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‘Young Anne’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

Young Anne by Persephone favourite Dorothy Whipple is one of the publishing house’s new titles for Spring 2018.  First published in 1927, Young Anne is Whipple’s debut novel, and the final book of hers which Persephone will be printing, bringing as they have done all of her wonderful novels back into print.

Young Anne, which includes a lovely preface by Lucy Mangan, is a ‘quasi-9781910263174autobiographical novel about a young girl’s journey to womanhood.’  Mangan addresses the double-edged sword which comes with the publication of the final Whipple novel; whilst thrilled that all of her fiction is now readily available for scores of new fans to discover, she writes that ‘to be reaching the end of her work entire feels positively injurious to health.’  Mangan explores the ways in which protagonist Anne’s life echoes that of Whipple’s, and the way in which, even as a debut novel, this has many of the qualities which can be found and admired in her later work: ‘… naturally her unmistakeable voice is already there.’  She goes on to write: ‘Whipple, from the off, keeps her ego and her insecurities in check.  As in all her later, more experienced works, she is not a showman but a patient, disciplined archaeologist at a dig, gently but ceaselessly sweeping away layers of human conventionality and self-deception, and on down to deeper pretences to get at the stubborn, jagged, enduring truths about us all beneath.’

In Young Anne, Anne Pritchard, the youngest of three children and the only girl, is first introduced when she is a small child.  Whipple’s description of her feels fresh and perceptive, and one is immediately captivated: ‘Anne at five was indescribably endearing.  A small, sweet, wild-rose thing.  Her hair came diffidently out in tendrils of gold, curling outwards and inwards, this way and that, trying to make a softer thing of the stern sailor cap that proclaimed itself “Indomitable” above her childish brow.  Her folded mouth had, for the moment, the gravity of the very young.’  At this point in time, Anne is scolded rather regularly for small misdemeanours, such as for her ‘favourite occupation’ of sinking her teeth into the wood of the pews at church.  Her only confidant comes in the form of the Pritchards’ housekeeper, Emily, whose tasks are many; they consist of ‘running the house, of keeping Gerald in his place, Anne out of scrapes, Philip from overeating, of coping with her mistress’s indifference, her master’s indigestion and his righteousness.’

From the outset, Anne feels so realistic, filled as she is with childish whims and ideas.  Whipple pays so much attention to her sense of humour and imagination, which are always getting her into trouble with her father.  In one memorable instance, Whipple recounts something which leads young Anne into disgrace: ‘Henry Pritchard was outraged.  He was dumbfounded.  The impertinence of the child to come in and laugh at his singing!  To laugh at him!’  Anne’s response to this is as follows: ‘She knew what fathers were, and God and Henry Pritchard had much in common.  They were everywhere at once, and all-powerful.’  The other characters portrayed in Anne’s world are, even when secondary figures, described with such vivacity and depth.  Of Mildred, a spoilt playmate of Anne’s, Whipple writes that ‘she was a very correct young person.  She even ate jelly with a fork at tea.’  Anne’s formidable Aunt Orchard is described as follows: she ‘did not hold for higher education for women, but she liked to destroy people’s pet hopes, or at least scratch them a little in passing.’

Whipple’s writing, as ever, is gloriously detailed.  When, early in the book, Anne leaves home early in the morning to catch a silver fish at the local park, the following is described: ‘No one about.  She had the world to herself, and the pink-and-white hawthorn blossom was thick on the trees and the laburnum dangled tassels of gold.  Here was quiet pool under a tree.  Just the place where a silver fish might be!  She lay down on the grass and peered into the water.  The ends of her hair slid into the pool, her breath ruffled its surface.  What a strange was there under the water, green moss, spread in waving patterns, silver bubbles coming up from nowhere, and under the roots of the tree, dim caves…’.

Time passes rather quickly in Young Anne; our protagonist skips from young child to teen, and then to young adult, at the beginning of successive chapters.  She is soon sent to a convent school, which allows her some semblance of freedom.  After her first day, as she is walking home, ‘she had an exciting sense of having started a new life away from the paternal eye at last.’  The advent of the First World War then ensues, and both of Anne’s brothers are sent to the Front.  When she goes to the local station near their Lancashire home to say goodbye, Whipple observes: ‘Anne waved them away, her difficult control terribly shaken by the wet faces of the women round her; mothers, sisters, sweethearts, who, like animals, would have hidden themselves when they were hurt, but were compelled to stand out on the crude, cruel railway station and expose their inmost souls.’

Young Anne is an accomplished debut, and as Mangan points out, Whipple’s wonderful writing and ‘unmistakeable voice’ are already prominent throughout.  Young Anne is a heartfelt, searching, and introspective character study.  Anne comes up against many hurdles in her life, and Whipple seems concerned, above all, with how she deals with, or overcomes, them.  As all of Whipple’s later novels can contest, Young Anne is poignant and thoughtful, shrewd and intelligent.  I became absorbed within the story immediately, and found the character arc which Whipple has so deftly crafted eminently believable.  The human condition is centre stage here, and rightly so; Whipple has much to say about the difficulties of growing up, and so much compassion for its consequences.

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One From the Archive: ‘Vain Shadow’ by Jane Hervey ****

The 112th book on the marvellous Persephone list, and one of the new additions for Spring 2015, is Jane Hervey’s only published novel, Vain Shadow.  Hervey wrote it during the 1950s and stored it away in a drawer for a decade; it was not until 1963 that the novel, which is centered around ‘the portrait of a family funeral and its repercussions’, was published.  Even then, the ‘obvious portrayal’ of some of Hervey’s family members within Vain Shadow offended them, to the extent that they did not speak to her for years.

Celia Robertson’s preface to the volume has been wonderfully written and thoughtfully constructed.  Robertson writes that ‘as a needle on the historical compass of the previous decade, it quivers with the anticipation of change, poised at the very end of what had gone before’, and that Hervey’s ‘take on a death in the family is unique, astute and very funny’. She goes on to say that ‘Vain Shadow is quietly successful…  It shows us – in the most undramatic but knowing way – how tyranny and casual violence exist in the most civilised of settings; how far – legally, at least – women have come since the 1950s, and how death remains impossible to get right’.

The structure of Vain Shadow is fitting; Hervey has split it into four parts, each of which corresponds to a particular day.  ‘The weight of the novel’, writes Robertson, ‘lies in the relationships between the old man’s surviving wife and adult children as they begin to realise what his death will mean’.  Other themes come across strongly too, particularly with regard to class – the hired staff seem to be far more in control of the situation than the Winthorpe family themselves – and the position of women.  The omniscient perspective has been marvellously utilised, as have the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of each character, which unfold simultaneously alongside the action.  Mrs Winthorpe, the deceased Colonel’s widow, rejoices, for instance, that after fifty-three years, she will no longer have to kiss him.  She then busies herself playing a secretive game of patience just an hour after she has been informed of his death.  Her one wish, which is mentioned several times within the story, is to finally have the peach bathroom which she has, up until now, been denied.

One gets a feel for Vain Shadow‘s characters almost as immediately as they are introduced, as well as of their dreams, desires, and darkest thoughts.  Different characters who inhabit different corners of the house as the story goes on are followed; we learn about how they walk, how they stand their ground in a given disagreement, and how they view their own positions within the realm of the family.  In the novel, Hervey presents herself as the family’s granddaughter, Joanna, whom Robertson believes is ‘the one character who reveals a capacity for love’.  Every person within Vain Shadow‘s pages is flawed in some way, be it within their character, or their negative thoughts of others.  This makes it most refreshing to read.

Whilst we never meet the Colonel himself, we learn a lot about him; he comes across as a tyrant, cruel and standoffish, and belligerent, and it is clear as to why the majority of his family were frightened of him.  He is cleverly ever-present – whilst discussing funeral arrangements, for instance, ‘It was just as though Grandfather was still there, perhaps always would be there, somewhere… waiting to pounce’.

Throughout, Hervey also exemplifies how one’s outer facade rarely reflects their innermost feelings and persona; all of the protagonists here are very focused upon fitting in and appearing to behave properly in any given situation, despite the anguish they invariably feel within.  Over breakfast, for instance, ‘They all paused to regard, through Nurse’s eyes, the old man whom alive they had known fierce, intolerant, ever-battling, consecrated now in dying, humble and saintly.  Which was the true man; which the shadow?’  The protagonists’ preoccupations with the trivial also come to the fore – Jack, worried about balding; a moment of shared thought about how much the Colonel disliked competition; Harry’s egg not quite cooked to his liking.  These thoughts can sometimes overshadow the bigger picture for them all; they continually have to remind one another of the reason as to why they have been brought together, and of the sadness which they should be feeling. The hierarchy within the family shows itself too, particularly with regard to the sons.  Brian, who lives nearby, flits in and out of the action, believing himself head and shoulders above his brothers: he ‘looked down on them all from the height of his superior knowledge.  They really knew very little about Father’.

The Derbyshire setting has been well evoked, and a dark edge is occasionally introduced to the whole: ‘The house, built three hundred years ago, of stone and slate, stood halfway up a hill, facing undisturbed the fierce gales that from time to time attacked it from the valley, battering at its windows and tearing at the old wisteria which twisted across the front of it like a long, grey snake’.

Vain Shadow is so engaging.  Rather than just an overseer, it feels as though the reader is an intrinsic being within the family; we are brought into the thick of conversations, and bouts of important decision-making.  Hervey is an incredibly perceptive author; there are swathes of realism here, particularly with regard to the complex familial relationship which exists for the Winthorpe clan.  Sharp, surprising and so well written, Vain Shadow is a most fitting addition to the Persephone list.  One can only hope that more of Hervey’s work will be published soon.

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Lit Titbits (1)

I read so many lovely pieces on the Internet, all related to literature, and thought that I would start grouping them together into a little series which I am calling ‘Lit Titbits’.  Each will be made up of five or six different links, and will, I hope, be the perfect things for you to read over a well-deserved tea break, or when you have a few minutes to relax during your day.  They make perfect, brief stops from thesis research too (trust me, I speak from experience).  Without further ado, I hope you enjoy this new series.

  1. ‘Ali Smith: How I Write’ in The Daily Beast is a wonderfully insightful interview about the woman behind some of my favourite books.  Read it here.
  2. The Guardian posted this fascinating study, based on stats from http://www.audiobooks.com, of when exactly we give up on audiobooks here.
  3. The Bookseller talks of how the world, and our reading, has changed upon the tenth anniversary of the Kindle.  Read it here.
  4. Back in November 2017, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock wrote this absolutely wonderful review of Emile Zola’s The Fortunes of the Rougons, which has made me want to get to the rest of the series as soon as I possibly can.
  5. ‘The Persephone Post’, by one of my favourite publishers, is updated regularly, and is wonderful for a browse.  Find it here.
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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: ‘Saplings’ by Noel Streatfeild

As with most of the books which I blog about, it seems, I have wanted to read Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings for a very long time indeed.  I have heard only excellent things about it, and the fact that it is published by Persephone was another huge selling point as far as I was concerned.  I rather adored Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes when I read it a couple of years ago, and thought that Saplings would be the perfect summertime read.  (I can only apologise, therefore, that this post is going out in wintertime.)

Saplings, originally published in 1945, tells of the Wiltshires, a middle class London family whom, at the outset, are taking their annual summer holiday in Eastbourne.  As a unit, they are largely incredibly contented, and war seems like a proposition which is very far away.  Streatfeild thrusts us right into the heart of the family.  We meet the six almost simultaneously; parents Alex and Lena, and the four children – Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Thursday.  Streatfeild’s aim, says Dr Jeremy Holmes, the author of the book’s introduction, was to take a happy pre-war familial unit, and then track, ‘in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to thousands of such families’.

The novel’s beginning captivated me entirely: ‘As the outgoing tide uncovered the little stretch of sand amongst the pebbles, the children took possession of it, marking it as their own with their spades, pails, shrimping nets and their mother’s camp stool’.  Throughout, one of Streatfeild’s many strengths is the way in which she captures emotions so deftly: ‘The cool air, the fresh smell of the sea, the knowledge that it was another lovely day and there were no lessons and few restrictions, filled the children with that sort of happiness that starts in the solar plexus and rises to the throat, and then, before it can reach the top of the head, has to be given an outlet: anything will do, violent action, shouting or just silliness’.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, particularly with regard to the portrayal of her younger protagonists: ‘Laurel, back on the raft, attempted some more backward dives.  Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something.  She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else’.

To continue with this theme, Streatfeild views many of her scenes from every possible angle, taking into account the thoughts and feelings of all involved at any given time.  Of Laurel, for example, her father thinks the following: ‘It was in his mind to tell her how proud he was.  How he loved her comic small face and her fair pig-tails, and her earnestness, and her elder sister ways which were such an endearing part of the family set-up; but he held back his thoughts.  No good going in for a lot of chat, making her self-conscious’.  Turning to Lena, the matriarch, Streatfeild writes the following: ‘Lena could see herself, fair and slim, little Tuesday lolling against her and exquisite Kim playing around, and she knew what a picture she must look, and the thought amused rather than pleased her.  There was nothing she liked better than to be envied and admired…  The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just these things’.

Everything changes for the Wiltshires as soon as they return to their London home.  The children are split up, some going off to school, and others being sent to live with relatives in the country: ‘Laurel had alternated between tears and a kind of hectic pseudo-gaiety ever since the move to Gran’s and Grandfather’s was certain and her school uniform purchased.  She was scared. At eleven she understood what was going on around her. She had watched the hasty evacuation of other children.  She had heard scraps of conversation…  As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions’.

Streatfeild’s descriptions are gorgeous, particularly in those instances where she takes the hopes, thoughts and feelings of her characters into account.  A particularly striking example of this is as follows: ‘Now and again, when the sky was blue, and the trees glittered, incredibly green, and the scent of young bracken filled his nostrils, he forgot everything except the glory of the day and the fun of being alive’.  Incredibly well crafted, and utterly beautiful, Saplings is a novel which really gets into the psychology of wartime, and demonstrates just how much of a knock-on effect it had from the beginning.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Greenery Street’ by Denis Mackail

First published in October 2016.

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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A Month of Favourites: ‘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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