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‘Every Eye’ by Isobel English *****

Every Eye is a beautiful Persephone novella, complete with, as ever, stunning endpapers.  It was the publishing house’s fifteenth publication, and is one of my favourites to date.  The copy does not contain a blurb – as many Persephones do not – but, perhaps unusually, there is no extract from the work itself either, as is often the Persephone way.  Rather, we are given an insight into the novella through an extended John Betjeman quote.  In the Daily Telegraph in 1956, Every Eye‘s publication year, he wrote: ‘Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace.  Such a novel is Every Eye.  It is remarkable for the skill of its construction, and for the style of its writing…  [English] is on the mark whether she is observing scenery or character.’  I hasten to agree. 9781903155066

Isobel English is a pseudonym for June Braybrooke, a friend of the likes of Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith.  For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the author as English throughout my review.  The novella’s preface was written by her husband, Neville Braybrooke; he includes many fascinating biographical details, and writes also about the rather charming publication preparation of Every Eye: ‘… after it was returned [from being typed], she wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it by hand to her publishers…’.  English published only three novels in her lifetime, between the years 1954 and 1960.  In 1974, she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories entitled Life After All.

Every Eye runs to just 119 pages, but its length is perfect; English’s writing certainly works well in the more compact literary frame.  The novella charts the life of a newly married woman named Hatty, and begins with the death of her aunt, Cynthia: ‘It is strange that this news should arrive today, the eve of our departure.  Tomorrow morning Stephen and I are to set off for Ibiza, the most savage of the Balearic Islands.  We have been married a year and this is a long-promised holiday.  Now it seems something over and above, an involuntary almost predestined mark of respect to a dead person, for it was Cynthia who first told me of this place which must have been when I first met her  about the time of my fourteenth birthday’.  Indeed, Cynthia, who was married to Hatty’s ‘big brown bear’-like Uncle Otway, lived there for much of her life.

Hatty is often frank, and I was immediately endeared to her; she strikes one as rather an original character construct, by all accounts.  When asked for Cynthia what she likes to read after a fraught exchange has taken place, for instance, we are given the following information: ‘Still cautious but placated almost completely, I answered, a little gruffly I remember: “I like good books,” and then to illustrate the extent of my knowledge: “I like Rider Haggard very much, but I can’t stand Jane Austen”.’

Every Eye is not at all a run-of-the-mill portrait of a young newlywed.  The details which English gives too, particularly with regard to Hatty and Stephen’s relationship, and their wider circle, intrigue: ‘6.30am and Victoria.  Stephen’s mother, Amy, is already on the platform waiting to see us off; she has brought with her the young girl that she hoped Stephen would marry before he met me.’

The structure which English has used here, of a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks to speak of, works well; it allows her to present us with a coherent barrage of thoughts and memories, which run simultaneously alongside her present day life and travels.  English’s descriptions are incredibly perceptive; she picks up on all kinds of minute details.  Of the train journey which Hatty and Stephen take through France, for instance, she writes: ‘To begin with we are a carriageful of nondescript putty-coloured figures.  But with the thinning out from station to station, there develops before our accustomed eyes brilliant coloured designs on women’s dresses, cyclamen gashes on mouths and headscarves; the cerulean of the sky greased and shining on the eyelids of the girl in front of me’.

Hatty has such realistic touches to her, and she has been thoughtfully and intelligently constructed.  English’s writing is strong and distinctive throughout, and the novella is often quite darkly funny: ‘So it is Wednesday, and the first for Cynthia below the ground – the cold raw earth lined with evergreens.  “Six feet of semi-detached will do me nicely, dear,” I had heard her say often enough when she was looking for another smaller flat when their lease expired.  At last this has been realised as a permanency’.  Every Eye is a beguiling and sometimes unsettling book, with a vivid sense of place.  From the first it is incredibly absorbing, and is a fantastic choice if you are looking for something which you can read without too much trouble in a single sitting.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Two Mrs Abbotts’ by D.E. Stevenson ****

D.E. Stevenson’s The Two Mrs Abbotts was first published in 1943, and has recently been reissued by Persephone Books.  Stevenson was an incredibly prolific author, and had over forty novels published during her writing career.  The Two Mrs Abbotts is the third instalment in the books which feature Miss Buncle, both of which have also been published by Persephone.  There has been no introduction included here; instead, readers are ‘referred’ to the first two volumes.

The Two Mrs Abbotts opens in Archway House in the village of Wandlebury in an unnamed county, where nursery nurse Dorcas – lovingly called ‘Dorkie’ by her young charges – is looking after Mrs Barbara Abbott’s children, Simon and Fay: ‘She was thinking how odd it was that children grew up so quickly and grown-up people remained much the same’.  The Abbotts’ home has been partially turned into a school for wartime children, or ‘Vack-wees’, as Fay rather adorably calls them.  Throughout, both children have been written about in such a way that their characters are built up in a believable manner.  Simon, for example, professes that he is ‘Four years older than the war…  I can even remember bananas – and cream’.  Later on, he is found ‘hopping and skipping and talking hard as he always did except when he felt unwell’.

One of the first events in the book is the arrival of Sarah Walker, a lecturer travelling around the country on behalf of the Red Cross.  Sarah is an old friend of Barbara’s, and they have not seen one another since the latter left the village under a cloud of sorts: ‘She had vanished in the night…  She had been obliged to go, of course, because she had written two very amusing books all about her neighbours and their little peculiarities, and her neighbours had not appreciated their portraits – quite the reverse’.  With these foundations, Barbara has gone on to marry her publisher, Arthur Abbott.

The family in their entirety is trying to cope as best they can in wartime.  Arthur’s nephew is away fighting, and his house has been taken over by a whole battalion of soldiers ‘like a crop of dragon’s teeth’.  His young wife Jerry – the other Mrs Abbott of the book’s title – has been left behind and tries to keep herself as busy as she possibly can, spending much of her time visiting Barbara and the children, and finding tenants for the small cottage which sits beside her house.  The lives of all are filled with daily duties, such as hosting tea parties for acquaintances in the village, having evacuee families to stay, and finding innovative ways of making recipes, due to the majority of the correct ingredients having been made unobtainable due to Second World War rationing.

D.E. Stevenson in the 1930s (from destevenson.org)

Stevenson’s writing is rather amusing throughout.  A young man from the village who has joined the RAF and is currently at home on sick leave, is said to have ‘cultivated a small moustache which reminded one just a little of Hitler’.  His lady friend Pearl Besserton, a woman whom nobody really likes, ‘looked as if she had stepped straight off the stage of a third-rate music hall without having taken the trouble to remove the greasepaint’.  The novel is also, as one would expect, so very British.  There is a chapter where Barbara goes to the village’s annual bazaar, to which she ‘had set out with the benevolent intention of buying something at every stall’.  She then feels obliged to purchase a very ugly pair of vases which have been saved for her by a woman who is running one of the stalls, and muses over what she can possibly do with them.  Many of the scenes which Stevenson has woven in are almost farcical, and there is one faux pas after another at many points in the novel.

The characters which Stevenson has created are all interesting and unpredictable, and there is not a dull person amongst them.  Everyone is likeable, or at least admirable, in their different actions and mannerisms.  It is rather refreshing to read a novel which veers off in unexpected directions as The Two Mrs Abbotts does, and the twists within its plot work marvellously.  The arc of events throughout is well paced, as is the introduction of characters.  Stevenson writes about social aspects rather wonderfully, from the importance of and reliance which one can have upon the wider community, to the problems which evacuees encounter when living away from home.

It is not necessary to have read the first two books which focus upon Barbara’s life, and no information which is important to the story within The Two Mrs Abbotts has been omitted.  The entirety of the book is quaint, amusing and rather lovely.  It is a light, easy read which is certain to appeal to anyone who enjoys fiction written or set within the first half of the twentieth century, and is certainly a great addition to the Persephone list.

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And Other Stories: ‘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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‘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: ‘A Writer’s Diary’ by Virginia Woolf *****

First published in 2012.

A Writer’s Diary was first published posthumously in 1953 and is one of Persephone’s new reprints for Spring 2012. The book is composed of extracts from Virginia Woolf’s thirty diaries, unpublished at the time of its original publication. Each extract has been carefully selected by her husband Leonard, whose idea was ‘to extract those entries that show her in the act of writing’.

9781903155882Lyndall Gordon, a biographer of Virginia Woolf, has contributed a new preface to this edition. Written in October 2011, Gordon describes how Woolf’s ‘darting inspiration and plans to transform the novel or enter into women’s buried lives are netted in A Writer’s Diary’. Gordon’s preface is thoughtful and sets the tone for the book, citing it as ‘a masterpiece in its own right’.

The original preface, written by Leonard Woolf at the start of 1953, has also been included. He states that the ‘book throws light upon Virginia Woolf’s intentions, objects, and methods as a writer’ and consequently ‘gives an unusual psychological picture of artistic production from within’. Leonard Woolf believes that A Writer’s Diary ‘shows the extraordinary energy, persistence, and concentration with which she [Virginia] devoted herself to the art of writing and the undeviating conscientiousness with which she wrote and rewrote’.

The span of the book, ranging from 1918 to the lead up to Virginia Woolf’s eventual suicide in 1941, encompasses her ups and downs, as well as her successes and failures with regard to her writing.

Woolf’s thoughts about other writers and their work have been included throughout. ‘Byron had a superb force’, the Reminiscences by Carlyle are ‘the chatter of an old toothless gravedigger’, and the work of Katherine Mansfield is both admired and belittled. On Ulysses by James Joyce, Woolf states that ‘I have read 200 pages so far – not a third; and have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters – to the end of the cemetery scene; and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’.

The diary features Woolf’s meetings with many other writers, spanning from Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot to E.M. Forster and Vita Sackville-West. It is set against a backdrop of two world wars and much upheaval, both in Europe and partly in Virginia’s own life.

The effects which reviews of her work had upon her have been described throughout, sometimes in harrowing ways. ‘I don’t take praise or blame excessively to heart,’ writes Woolf, ‘but they interrupt, cast one’s eyes backwards, make one wish to explain or investigate’. Leonard Woolf has also included extracts which signpost Virginia’s struggles as a writer and her often mystified thoughts on her growing popularity. After the publication of Monday or Tuesday in 1921, she says ‘The truth is, I expect, that I shan’t get very much attention anywhere. Yet, I become rather well known’. Her work for the Times Literary Supplement is also touched upon. Woolf states that ‘when I write a review I write every sentence as if it were going to be tried before three Chief Justices’.

Throughout, Woolf’s prose style is spectacular. Some of the extracts are more spontaneous than others, but all are written with such marvellous clarity. The exacting seriousness of her work is paramount throughout. We, as readers, are given a window into her world and the precise way in which she planned every meticulous detail of her pieces before she began to write. Of her own diary writing, Woolf states that she is ‘much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles’. Despite this, each entry is richly written, vibrant, thoughtful and informative, and the piece flows incredibly well as a whole.

The book itself is very well laid out. A chronological bibliography of Woolf’s work has been included, along with a glossary of the main people who feature throughout the diaries.

A Writer’s Diary is a wonderful and an invaluable book, both for writers and for fans of Virginia Woolf and her work. As one of the most revered authors of the twentieth century, Woolf’s writing diary is certainly a worthy addition to the Persephone oeuvre, one that deserves to be read and reread.

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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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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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