0

‘Dew on the Grass’ by Eiluned Lewis ****

Eiluned Lewis is one of those wonderful female authors who wrote from the heart about places she knew and loved, and who appears – like so many authors of her generation – to have been unjustly forgotten.  First published in 1934, Dew on the Grass tells the autobiographical story of a young girl and her siblings growing up in the Montgomeryshire countryside in Wales.  Among Lewis’ concerns here are ‘gender domesticity, Welsh culture and the rural environment.’9781870206808

The novel has been reprinted in recent years by Honno, a focused press which focuses on translating works by Welsh women into English, and in bringing neglected novels back for new generations to read.  The insightful introduction which accompanies the novel has been written by Katie Gramich, a Professor at Cardiff University.  She writes at the outset of the reception of Dew on the Grass, which was ‘phenomenally successful’ upon its publication, ‘attracting positive reviews from literary critics, going rapidly through a number of editions, being translated into several languages, and winning the Gold Medal of the Book Guild for the best novel of the year.’  Gramich then goes on to speak of Lewis’ own life.  I knew next to nothing about the author when I began to read, but feel rather familiar with her after learning about her early life, and the things which inspired her to begin a writing career.

Lewis’ focus within Dew on the Grass certainly lies with her child characters.  Gramich writes that ‘both mother and father are very much background figures in Lewis’s fictional world, where the norm, the central consciousness is that of the child.’  She goes on to compare Lewis to Dylan Thomas in their use of the child’s viewpoint, ‘though her work in this mode predates his by several years…  Like Thomas’s, Lewis’s child-world is not pure idyll but a place of imagination and delight hedged around with menace, punishment and disappointment.’  Gramich also gives a comparison between Lewis and Katherine Mansfield, one of my all-time favourite authors, which piqued my interest in the novel still further.

Rather than exploring the working class in her novel, as a lot of her contemporaries tended to do, Lewis looks at an upper middle-class family named the Gwyns, who are Anglo-Welsh landed gentry.  Nine-year-old Lucy, ‘dreamy, accident-prone and acutely alive to the world around her’ is the second eldest daughter.  She is a thoughtful child, and continually muses about the world around her.

Lewis’ prose is described as ‘sensuous, evocative and nostalgic’, and it often manages to be all of these things at once.  Of the house in which Lucy and her family live, for instance, she writes: ‘Succeeding generations of farmers and small gentry had added to the house, here a storey and there a room, heedless of symmetry or foundations, so that on starry nights, when the wind rushed… walls rocked, joists groaned and cracks widened ominously in the plaster.’  Dew on the Grass is filled with charming and touching details: ‘The names of their [the Gwyns’] four children, who grew up at Pengarth, were recorded by a pencilled legend on the stable door of stout oak.  It ran “Delia, Lucy, Maurice (in boots), Miriam (barefoot)” – being a memorial of the height of the young Gwyns at the time of this story.’

Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’  The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

The structure of Dew on the Grass fits the plot wonderfully.  It is made up of a lot of short story-length vignettes, and is overall a rather a quiet, but highly engaging, book.  Dew on the Grass is a celebration of Welsh life, and of childhood; it is clear that Lewis’ homeland was much cherished by her.  Filled with an innocent and nostalgic charm, the novel is quite quaint in some ways, but thought-provoking in others.  This forgotten novel certainly presents a bygone way of life, filled with beauty and sheer delight.

0

‘Alfred and Guinevere’ by James Schuyler ***

I had not heard of James Schuyler’s debut novel, Alfred and Guinevere, which was out of print for almost fifty years, before I spotted rather a lovely NYRB edition in the Modern Classics section of my local library.  I was immediately entranced by its rather charming blurb, and the strength of the reviews which adorn its back cover.  Kenneth Koch calls the novel ‘witty, truthful, simple, lively, and musical’.  Schuyler, best known for his poetry, is heralded as a ‘remarkable novelist’.

In his introduction to the volume, John Ashbery writes: ‘The reader discovers that beneath the book’s apparently guileless surface lies a sophisticated awareness of the complicated ways in which words work to define the boundaries between fantasy and reality, innocence and knowledge.’  Ashbery believes that Schuyler ‘writes about the past with tenderness and humor’, the result of which is ‘a timelessly idyllic comedy of manners, where English models are inflected by 1930s small-town life in America, as seen through the gauze filters of the movies and children’s literature.’

250405-_uy475_ss475_Alfred and Guinevere are a pair of young siblings, who are sent to spent the summer with their grandmother, Mrs Miller, in the country, after their father travels on a business trip to Europe and their mother is preoccupied with subletting their New York apartment before joining him.  Of the plot of Alfred and Guinevere, Ashbery states that it is ‘insistently ambiguous, lacking in resolution’, with the “grownups” ‘barely characters, barely anything but names.’

There are elements of violence throughout Alfred and Guinevere; Alfred is beaten by his father quite often, and the siblings discover the corpse of a murdered ‘colored’ man in the park.  Regardless, the novel is often filled with childish, but rather lovely conversations, in which the siblings endeavour to make sense of the world in which they live, and their parents’ abandonment of them.  Schuyler pinpoints children’s voices marvellously; in fact, it is the real strength of the book.  When in hospital after having his appendix removed, for instance, Alfred tells another patient: ‘”I have one sister named Guinevere who can draw and do back bends.”‘

The novel is told entirely through ‘snatches of dialogue and passages from Guinevere’s diary’.  The novel proper begins with a series of fanciful stories told by the children, of what they believe their adult lives will be like.  Guinevere fancies herself as ‘one of the leading woman big spenders of her day’, and Alfred see himself becoming a ‘great hunter’ and polar explorer.  Guinevere tends to be quite precocious, but Alfred is endearing from the start.  The relationship depicted between the siblings is surprisingly complex at times; Guinevere says: ‘”It’s so difficult, learning how to behave.  We got along like cats and dogs until he almost died having his appendix out.  It makes him more grown up sometimes.”‘  In a later passage, she writes: ‘Last night Alfred put an egg in my bed.  I almost broke it getting in.  I know he did not think of it all by himself and I will fix both of them.  So far I have been very smart and not said anything.  He kept looking at me at breakfast.  I just smiled and asked him how he felt and if he got a good night’s sleep and so on.  He is getting scared.’

Whilst Alfred and Guinevere is rather a fragmented book, the reader does end up learning a lot about both children, and how they feel about one another.  Alfred provides bursts of amusement, and the differences between the children allow Schuyler to present rather a fascinating character study.  There is some semblance of plot, but those who prefer action-packed novels would probably feel a little disappointed by Schuyler’s debut.  I enjoyed the approach overall, and would have liked a little more substance to pull me in further at times; the novel was not quite as good as I was expecting after reading Ashbery’s introduction, but it is a memorable and well written tome nonetheless.

2

‘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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Mini Reviews: ‘The Combined Maze’, ‘Fair Exchange’, and ‘Selling Manhattan’

The Combined Maze by May Sinclair *****
9781144584120The scenes within The Combined Maze, which is incidentally one of Agatha Christie’s favourite books, are deftly set, and Sinclair’s prose is measured and clear.  A palpable tension is steadily and marvellously built within the novel, which presents a fascinating study of unconventional married life and parenthood.  Relevant to the modern world, The Combined Maze deals in part with postnatal depression, financial struggles, and adultery, amongst other topics of interest.  The character constructs are fascinating, and the denouement is incredibly realistic.  May Sinclair astounds me; she is unwaveringly aware of people, and all of the tiny yet significant details which shape and affect them.  The Combined Maze is novel which could certainly do with a resurgence!

 

Fair Exchange by Michele Roberts ***
I very much enjoyed Roberts’ Daughters of the House, and adored the short story collection 9781860497643entitled Playing Sardines, so when I spotted Fair Exchange on the shelves of an Oxfam Bookshop, I had no doubts about it coming home with me.  I had interest in its story from the first, and it proved the perfect tome to take on a train trip to Edinburgh.  Everything about Fair Exchange was so well-realised at first, and the story, with its inclusion of Mary Wollstonecraft as a character, was very interesting.  Then, a few little niggles began to creep in.  The scenery was nicely evoked, but it did not feel as realistic as it is in a lot of her work, not as prevalent.  I was willing to set aside a couple of character discrepancies and the sometimes jolting structure of the piece, but that final, awful twist ruined the book somewhat for me.

 

Selling Manhattan by Carol Ann Duffy ***
9781509824984Ordinarily I love Duffy’s work, but <i>Selling Manhattan</i> just didn’t grab me.  It is her second collection, and one can see that her voice, which later becomes so original and startling, is beginning to emerge.  There simply wasn’t the level of engagement here which I am so used to in Duffy’s work.  There is much playing around with the form, but it feels more of an experimental collection than one of her best.

Purchase from The Book Depository