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‘The Priory’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

I had been saving the fortieth Persephone publication, Dorothy Whipple’s The Priory, for a literal rainy day.  Take it from me – there is little better than a new Persephone to get stuck into when the rain is pouring down outside, and you’ve finished running all of your errands.  A chunky novel such as The Priory provides an even better treat.  I therefore settled down to read this on a gloomy September day.

First published in 1939, and set in the late 1930s, The Priory was the third of Whipple’s novels to be republished by Persephone.  The novel takes place in Saunby Priory, a ‘large house somewhere in England which has seen better times’.  Like much of Whipple’s work, it follows a central family, as well as those connected, in various ways, to them.

At the heart of this novel are the Marwoods; the widowed Major father, and two adult daughters, Penelope and Christine, who still live at home.  The sisters are described by the publishers as being ‘more infantile than most’; they have been sheltered from the outside world throughout their lives, and have very little independence to speak of.
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When the reader is introduced to the Priory, it is ‘… still dark.  To the stranger it would have appeared deserted…  [There was] a cold glitter of water beside it, a cold glitter of glass window when clouds moved in the sky.’  At this point in time, the young women are in the nursery, surrounded by a dressmaking pattern.  They have not moved from the nursery since they were born: ‘Their set of rooms was quite complete; a little world of its own shut off from the downstairs adult world by a stout oak door at the top of the stairs.’  This isolation, much of it self-imposed, has had a real effect on the sisters.  Whipple writes that it had ‘encouraged in them the family tendency to detachment.  They didn’t like to be asked to do anything, they didn’t like to be asked to do anything, they didn’t like fixed hours or fixed appointments, they didn’t like taking part in other people’s affairs at all.’

Penelope and Christine’s spinster aunt, Victoria, sits three storeys below them, ‘in the dark, her white stockings alone betraying her presence.’  The women, and the servants, are all waiting for the now impoverished Major Marwood to put the electricity on at the outset of the novel.  Whipple comments: ‘Since he was very economical in everything that did not directly affect his own comfort, the household had to wait for light until he wanted light himself.’

Major Marwood received the Priory as inheritance, but continually laments that he did not just stay in the army: ‘… Saunby was a mill-stone round his neck; a beautiful and honourable mill-stone, a mill-stone conferring great distinction, but a mill-stone.’  Very early in the novel, he decides to propose marriage to a woman named Anthea, some years his junior.

When her acceptance is revealed to the sisters, they are shocked: ‘To marry at forty and fifty.  It shouldn’t be done.  Such bad taste…  their own father…  What amazed them now was that he was going to be different, he was going to be connected with somebody else, with a wife?  It was incredible.  It was stupefying.’  They go out of their way to stay out of Anthea’s way, spending more time than ever in each other’s company.

I do not want to give anything away about the plot, as one of the real delights of The Priory is the changes of direction which it takes.  Whipple’s story, and her characters, are both splendidly drawn.  Whipple’s characters immediately feel so realistic.  They are concerned with real, understandable things, and their relationships with one another are multilayered and complex.  Whipple is so interested in how her creations are affected by circumstance, particularly when this suddenly or dramatically changes.  Few authors reveal quite as much as Whipple does about her characters.  I soon became absorbed into the world of the Marwoods.  Their development is steady and believable.  There is a quaintness to Whipple’s work, but her writing, as ever, holds what feels like a very modern quality.

I am thrilled that so much of Whipple’s work has been republished by the wonderful Persephone Books, and so pleased that I still have a few titles outstanding to read.  Reading The Priory was a delight from start to finish, and I absolutely adored it.

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The Book Trail: From ‘The Lark’ to ‘Reuben Sachs’

I am using E. Nesbit’s quite charming novel, The Lark, which I recently reviewed on the blog, as my starting point for this edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.  Do let me know which of these books you have read, and if you are interested in reading any of them!

 

1. The Lark by E. Nesbit (1922) 9781911579458
‘It’s 1919 and Jane and her cousin Lucilla leave school to find that their guardian has gambled away their money, leaving them with only a small cottage in the English countryside. In an attempt to earn their living, the orphaned cousins embark on a series of misadventures – cutting flowers from their front garden and selling them to passers-by, inviting paying guests who disappear without paying – all the while endeavouring to stave off the attentions of male admirers, in a bid to secure their independence.’

 

17769932. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (1947)
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’

 

3. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim (1907) 1140708
‘This enchanting novel tells the story of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther. A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor. To their homes comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love. But the course of true love never did run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. We watch the ebb and flow of love between two very different people and see the witty and wonderful Rose-Marie get exactly what she wants.’

 

71337934. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge (1935)
Even though she is a renowned painter Lady Kilmichael is diffident and sad. her remote, brilliant husband has no time for her and she feels she only exasperates her delightful, headstrong daughter. So, telling no one where she is going. she embarks on a painting trip to the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia – in the Thirties a remote and exotic place. There she takes under her wing Nicholas, a bitterly unhappy young man, forbidden by his family to pursue the painting he loves and which Grace recognises as being of rare quality. Their adventures and searching discussions lead to something much deeper than simple friendship…  This beautiful novel, gloriously evoking the countryside and people of Illyria, has been a favourite since its publication in 1935, both as a sensitive travel book and as [an] unusual and touching love story.’

 

5. Miss Mole by E.H. Young (1930) 1983763
‘When Miss Mole returns to Radstowe, she wins the affection of Ethel and of her nervous sister Ruth and transforms the life of the vicarage. This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1930.’

 

29218749._sx318_6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)
‘Persephone Books’ bestselling author Dorothy Whipple’s third novel (1932) was the choice of the Book Society in the summer of that year. Hugh Walpole wrote: ‘To put it plainly, in Dorothy Whipple’s picture of a quite ordinary family before and after the war there is some of the best creation of living men and women that we have had for a number of years in the English novel. She is a novelist of true importance.”

 

7. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915) 933516
‘Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.’

 

27022868. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)
‘Oscar Wilde wrote of this novel, “Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make Reuben Sachs, in some sort, a classic.” Reuben Sachs, the story of an extended Anglo-Jewish family in London, focuses on the relationship between two cousins, Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano, and the tensions between their Jewish identities and English society. The novel’s complex and sometimes satirical portrait of Anglo-Jewish life, which was in part a reaction to George Eliot’s romanticized view of Victorian Jews in Daniel Deronda, caused controversy on its first publication.’

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‘Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories’ by Mollie Panter-Downes *****

I have read, and very much enjoyed, many books published by Persephone over the years – as, indeed, have many of the bloggers and readers I follow.  I was thrilled when I came across a copy of Mollie Panter-Downes’ peacetime stories, Minnie’s Room, in my local library.  I loved both her War Notes, and Good Evening, Mrs Craven, a collection of short stories set on the Home Front during the Second World War.  I snatched up the copy (carefully, of course), and went home immediately to begin reading it.

Minnie’s Room is a companion of sorts to Good Evening, Mrs Craven.  Comprised of ten 9781903155240stories, all of which are set outside of the Second World War, the collection runs to just 125 pages.  Panter-Downes began to write these tales immediately after she finished her much respected novel, One Fine Day, which I have yet to pick up.  They are all dated throughout the collection, and were written largely between 1947 and 1954.  The final story, however, was penned in 1965.

In Minnie’s Room, Panter-Downes shows different aspects of British postwar life.  She focuses acutely upon the English middle class, who, as the publisher’s note explains, were ‘struggling to try and live in the same way that they had enjoyed before the war.’  This note goes on to say: ‘Many of the stories are about people who once had glorious lives, either because they were more affluent or because they were powerful in India or simply because they had once been young and were now old.  In every case they are images of a once-great past now brought low.’

The titular story of the collection is about a family who are astounded that their maid, Minnie, wants to leave their employ in order to live out her days in a room of her own.  Minnie’s goal in life is highly Woolfian, although rather than yearning for a space in which to work, she longs for a room in which she can rest.  Panter-Downes’ omniscient narrator notes: ‘If a woman got to a certain age without finding a husband and kids, Minnie’s philosophy stated, she ought to have something of her own, even if it were only one room that belonged to nobody else.’

Panter-Downes explores different kinds of relationships in Minnie’s Room, but seems particularly interested in the correlation between employer and employee.  She looks at the middle classes, and how they relied in this period upon hired staff – the maid in ‘Minnie’s Room’, the nurse caring for an elderly charge in ‘Beside the Still Waters’, and the nanny of a woman whose childhood memories are collected in the quite beautiful story ‘Intimations of Mortality’.

Familial relationships, too, and their often tumultuous nature, find a place in these stories.  In ‘Beside the Still Waters’, to use an example from above, Panter-Downes comments: ‘Her brothers and sister… greeted one another amiably but without enthusiasm.  Meeting seldom, they generally parted as speedily as possible, and with a certain amount of relief.  On such occasions, Cynthia found it difficult to think of herself and these three middle-aged adults as having at any time constituted a tight little unit known as a family, with a shared roof, habits, sentimental associations, and terms of reference.’

Panter-Downes’ observations are keen, and rather striking.  She describes physical interiors with such attention to detail that they seem to be built before the very eyes.  In the collection’s title story, for instance, she writes: ‘All the Sotherns were substantially built, and their house in Bayswater was veiled with muffling plush curtains and full of large, softly curved objects filled with down, covered with rosy glazed chintz, or padded with leather.  Even the china figures in the drawing-room cabinets contributed to the overstuffed effect, representing, as they did, bonny, plump shepherdesses and well-fed sheep.’

I particularly enjoyed the way in which Panter-Downes fleshes out her characters.  In ‘The Old People’, a family, complete with grandparents, have gone on holiday.  Panter-Downes describes the working father in the following manner: ‘Lance had appeared at breakfast that morning in shorts and an open-necked blue shirt, but the holiday garb sat on him strangely, with the look of a carefully planned fancy dress that would win its wearer a prize at a dance on board ship.  His short legs, unveiled once a year, had a curious air of still being covered by a species of spiritual tweed.’  In this manner, which continues throughout the book, Panter-Downes unfailingly strikes the perfect balance between seriousness and amusement.

However commonplace these stories and characters may seem at first, each tale offers up an element of surprise.  These range from something merely glimpsed, to a revelation to the protagonist in question.  Each has been placed perfectly into the narrative, and each made me consider something within the story.  The tales here are brief, running to around 12 pages each on average, but in every single one, realistic characters and scenarios are presented.

I have admired Panter-Downes’ work for years, and am disappointed that it took me so long to pick up a copy of Minnie’s Room.  The collection was fascinating to read, and it further cemented for me just how incredibly perceptive its author was.  Time and again, she evokes an England which is utterly recognisable, but which is largely gone.

The stories in Minnie’s Room are largely quiet ones, but they deal with large and important topics – illness, relocation, sadness, poverty, and death, to name but three.  Panter-Downes’ sharply rendered insights into her characters have a kind of empathy to them at times.  I found Minnie’s Room a real treat to read, and look forward to the day when I can finally get my hands on a copy of One Fine Day.

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One From the Archive: ‘Young Anne’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

First published in 2018.

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: ‘Despised and Rejected’ by Rose Allatini *****

Rose Allatini’s 1918 novel, Despised and Rejected, is one of Persephone’s new titles for Spring 2018.  Allatini was an highly prolific author, publishing books under several pseudonyms; Despised and Rejected was first released under the name of A.T. Fitzroy.    Rereleased in Persephone’s distinctive dove grey covers a century after its original publication, Despised and Rejected is set during the First World War, and is described as a ‘gay pacifist novel’.  Persephone have highlighted its importance, calling it ‘one of the pioneering gay novels of the twentieth century.’  39693554

Despised and Rejected takes two characters as its focus: ‘a gay conscientious objector and his relationship with a young woman who (as he realises but she does not) is a lesbian.’  Composer Dennis Blackwood is the former of these, and Antoinette de Courcy, a young woman of French descent, the latter.

Of course, to the queasy and old-fashioned men of yesteryear, Despised and Rejected was deemed scandalous, although for its anti-war stance rather than its depictions of homosexuality.  Upon its publication, the novel sold eight hundred copies before it was deemed ‘morally unhealthy and most pernicious’.  The publisher, C.W. Daniel, was put on trial, fined, and ordered to surrender the remaining print run of two hundred copies.

The novel is constructed using a three-part structure; the first of these takes place just before the war, and the second and third during it.  Despised and Rejected opens in the Amberhurst Private Hotel in an undisclosed location; here, the Blackwood family are holidaying, and their son Dennis meets Antoinette.  The two are drawn together almost immediately, although Antoinette’s focus is firmly placed upon a secretive woman also staying at the hotel named Hester.  Like Dennis, Hester realises that Antoinette is sexually attracted to women, but Antoinette herself is naive in this respect.  Antoinette is just twenty-one.  As with Dennis, we are given hints and clues that she is attracted to her own sex, but she is unaware that there is a reason for her gravitation toward them, and the lack of feeling which kissing men inspires within her.

From the beginning, Allatini demonstrates that Dennis’ relationship with his father is fractious: ‘Dennis said nothing and set his lips tightly, as was his way when Mr Blackwood jarred upon his nerves more exquisitely than usual.  He disliked his father, disliked the whole coarse overbearing masculinity of the man.  There was between them an antagonism that was fundamental, and quite apart from the present source of grievance’.  His mother sets out to protect him at all times, but their relationship too is, in ways, problematic.  Dennis, she writes, ‘was always on the defensive, even with his mother.  Perhaps with his mother most of all, because he felt that she was most akin to him, and might at any moment come to touch the fringe of that secret world of his…  a world that must remain secret even from the mother who loved him as perhaps no other woman on earth would ever love him.’  This is the first hint given in the novel about Dennis’ homosexuality, something which is continually aware of within himself, but which he has never articulated to anyone around him.  Allatini shows that Mrs Blackwood realises there is something a little different about Dennis, but cannot quite connect the dots: ‘Perhaps he had nothing to tell.  Perhaps she only imagined that he wasn’t happy.  Artists were sometimes peculiar – she clutched at that – and her boy was an artist: perhaps that accounted for it.  Her reason, working in a peculiarly narrow despisedandrejected_newspaper_for_websitecircle, round and round, round and round, accepted this as the solution, and was at peace.  But her instinct, less narrow, more subtle, blindingly groping, refused to be thus pacified.  There must be – something.  But what?  What…?’

Dennis is revealed in the fragments of letters which he writes to Antoinette; this use of his own voice adds more depth to the novel.  He is frightfully ashamed of his own difference, and of his desires.  Allatini writes, ‘He must be for ever an outcast amongst men, shunned by them, despised and mocked by them.  He was maddened by fear and horror and loathing of himself.’  This element of the novel, which deals with Dennis’ feelings, is achingly human, as are his convictions when it comes to refusing to fight in the First World War.  With regard to this, ‘The thought of war inspired in him none of those feelings with which convention decreed that ever true Briton should be inspired…  The whole thing was damnable, and stupid, and cruel…  pretended that it was a noble thing, a glorious game, a game which every Englishman should be proud to be playing.’

Allatini’s descriptions are both vivid and charming.  Of a small, unnamed village in which Dennis and his friend Crispin stay whilst travelling through Devonshire, she writes: ‘… it has an old-world triangular village green, planted with giant oak trees, and enclosed on two sides by dear little thatched cottages with trim little gardens; and it has an ivy-clad church and the usual combination of Post Office and all-sorts shop, in which you may revel in the complex odour of boots, cheese, liquorice, soap, sawdust, biscuits, Fry’s chocolate and warm humanity.’  In one of his letters, Dennis writes to Antoinette, ‘We’re zig-zagging about the country in the most amazing style.  And I wish I could collected all the things I’ve loved most and bring them back to you.’

Despised and Rejected is a highly immersive novel, and an incredibly moving one at that.   Allatini’s writing is intelligent, stylish, and heartfelt.  She writes with clarity and sensitivity, in a way which which feels marvellously balanced.  She has such a deep understanding of her characters, and the problems which their true selves cause for them.  Allatini presents an incredibly strong, measured, and rousing argument for pacifism, discussing the horrors and futility which war brings, and the way in which they often create more problems when they solve.

Despite being published a century ago, Despised and Rejected feels like a novel of our time; it, above all, demonstrates the need for equality and understanding, as well as peace, both within the world and individually.  It is a book which we can learn an awful lot from.

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One From the Archive: ‘Greenery Street’ by Denis Mackail *****

First published in 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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‘Madame Solario’ by Gladys Huntington ***

It is rare that an unread Persephone in my possession stays that way for more than a week, but number 120, Gladys Huntington’s Madame Solario, has been sitting on my to-read shelf for over a year.  I have been looking for just the right kind of sultry summer’s day on which to read it, when I would be able to devote a whole day to becoming fully immersed in the novel.  I finally found it in late July, on an unusually beautiful and cloudless day in Scotland, and settled down with another beautifully designed Persephone novel.9781910263105

Huntington began to write Madame Solario in 1944, but only finished it after two of her short stories were published in The New Yorker.  The novel was eventually published anonymously in 1956, and Huntington’s name was surprisingly not revealed as its author until thirty years afterwards.  Madame Solario was a bestseller upon its publication, and has been made into a film.

Madame Solario is set during the month of September 1906, on the banks of Italy’s Lake Como.  Its beginning is sumptuous, and wonderfully sets the scene: ‘In the early years of the century, before the First World War, Cadenabbia on the Lake of Como was a fashionable resort for the month of September.  Its vogue was easy to explain.  There was the almost excessive beauty of the winding lake surrounded by mountains, the shores gemmed with golden-yellow villages and classical villas standing among cypress trees; and the head of the lake lay close to the routes that connected Italy with all the capitals of Western and Central Europe, yet Cadenabbia itself was difficult to reach, which was an added charm.  Long stretches of the lovely shore were without high road of any kind, and are arrived by the little steamboat that started at Como and shuttled back and forth across the lake, calling at one dreaming place after another in a journey of incredible slowness.  It was wonderful to arrive.  As no wheels ever passed, there were no sounds except human voices, the click of the peasants’ wooden pattens, and the lapping of waves.’  There is a strong sense of place throughout, and whilst not all of the descriptions are as breathtaking as the above, they have a layering to them which is fascinating to read.

It is in Cadenabbia, at the Hotel Bellevue, that young Englishman Bernard Middleton is spending the summer, between finishing his Oxford degree and being sent to work in his family’s bank in a northern English town.  Soon after Bernard’s arrival, a previous guest of the hotel, Madame Natalia Solario, comes back.  Throughout the novel, she is a mysterious being; others who are staying in the hotel, and who met her previously, are unable to pinpoint her nationality when asked.  Madame Solario is quick and impulsive, and Bernard is drawn to her immediately.

Huntington’s character descriptions are unusual, particularly when taking Madame Solario as her focus.  She writes: ‘In those days the great, equalising power of cosmetics and beautifying inventions had not yet been let loose, and Madame Solario’s complexion and colouring, and the arc of her eyebrows, and the wave of her hair… were not being counterfeited by everyone who wished; they were rare, like noble birth.  The high rank of her beauty had to be met with something of awe.’  Although Huntington tries to pull Madame Solario apart, layer by layer, she remains a shadowy and unknowable figure throughout; I felt little more familiar with her when the novel ended as I did at its beginning.  We are given clues and hints as to her past and a particular scandal which surrounds her as the novel goes on, but sometimes these raised more questions than the novel answers.  There is an almost oppressive feeling which comes when Huntington focuses so intently upon the emotions of her characters, particularly with regard to Madame Solario and Bernard.    Huntington does, however, have such an awareness of human character throughout; her insights are often profound and memorable ones.

Madame Solario is quite an unusual novel.  I felt rather detached from it throughout, and found the second section, which is largely occupied with recounting conversations between Madame Solario and her brother, Eugene Harden, too long and involved.  The second part of the novel, in fact, feels very different, both with regard to its tone and execution.  The sense of place, which is so beautifully depicted elsewhere, is almost forgotten during this rather lengthy section of the novel, and Bernard is entirely lost, with only a couple of nods to his character throughout.  This part was rather too drawn out; whilst the conversations were lengthy, not a lot was actually said, and it began to feel repetitive after a while.

Madame Solario is not at all a predictable read; I truly had no idea whatsoever regarding its direction.  As with Madame Solario herself, there is a quality of mystery about it.  Madame Solario is a cleverly constructed novel of identity, and what it means to be human.  I did find it problematic in places, and to me, it did not have the feel of a traditional Persephone novel.  Unfortunately, I never fully got into the story, or became entirely invested in any of its characters.  Whilst not my favourite of the Persephone list, it is still a story which I will likely be thinking about for a long time to come.

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