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Three Virago Novels (4th September 2013)

I am currently making my way through the entirety of the Virago Modern Classics list. Along the way, I have encountered some absolutely marvellous books (Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson and The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim are particular favourites of mine), but as with all book lists, there are some rather mixed entries. Below are three recent VMCs which I’ve read, the reviews of which are rather mixed.

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair ****
I wasn’t expecting this novel to be so short. What I encountered with The Life and Death of Harriett Frean was a very enjoyable novella, although the overriding sense of melancholy a s the trials which the characters had to go through were a little unsettling at times. I enjoyed the writing style throughout and felt that the characters were constructed well, particularly for such a short piece.

The Rector by Mrs Oliphant **
This was not an awful story by any means, but it was rather nondescript. The descriptions throughout are nice enough, but I felt that all of the protagonists were rather lacklustre, and not one of them stood out from the general melee. In style, The Rector reads rather like a Jane Austen novel, but it is nowhere near as good.

The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim **
I can’t bring myself to give a von Arnim book less than 3 stars, but this is really more of a 2 star read. It wasn’t awful, but by the same token it was disappointing and not very good. The book was witty at times, but von Arnim’s use of a male narrative perspective just didn’t work very well. At times the narrator sounded incredibly effeminate, and at others very camp, for want of a better description. The storyline wasn’t quite developed enough for such a long novel, and neither were the characters. It is a sign of the times, I know, but The Caravaners is almost disgustingly sexist at times. I wouldn’t have thought that a woman, even one writing at the time of this novel’s publication, and from the perspective of a male, would advocate such views.

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‘Elizabeth of the German Garden: A Literary Journey’ by Jennifer Walker

Elizabeth of the German Garden is ‘really the story of Mary Beauchamp, the woman behind the mask, who would spend the rest of her life struggling to forge her own identity and follow an independent path… a woman who enjoyed the company of E.M. Forster, Hugh Walpole, H.G. Wells, her cousin Katherine Mansfield and Bertrand Russell’. In it, Walker has attempted to shed ‘new light on this much loved but until recently somewhat forgotten literary force’. As well as outlining the major events in Mary Beauchamp’s life, she has also referred to a wealth of letters and diary entries by those who range from Mary’s closest family members to her dearest friends. In her Author’s Note, Walker states that in the following text, she ‘will show that Mary assumed an identity parallel with, but not identical to, her own when she wrote. Elizabeth was not a pen-name but another creation: one who existed in the imagination of Mary’.

Elizabeth of the German Garden is split into eight separate sections, ranging from ‘Perspectives on Europe’ and ‘Morality Tales’ to ‘The Paradise Garden’ and ‘An Established Author’. She begins her work on Mary’s life with the Beauchamp family’s emigration from Australia to England, her father’s home country, in 1870, when she was just three years old. As well as placing focus upon Mary herself, Walker thoughtfully considers her wider family and home life. She writes about Mary’s four brothers and one sister, all older than her, and the lives which they made for themselves. She also includes many details about every considerable aspect of Mary’s life – her schooling, her love of horticulture, her ‘spiritual life’, the Victorian prejudices which rallied against her, her time at the Royal College of Music where she played the organ, her travels around Europe, her mother’s troubles, and her loathing of anti-Semitism, amongst many others. The book follows the span of her entire life, encompassing her life as a German Countess and as a mother and grandmother, as well as a companion and lover.

The only negative with this book is that not enough care has been given to the checking of spellings. In several instances, mistakes marr its pages – Cicely Fairfield, the real name of author Rebecca West, is written as ‘Cicily’, and Rose Macaulay is ‘Macaulay’ at first, and then ‘Macauley’.

Walker’s definite strength is in the parallels she expertly draws between the life of Mary and the characters and storylines which she created. The literary criticism which the author has included strikes a perfect balance between Mary’s life and work. The extracts from Mary’s books serve to further reinforce Walker’s opinions and insights. The entirety of the book is written in such a lovely manner. It is both rich in detail and easy to read. In Elizabeth of the German Garden, Walker has presented a fascinating account of a fascinating woman, who certainly deserves to be admired and cherished by a wider audience. An awful lot of research, work and consideration has clearly gone into this book, and it is sure to delight everyone who has enjoyed one of ‘Elizabeth von Arnim”s novels.