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‘Heat Lightning’ by Helen Hull **

Helen Hull’s sixth novel, Heat Lightning, was first published in 1932, and was (relatively) recently reissued by Persephone. According to the publishing house’s magazine, The Persephone Biannually, the idea for Heat Lightning came to the author when she read the following sentence in a magazine article: ‘Here in America we stem from many races, we have no homogenous roots, no common traditions’. The preface to the volume has been provided by Patricia McClelland Miller, who states that Heat Lightning is ‘at its core, a novel of ideas’. Miller’s informative writing shows the psychology of the characters, particularly of the novel’s protagonist, Amy. She states the way in which Amy is presented with ‘a dilemma common to many of Helen Hull’s characters: how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?’

9781903155912The novel, set in 1930, begins with Amy Westover, a thirty five-year-old woman, who is returning to her Michigan hometown with ‘a small pyramid of luggage at her feet’. She spent her childhood in a fictional town named Flemington, which she has fled to once more to escape her unhappy marriage in New York. ‘They would all wonder why she had come,’ Hull writes, ‘where her husband Geoffrey was, – and the joke was that she didn’t know the answer’. Despite returning under the guise of resting after a tonsil operation, she admits to her grandmother in an early conversation, ‘Yes, I ran away, alone’. Amy is ‘too thin, too tense, head with dark fluff of hair strained forward… and the dark eyes gave back an anxious stare’. Throughout, memories of her past is woven in, and these come to light when particular senses are affected by what she sees and feels around her – for example, the smell of ‘hot vinegar and spices’ remind her of making pickles on hot summer mornings.

A list of principal characters has been provided at the outset, ranging from our protagonist and her immediate family members to Charley Johnson, Amy’s grandmother’s former chauffeur. This list provides a useful reference point, as a lot of individuals are introduced in a kind of barrage in just a few pages. Whilst we learn rather a lot about Amy as the novel progresses, she still feels like a somewhat distant protagonist. We as readers are her overseers, and we are distinctly not part of her story. We watch her and her actions with mild interest, but there is a kind of barrier which Hull has erected which stops us from becoming too involved or too compassionate towards Amy. The other characters, too, are either not developed enough, or come across as superficial or cruel. Amy’s grandmother, for example, is incredibly judgemental of those around her, and is never scared of giving her often crude and bigoted opinions: ‘Curly doesn’t approve of immigration… No more do I. Too many foreigners. Too many right in our own family’.

The novel deals with Amy’s struggle of how to behave in two entirely different places – one as a responsible wife and mother to the oddly named Buff and Bobs, and the other as a child herself to her parents, who are ‘so familiar, so foreign’. Amy says, when speaking about her tonsils, ‘They leave you melancholy when they go’, which could equally be a comment upon her children leaving for camp, or even metaphorically, with their growing up. She does seem to relax slightly when in her Michigan life, and one touching sentence describes the way in which ‘She took their good-night kisses, still their child’.

Hull’s descriptions of place and weather are the definite strength of the novel. The summer is ‘tucked in at the horizon inescapably’, and the heat of the day was ‘wavering, full of unsteady motes’. Later on, the sun lays ‘metallic fingers at the roots of her [Amy’s] hair’. The writing style is very rich, but the conversations often feel a little stolid. Rather than providing a comment upon life in small-town America, Heat Lightning focuses upon family dynamics, and the family unit as a whole. It also presents a small insight into a relatively early twentieth century marriage, saying of Amy and Geoffrey, ”This past year their attitude toward each other had been a tight-rope on which she struggled, with painful, awkward contortions, to keep her balance. And Geoffrey – he had jiggled the tight-rope’.

Heat Lightning is an important addition to the Persephone list in that it does deal with some growing issues which women faced in the early 1930s – for example, Amy’s disillusionment with her new life and her relationship with her husband, and her cousin Harriet’s lesbianism: ‘My cousin Harriet is awfully modern, isn’t she?’ The novel itself is well written, but the meandering storyline is difficult to engross oneself into, and the characters, even those we know the most about, are difficult to feel compassion for. A sense of momentum is never really gained, and the novel feels a little flat in consequence. It is worth reading for the writing style alone, but the characters are neither strong nor realistic enough to warrant as much love for this particular Persephone title as they are in almost all of the other books the firm publishes.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Squire’ by Enid Bagnold ****

Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, first published in 1938, is one of Persephone’s two new additions for Autumn 2013. The novel’s preface has been written by Anne Sebba, and is both informative and well constructed.  The Squire was written over a period of ‘some fifteen years’, and was informed by the births of Bagnold’s four children between 1921 and 1930.  As Sebba states, ‘she [Bagnold] realised that she wanted to write not only about birth but also to explore in detail the intimate and growing relationship between the mother and her family.  This, she believed, had never before been attempted in a novel’.  She goes on to say, ‘most importantly, she wished to describe her own attitudes towards middle age with respect to sex and the family’.

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The squire of the book’s title is the middle aged mother of a family, whose position within it whilst her husband is away on his yearly jaunt to Bombay is as an omnipotent matriarch.  She is ‘both the dispenser of punishment, and the provider of fun’, which draws parallels with Bagnold’s own life.  The squire, Sebba states, has been ‘cast in the same mould’ as her creator.

Bagnold sets the scene marvellously from the first.  The opening line paints an incredibly vivid picture: ‘From the village green where the Manor House stood, well-kept, white-painted, the sea was hidden by the turn of the street.  The house’s front, pierced with windows, blinked as the sun sank…  Sunset and moonrise were going on together.’  The house itself is like a character, and Bagnold treats it with the utmost respect throughout.  She sets the scene further when she writes the following: ‘The house, now masterless for a month, was nearly, too, without a mistress, for she, its temporary squire, was heavy with child, absent in mind’.

In her confinement, the squire spends much time with the four children she already has – Jay, Lucy, Boniface and Henry.  The house is staffed and the children have their own nurse, who ‘felt pride in her heavy squire, her argumentative, provoking squire’.  Bagnold marvellously demonstrates the hierarchy of the house, even showing the disparities between the wealth of servants who are sent about the house on the merest whim.  The characters are described realistically and rather originally.  The squire, for example, ‘who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving’.  Caroline, the squire’s neighbour and friend, is ‘lovely and restless, victim and adventurer’.

Throughout, Bagnold’s writing is beautiful and full of power.  It is even haunting sometimes – for example, within the description she gives of the unborn baby: ‘its arms all but clasped about its neck, its face aslant…  secret eyes, a diver passed in albumen, ancient and epic…  as old as a pharoah in its tomb’.  The novel is a quiet one in terms of the events it describes, and the little action within it is very focused upon the confines of the house.  The strength of it lies in Bagnold’s writing and characters, as well as the way in which she portrays relationships so well, particularly between the young siblings.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, and this is a marvellous book with which to begin reading her oeuvre.  Its complexities are great, and Bagnold is a master in things left unsaid.  Some of the scenes which she captures, particularly those which involve the new baby, are incredibly vivid.  It goes without saying too that the Persephone edition has been beautifully produced, endpapers and all.

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‘Midsummer Night in the Workhouse’ by Diana Athill ***

Diana Athill’s Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was a book club book which Katie and I both agreed had to be part of our revised 2016 reading list.  The short stories collected here were originally written between 1958 and 1962, and were published by Persephone in 2011; we were both understandably rather excited to read it.

9781903155820Many of the stories collected here depict couples, or those destined to become romantically involved, and sex is a strong – and occasionally surprising – theme.  Athill places more emphasis upon the physicality rather than the psychology of the act, and whilst the latter is mentioned from time to time, it feels as though animal urges interested her far more than the thought patterns which they stem from.

The title story here did intrigue.  In ‘Midsummer Night at the Workhouse’, Cecilia Mathers has been sent to the artists’ retreat of Hetherston Hall by her publisher, who ‘thought her pretty and was worried that she could afford to eat only baked beans’.  Being packed off does not have the best of effects upon Cecilia; with five other writers in residence, she feels isolated and unable to perform her craft: ‘For some months she had believed that she did not feel like beginning a second novel, or even a story, because she was so poor and harassed.  Given peace and lamb chops for lunch… but now that she was given peace and not just lamb chops but roast chicken and asparagus, and summer pudding with cream, she could still find nothing to write’.  Athill goes on to describe Cecilia’s issues with writing: ‘Shut in her room, she would look at her typewriter with loathing and would sometimes even cry’.

Cecilia’s situation has been well – and touchingly – wrought.  Hers is a believable dilemma for a writer to face, and one cannot help but wonder if Athill has placed autobiographical touches into the portrait of her creation: ‘It was not for want of trying.  She had now been there for five weeks and in that time she had painfully contrived a synopsis of a novel – a structure of cardboard and glue which would clearly fall to pieces if touched.  She had also rewritten a story once scrapped and had seen why she had scrapped it’.

‘An Unavoidable Delay’, in which an Englishwoman named Rose takes a holiday by herself to Yugoslavia in order to reevaluate her marriage, has merit; there is perhaps more psychology to her character portrait and situation in life when compared to other stories here.  Athill shrewdly displays the way in which: ‘There had been a great quarrel before she started on this holiday alone and she had hoped that now Neville would say that she had gone too far and mean it.  At the beginning she used to think: Oh, why won’t he make up his mind to throw me out?’

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is not my first brush with Athill’s work.  I picked up her memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, in an Oxfam bookshop last year, swayed as I was by the positive reviews on its cover.  Whilst it did contain some interesting ideas, and elegant phrasing, I felt as though it lacked depth in places.  I hate to say, too, that there seemed to me to be a sweeping air of pretension over the whole.  This is exactly the same opinion which I have come away with after sampling her short stories; they are interesting, sometimes shrewd, and often very well written, but they just did not strike me as memorable – or realistic, in some places – slices of life, or character portraits which will sit with me for a long time to come.

There is a strong emphasis upon art here; many of the protagonists, and some of the secondary characters, practice such things as painting or writing as their professions.  This serves to provide a thematic link from one tale to the next, and nicely demonstrates the importance which Athill placed upon the arts.

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A wonderfully mischievous Diana Athill (from http://www.hungertv.com)

Despite very much enjoying the preface to the Persephone edition, in which Athill speaks of her career as editor at a London publishing house, the majority of the stories here just did not grab me as I imagined they would.  I had no real sense that Athill’s works were mini masterpieces in the same way as I have almost immediately had with other Persephone short stories – Diana Gardner and Dorothy Whipple’s collections, for instance.  I found that many of the tales in Midsummer Night at the Workhouse ended rather abruptly, or were lacking in terms of plot.  Similar relationship details and scenes were repeated from one story to the next at times, and there was no real variation to the whole in consequence.  The tales were formulaic; barely a single one jumped out and grabbed me, or surprised me in any way, and I found this a real shame.  I had expected to be wowed by Athill’s writing, praised highly as it is, but have come away feeling more than a little disappointed.

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One From the Archive: ‘Wilfred and Eileen’ by Jonathan Smith ****

Jonathan Smith’s first novel, Wilfred and Eileen, is quite a rarity among Persephone reprints, for two reasons; the first is that the novel was written by a man, and the second is that that man is still living.  Wilfred and Eileen was first published in 1976, and is the 107th book on the Persephone list.  It was made into a television mini-series in 1980, and the Persephone reprint contains an afterword written by Smith himself.  The book’s endpapers are from a design by Vanessa Bell.

Endpapers from ‘Wilfred and Eileen’ by Jonathan Smith

Wilfred and Eileen is based upon true events, telling the story as it does of the grandparents of one of Smith’s former pupils.  The novel begins in Cambridge in 1913, and describes the life of protagonist and Trinity College student Wilfred Willett and his fiancee Eileen, who met at the University’s annual May Ball.  Their consequent clandestine marriage is well set out, as is the way in which they hid it from their disapproving parents, neither of which thought that their child’s choice of partner was quite good enough.  We are told that ‘it is Wilfred’s survival after being wounded in battle that is at the heart of the book’.

At the start of the story, Wilfred is just finishing his degree: ‘Wilfred’s rooms would in a few months’ time be someone else’s.  Other pictures would be on the wall, a different Pater and Mater on the mantelpiece…  The basketwork armchair, the central throne of the castle, would belong to some insignificant young fellow’.  He is determined to become a great surgeon: ‘Despite being tied to his family by the allowance [which they gave him], he hoped Hospital would be a new context, a wider passage.  In his blood, in his stomach, he felt the steadiness of the past giving ground to an unsure, vigorous future’.  He is a much revered member of Trinity College, and is looked to by other students for both approval and assurance.

Eileen Stenhouse, on the other hand, is said to live ‘a life of ease and abundance’.  The two first get to know each other on a walk whilst they are sitting out the thirteenth dance of the evening, an event ‘made possible by a curious set of circumstances – the drink, a strange ethereal light and her superstition’. Eileen is a very determined character – ‘This most adaptable and sensitive girl was revealing the firmness which perhaps had attracted Wilfred that night in Cambridge’ – and she and Wilfred are both portrayed as strong and passionate beings.  The second chapter of the novel moves from Cambridge to London, where Wilfred and Eileen both live, and where Wilfred has begun to work at the London Hospital.

The novel has been intelligently written throughout, and Smith has a knack for deftly building scenes.  At the May Ball, for example, ‘soon all was bewitching music, tilted heads, glancing eyes and gliding feet’.  The third person perspective which the author has made use of works well, and allows the reader to see both Wilfred and Eileen, along with the development of their relationship: ‘She wanted him to go on talking in this lively way, for hours…  But she must not keep him from his work, she had no right to do that.  As she glanced at him a dark cloud of possession passed over her.  No, she must not think of him like that’.  Details of the period have been worked in well, from medical advances which were new at the time to the pressure which one felt to join up when war was declared, and from Suffragettes to the writing of wartime letters.

The entirety of Wilfred and Eileen has been very sensitively and believably wrought, and the story is well paced.  The novel is a deserving addition to the Persephone list, and it is certainly fascinating at times, and eminently readable throughout.  Smith has brilliantly exemplified courage in the face of wartime, and there is not a fan of Persephone’s prints who will not enjoy this novel.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Persephone Book of Short Stories’ ****

First published in October 2012

‘The Persephone Book of Short Stories’

To celebrate Persephone Books’ one hundredth publication, the publishing house have issued a new volume of short stories, all of which have been written by female authors between 1909 and 1986.

Of the included stories, ten are taken from volumes already published by Persephone, ten have been previously featured in their Biannually Magazine, and ten have been ‘selected especially for this collection’. Each tale is ‘presented in the order they are known, or assumed, to have been written’, and the year has been printed after the title and author of every story, which is a rather useful touch. In fact, the entire volume has been very well laid out, with an accessible author biographies section and a well-spaced contents page.

The collection is a wonderfully varied one and features authors from all walks of life. There are many British and American authors, as well as others from further afield – New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield, Pauline Smith, who spent her childhood in South Africa, Irene Nemirovsky who grew up in Kiev and spent many years in Paris, and Frances Towers, who was born in Calcutta. The Persephone Book of Short Stories begins with Susan Glaspell’s 1909 story ‘From A to Z’ and finishes with Georgina Hammick’s 1986 offering, entitled ‘A Few Problems in the Day Case Unit’.

The stories woven into the collection are as varied as the authors who wrote them. They encompass every aspect of life in their perfectly crafted portraits. There are first jobs, first loves, marriages, affairs, illnesses and death, and these are merely the more obvious themes which float upon the surface.

The protagonist in the beautifully written vignette ‘From A to Z’ by Susan Glaspell is a young girl named Edna Willard, who spent her senior university year ‘hugging to her mind that idea of getting a position in a publishing house’, and is then discontent when this dream is realised. In Pauline Smith’s tale ‘The Pain’, we meet a South African couple who have been married for fifty years, brave in the face of the wife Deltje’s illness. Smith describes the way in which Deltje has ‘a quiet, never-failing cheerfulness of spirit in spite of her pain’, and the story is beautifully and sensitively realised. In E.M. Delafield’s ‘Holiday Group’, we meet a kindly and rather patient reverend, who struggles to take his young and rather demanding family – his wife Julia ‘had gone on being blissfully irresponsible until she was quite grown up’ and has a particularly selfish streak – to the seaside.

Some of the authors in The Persephone Book of Short Stories are more well-known than others, but all share common ground in the way in which they all deserve to be read on a wider scale than they currently are. The balance of longer and shorter stories works incredibly well, as do the differing narrative styles, which range from the third person omniscient perspective to interesting streams of consciousness. Hopefully, this lovely volume of short stories will inspire readers to seek out other novels and short story collections by the authors which they enjoy in this collection. Each story in The Persephone Book of Short Stories is like a small but perfectly formed work of art, and the book is sure to delight a wealth of readers.

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