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‘Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf’ by Mitchell Leaska *****

Mitchell Leaska’s Granite and Rainbow had been on my to-read shelf for a couple of months before I picked it up in early December, in part as PhD research, and in part as an enjoyable read.  Leaska’s wise and intelligent introduction to the volume fits perfectly; it sets out what he is aiming to achieve with his biography, recognising that he is one of many who has chosen to tackle Woolf as Woman and Writer proper.

9780374166595Leaska blends details about Woolf’s life, beginning with in-depth accounts of her parents, and blends in a smattering of criticism about all of her books, as well as detailing what inspired her to write each distinct piece.  He does not take her short stories into account much of the time, and even leaves some of her essays by the wayside, but discussing everything that Woolf ever wrote would be rather a mean feat, and any omissions do not have a great impact on the work as a whole.  The elements of social and political history which Leaska has made use of are fitting, and give a wider context to Woolf’s work and decisions.

One reviewer argues that Leaska makes many unsubstantiated claims throughout Granite and Rainbow; I, however, did not find this to be the case.  Yes, he discusses ambiguities in her prose, but many biographers make claims with regard to what they believe the author was driving at in writing X, or amending Y.  Of course, in every biography there is going to be an element of bias, but Leaska has written rather impartially about his subject.  It is clear that he admires her and his work, but his approach to her as a woman is one of academic understanding.

I found Leaska’s writing really quite lovely: ‘The world that mattered to Virginia Woolf was the world of emotional and sensory experience eddying endlessly in atmosphere, of the mind, in twilit regions of memory where past and present merge and blur.  It was a world where houses and rooms are furnished not with carpets and curtains but with reminiscence and feeling.  This alone was real.  It was not concerned with what life was like, but more with what the actual experience of living felt like’.   The entirety of the book has a wonderful consistency to it too.

Granite and Rainbow did not add much to my understanding of Woolf as a person, but it certainly went into more far depth than the majority of other biographies with her extramarital relationships – with Vita Sackville-West, for instance.  If I was coming to Woolf as someone who had merely read her work and wanted to know more about her as a person in the real world, I would have found Leaska’s book endlessly fascinating.  As it is, I have been studying Woolf for quite a while up to this point and, as one might expect, biographies do tend to repeat themselves from tome to tome.

That said, Leaska’s biography is something else entirely, and deserves to be revered in the same way as Hermione Lee’s work about Woolf; it is just as thorough, and has a wonderful clarity to it.  In Granite and Rainbow, Leaska has produced a fantastic biography which is authoritative and masterfully written, and it certainly deserves more attention than it seems to have received to date.

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‘Greenery Street’ by Denis Mackail *****

Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street (1925) brings something a little different to the female-dominated Persephone list, in that is one of the few novels they have chosen to publish which was penned by a man.  I knew nothing about Mackail before I began to read – not even that he was the brother of celebrated author Angela Thirkell, whose works are currently being reprinted by Virago – but the introduction was fascinating, and I was left with the impression that he was a man I would have enjoyed spending time in the company of.  He sounds like an awfully humble fellow; of his writing, he said, ‘I was just trying to tell stories, to get bits of life on to paper, and, I suppose, to express myself.  Where does all that gaiety and kindness come from when in real life I am a cynic and frequently a wet blanket as well?’

9781903155257The Greenery Street of the novel’s title is based on Mackail’s Walpole Street, in which he lived; it ‘consists of thirty-six narrow little houses – all, at first glance, exactly the same’.  Mackail sets the scene immediately, and one feels utterly familiar with the street and its inhabitants, despite never setting foot in the locale: ‘For though every young married couple that comes to Greenery Street does so with the intention of staying there for life, there are few streets where in actual fact the population is more constantly changing.  And the first sign of this change is in almost every case the same.  It is seen in the arrival of a brand new perambulator’.  On this seemingly inevitable point of leaving the street – or, rather, of being ‘forced out’ of one’s five-storey home as it is simply not big enough to house a child – the house itself is personified: ‘For all the happy memories which the little house holds, it has already become his enemy.  He knows this, and yet he can never hate it in return.  Neither, though, can he allow it to see how much, how terribly, he minds.’

We are introduced to Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster at the outset of the second chapter.  The pair have been officially engaged for ‘very nearly a fortnight’.  The difference between them is vast – Felicity is frivolous and naive, and Ian is far more level-headed and pragmatic – but this makes the relationship between the two, and the way in which they interact, all the more interesting.

Every single one of Mackail’s characters, whether protagonists or not, feel incredibly realistic.  One could be forgiven for holding the opinion that a novel written entirely about the day-to-day lives of a married couple in the 1920s could be rather dull.  Greenery Street does busy itself with such things as budgeting, ordering meals, and decorating, but it is rendered in such a way that mundane is one thing it is not.  The details which he picks out are surprising in both his descriptions and perceptiveness: ‘His heart melted to the consistence of a hard-boiled egg.  His principles and scruples trickled out of the heels of his shoes.  He loved this maddeningly unbusinesslike creature [of Felicity], more than anyone had loved anybody in the whole history of the world…  What did anything matter so long as she clung to him like this, so long as her eyelashes flickered against his cheeks, and her heart beat so comfortably against his own?’

With regard to the novel’s prose, Mackail is witty, presenting little wink-wink nudge-nudge asides to the reader at intervals.  These additions to the main story are refreshing, and it is almost as though the reader is taken into his confidence: ‘We haven’t had much space for descriptions of people in this record so far; we have rather had to take them as they come; but we must try and squeeze in a paragraph for Mr and Mrs Foster’s brother-in-law – if only because he was so shy that we should never get to know him if we waited for him to make the first move’.

As an author, Mackail is shrewd and acerbic; the Foster’s maid, Ellen, is referred to throughout as ‘the Murderess’, for instance.  Greenery Street is also filled with humorous details; when visiting the next-door neighbours for a dinner party of sorts, both Ian and Felicity are presented with drinks which they do not particularly want: ‘Felicity, afraid of provoking him [Mr Lambert] again, took the glass which he offered her and managed, a little later, to hide it behind a photograph-frame on the mantelpiece.  Ian – after a sip which came near choking him – found sanctuary for his on the floor under his chair.  Mr and Mrs Lambert emptied their beakers with appreciative relish’.

There are interesting elements to the prose at points; some of the dialogue is rendered in play format, for example.  The itemisation of Felicity’s small library, along with details pertaining to any damage on each particular tome, was both simple and clever: ‘Item.  Shakespeare’s plays in three volumes – one slightly damaged by water, the result of the owner’s attempt to read Romeo and Juliet while having a bath.  Damage occurred when owner was fifteen’.  We are shown many of Felicity’s inner thoughts too, which works wonderfully as it unfolds against her speech and actions.

Almost every book which gets Persephone’s stamp of approval is a firm favourite of mine.  Greenery Street is no exception.  It is a perfectly compelling read, and one which I am going to be recommending as highly as I possibly can.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Giant’s House’ by Elizabeth McCracken *****

First published in 2012

The Giant’s House is told in retrospect from the first person perspective of librarian Peggy Cort. Thirty-five years after her story begins, Peggy is looking back on her life. From the outset, Peggy’s narrative voice is original and startling in places. She is such a charismatic, likeable narrator. Her narrative voice certainly has a distinctive style and is simultaneously chatty and eloquent, allowing the reader to be absorbed into her world from the outset. The novel addresses the audience as ‘you’ throughout which really makes the reader feel part of her story. We are consequently able to identify and empathise with Peggy completely.

9780099739913The Giant’s House does primarily deal with a love story, but it goes far deeper than that. The story begins in the autumn of 1950, when James Carlson Sweatt, the ‘giant’ of the novel, walks into the library in which Peggy works, joined by his teachers and classmates. Peggy is twenty-five years old when this happens, and James only eleven. By this point, James is already six foot four. The plot of The Giant’s House is original in that it transcends so many boundaries. In the 1950s, particularly in small-town America, many would not be aware of James’ medical condition which causes him to continually grow at an alarming rate. His classmates and other members of society treat him as an outsider. They are aware of his height towering above them but they do not really notice him as a human being. As the novel progresses, James becomes somewhat famed for his height and people begin to make special trips to Brewsterville in order to spot him.

Peggy’s sheer sense of loneliness is apparent from the outset. She has moved to Brewsterville, an unremarkable town in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, after finishing her course at library school in Philadephia. It seems that she is striving for something new – a fresh start away from everything she has ever known. Peggy, a self-confessed ‘spinster’ who has never before fallen in love, soon cares incredibly deeply for James. She does not just see him as someone too tall to fit in, but as a beautiful young boy who deserves to be loved and respected by his peers and elders. She begins a series of good deeds which eventually allow her to infiltrate James’ life, soon becoming a clear part of it. She begins by finding him different books on his weekly library trips and helping him to research other ‘giants’. The love which Peggy feels for James blossoms slowly at first. The prose is compelling, really making the reader believe in Peggy’s plight.

The Giant’s House transcends different stages in the lives of James and Peggy – stages both lived together and apart. The essence of the novel is about being different, being an outsider, trying so desperately to fit in even though you know your battle will ultimately be fruitless. The story itself builds to an incredibly sad crescendo and really jolts the reader’s heart.

Other characters feature in the novel but James features most heavily of all. He is the most pivotal character of The Giant’s House. The other characters, including Peggy, orbit around James and his wellbeing. He is their common link, an intrinsic fibre of the story and the bond which ties everything together. He really begins to come out of his shell as the story unfolds. The other characters who form different kinds of relationships with Peggy are Astoria Peck, a colleague at the library in which Peggy works, Mrs Sweatt, and Caroline and Oscar Strickland. James’ mother, Mrs Sweatt, seems a little troubled from the outset of the novel. Nobody knows her first name and she is consequently just known as ‘Missus’. She is described as being rather a heavy drinker. Caroline Strickland is the tomboyish aunt of James. She is friendly and humorous in the way in which she says things so matter-of-factly – for example, ‘Well Peggy Cort… You’re not an unpleasant woman’. Oscar Strickland is Caroline’s husband and James’ kindly uncle. At the start, James’ father does not feature in the story. He is being brought up by his mother, Aunt Caroline and Uncle Oscar in a white house painted with flowers.

The entire host of characters in The Giant’s House is incredibly believable. They fit together like people in a real twentieth century society. All of the characters are intriguing in their own ways. Despite the fact that they all live in the same small town, they are remarkably different from one another. This is another reason why they interact so well within the story. None of their dialogue, speech patterns, turns of phrase or elements which build their three-dimensional characters overlap in any way. Their interactions are always fresh and surprising, and nothing mundane is relayed in McCracken’s writing. Her dialogue is wonderful. She adds an extra depth to her characters by making them speak so realistically. Her dialogue becomes intrinsically linked with the bare bones of each character until they are suddenly fully fleshed out individuals walking around the town of Brewsterville as though they have always been there.

With regard to the writing style of the novel, McCracken is unlike many of the contemporary novelists publishing today. The first sentence of The Giant’s House – ‘I do not love mankind’ – immediately places a barrage of questions into the mind of the reader and makes us empathise with Peggy immediately.

The novel is split into three separate parts and the prose itself is haunting in places. The novel is set in the unfolding 1950s but McCracken writes in such a way that the setting and plot are vivid and alive. The reader feels that they are part of the action rather than wholly removed from it.

With each reading of The Giant’s House, new details seem to glow from the page. It is one of those novels that deepens and affects the reader more each time it is read. Something new is taken away with each consecutive reading of the novel. The Giant’s House is a story which seems to grow with the reader, and is a novel which deserves to be recognised as one of the highest peaks of modern literature.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Happy Tree’ by Rosalind Murray *****

Rosalind Murray’s The Happy Tree, the 108th book on the Persephone list, was first published in 1926.  This beautiful novel has so many themes delicately threaded through its plot – family, politics, wartime, love, friendship, jealousy and, perhaps most importantly for its protagonist, the notion and hardships of growing up.

The storyline of The Happy Tree alone sounds like a perfect pick for the lovely Persephone list.  Our protagonist is Helen Woodruffe, a grown woman who is looking back on her life and the choices which she has made: ‘And this is all that has happened.  It does not seem very much.  It does not seem worth writing about.  I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and some one I loved dearly was killed in the war… that was all.  And all those things must be true of thousands of people’.  In her childhood, she tells us in the novel’s opening chapter, she divided her time between her grandmother’s London house and her cousins’ home, a country estate named Yearsly: ‘There, sometimes under a special “Happy Tree”, she passes an idyllic childhood with Guy and Hugo Laurier’, hopelessly falling for the latter.  Of her cousins, Helen tells us, ‘they were and are to me all I could wish for anyone to be, and I cannot wish anything at all different about them’.

The opening of The Happy Tree draws one in immediately, and sets the tone for the rest of the novel: ‘Once I would have minded it so much, to live here, looking out at that laburnum tree, and that house opposite, that bow window, and the yellowish stone facings of the windows, and the lilac bush that has grown all crooked, and the pink hawthorn, and the laurels with patterned leaves; but now I do not mind.  Now I do not see these things or think about them at all; only tonight I am seeing them, because somehow I have come awake tonight, for a bit’.  The sense of place within the novel comes together marvellously through Murray’s carefully tuned descriptions.

Helen is the most wonderful narrator, and Murray is very aware of her as a distinct being, and of her persona, thoughts and feelings: ‘And my life up to now comes before me very clearly; the people and the places, and the choices and mistakes, and I seem to see it all in better proportion than before; less clouded and blurred across by the violent emotion of youth’.  She is very candid throughout, and lets us in to her secrets, as it were.  Of her mother’s seeming lack of care – one may even go as far as to say neglect – which allowed her to go and live with Cousin Delia, the mother of Guy and Hugo, after her father’s death, she says: ‘If she had kept me with her I don’t know what would have happened.  I don’t know how I could have grown up at all’.

The well-considered introduction to The Happy Tree has been penned by Charlotte Mitchell.  She writes of the way in which the novel resembles ‘many of her [Murray’s] other writings, fiction and non-fiction, in examining the world she was brought up in and the choices it had offered a woman like herself’.  She goes on to say that: ‘with all the usual caveats about treating fiction as autobiography, it is evident that the novel depicts Rosalind’s own situation pretty closely’.  The Happy Tree is a marvellous novel, filled with fluid characters, beautiful writing, and such consideration for every scene.

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