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‘Pepita’ by Vita Sackville-West **

Vita Sackville-West was a prolific author indeed, writing fiction (novels and short stories), poetry, biographical works, travel literature, and a column on gardening, amongst other things.  Vita Sackville-West’s Pepita, a biography which portrays the lives of both her grandmother, Josefa, whom she never met, and her mother Victoria, was first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s The Hogarth Press in 1937.  The edition which I read was sadly not an original, but it did include rather a lovely introduction written by Alison Hennegan.

Josefa, lovingly known as Pepita to those around her, was ‘the half-gypsy daughter of an 9781784871161old-clothes pedlar from Malaga’, who made her fortune as a dancer, first in Madrid, and then as the ‘toast of all Europe’.  In May 1852, when she was just twenty-two years old, she arrived in London, already having been married and separated.  She soon met and became the ‘contented though severely ostracized mistress of Lionel Sackville-West, an English aristocrat and diplomat’. and bore him five illegitimate children, of whom Sackville-West’s mother was the second eldest.

After Pepita’s death, her nine-year-old daughter Victoria was sent to live in a convent, where she stayed until she was eighteen.  At this juncture, she was summoned to Washington to become ‘mistress’ of her diplomat father’s household.  She goes on to find herself ‘the volatile and wayward mistress of Knole’ in what is termed in Pepita‘s blurb as an ‘unlikely inheritance’.

In her introduction, Hennegan states: ‘For what appears to be a straightforward joint biography of her grandmother and mother becomes the means whereby Vita explores and makes sense for herself of those warring elements in her own past and temperament which most exercised and perplexed her.’  She goes on to say that for Vita, it was her ‘”Spanishness” which enabled her to accept her lesbianism comparatively easily, her “Englishness” which forbade anything as “vulgar” as a public acknowledgement of it.’  Sackville-West herself saw Pepita as a ‘gift to herself of the mother she almost had… [and] an extended love letter to the woman she wanted her mother to be.’  She writes: ‘Pepita, can I re-create you?  Come to me.  Make yourself alive again.  Vitality such as yours cannot perish.  I know so much about you: I have talked to old men who knew you, and they have all told me the same legend of your beauty’ of the section on her grandmother.  She extends this rule of exploration, and the hearsay she has been told, when she writes about, and tries to understand, her mother.

Despite Sackville-West’s proclamation in her own introduction to the book that everything which she has written is true, it seems rather fanciful and unrealistic at times.  Due to the style which Sackville-West has adopted, Pepita reads more like a novel than a work of biography.  The historical context has been used well, and does give one a feel for the backdrop which both Pepita and Victoria lived against.  Sackville-West does recognise that her portrayal of both her mother and grandmother are heavily biased as, of course, one would expect: ‘The one person who never speaks in this whole history, is Pepita herself.  We see her always objectively, never subjectively…  Pepita herself is never explicit.  In order to understand her at all, we have to find a piece from a different part of the puzzle, and fit it in.’

What I found most interesting about this account was the effect which Pepita had upon Lionel.  Sackville-West writes: ‘I mean no disrespect to my grandfather, but I do not think he was the man ever to enjoy dealing with a difficult situation: he far preferred to go away if he decently could and leave it to somebody else.  Hitherto, Pepita had ordered his life, and now [after her death] there was to be an uncomfortable period of transition until Pepita’s eldest daughter was of an age to assume the same responsibility.’  The psychological effects of the First World War which Sackville-West presents are also fascinating.

There is a lot of Vita herself within the book, and not just in the fact that she is writing about her ancestry.   She measures herself against her mother and grandmother at junctures, and is always passing her own opinion about their characters, or the decisions which they made.  Of course she has a strong connection with both of her subjects, but there is nothing objective about this biography; there is not the level of detachment and feeling of truthfulness which I expect of works of this kind.  Sackville-West does not remove her own self from the book enough for it to be anything like a full and far-reaching biography.

Pepita is a relatively entertaining book, but I feel as though it pales in comparison to much of Sackville-West’s other work.  It is difficult to take Pepita at face value, and it lacks that engagement which I have come to expect from Sackville-West’s books.  It is clear that her relationship with her mother was turbulent, but it feels at times as though episodes have been suppressed, or skimmed over.  There is no real explanation as to their relationship which lasts long enough to be entirely satisfying.  Overall, Pepita did not quite live up to my expectations.

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‘In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom’ by Yeonmi Park ****

I find North Korea – and, indeed, life in dictatorships in general – fascinating, perhaps more so due to the general lack of knowledge which we in the Western world have had about the country until very recently.  Yeonmi Park’s memoir, In Order to Live, tells of her escape from North Korea, and its consequences; she fled from the country with her mother when she was just thirteen, arriving first in China, and then in South Korea.  The escape itself does not come without problems.  Even when she and her mother reach China, they are under the control of those who helped to smuggle them across the border; both were trafficked, and horrifically abused.  Reflecting upon her life thus far, Park writes: ‘I am most grateful for two things: that I was born in North Korea, and that I escaped from North Korea.  Both of these events shaped me, and I would not trade them for an ordinary and peaceful life.’

Park spent much of her childhood in Hyesan, a city in an impoverished part of northern North Korea, not far from the Chinese border.  Of her home, she writes: ‘In our part of North Korea, it was normal to go for weeks and even months without any electricity’.  Park’s descriptions of North Korea in the twenty first-century make it seem entirely alien.  She is honest about the levels of censorship which exist, things that she did not realise until she escaped, and was able to learn about her country from other, less biased sources: ‘The regime blocks all outside information, all videos and movies, and jam radio signals.  There is no World Wide Web and no Wikipedia.  The only books are filled with propaganda, telling us that we live in the greatest country in the world, even though at least half of North Koreans live in extreme poverty, and many are chronically malnourished.’ 9780241973035

Of the writing and remembering process which Park had to go through in order to craft her memoir, she writes: ‘Some of the images reappeared with a terrible clarity; others were hazy, or scrambled like a deck of cards spilled on the floor.  The process of writing has been the process of remembering, and of trying to make sense out of those memories.’  Park goes on to demonstrate the marked comparisons between her old world and her new, which are sometimes quite surprising.  In North Korea, she writes, ‘There was no music blaring in the background, no eyes glued to smartphones back then.  But there was human intimacy and connection, something that is hard to find in the modern world I inhabit today.’

Park’s story is both moving and markedly honest.  She writes starkly of the consequences of her escape, which prohibit her from ever seeing her homeland again under its current leadership: ‘Many of us who escape call ourselves “defectors” because by refusing to accept our fate and die for the Leader, we have deserted our duty.  The regime calls us traitors.  If I tried to return, I would be executed’.  What Park writes of the regime, and its level of control, itself is very chilling at times: ‘I actually believed that our Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, could read my mind, and I would be punished for my bad thoughts.’  Perhaps most poignant are the ways in which she demonstrates the regime’s ability to alter people irrevocably; her own mother, for instance, ends up living her life in fear.  She shows that the tiniest transgressions from what she was supposed to do gave her a tiny, sparkling taste of freedom.

In Order to Live is as important as it is enlightening; it demonstrates just how much freedom many of the countries in the world allow their citizens.  This freedom is something which is withheld from millions, and should never be taken for granted.  The Korean history here is thorough, and nothing short of fascinating.  In telling her story, Park has presented a memoir which is at once achingly sad and hopeful; now studying at Columbia University in New York, she is the voice bravely and wonderfully speaking out for her oppressed people, and against her home nation.  In Order to Live is an essential tome for understanding just how diverse different cultures in the world are, and how, with bravery, it is possible to overcome oppression and make a better life for oneself.  Park beautifully demonstrates the strength and resilience of the human spirit in the very worst of situations, and the lengths which one will go to in order to survive.

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‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

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The Book Trail: A Persephone Special

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with one of my favourite reads of late, Elizabeth Jenkins’ depiction of a real Victorian murder case, Harriet.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ feature on Goodreads to compile this list.  Harriet is a Persephone publication; each of the recommended reads on its page, as well as pages for following books, is also published by the same wonderful press.

1. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins 13607031
This story traces the life of Harriet Richardson, a mentally-disabled young woman who was allowed to die of starvation by her husband.

 

2. Tea With Mr. Rochester by Frances Towers
When these captivating and at times bizarre stories were published posthumously in 1949, Angus Wilson wrote: ‘It appears no exaggeration to say that Frances Towers’s death in 1948 may have robbed us of a figure of more than purely contemporary significance. At first glance one might be disposed to dismiss Miss Towers as an imitation Jane Austen, but it would be a mistaken judgment, for her cool detachment and ironic eye are directed more often than not against the sensible breeze that blasts and withers, the forthright candour that kills the soul. Miss Towers flashes and shines now this way, now that, like a darting sunfish.’ ‘At her best her prose style is a shimmering marvel,’ wrote the Independent on Sunday, ‘and few writers can so deftly and economically delineate not only the outside but the inside of a character…There’s always more going on than you can possibly fathom.’ And the Guardian said: ‘Her social range may not be wide, but her descriptions are exquisite and her tone poised between the wry and the romantic.’

 

14458613. Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories by Mollie Panter-Downes
‘For fifty years Mollie Panter-Downes’ name was associated with “The New Yorker”, for which she wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’, book reviews and over thirty short stories; of the twenty-one in “Good Evening, Mrs Craven”, written between 1939 and 1944, only two had ever been reprinted – these very English stories have, until now, been unavailable to English readers.  Exploring most aspects of English domestic life during the war, they are about separation, sewing parties, fear, evacuees sent to the country, obsession with food, the social revolutions of wartime.’

 

4. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
The setting for this, the third novel by Dorothy Whipple Persephone have published, is Saunby Priory, a large house somewhere in England which has seen better times. We are shown the two Marwood girls, who are nearly grown-up, their father, the widower Major Marwood, and their aunt; then, as soon as their lives have been described, the Major proposes marriage to a woman much younger than himself – and many changes begin.

 

5. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher 2703159
Although this novel first appeared in 1924, it deals in an amazingly contemporary manner with the problems of a family in which both husband and wife are oppressed and frustrated by the roles they are expected to play. Evangeline Knapp is the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, while her husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles are reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family. The changes that take place between husband and wife and particularly between parents and children are both fascinating and poignant.

 

6. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
Tells the tale of a woman who goes on a cruise and is swept overboard. She lives for three years on a desert island before being rescued by a destroyer in 1943. When she returns to England it seems to her to have gone mad: she cannot buy clothes without ‘coupons’, and she is considered uncivilised if she walks barefoot or is late for meals.

 

7. Doreen by Barbara Noble
Describes the mind of a child torn between her mother, whom she leaves behind in London, and the couple who take her in.

 

8. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski 163544
Hilary Wainwright, poet and intellectual, returns after the war to a blasted and impoverished France in order to trace a child lost five years before. Is the child really his? And does he want him?

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any of them piqued your interest?  Which is your favourite Persephone publication?

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‘The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial’ by Maggie Nelson ****

I was supposed to be reading established poet and non-fiction author Maggie Nelson’s  The Argonauts for a book club I’m a member of, but unable as I was to find a copy, I plumped for The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial instead.  This piece of extended non-fiction, which deals with the aftermath of her aunt’s unsolved murder in the late sixties, and new evidence pointing to her killer, was first published in 2007.  Of all of Nelson’s books, this was the one which appealed to me the most.

The blurb piqued my interest immediately when browsing for Nelson’s books on my local library catalogue.  It reads: ‘After asking for a lift to her hometown for spring break, Jane Mixer, a first-year law student at the University of Michigan, was brutally murdered in 1969; her body was found the next day, a few miles away from campus.’  Jane was shot twice in the head, and then ‘strangled viciously with a stocking that did not belong to her’.  Nelson, whose aunt was killed before she was born, uses The Red Parts to trace her aunt’s death, as well as the trial which took place thirty-five years afterwards.  Jane’s case was reopened in 2004 ‘after a DNA match identified a new suspect, who would soon be arrested and tried.’9781784705794

‘Resurrecting her interior world during the trial – in all its horror, grief, obsession, recklessness, scepticism and downright confusion – Maggie Nelson has produced a work of profound integrity and, in its subtle indeterminacy, deadly moral precision.’   The Red Parts has been hailed by various critics as ‘remarkable’, ‘Didion-esque’, and a ‘darkly intelligent page-turner’, which gives ‘the sense that the writer is writing for her life’, as well as Jane’s.

Within her book, Nelson is candid from the very beginning.  She writes of the process of putting such a painful familial past down on paper, and how the trial and its evidence impacted upon her, her sister, and her mother, Jane’s elder sister.   In her preface, Nelson calls the book ‘a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time’s relation to violence’.  She goes on to say: ‘One aim I had while writing was to allow the events of the trial, the events of my childhood, the events of Jane’s murder, and the act of writing to share a single spatial and temporal moment.’

Initially, police attributed Jane’s murder to a man who had killed many other young girls in what were collectively called the ‘Michigan Murders’.  The new evidence found, however, attributed her murder to someone else entirely, a retired nurse.   When Nelson sees him on trial, she writes: ‘I feel disoriented too.  Where I imagined I might find the “face of evil,” I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd.’  She goes on to describe the difficulty which she has in coming to terms with what he may have done: ‘I watch the light and I watch his hands and I try to imagine them around the trigger of a gun, I try to imagine them strangling someone.  Strangling Jane.  I know this kind of imagining is useless and awful.  I wonder how I’d feel if I imagined it over and over again and later found out that he didn’t do it.’

The Red Parts is very brave and directly honest; it is as objective as it can be, and whilst emotional at times, it does not read – as one imagines it so easily could have done – as a piece of overblown melodrama on the part of the family.  She talks openly about all of the grief in her life, from her father’s death, to seeing her boyfriend overdose more than once.  The Red Parts is a multilayered and well thought through work, which merges biography and autobiography in a seamless and interesting manner.  Nelson’s writing is engaging from the very beginning, and is sure to appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the likes of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

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Two Reviews: ‘Take Courage’ and ‘Falling Slowly’

9781784740214Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis ****
I am, and always have been, a huge fan of Anne Bronte, and when I first heard about Samantha Ellis’ focused biography of her life, I was rather excited. I found Take Courage absorbing, and quite enjoyed the relatively casual writing style which the biography takes. Ellis’ account is far-reaching, and includes a lot of interesting critique about her prose and poetry, as well as thorough studies of each of her siblings, and her parents. The way in which chapters follow different figures, from Branwell and Emily, to the Brontes’ housekeeper, Tabby, is effective.

Take Courage is well written on the whole, although it did feel a little too colloquial at times. I did, however, like the way in which Ellis added her own personal story alongside Anne’s, giving a more personal dimension to the whole. Take Courage is well thought out and enjoyable, and awfully touching, particularly toward the end.

 

Falling Slowly by Anita Brookner *** 9780375704246
There is a slight detachment at play within Anita Brookner’s Falling Slowly. The plot is rather drawn out, and it did not feel as though there were enough occurrences or character developments here to sustain a novel of this length. Very little happened, even in comparison to other, slower books of Brookner’s. The characters never really came to life; I found them unrealistic, particularly toward the end of the book. The relationships drawn between them too are very bizarre, and not at all what I was expecting. Although Falling Slowly follows similar conventions to some of Brookner’s other books, I did not enjoy it anywhere near as much. Whilst it is not badly written, the dialogue feels awfully dated, and it is perhaps therefore more of a 2.5 star read than a 3.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962’, edited by Karen V. Kukil *****

Sylvia Plath’s Journals have just been reissued by Faber & Faber.  In this new edition, edited by Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College,  ‘an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath during the last twelve years of her life’ has been included, and ‘there are no omissions, deletions or corrections of Plath’s words in this edition’. Her journals, says Kukil, ‘are characterized by the vigorous immediacy with which she records her inner thoughts and feelings and the intricacies of her daily life’.  She goes on to explain the way in which, ‘Every effort has been made… to give the reader direct access to Sylvia Plath’s actual words without interruption or interpretation’.

The main body of the diary spans from its beginnings in July 1950 to 1959, and the appendices stretch up to 1962, the year in which Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty.  The entirety is unabridged, and has been taken from twenty three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts.  They document her ‘student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England’.

Journals contains a wealth of new material, all of which was sealed by Hughes until February 2013.  The journals have been split into separate sections, each of which spans a different period in the poet’s life.  Photocopies of her journal pages have been included at the start of every one.  These show the progression of her writing, and are really a lovely touch to add to the wonderful whole.  Two sections of glossy photographs can also be found within the book’s pages.  As one would expect with such a bulk of work, the notes section and index are both extensive.

The first journal, dating from when Plath was just eighteen years old, opens with a poem by Louis MacNeice, and two quotes written by Yeats and Joyce respectively.  The first entry which Plath writes reads like an echo for much of her life: ‘I may never be happy, but tonight I am content’.

Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Cantor, Cape Cod, 1952

Throughout her journals, Plath is so warm, full of vivacity, and strikingly original.  In an entry in the first journal, written in August 1950, she writes: ‘I love people.  Everybody.  I love them; I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection.  Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.  I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.  But I am not omniscient.  I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have’.

Each and every entry is filled to the brim with musings, philosophy, emotions, questions and answers.  Plath is so very honest, and incredibly witty too.  When speaking about a dentist removing her wisdom teeth, she says: ‘The doctor pinned the bib around my neck; I was just about prepared for him to stick an apple in my mouth and strew sprigs of parsley on my head’.  Some of the entries reflect upon her day, and others are small self-contained essays about a veritable plethora of subjects.  Amongst other things, she touches upon such topics as literature, love, communal living, politics and the notion of democracy, and then burrows into each one of them in turn, providing the reader with her insights into and musings of each.  Some of the vignettes included are so very charming.  The following occurred whilst Plath was looking after a family of three children over the summer of 1950:

“Your hair smells nice, Pinny.” I said, sniffing her freshly washed blonde locks.  “It smells like soap.”
“Does my eye?” she asked, wriggling her warm, nightgowned body on my arms.
“Does your eye what?”
“Smell nice?”
“But why should your eye smell nice?”
“I got soap in it,” she explained.

Plath’s writing, as anyone who has read even a single one of her poems will know, is absolutely beautiful.  Her descriptions particularly are gorgeous: ‘The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance’, and ‘The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious’.  Throughout, she makes the everyday entrancing, and notices the positive and beautiful qualities in everything which her words touch upon, however much we may take the element in question for granted in the modern world.  The scenes which she builds are so vivid.

The importance of Plath’s art is prevalent immediately: ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow’.  Poems have been included throughout, all of them placed into the volume in the order in which they first appear in her journals.  It goes without saying that each and every one is perfect, startling and exquisitely crafted.  At times, she provides a fascinating commentary upon her own writing, beautifully analysing her own finely wrought sentences.

Plath was such an intelligent woman, and throughout she writes with such clarity, even in the earliest journal entries.  She both praises and chastises herself and humankind – for example, writing ‘I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive.  What a fool!’  There are hints of the growth of her coming depression too.  She writes in 1950, for example, that ‘I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad’.  Plath also continually muses on life and death and the vast chasm between the two, as well as the very notion of existence: ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never’, and ‘I loved [Antoine de Saint-]

Sylvia Plath’s high school graduation photograph

Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone.  Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?’

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a book to be savoured, and is a wonderful companion to the stunning Letters Home, another Faber & Faber must for any fan of the poet.  Both books are sure to delight without a doubt.  In them, Plath provides us with a window into her world, and her journals particularly are written in such a way that it feels as though we as readers are her closest confidantes.  Nothing is hidden from us, and each and every entry drips with verity.  Even the biggest of her fans will learn swathes from reading this beautiful and important book.

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