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One From the Archive: ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon ****

As far as classic novels go, Lady Audley’s Secret is a facile and rather stunning read.  I was surprised at the ease into which I slipped into the story; Braddon’s writing is beautiful, and casts a spell of sorts around the reader from the very beginning.

Lady Audley’s Secret is set during the 1850s, and centres around the novel’s named protagonist, who has rather a shadowy past: ‘The truth was that Lady Audley had, in becoming the wife of Sir Michael, made one of those apparently advantageous matches which are apt to draw upon a woman the envy and hatred of her sex.  She had come into the neighbourhood as a governess in the family of a surgeon in the village near Audley Court.  No one knew anything of her…  She came from London; and the only reference she gave was to a lady at a school at Brompton, where she had once been a teacher’.

Braddon’s initial descriptions of the house and its surroundings are stunning: ‘It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thorough-fare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business imagesthere at all.  At the end of this avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand – and which jumped straight from one hour to the next – and was therefore always in extremes.  Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.  A smooth lawn lay before you, dotted with groups of rhododendrons, which grew in more perfection here than anywhere else in the county.  To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy, yellow stonecrop, and dark moss.  To the left there was a broad gravelled walk, down which, years ago, when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns had walked hand in hand; a wall bordered with espaliers, and shadowed on one side by goodly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter’.

At the risk of quoting the entire book, I feel that it is worth sharing Braddon’s initial, charming description of the Audley Court abode: ‘A glorious old place.  A place that visitors fell in raptures with; feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever, staring into the cool fish-ponds and counting the bubbles as the roach and carp rose to the surface of the water.  A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hand on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenue…’.

Lady Audley’s Secret is both an atmospheric and compelling work, which felt rather modern at times.  At first, I was reminded a little of Ian McEwan’s marvellous Atonement, in terms of the style of the whole and the way in which Audley Court sprang to life before my very eyes.  Braddon seamlessly introduces her characters, and I very much like the structure of the whole; subsequent chapters follow different protagonists.  In this manner, those who own the house, as well as those who work there have been taken into account, and a well-rounded picture of the whole establishment is soon created.  The largely omniscient narrator takes the reader into his or her confidence through the use of small and infrequent asides, and this narrative voice works incredibly well with the unfolding whole.

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‘The Blind Owl’ by Sadegh Hedayat ***

I, perhaps shamefully, had never heard of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl before spotting it in the Modern Classics section of the library.  Whilst originally banned in the author’s native Iran, it soon became a bestseller, and he is now heralded as one of the fathers of modern Iranian literature.  First published in 1937, and in English twenty years later, a 75th anniversary edition was published in 2011.  Hedayat’s masterpiece has been compared to the likes of Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edgar Allan Poe, which may give you a feel for the kind of story which is going to unfold.

The Blind Owl, in less than 130 pages, feels masterful in the way in which it takes the reader into the ‘nightmarish exploration of the psyche of a madman’ after the loss of a mysterious lover.  It sounded stra9789186131449nge but intriguing, and I have read very little literature which discusses and examines madness from a male perspective.

This madness, or rather the process of spiralling into it, is captured wonderfully by the haunting and immediate voice of Hedayat’s narrator: ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realized that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can.  If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow, that shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one denouncing with insatiable appetite each word I write.  It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt.  Who knows?  We may perhaps come to know each other better.  Ever since I broke the last ties which held me to the rest of mankind, my one desire has been to attain a better knowledge of myself.’

The sense of the ‘Other’ which Hedayat is aware of from the very beginning of The Blind Owl is emphasised through repetitions of certain phrases and paragraphs, which form a kind of backbone within the novella.  There is little plot here really, but it is the way in which Hedayat handles his protagonist, and the changes which he goes through so suddenly, which is the real strength.  The reader is swept along, entirely adrift in the narrator’s mind; it feels as though we have no control, and are entering a world of manic thoughts along with him.  The urgency and confusion of the prose adds to this effect, and it soon begins to feel rather claustrophobic.

Dark and rather gruesome, The Blind Owl gives a real insight into an extremely troubled mind.  Whilst it does not demonstrate, or even really touch upon, its Iranian setting, which was a shame, the translation by Naveed Noori makes it feel fresh and contemporary.  Occasionally, The Blind Owl feels quite jarring to read, but perseverance makes it worth it.  The Blind Owl is a haunting novella, with a powerful voice, and rather a terrifying message buried beneath it.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Someone at a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple

First published in 2015.

After a few not very good and rather disappointing reads, I really felt in the mood for a Persephone.  I adore the books which they publish, and for me, they are one of the most important publishing houses which exists today.  Dorothy Whipple is an author who seems to be one of the most adored on the Persephone list, and I was eager to begin another of her novels.  Someone at a Distance was first published in 1953.

Someone at a Distance is introduced by Nina Bawden, an author whose work I very much enjoy.  She writes of how much she admires Whipple’s work, and says this about the novel: ‘[it] is, on the face of it, a fairly ordinary tale of a deceived wife and a foolish husband in rural suburbia not far from London and, perhaps because the author was nearing sixty when she wrote it, there is a slight pre-war flavour about the domestic expectations of the characters’.   Bawden goes on to say that ‘Whipple is a storyteller in the straightforward tradition of J.B. Priestley and Arnold Bennett rather than Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen’.

I was beguiled from the novel’s very beginning.  The opening chapter sets the tone of the whole wonderfully: ‘Widowed, in the house her husband had built with day and night nurseries and a music-room, as if the children would stay there for ever, instead of marrying and going off at the earliest possible moment, old Mrs. North yielded one day to a long-felt desire to provide herself with company.  She answered an advertisement in the personal column of The Times‘.  A young Frenchwoman, Louise Lanier, determined to spend the summer in England, is its author.  Of her newest venture, Mrs North says the following: ‘”At my age, I don’t expect fun…  But I hope it will be interesting.  I’m too old to go in search of change, so I’ll try to bring change into the house.  It’s too quiet as it is.”‘

As with a lot of the books on the Persephone list, Someone at a Distance is a familial novel.  Avery North, son of the formidable matriarch, is a publisher.  Ellen, his wife, is focused upon, and she is one of the most realistic constructs whom I have come across in fiction in such a long time: ‘Guiltily, pleasurably, she avoided the parties Bennett and North gave for authors, agents and the like…  everybody talked vociferously, and though here and there people moved aside, smiling, to let her pass, nobody interrupted conversation for her.  Slight, fair, with no idea at all of trying to make an impression, she didn’t look important and nobody wondered who she was’.

Whipple exemplifies the changing times within society marvellously: ‘Maids had disappeared from the domestic scene long ago…  Ellen now did as her neighbours did and employed day, or, more properly, half-day, women’.  We learn both about the North family, and headstrong Louise Lanier, as she finds her feet.  Whipple’s description of her is vivid from the very first: ‘Her lips were made up, even for breakfast, in a magenta colour, which nevertheless matched the varnish on the nails of her narrow hands…  What was remarkable about her, the offspring of two large, baggy parents, was her clear-cut, almost exquisite finish…  Yes, she could look after herself.  She was far from ordinary’.

‘Straightforward’ Whipple’s prose may be, but one is drawn in immediately.  Some of the turns of phrase which she crafts are beautiful: ‘Wisteria toppled over a high garden wall in dusty mauve cascades’.  This is, quite honestly, a stunning novel, and one of the best books which I have read in a long while.  As an author, Whipple has an incredible amount to offer; her books provide a marvellously restful solace in our hectic world.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Thalia’ by Frances Faviell

First published in 2016.

Like many bloggers and readers, I was immensely excited when I heard about Dean Street Press teaming up with Furrowed Middlebrow to release some little-known books written by women, and lost to the annals of time.  I was so looking forward to trying Frances Faviell’s work particularly, as I have heard a little about her over the last few years, and her storylines very much appeal to me.

The first of her novels which I decided to try was Thalia.  The novel is narrated by a young woman, eighteen-year-old Rachel, who is sent away from her aunt’s London home in something akin to disgrace.  She takes up a post in Dinard in Brittany, as a kind of companion to a young and decidedly awkward teen named Thalia.  There is a lot of family scandal within its pages, and characters as startlingly original as prickly Cynthia, Thalia and young brother Claude’s mother.  The storyline takes twists and turns here and there, and one can never quite guess where it will end up; one of the true delights of the novel, I felt. 9781911413837

One of the other strengths within the novel – and there are many – is the sense of place which Faviell details.  France springs to life immediately, and the minutiae which she displays, both in terms of the general region of Brittany, and within the home, are vivid.  One feels present in Rachel and Thalia’s colliding worlds through Faviell’s stunning use of colour and scent.  Rachel herself is startlingly three-dimensional; I would go as far as to say that she is one of the most realistic narrators whom I have ever come across.

Faviell’s writing is taut and beautiful; she is an extremely perceptive author.  I was completely entranced by Thalia, and was loath to put it down.  Thalia is brilliant; a cracking read, which definitely put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier in terms of its character development, and the use of settings as characters in themselves.  Faviell’s Brittany comes to life in just the same way as du Maurier’s evocation of Cornwall; it is clear that she adores the place, and has her own experiences there have informed this novel.

In a loose way, one can see Thalia as a coming-of-age novel, but it is so much more.  The social history evokes a period both gone and still present; there is simply so much here to love and admire.  Thalia is breathtaking and captivating, and I am now going to happily read my way through all of the Furrowed Middlebrow/Dean Street Press titles.  I imagine that, based upon the strength of Thalia, each one is going to be an absolute gem.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams

Many of you, I am sure, will remember the enormous hype which surrounded the republication of John Williams’ forgotten classic Stoner in 2013.  (If not, I refer you to this Guardian article.)  I, of course – as a self-confessed fan of American literature, and with the dream of becoming a lecturer myself – wanted to read the novel as soon as I heard about it.  I decided, though, to let the hype die down a little, so that I could get to it in my own time and make up my own mind – hopefully untinged by Times Literary Supplement reviews and the like – about it.

The plot of Stoner put me in mind of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I read earlier this year and very much enjoyed.  Stoner – as one inevitably comes to expect with such a popular book – has been incredibly well reviewed over the last couple of years; Colum McCann writes that it ‘deserves the status of a classic’, and The New Yorker believes that it is a ‘perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away’.

The novel focuses upon William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri in order to study agriculture and improve his father’s farm.  Rather than return to the family homestead once he has finished his degree, Stoner decides to remain in academia, studying first for a Master’s, and then for a PhD.  He marries the ‘wrong woman’, and has a relatively quiet life, to the extent that ‘after his death his colleagues remember him rarely’.  The blurb of the beautiful Vintage edition pictured writes, ‘Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value.  Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life’.

Stoner begins in the following manner, in which Williams gently sets the tone for the whole: ‘William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.  Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956.  He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses…  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers’.

The introduction to this particular edition has been written by John McGahern.  Whilst I did read the majority of it, McGahern’s introspective does give away several major plot points, and is perhaps best left until last.  I personally found those elements which included deeper analysis about the work far more useful than his recounting of the plot.  McGahern does, however, reference the following statement which Williams made about Stoner, in a rare interview which he gave towards the end of his life: ‘I think he’s a real hero.  A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life.  I think he had a very good life.  He had a better life than most people do, certainly.  He was doing what he wanted to do…  His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was…  It’s the love of the thing that’s essential.  And if you love something, you’re going to understand it.  And if you understand it, you’re going to learn a lot’.

Williams won the National Book Award for his novel Augustus in 1973; it is shameful that he is neither more widely read, nor better known.  Of his four novels, McGahern believes that ‘Stoner is the most personal, in that it is closely linked to John Williams’s own life and career, without in any way being autobiographical’.  He goes on to say that, ‘The small world of the university opens out to war and politics, to the years of the Depression and the millions who once walked erect in their own identities; and then to the whole of life’.

I was reminded of Richard Yates’ novels in places, particularly due to the control which Williams holds over his vocabulary and characters.  The psychology which he perceptively depicts here is often startling, and the entire novel is incredibly profound.  The historical and social contexts which have been drawn as backdrops for Stoner to live his life against are well wrought, and used to good effect.

Before I began to read Stoner, I must admit that I was expecting it to be incredible, and thought that I would more than likely adore it.  I am so pleased to be able to report that in this instance, my expectations were not set too high; the novel astounded me throughout, and was even better than I had been led to believe it would be.  I found myself reading at a far slower pace than usual in order to savour every single word.

Go now, readers; run to your local bookshop, pick up a copy of Stoner, clutch it to your body like a precious child, and read it from cover to cover without stopping.  It is a decision which you will not regret.  Stoner is admirable, stunning, beautiful, and rather perfect to boot.

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Reading the World: ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali ***

Originally published in Turkey in 1943, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is still a national bestseller.  Ali was ‘one of the most influential Turkish authors of the twentieth century’, and his most famous novel, Madonna in a Fur Coat, which is a ‘classic of love and longing in a changing world’, is now available for the first time in English. 9780241293850

Madonna in a Fur Coat takes as its focus a young Turkish man, who moves to Berlin in the 1920s in order to learn a trade.  A chance meeting with a woman in the city ‘will haunt him for the rest of his life’.  Its blurb calls it ’emotionally powerful, intensely atmospheric and touchingly profound’.  Madonna in a Fur Coat opens in a manner which both coolly beguiles and intrigues: ‘Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression.  Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts.  As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance, but ready, nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile.  Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man’.  The narrator then recounts Raif’s story, which is given to him in the form of a rather sensual diary beginning in 1933, when Raif lays upon his deathbed.

Raif is the German translator who is employed by the same company as the narrator in Ankara; the pair share an office.  He soon becomes fascinated by Raif and his disinterest; he keeps himself to himself, and evades questions about his personal life.  This very mystery acts as something akin to a magnet.  The narrator goes to visit him when he is absent from work due to illness, and finds that his home life, spent in an overcrowded and cramped house, is far from pleasant and desirable: ‘Though it was Raif Efendi who bore the cost of all this, it made no difference to him if he was present or absent.  Everyone in the family, from the oldest to the youngest, regarded him as irrelevant.  They spoke to him about their daily needs and money problems, and nothing else.’  The familial relationship, as well as the tentative friendship which unfolds between both men, are both built well, and are thus rendered believable in consequence.

The translation, which has been carried out in tandem by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is effective.   Ali’s prose is more often than not beautifully wrought, and is sometimes quite profound: ‘It is, perhaps, easier to dismiss a man whose face gives no indication of an inner life.  And what a pity that is: a dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasures we never expected.’  The narrative voice has such a clarity, and certainly a lot of realism, to it.

One of the most important elements of this novella is the way in which Ali displays both Turkish and German history, politics, and culture, particularly with regard to the ways in which both countries altered following the First World War.  The mystery at the heart of the novel certainly kept me interested.  Madonna in a Fur Coat is really rather touching, and reminded me a little of Stefan Zweig.  There is something about it, however, which makes it entirely its own.

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‘A Share of the World’ by Hugo Charteris ****

A largely forgotten novel now, Hugo Charteris’ A Share of the World was selected by Evelyn Waugh in the Sunday Times as ‘the best first novel of 1953’.  The blurb immediately intrigued me, as a fan of both historical fiction and books which have been lost to the annals of time.  It describes A Share of the World as a ‘harrowing story of a man lost in his times, bewildered and anguished by both war and love’, and as ‘a masterful portrayal of the human psyche at odds with itself’.  The Times Literary Supplement wrote of the novel: ‘Mr Charteris brings off many arresting descriptions of things seen and felt’, and the Evening Standard said: ‘Hugo Charteris has the temperament of the born writer…  He sees vividly, feels acutely, has a nervous dislike of the commonplace’.

9780992523428A Share of the World has been introduced by the author’s daughter, Jane Charteris.  She believes that John Grant is ‘a devastatingly critical, uncompromising self-portrait, even from a first-time novelist’.  The novel’s protagonist, John Grant, is very briefly an Officer in active service during the war.  He has to step down ‘after a disastrous sortie in the Italian campaign’, in which one of his men is ‘let down terribly’.  His war is a short one, and he is soon sent home, where he seeks ‘solace, absolution, a future, and most importantly, love’.

When Grant returns to England, he takes up a place at University, cloistering himself away into the hushed world of lectures and Dons.  After some time, he meets Jane Matlock, a figure whom he was familiar with, in part, in childhood, due to attending Eton with her brother.  Of Jane, Charteris writes: ‘By her brother’s label she didn’t “really exist.”  She “loved” Christmas, sunsets, flowers with an exclamation of adoration, kittens, parents and her laughter he thought was nerves not mirth’.  He swiftly falls head over heels for her.

The novel is immediately both vivid and chilling in its descriptions and character portraits: ‘This valley where every hour a drained face got separated from its boots by a supine lump of blanket, was a corner of a foreign field which was not forever England, but forever – and as ever – John Grant…  John Grant was a connoisseur of fear’.  Charteris’ real strength throughout A Share of the World is the way in which he introduces levels of bleakness to the world which at first seems familiar to the general reader.  The starkness which he generates has been rendered masterfully; for instance, in such passages as ‘from here the landscape looked wrecked and soiled more by gale and rain than war.  The effect was of untidiness – as though a grimy infantile hand had splurged across it’.  Charteris also recognises the worries and anxieties of his characters, particularly his protagonist.  Grant is constantly preoccupied with his own physical body; he thinks about when the next shipment of magnesium tablets will arrive in order to help his stomach, for instance.

Charteris’ comparisons are often quite unusual, and he beautifully demonstrates the overwhelming reality of war: ‘Men in grey, krauts, Jerries, Huns, Germans, the Bosch, Fritz – what are they?  John had met one, a woman on holiday, in Wales – an Anglophile from Dresden.  He tried to imagine her, out there somewhere, with a Schmeiser dressed in grey’.  The portrait of Grant which Charteris builds so wonderfully has such a realism to it that one can imagine his hopes and dreams, as well as his fears, are reflective of a lot of those who were involved in similar conflicts.

A Share of the World is a beautiful novel, which heavily demonstrates the effects, and aftereffects, of war.  It deserves to be treasured by a slew of new readers.

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