the four of them, to the mystification of their elders’.  Branwell certainly comes across as an inventive child: ‘Imitative as a monkey, the boy was speaking in brogue on a Monday, broad Yorkshire on a Tuesday and back to the west country on the Wednesday’, and it is clear that du Maurier holds compassion for him.

Du Maurier discusses Branwell’s work throughout, often relating his creative output to the things which he was experiencing in life: ‘Although, on examination, Branwell’s manuscripts show that he did not possess the amazing talent of his famous sisters, they prove him to have had a boyhood and youth of almost incredibly productivity, so spending himself in the process of describing the lives and loves of his imaginary characters that invention was exhausted by the time he was twenty-one’.  His poetry particularly is often vivid:

“Backward I look upon my life,
And see one waste of storm and strife,
One wrack of sorrows, hopes and pain,
Vanishing to arise again!
That life has moved through evening, where
Continual shadows veiled my sphere;
From youth’s horizon upward rolled
To life’s meridian, dark and cold.”

The secondary materials included – a large bibliography, notes, sources, and a list of Branwell’s manuscripts – are extensive, and it is clear that du Maurier did an awful lot of research on and around her subject before putting pen to paper.  The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte includes quotes from Branwell’s letters, as well as his own prose.  Secondary documents of Charlotte’s have been taken into account, particularly when discussing Branwell’s illness and death.  Instances of literary criticism from a handful of different sources are also present.  Du Maurier marvellously weaves in the social history of the period – the death of kings and queens, for example.

Branwell’s painting of Charlotte, Emily and Anne

Whilst he is not always likeable, Branwell is an incredibly interesting subject for a biography, particularly for an author such as du Maurier to tackle.  She has demonstrated the many sides of his character, some of which were reserved particularly for certain people.  Du Maurier does continually talk of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, particularly during their childhoods, but one expects that it would be hard to write such a biography without taking them into account so often.  She does continually assert the place of Branwell in the Bronte family, however, and admirably, he is always her main focus.

Of the portrait of the Bronte sisters shown, du Maurier writes: ‘Close inspection of the group has lately shown that what was thought to be a pillar is, in reality, the painted-out head and shoulders of the artist himself.  The broad high forehead, the hair puffed at the sides, the line of coat and collar, all are there.  Perhaps Branwell did not consider that he had done his own face justice, and in a fit of irritation smudged himself into oblivion’.

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte was first published in 1960, and remains an accessible and fresh portrait of a shadowy – and often overshadowed – character.  Du Maurier’s non-fiction is eloquent, and is written so beautifully.  She uses lush descriptions throughout, so much so that it occasionally feels as though you are actually reading a novel.  The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is quite slim in terms of biography; it runs to just 231 pages in the Penguin edition. The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte does follow a largely chronological structure.  Interestingly, however, the book’s initial chapter deals with his death, and then loops back to his childhood.  Through du Maurier, one really gets an understanding of Branwell’s personality, as well as learning of his hopes and fears.

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is extremely well set out, and is easy to read.  The chapters are all rather short, and consequently it can be dipped in and out of, or read alongside other books.  Again, du Maurier’s wrork is thorough and well plotted, and provides an insightful and rewarding look into a relatively neglected part of the Bronte quartet.

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‘Irena’s Children’ by Tilar J. Mazzeo ****

Irena’s Children, a biographical account of Irena Sendler, a woman who saved thousands of children’s lives in Warsaw during the Second World War, has been written by New York Times bestselling author Tilar J. Mazzeo.  I have been fascinated by Sendler since I first learnt about her quite a few years ago, but at the time, I found it very difficult to find any books which focused upon her.  I was thrilled, therefore, when I spotted Irena’s Children quite by chance when browsing in the library, and began it almost as soon as I returned home. 9781471152610

Known as ‘the female Schindler’, Sendler, along with a vast network of resistance members, saved over 2,500 children from the Nazis in occupied Poland.  At the outbreak of war, Sendler, a Catholic, had just received a Master’s degree in social work, and had found employment as a social worker.  She was therefore allowed access to the Warsaw Ghetto, an area which all of the Jewish citizens of the city were forced to move into.  The Ghetto, overcrowded and suffering from a lack of food and sanitation, was the cruellest of places.  Mazzeo describes it as follows: ‘An area of seventy-three streets in the city – just over four percent of the streets in Warsaw – had been reserved for the Jews, carved out from what had long been one of the poorest and most run-down neighborhoods in the city centre.’  At its height, the Ghetto held over 250,000 people, many of whom were sent to different concentration camps.

Throughout the pogrom, and until the liquidation of the Ghetto in May 1943, Sendler had to ask many parents to trust her with their children.  She then set out ‘smuggling them out of the walled district, convincing friends and neighbours to hide them.  With their help and the help of local tradesmen and her lover in the Jewish Resistance, Irena made dangerous trips through the city’s sewers, hid children in coffins, snuck them out under overcoats at checkpoints and slipped them through secret passageways in abandoned buildings.’  Sendler kept extensive lists of the children’s real names, hoping that by doing so, they could be reunited with their families after the war’s end.  Of course, this only happened in relatively few cases, as many of the children’s families were murdered in concentration camps, or in the Ghetto itself.  She wrote each child’s name, along with the names of their parents and their addresses, in code on ‘flimsy scraps’ of cigarette paper, which she hid as best she could.

The leaders of the Resistance recognised how valuable Sendler was, and set up a cell under her direction.  She was more than willing to use her own initiative, and work closely with others, in order to save so many Jewish children: ‘Irena had wanted an adventure and, knowing that they were fighting against their oppressor, even if it was dangerous, made her feel alive.’

Sendler evaded detection for such a long time due to her appearance, and even when she was captured by the Nazis and taken in to be tortured, they were completely oblivious to the fact that they had one of the key members of the Resistance network in their clutches.  They thought that, because she looked like a feeble woman, she must just be a minor player, and could lead them to the main orchestrators of the movement.  Sendler is described as a ‘feather of a person with an iron spirit: a four-foot-eleven-inch wisp of a young woman, in her late twenties when the war began, who fought with the ferocity and intelligence of an experienced general and organized, across the city of Warsaw and across the divides of religion, dozens of average people into foot soldiers.’

In her prologue, which opens with a moment in 1943 in which the Gestapo come for Sendler, Mazzeo is honest and fair: ‘To make her a saint in the telling of her story is, in the end, to do a kind of dishonor to the true complexity and difficulty of her very human choices.’  She goes on to say, in the book’s preface, that ‘Irena’s love life was anarchic and unruly, and she struggled with the knowledge that she was not a good wife or a good daughter.  She placed her frail and ailing mother in grave danger and kept the knowledge of those risks from her.  She was reckless and sometimes myopic… and, at moments, she was perhaps even selfish in her selflessness.’  Mazzeo pieced together Irena’s Children by using primary materials, as well as Sendler’s own recollections, and interviews with some of those whom she helped.

Sendler’s childhood, and her reasoning for wanting to help others, is documented fully, and is also well-situated historically.  Whilst there is a lot of information woven through Irena’s Children, and such a high level of scholarship to boot, the book is markedly easy to read.  Irena’s Children brings to the fore the story of an important, and incredibly courageous, woman, who risked her own life multiple times every day in order to help others to survive.  This biography, fascinating and harrowing in equal measure, should be read by everyone.

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